Hope you caught ‘The Look of Silence’ …

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“The Look of Silence” is, unquestionably, one of 2015’s best. My friends at Cultivate Cinema Circle brought it to town for one-night only, so I hope you were there! Here is the preview I wrote for Buffalo.com.

The fall season of Cultivate Cinema, the cinephile-friendly screening series that began in June, ends with three great films over the next few weeks. The first is a 2015 release, but make no mistake, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Look of Silence” qualifies as a modern classic. It screens at 9:30 p.m. Nov. 24 in the North Park Theatre.

This is the companion film to “The Act of Killing,” Oppenheimer’s stunning documentary that featured the actual perpetrators of the Indonesian killings of 1965–66. With shocking openness, these men — many of whom are still in power — discussed and even demonstrated how they killed.

“Art” was one of the most powerful films of the last decade, but “The Look of Silence” is even stronger. This time, Oppenheimer narrows his focus to one man’s tale: an unidentified (for safety reasons) Indonesian eye doctor who talks to the men responsible for the horrific death of his brother.

As Cultivate director Jordan Smith puts it, “Watching ‘The Look of Silence’ is to bear witness to Indonesia’s past, to internalize the struggles of living with the horrors of previous generations, and in spite of it all, facing it with heart-wrenching, unfathomable courage.”

Tickets for “The Look of Silence” are $7 at the door, or $8 presale at northparktheatre.org.

Far lighter are the final two entries in Cultivate’s fall season, a free Orson Welles double feature on Dec. 5 in the Mason O. Damon Auditorium at the Buffalo Central Library. “The Lady From Shanghai” is shown at 1 p.m., followed by “Touch of Evil” at 3 p.m.

Visit cultivatecinemacircle.com for more information.

Review: With ‘Breathe,’ the great Mélanie Laurent directs a wonderful film

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I have adored actress Mélanie Laurent for years now, and was intrigued by the idea of her moving behind the camera. “Breathe” ranks among her finest achievements; I gave it 3 1/2 stars in the Buffalo News.

“Breathe,” the directorial debut for wonderful French actress Mélanie Laurent, is an astute study of the emotions and pains of adolescence.

Laurent is best known in North America for her role as revenge-seeking Shoshanna in Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist WWII extravaganza “Inglourious Basterds.” It was the film’s finest performance, and one that deserved award consideration. She also has appeared in films such as “Beginners,” “Now You See Me” and the 2009 French hit “Le Concert.” (She even released a fine album in 2011.)

“Breathe” tells a simple story, but one that should resonate with anyone who dealt with unpopularity, nastiness or troubled friendships as a teenager.

Charlie (Joséphine Japy) is a quiet, thoughtful teen who forms a strong friendship with a girl who might be considered her opposite. Sarah (Lou de Laâge) is outspoken and impulsive, a new kid in town with a mysterious, slightly questionable past.

This air of mystery makes Sarah seem slightly exotic, and to Charlie, wondrously fresh. With Charlie’s parents on the verge of splitting up, the arrival of this new friend could not seem better.

However, a few comments hint at a fracturing relationship between the two, and after Sarah joins Charlie on a family trip, things take a dark turn. Soon, Sarah is leading an effort at school to harass Charlie, who grows increasingly somber and despondent.

The scenes of Charlie’s treatment at school are breathtakingly sad, an indictment of bullying and the power of calculated persecution. Laurent and her young stars make it all believable and even understandable. Only with a melodramatic turn in the final few minutes does “Breathe” make a wrong turn.

Despite that conclusion, the film is both harsh and heartbreaking, a story of teenage wildlife as strong as the recent French classic “Blue is the Warmest Colour.”

 

Photo courtesy of Film Movement

 

Review: Alison Brie shines in ‘Sleeping With Other People’

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Can one actor make a movie worth watching? In the case of Alison Brie, absolutely. The film “Sleeping With Other People” has some great moments throughout, but it is Brie who steals the show. I gave it three stars in the Buffalo News.

“Sleeping With Other People” is a romantic comedy for people who generally dislike romantic comedies. This very funny, tart-tongued film does not quite break from the conventional rom-com formula. But with a killer lead pairing – former “Saturday Night Live” star Jason Sudeikis and “Community”/“Mad Men” star Alison Brie – and a nicely naughty script, “Sleeping” qualifies as a modest success.

The time is certainly right for a comedy with two delightfully realistic protagonists, the type who make mistakes constantly, joke about HPV and chlamydia, and somehow can’t seem to figure out why they’re perennially dating (or sleeping with) the wrong people.

Director Leslye Headland’s second feature (after the 2012 Kirsten Dunst comedy “Bachelorette”) starts in the early 2000s, as college students Jake (Sudeikis) and Lainey (Brie) meet-kinda-cute, and realize they have something major in common: They are still virgins.

A nicely fumbling first sexual experience follows, and soon we skip to the present day, in which both characters have gone their separate ways. Single Jake is a likable womanizer whose married-with-children business partner Xander is in a very different place. (Xander calls his friend “the biggest slut in the world.”)

Lainey is a serial cheater whose most recent boyfriend (a very funny Adam Brody) doesn’t take the news of her outside dalliances very well. She also is struggling with the news that her old boyfriend, a doctor played by Adam Scott with a weasel mustache, is soon to be married.

Jake and Lainey run into each other outside of a sex addiction meeting – of course – and slowly begin to realize they have too much in common not to be great friends. They quickly become confidants for each other, all while fighting the obvious attraction they (still) have for each other.

These characters, especially Lainey, are prone to utterly foolish feelings and decisions, and while that can be annoying for the viewer (it’s hard to tell why she is so hung up on Scott’s off-putting character), it lends a feeling of real-life silliness to the proceedings. Real people have these sometimes inexplicable problems, and that means Headland’s film often takes a sledgehammer to rom-com cliché.

That’s why it’s a tad surprising the film ends on the type of happy note that’s not unlike all manner of Hollywood romantic comedy. It is perhaps an earned ending, yet something as acidic as the rest might have better fit the characters.

Sudeikis is more appealing here than he has ever been on screen. He has not distinguished himself much outside of “SNL,” whether the films have been hits (“We’re the Millers,” “Horrible Bosses”) or flops (the underrated “Hall Pass”).

The real star of “Sleeping With Other People,” however, is Brie. She was a consistent highlight on “Community” and made the most of her small role on “Mad Men.”

On the big screen, however, she has been wasted in such tripe as the Will Ferrell disaster “Get Hard.” It took a writer-director as canny as Headland to show how adorably off-kilter and wildly funny Brie can be as an actor. It won’t linger long in your consciousness, but for its 90 minutes, “Sleeping With Other People” is an entertaining anti-rom-com. You’ll never look at an empty bottle of green tea the same way again.

TIFF turns forty: Buffalo Spree recap

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Each year, I write a Toronto International Film Festival recap for Buffalo Spree’s November issue. Here is the latest, out now.

 

“We’ve been coming to TIFF for all forty years,” says the husband of a truly lovely couple at the 2015 Toronto International Film festival. “It’s changed, for sure. Remember? The Uptown, the Cumberland …” I nod and smile, not admitting that those venues were long gone by 2007, when I started attending the annual September extravaganza. The wife talks of having vouchers the first few years, with no movie titles on the tickets, and lining up for hours to gain entry. While there is clear nostalgia for the days when the likes of Henry Winkler were considered the festival’s top celebrity guests, they are not critical of the eleven-day, nearly 300-feature TIFF of today.

You don’t have to be a four-decade attendee to see that the Toronto International Film Festival has evolved dramatically. It’s changed since last year, for example, in ways both interesting and odd. The 2014 festival was, memorably, the installment that saw TIFF brass allow only films making their world or North American premieres to screen during the first four days. This was a calculated response to the increased prominence of the earlier fall festivals in Venice and Telluride, both of which have stolen some of Toronto’s Oscar-tastemaker thunder in recent years. For attendees and media, this meant that TIFF’s opening weekend did not feature some of the year’s biggest films. However, the approach was softened for 2015, likely a response to the bad press and film critic grumbling the move received.

Fast forward to the opening weekend of TIFF15 and it’s clear early-festival madness is back, in a big way. The several-blocks-long area of live performances and tables known as Festival Street is hopping, public lines for the films are long, and even two solid days of hard rain don’t seem to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm.

Nor should it. Minus a couple notable films missing in action—specifically, Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs and Todd Haynes’s Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara—the lineup for 2015 is stacked with high-profile winners. Many have previously played spring’s Cannes Film Festival or debuted days before in Venice or Telluride, but their presence is wonderful news. And, of course, TIFF has some world premieres of its own, including Ridley Scott’s big-budget sci-fi epic The Martian, starring Matt Damon. I skip the latter, Johnny Depp’s Black Mass, and the drug cartel drama Sicario since I know the trio are soon making their way to screens in Western New York. Scheduling concerns mean I can’t see the Catholic Church child-abuse storySpotlight, Brie Larsen in Room, or Jake Gyllenhaal in Demolition.

Still, there are real gems among the fifteen films I see during my three-day visit, as well as among the dozen screeners viewed before and after TIFF15’s opening weekend. László Nemes’s Cannes hit Son of Saul(opening in late 2015/early 2016) is an emotional stunner about a concentration camp inmate’s attempts to give a young boy (who may or may not be his son) a traditional Jewish burial. Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa(likely due for release this year) is a hilarious and moving stop-motion comedy that equals the power of hisSynecdoche, New York. Hitchcock/Truffaut, about the famously insightful book that director Francois Truffaut authored after interviewing Alfred Hitchcock, is a cinephile must. Scary “New England folk tale” The Witchproves why it was one of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival’s most buzzed entries. And Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster is a strangely moving, wildly funny bit of quasi-sci-fi featuring a career-best performance from Colin Farrell. Set in a time when singles must find a partner or be turned into animals (!), the film features TIFF’s most memorable love story.

More highs: Fifties-set immigration drama Brooklyn cements its status as a) a sure-fire Oscar nominee and b) a film that is nearly impossible to dislike, so strong is star Saoirse Ronan’s performance and so heartfelt its message of finding a new home on the other side of the world. Canadian writer-director Andrew Cividino’s three-teens-and-one-hot-summer drama Sleeping Giant is a startling debut. A number of less high-profile international entries, including Homesick, Magallanes, Girls Lost, Keeper, and London Road (Tom Hardy sings!)  are smart and interesting. Plus, Tom Hooper’s flawed The Danish Girl features strong performances from Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne. (Oddly, the film seems to focus less on Redmayne’s Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of sexual reassignment surgery, than on her former wife, Vikander’s Gerda Wegener.) And the rather overblown Youth is a swirling visual powerhouse with awards-worthy work from Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, and Jane Fonda.

It seems each year there is at least one moment when I’m reminded of not just why I love TIFF, but why I love movies. At TIFF15, it’s the world-premiere screening of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, a J. G. Ballard adaptation the Kill List director introduced to the packed Visa Screening Room house as follows: “It’s a big building, there’s lots of sex, violence, swear words, adult content, dancing, and it’s J. G. Ballard.” Starring Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, Luke Evans, and Jeremy Irons, the Kubrick- and ABBA-infused film is a compelling stew of sex, violence, and class warfare, all set in a strange apartment building in 1970s Britain. About ten minutes in, I say to myself how exhilarating it feels to adore a movie this much. That’s a glorious feeling. Whenever the film is set for American release, it’s a must-see.

High-Rise is screened as part of TIFF’s new Platform program, a new juried section featuring twelve fascinating films from unique filmmakers. Unlike the TV-focused Primetime program—I understand there is amazing television around the world, but I come to TIFF to get away from TV—Platform feels fresh and thrilling. If it can unleash something like High-Rise on the world, clearly the Toronto International Film Festival is a healthy forty.        

Photo courtesy of TIFF