TIFF

Philomena

Editor’s note: Our review of Philomena originally ran during this year’s TIFF, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in limited theatrical release today. In a strictly paint-by-numbers world, Stephen Frears’ Philomena is one hell of a prestige picture bound for awards season glory – who could possibly balk at a Judi Dench-starring true-life tale of a woman’s decades-long quest to find the baby who was taken from her by the evil Irish Magdalene laundries? – but the final execution of the film is so contrived and unoriginal that it all but begs for an immediate remake that possesses even a drop more sensitivity. Even with the essential inclusion of Steve Coogan (who also helped script the film) as a smirking journalist on the outs with the entire world, Philomena never fully embraces either its humor or its drama. Uneven and weirdly insensitive, Philomena is unable to combine its many elements into something rich, despite prime subject matter. The film centers on the heartbreaking real life story of Philomena Lee (Dench), an Irishwoman who was forced to give up her first child while toiling in a Magdalene laundry, a church-run home for “fallen women” who got pregnant out of wedlock. (The laundries were indeed real and, shockingly enough, the last Irish one closed only in 1996.) Frears effectively uses flashbacks to mince together the “present day” story of a still-haunted Philomena and the “past” portion that focuses on a stellar Sophia Kennedy Clark as a young Philomena just […]

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3021398-slide-s-1-body-mind-change

Even if you love the work of “venereal horror” king David Cronenberg as much as we do, it’s unlikely you’ve ever said to yourself that you’d like to live inside the dark world of beta tape-eating chest cavities, grotesque human-to-fly transformations, and telekenesis-powered head explosions. But that’s exactly what the Toronto International Film Festival, the Canadian Film Centre, and installation artist/self-proclaimed “experience designer” Lance Weiler have teamed up to do. In connection with TIFF’s “David Cronenberg: Evolution” exhibit running through January, Weiler’s “Body/Mind/Change” seeks to recreate for the intrepid fan the experience of living inside a Cronenberg film. Particularly inspired by his celebrated Videodrome and its less celebrated thematic sequel eXistenZ, “Body/Mind/Change” looks like it will take the museumgoer through an extensive, interactive, tactile Cronenbergian narrative full of biotechnological paranoia and interactions with personalized (and possibly malevolent) artificial intelligence.

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Dallas Buyers Club

Editor’s note: Our review of Dallas Buyers Club originally ran during this year’s TIFF, but we’re re-posting it now as the film expands into more theaters. Matthew McConaughey’s quest to establish himself as one of the finest, most committed actors of his generation (post-Fool’s Gold, of course) continues apace in Jean-Marc Vallee’s fact-based Dallas Buyers Club. McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a Texas good old boy with a taste for women, rodeo, good times, and intravenous drugs. When Ron’s hard-partying lifestyle results in a very unexpected HIV positive diagnosis, his life changes completely (and in some very surprising ways, as predictable as that may sound). Set in the eighties, in a time when public misconceptions and misunderstandings about AIDS, HIV, and victims ran rampant, Dallas Buyers Club is tasked with turning Woodroof, an initially unlikable and unlikely hero, into a gutsy and brave protagonist. McConaughey doesn’t balk at playing up Ron’s least appealing features – a womanizer, a drug addict, and an opinionated asshole to the fullest extent, Ron’s diagnosis comes with a sense of inevitability. He’s been reckless with his life and body, and he’s paying for it in the most final way possible. Initially given thirty days to live, Ron’s hardened stubbornness and profound spite for the entire situation seemingly keeps him alive, especially after his illegally procured meds dry up.

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12 Years a Slave

Editor’s note: Our review of 12 Years a Slave originally ran during this year’s TIFF, but we’re re-posting it as the film opens today in theatrical release. In certain circles, the excellence of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave has just been assumed for months now – after all, how could a film that features such a talented cast, a gifted director, and a dramatically ripe true life tale not be a masterpiece? It’s a dangerous business, the kind of prognostication and hype that can exist before even one frame of a film is shot, but McQueen’s latest is the rare bird that lives up to its hype (and then some).

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The Fifth Estate

Editor’s note: Our review of The Fifth Estate originally ran during this year’s TIFF, but we’re re-posting it as the film opens today in theatrical release. If nothing else, Bill Condon’s tone-deaf and inept The Fifth Estate will make plain the impact that the controversial Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks have had on modern journalism, the Internet, and whistle-blowing in general. Unfortunately, little of the depth and power of Assange’s work is conveyed via adept filmmaking, instead the facts have to speak for themselves, and it’s to their credit alone that they manage to emerge from the mess Condon’s film has made of a compelling story. Thank goodness Benedict Cumberbatch is there to make an otherwise shockingly uninspired biopic even remotely interesting.

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Parkland

Editor’s note: Kate’s review of Parkland originally ran during this year’s TIFF, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in limited release. Eventually someone will attend a showing of Peter Landesman’s Parkland and need to be reminded that President John F. Kennedy went to Dallas, Texas in November of 1963, only to be gunned down during a motorcade through streets lined with well-wishers, but the film’s pre-opening credits text that convey that information is an eye-rolling start to a generally inoffensive film. Centered on the moments just before JFK’s assassination until the day the beloved president was buried (the same day, incidentally, his murderer was also laid to rest), Landesman’s film attempts to convey the emotional and historical impact of the death through the stories and perspectives of various people involved in his final hours. A large cast (including such draws as Zac Efron, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Giamatti, and Marcia Gay Harden, in addition to many, many more) gamely take on interesting if not entirely invigorating material and the result is something entirely unfulfilling, though well-intentioned.

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gravity

“Life in space is impossible.” Before we even hear a word from Alfonso Cuaron’s staggering Gravity, a thin line of text already tells us everything that’s going to happen within its slim, unrelenting ninety-minute runtime. Life in space is impossible. But is survival possible? It’s a normal day for the Explorer team, one that sees Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) working on his space walk time (he’s eager to break a previously-established record by another astronaut) while Shariff (Paul Sharma) tinkers outside the station and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) attempts to repair some malfunctioning equipment so they can finish the upgrade they are tasked with completing. Things are relatively peaceful, the only hitch in an otherwise unremarkable excursion being Dr. Stone’s jumping stomach and her frustration at getting her work done – until the formerly relaxed Houston team suddenly demands an emergency evacuation. Not just for the three space walkers to go inside the station, but for them to get the hell out of their general location. A Russian satellite has exploded and its debris (moving around Earth at a pace faster than a speeding bullet) has begun knocking off other satellites, setting off a chain reaction of zinging space shrapnel that won’t just bust open a spacesuit, but an entire space station. The evacuation doesn’t happen.

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Prisoners 2013

If you’ve seen a recent trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners and bemoaned that it seemed to give the entire plot away – a pair of girls are kidnapped on Thanksgiving, and their terrifically angry and upset dads (played by Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard) capture and imprison man they think is responsible (Paul Dano, mewling it up), intent on beating him until he breaks – that’s a good thing, because the final product is trip into darkness that makes even extreme vigilantism the least shocking element of its twisted story. A thriller that doesn’t so much come with twists as puzzle pieces that cleverly slide into place across the course of its (incredibly engaging) 146-minute runtime, Prisoners is filled with a near-constant sense of tension and dread. Even the most seemingly benign scenes posses a low level of fear, and the final hour is heavy enough to leave audiences shaking (and shaken). The basic plot of Prisoners is indeed the one laid bare in its trailers – two sets of families, celebrating Thanksgiving together, discover that their young daughters have gone missing during the afternoon. Panic sets in quickly, and our various parents (Jackman and Maria Bello as one set, Howard and Viola Davis as another) swiftly assume the roles they will play during the duration of the film. Jake Gyllenhaal joins their fold as Detective Loki, a mysterious local cop who has never left a case unsolved, and one who certainly seems to have walked into a piece of […]

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Enemy

Yes, film festivals are wonderful to attend (and this month’s just-concluded Toronto International Film Festival is one of the most wonderful I’ve ever personally covered), but for those cinephiles who can’t get to Toronto or Park City or Cannes or Venice, it’s the ultimate question – which of these films will I actually get to see? TIFF is, of course a bit different than the vast majority of other festivals out there, simply because its biggest titles arrive with not only a large studio or production company footing the bill, but with set release dates we’ve known about months in advance. For a lot of the largest films at TIFF, the festival is simply a good place to have a premiere, get some buzz, and prep for the upcoming awards season – getting bought and distributed has already been taken care of. It’s no surprise that we’ll get to see films like Rush, August: Osage County, The Fifth Estate, Prisoners, and many more sooner rather than later (seriously, Rush comes out this week), but what about all those films that screened at TIFF with the intent to get bought? Plenty of them did get snapped up, and hopefully that means they’ll be hitting a theater near you soon enough. Take a look:

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Tim

If the plotline of Teller’s (yes, of Penn and Teller fame and, yes, he legally changed his name to just “Teller” years ago) documentary, Tim’s Vermeer, sounds unbelievably dry and not jammed with anything resembling mainstream appeal, well, that’s a fair assumption – but it’s also incorrect. The film centers on a longtime pal of Teller’s comedy partner, Penn Jillette (who frequently appears in the film), technology executive Tim Jenison, whose slightly obsessive and curious nature has long been obsessed with the works of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. An old world master who “painted with light” (and, no, not in the Thomas Kinkade way), Vermeer’s work has enthralled art fans for centuries, thanks to its unmistakable photorealism and a skill set that apparently set him apart from his contemporaries. While not a star during his lifetime, Vermeer is now considered one of the finest painters of the Dutch Golden Age. And Tim, who has never picked up a paintbrush in his life, wants to paint a work in Vermeer’s style. Wait, no, not just in his style, but a painting that so deftly mirrors Vermeer’s work that it could actually be mistaken for a true Vermeer.

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TIFF

As this year’s Toronto International Film Festival enters its final weekend (and now that Team FSR is already back on American soil and craving whole buckets of poutine), it’s time to reflect on the year that was at TIFF 2013. The prestige of the festival, paired with its proximity to Hollywood’s favorite four-month holiday (awards season, that is) have long meant that big gun films come out to show at TIFF (and a number of them often go on to have very strong showings Oscar showings). But this is still a film festival and this year’s TIFF still held plenty of surprises that snuck in between the flashiest of titles that everyone already knew they would clamor to see. After all, who would suspect that the most interesting documentary of the entire festival would center on a pal of Penn Jillette who is obsessed with the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer? Or that we’d still be thinking about a haircut choice from one of the first films to bow at the festival? Or that we’d feel the need to include a Best Of category for “Screaming Family Dinner Sequence”? Behold, the Best Of TIFF 2013!

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Night Moves

Early in Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, a film about pollution and its effects on the environment is shown to a group of Oregon environmentalists, including Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Josh (Jesse Eisenberg). Post-screening, the film’s director is bombarded with the usual kinds of questions any filmmaker is forced to field at such an event (surely there’s a cut featuring someone asking what the budget was somewhere out there), but a defiant Dena only wants to know what sort of “big plan” can be put into action to right the wrongs against our planet. With just one question, Dena puts all of her cards on the table, and so does the film. Dena and Josh are primarily concerned with big plans – and they’ve got one. Intent on blasting a hole in the burgeoning industrialization taking over their state, the two have been slowly cooking up a plan to do just that, by busting a hole in a nearby dam. Aided by Josh’s friend Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), the three are already in the final stages of their ecoterrorism scheme by the time Night Moves kicks up, and the film’s first act ticks steadily toward to their criminal (and perhaps criminally stupid) act.

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Tracks

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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The Double Jesse Eisenberg

Having previously delighted festival audiences with his charming debut, Submarine, filmmaker Richard Ayoade again returns to the oddball indie fold with his deeply bizarre and incredibly entertaining The Double. Based on the Fyodor Dostoevsky novella of the same name – no, you wait right there, this isn’t your high school English class Dostoevsky, you’re going to have fun here – Ayoades’s second feature centers on timid office worker Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), a man incapable of getting (or even asking for) anything he wants whose existence is forever changed by a new co-worker – one who looks just like him but acts in a completely opposite manner. James Simon (also played by Eisenberg, because duh) is a smirking go-getter, a ladies’ man, and a carouser who everyone adores. Simon can’t even get his company’s security guard to recognize him (and he’s worked there seven years). Ayoades’s decision to place his film in a demented dystopia, equal parts Brazil, 1984, and 1950’s-inspired set dressing, is a brilliant one. By not grounding his film in reality, he is given immense freedom and his able to raise the “well, this ain’t believable” level quite high. We may never know where James came from (or where Simon came from, if you want to get philosophical here) or exactly how they’re linked, but the world they exist in is already so fantastic and primed for exploration that a simple thing like “oh, my doppelganger is trying to ruin my life” just doesn’t seem so damn […]

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August Osage County

The dysfunctional family drama can pack it in now, because the genre has reached its zenith with John Wells’ spectacularly entertaining and unsettling August: Osage County. Adapted for the screen from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, Tracy Letts has effectively moved the traumas of the supremely effed up Weston family to the big screen, ensuring that droves of film-goers will be able to reason, well, at least I’m not part of that group just in time for an awards season the film will surely clean up during. Starring a tremendously talented cast, the film hinges on Meryl Streep as maddening matriarch Violet Weston and her control freak daughter Barbara (played by Julia Roberts in one of her finest performances), and the two do not disappoint in the slightest. Despite heavy subject matter (suicide, incest, drug abuse, alcoholism, infidelity, oh my!), the film still includes plenty of humor to keep it humming right along, fully engaging its audience all the way. Set in – well, you know this – a steamy week or so in August in Oklahoma’s Osage County, the film opens with Weston family patriarch Beverly (Sam Shepard) conducting an interview of the family’s new cook and aide Johnna (Misty Upham). Before the pair can finish the briefing of duties, the volatile Violet comes to after another night of pill-popping, only to stumble down into Beverly’s booze-filled office to offer color commentary and first class slurring. She’s a wreck, through and through, and it’s no […]

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devils_knot

Four highly publicized documentaries in, it should go without saying that the West Memphis Three ordeal has taken up its fair share of screentime. The necessity for a narrative feature is a questionable one, and despite the potential promise of Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot, the film ultimately stands as a prime example why the story shouldn’t be adapted into a narrative feature – at least not a narrative feature this lazy and uninteresting as this one. Even with a cast that includes Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Kevin Durand, Dane DeHaan, Bruce Greenwood, Amy Ryan, and Mireille Enos, Egoyan has delivered one of the worst big screen takes on a true story of this magnitude in quite some time, an eye-popping failure of both execution and emotion. Egoyan fails to engage with not only his audience but also the actual material he’s attempting to portray on screen, making Devil’s Knot one of the year’s most disappointing misfires.

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Can a Song Save Your Life?

John Carney’s Can a Song Save Your Life? answers its own (inescapably clunky-sounding) titular question within its first twenty minutes, but it’s hard to tell if that salvation is ultimately sustainable. After all, most songs only last a few minutes, and what happens when the music stops? Burnt out music executive Dan (Mark Ruffalo) has a thing for long shots, and while that may have worked for him in his early days, he hasn’t had much luck when it comes to finding bankable new talent for a number of years. (Oh, and his personal life is also in shambles, because of course it is.) Stuck in a low-rent apartment, estranged from his rock writer wife (Catherine Keener, who can’t quite reach her normal charm levels here, mainly because half of her face is bizarrely hidden behind her hair) and his just-rebellious-enough teen daughter (Hailee Steinfeld, who should have gotten more screen time here), and running on fumes career-wise, Dan is at rock bottom. So it’s a pretty nifty stroke of luck that he just so happens to walk into a local bar running an open mic night in order to kill time before actually killing himself, and it’s also pretty cool that Greta (Keira Knightley) is there (reluctantly) singing and yes, it’s also totally awesome that her song actually refers to someone throwing themselves in front of a subway. If you can get past the silly plot contrivances and relatively thin script, Can a Song Save Your Life? just might […]

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Labor Day

There’s no funny or punny way to put this – Jason Reitman’s Labor Day is a film about human needs and desires and so how they so often (and so irrevocably) lead to human stupidity and error. A domestic drama about grief, tragedy, growth, and renewal, there’s not a hamburger phone to be found in the whole production, and even Reitman’s trademark banter is held at bay for nearly the film’s entire runtime (the filmmaker does let it fly for a truncated dinner sequence). A film about the human condition, Labor Day is both incredibly relatable and deeply frustrating – after all, those are the sort of emotions anyone would feel if they let an escaped convict into their house and promptly fell in love with him.

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The Past

“I’m nobody in this story.” By the time Ahmed (Ali Mosaffa, consistently solid throughout the film) utters that comment halfway through Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, it’s far too late in the narrative and too deep into the story to hold much water. After all, Ahmed is not a nobody in the A Separation director’s latest tale of domestic disruptions, and neither is the woman who lies in a coma many miles away, or the man who has started a new life somewhere in Brussels, or any number of other nameless participants in the film’s various characters’ pasts that we never meet. It’s called The Past for a reason, not The Future or The Present, but it might as well be called The Past People in Our Lives We Can’t Forget and Move Away From and This is The Result of All of That Stuff. It’s certainly not as snappy, however. While the basic plotline of The Past sounds salacious – a man returns after many years to divorce a wife who already has a new husband lined up and he discovers many secrets along the way – it’s surprisingly tame in execution. The film could easily be tailored to fit the needs of an American studio, with Ahmed starring as the out-of-town-ex who transforms a mixed family with his charm, level thinking, and delicious cooking (think Uncle Buck with more complicated relationships). At least, that’s what happens for the first half of the movie, with Ahmed playing unexpected peacekeeper between […]

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Labor Day

Toronto: land of prestige films, poutine, and Oscar buzz. At least, that’s what happens every September during the Toronto International Film Festival (poutine is, of course, available year-round). With the festival kicking off later this week, we thought it prudent (and let’s be honest, sort of necessary and obvious) to run through the list of our most anticipated titles set to screen at TIFF. It’s a hell of a list, mainly because unlike so many other film festivals, a large number of the films set to screen at TIFF are already kitted out with their own (upcoming!) wide release date. This isn’t Sundance, where you can wait two years for a film that was beloved at the festival to come to a town near you. (Though, this is TIFF, where you can wait seven years for a film that was beloved at the festival to come to a town near you – looking at you, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane!) In any case, there are dozens upon dozens of films screening at TIFF (many of which sound alike), but only one dozen that we’ve deemed our Most Anticipated of the festival. Which one will be the breakout hit? Which one will pull in all the awards? Which one will you get to see in seven years? Let’s find out.

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