Review: ‘Escobar’ puts focus on wrong character

Benicio-Del-Toro-as-Pablo-Escobar-in-Paradise-Lost

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.”

Film festival wars, episode I: TIFF strikes back [from the November 2014 Buffalo Spree]

tiff - clouds of sils maria tiff festival street

I have written a Toronto International Film Festival piece for Buffalo Spree’s November issue for the last seven years, and it is always a joy to write. This year, sadly, my piece did not get posted on the Spree website, instead running only in the November 2014 print issue. So here is my TIFF14 feature, in full.

A random attendee of September’s 2014 Toronto International Film Festival might have taken a stroll down “Festival Street,” a new several-blocks-long area of food trucks, live performances, tables, and assorted cinephile delights, including Bill Murray masks and the twin girls from The Shining, and wondered how anyone besides those stuck in their car could see this year’sTIFF as anything but a resounding success. (The first Friday of the festival, in fact, was decalred “Bill Murray Day,” and featured screenings of three of his classics as well as the premiere of his latest, St. Vincent.) Festival Street closed down a significant stretch of King Street, royally messing up traffic, but for those wandering in front of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the vibe was utterly vibrant. So in many ways, that random festival attendee is correct. After all, festival venues were full, stars could be spotted in abundance, and there was even a hockey documentary, for goodness sake’s.

But behind-the-scenes, there was drama, drama, drama. TIFF takes place shortly after two of the world’s major film fests, in Venice and Telluride. In recent years, the latter fest has increasingly drawn the eyes of cine-media and the adoration of filmmakers. It has also premiered some major films (Gravity, 12 Years a Slave), just days before they were set to screen in Toronto. TIFF took action, allowing only films making their world or North American premieres to screen during the first four days of the festival. This meant that the festival’s prime timeframe did not feature some of this year’s biggest films—among them Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, Reese Witherspoon in Wild, Steve Carrel and Channing Tatum inFoxcatcher, and the Jon Stewart-directed Rosewater.

Despite the party-like atmosphere on Festival Street, then, among the assembled press corps there was some heavy grumbling. Due to the obligations of real life, I am only able to attend on the festival’s first Friday through Sunday, meaning many of the most high-profile entries unspooled long after I hit the QEW. A bummer? Certainly.

That was behind the scenes and beyond the screens, of course. When it comes to the actual movies, whether a world premiere or not, there was plenty to savor. There was Nightcrawler, a whip-smart media satire starring a creepily unhinged Jack Gyllenhaal. (And, it was a world premiere!) Several Cannes Film Festival favorites crossed the pond and blew minds, including Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, featuring awards-worthy work from Juliette Binoche and (especially) Kristen Stewart, as well as Russian tragedy Leviathan. Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, and Adam Driver was as well-received as his last TIFF entry, Frances Ha, and was smartly picked up for distribution by A24.The Duke of Burgundy was the surprise of the festival, an exquisite and darkly humorous story of sadomasochism and butterfly experts. (Seriously.) Eden told of the early days of groundbreaking, early-90s French techno, even featuring actors playing Daft Punk, sans robot masks. And in the conventional but undeniably powerful The Theory of Everything, Les Miserables star Eddie Redmayne stunningly portrays Stephen Hawking, and is matched by an excellent Felicity Jones as his first wife.

Those are just a few of the festival’s most well-received films. There were many others I missed, of course, including Chris Rock’s Top Five, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, Sundance smash Whiplash, and Mike Leigh’s J. M. W. Turner biopic, Mr. Turner. There were also some wonderful under-the-radar successes, including National Gallery, Spring, and In the Crosswind, as well lesser but still worthy fare like They Have Escaped, Life in a Fishbowl, The Wanted 18, and the slick but empty (and ludicrously titled) Who Am I—No System is Safe.

And of course, there were disasters, including both Adam Sandler vehicles (The Cobbler and Men, Women & Children) and the WTF? opening night premiere, The Judge, starring Robery Downey, Jr. As many have remarked, the festival’s recent opening night premieres have been, well, awful. Perhaps Bill Murray Day should have been on the day one, rather than day two.

At this point, there is no telling if TIFF’s world premiere policy is the new norm, or a one-year experiment. My loonie is on the latter. Even though I understand the rationale behind the policy, it’s a bit sad, really, that Oscar jockeying is seemingly considered more important than the goal of presenting great films to as wide an audience of attendees as possible. When theTIFF-going public voted 12 Years a Slave, The King’s Speech, and Slumdog Millionaire as the winners of the festival’s People’s Choice Award, they were not thinking about awards bloggers, studio PR flacks, or festival figureheads. They were thinking about what film hit them hardest. The experience of being enraptured by cinema is what I love most about TIFF, and no amount of backstage drama can erase that feeling. Premiere, sh-remiere. Okay, that was awkward, but you get it. See you on Festival Street in 2015.

 

Film critic Christopher Schobert covered TIFF14 for Spree and the Buffalo News, and also contributed to Indiewire’s The Playlist, The Film Stage, and his blog, FilmSwoon.com.

 

Festival Street, Kubrick Characters in celebration of the upcoming Stanley Kubrick exhibition at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Credit: George Pimentel, WireImage/Getty for TIFF

Clouds of Sils Maria: Juliette Binoche

Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Now playing: ‘Nightcrawler’ is one of the year’s best

nightcrawler

One of my favorite films at TIFF14, “Nightcrawler,” is finally playing nationwide. Here are some thoughts I wrote for The Buffalo News during the festival.

After last year’s Toronto International Film Festival double-whammy of “Prisoners” and “Enemy,” and now TIFF14’s stunning “Nightcrawler,” Jake Gyllenhaal might be ready to wear the crown of festival king.

The latter, from director Dan Gilroy, is a TIFF smash, winning over critics and audiences with its piercing view of the creation of a monster — in this case, an amoral videographer with a lust for graphic violence he can sell to a TV news producer well-played by Rene Russo.

But this is Gyllenhaal’s show, and he gives an Oscar-worthy performance.

During a Q&A, the actor spoke of “falling in love” with the character, and it shows. It’s hard to say he brings humanity to the part, but he certainly brings believability.

“Nightcrawler” opens in October, and should shock and thrill mainstream audiences in equal measure — if they are not so disgusted that they walk out.

Stick with it. This is one of the year’s best films.

‘The Duke of Burgundy’ leads my TIFF14 top three

duke of B

We are now well into the fall movie season, and there are many biggies I still need to see (Foxcatcher, Whiplash, The Imitation Game), but I’ve had the opportunity to see several that will continue to make waves throughout the Oscar campaign — Birdman, The Theory of Everything, and others.

Interestingly, of my three 2014 Toronto International Film Festival favorites, only one will see a release this year. Here is my TIFF top three:

The Duke of Burgundy

While only attending TIFF for a few days, I saw at least five very good films (the three mentioned here, as well as Nightcrawler and Leviathan), not to mention a few right on the cusp. But something surprising occurred to me a few days after the festival: The film I keep pondering, keep revisiting, and keep wanting to watch again is Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy. This visually sumptuous, aesthetically sublime study of role-playing and sadomasochism (but funny!) is a true stunner, and certain to become a cult classic. It is no exaggeration to say you’ve never seen anything quite like it. And while Strickland deserves much of the credit, as does the credited creator of its perfumes (the credit reads “Perfume by Je Suis Gizelle”), the performances of co-leads Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna are especially worthy of praise.

While We’re Young

As I explained in my Film Stage review, Noah Baumbach’s latest film might be his strongest to date. It also might be his most conventional, but he handles the standard tropes of this growing-old-ain’t-easy tale with ease. The script is wildly funny, the soundtrack smart, and the performances across-the-board brilliant.

Clouds of Sils Maria

Olivier Assayas’s Cannes hit was the first film I saw at TIFF14, and it was a ravishing, ambitious beginning. Full of mystery and unforgettable imagery, Clouds is another fascinating step in the career of a filmmaker at the peak of his powers. Binoche is typically wonderful as an actress revisiting the play that made her a star, but Kristen Stewart is a revelation as her assistant. There were numerous great performances at TIFF this year — Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything — but I’m not sure one has stayed with me like Stewart’s in Sils Maria.

For more on TIFF14 favorites, including a contribution from me, check out The Film Stage’s breakdown:

http://thefilmstage.com/features/the-best-of-toronto-international-film-festival-2014/

Analyzing TIFF14: Buffalo News coverage

tiff - clouds of sils maria

The 2014 Toronto International Film Festival is now behind us, and for me, it was a successful one featuring some truly great films — “The Duke of Burgundy,” “Clouds of Sils Maria,” “While We’re Young,” “Nightcrawler,” “Leviathan.”

For the first time ever, I covered TIFF for the Buffalo News, and below you’ll find links to all of my posts to Buffalo.com. There is plenty more TIFF coverage to come from me, and soon I’ll be posting grades of the more than 20 films I saw on this site.

Photo: Juliette Binoche in “Clouds of Sils Maria”

Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

TIFF14: Under-the-radar gems include ‘They Have Escaped,’ ‘Life In a Fishbowl, ‘In the Crosswind’

crosswind

One of the joys of the Toronto International Film Festival is stumbling upon interesting “smaller films.” These are the international entries that often come from directors yet to establish themselves in North America. I had the opportunity to see several, and even the selections I liked less are worth seeking out:

They Have Escaped ***
The story of two troubled teenagers, Joni and Raissa, who run away from a halfway house and find an even scarier world. Directed by Finnish filmmaker J.P. Valkeapää, it is a moving, always involving tale with a central relationship that is believably messy. While the film’s final third takes an unnecessary turn toward quasi-horror, the first hour is a strong portrait of youths on the run.

Life In a Fishbowl ***
Icelandic director Baldvin Zophoníasson’s multi-character drama feels obvious at times, and a tad too predictable. But it’s three central stories are endearing enough that the end result is pretty charming.

In the Crosswind ***

This black and white drama about a woman and her daughter struggling to get home to Estonia in 1941 featured some of TIFF14’s most memorable images. Star Laura Peterson and director Martti Helde are two talents to watch.

Other less heralded, but certainly worthy TIFF14 picks:

  • National Gallery ***1/2 (Wiseman’s latest doc is typically gorgeous, and, as usual, essential viewing.)
  • The Wanted 18 *** (The most unique doc I saw at this year’s fest.)
  • Who Am I — No System Is Safe **1/2 (Slick, silly, but very fun, this thriller is watchable from start to finish, if too predictable.)
  • Trick or Treaty **1/2
  • In Her Place **