VENICE — As the festival wraps up for another year and prizes are announced, time for my final Venice 2014 report. On a personal note, I'd like to say I've had a blast writing for HitFix for the first time, and huge thanks to everyone who said that they enjoyed the coverage; it always means a lot.
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There are a number of surprises built into Kevin Smith's "Tusk," not the least of which is that it is, all things considered, eminently watchable.
That's not faint praise, either. This is in many ways a ridiculous film, and well aware of itself. There are moments where you can practically hear Smith off-camera laughing at not just what's in front of the camera but also what's going to happen in the theater when people watch it. There is a glee to the filmmaking that is matched by a greater sense of control than I've seen from Smith before, and while I think the film is wildly uneven at times, I think that's also the point. I've always said that I grade a film based on how well I think it accomplishes what the filmmaker is trying to do, and in this case, I'd say Smith is fairly on his game.
TORONTO — If you were to look over Chris Rock's lengthy and impressive career you might think he peaked with HBO's "The Chris Rock Show." Or perhaps it was his string of Emmy-winning standup specials including 2008's "Kill the Messenger." Or perhaps it was as the producer and co-creator of the critically acclaimed TV series "Everybody Hates Chris." Well, happily, at the ripe young age of 49, Rock has hit a career high with his new film "Top Five," which debuted at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival Saturday night.
[In case you've Forgotten, and as I will continue to mention each and every one of these posts that I do: This is *not* a review. Pilots change. Sometimes a lot. Often for the better. Sometimes for the worse. But they change. Actual reviews will be coming in September and perhaps October (and maybe midseason in some cases). This is, however, a brief gut reaction to not-for-air pilots. I know some people will be all "These are reviews." If you've read me, you've read my reviews and you know this isn't what they look like.]
Last week, Peter Capaldi’s sophomore episode showcased a more alien doctor. A Doctor who is having a harder time relating to humans than other recent incarnations. The Doctor has really always been willing to make hard choices, but now the candy coated shell of charisma has been shed in favor of blunt straight-forwardness. How will this personality change — coupled with his new dynamic with “carer” Clara — translate in a fluffier, stand-alone episode? Let’s find out!
Remember that chalk drawing from “Deep Breath” the Doctor abandoned? Looks like he remembered it and has continued whatever equations he was working on. Of course, we’re not privy to that information yet, but for now let’s assume it has something to do with Heaven/Paradise.
After the necessary setup to get Capaldi sorted out as Twelve, the show can finally get back to the fun of just traveling through time. The Doctor suggests Clara pick anywhere. She chooses Robin Hood, which the Doctor promptly puts down as a never existing. He even breaks out a book to show her and wow, Twelve has a much better grasp of how to utilize the near-magic powers of the TARDIS. Clara is undaunted however, so obviously Twelve can’t turn down the chance to prove himself right, so it’s off to medieval Nottingham. Where the TARDIS is immediately hit with an arrow from none other than the legendary outlaw himself.
The Doctor is confused by Robin Hood. He absolutely shouldn’t exist. Meanwhile Robin Hood is straight up like, “I like your box. It’s mine now.” Which isn’t exactly stealing from the rich to give to the poor but legends usually stray far from their source material…like a generations' long game of Telephone. Of course Clara takes this exact moment to appear in a beautiful red dress. I would like to take a moment to wonder if the costume designer and Moffat are putting Jenna Coleman in this much red this season on purpose and, if so, what could that symbolize? It’s probably just a reflection of her personality but hey, fan theories are half the fun!
Clara is instantly attracted to Robin Hood and the feeling appears to be mutual. This leaves the Doctor in the position of looking like a nonplussed father who has opened the door on prom night to discover his kid is dating a member of biker gang. Is a paternal role a step forward or backward from being the object of most companions' affection? I’m tentatively saying it’s a step forward as Twelve is being protective but not in a way that infantilizes Clara or negates her agency. He just hates being wrong.
After a bit more banter, during which Robin Hood channels his inner Westley from “The Princess Bride,” he engages the Doctor in a duel for possession of the TARDIS. On a log in the middle of the river. Because reasons. Twelve accepts but instead of fighting with a sword, he pulls out a spoon. Now this could be a reference to “The Matrix” or the viral video by Rejected from the early aughts. But most likely it’s a delightful throwaway moment to the Doctor’s seventh regeneration, who used to play the spoons.
Clara watches as the Doctor succeeds at pushing Robin from the log only to have him return the favor by sneaking up behind Twelve. Peter Capaldi looks good wet. Just sayin'.
Cut to a village in Nottingham. A Mr. Quail is trying to save his daughter from being taken hostage by the Sheriff’s men. It is not going well. Apparently they mean to use her for hard labor, and since this is a family-friendly show, I’ll take that statement at face value. With all the self-preservation of a martyr, Mr. Quail spits on the Sheriff and is immediately murdered for his trouble. The daughter is taken off by armed knights, screaming all the way. As you do.
Back in Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood has mysteriously given up his quest to steal the TARDIS and instead is introducing the Doctor and Clara to his Merry Men. Clara is freaking out, properly starstruck. Twelve is less enthusiastic…stealing blood samples, and hair, and shoes, from various legendary outlaws. He seems almost accusatory when the tests come back as human, as if these people are actively being obtuse to confound him. Maybe they are?
Clara however, is more than willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Especially since Robin is pinging on the “heartbroken rogue masking his pain” radar. She is completely enthralled by the idea of living out the adventures of the Merry Men in real time. Including the infamous archery tournament.
I know the show is running on a time table but things seem to be happening at an alarming pace. Before we know it, we’re at the contest to find the best archer in the land. But the tail end of it where only the Sheriff and Robin — incognito — remain. As the legends go, Robin handily wins but just when he’s about to accept the prize of a golden arrow, a NEW CHALLENGER APPEARS. Twelve puts an arrow right through Robin’s arrow which kicks off a thinly veiled metaphor as the two battle for archery supremacy. The Doctor’s prickly petulance at letting a perceived huckster get the best of him pays off when a knight is accidentally revealed to be a robot. Twelve is triumphant in victory. He knew something wasn’t right. He knows it all the way to the castle dungeon.
Capaldi is playing the Doctor as grizzled and short-tempered and it’s so different from all of the previous New Who playbook. Not everyone will like it, I’m sure. But personally I’m enjoying every cantankerous second.
Less enjoyable is the character development whiplash Clara is still experiencing. It’s probably growing pains but it’d be less obvious if they’d managed to lay any groundwork in the previous season. As it is, having her declare she knows Taekwondo while brandishing a spear is both jarring and unconvincing. Especially when said martial arts skills would’ve been useful in half a dozen previous adventures…or hell, even in this one. Her complete deficit of personality as Eleven’s companion is making her appear as if she is a whole new character and it’s weird. If they wanted to make her spunkier and more in charge, why not reset with a new version of her?
Case in point: this dungeon sequence. Robin and the Doctor continue their pissing match over who is the better legendary hero. Their one-upmanship becomes so bad that Clara is forced to step in as a combination mother/voice of reason. Where was this take-charge attitude the 800 times Matt Smith’s Doctor could’ve used a verbal slap in the face? Of course, Clara acting like a teacher with two crabby schoolchildren signals to the enemy that she is the leader. Again, while I adore this new direction of putting Clara on equal footing with the Doctor, it’s too much, too fast.
A quick interlude back to Sherwood Forest, where the Merry Men have stolen the golden arrow from the archery competition. Turns out, the Sheriff has only been stealing gold…he has no interest in precious jewels or silver. This is pertinent information to have since we cut immediately to the peasants slaving away in the underground chamber where the gold is being processed into computer parts. Because robots.
Hold that thought though, because Clara is being entertained by the Sheriff of Nottingham. He wants to know how the Doctor used his magic wand — aka the sonic screwdriver — to blow up the archery target. Instead Clara deflects, convincing him she has also seen the lights in the sky and the mechanical men they brought. The Sheriff is very to eager to share his story and monologues at length after Clara strokes his ego a bit. Turns out the Sheriff is going to use the mechanical men for world domination, because what else would a caricature of evil do with a serendipitous bounty of murderbots? When Clara reveals she lied to get the Sheriff to reveal his plan to her, he’s not even mad. In fact, he thinks it’s hot. Are we beyond the Mary Sue pale yet?
Look, this new Clara is a martial artist with the manipulation skills of a master intelligence agent. Why is she even hanging around with the Doctor?
Last week left Claire in quite the predicament. Having earned Dougal’s tentative trust, he was now willing to put her into more danger. But that also meant she’d finally get out of Castle Leoch and closer to the standing stones that might take her home. I assume she figures there are IKEA-like instructions carved somewhere to get the stones to work at will AND transport her the correct direction in time?
So it was with that level of optimism, Claire loaded up with Clan MacKenzie to go collect the “Rent.”
Over a gorgeous vista of a quiet lake between two distant peaks, our heroine recites a passage from “Absence, Hear Thou My Protestations” because reciting verse from a not-yet-born poet would render the time/space continuum asunder. For a moment I wonder why Claire has taken to speaking aloud, but oh it’s to give us an excuse to meet a new character.
Enter Budget Ben Franklin, the tax collector. Budget Ben — also known officially as Mr. Gowan — is also a fan of 17th century wordsmith John Donne. Sadly the real author of “Absence” will have to wait until the 21st century to reclaim his poem.
Okay, that was a Google rabbit hole I didn’t mean to trip and fall down. Focus.
The academic discussion is brought crashing down as the boys of Clan MacKenzie create a ruckus. In the downtime between tenants, they choose to wrestle. Scottish Santa is on hand to pass out hard liquor instead of gifts. And Budget Ben let’s Claire know they’re all goading one poor kid by implying he should engage in relations with this sister. Is her name Cersei?
Sensing an intellectual equal, Claire chooses to ignore the testosterone laden fisticuffs and follows the tax collector. He gives us some exposition about how the 18th-century Scottish IRS works but I can’t focus because all I want is for Claire to give me her coat! It’s gorgeous and if Starz has a lick of sense, they’ll be rolling out an official line of clothing and accessories post-haste.
Throughout Budget Ben’s explanation he is coughing so hard I assume he has consumption and should head for the Moulin Rouge but wait, no it’s just asthma. Claire gives him a pipe full of thorn apple to relive the symptoms, which obviously draws Dougal’s attention. And ire? He seems way too pissed off that she’d ease an old man’s discomfort. WHY DO YOU HATE CLAIRE FOR DOING THE JOB YOU KIDNAPPED HER TO DO?
On the road, Claire sticks by her new BFF Budget Ben because at least he’ll talk to her and seems to have a grasp on words with more than three syllables in them. He regales her with tales of how the highlands used to be more dangerous when he was a young lawyer. He craved adventure in a time when men were men. He actually says this, “When men were men,” because I guess daily fearing for your life from the British army is child’s play. So the longing for the legendary nonexistent ‘wild west’ of our ancestors is centuries old?
Oh my God, we’re camping again. This is too much. Claire is a saint. And a magician. It’s the only explanation for how she’s dressing herself, doing her hair, and staying clean without any help. It took Mrs. Fitz like an hour to get Claire presentable, but somehow she’s been using fashion witchcraft to change outfits alone.
Not that anyone notices how she looks. Claire was invited along but is now being shunned like she invited herself. God, this clique is worse than The Plastics. At least the Mean Girls have the decency to throw shade at you in a language you can understand, so you’ll be properly insulted. How is she supposed to know how much you hate her? Oh, I guess giving her the rabbit version of the Crypt Keeper to eat will suffice. At least Jamie took pity and gave her edible bread.
Look, I’m not gonna tell the MacKenzie’s how to haze their new toy, but if you suspect this chick of being a British spy, maybe don’t piss her off in a place where she could poison you all and no one would find you until spring?
Claire huffs away from the group because, honestly, her tenuous grasp on not just murdering them all in their sleep is slipping. Jamie follows her and I think he’s going to give her a pep talk on how to deal with men several hundred years before the advent of feminism. He tries but, bless his heart, fumbles at the one yard line. He basically says the men don’t trust her and why should they? He knows she obviously tried to run away. Jamie, honey…does Scottish nobility adhere to the Disney’s Beast school of “guest” definitions? Because if you’re going to invite her to be your “guest” at least have the common decency to break out the dancing silverware.
Sometime later, Dougal and Co. have entered Hobbiton. I mean, the first village from which they will collect rent. Claire is still hanging around Budget Ben because he’s the nearest thing to a gentlemen for 10,000 miles. It doesn’t take long for her to get bored. So she’s off to explore.
Tweedle Dumb — now properly ID’d as Angus but the moniker stays because honestly just look at him — is absolutely terrible at guard duty.
It doesn’t take Claire long to find her people. And by her people, I mean the village women. They aren’t exactly friendly, but after traveling for weeks with a posse of men carrying an undercurrent of menace and distrust, it’s a step up. At least Claire can relax her guard for a minute. Side note, why do 18th century dresses have more practical pocket than 85% of the clothes in my closet? This is an outrage!
TORONTO — Do you remember saying hello to people on the sidewalk? Whispering in a friend’s ear? Or perhaps you recall the art of purposefully ignoring someone in the hallway when you were in school? Thanks to the advent of smartphones, those key human interactions are slowly becoming extinct. During one of the first few scenes in Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children,” which premiered today at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, the camera slowly moves above a large High School corridor. Not only are the students walking heads down glued to their phones, but so are their teachers. It’s a stark reminder of how much has changed in our day-to-day world this century and a smart framing point for the audience. The question is whether Reitman has anything else to really say about it or if the screenplay's framework will let him.
LOS ANGELES - Stuart Murdoch, frontman and founder of Scotting band Belle & Sebastian, has been juggling a couple projects over the past year. First was his God Help the Girl music side project, then "God Help the Girl," his first film foray as writer and director, and then a brand new album for B&S.
It's the one in the middle, he said in our interview this week, that changed everything. He called the big-screen musical "a whole new thing, I won't ever go back."
"God Help the Girl" -- starring Emily Browning, Hannah Murray (Gilly on "Game of Thrones") and Olly Alexander -- has been on the festival circuit since January. It's set in Murdoch's homebase in Glasgow, with Browning starring as Eve, a young girl struggling with anorexia and other mental health issues, finding temporary relief in songwriting with two new friends. For any fan of Belle & Sebastian, the songs are definitively Murdoch, with the aesthetic, pacing and sound frequently playing like a visual companion or expansion on the band.
And if that's what audiences get from it, then sure, "Just let it be Belle & Sebastian: The Movie," Murdoch said. He said he didn't try at all to stray from his comfort zone, aesthetically, thought working in movies has got his mind whirling about other places to take his "Girl." "I can't imagine this on the stage," he said, though maybe a TV show would fit the bill, "a good half hour thing. 'Seinfeld' without the gags and add a song," he smiled.
Murdoch also gave an update on Belle & Sebastian's as-yet-untitled ninth album, which they recorded in Atlanta with producer Ben Allen, two firsts. The set has a much "open sound, forceful sound... we just left everything out on the field, to use a sporting analogy. A very soulful record."
He confirmed that fans can expect the album in January, and that it will have guest players and singers, including a duet with Dee Dee Penny from the Dum Dum Girls. He'll have his hands on the masters in two weeks, giving him plenty of time to promote what he calls a "Spring record."
Watch the rest of our chat above, for more of Murdoch's thoughts on the link between mental health and creativitiy, the influence of locale on creativity, the musicality of his cast and working out his own demons.
"God Help the Girl" went wide to theaters this weekend.
I came away from Dan Gilroy's "Nightcrawler" with a new level of respect for Jake Gyllenhaal. He's been taking a lot of interesting chances lately, having already decorated his career with a string of notable filmmaker collaborations, but now he seems to really be pushing himself by exploring unique characters that might scare off most stars. The physical specificity of his "End of Watch" cop, the obsession of his "Prisoners" detective, and now, the blind ambition of his "Nightcrawler" psycho.
VENICE — The 71st Venice Film Festival can hold its head high as having had its fair share of exceptional films in the 2014 Competition for Alexandre Desplat's jury to pick from. Going in, I was still kind of hoping for the Golden Lion for "Birdman," partly because it's excellent and partly because its excellence is spread across so many categories -- an amazing cast, especially Michael Keaton's lead turn, career-best direction from Alejandro G. Inarritu, cinematography that defies belief -- which would have made an all-rounder award feel fair. I also hoped for a big prize for "A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Contemplating Existence" and maybe nods for "In The Basement," "99 Homes" or "The Look Of Silence."
When I saw "Super" at the Toronto Film Festival's Midnight Madness presentation, I really liked it. I wrote an enthusiastic review for it. I'm not sure I would have predicted, though, that the director of that film would have the biggest movie of the year for 2014, though.
It is much easier for me to confidently predict that within the next few years, Jalmari Helander is going to be writing and directing giant Hollywood movies, and that he's going to be very, very good at it.
His first film, "Rare Exports," felt like the sort of movie that Joe Dante would have made in the 1980s, a film that takes this left-of-center approach to some high concept idea, a film that would have a passionate cult fan base. His new film, which premiered at tonight's Midnight Madness, is an action movie called "Big Game," and it feels more like the sort of movie that Steven Spielberg would have made in the 1980s, a film that aims right down the middle, a film that knocks that high concept right out of the park with style and clockwork precision.