Review: Aaron Sorkin dominates the ambitious three-act drama that is 'Steve Jobs'
B

Review: Aaron Sorkin dominates the ambitious three-act drama that is 'Steve Jobs'

A rare case of a screenwriter overpowering a visionary director

TELLURIDE – Steve Jobs became one of the most iconic men of the millennium.  He was a phoenix like figure that brought the company he founded back from the brink and transformed it into the most valuable corporation in the world.  Jobs was also a difficult man to work with who many people admired and just as many considered an a-hole.  Almost four years after his passing, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have collaborated on “Steve Jobs,” an ambitious new drama that culls material from Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography of the legendary Apple CEO.

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‘Spotlight’ takes the lead in the last Contender Countdown on HitFix

‘Spotlight’ takes the lead in the last Contender Countdown on HitFix

An early look at this year's Best Picture race

It the Venice, Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals have come to an end it means you can pretty much start seriously talking about Best Picture nominees.  We haven’t written much about Oscar over the past few months, but as I personally say goodbye HitFix today it seems appropriate to leave with one last Contender Countdown (well on this site at least).

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Toronto takes a tumble: 11 quick movie reviews as mixed as this year's festival

Toronto takes a tumble: 11 quick movie reviews as mixed as this year's festival

'The Family Fang,' 'The Program,' 'Victoria,' 'Closet Monster' and more

This was not the 40th edition of the “Festival of Festivals” that Toronto was hoping for.

The 2015 Toronto International Festival began with legal issues forcing the Aretha Franklin concert documentary “Amazing Grace” to cancel its opening night slot and has pretty much ended with the withdraw of the Amber Heard drama “London Fields” after director Matthew Cullen took the film’s producers to court claiming (among other things) that they re-edited the film without his input. Considering how weak the world premieres were overall this year it was par the course for a festival’s whose opening weekend was colder and rainier than in recent memory.

Granted, There were certainly a lot of good movies that screened at the fest this year, but almost every single one of them debuted somewhere else.  That’s not good for an event that considers itself one of the premier film festivals in the world. With Venice and Telluride flexing their muscles as auteur and awards season hotspots (often without even trying), Toronto has seen the quality of debut films slide in recent years.

In 2014 TIFF was lucky enough to host the first screenings of “The Theory of Everything,” “Still Alice,” “St. Vincent,” “Beyond the Lights,” “Cake,” “While We’re Young” and “Top Five," among others.  This year was not as kind with only “The Martian,” “Truth,” “Trumbo,” “Demolition," "Hardcore" and “The Meddler” generating positive or lukewarm notices (“Martian” is the only true winner among new debuts at Toronto this year). As the festival dragged on the question almost everyone seemed to be asking is how does the TIFF brain trust reverse this slide?

Honestly, there is nothing wrong with Toronto turning into a “best of” festival (it’s original name, The Festival of Festivals, always insinuated that), but it’s not how the institution currently sells itself to filmmakers, corporate sponsors or the nation of Canada itself. When you talk to everyday moviegoers at the festival they are almost always immensely proud of the notoriety the festival has achieved.  They believe they talking point that Toronto launches Best Picture winners (even if the last winner to actually debut in Toronto was “Crash” in 2004) and that there is no festival more star-studded (it certainly helps when you program over 300 films).  

TIFF also has a reputation as filmmaker friendly (although I’d like to learn of one major festival that isn’t) and until this year had abstained from any sort of formal competition which could avoid unnecessary drama.  The festival has given away a People’s Choice Award since 1978, but it’s become something of a marketing exercise for studios and you never hear a director gushing with pride after winning it (at least outside of a formal press release).  This year the fest added Platform, a competition slate, but very few of those films created any buzz (we’ll touch on one of them, “High-Rise” later on).  It’s a start, but TIFF may need to do more than just dip its toe in the competition waters to remain relevant long term.

Simply put, the seasonal competition from Venice, Telluride and New York have severely damaged TIFF’s premiere slate.  Venice excites auteurs and producers over the prospect of winning the Golden Lion and is a significant publicity opportunity for Hollywood movie studios in Europe.  Telluride legitimately has more Academy members, industry and guild members in attendance providing the most cost effective petri dish for the always-lucrative awards season.  For established American filmmakers especially, New York can provide a unique creative validation from the city’s cultural elite.   

Toronto, on the other hand, has become an extension of LA’s red carpet machine serving as a mini-junket for the global media (and an expense some studios are increasingly weary of).  There are years when Toronto’s film market flexes its muscle, but, so far, 2015 has been the weakest in recent memory with many titles taking the best deal they could get before the festival began (perhaps too early).  Listen, people started noticing all of this was an issue in 2013.  It became a media story last year and in 2015 it’s simply the status quo.

How can TIFF turn the tide?  Well, taking a page out of Cannes’ book and spreading the North American premieres of  “good” films (even if they debuted elsewhere) across the entire duration of the festival would be a start.  This year, the festival effectively ended on Tuesday night with the local premiere of “Room” (the closing night film, “Stonewall,” screens Friday).  By avoiding perhaps the worst weekend jam of films of any festival in the world (it makes Sundance’s opening frame seem civilized) the importance of the event would be highlighted and some of the good flicks wouldn’t get lost.  

TIFF also has to be tougher in which films it allows to screen in any program.  We understand audiences want to see big stars, but it’s gotten to the point that the media (and some festival attendees) can smell the misfires the minute they are announced and there are simply too many of them.  Less films could mean less revenue, but in the long run it should generate a better overall experience.  Moreover, if TIFF can find a way to encourage studio films and filmmakers to enter a more significant competition the fest could end up with just as exciting an event even if it means less legitimate starpower on those must-have red carpets.

Change is hard.  About 10 years ago Sundance along with its host city, Park City, Utah, began to do everything possible to discourage the exorbitant gifting suites and festival crasher parties that had turned their event into a paparazzi haven.  Considering much of this attention helped increase the festival’s profile in the late ‘90s this strategy could have diminished the festival’s importance on the global festival scene. Instead, the opposite occurred.  Sundance only continues to grow in stature and significance among the global filmmaking community. 

TIFF can stem the tide. The question is whether the festival realizes they have legitimate problems that need to be solved.

Keeping that in mind, we’re guessing you’ll be able to comprehend what a disappointing year it was for brand new flicks by reading the following mini-reviews.

Victoria
(Premiered at Berlin)
Hands down one of the best films of the year, Sebastian Schipper has directed a one-shot film that is truly a captivating cinematic experience. It begins and ends with Victoria (an incredible Laia Costa), a twentysomething Spanish woman living in Berlin. When she leaves the local dance club she runs into Sonne (an impressive Frederick Lau) and his friends.  Sonne is entranced by Victoria and unwittingly pulls her into a sketchy job his buddy Boxer (Franz Rogowski) desperately needs his help with.  Things take a very dramatic turn, but Schipper and his actors make it feel incredibly real with an intensity so strong you may be squirming in your seat.  The idea that Germany did not select this film as its official submission for the Foreign Language Oscar is a true crime.*
In theaters: Oct. 9 (limited release)
Grade: A

*It appears there was not enough German spoken in the film which is why it wasn't selected. Still a crime.

Closet Monster
(World Premiere)
It’s a compliment to call Stephen Dunn’s directorial debut a very good gay movie. There haven’t been many over the past half-decade and while much of the subject matter is overtly familiar (Connor Jessup of “Falling Skies” plays an 18-year-old coming to terms with his sexuality) Dunn demonstrates an impressive ability to bring his unique interpretation of the coming out process to life.  
Grade: B

“Sky”
(World Premiere)
Director Fabienne Berthaud gets lost with this drama centered on Romy (Diane Kruger), a French woman who leaves her husband (Gilles Lellouche) in the middle of a vacation to try and find herself in the American South West.  Norman Reedus plays her love interest looking like he’s walked right off the set of “The Walking Dead” and Lena Dunham portrays his sister-in-law, a white trash stay at home mom with a missing tooth.  And, yes, she’s the most memorable part of the movie and for all the wrong reasons.
Grade: C-

“The Meddler”
(World Premiere)
A movie your mom and dad will simply adore, Lorene Scafaria’s “The Meddler” follows a retired widow, Marnie (a fantastic Susan Sarandon), who moves to Los Angeles to be closer to her only daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne), as writer who is trying to get her first TV series off the ground.  As you can guess by the title and much to Lori’s dismay, Marlie isn’t good at understanding boundaries. The film’s secret weapon is Scafaria’s skill at conveying Marnie’s loneliness and keeping things entertaining at the same time.  Granted, Scafaria includes a few too many endings and the jokes sometimes fall a bit flat, but a fantastic cast (which also includes Lucy Punch, Cecily Strong and J.K. Simmons) help transform into a true crowd pleaser.  Well, let’s just say your mom and dad (or grandparents) will love it.
In theaters: 2016
Grade: B

The Program
(World Premiere)
Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) tackles Lance Armstrong’s rise and downfall like the crime thriller it was giving the true story an initial energy you might not have expected.  Ben Foster plays the disgraced Tour de France winner and his performance is just a bit too forced for comfort (some comically bad hair styles don’t help).  The good news is Chris O’Dowd as reporter David Walsh (who initially attempted to break the story of Armstrong’s doping) and Jesse Plemons as Floyd Landis are much better. “The Program” works when it has you questioning how on earth this secret could be kept so quiet for so long when so many people knew exactly what was going on. Unfortunately, Foster’s Armstrong descends into a one-note egomaniac that would make Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant cringe and it all ends with a resounding thud.
Grade: C+

The Family Fang
(World Premiere)
Jason Bateman’s directorial follow up to the R-rated comedy “Bad Words” is a somewhat dour adaptation of Kevin Wilson’s popular novel.  Bateman and Nicole Kidman play Annie and Duster Fang, the now grown up children of performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang (Christopher Walken and a superb Maryann Plunkett). Having been recruited to participate in their parents’ art projects at a young age, Annie and Duster have been dealing with the psychological ramifications for most of their adult lives.  The movie wants to make a statement about the intersection of art and family, but it’s all too muddled to add up to anything that astute. Moreover, when the “surprise” revelation rolls around in the third act it makes the entire movie as hard to believe as one of the Fang’s staged art pieces.
Grade: C+

London Road
(Released in the United Kingdom earlier this summer).
A musical culled from the actual statements of London residents that discovered a serial killer was in their neighborhood? Intriguing, for sure, but this one might just work better on the stage.  Many of the performances are very good and you get to hear Tom Hardy sing (he’s not bad), but there is only one song that really stands out  (“Everyone is Very, Very Nervous”) and it all becomes just a bit too repetitive for its own good.
Grade: C+

Hyena Road
(World Premiere)
Perhaps one of the worst films at this year’s festival, Paul Gross’ action drama centered on the Canadian military’s efforts in Afghanistan is filled with forgettable and/or terrible performances, a melodramatic script and some jaw-droppingly weak production values (nothing like seeing blood splatter like it’s out of a 1950’s B-movie). Imagine that whole concoction through a conservative Fox News-esque lens and you wonder who would actually want to see this in the first place (actually, don’t answer that).
Grade: D

The Lady in the Van
(World Premiere)
Nicholas Hytner’s had a spotty record bringing great stage plays to the screen.  He crafted a compelling film partially thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis and Joan Allen with “The Crucible,” but his take on “The History Boys” felt entirely too theatrical.  With Alan Bennett’s semi-autobiographical true story he knocks it out of the park. Bennett (played by Alex Jennings) is settling into a North London neighborhood when he soon meets an elderly squatter, Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith).  She’s crank and not very friendly to do anything nice for her even when Bennett begrudgingly agrees to let her keep the van she lives in on his property. But as the years pass he begins to discover the secrets of her incredible life.  It’s simply a very well movie that features Maggie Smith’s best work in years (and, yes, she’s better here than any of her years on “Downton Abbey”).
In theaters: Dec. 11 (limited)
Grade: B+

“High-Rise”
(World Premiere)
Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel is a massive misfire.
The movie wants to make a statement about social status constructs in modern society, but it’s not as profound or shocking as it wants to be and pales in comparison to Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” which tackled these same ideas with more zest and creativity. An impressive cast including Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller and Luke Evans do their best to make it work, but when your director barely has a grasp on the material it’s pretty much for naught.
Grade: C

“Our Brand Is Crisis”
(World Premiere)
“Suggested by” the 2005 documentary of the same name, David Gordon Green’s political dramedy finds Jane (an already underrated Sandra Bullock) and Pat (Billy Bob Thorton doing his Billy Bob thing) as dueling strategists recruited by two major candidates in a pivotal Bolivian presidential election (no joke: the genesis of the story is actually true).  The film is at its best when the storyline gets dangerously real and Bullock’s character struggles to justify the back room king making of a campaign with the needs of the country’s poor majority.  The campaign’s, er, movie’s more comedic elements (some of which are scarily true) are humorous at times, but not enough to make you wish it had struck a more serious tone overall.
In theaters: Oct. 30
Grade: B

For more reviews from Toronto check out the following:

“The Danish Girl”
“Trumbo”
“Freeheld”
“I Saw The Light”
“Truth”
“Demolition”
“Land of Mine”
“The Dressmaker”

 

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Review: 'Trumbo' has problems if even Louis C.K. and Bryan Cranston don't click
C+

Review: 'Trumbo' has problems if even Louis C.K. and Bryan Cranston don't click

Jay Roach can't duplicate his 'Game Change' and 'Recount' success

TORONTO – The damage the House Un-American Activities committee wrought between 1938 and 1975 was unconscionable.  As the Cold War heated up thousands of innocent citizens were accused of being members of or sympathetic to the Communist Party and this committee was responsible for much of the hysteria.  The witch-hunt hit Hollywood hard and after a number of hearings prompted the infamous blacklist, an unofficial designation that denied work to anyone in the industry with suspected communist ties.  There was one man who is credited as bringing the blacklist down, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and his story is chronicled in Jay Roach’s new biopic “Trumbo.”  Something tells us if Trumbo were alive today he might pass along some script notes to Roach and writer John McNamara.

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Emily Blunt says she's gotten phone calls about an 'Edge of Tomorrow' sequel

Emily Blunt says she's gotten phone calls about an 'Edge of Tomorrow' sequel

'Sicario' star: 'We're all about obsessed with Roger Deakins'

TORONTO – Things are pretty good these days for Emily Blunt.  She’s starred in back-to-back hits, helped put the new TV show “Lip Sync Battle” on the map and is now enjoying another round of rave reviews for her new thriller “Sicario.”  Oh, and she continues to make waves speaking the truth on why she keeps being rumored for superhero roles.

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Review: A fiery Cate Blanchett helps restore Dan Rather's legacy in 'Truth'
B+

Review: A fiery Cate Blanchett helps restore Dan Rather's legacy in 'Truth'

When politics, journalism and corporate interests collide

TORONTO – Americans often lament the influence of corporations in politics.  And, of course, news organizations have made their political prejudices clear since the printing press was invented centuries ago.  What often gets lost is the sometimes symbiotic relationship between all three entities.  James Vanderbilt’s “Truth,” which debuted at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, is a striking reminder of how a corporation’s political needs can take precedence over their journalistic endeavors to disastrous effect.

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Review: Only the frocks fit for Kate Winslet and 'The Dressmaker'
C

Review: Only the frocks fit for Kate Winslet and 'The Dressmaker'

Hey, it's hard to mix over-the-top comedy and serious drama

TORONTO – There have been some bad world premieres at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival, but Jocelyn Moorhouse’s “The Dressmaker” has them beat in one significant category: there are worse movies to watch on a plane.

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Review: Julianne Moore and Ellen Page fight the good fight but can't save 'Freeheld'
C

Review: Julianne Moore and Ellen Page fight the good fight but can't save 'Freeheld'

You'll never believe some of the acclaimed artists behind the camera on this one

TORONTO – Nothing is more disheartening than writing a negative review about a movie with admirable intentions. “Freeheld,” which debuted tonight at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, is based on the true story of Laurel Hester, an Ocean County, New Jersey police officer who fought to have her pension benefits assigned to her domestic partner Stacie in 2005.  Unfortunately, an impressive cast and significant real-life events can’t trump the fact it’s a badly made movie.

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Review: Eddie Redmayne and the Curious Case of 'The Danish Girl'
B

Review: Eddie Redmayne and the Curious Case of 'The Danish Girl'

Incredible performances and beautiful production design but something's missing

TORONTO – Like Einar Wegner’s battle to acknowledge her true self, there is something off about “The Danish Girl.”  It’s beautifully made.  It features strong performances from leading actors Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander.  It tackles a subject matter Hollywood has long ignored with a serious and compassionate voice.  But, as Tom Hooper’s new drama unspools over its two-hour running time it’s clear something isn’t quite right

The adaption of David Ebershoff’s acclaimed novel chronicles how Einar (Redmayne) transitioned from a married, moderately successful painter in 1920’s Denmark to Lili Elbe, reportedly the first transgender woman to undergo successful sexual reassignment surgery.  Moreover, it focuses a good deal of attention on how Lili’s arrival affected her unsuspecting wife Gerda (Vikander).  So much so that the story often seems to be more from Gerda’s perspective even if Lili’s journey is fueling the narrative.

When we first meet Einar and Gerda they appear to be a perfectly content couple. Sure, Gerda is frustrated that a prominent art dealer isn’t interested in representing her work, but Einar’s popular landscapes provide them with a comfortable life (even if he seems fixated on repeating the same painting).  Privately, Gerda has been working on a large canvas work modeled by her friend Oola (Amber Heard), a ballet dancer and it teases an untapped talent.

One evening Oola has to cancel her sitting so Gerda asks Einar if he’d throw on her tights and shoes so she can continue working on the piece.  He hesitates at first, but soon is rolling the hose over his feet and complaining that the shoes probably won’t fit.  When Gerda asks him to hold the dress Oola has worn previously a visible sense of intoxication comes over him.  Redmayne and Hooper work well here making Einar’s reaction obvious for the audience to recognize, but subtle enough for Gerda to miss.  When Oola shows up unexpectedly with a bouquet of flowers she excitingly christens Einar’s new look as “Lily.”  

Sometime shortly thereafter, Gerda is having problems convincing Einar to attend a local ball.  She makes an unexpected suggestion that perhaps Einar should go as someone else and, before you know it she’s training her husband in how to handle himself as a woman in public (cue the montage).  The day of the ball both Gerda and Einar’s “cousin Lili” make their way to the event with few people realizing Lili is not who she seems.  Well, except for Oola of course, who is all for this genderbending fun.  Eventually, Lili is separated from the other ladies and finds herself being charmed by the captivating Henrik (Ben Whishaw).  The handsome gentlemen seems to know something is up, but that doesn’t stop him from taking Lili into a secluded part of the ball and kissing her.  Not only does Lili not stop Henrik but Gerda witnesses the embrace and is shocked by her husband’s actions.

This evening is a turning point for the couple.  Einar can’t resist the urges to spend more time as Lili even as Gerda insists his new persona disappear.  Things get somewhat complicated for Gerda when some renderings and a painting inspired by Lili gain the attention of a French art dealer.  Opportunity rules the day as they are quickly off to Paris where they run into Einar’s childhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), Einar decides to live as Lili full-time and Gerda becomes increasingly sympathetic to her husband’s plight.

This is not an easy story to tell and Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon make some interesting choices along the way.  As in the novel, they portray Einar’s discovery of his feminine self as though it was a door first opened during the sitting for Gerda.  When we later discover that wasn’t the case it makes the aforementioned "discovery" scene feel close to a cheat.  

If it’s obvious that Lili wants her own life Hans’ primary purpose is to fill the open position as Gerda’s new love interest.  That’s fine, but Greta seems to resist his polite advances again and again and on one set of stairs after another (and, yes, they are beautifully designed stairwells, but still...).

There is also a disheartening moment that involves the usually impeccable composer Alexandre Desplat.  After the elation following Lili’s first public outing, Einar escapes to the local theater where Oola’s troupe performs and its balcony full of beautiful costumes (it’s up to the audience to figure out how he has access).  Einar strips himself bare in front of a long mirror and tucks his privates between his legs as he tries to envision himself as a woman.  He picks up a long, silk dress and holds it against his body.  At this point, Desplat’s score becomes strangely ominous as though something evil is occurring during a scene that should channel Einar’s excitement at attempting to understand her true self.  In all seriousness if you are a transgender person watching the film how could the music in this scene not make you uncomfortable?

Considering he won the Academy Award for Best Actor earlier this year for his performance in “The Theory of Everything,” it’s a testament to Redmayne’s talent that he’s actually better this time around.  The Brit’s delicate features and angelic face help make Lili’s transformation convincing, but it’s the change beneath the surface that is truly striking.  Redmayne plays Lili as she describes herself to Gerda, a completely different person, a Lili who turns into a fully formed woman with barely a hint of affectation.  There are no doubt many other actors who would have been willing to play this role, but after you watch Redmayne’s performance in its entirety it’s hard to imagine anyone else who could reach his heights.

Considering Redmayne’s achievement it’s almost shocking that you can argue Vikander gives the more memorable performance.  Granted, it feels that she has more screen time in the last third of the picture than Redmayne, but by the end of the film Gerda becomes its emotional center, for better or worse.  Vikander is simply rawer than Redmayne and that allows her to sneak a realistic lifeline into Hooper’s formerly staged proceedings.

“The King’s Speech” and “Les Miserables” helmer has shown an inclination to creatively frame his films and that certainly appropriate for a tale that essentially begins on an artist’s canvas.  Teaming up with longtime collaborator Danny Cohen, the duo fashion imagery as beautiful as many of Einar and Gerda’s paintings.  They are assisted by Eve Stewart’s impressive production design and Paco Delgado’s costumes which avoid fetishizing the period and, smartly, Lili’s new wardrobe.  But, perhaps it’s all too pretty.  

In an era where transgender stories have earned significant visibility thanks to film and television programs including as “Tangerine” and “Transparent,” celebrated actors such as Laverne Cox and the fact Caitlyn Jenner has become a cultural touchstone, perhaps some grit and grime would have benefited Lili’s story.  A year ago this might not have been the case, but in the fall of 2015 “The Danish Girl” needs to be more grounded. It needs to look less pretty and feel more real.  That direction might be out of Hooper’s wheelhouse, but it could have been what transformed a good movie into a transcendent one.

“The Danish Girl” opens in limited release on Nov. 27.

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Review: Tom Hiddleston sings but can't save shockingly bad 'I Saw The Light'
C-

Review: Tom Hiddleston sings but can't save shockingly bad 'I Saw The Light'

Terrible direction and a questionable screenplay sink this biopic

TORONTO – We’re not going to beat around the bush here.  Despite the worthy efforts of stars Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen, the Hank Williams biopic “I Saw The Light” is a shockingly bad movie.  It’s such a disappointment we’re not even sure where to begin.  Well, perhaps a quick history lesson is in order first.

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