Film Festivals

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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Force Majeure

There’s zero humor to be found in the plot description of Ruben Ostlund’s wickedly entertaining and painfully funny Force Majeure, scare little that indicates that the family-centric Swedish feature will be amusing (even a little bit, even at all) to its audience. After all, what about “family on ski vacation narrowly avoids tragedy and then struggles to deal with the fallout” sounds like it could be anything less than dark and dire? But Ostlund uses his dramatic-sounding story to balance an extremely relatable tale of domestic tensions and personal failures, all played for laughs that come so rapidly and wisely that viewers may find it difficult to catch their breath. Set at a fancy ski resort, the kind that is quite literally nestled into the crook of a mountain and the type that boasts any number of high-class restaurants and its very own nightclub, Force Majeure follows a young family struggling with totally normal issues, lingering resentments that are about to burst forth thanks to a most improbable event. While Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is utterly dedicated to her two kids – no mention is ever made of a career outside the home – her husband Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) is less interested in matters of domesticity. The vacation is meant as a way for the family to reconnect for five days, with Ebba making it clear to actual strangers that it’s also a time for Tomas to unplug from everything else (his constantly buzzing phone doesn’t make that an easy demand). Everything seems to be […]

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Hungry Hearts

The Toronto International Film Festival boasts an extremely varied line-up of programming, but its Midnight Madness section is one of its particular darlings and a favorite of its many attendees. Midnight Madness is just that — a section about madness, usually of the genre variety, and always the kind of fare that’s best seen in a packed theater in the wee hours — and when a film plays in MM, audiences have some idea of what they’re going to get (and are appropriately prepared for the lunacy). Saverio Costanzo’s Hungry Hearts is not part of this year’s Midnight Madness offerings, instead playing in the festival’s Special Presentations section, a relatively straightforward program that isn’t exactly the right fit for the wild and wooly feature. Costanzo’s film starts out sweetly enough, with a bathroom-set meet-cute that’s perhaps better classified as a meet-gross, as angel-faced Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) becomes trapped in a tiny restaurant bathroom with Jude (Adam Driver), who is apparently suffering from gastrointestinal distress. The pair is able to laugh heartily at their situation, and once a bewildered waiter forces the door open, it’s no surprise that the next scene sees Jude and Mina in bed together. Costanzo fast-forwards their relationship, and before audiences have a chance to settle into their apparently now-serious pairing, Mina is pregnant and they’ve gone and gotten married. It’s after this happy event – the kind of ending we’d find in a traditional romantic comedy that would perhaps play around with its own meet-gross – that […]

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The Humbling

Simon Axler (Al Pacino) is prone to theatrics, and while it would be easy to blame his life-long career as a reasonably well-regarded actor for such a personality defect (Simon certainly loves to do that), the most likely culprit for his over-the-top acting out is that he’s a selfish bastard who has never been called out on his crap. Sick over the apparent loss of his “craft” (either in terms of interest or actual ability, it’s never exactly clear), Simon attempts suicide by throwing himself off the stage during a performance. It’s the height of self-involved folly, and although it’s amusing and appropriately bizarre as it unfolds, it soon becomes just another example of Simon’s self-involved attitude and inability to differentiate between the real world and the make believe one. Shipped off to a high-class funny farm, Simon doesn’t learn a damn thing – shocking, right? – and is soon returned back to his big country house to bang around, mutter incoherently about his place in the world and attempt to romance the least appropriate person around. Based on Philip Roth’s novel of the same name, Barry Levinson’s The Humbling tracks Simon’s protracted downfall, but the film itself is such a tremendous letdown that Simon’s problems prove minuscule by comparison. 

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Breathe

When people talk about Blue Is The Warmest Color, they inevitably talk about its instantly infamous long-take sex scenes, pointing to the film’s literal physical rawness and body-centric honesty as being the essential hallmark of last year’s Film Most Likely to Make You Blush Awkwardly. Although Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or-winning feature certainly packed a big, sexy punch, underneath all that actual nakedness lurked emotional truths that extended far beyond its ill-fated love story. The film’s first act, a high school-set tale of tangled emotions and major metamorphoses, is chief among its greatest strengths, even if its relatively low-key charms were overlooked in favor of more full-bodied elements Melanie Laurent’s gorgeous, twisted and confident Breathe is a natural second act to the early moments of Kechiche’s time-spanning new classic, applying the same level of care and consideration to the hormonally driven closeness of yet another pair of wild teen girls. Laurent’s stars – relative newcomer Joséphine Japy and the luminous Lou de Laâge – aren’t engaged in a sexual relationship, but the instant physical and emotional bond between the two high school students occasionally dips into gray areas. Trapped in a friendship that steadily becomes something ugly and abusive, Laurent’s leading ladies both turn in stellar performances in the director’s exceedingly well-crafted tale of teen obsession. Breathe never gives way to trite or over-the-top turns, and the result is a measured and highly refined examination of the power of passion.

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Focus Features

The Toronto International Film Festival always comes crammed top to bottom with star power, lining up both big name stars and buzzy films that are already firmly in the “Oscar conversation” before the first curtain even goes up. But TIFF is still a film festival, and that means for every Benedict Cumberbatch-starring biopic, there’s a slightly smaller and definitely less well known feature just itching to bust out. This year’s festival is no different, and there are a hefty number of films and talent to keep your eyes peeled for, from total newbies to known names who are just on the cusp of something bigger. Who will emerge from this year’s TIFF a bonafide star? We’ve got some ideas.

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The Imitation Game

This Labor Day, we are laboring over exactly one thing: our schedule for this week’s Toronto International Film Festival. The annual Canadian embarrassment of riches kicks off this Thursday, and we’re in the middle of a mad dash to make sure our schedules and plans allow for viewings of everything we want to see. It’s not easy — in fact, with a slate as stacked as TIFF’s, it’s actually impossible — but we’re dead-set on cramming each day with top-tier talent, Oscar contenders and a few smaller features that just might break out once they unspool during Toronto’s best film event. But what are the true can’t-miss features? We think we may have some idea. What will be lining up for at this year’s TIFF? Why, the same stuff you should be lining up for, too.

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They say bartenders make great therapists, but does that still apply long after the bar has been sold and the bartender has moved on? Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) would probably say no after their couples therapist (Ted Danson) sends them on a very strange weekend retreat. The married couple arrives at the prescribed destination to find that the grounds — including a main house, guest house and numerous gardens — are theirs and theirs alone for the weekend. Well, kind of. It seems that part of the good doctor’s plan to help the couple work towards becoming better versions of themselves, and in the process become a better couple, involves a very unique way of facing and experiencing those better selves. The One I Love is about some very universal feelings and themes — ones we’ve all experienced in real life and seen portrayed onscreen — but it presents them in refreshingly original, engaging and entertaining ways. I’m being vague here for those that want to go in fresh, but fair warning, I’ll be revealing a little bit more after the jump. (Still nothing that legitimately counts as a spoiler though.)

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expedition ship

When a movie as magnificent as Expedition to the End of the World comes along, it’s hard to find the right words to describe it. Awesome comes to mind, but that sounds so broad. It’s a word that has had its meaning diluted through generations of it being used to merely mean “cool.” For most people, it’s not even a good enough word by itself anymore. First it was unnecessarily given more oomph with phrases like “totally awesome,” and now it’s part of the utterly ridiculous slang expression “awesome sauce.” But the true, original definition of the word is the most fit for a documentary that delivers us to the wonder of our planet’s destruction with such amazing and daunting splendor. And in a way, it’s probably appropriate to use a word that’s lost something in its evolution. The title of the film refers to both the edge of the earth as well as its demise, and yet the journey in question is hardly one of alarm. Just as the physical end of the world is an illusion, given that it’s not flat, the temporal terminus is just a point somewhere amidst the infinity. Expedition to the End of the World follows a group of explorers sailing toward the North Pole along the Northeast coast of Greenland, a trip made possible only recently thanks to global warming, in order to study the newly exposed environment on every level. Scientists aboard the schooner Activ include a geologist, a geochemist, a marine biologist, a […]

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Fantasia 2014

Beth (Aubrey Plaza) is dead, and her boyfriend Zach (Dane DeHaan) is all torn up about it. Sure they were having troubles and it looked like they might be heading for a split, but now that she’s gone — as in gone gone — he’s finding it difficult to think about anything else as he sinks into his pit of despair. Hoping for company with like-minded people he takes to spending time with Beth’s equally distraught parents, but just a few days later they shut him out of their lives. Distraught and driven for similarly bereft companionship he heads to their house only to glimpse something odd through a window. Beth is still alive. Kind of. She’s returned from the dead, and overcome with joyful confusion her parents are hiding her from the world. Beth’s memory isn’t all that great — she’s really stressed about a test she has tomorrow and has no idea that she’s dead — but Zach isn’t bout to turn his back on this second chance at a struggling relationship. Every couple hits some bumps in the road right? He soon discovers though that some love stories are better off dead.

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Fantasia 2014

Follow all of our Fantasia International Film Festival 2014 coverage here. Mike (Aaron Staton) and his wife Wit (Wrenn Schmidt) had planned a quiet camping trip, just the two of them, but his brother Sean (Pablo Schreiber) has had a rough time since returning from Afghanistan so they invite him along. The brothers turn it into a hunting trip and a minor family reunion as they reminisce over events from their childhood, but all is not right and relaxed with the trio. Sean is living off the grid while Mike is handcuffed to it — he’s on his cell phone more than he’s on his wife — and their differences couldn’t be clearer. Wit meanwhile fears she’s drifting away from her husband due to his inattentiveness and hey look Sean sure does seem to be more understanding doesn’t he? Luckily they wake up the next morning with far more pressing matters. Someone has stolen their belongings and drawn Xs on their foreheads while they slept. Their clothes, supplies, guns and water are all gone. Inexplicably, Sean’s dog is missing too along with all but the floor of the tent that Mike and Wit were sleeping in. All of it taken without any of the three waking up. You saw where I said the tent they were sleeping in is gone too right? Barefoot, thirsty and confused they head into the woods in search of safety. Preservation shows promise in its opening fifteen minutes — time spent establishing characters and setting up a […]

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Fantasia 2014

Fantasia International Film Festival 2014 runs July 17 to August 6. Follow all of our coverage here. The Taiga Cordillera is a big and lonely place along the top half of Canada. The northernmost part is even sparser with a population that caps off under a hundred souls, but it’s here where perhaps the greatest archaeological find of the century has been discovered. At least that’s what the on-site team believes and the reason why Peter Olsen (Michael Dickson) has arrived at this godforsaken place by helicopter. They’ve uncovered what looks to be the top of a stone monument belonging to a culture with no previous record of being in this part of the world. Olsen and the team debate the validity of the find, play poker and make plans for the fame in their future, but their celebration is short-lived. The group’s pet cat is murdered and splayed out like a sacrifice before the stone, they lose radio contact with civilization and the local workers, superstitious and terrified, flee into the wintry darkness towards guaranteed death. Madness and mistrust infect the remaining men, and then? Then things go really bad. Black Mountain Side is a beautifully-shot, creepy love letter to John Carpenter’s The Thing that finds its own identity amid the paranoia and bloodletting. Its budgetary limitations occasionally squelch its ambitions, but the terror remains atmospheric and effective to the final moments.

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Fantasia 2014

Fantasia International Film Festival 2014 runs July 17 to August 6. Follow all of our coverage here. Lou Garou (Leo Fafard) is a bad cop. He’s not stealing evidence, abusing suspects’ rights or behaving like a character in a ’70s-style police corruption tale — he’s just a shitty cop. Constantly late for work, frequently drunk and disinterested in actually doing his job, Lou is simply not a good policeman. At least not until a late-night disturbance call results in him being attacked and changed in a very hairy way. He wakes up with a pentagram carved in his chest, razor-resistant stubble and an adverse reaction to the moon. What I’m saying is he’s been turned into a werewolf by a devilish cult for nefarious purposes! What those robe-wearing bastards couldn’t have predicted though is that lycanthropy plus copious amounts of alcohol equals one dedicated and highly effective police officer. (In their defense though no one saw that coming.) Now Lou is cleaning up Woodhaven one armed robber, drug dealer and cult member at a time. WolfCop is the kind of idea that makes you pause for the briefest second before smiling, nodding your head and saying “Sure, why not?” But while there are moments and sequences throughout the film’s 79-minute run-time that fully embrace and live up to that premise there are many, many more that fall flat or feel rushed.

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Fantasia 2014

Fantasia International Film Festival 2014 runs July 17 to August 6. Follow all of our coverage here. We’ve all been there. Up late perusing Craigslist you come across a request for something you’re pretty sure you can do for the money being offered, but when you actually get there you realize that “eating spotted dick” isn’t always a reference to pudding. The point is the internet is a scary place and in need of better regulation. Aaron (Patrick Brice) appears to be learning this the hard way when he responds to an ad looking for a videographer for a day’s shoot at a semi-remote cabin. He arrives and meets the man who hired him, Josef (Mark Duplass), who proceeds to explain the job. Josef has cancer, and with a baby on the way (and inspired by Michael Keaton in My Life) he wants to record a day with himself that can be shared with the child after he’s gone. Seems easy enough, but Aaron immediately senses something is a bit off with Josef. And you will too. Creep is a miraculous mash-up of found footage and mumblecore that by all rights should be the most unappealing thing caught on video since, well, pick just about anything involving a Kardashian. Instead it’s a smart and charismatic film that walks a fine line between thriller and comedy by constantly shifting and subverting expectations. Our experience with the genre tells us the film is about to zig but Duplass and Brice zag instead. It’s a wonderfully unsettling experience that you […]

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Fantasia 2014

Fantasia International Film Festival 2014 runs July 17 to August 6. Follow all of our coverage here. Once upon a time the Filipino film industry was second only to Hollywood in the number of films they released per year. That time was the ’70s and ’80s, but the odds are slim that you can even name a single locally-produced movie during that period. Pre and post Apocalypse Now the Philippines was the go-to locale for film productions looking for cheap crews, crazy stuntmen and geography that included everything from gorgeous jungles to bustling slums, but while foreign visitors churned out memorable features of varied quality local filmmakers struggled to make their mark beyond their own borders. That changed in 1981 with a little film called For Y’ur Height Only and its even smaller star, Weng Weng. A James Bond spoof ostensibly for kids, the lead was a 2’9″ man trained in karate and the art of wooing the ladies, and it turned Weng into a sensation… for a while. He made millions for his producers and was the face of Filipino cinema, but he seemingly vanished as quickly as he had appeared. What happened to him, where had he come from, and how many of the stories about him — he was a stand-up comedian, a secret agent, an airport greeter — contained anything resembling the truth? Australian film-lover and video store-owner Andrew Leavold needed answers to these questions and set off on a seven year journey to find them, a journey captured in […]

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Fantasia 2014

Fantasia International Film Festival 2014 runs July 17 to August 6. Follow all of our coverage here. Amelia Brooks (Beth Grant) is gone. Presumed dead, the accomplished swimmer went missing on a dive in the very lake she had been campaigning to preserve in her final years. Her three adult daughters arrive at their childhood home near the water to reminisce, console each other and make plans for their mother’s belongings, but their time together soon takes an unsettling turn. Dead birds begin appearing on their doorstep, an incident with a camera suggests a possible intruder and the local legend of Spirit Lake — a lake that reportedly has yet to reveal its bottom — begins to fill their imagination. Long ago seven sisters walked the water’s shore only to drown, one by one, and like the Pleiades of Greek mythology they’ve come to symbolize a sad state of grace that’s eternally out of reach. Are the legendary sisters reaching out for fresh blood? Has their mother returned from her watery grave? Or is something all together different haunting their waking hours? The Midnight Swim creates an ethereal state of unease in its atmosphere and characters, but more than just an unsettling thriller the film captures a sisterly slice of life with an effective ease. If only the film’s unnecessary insistence on a found footage-ish format wasn’t so damn distracting.

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review kill team

Editor’s note: This is a rerun of a review that was originally published during the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. The Kill Team is the most daring documentary of the year so far. The production did not involve traversing the Pacific Ocean on a raft or dodging government censors, but filmmaker Dan Krauss’s military exposé is not that kind of audacious. Rather, this is an example of real journalistic bravery, both in its content and its composition. Its subject matter is among the most challenging in recent memory, the case of the Maywand District murders. At least three innocent Afghan civilians were killed by U.S. Army soldiers in early 2010, to be charged later that year. To even bring this story to the screen takes a certain amount of chutzpah. Yet the daring of The Kill Team goes beyond the simple presentation of this tragedy. Krauss hides nothing, nor does he get lost in horrifying images and testimonials. This is not a film about the sensational aspects of evil, the unapproachable sociopathy of a small number of soldiers. Rather, Krauss drives right into the ethical conundrum at the center of the murders, the inherent violence of not only the war in Afghanistan but of modern warfare in general. He doesn’t offer any answers. This is crucial. The Kill Team respects its audience, trusting us to rise to the occasion of witnessing these events, but it does not tell us which conclusions to draw.

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Fantasia 2014

Fantasia International Film Festival 2014 runs July 17 to August 6. Follow all of our coverage here. The Daybreakers are a group of five men whose rap sheets include murder, armed robbery, assault and worse, but after trying their hand at kidnapping a three year old boy only to see the ransom drop go bust they decide to add something new to their repertoire — fatherhood. They raise the boy, now named Hwayi (Yeo Jin-gu), as their own. It’s a harsh childhood as five sociopathic fathers is no replacement for the love of a real parent, but he learns kindness and affection from his surrogate mother, Yeong-joo (Lim Ji-eun), who’s also a long-term captive of the men. Hwayi is raised to fear and respect his fathers, but they’re also capable of bonding with the boy in an attempt to shape him into one of them. Over the years they teach him their various specialties until finally, twelve years after stealing him from his parents, they take him on a job and pressure him to make his first kill. Already affected by being forced to murder someone, Hwayi is thrown for a far bigger loop when he discovers the identity of the victim and the details of his own existence. Hwayi: A Monster Boy is a rare example — and I don’t say this lightly — of nearly perfect genre cinema. Writer/director Jang Joon-hwan‘s long-awaited follow-up to 2003’s Save the Green Planet is a deft and bloody melange of action, suspense, comedy, heart, drama and humanity […]

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THE RUN

Fantasia International Film Festival 2014 runs July 17 to August 6. Follow all of our coverage here. Khaliff (Aaron Aziz) has returned to his home village after seven years away with the military. It’s no pleasant homecoming though as he arrives after his father is murdered by a group of thugs and his sister has been kidnapped. What’s an angry young man with elite military training to do? He begins investigating both crimes — a step the local authorities seem unwilling to take — and discovers a world of small town corruption, organized crime and sex slavery. With the help of a peppy cab driver and the woman Khaliff loved and left behind seven years ago he goes looking for his sister with both fists (and feet) flying. It’s never a good sign when you watch an action movie and think to yourself, with no exaggeration, “I could do that.” This is especially the case if you’re a movie blogger. The new Malaysian film, The Run (aka Lari), is just such an example though as it’s an action film with utterly unimpressive action. This leaves a familiar and simple plot to hold the movie up, but the execution there is equally inept.

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published: 12.19.2014
A-
published: 12.18.2014
C-
published: 12.17.2014
B+


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