TORONTO – Early on in Jean Marc Vallee’s new drama “Demolition” there is a moment where Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) steps into a private washroom to gather himself for a moment. He’s escaping from the reception for his wife’s funeral after she passed away in a tragic car accident. The blank faced Davis looks into the mirror and attempts to muster up enough emotion to cry because as the widower he should be a bawling wreck, right? Frustratingly, as hard as he tries he can’t go there. Clearly, Davis isn’t handling the death of his wife as he’s expected to.
TORONTO – Seventy years have passed since the end of World War II and, remarkably, filmmakers continue to find compelling new stories from the era. This year alone has seen Simon Curtis’ “Woman in Gold” and László Nemes’ Cannes phenomenon “Son of Saul.” Another relatively unknown true story is depicted in Martin Zandvliet’s Danish drama “Land of Mine” which had its world premiere tonight at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.
TELLURIDE – Agu is a fictional character. He lives in a fictional country in the middle of an imaginary civil war. In reality, there are thousands of Agu’s in Africa today, boys that are recruited or forced to play soldier in a multitude of armed conflicts across the continent (and the world). You may have seen news reports or documentaries on these child warriors, but acclaimed filmmaker Cary Fukunaga’s cinematic vision, as depicted in “Beasts of No Nation,” won't let you look away from the real life horrors still taking place on that far off continent.
Adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s novel of the same name, “Beasts” begins with Agu (a remarkable Abraham Attah) living a peaceful life with his family in what appears to be a medium sized African town in an unnamed West African country. His father teaches at the local school, his older brother is primarily concerned with getting the attention of a beautiful girl and his beloved mother spends most of her time raising Agu’s toddler sister. They all help care for his grandfather, who appears to be suffering from severe dementia. It’s not perfect, but it’s idyllic enough that laughs are plentiful and the future seems bright. All that changes when a military coup occurs and a civil war erupts across the nation.
As you'd expect, the conflict between the government’s military forces and the rebels eventually makes it to Agu's town. His mother and sister make it out before the battle begins, but his father fails in finding him transport out of the crossfire. The government soldiers actually save the town (what’s left of it after a rain of gunfire). Agu’s nightmare truly begins when the soldiers mistakenly believe a cadre of men including his father, brother and grandfather are revel sympathizers. Only Agu is able to escape their judgment and he soon finds himself wandering the forest petrified, tiried and hungry. Eventually he’s captured by a rag-tag rebel battalion led by a charismatic leader known only as the Commandant (Idris Elba).
As soon as you recognize the young soldiers in the Commandant’s contingent it's obvious Agu’s fate is sealed. Immediately a favorite of the Commandant due to his educational upbringing, Agu is forced to go through training to become an active soldier. This initiation is sealed during a raid on a government convoy where Commandant instructs Agu to kill a man who, weeping for his life, claims he’s only an engineer working on bridges and not a soldier. Shockingly, Agu succumbs to the pressure in a brutal and horrifying way. He's so shaken from his actions, Agu falls to the ground and throws up. While this act has put him in the good graces of Commandant and proved his worth to the rest of the squadron, but Agu still hopes he’ll find a way to escape and reunite with his mother in the capital city.
Fukunaga not only directed the film but also co-wrote the screenplay and served as director of photography. His efforts have resulted in a brazenly confident piece of cinematic art where every image immerses you deeper and deeper into Agu’s horror.
On particularly powerful sequence is centered on an attack against enemy forces in a mostly abandoned village. Agu has unknowingly been drugged by another one of the rebel soldiers. As his battalion charges into the conflict Fukunaga conveys the hallucinogenic imagery swelling in Agu’s mind by turning the green foliage in the area pink. As the fighting subsides Agu stops to take in the results of the carnage and Fukunaga slowly has the pink fade back into a harsh green reality.
Fukunaga also includes a number of extended single takes throughout the picture. They don’t have the impact of his signature moment from the first season of “True Detective,” but that’s because the camera or its subjects are almost always moving. They feel more engrained into the material even though they are just as impressive.
Elba is the only recognizable actor in the picture and his performance sticks with you as much as Attah’s will. In the wrong hands the Commandant could be a one-note villain whose actions only serve to further Agu’s hell. Instead, Elba (and Fukunaga) reveals the inner-frustration of a man who likely hates what he’s become, but is so power hungry he’ll sacrifice any of his soldiers to impress his boss, the Supreme Commander.
First time film actor Abraham Attah is absolutely incredible. The youngster radiates Agu’s feelings so strongly its hard not to be emotionally invested in his eventual fate. As much as Fukunaga’s creativity fuels the film’s narrative, unless you believe in the journey it won’t amount to much. Attah’s portrayal is simply paramount to the film’s success.
If Fukunaga makes any missteps its with keeping the Commandant’s sexual abuse tendencies in the movie and making Agu his primary a victim. This was touched upon more in Iweala’s book, but as much as it’s a real world problem it likely wasn’t necessary here. Agu has been through so much before this scene (and will endure more following it) that it feels superfluous.
Overall, “Beasts” is just a beast of a movie. An epic tale that will not only bring to light the epidemic of children enslaved into warfare, but open another window to the barbaric armed conflicts that continue to plague Africa while much of the world continues turns the other cheek.
“Beasts of No Nation” opens in theaters on Oct. 16. It will also debut on Netflix around the world on the same date.
TELLURIDE – For most moviegoers the new drama “Black Mass” will feel inherently familiar, and the reason is obvious. The story of notorious Boston crime lord Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) and the FBI agent who essentially protected him, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), inspired Martin Scorsese’s 2007 Oscar-winning drama ‘The Departed.” The difference between the pictures is that “Mass” notably fleshes the story out with distinct historical detail that film lacked. Yet, with a number of high-profile crime thrillers set in Boston over the past eight years “Mass” has to rely on Johnny Depp’s inspired portrayal of Bulger and a strong ensemble to truly captivate. There are worse problems to have.
TELLURIDE – There is a lot about “Suffragette” that shouldn’t be rare in the movie business. A film with a female director (Sarah Gavron), a female screenwriter (Abi Morgan) and two female producers (Alison Owen, Faye Ward) should be the norm and not the exception. Unfortunately, it’s not. As star Meryl Streep noted during the film’s Q&A on Saturday, in 2014 women directed just 1% of movies released by Hollywood studios. That fact, along with a recent resurgence equal rights for women in the either has made “Suffragette” something of a cause célèbre at Telluride this year. If only the actually movie was something to celebrate as well.
TELLURIDE - Like any creative endeavor a film is the sum of its parts. In the most elementary terms it needs a screenplay as a base, a cast to bring the script to life and a director to orchestrate the pieces into something of considerable impact. Excuse the hyperbole, but Tom McCarthy's "Spotlight" is an example of when all those pieces fit together almost perfectly.
In 2001, the Boston Globe began an investigation into allegations of a systematic cover up by the local Catholic archdiocese of multiple priests who had sexually abused children at their parishes. The investigation was conducted by the Globe's Spotlight team, a group of journalists who dedicate months or years looking into just one specific case with the hope that it can somehow foster change in the community. Work on this particular story coincided with two noteworthy events, the arrival of new editor Martin Baron (played by Liev Schreiber) and the tragic events of Sept. 11. The latter only delayed its discovery, but the former unexpectedly empowered the team to focus on finding evidence that proved the Church's actions came directly from the top of the organization's hierarchy.
Written by Josh Singer and McCarthy, "Spotlight" begins with a newsroom skittish over Baron's arrival. The veteran newspaperman had worked at the New York Times and the Miami Herald, but with no Boston roots the Globe's staff greets him with some apprehension. Feature columnist Eileen McNamara (Maureen Keiller) had written a piece that discussed retired catholic priest John Geoghan, a man accused of sexually abusing more than 100 boys. 25 defendants had recently brought a civil lawsuit against Geoghan and McNamara’s story pointed out that the documents about the abuse were under court-ordered seal. Baron wonders why no one has challenged the order in court and puts the Spotlight team on the case.
Baron wants to see if they can prove the systematic cover-up in the local archdiocese. The only way he can see real change occurring is if knowledge of decades of the abuse was known at the top. In any other city, this might have gotten the whole newsroom excited, but in Boston the conflicts are everywhere. McCarthy enforces the obvious suspicion that almost every staff member has a connection to the Catholic Church either through their upbringing, schooling or family members who still go to mass four days a week. But as the team’s investigation grows so does their anger. Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) discovers the church has a secret house for the “retired” priests around the block from his family’s home. Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) is so unnerved by the hundreds of victims she interviews that she stop attending mass altogether. And, in a key moment, Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) passionately pleas with his editor, Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), to let them publish the information they have already compiled to protect the public from these priests. Benson, very much in line with Baron’s edict, wants to wait. He has one more source he needs to corroborate the larger conspiracy and, sadly, it’s someone he knows all too well.
The right ensemble can elevate a film to greatness (see “The Grand Budapest Hotel” last year) and McCarthy is gifted with a cast that knows they are there to support a fantastic script, not supplant it. There are no overblown theatrics, no one trying to play the drama more than what it is on the page. A perfect example of that is Stanley Tucci’s turn as Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer for many of the victims. It’s a small role, but he subtly conveys the frustration of a man who believes a whole city has conspired against his clients for decades. Garabedian is known as quite a character in real life and while Tucci hints at those aspects of his personality he makes him a believable human being first. It’s the least “Stanley Tucci” Tucci has been in quite awhile and, frankly, that’s a compliment.
While Ruffalo, Schrieber and McAdams are also superb it’s Keaton whose steady hand keeps you riveted to the investigation on screen (even if you know the outcome already). Robinson is a legendary figure for his work at the Globe and Keaton finds a way to let you know early on that his feelings on the investigation are complex and personal. It’s the sort of choice that infuses Robinson’s admission before the final story is published with an emotional gravitas that could easily feel forced in the wrong hands.
It’s certainly fair to describe “Spotlight” as a newsroom procedural. And it obviously highlights the long held belief by old school reporters that news organizations that invest in these sort of investigative pieces aren’t just contributing to the reputation of their outlet, but giving back to the community. What McCarthy and Singer have also created though is a film that chronicles the far-reaching and dangerous influence of the Catholic Church in Boston. It serves not just as warning for big cities with strong Catholic ties, but for any city or town where the line between church and state is beginning to fade. Will there be news operations similar to the Globe’s Spotlight team to uncover these sort of cyclical abuses in the future? “Spotlight” doesn’t fixate on what is a difficult financial debate for many companies, but it can only help the cause.
“Spotlight” opens in limited release on Nov. 6.
TELLURIDE, CO – What a first day at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival. There was a lot going on, but let’s get to the story that made national news: Ms. Franklin had her day in court.
TELLURIDE, CO – “Room” is not a movie about the horrors of abduction (although it is). “Room” is not a movie that wants to focus on the tabloid sensationalism of such abductions (although that aspect is used for a specific purpose). Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” is simply a movie about mother and son trying to adapt to the outside world after years of forced captivity. And the surprise is how succinctly it captures this drastic life change from the perspective of five-year-old.
The 2015 Telluride Film Festival slate is always officially announced the day before the annual Labor Day fest kicks off. Of course, the dirty little secret that anyone in Hollywood in the know pretty much already knows what major films are going to screen there. Plus, the premiere designations from both the Toronto and New York Film Festivals, which occur immediately afterward, usually give it a way.
At first glance “We Are Your Friends” may look like a shameless attempt for Hollywood to jump on the popularity of EDM (that stands for electronic dance music for everyone out there who remembers when it was called house or techno). Movie history is littered with terrible (and a few not-so terrible) films trying to make a buck off the trendy offerings of disco, punk, hip-hop, grunge and even good ol’ fashioned rock n’roll. While you can’t discount that potential marketing element in the film’s financing, director and director Max Joseph and his co-screenwriter Meaghan Oppenheimer have significantly larger aspirations. In fact, they have some teaching to do. Before we dive into that intriguing prospect, however, let’s meet the “Friends” in question.