40 days till TIFF15: Toronto Film Fest returns with heavy hitters, Hitchcock

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The Toronto International Film Festival held its kick-off press conference this week, and the announcements were, in a word, stunning. This is a stacked festival ready, with many, many more announcements to come. Here are a few thoughts on the first batch of titles, for Buffalo.com.

The message at this week’s 2015 Toronto International Film Festival announcement press conference was clear: TIFF is back, in a big way. It’s not as if last year’s festival would be classified by most as a disappointment — ask the scores of audience members who trooped into festival venues last year if they were disappointed, and they’re likely to laugh and shake their heads.

But TIFF’s bold move to only allow films making their world or North American debuts at the festival, a direct strike against fests in Venice and Telluride, led to much grumbling among media and filmmakers. It also meant a number of major films either skipped Toronto altogether, or screened at the tail-end of the festival.

For 2015, Toronto’s head honchos eased up, and the result, as evident from the press conference, is a stunning lineup of heavy hitters and Oscar bait. While there are a few notables missing from the lineup — Todd Haynes’s “Carol,” the Aaron Sorkin-penned biopic “Steve Jobs,” mountain climbing pic “Everest” — the galas and special presentations announced this week include some real stunners.

Consider just a few of the films announced for this year’s festival, running from Sept. 10 to 20:

  • Michael Moore’s the-title-says-it-all documentary “Where to Invade Next” is sure to be controversial.
  • Ridley Scott’s “Interstellar”-ish “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon, is one of the most high-profile world premieres in festival history.
  • “Theory of Everything” Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne plays a transgender pioneer in “The Danish Girl.”
  • Fictional drama “Stonewall,” based on the 1969 Stonewall Riots, is directed by a very unlikely individual: Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day.).
  • And how about Alfred Hitchcock? The festival concludes with a free screening of “Vertigo,” complete with a live score by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

More announcements will follow in the weeks to come. But make no mistake — while it may be 80 degrees outside, the Oscar race is on.

‘Mommy’ is a fine introduction to director Xavier Dolan

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Is there a more interesting young filmmaker than Xavier Dolan? The French-Canadian director’s filmography — “I Killed My Mother,” “Heartbeats,” “Laurence Anyways,” “Tom at the Farm,” and “Mommy” — is utterly fascinating. I’ve been kicking myself for two years for missing “Tom at the Farm” at TIFF13, so I’m thrilled to see it’s coming to the U.S. soon.

As for “Mommy,” it’s a difficult yet fascinating film, and another great selection for the Cultivate Cinema Circle series. I wrote a bit about the film for Buffalo.com. Incidentally, I’m sorry to say that this is my last “Screenings” column for the foreseeable future. I’m glad I went out promoting such a unique filmmaker.

Are you aware of French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan? If you’re a cinephile, the answer is yes, but Dolan has not yet crossed over from festival/indie darling to mainstream acceptance outside of his home country. The actor-director is at work on his most-profile project to date, a new film starring Marion Cotillard and Léa Seydoux. So it’s a fine time for an introduction to his emotion-heavy style of personal storytelling.

Thanks to the Cultivate Cinema Circle film series, Dolan’s Cannes Jury Prize-winning “Mommy” is making its local debut. It’s a long, sometimes exhausting experience, but undoubtedly a memorable one featuring a stunning performance from Anne Dorval. (Note that his first three films are streaming on Netflix, including the stunning “Laurence Anyways.”)

The free screening will be held at 7 p.m. on July 23 at the Mason O. Damon Auditorium at Buffalo Central Library. Visit cultivatecinemacircle.com for more info.

Poster courtesy of Cultivate Cinema Circle.

Review: ‘Escobar’ puts focus on wrong character

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Any way you look at it, “Escobar: Paradise Lost” is a disappointment. I missed it at TIFF14, but recently review it for the Buffalo News. Here is my two-star review.

Let’s say you are creating a film about Pablo Escobar, the infamous Colombian drug lord who died in 1993, and whose story could not be more appealing to Hollywood. It’s got it all – drugs, politics, violence, controversy.

Plus, you are fortunate enough to have one of the world’s finest and most compelling actors, Benicio Del Toro, attached to play the man himself.

Would you then decide to make Escobar a supporting player in the film, and focus instead on a dull, fictional Canadian surfer dating his niece? Would you opt against telling how Escobar came to power, and how his life finally came to an end?

If so, the resulting film might look like “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” a lamely titled, clumsily written and directed biopic that wastes a charismatic performance from Del Toro.

There is something to be said for this project even coming together. After all, various feature films on the life of Escobar have been announced over the years.

It is hard to imagine better casting than Del Toro, but after seeing “Paradise Lost,” it is clear that we’re still waiting for the definitive feature film about the “King of Cocaine.”

Yes, Escobar is but a supporting player in “Paradise Lost.” The main character is Nick (or “Nico”), played confidently by “Hunger Games” star Josh Hutcherson.

The film begins in 1991, as the Colombian criminal is preparing to surrender to authorities. He has called together his most trusted men, including Nick, a wide-eyed former surfer who fell in love with Escobar’s niece Maria (Claudia Traisac), and became entrenched.

These tense, early moments are among the film’s best, and promise a fascinating study of power and influence. This promise fades as we cut back in time to Nick and his bro (Brady Corbet) working on the beach. Nick and Maria soon lock eyes from afar, and before we know it the couple is visiting uncle Pablo’s estate.

Del Toro’s Escobar is smart, rational and devoted to his family. Perhaps he is too likable, actually, making some of his later actions feel almost out of character.

After a pedestrian hour of Nick’s furrowed brow, “Paradise Lost” finally picks up its pace for a grim, violent conclusion. Yet by that point it is hard to care about the plight of Nick and Maria. Only Escobar maintains our interest.

And how could he not, as played by a typically awards-worthy Del Toro? This is his best role since Steven Soderbergh’s “Che,” and he commands the screen. Hutcherson does a nice job of matching Del Toro’s intensity, and his decision to make this film can be applauded; he would be smart to follow the Robert Pattinson path of choosing offbeat projects with major filmmakers.

“Paradise Lost” helmer Andrea Di Stefano is not a major filmmaker, rather a young Italian actor making his feature directorial debut. Despite the film’s overall failure, it does indicate some cinematic talent.

But the crucial decision to make Escobar a secondary figure in the tale is an insurmountable problem.

Perhaps the story of Pablo Escobar is simply too large and messy to be chronicled in one feature. While it might be said that the focus of “Paradise Lost” on one time period is not unwise, the film serves only to frustrate by attempting to look beyond the most interesting man onscreen.

That’s not very smart, and neither is “Escobar.”

Review: ‘The Connection’ gives classic crime drama a French twist

Jean Dujardin stars as Pierre Michel in Drafthouse Films' The Connection (2015).

My 3 1/2 star review of “The Connection,” one of summer 2015’s more entertaining films for adults.

The sleek, stylish, long but briskly paced 1970-set French crime drama “The Connection” is a shades-sporting blast — surely one of the summer’s most entertaining concoctions. Consider it a refreshing trois couleurs popsicle after a steady cinematic diet of stale, butter-soaked popcorn.

And that’s a pleasant surprise, since on paper this thing could not have sounded less promising. “The Connection,” after all, covers some of the drug-smuggling ground covered by William Friedkin in his classic, Oscar-winning crime drama “The French Connection.”

Think back to Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, “that” kinetic car chase, and the indelible image of Doyle shooting a thug in the back, an image so memorably used on the film’s poster. Those are Andre the Giant-sized shoes to fill.

But director Cédric Jimenez’s “The Connection” pulls it off by expanding the story far beyond the time period in Friedkin’s film, into the early 1980s. His style, too, is more influenced by Martin Scorsese and even Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” than Friedkin. (Less gritty, more flashy.)

Shot on 35mm, “The Connection” has a widescreen scope befitting a story of international drug trafficking. The setting is Marseilles, ground zero for the heroin trade. As explained in a jazzy montage early in the film, morphine would arrive from Turkey to be processed in labs around the city, and the drug would the be shipped to New York and elsewhere.

The logistical genius involved was staggering, and this “thug-ocracy” like no other was wildly successful.

Enter Pierre Michel, a Marseilles magistrate presented with the unenviable task of taking down the network. Michel is played by Jean Dujardin, the Oscar-winning star of the modern silent smash “The Artist.” (Remember “The Artist”? Unlike “The French Connection,” there’s an Academy Awards chomp-ing flick that has receded from memory in just a few years.)

Even if it’s a rather standard G-man role, Michel is the meatiest part for Dujardin since “The Artist.” He has the George Clooney role, if you will – the smart, likable, slightly-in-over-his-head audience conduit. He’s considered by some to be a “cowboy,” a dedicated agent willing to put his family life on hold to focus on the investigation.

The kingpin here is Gaëtan “Tany” Zampa, nicely played by Gilles Lellouche with a mix of fierceness and humanity. This is no one-note villain, and Lellouche steals the picture by injecting this crime lord with, let’s say, compassionate criminality. (“Take care of their funerals. Nicest wreathes possible.”)

Michel and Zampa butt heads for most of the film’s 135-minute running time, and share several nicely menacing scenes together. These sequences lack the narrow-eyed brilliance of the Al Pacino-Robert De Niro coffee talk in Michael Mann’s “Heat” (another influence on Jimenez’s film), but serve to amplify the stakes between the two characters.

Throughout the film are successful and failed drug raids, surprise shootings, one “Marseilles massacre,” worried glances from gangsters with nicknames like “Bimbo,” and complex findings involving police corruption.

It climaxes with a thrilling raid followed by a somber killing, resulting in a nicely cynical conclusion.

The casting from Dujardin on down is just right. Since “The Artist,” the handsome star has popped up in films good (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) and bad (“Monuments Men”), but in “The Connection” he has the opportunity to display some of the “Artist”/“OSS 117” charm that made him an international success.

Making an impression in a very small role is Pauline Burlet, the young actress who gave a memorable performance as a sad-eyed, rebellious teen in Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past.” She is in only a few scenes, playing a young addict, but cements her status as an actor to watch.

“The Connection” is not a masterpiece like “The French Connection,” and it likely won’t pop up on many best of 2015 lists at year’s end. But it’s a crime drama with real verve, and a welcome, tasty June treat.

Review: ‘When Marnie Was There’ is another exquisite film from Studio Ghibli

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“When Marnie Was There” recently came to Buffalo’s North Park Theatre in both its subtitled and dubbed versions, and I was thrilled to review the former. I gave it 3 stars.

“When Marnie Was There” is, in every way, exquisite – exquisitely sad, exquisitely haunting, exquisitely lovely. The latest, and, supposedly, final release from Japan’s Studio Ghibli animation studio might not be a Ghibli classic, but it is a fine creation in every way.

It’s a somber tale, one based on the classic children’s novel by author Joan G. Robinson and directed by the mega-talented Hiromasa Yonebayashi. The director of 2010’s “The Secret World of Arrietty,” Yonebayashi was an animator on such Ghibli classics as “The Wind Rises,” “Ponyo,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke.”

Like those gems – all directed by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki – “When Marnie Was There” is a hand-drawn film of great ambition and stunning beauty. Here is a film about adolescence, friendship and memory centered on a young adult but told without the cheap humor that sinks so many animated efforts.

This is heavy, emo cinema, and that does make for an occasionally exhausting experience. It also lacks the epic scope of Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” or the poetic significance of recent Ghibli release “The Tale of Princess Kaguya.” But this involving story has its own offbeat charm.

Young Anna is the main character, a smart, sad-eyed young girl whose asthma leads her foster parent to propose a summer in the country. Here, it is hoped, Anna can heal and perhaps emerge from her shell.

She is in many ways a frustrating central character, one who is easy to pity, but also quick to annoy. One scene in particular, when she harshly tells off a good-natured girl, makes it hard to consider her as wise as one might like.

Yet Anna also feels completely believable, gripped with the ebb-and-flow emotions of youth.

Seemingly doomed to outsider status, one day Anna spots a pale, blonde-haired girl in a mansion by the sea. After several attempts, Anna finally meets this strange figure named Marnie.

The girls see something special in the other, and become fast friends. Something is not quite right, however. Marnie seems to disappear often, and continually speaks in dreamy, fanciful ways: “I’m desperate to get to know you,” “You’re my precious secret.” “It’s OK to cry. Just know that I love you.”

Discovering who Marnie is, and why she has entered Anna’s life, is the film’s central mystery. Yonebayashi slowly peels away the story’s many layers before finally laying it bare in “Marnie’s” final stretch.

The answers are not particularly surprising, but they are moving, if a bit overly melodramatic. “I’m sorry, it’s a sad story,” says a character in “When Marnie Was There,” and she ain’t kidding.

This sadness means “Marnie” is not a film for young children. The themes – abandonment, familial loss, adolescent panic – are simply too hefty for little ones. But older children and teens who enjoy introspective drama will swoon over the story of Anna and Marnie.

Note that “Marnie” is being presented at the North Park Theatre in both English dubbed and Japanese language-English subtitled versions. I watched the subtitled version, and would strongly recommend it. Having watched my share of dubbed films, subtitles are almost always preferable.

The lead voices in the Japanese language version – Sara Takatsuki as Anna and Kasumi Arimura as Marnie – give wonderful performances. They may lack the star status of dubbed-version leads Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”) as Anna, Kiernan Shipka (“Mad Men”), John C. Reilly, Ellen Burstyn and Kathy Bates. But stars add little to a project like this one.

However you see it, “Marnie” is lovely. Cinephiles around the world are hoping this is not the end for Studio Ghibli, but if it is, “When Marnie Was There” provides a fitting conclusion.