TIFF follow-up: Bastards, Blue, and Dallas

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Most of the films I was sad to miss at TIFF 2013 have not yet been released, although there are a few — Rush and Enough Said come to mind — that I simple have been unable to catch up with. Happily, though, there are a few that I was horrified to miss that I have been able to see. It seems funny now to remember how I gazed at the TIFF schedule, desperately seeking a way to fit in Dallas Buyers Club and Gravity, for example. It seems especially silly since I knew those were coming soon. Every year I tell myself I need to see more films that I’ll likely never come upon again …

Anyway, the five films below are TIFF selections I was able to see since the festival ended. It’s a solid group … mostly. (Incidentally, All Is Lost did not play TIFF, but would have been listed below with 4 stars if it had.)

 

Bastards — 4 stars

Dark, disturbing, and unforgettable, Claire Denis’ film is a brutal, noir shocker. There are images — blood running down a dazed, naked girl’s legs; the inside of a hellish barn; one of the most mesmerizing night driving sequences in film history — as brilliantly composed as any in recent memory.

 

 

Blue is the Warmest Color — 4 stars

I have already written a bit about Blue; suffice to say, I adored it. It has been interesting to see more of the backlash develop, and read some harsh criticism of the film. There are some valid thoughts there, but I stand by my belief that this is a very special love story, and one of the finest films of this year.

 

Dallas Buyers Club — 3 stars

I just saw Dallas, and I must admit, I’m still wrestling with my verdict. It is a highly watchable, very entertaining film, with strong performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. It does a fine job of establishing its place (Texas) and time (the mid-80s to the late-90s). Perhaps … it seemed more entertaining than it should. This is, after all, a film about the AIDS crisis. For the moment, I am going with 3 stars. It’s a fine film — I just can’t decide if I can call it a great one.

 

Gravity — 3 stars

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is another tricky one. Make no mistake, it is a stirring cinematic achievement, a technical wonder, and a real experience. But the writing is awful, the characters poorly drawn, and, as a friend pointed out after seeing it at TIFF, Gravity is essentially a survival story, nothing more. All Is Lost does a far better job of reaching beyond the genre’s limitations. Still, what a wonder!

 

Parkland — 2 stars

Pre-TIFF, I was very interested in this Kennedy assassination drama. Its central concept — a multi-character look at how that day affected individuals like Abraham Zapruder — is fascinating. But the resulting film is dull and unmemorable. Its heart is in the right place, but Parkland takes one of the most complex moments in American history and renders it … sleepy.

Review: Philomena is a funny, moving crowd-pleaser

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I saw Philomena on my last day at TIFF 2013, with director Stephen Frears and star Steve Coogan in attendance. The film could not have been received more warmly, and I was one of the many who walked away impressed with its humor and emotion. While I’ve heard some scoffing, I truly believe it will end up a Best Picture nominee, along with Judi Dench for Best Actress and Coogan for Adapted Screenplay. Here is my A- TIFF review, for The Film Stage.

Philomena arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival from its world premiere Venice waving a flag that read “crowd-pleasing,” and that can be a scary proposition. That description can mean many things: inane, lowest-common-denominator, spoon-fed pablum. But Stephen Frears’s film is that rarity – a work that is genuinely crowd-pleasing, but also smart, funny, touching, and often surprising. In short, it’s a film your mother will love, and unlike most Oscar-bait, so will you.

The film’s basis in fact is one element of why it is so involving. We open in the Ireland of the 1950s, and watch as the sweet-natured Philomena Lee shares an intimate moment with a boy, dropping her candy apple in the process. (Just one example of Philomena’s memorable visual details.) Jumping ahead five decades, the aging Philomena (Judi Dench) stares mournfully at a photo of a little boy – clearly, the result of the tryst. Meanwhile, a former BBC reporter named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is at the low-point of his career when an unexpected human interest (we can almost see him shudder) story falls into his life. It may not be exactly what he expected to be writing, but the witty, erudite Martin knows a good story when he sees one.

It seems Philomena and other many other “fallen” girls were turned over to a Catholic abbey with their babies, where they toiled away for several years, allowed to see their children for just an hour a day. Tragically, the young mothers relinquished all rights, and often watched as their infants were sold, in many cases to Americans. The boy in Philomena’s photo, her Anthony, was one such child. She searched on and off for information about her son for years, wondering if he remembered her (he was 4 when adopted by an affluent couple), if he ever looked for her, etc. Philomena’s adult daughter solicits Martin, and a search for Anthony begins.

Sounds syrupy, no? In lesser hands, it could be. But Dench brings a sense of optimism and real longing to her Philomena, creating a character who is never a caricature, and always believable. As she and Martin return to the abbey, and eventually head to America, Philomena learns the truth, and in Dench pulls off the complexity of the situation. She is wonderfully matched by Coogan, the great star of 24 Hour Party People and The Trip. Generally, he plays the mocking cad, but here, he is appropriately world-weary, a bit angry, and also truly caring. There is an important scene at a hotel breakfast buffet in which Martin is annoyed, regretful, and devastated in a matter of minutes. Coogan who co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope (based on Sixsmith’s book), nails it. Clearly, this is a performance the likes of which we have never seen from him before.

The story is full of surprises that should not be spoiled, and Frears oversees it all with efficiency. His is one of the more fascinating filmmaking careers of the last 40 years, a mix of modern classics (The Hit, My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, the underrated Dirty Pretty Things), a few quasi-hits (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, The Queen), several major flops (Hero, Mary Reilly), a certifiable cult classic (High Fidelity), and some WTFs (Tamara Drewe, Lay the Favorite). In Philomena, Frears has his greatest success in more than a decade. It’s a reminder that in his early 70′s, he remains capable of surprise — how Philomena Lee of him.

Philomena has a few modest missteps, and a frustrating moment or two (Philomena is more forgiving than Martin – and the audience – want her to be), but the film is so moving, so brisk, and so sweet that it is hard to be left with anything resembling disappointment. By the time all of the truths about Anthony’s whereabouts are unveiled, Philomena has moved from road movie to detective story to unexpectedly rousing weepie. The Weinstein Company will give this an Oscar push, but whether it garners any nominations or not, the story of Philomena Lee will surely go down as one of the year’s most well-liked movies. It gives “crowd-pleasing” a good name.

From the November Spree: “Lock up your children—it’s Toronto Film Fest time”

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One of my favorite things to write each year is my Toronto Film Festival recap for Buffalo Spree. This year’s is in the magazine’s November issue, but not on the Spree website — so here it is, in full.

The strangest sight at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival was not the gorgeous, befuddled twentysomething couple—she in a skin-tight white dress, he in a well-tailored suit—staring at the screen with confusion during Koyaanisqatsi director Godfrey Reggio’s non-narrative, visually splendiferous, enjoyably frustrating Visitors. (Incidentally, they only lasted about fifteen minutes.) Nor was it the John Gotti-look-alike who suddenly hit the deck while waiting in the press line, got up, brushed himself off, and shrugged his shoulders. And it certainly was not the preponderance of cell phone use during press and industry screenings, even though this increasingly obnoxious situation led one film blogger to—seriously—call 911.

And it was nothing onscreen, either, although the fun documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, a chronicle of the El Topo and Holy Mountainmaestro’s attempt to bring Franker Herbert’s spice-and-worm-fueled epic to the big screen, contained its share of acid-flashback imagery. Nope, it was the sight of children, scores of them, rushing through the Scotiabank Cinema with their parents. This is not normally the case. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen kids at TIFF, although the festival does program a TIFF Kids sidebar that, until now, had never made an impression on me. (These particular kids were heading to a screening of a small-fry superhero yarn called Antboy.)

What made the scene seem especially relevant—poignant, even—was the fact that so many of the films I saw this year involved children separated from their parents, kids in peril, and worse. It made me think I should high-tail it back to Buffalo ASAP and make sure my son was happily playing. Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners was not a film on my must-see list; the Hugh Jackman-Jake Gyllenhaal kidnapping thriller looked rather ho-hum. But nothing could be further from the truth. It was a modern American nightmare about stolen children, vigilante justice, and dark, dark secrets in suburbia, and it left me breathless. (Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal unveiled another well-received film at TIFF, Enemy.) The fascinatingly up-and-down Stephen Frears (The GriftersThe Queen) brought the crowd-pleasing Philomena, a moving based-on-a-true story of a woman’s search for the child she was forced to give up by the Catholic Church.

But it was 12 Years a Slave that stole TIFF. Shame director Steve McQueen’s slavery epic ranks as the most emotionally overpowering viewing experience I’ve ever had, a harrowing, gripping story with award-worthy performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, among others. Like Prisoners and Philomena, as well as Jason Reitman’s well-made Labor Day (to a lesser extent), the separation of kids from their parents was a central theme, but that is only one of the powerful themes of 12 Years. I was literally shaking and unable to speak when it concluded, and that hasn’t happened since Grown Ups 2.

These films, and some of the breaking news that came out before and during the festival, which ran from September 5–15, created an air of tension; even the light comedies were a bit serious. (Or, in the case of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s directorial debut, You Are Here, seriously awful.) I’m not sure this had anything to do with Syria, or Rob Ford, or the Bills’ opening day loss to the Patriots, which bummed me out, long-distance. Perhaps it is the feeling that the festival gets larger and larger every year, from the crowds to the sheer number of films (nearly 300). Or maybe everyone is just a bit exhausted after getting up so early—early rising being an essential element of festival viewing. As Anthony Lane put it in a New Yorker piece on this year’s Venice Film Festival, “There are people who go to movies, and there are people who go to film festivals, and the difference between them, by and large, is that only the latter are willing to line up for necrophilia at nine o’clock in the morning. Not just willing, but bright with larkish zeal, getting there half an hour ahead of schedule so as to grab the best seat.”

That zeal can quickly turn into outrage. I attended the first press screening of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a rote but well-acted (by Idris Elba and Naomie Harris) biopic. Almost one hour in, the sound vanished. Within seconds, someone entered and announced that due to mechanical issues, the screening was cancelled. The press was not happy, and grew even more annoyed when the almost three-hour drama was rescheduled for 10:15 that night. (Couldn’t they at least have skipped the first forty-five minutes?) This cancellation was especially interesting because it delayed the instant responses that have become a film festival trademark. Critics, websites, etc., have an intense desire to tweet a reaction within minutes of a screening’s completion. And once these tweets declare a film to be a dud, or an Oscar player, the internet passes out with excitement. I love film festivals.

Interestingly, the fall festival scene is now a battleground, and TIFF finds itself under attack, so to speak, by festivals in Venice, Telluride, and New York. There was griping about biggies from the Coen Bros. and Alexander Payne not appearing in Toronto, and I heard multiple folks at the public screenings complain about this year’s gala lineup. One woman from Albany told me she waited five hours (!) to catch a glimpse of Benedict Cumberbatch at the second screening of the poorly-received Julian Assange bio The Fifth Estate, only to find out that he was not attending. I can only imagine the Cumber-bitching among that crowd.

I did not get to see the The Fifth Estate, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, Ron Howard’s Rush (these three will be released well before this article is published), Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, or Meryl Streep inAugust: Osage County. But it’s not all about awards-bait. I enjoyed the pre-fame Jimi Hendrix tale All Is By My Side, starring a perfectly-cast Andre Benjamin; Jason Bateman’s fast, dirty directing debut, Bad Words; François Ozon’s visually stunning, creepily sexy Young and Beautiful; and the utterly unique English Civil War freak-out A Field in England.

The final film I saw during my TIFF weekend was a one-night-only event: the aforementioned world premiere ofQatsi trilogy director Godfrey Reggio’s Visitors. Booking Reggio’s first film—“presented” and introduced at the screening by Steven Soderbergh—in more than a decade was a major success for the festival; Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi (2002), all featuring collaborations with Philip Glass, rank among the most acclaimed and influential non-narrative features of the last thirty years. The Visitors screening was the cinematic event of the festival, and a reminder that above all else, TIFF was created and exists as a showcase for greatness. (Another less thrilling but worthy event was a Big Chill reunion; the baby boomer favorite debuted at the 1983 festival.)

Yes, the eleven days often seem dominated by industry-speak, money-talk, Oscar hype, red carpet hi-jinks, and long, long lines. But Reggio’s film defies description, and even renders reviews useless. It is all about the experience, and the emotional, visual, and auditory impact. As Soderbergh put it before the film began, “If you show this movie to a hundred people, you get a hundred different responses.” Imagine a world in which every film at the multiplex—even a bad one—is capable of this kind of reaction. Impossible? Hardly. It happens every September in Toronto. Bring the kids.

For more TIFF writing from Christopher Schobert, see Indiewire’s The Playlist (http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist), The Film Stage (thefilmstage.com), and FilmSwoon.com. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/FilmSwoon.

TIFF 2013: Where are they now?

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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

Grim and unsettling, Prisoners is one of 2013’s best films

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“Prisoners” was one of the best films I saw at TIFF, and may finish the year as one of my faves. That being said, it is such a grim, exhausting effort that I wondered whether or not if it might turn audiences off. Clearly, and happily, I was mistaken. The film earned third place in audience award voting at TIFF, and debuted at No. 1 at the box office. Here is my A- review for The Film Stage.

Prisoners might be the most shockingly dark studio release since Fight Club, a grim, unsettling, occasionally convoluted, but undeniably gripping thriller. The nightmare America of Denis Villeneuve’s film is sadly believable, and it results in a truly moving experience — one that audiences might not see coming. On paper, after all, this Hugh Jackman-Jake Gyllenhaal-starrer looked like just another procedural, a (possible) turkey jammed full of movie-of-the-week stuffing. The trailers were not particularly memorable, the likable Jackman and Gyllenhaal do not always choose their roles wisely, screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski’s only previously filmed screenplay was for Contraband, and even though Villeneuve directed the Oscar-nominated Incendies, he is still a relatively unproven commodity.

From its 153-minute running time to its plot, Prisoners is a film that audiences might be afraid of, particularly after hearing just how dark this story is. But if one gives it a chance, they’ll be rewarded with one of 2013’s most powerful and gut-wrenching surprises. Villeneuve opens things, appropriately, with a father and son hunting trip, and from scene one, it is clear that Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover is an intense individual. A carpenter, he lives a modest life with his wife (Maria Bello), teenage son, and young daughter. Shortly before heading to spend Thanksgiving with their neighbors — a father and mother played by always solid Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, and their daughters — a beat-up camper rumbles down the street, croaking to a stop. When the two family’s young daughters do not return after a trip back to the Dover household, this camper takes on great significance.

The girls, it seems, have disappeared, and a perennially exhausted (at least, he appears this way) Detective Loki, played by a focused Gyllenhaal, is assigned to the case. The camper is quickly found, and with it a suspect — a strange, child-like figure named Alex Jones (a whimpering Paul Dano). Alex lives with his no-nonsense aunt (Melissa Leo), and seems drift in a world all his own. Keller quickly concludes that Jones is the kidnapper, and when he is released, he devises a plan to find the girls. Meanwhile, Loki continues his frustrating search, both families become increasingly despondent, and secrets from the past are slowly unearthed.

If, at this point, Prisoners sounds like many other films in the kidnapped kid genre, rest assured, it is not. This experience is much more grim, much more disturbingly violent, and much more morally and thematically complex, than any recent “thriller.” Part of this is thanks to Guzikowski’s twist-y script, but there is also the work of its leads. Jackman is coming off a wildly successful few months that saw a Best Actor nomination for his Jean Valjean in Les Misérables as well as robust returns for The Wolverine. But in Prisoners, he is shockingly unhinged, giving what is clearly his finest performance as a man who will do anything — anything — to save his daughter. He is matched by Gyllenhaal, whose performance is much more subtle, and no less effective. Loki is the heart of Prisoners, and in many ways Gyllenhaal has the more difficult part.

Villeneuve — who brought another well-received collaboration with Gyllenhaal, Enemy, to TIFF — oversees the sprawling story with commendable restraint…mostly. There are moments when the film loses its balance, and I’m not sure the story holds up to close scrutiny; the plot becomes increasingly convoluted, the villainy a bit over-the-top. But what never flags is the level of emotion, or its visual elegance. The unsung hero of Prisoners is surely its incomparable cinematographer, Roger Deakins. In his hands, simple, ho-hum suburban sights appear positively evil. The film is a visual catalog of deep, dark places — a priest’s hidden basement, grungy campers, tightly shuttered houses in suburbia.

It is also a catalog of fears: dark basements, snakes, hidden doors, bloody clothing, snakes, quasi-torture chambers, snakes. It all comes together to create an emotionally memorable experience. One thing is certain: When Prisoners is finished, expect every parent in the audience to race home and check on their kids. It might seem easy to pull off such a feat — TIFF 2013 certainly had its share of effective children-in-peril movies — but doing so in a way that does not feel manipulative is quite a feat. As difficult to watch as it may be, Prisoners is one of this year’s essential dramas.

TIFF recap: Götz Spielmann’s disappointing follow-up to his great “Revanche”

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I feel like I am still in post-TIFF catch-up mode in a lot of ways, especially here. But the festival is such a major part of my film-going year that I feel I am justified in spending some of that time recapping things I saw and reviewed. One somewhat under-the-radar TIFF13 selection was Götz Spielmann’s “October November,” the follow-up to his wonderful thriller “Revanche,” and while it was certainly worth seeing, it is hard to consider it anything but a disappointment. Here is my Playlist review of the film. I will keep tabs on when it might be hitting North American shores again.

Götz Spielmann’s “October November” might be the quietest drama of 2013, an intimate, somber study of one family’s unsaid truths. It is also, however, a film that leaves little impression, making it a step backwards—or, at the very least, sideways—for the director of the stunning “Revanche.” Spielmann’s 2008 character study/thriller was deservedly nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (2009), and drew an international spotlight to the Austrian filmmaker. His much-anticipated follow-up, “October November,” made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and while it plays reasonably well in a festival setting, it is unlikely to make waves worldwide.

It is a family tale, a European cousin of some ofWoody Allen’s Bergman-esque dramas (specifically “Interiors” and even “September”); if Mike Leighhad not already used the title “Secrets and Lies,” it would have been dead-on here. Sonja (Nora von Waldstätten) and Verena (Ursula Strauss) are two sisters with very different lives, yet more shared character traits than they would care to admit. Sonja is an actress whose busy life involves work, failed relationships, and more work. (“You’re only happy when you work,” she is rather inaccurately told.) Verena, meanwhile, still lives in the family home with her ailing father (Peter Simonischek, gives a beautifully exhausted performance as “Papa”), her good-natured, rather dull husband, and their sweet little boy. It is a large, rambling former inn that is occasionally still used for overnight guests.

We learn within the film’s first few minutes that Sonja and Verena are living secret lives. Sonja is accosted by the wife of a man she is seeing in the ladies’ room of an upscale restaurant, a knife-sharp scene that demonstrates Spielmann’s skill at letting drama slowly develop. (The man’s wife shows the oblivious Sonja a picture of her children, and replies to Sonja’s compliment with piercing questions: “You think they’re lovely? Then why are you destroying their lives?”) Back in the town Sonja grew up in, Verena has her own messy situation playing out. She is having an affair with her father’s attractive, caring physician (“The Lives of Others” star Sebastian Koch, used far more effectively here than he was in the execrable “A Good Day to Die Hard”).

The sisters are brought back together as Papa’s health worsens, and their frosty relationship grows frostier. For Sonja, a return home feels like a vacation from her busy everyday life, but for Verena, the sight of Sonja is a reminder of what she missed by staying home. Verena is especially on edge when Sonja is around Koch’s doctor; the look on her face when Sonja arrives home with Koch, happily announcing, “Look who I found!” is priceless. Later, Verena angrily tells Sonja, “Just drop the act. No one knows who you are anymore,” and the truth behind the statement makes the comments especially wounding. But just as wounding—and true—is Sonja’s reply: “You’re jealous of me, of my life. You chose this life. No one forced you into it.” Yet as we learn, much of the control the film’s character’s believe they have over their lives is false.

A major secret is revealed halfway through “October November” that lacks the impact it should, and fails to upend things the way we might expect. The way this is handled by Spielmann seems like a miss, as well as some strange aesthetic choices—particularly an awkwardly filmed near-death and some dopey dream sequences—and an oddly lackluster conclusion make for an overall disappointment. It is beautifully shot, well-acted by all (especially by Waldstätten, Strauss, and Simonischek), and filled with strong dialogue and a real sense of place. But despite the cast’s best efforts, it is never moving, and rarely surprising. A sense of surprise, so important an element of “Revanche,” might be the film’s biggest failure.

As “October November” draws to a close, it is difficult not to feel slightly on edge; it seems as if something momentous is on the verge of happening … And yet it never does. Spielmann is clearly uninterested in fireworks this time around, and while that is a bold dramatic choice, it is also an unsatisfying one. It is a film that starts with a quiet dinner, and ends with a quiet hug, and that’s the way Spielmann wants it. Certainly, “October November” is far, far from a bad film, but it is a curiously unmemorable one. And while it is unfair to overly compare it with “Revanche,” it is difficult not to. Perhaps if this was the director’s debut, audience response would be different. But after the high of “Revanche,” “October November” feels like a ho-hum medium. [C+]

 

The people have spoken: “12 Years a Slave” deservedly wins TIFF’s audience award

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Bravo to Steve McQueen, Brad Pitt, and a great cast: “12 Years a Slave” is the deserving winner of the Toronto International Film Festival’s BlackBerry People’s Choice Award. My prediction, “Philomena,” was the runner-up, followed by another strong choice, “Prisoners.”

I had wondered if “12 Years” was simply TOO powerful, but clearly, audiences in Toronto were impacted as greatly as I was. This is a biggie, and clearly sets up the film for an awards run.

Here is my review of the film for The Film Stage. I’ll be shocked to see anything better in 2013.

Photo courtesy of TIFF

My TIFF 2013 People’s Choice pick? “Philomena”

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This Sunday, the Toronto International Film Festival will announce its Audience Award winner, and this is big. After every public screening, TIFF’s orange-t-shirt-clad volunteers remind attendees to vote for their favorite, and while many scoff at such a popularity contest, there is an undeniable relationship between the winner of the People’s Choice Award — I’m sorry, the BlackBerry People’s Choice Award — and mainstream success. (Well, mostly.)

Take a look at the last 10 winners:

  • 2012: “Silver Linings Playbook”
  • 2011: “Where Do We Go Now?”
  • 2010: “The King’s Speech”
  • 2009: “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”
  • 2008: “Slumdog Millionaire”
  • 2007: “Eastern Promises”
  • 2006: “Bella”
  • 2005: “Tsotsi”
  • 2004: “Hotel Rwanda”
  • 2003: “Zatoichi”

Notice that four of the last five were enormous critical and commercial successes. I’m not sure how the pleasant but hardly memorable “Where Do We Go Now?” garnered ther 2011 prize.

Last year, I predicted “Argo,” which I had not seen, would win the prize; I cannot tell you how many folks I heard discussing it. The actual winner was “Silver Linings Playbook,” and the win put David O. Russell’s film in play for months of hype, and eventually, box office success and Oscar noms.

My pick for this year is Stephen Frears’s “Philomea,” starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. The film, about a woman’s quest to find the child she was forced to give up by the Catholic Church 50 years before, is a crowd-pleaser, but it’s also a great movie, one full of surprises and an unexpected level of social commentary.

It’s not the only film in play — certainly, “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” or “Prisoners” could pull it off, not to mention a much lower-profile film. But I’d put my money on “Philomena,” and I’d call it a deserving winner, too.

Photo courtesy of TIFF

My TIFF review round-up (so far)

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I am back from the Toronto International Film Festival, and I’ll continue to be posting articles, reviews, links, and more in the days, weeks, and months to come. But here is a quick round-up of my published TIFF work so far:

I have some more work coming, and I posted plenty on Twitter and Facebook over the course of the weekend.

Photo from “Sarah Prefers to Run” courtesy of TIFF

TIFF Preview: Will “Joe” be a comeback for Nicolas Cage?

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One of late-summer’s most pleasant films is David Gordon Green’s “Prince Avalanche,” and the director brings a new film, “Joe,” to TIFF. It feels like this could be the role Nicolas Cage has been waiting for.

Nicolas Cage stars as a hard-living ex-con who becomes friend and protector for a hard-luck kid (Tye Sheridan; “The Tree of Life,” “Mud”), in this contemporary Southern gothic tale from acclaimed filmmaker David Gordon Green (“George Washington,” “All the Real Girls”).

The men who populate David Gordon Green’s latest film, “Joe,” have known prison, and sudden rage, and thrashings from their daddies. We see little of this in the film, but Green finds simple, graceful ways to show the marks left by a lifetime of violence. Like his earlier films “All the Real Girls” and “Undertow,” Joe crafts elevated drama from the raw material of America’s Southern poor.

Based on Larry Brown’s acclaimed novel, the film tells the story of a kind-hearted excon (Nicolas Cage), who oversees a group of Mississippi men who clear trees for a large lumber company. When Gary (Tye Sheridan), a determined fifteen-year-old, shows up looking for work, Joe is hesitant to turn him away. After taking him on as part of the crew, Joe soon becomes a father figure. It’s an easy role to fill, since Gary’s own father is a brutal alcoholic. In a desperate attempt to escape his troubled household, Gary runs away from his family, looking to Joe for refuge. But Joe is no simple Samaritan. Recently released from prison, and with his own history of erratic acts, he makes for an unpredictable protector. And yet the two see something in each other, some core of dignity that might survive their ragged lives.

As Joe, Cage delivers one of his best performances in a storied career. He is as compelling as he is in his most outrageous roles, but achieves the effect with far more restraint here. And, as Gary, Sheridan, who followed “The Tree of Life” with Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” and now this film, continues to prove himself one of America’s most subtle young actors.

Text by Cameron Bailey; photo courtesy of TIFF