Film Festivals

The Judge

It’s easy enough to imagine the pitch meeting that led to the creation of David Dobkin’s The Judge: simply picture someone, anyone, it doesn’t matter who, standing in front of a loose assembly of Hollywood brass, spouting off something like, “he’s a judge, but he’s about to be on trial.” You can almost hear the sighs. “But Robert Downey, Jr. wants to star in it.” Cue clapping, the signing of a budget (is this how Hollywood pitch meetings go? no, but go with it) and lots of big smiles. The Judge! He’s a judge, but he’s about to be on trial! With Robert Downey, Jr.! It’s a can’t-miss! Dobkin’s film certainly has good intentions, shoehorning in an emotional redemption story alongside a standard “hey, maybe you really can go home again” tale and the kind of legal procedural that would only ever play out on the big screen, but the results are less than impressive. Fresh off a slowly diminishing streak of wacky comedies like Wedding Crashers, The Change-Up and Fred Claus, Dobkin attempts to go for something approaching sincerity and drama with The Judge, yet he can’t quite capture the right tone, and the film wings between light dramedy and genuinely upsetting family drama. A consistent interest in picking the most obvious choice possible at nearly every turn ultimately proves to be the film’s most egregious downfall. 

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Ben Affleck in Gone Girl

Doesn’t it feel like we just finished up covering the Toronto International Film Festival and Fantastic Fest? Well, it should, because we did, but that’s festival season for you, and now we’ve got a whole other festival (in a whole other city) to get to work on. This year’s New York Film Festival (the fifty-second!) kicks off later tonight with the world premiere of David Fincher‘s Gone Girl (side note: we cannot wait), followed by a hefty number of hyped and highly anticipated features. This year’s festival boasts a solid mix of festival favorites — Whiplash! Pasolini! – and some brand new stuff that’s yet to rock audiences — Inherent Vice! CitizenFour! – all combining into one hell of a fun slate that should quite easily send its attendees into Oscar time feeling quite prepared. Festival season is here, and here’s what we can’t wait to see at this year’s NYFF.

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Tracks

Editor’s note: This review was originally published on September 12, 2013 as part of our TIFF 2013 coverage. Robyn Davidson tells it plain – “I just want to be by myself” – but the budding nomad’s idea of solitary experience is an extreme one. Based on the true-life tale of Australian native Davidson, Tracks stars Mia Wasikowska as Davidson, who embarked on an extraordinary journey in 1977 that took her from Alice Springs (in the center of the continent) west to the Indian Ocean. On foot. It is a two thousand mile journey that, at best, can take six months. For someone who wants to be alone, it’s a hell of a way to do it. Robyn doesn’t do so well with people – at one point, she and her beloved dog Diggity literally hide behind her squatted home in an attempt to avoid contact with a pack of Robyn’s friends that she actually seems to like – so it’s not surprising that even though her trip across the desert is done with express purpose of being alone, Robyn eventually discovers that her desire to be solitary isn’t the safest thing for her (or, honestly, anyone).

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This Is Where I Leave You

Editor’s note: This review was originally published on September 7, 2014 as part of our TIFF 2014 coverage. We know Judd Altman. He’s the guy in the movie that looks and acts like he has it all figured out, but who’s about to find out – quite suddenly, in fact, and by way of some sort of dramatic event that would never happen quite that way in real life – that nothing is actually as it seems. We know Judd Altman. We’ve seen Judd Altman plenty of times before. But is there anything new to this particular Judd Altman? Based on Jonathan Tropper’s novel of the same name, Shawn Levy’s This Is Where I Leave You explores what happens to Judd (Jason Bateman) after the rug is pulled, spectacularly and swiftly, out from underneath him. But Levy’s overstuffed and unfocused feature is unable to give Judd the attention he deserves – or, at least the attention necessary to really engage us in his plight – and is instead stuck telling stories about all the Altmans as they handle tragedy (big and small) together. When we first meet Judd, he’s just about to discover that his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) is cheating on him with his sleazeball boss, and has been for quite some time. Wade Beaufort (Dax Shepard) is a shock jock deejay (his show, which is also technically Judd’s show, is called “Man Up,” and it involves him yelling a lot about what things men should do, which apparently […]

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The Look of Silence

Given the enormity of the festival, with all its glitz and glamour and galas, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the Toronto International Film Festival is one of the premier destinations for the top documentaries of the year. Curated by Thom Powers and his team, the selection here definitely leans towards the cinematic, where a compelling narrative and well-assembled, cohesive film is often as important as any journalistic intent of the work. With dozens of films to choose from, along several nonfiction titles that play outside the already impressive TIFF Docs slate, this year once again reestablishes the festival as the place to see some of the finest documentaries from around the world. Of the dozen-and-a-half selections I screened this year, here are the six best documentaries of TIFF ’14: The Look of Silence This quiet, contemplative film at times belies the sheer enormity of its accomplishment. Joshua Oppenheimer and his team of collaborators (often simply cited as “Anonymous”) follow on the work done for The Act of Killing with a penetrating examination of the ramifications of war. It follows Adi, an ophthalmologist who helps his clients see, both literally and metaphorically, as he gently but persistently quizzes several of them about the death of his brother. Tying together footage shot over almost a decade, the film confronts the very act of memory and the stories we tell about ourselves and our past. Much of its power comes from the contrast to the previous film — the brash and colorful extravagance of The Act of Killing gives way […]

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Focus Features

This year’s Toronto International Film Festival boasted dozens upon dozens of films to sate the cinema-hungry masses, and we’re willing to bet that we saw…well, at least a hearty fraction of them. The festival has just wrapped up, and as we all attempt to recover from ten-plus days of universally excellent film-going, it only seems appropriate to revisit our favorite films of the festival. These are the titles that stuck with us, the ones we recommended to anyone who would listen, the ones we couldn’t quite shake, a big mix of the funny and the fantastic, the sad and the silly, the wild and the weird. Are these the best films of TIFF? We certainly think so.

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The Keeping Room

“War is cruelty,” Daniel Barber‘s The Keeping Room reminds us as the Civil War-set film begins to unspool, thanks to a pre-credits coda that shares one of Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman’s most memorable quotes about war in general and the American Civil War specifically. (Sherman is also credited for such bangers as “war is a terrible thing!” and “if they want eternal war, well and good” and yes, even the inimitable “war is hell” — for a lauded general, Sherman sure hated war a lot.) War is indeed cruelty, and although Barber drives that point home (again and again), The Keeping Room does it with grace, care and an appealing spirit that place it a cut above other war-set films that don’t involve a battle field-set rager. Penned by Julia Hart (the film is the screenwriter’s first feature, and what a fine start it is), The Keeping Room chronicles what happens to people during war — specifically, female people — when their lives are irrevocably changed even if they don’t actually go into battle. They’re still at war, even if they’re not expected to literally fight alongside their countrymates. It’s just a different kind of war. Left alone on their farm (the film only specifies that it’s set somewhere in “the American South”), sisters Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) are forced to fend for themselves alongside their single slave Mad (Muna Otaru). Survival isn’t easy, and the women spend the majority of their time hunting and gathering food, sitting morosely and trying to keep a creeping fear at bay. […]

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Cake

Claire Simmons (Jennifer Aniston) is in pain. Chronic pain, actually, the kind she tries to relieve by attending a support group for women who live with the same kind of chronic pain. Claire Simmons has been violently hurt in the past. Does the support group help? Not really. They’re much more concerned with the recent death of Nina (Anna Kendrick), a favorite of the group who recently killed herself in an excessively grim manner. We learn all this within the opening seconds of Daniel Barnz‘s Cake, not because of a clever script or neat direction, or because Aniston or anyone else in her group are able to convey what’s going on with snappy conversation or finely tuned physical expression, but because it is all handed to us without question. We know Claire is in pain because she moves stiffly, we know it’s the result of an accident because she’s covered in scars, we know that Nina is dead because a giant portrait of her is ringed by heartbroken women. We even know that Claire is in a support group for women with chronic pain, because a large chalkboard reads “WOMEN’S CHRONIC PAIN SUPPORT GROUP.” Even from its first moments, Barnz’s film doesn’t trust its audience to unravel his predictable, rote film for themselves. It will only get worse.

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Love & Mercy

“Oh, the loneliness in this world / Well, it’s just not fair” “Lonely. Scared. Frightened.” If we take Bill Pohlad’s impressive Love & Mercy at face value – which is difficult to do with any biopic, particularly ones that are as complicated and complex as Pohlad’s feature – Beach Boy Brian Wilson wrote both of those lines during a fraught time in his life. The first lyric is taken from his song “Love And Mercy,” from which Pohlad’s film (obviously) takes its name, the second is scribbled on a note early in the feature. Both lines reflect the pain Wilson felt throughout his life, an emotional and mental ailing that eventually pushed the musical genius into a lifestyle that approached that of a recluse, a captive and a victim. The story of the Beach Boys proper has been put to the screen before, but Pohlad’s film (beautifully scripted by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner) is concerned with Wilson, the unofficial leader of the band and its primary songwriter during its most successful years. Wilson, for all his success and genius (and a lot of that is on display in the film, an addition that will please Wilson’s fans and help clarify the depth of his talent to viewers who are perhaps not familiar with him), has long suffered from anxiety attacks and auditory hallucinations (he hears voices, to put it crassly), and Pohlad’s film traces the beginning of those issues up through their unexpected consequences with care and respect. […]

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99 Homes

“It’s not your home anymore.” Director Ramin Bahrani has long been preoccupied with portraying the price of the American dream on the big screen – the theme is obvious in both At Any Price and Man Push Cart – but his 99 Homes finally fully capitalizes on that obsession to great effect. This time around, Bahrani is concerned with the bursting of the mortgage bubble, turning his attention to the swamplands of Florida, where regular people (oh, hey, just like Andrew Garfield‘s Dennis Nash) are desperately trying to hold on to their family homes, even as opportunists like Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) use their misfortune to fuel their own businesses. Dennis is already desperate when the film opens, mere days away from losing the Nash family home, effectively sealing that his inability to pay the bills has ruined his life, his young son Connor’s (Noah Lomax) life and even his mother Lynn’s (Laura Dern) life. Three generations of Nash are relying on Dennis, and he’s about to let down every single one (it must be noted that, while Bahrani is apparently intent on pushing the generational aspect of the film, Dern is underused and casting a mother as the sole female protagonist doesn’t make much sense). Dennis loses the house — Connor loses the house, Lynn loses the house — and a seemingly normal day is destroyed by the arrival of real estate agent Rick (who represents the various banks who own scads of unpaid mortgages), a pair of surly cops and a ragtag […]

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Reese With Her Spoon Going Wild

“Strayed” isn’t really Cheryl Strayed’s last name. The author and subject of “Wild” was originally born Cheryl Nyland, and eventually decided to change her surname after years of pain and a particularly wrenching divorce – and, if the movie adaptation of her novel is to believed, it was literally plucked out of the dictionary after careful consideration – into something that echoed, well, how she had strayed from her path, and possibly her wish to get back on track. When we first meet Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) in Jean-Marc Vallee’s lovingly crafted Wild, she’s bloody and bruised and gasping, perched high atop a mountain, desperately pulling off her too-tight hiking boots to reveal a blood-soaked sock and a big toe that’s in bad shape. Terrified and alone, Cheryl yanks loose a cracked toenail, practically spits in pain and jostles loose a single boot, which tumbles down the rocky incline, never to be seen again. Cheryl’s next move is perhaps a bad one: she stands, screams and chucks her other boot after it. How do you get back on track after that? You stand and you yell and you chuck your other boot. And then you keep walking.

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Capitalism Michael Moore

In our review for Fed Up, a documentary on the American obesity epidemic, I recommend that it be distributed free, at least to the poor. “Who wants to pay $10 or more to watch a bunch of talking heads make claims about how the food industry and government have made the problem even worse over the years?” I wondered. “This shouldn’t be the content of a theatrical release.” Now the film is on DVD and Blu-ray and through digital outlets, and we do think it’s worth seeing. But like many issue films of today, this is not a movie so much as it’s a necessary news report — the kind of thing that the networks would air to large audiences (albeit ones with much fewer choices in TV channels and other media options) in the ’60s and ’70s. Presumably, Michael Moore would agree with the stance on such a doc. He has long been arguing the case for more cinematic nonfiction films in theaters and on Oscar ballots. This week, while being honored at the Toronto International Film Festival with a 25th anniversary screening of Roger & Me, Moore spoke out on the need for docs to be more entertaining. The Guardian quotes him as saying, “People want to go home and have sex after your movie. Don’t make them feel ‘Urggggghhhh’.” In his speech, a keynote for the TIFF doc conference, he urged the filmmakers who are primarily lecturing viewers with their docs to quit the business and become teachers, because […]

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The Last 5 Years

Hey, did you know that Anna Kendrick can sing and act? Did you know she’s pretty good at both on their own, but extremely good at doing them together? Have you missed the slow revival of the movie musical? You can correct that now, thanks to Richard LaGravenese‘s The Last 5 Years, a long-in-the-making big screen version of Jason Robert Brown‘s beloved off-Broadway musical of the same name, a cinematic take on a work originally meant strictly for the stage, and one that succeeds primarily because Kendrick clearly wants it to so damn badly. The film is a two-hander to a tee — the opening credits only list Kendrick and her co-star Jeremy Jordan, and good luck even remembering the names of the random supporting characters who so briefly flit across the screens with little regularity — and is entirely dedicated to a romance we know is going to fail, if only because the first sequence tells us plainly that this ship has sailed. But LaGravenese has good material to work with (or, at least, good enough), including vast reserves of catchy songwriting and a crafty narrative conceit that drives things along, and The Last 5 Years is a modest success and a fine approximation of what works so well on the stage. And, again, it stars Anna Kendrick, who knows how to do this stuff with one hand tied behind her back.

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Focus Features

It’s easy enough to get an audience worked up during the end of an inspirational biopic – that’s basically the point of most films in the genre – but James Marsh’s moving and magical The Theory of Everything does a neat trick: it starts the waterworks flowing early. They never really abate. Marsh’s take on beloved thinker Stephen Hawking is an intensely, richly emotional feature that boasts big, star-making performances by both its very talented leads and a narrative that doesn’t flinch when it comes time to get down to the dirty stuff. Ostensibly a feature about Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), The Theory of Everything also gorgeously captures the story of Stephen and his first wife, Jane Hawking (Felicity Jones), gracefully winding the two tales into one. Stephen and Jane are initially attracted by virtue of the most basic of human instincts: they like the look of each other. Eventually, however, the seemingly different pair discovers that their disparate fields of study (Jane’s a poetry buff with her own designs on getting a PhD) surprisingly intersect, and even what later becomes a long-standing debate about the existence of God helps bond the pair together. It’s still early days in their pairing when Stephen falls ill and the disease wreaking havoc on his body finally reveals itself, but even it proves to be no match for the pure force of Jane’s affection and dedication.

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The Imitation Game

“Pay attention,” Alan Turing implores to a dazed police officer (and, quite frankly, to a likely dazed audience, who don’t understand why a film about World War II code breaking kicks off in 1951 England). Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, the long-in-the-making biopic about forward-thinking computer genius and prodigious cryptographer Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a mostly paint by the numbers affair, lifted by consistently compelling performances and the kind of dramatic narrative that could only happen in the real (and very cruel) world. Adapted by screenwriter Graham Moore from Andrew Hodges’ book “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” The Imitation Game leads us through the highlights (and the horrifying lowlights) of Turing’s life, principally focused on his time working for the British government, assigned to crack the German Enigma code during the height of WWII. Turing was, to put it extremely simply, a complicated fellow – highly intelligent, socially awkward, and mostly interested in being alone – and Cumberbatch captures his various moods and modes with ease. The Imitation Game may be a touch more neat and nifty than it should be, but Cumberbatch’s work is enough to mark it as something very special indeed.

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Nick Broomfield and Pam Brooks in Tales of the Grim Sleeper

I used to offer a disclaimer when recommending Nick Broomfield documentaries, noting that I believe him to be a genius filmmaker but acknowledge that he’s also an acquired taste. This isn’t something I need to put out there for Tales of the Grim Sleeper. Not since his early days (not counting his brief stint with docu-drama last decade) has he been so reserved with his documentary work. It’s probably his most accessible in his four-decade career. It’s also one of his best. While yet another investigatory feature, in which he’s again on screen a whole lot, his personality this time is not overbearing on the subject matter. He surely realized that this isn’t a tabloid story and therefore doesn’t welcome the faux-naive tabloid character that he plays in such docs as Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, Kurt & Courtney and his previous release, the hugely disappointing Sarah Palin: You Betcha. Tales is about a serial killer you’ve probably never heard of, nicknamed the Grim Sleeper by the media because of a presumed hiatus he took from killing women between the late-1980s and the 2000s. In 2010, Lonnie Franklin Jr. was arrested and charged with the attributed murders of 10 women in South Central Los Angeles over a 25 year period, and it’s thought that he may have actually taken the lives of more than 100. READ MORE AT NONFICS

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Nightcrawler Movie

Someone will diagnose Louis Bloom soon enough, perhaps earmarking him as a straightforward sociopath, or pointing to certain tendencies that smack of Asperger’s Syndrome, or maybe he’ll even be written off of as someone with daddy issues, or mommy issues, or as someone just needs a hug. It doesn’t matter. Louis Bloom is a monster ripped from the pages of some modern fairy tale and splashed on to the big screen for audiences to forever delight in, even as he disgusts them. He’s an anti-hero for the ages, and the vessel that delivers him is a classic in the making. In Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut Nightcrawler, the screenwriter of such varied fare as The Fall and The Bourne Legacy takes on Los Angeles’ seedy underbelly with a fresh eye and a daring story, setting Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis “Lou” Bloom, a petty thief in need of a new career path. Lou is a lot of things: skinny, underfed, tired, resourceful, a fast talker, a quick study, a con man, a criminal and someone entirely without boundaries. Free of a social filter, Lou moves through the world in a different way than most people, and Gyllenhaal fully inhabits the role, slipping inside Lou seamlessly. It would be entirely terrifying if it weren’t so damn good.

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While We

Adulthood is not the answer. Director Noah Baumbach has long played with characters who exhibit little interest or ability to just plain grow up, from the arrested development of the college grads in Kicking and Screaming, to the unrestrained emotion of Roger Greenberg in his Greenberg, to the charming immaturity of Frances Ha, but that doesn’t mean that taking on the trappings of adulthood will suddenly solve the issues of Baumbach’s characters. Being a grown up is just as impossible as refusing to do so, there are just better apartments to act out your angst in. Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia don’t really fit in with their friends anymore – even their best friends Marina (Maria Dizzia) and Fletcher (Adam Horowitz, yes, Ad-Rock) – because everyone around them has gone baby-mad and the pair remains childless. It’s not for lack of trying, however, and it soon becomes apparent that Josh and Cornelia attempted to expand their family before, and it didn’t work out (like, really didn’t work out). Distraught from that portion of their lives, and more than a bit flummoxed by the baby brains all their friends seem to exhibit, the couple decides babies aren’t for them. So where do they fit?

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The Equalizer

Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer would like you to believe that it’s a different kind of action film – specifically, a different kind of “wow, Denzel Washington really likes offing people” action film – as it opens in an unexpected fashion: with a Mark Twain quote and approximately forty-five minutes of routine-filled inaction that seems to belong to another movie entirely. By the time Fuqua and Washington get to the “offing people” section of the feature (rest assured, as pleasingly boring as the first act of The Equalizer may be, it’s all just lulling build-up to the blood-and-bullets spectacular that dominates its later sections), the film fully transitions from a cerebral send-up of action films to something so gory and insane that it practically demands that its audience stand up and cheer. They might not be clapping for the right reasons, however.

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Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria

A searing satire of an antiseptic Hollywood system, a meta-commentary on “Celebrity” culture, a melancholic evocation on the impermanence of youth, a pensive portrait of clandestine love, Clouds of Sils Maria is all of this and more. And yet, to simplify or contextualize its intelligence into precise, aphoristic themes feels wildly inappropriate. Olivier Assayas’ latest masterwork transcends superlatives – too daring and damning to be labeled. Its beauty is ineffable. Seamlessly divided into two chapters (plus an epilogue), the film opens with the passing of Wilhelm Melchior, a lauded writer/director responsible for jumpstarting the career of Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche). Twenty years since playing the lead in Melchior’s beloved lesbian drama “Maloja Snake,” Maria is headed to the Alps to pay her respects at a posthumous retrospective. At her side is Valentine (Kristen Stewart), Maria’s devout personal assistant responsible for essentially everything in her life. Once the initial pretenses of the festival subside – the press, the photo shoots, the pseudo sentimentality – Assayas’ introduces his first question: how are we supposed to behave in the wake of death? Maria is understandably distraught upon hearing the news of Melchior’s death – so much so that she’d rather not attend the “posthumous homage” of his work. In the age of Twitter and the twenty-four-hour news cycle, how we grieve, publicly and privately, seems to be actively changing. When someone we’ve known and loved (or even someone we never met, but knew of) ceases to inhabit the same space we do, how do we […]

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published: 11.21.2014
D
published: 11.21.2014
B+
published: 11.19.2014
C+
published: 11.19.2014
B-, C


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