TIFF 2013: Where are they now?


The Toronto International Film Festival was two months ago, so this year’s Oscar race has started to make shake out. Or has it? Two of the biggest players, American Hustle and Wolf of Wall Street, have not yet revealed themselves, so there is much to come. (The former looks like the dark moments of Goodfellas, the latter like the lighter moments of Goodfellas. Well, semi-light.)

Let’s see how some of TIFF’s biggies have fared since the festival. Not all of these were expected to be Oscar players, but all came in on a wave of hype:

  • 12 Years a Slave: The winner of TIFF’s audience award has not hit any major speed bumps since the festival, and remains the Best Picture frontrunner. Much depends on whether it can maintain its velocity now that it has been seen by general audiences. I believe it can.
  • August: Osage County: Like Saving Mr. Banks in London, August emerged from Toronto with strong notices, but not many suggestions that it was a game-changer in this year’s race. We shall see if audiences embrace it. If so, it could become a major player, at least on the acting side.
  • Blue Is the Warmest Color: Controversy sells, and Blue has had its share. So far, so good for the three-hour Cannes winner, but now it needs to stay in the spotlight. That could be tricky, although I still think a few Oscar nods are possible. It certainly deserves them.
  • Dallas Buyers Club: It received great reviews in Toronto, and is just about ready to open. If it is as moving and crowd-pleasing as many say it is, it’s a player. There is no doubt Jared Leto will be a nominee, and one has to think Matthew McConaughey is, too.
  • Don Jon: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut was never going to set the world on fire, but it did seem to open and close rather quickly. This should have a stronger impact on DVD/Blu-ray.
  • The Fifth Estate: Oof. A bomb, critically and commercially. But I still can’t wait to see it, so there’s that.
  • Gravity: A massive success, Gravity is a sure-fire Best Picture nominee, and it might even win. That being said, the more I ponder, the less thrilled I am, and I think it could fade a bit over the next few months.
  • Labor Day: For a Kate Winslet-starrer directed by native son Jason Reitman, the response to Labor Day was pretty muted. But it’s a good film, and might draw stronger notices outside of a festival setting. Audiences will likely connect with it, I think, so don’t count it out.
  • Parkland: The perfect example of a film that never recovers from bad buzz. In this case, it started in Venice, carried on to Telluride, so by the time the JFK assassination drama arrived in Toronto, it was DOA. The film opened just days after TIFF to miniscule grosses, and, shockingly, already arrived on DVD yesterday (Nov. 5).
  • Philomena: I still say Philomena is this year’s Oscar dark horse. I’m not saying it could win Best Picture, but I am saying it will be nominated, and that Judi Dench could find herself taking Best Actress. It’s a smart, funny, moving film, and audiences will eat it up.
  • Prisoners: The success of Prisoners was a pleasant surprise, since I’m not sure anyone had high hopes for it prior to festival season. It will do very well on DVD, and could even grab a few noms. A base hit for all involved.
  • Rush: Ron Howard’s film drew great reviews, and commercial indifference. I did not get to see it, and a few weeks after opening, it is pretty much forgotten. This is another that may get a second wind thanks to home viewing.
  • Salinger: Once the hype died, the Weinsteins’ documentary needed strong reviews. It did not get them, and is already streaming on Netflix!
  • The Square and Tim’s Vermeer: Two documentaries that emerged from festival season with stellar reviews, and more success to come. What could be better than that?

Photo courtesy of TIFF

In defense of The Counselor — a bleak, brilliant film


Ridley Scott’s The Counselor opened to awful reviews, a distinct lack of buzz, and poor grosses — not to mention a “D” Cinemascore rating (whatever that is). But guess what? I think it’s brilliant. And as you’ll see below, a small but vocal minority agrees with me.

I’ll have more to say about this film, but in brief, here are a few reasons why I was so impressed:

  • It’s a nasty sucker-punch of a film — bleak, sharp-edged, and doom-laden. When is the last time you could say that about a star-studded studio release?
  • Cormac McCarthy’s script is strange and unique, ignoring many of the common screenwriting rules we expect to see. The story is often impossible to understand — and that did not bother me a bit. Because we know where it’s going.
  • The performances are uniformly stellar, especially Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, and Cameron Diaz. In fact, I think Diaz deserves Supporting Actress Oscar consideration. Seriously.
  • Fassbender is an ideal in-over-his-head non-character. He doesn’t even have a name! (He is “The Counselor,” period.) Fassbender = America? Probably. (See F.X. Feeney’s thoughts below.)
  • There are scenes, lines of dialogue, and images that will stay with you for days, much like Drive. (I think there is a lot in common with those two, actually.)
  • It is a bold, uncompromising film, and I am not sure why anyone thought it would prove a box office success. I expect it will develop a real cult following over the years.

Here are some thoughts from the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, the great F.X. Feeney (he commented on Ms. Dargis’s review), Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells, and Variety’s Scott Foundas:

Manohla Dargis:

“Nothing is spoken in The Counselor even as everything is said. Westray (Pitt), sly as a fox, and Reiner (Bardem), his face jutting into the frame like a cathedral gargoyle, share bloody tales that only make ghastly sense later. This is no country for anyone. … Every so often, someone says something that puts the stakes and intensifying throb of fear into unambiguous perspective. Westray tells the Counselor that the cartel will ‘rip out your liver and feed it to your dog.’ This isn’t a warning; it’s a statement of fact.”

F.X. Feeney:

“All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road were fine, sincere adaptations of McCarthy’s novels, but each fell short of the originals. Here we have a work written for the screen, and it’s the best film yet to have his name on it. … When it was all over, another hostile colleague, surprised at my admiration asked me: ‘Okay, you liked it so much: What the hell was the point of that picture?’ It is this: The Counselor has made a bad choice for which he must pay. Given our recent history, his predicament is a meditation on the fate of America. He assumes because he meant well, all will turn out well. How can it? That becomes both a moral yet highly suspenseful question, expressed from McCarthy’s depths and realized with lucid energy by Ridley Scott.”

Jeffrey Wells:

“I recognize that my admiration for The Counselor may be a minority view, but I know a class act when I see and hear one. I love that The Counselor sticks to its thematic guns (including a very tough philosophical view of greed and frailty) and that it doesn’t back off an inch from what McCarthy and Scott are surely aware will be regarded by mainstreamers as an unpopular approach to narrative development and character fate. The basic thematic lesson is that there are so many serpents slithering around the Mexican drug business that investing yourself in this realm to any degree is tantamount to suicide. Not exactly fresh information, perhaps, but it’s the singer, not the song.”

Scott Foundas:

“[The Counselor] is bold and thrilling in ways that mainstream American movies rarely are, and its rejection suggests what little appetite there is for real daring at the multiplex nowadays. … The Counselor is one of the best films Ridley Scott has made in a career that is not often enough credited for just how remarkable it has been.”


Review: “Wadjda” breaks limitations of the coming of age story

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The acclaimed “Wadjda” opened last Friday in Buffalo, and I had the pleasure of reviewing it in the Buffalo News. Here is my 3 ½ star review.

You are unlikely to come across a more involving, wry, strong-willed character this year than the eponymous heroine of “Wadjda.”

This is notable for several reasons. First, Wadjda is an 11-year-old Saudi girl played, in her film debut, by young Waad Mohammed. This is a breathtakingly assured, uniquely lived-in performance.

Second, “Wadjda” made history as the first full-length film helmed by a female Saudi director, Haifaa al-Mansour. This would be newsworthy on its own, but the film is also the first Saudi Arabian feature submitted for Best Foreign Language Oscar consideration.

It is also very, very good.

Al-Mansour’s film opens with a surprising sight: worn-out, black Chuck Taylors. The wearer, Wadjda, is almost never seen without them, even at school. She is, says one character, a “spunky little girl,” and that is an apt description.

Wadjda is a rebel in an environment in which rebellion is frowned upon from virtually all corners (home, school, and beyond). But when she creates rock mix-tapes, refrains from wearing her head covering, and chastises an ever-surly driver for having no manners, she is merely being herself. Little does she know the power of these simple gestures.

There also is the matter of her gender. “Why are you laughing out loud?” asks the school’s principal. “You forget that women’s voices should not be heard by men outside.”

This is a running motif. Adult women like Wadjda’s mother (the wonderful Reem Abdullah) face many similar limitations, of course, even at home – Wadjda’s father is almost never there, and seeking another wife. (“Bear me a son and everything will be fine,” he explains.)

Gender plays a particularly important role when Wadjda announces her desire to buy the green bicycle she spotted for sale, and now covets. This does not go over well, except with Wadjda’s sweet best friend, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani).

“Here girls don’t ride bikes,” her mother shouts. “You won’t be able to have children if you ride a bike!” (In this atmosphere, a girl riding a bike “thinks she is a boy” – and that’s that.)

Wadjda’s goal of saving enough money to buy the green bike forms the crux of the film’s plot. When a Quran recitation competition offering a cash prize is announced, the generally poor student sees a chance to make her dream come true, and things begin to turn a bit formulaic. It culminates in a conclusion that is surprisingly cheery, almost unbelievably so.

In many ways, it is a recognizable coming-of-age film, but thanks to its location, its performances, and its back story, it breaks the limitations of that genre. (Unlike, say, the wildly overrated summer hit “The Way, Way Back.”) Here is a PG-rated film that offers audiences – especially adolescents close to Wadjda’s age – a small window into a world that may be very different from our own but features a character who is certainly relatable.

It is a brisk, funny, splendid creation, one that should bring international attention to its director and young star. And even the semi-happy ending feels earned. Wadjda is so likable that a “Bicycle Thief”- or “The Kid With a Bike”-style conclusion would prove overly devastating.

Ending on a positive note is perhaps a bolder choice.

The film includes a number of visually and emotionally resonant moments, a credit to al-Mansour’s talents. Perhaps the most memorable involves a large family tree hanging on the family’s wall.

Wadjda’s mother tells her not to bother looking for her own name – it includes only the men on her father’s side. Wadjda casually writes her name on a slip of paper, and tapes it to the tree.

When she later sees her name has fallen (or perhaps been taken off), she picks it up, puts it in her pocket, and walks on. It is an apt metaphor for a character who goes her own way.

Waad Mohammed as Wadjda; Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics