Friday, September 20, 2013

'Battle of the Year' will be no match for dark 'Prisoners'

The dark, moody Prisoners (3,260 theatres) will be riding strong reviews to open around the $20 million mark. The "emotionally whipsawing kidnapped-child thriller with an unusually strong moral resonance," as described by our critic Chris Barsanti, is earning strong notices from critics: It's currently tracking 79% positive on Rotten Tomatoes. Those encouraging reviews will be especially important for the adult-oriented thriller, which may have trouble attracting audiences because of its dark subject matter.

Prisoners hugh jackman
Joining a line of ebullient dance movies like the Step Up series, Battle of the Year (2,008 theatres) may suffer because interest in the genre has been trending downward. Screen Gems has a target of $8-10 million for the feature, which centers on the b-boy style of street dancing. Still, there's a loose cannon element to the movie--I could see it being a surprise overperformer if, for example, a good portion of co-star Chris Brown's 13 million Twitter followers turn out.

Battle of the year chris brown

The Wizard of Oz will re-release in 3D and IMAX this weekend, in 318 theatres. That's a 50% larger release than two previous 3D reissues of classics: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Top Gun. Neither of those two opened above $2 million, but The Wizard of Oz could do better. It's a family movie in a market that hasn't had a fresh offering in a while, and it's pleasantly old-fashioned--when was the last time a kids' movie wasn't animated? Our critic Kevin Lally considers the beloved fantasy mandatory viewing for kids. "Any parent who hasn’t yet introduced their child to this essential
movie classic, shame on you. But now’s your chance to make amends
with a big-screen reboot that should send everyone home humming 'Over the Rainbow.'"

The Kids Are All Right was a breakout hit, but writer Stuart Blumberg's next work (and directorial debut) about a sex addict group, Thanks for Sharing (269 theatres), isn't getting nearly as positive reviews--just about half are in favor. Still, our David Noh was one of those in the thumbs-up camp. Although some of the setups are "too
writing and strong performances handily
override your reservations." The strong ensemble cast includes Mark
Ruffalo, Josh Gad, Tim Robbins, and Gwyneth Paltrow, all of whom Noh
calls out in his review.

One of James Gandolfini's final performances can be found in Enough Said (4 theatres),
which opened on Wednesday. Gandolfini plays Julia Louis-Dreyfus' object
of affection in this well-observed romantic comedy from indie director
Nicole Holofcener, which will likely please fans of her work.

Rush Daniel Bruhl Chris Hemsworth
Opening on just 5 screens, Rush begins a platform release intended to stoke the buzz the racecar drama received at the Toronto Film Festival. Males over 25 are showing the most interest in the tale of rivalry, which "goes at record-setting speeds," and earns director Ron Howard the approval of our critic Harry Haun. He lauds the child star-turned-director for "providing a ferociously exciting backdrop for the real-life rivalry of two Olympian gods in Formula One sports cars." The target here will be the first weekends of features like The Master and The Fighter, which opened to astonishing $150,000 and $75,000 per-screen averages, respectively, that kick-started their Oscar campaigns.

This is my last day here at Film Journal International, but check back for updates as the blog passes its reins.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A film critic's holiday 2013 notebook

This coming holiday season has the strongest slate in recent memory--so much so that Variety is turning out articles like "Toronto: Should There Be (Gasp!) 20 Best Picture Nominees This Year?" That's in stark contrast to earlier sentiments about the change in the number of the Academy's Best Picture nominees, like the 2011 Hollywood Reporter headline "Why Oscars' 10 Best Picture Nominees Experiment Failed." Plus, some of the upcoming pictures don't just look good, they've already been seen and applauded by critics and festival audiences alike. Twelve Years a Slave and Gravity, which both screened at Toronto and Telluride, received excellent early notices from the press, and they're right at the top of my to-see list. Here's the highlights from my viewing list for the rest of 2013.

My Picks for Pure Viewing Pleasure
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Star Jennifer Lawrence has proven herself outside the young adult ring by winning an Oscar, and fans (myself included) can't wait to see the second in this dystopian series.
About Time: The director of Love Actually takes gawky-cute Domhnall Gleeson (one of the Weasley brothers in the Harry Potter series) and
pairs him with Rachel McAdams. And gives him Bill Nighy as a father. What's not to love?

American hustle

Pure Viewing Pleasure that will likely come with an Oscar stamp of approval
American Hustle & The Wolf of Wall Street both take jubilant looks at criminals. They're set in the past, but I'm sure commentators will be making connections to current events, especially given the latter film's focus on finance.
1953's Stalag 17 and 1963's Great Escape were among the first World War II movies to actually take a light tone on the war. The Monuments Men, about masterpiece-recovering GIs, is a step back from the over-the-top Nazi caricatures in 2009's Inglourious Basterds, but it should leave most of the fun intact.

Movies that will ooze drama
The Coen Brothers are reliabli prolific filmmakers, and Inside Llewyn Davis
has extra appeal thanks to the inclusion of real musicians Justin
Timberlake and Marcus Mumford (the latter's voice appears in the
Movie theatre seats are much more comfortable than Broadway's tiny cushions. I missed August: Osage County back when it was a play, but I won't mind seeing it with a tub of popcorn in a theatre.
It's hard to even know what category to put Gravity into, but at this point my expectations are as high above Earth as its leading lady, Sandra Bullock. Director Alfonso Cuaron appears to have done something really special with this film, both technically and narratively, and I think it will please people with all different kinds of tastes.

12 years a slave
(Would-be) Weepies
I've heard from Telluride that Labor Day is a surefire tearjerker, and as a fan of Kate Winslet, it's a hands-down must see. Reports of damp eyes have also come from Twelve Years a Slave, which will likely be one of the most talked-about films this year, especially given the great odds it has right now of ending up on the Oscar podium.

The trailer for Foxcatcher still hasn't released, making it one of the last end-of-year holdouts. The real-life tale is tragic, and I can't imagine Moneyball director Bennett Miller putting a funny spin on this dark tale of Olympic greatness foiled. But Steve Carell as an eccentric millionaire is definitely one role I want to see on the big screen.
Likewise, Lone Survivor is based on a real-life tragedy, with an unhappy ending appended. It's likely more about bravery than tears (these are soldiers, after all), but that doesn't mean the audience will feel just as stoic. As a huge fan of the realistic, gripping feel of Zero Dark Thirty, I'm hoping that the Mark Wahlberg-led picture will borrow some of that verisimilitude.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has heartwarming written all over it, and it's just the kind of toasty film that's great to catch with family around the holidays. I predict this one will be a big hit, in the vein of other holiday warm-fuzzies like Marley & Me, The Blind Side, and The Pursuit of Happyness. It's also likely to gain the praise of critics, given its placement on numerous lists predicting the Best Picture competition.

Just as all these movies are coming out, Screener will be led by a new voice. After five years of helming the Screener blog for Film Journal International, I'm passing on my reins, and tomorrow will be my last post. Cheers to all, and happy viewing.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Looking at Pixar's 22 rules of storytelling

Let's put aside Cars 2 for a moment and think of Pixar's great films: Wall-E, Toy Story 3, and Up, to name a few. The studio's near-perfect track record, at least until late, has made many clamor to figure out their secret. A peek at their thought process comes from "Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling," which story artist Emma Coates tweeted out way back in 2011. The notes inspired Twitter user Dino Ignacio (@DinoIgnacio) to create accompanying graphics for each rule. The slide show is worth a browse, and it's also worth a deep think, as you rack your brain to evaluate how movies live up to these various requirements.

Pixars 22 rules
One of my favorites was #6, "What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?" In the classic Up, there's the crotchety old man and the intrepid (but not entirely prepared) Boy Scout--quite the pair to embark on a balloon adventure. In terms of upcoming movies, the plot description for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty seems tailor-made for this requirement: having a timid, watch-from-the-sidelines kind of guy actually go on an adventure himself. But what I think is interesting about this requirement is how flexibly it can be applied. In the case of Toy Story, what the characters are comfortable with is being in their child owner's bedroom, and being played with all the time. Both of these things are taken away (one by accident, one by him growing up), and then the characters are forced to adapt. Personality-wise, the characters have the courage and smarts to get through their adventure, but they make emotional changes on their journey through this discomfort. So many movies answer this question by taking the characters quite literally out of their element:

Toy Story: Out of the playroom, into the real world
Wall-E: Out of the ravaged Earth, onto a space station
Up: Out of suburbia, into a jungle
Cars: Stuck in the American Heartland; Cars 2: The reverse, thrust into worldwide races
Ratatouille: Out of the sewers, into the kitchen
Brave: Out of the castle, into the forest

There are exceptions to this: In Monsters Inc., the two main characters don't relocate, but instead must accommodate a child in their home, Monstropolis. Which brings us to point #12: "Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third, fourth, fifth–get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself."

12 rule pixar

If you're interested in scrolling through the rest of the 22 rules, check out the full slideshow.

Monday, September 16, 2013

'Insidious: Chapter 2' posts best horror opening in September

Earning four times the opening of the original, Insidious: Chapter 2 got off to a great start with $41 million, the best debut ever for a horror movie in September. It's also just $1 million off the best September opening, which was set last year by Hotel Transylvania, a rare animated offering during what's usually a quieter month. Adding to the list of records, the opening makes director James Wan only the second person ever (to the Matrix series' Wachowskis) to open two movies that high in the same year. Just a couple of months ago, Wan's The Conjuring also started off with over $40 million in a weekend. But what did audiences think? Viewers gave it a "B+" in exit polls, which is pretty good for a horror movie, which often receive poor grades. Insidious: Chapter 2 also benefited from topicality: Half the weekend take came from Friday the 13th. Based on the first three days, I think it's also safe to guess that there will be an Insidious: Chapter 3 headed to theatres sometime next year.

Insidious chapter 2 ty simpkins
The spy action-comedy The Family had a stronger debut than expected, opening to $14.5 million, director Luc Besson's second-best opening weekend. Older audiences in particular turned out to see Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer as mobsters in witness protection: 83% of audiences clocked in over the age of 25.

Family robert de niro michelle pfeiffer
In four weeks of release, The Butler has limited its decline to roughly a third a week. This week, it dipped another 33% to $5.5 million, which pushed it over the $100 million mark. For the Weinstein Co., this is a big milestone, only the fifth time the distributor has gone into nine-figure territory. Another movie that's been holding particularly well has been We're the Millers. The comedy has earned $131 million to date. This week it finished right behind The Butler, with $5.4 million and a 30% decrease from the previous week.

On Wednesday, Nicole Holofcener's romantic comedy Enough Said, featuring a final performance from the late James Gandolfini, will begin its release. On Friday, action thriller Prisoners will go against a smaller wide release of the b-boy dance film Battle of the Year, a 3D re-release of The Wizard of Oz, and a limited opening of Rush.

Parting Shots from Toronto 2013

Strangers by the Lake by Alain

 In this riveting, suspenseful
salute to Hitchcock, Guiraudie explores the intersection of death, danger, and
desire.  What prompts Franck to pursue
his passion for a man he knows to be a murderer?  Guiraudie ups the ante when it becomes
apparent to Michel that Franck is on to him. 
Now Franck’s life is on the line. 
The issues raised by the film resonate beyond an exploration of queer
desire.  How far are any of us willing to
go when the heart wants what it wants?  Guiraudie
adopts an almost Aristotelian unity, returning each time to the identical
parking lot, the nude men on the beach, the gorgeous blue water.  And men coupling, the camera never blinking,
in all its permutations. 

Strangers by the lake

I thought that viewing this
at a public screening with retirees eating popcorn (versus a press screening
with jaundiced reviewers) would be fairly excruciating.  It wasn’t. 
cinephiles stand ready to embrace it all. 
Interestingly, the sex and nudity is so integral to the story it takes a
back seat – well, almost -- to the dizzying
psychological abyss Guiraudie opens up in this provocative film.  What’s the deal with Franck?  Why doesn’t he cut and run? 

 Afterwards, Deladonchamps, the
actor who plays Franck, came onstage to take questions.  “You all saw me naked, so now I’d like to see
you,” he joked, adding, “well, not all of you.” 
Body doubles were used, he said, for everything below the waist; nothing
was improvised, all the sex scenes were tightly choreographed.  “Franck makes bad decisions because he’s in
love.”  What to make of the disturbingly
ambiguous ending? I asked.  “It’s for the
viewers to decide,” Deladonchamps said.  “In
an alternate ending, Franck and Michel go off together.”  Whoa.

 Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable
Elements of Belarus
Madeleine Sackler

In this revelatory doc, Sackler
goes behind the scenes with The Belarus Free Theatre, an underground,
avant-garde troupe that defies Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator choking their
country -- the last remaining dictator in Europe.  He and his goons forbid theatrical treatment
of topics such as sexual minorities, alcoholism, suicide, and politics.  To which the gutsy Free Theatre responds by
injecting these taboos into performances that are staged secretly in Minsk in the Republic
of Belarus and to critical acclaim
overseas, primarily in the Edinburgh fest and England.  Using meagre props and resources, they mount
subversive and powerful performance pieces – such as the striking “Zone of
Silence” -- which nail the quality of life under a tyrant.  "Dangerous Acts" picks up the story
in 2010, as the KGB of Belarus is cracking down on dissenters, targeting Free
Theatre founders Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Koliada, along with their
colleagues.  Forced to smuggle parts of
the film out of Belarus,
Sackler snags interviews that illuminate the plight of artists without a
country who live cut off from family and culture, yet manage by hook or by crook
to practice their craft.  In the past,
writers have had to choose between repression at home and disconnection in
exile.  Now, with the power of
documentary crews to report from the front, we get access to this portrait of
resistance.  As one Free Theatre member
says, "Work and laughter are what will save us."  HBO will premiere the film in 2014.

Dom Hemingway by Richard

Losing his gorgeousness has
given Jude Law a second life and freed him as an actor.  In “Dom” he’s got a hairline going south, a
gut, and a Cockney accent you could eat with a spoon.  “Dom” doesn’t so much begin, as explode with Law’s
obscene aria about his manhood, almost Shakespearean in its word-smithery, with
a generous dollop of Henry Miller.  “Is
my cock exquisite?”  It should hang at
the Louvre, Law goes on, it’s hard, it’s titanium, it can stand all day my
cheetah cock, etc.  Some eight minutes of
this before the camera pulls back to reveal the circumstances inspiring his
rant.  After such a bravura opening the
air goes out of “Dom” like a fizzling balloon, yet given the terrific blast-off
it somehow stays aloft. 

Marking scenes with sardonic title
cards such as “12 Years in Prison is a Long Time” and “Father of the Year,” Shepard
follows Dom, a master safe-cracker, as he’s sprung from jail and sets out with one-handed
sidekick Richard Curtis to settle accounts with a Rumanian playboy (Demian
Bichir, a hoot) and claim the stash he was promised for not ratting him
out.  Shepard mocks trendiness in art
through the décor of Bichir’s country hideaway, which favors grotesque blow-ups
of exotic monkeys. 

From there it’s a picaresque
about Dom’s rotten luck as an ex-con -- much of it brought on by his
hair-trigger temper; “I worked on my anger issues in prison” – and his longing
to be reconciled with the grown daughter (Emilia Clarke) he neglected for 12
years.  Dom’s re-entry into society
climaxes in an off-the-wall scene when he bets the family jewels on his ability
to crack a new digital safe.  The story
is the least of this film, an insidery riff on the British gangster genre.  Mainly, it’s an occasion for Law to pull out
all the stops in a priceless portrayal of a macho maniac.  Fox Searchlight, with its great nose for
off-beat fare, will open the film here in April.

Actors who delivered career-bests in TIFF 2013

Jude Law in Dom Hemingway by Richard Shepard
Dakota Fanning and Peter Saarsgard in Night Moves by Kelly Reichardt
Jake Gyllenhaal and Melissa Leo in Prisoners by Denis Villeneuve
Dane DeHaan in Kill Your Darlings by John Krokidas
Steve Coogan in Stephen Frears’s Philomena, as both its co-star (with Judi Dench) and its co-screenwriter

And then there’s the case of
Sandra Bullock in Gravity by Alfonso
Cuaron.  As we all know, instruction
manuals are translated from the Gujurati by dyslexic sadists.  That Bullock not only keeps her cool while
stranded in the ether, but can actually decipher the instruction manual aboard the
space craft to guide it back to earth reveals her not only as courageous but a
mental giant.  She is well and truly the
queen of TIFF 2013.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Toronto Standouts: 'An Invisible Woman' and the end of slavery

Among the studio blockbusters lined up like rockets for awards season two lush costumers have emerged as audience and critic faves: An Invisible Woman directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens; and Belle directed by Amma Asante and showcasing rising young thesp Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

Invisible womanLiterary historians have long known that Dickens loved and shared a parallel life with the actress Ellen (Nelly) Ternan, a woman he met at the height of his fame when she was seventeen (the age of one of his ten children).  Drawing on Claire Tomalin’s book about this liaison, Fiennes, in his second stint as director after Coriolanus, mounts a romantic and meticulously observed saga of a love that social conventions of the period forced into the shadows.

Film opens with a striking image of Nelly (Felicity Jones), a tiny figure in black furiously pacing the vast beach at Margate.  It's been some time since Dickens has died, Nelly's now married–in a remote, dutiful way–and teaching drama to children.  She remains haunted, though, by her past with Dickens, which Fiennes recreates in sumptuous flashbacks.  (Filmmakers currently seem enamored of starting a story with its ending, then looping back to the earlier years.) 

As we knew he would, Fiennes makes a magnificent Dickens, capturing the ambition and lusty energy of the man – “I walk at quite a pace,” he warns – and his longing, in the midst of family and a curiously modern celebrity, to forge an intimate connection.  Echoing married men since the days of Charlemagne, he tells Nelly his wife understands nothing about him. In an exquisite courting scene, Dickens and Nelly cement their bond with shared confidences across a table, while Nelly’s mum (Kristin Scott-Thomas) snoozes on a chaise nearby.

Fiennes brings to live the dim, feverishly lit Victorian interiors and a world of fellow writers and thesps, including Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) whose open liaison with his mistress almost sends Nelly packing. “So this is how it will be,” Nelly finally tells Dickens in a poignant scene. Equally “invisible,” of course, is Dickens’s cast-off wife (Joanna Scanlan, marvelous) who in a quietly devastating encounter warns Nelly about the writer’s fierce self-absorption.  A gifted director, Fiennes enlivens this exquisite period drama with painterly touches: a day at the races could be early Degas.  He also drops brief stretches of silence into the narrative as a linking device to mark the passage of time. Keeping faith with the Victorian sensibility, Fiennes conveys love through the eyes – “no need to show thrashing limbs,” as he said during a Q & A following the gala screening. 

A hallmark of TIFF 2013 is the way filmmakers have seized on true stories.  Steve McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave is based on the journal of one Simon Northup.  Similarly, Belle by Amma Asante -- in some sense a counterpoise to McQueen’s slave drama – relates the real-life journey of Dido Elizabeth Belle, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a revelation.  An 18th century woman of mixed race, Dido, (as she’s called) is raised in England in opulent style by a high-ranking judge (Tom Wilkinson)and his family, but because of her color is treated like a second class citizen.  Then Dido inherits a fortune from her father, a Captain in the Royal Navy, upping her appeal--though not to most “respectable” suitors.  Meanwhile the judge’s beautiful blonde niece (Sarah Gadon) can’t snag a husband because she lacks a dowry.

Belle gugu mbatha-raw

While the set-up is very Jane Austen, the film’s larger issue has to do with the push to end slavery, the life blood of the British economy.  Into Dido’s life comes Davinier (Sam Reid, perfectly cast), a hot-headed – and hot-looking -- fledgling lawyer hell bent on mounting a criminal case against a slave-trading ship that drowned its slaves in order to collect insurance money. Essentially, Belle is the coming-of-consciousness story of both Dido as she helps Davinier expose the horrific massacre, and of England, as prominent lawmakers condemn the practice of slavery.  Yes, you can see almost immediately where the film is heading.  Cue the violins as love and enlightenment come together.  I won’t disagree with a fellow critic who termed Belle “rather schmaltzy.”  Yet the actors–particularly Tom Wilkinson as the judge and the elegant Mbatha-Raw–carry it off with style, and the story itself is both exotic and uplifting.     

'Insidious: Chapter 2' creeps into the fall lineup

A little bit of a fall chill is in the air, and there's no better way to get in a cozy mood than with a spine-tingling movie like Insidious: Chapter 2 (3,049 theatres), which comes from prolific horror director James Wan. The Saw helmer is coming off his surprise hit this summer, The Conjuring, which was also advertised as "from the director of Insidious." Our critic Maitland McDonagh worries that similarity in marketing campaigns could end up hurting the sequel. The
Insidious chapter 2 rose byrne
content itself isn't as fresh as the original. The focus on exploring the original film's backstory makes it "more than a little dull and [verging] on incoherence." Still, the recognizable name could make this movie have one of the best horror openings in September. In 2005, The Exorcism of Emily Rose opened to $30 million during the same month, so a figure at or above $30 million would be excellent. That number would also be nearly three times the opening of the original, which debuted to $13 million and slow-burned for weeks afterward.

Even weeks ago, it was fairly clear that The Family (3,091 theatres) wasn't going to do so well. Now, forecasters have zoned in on its likely opening figure: somewhere around $10 million. The Luc Besson-directed movie about a family of American gangsters who hide out in France has the right ingredients, but they don't add up. "Despite a dream cast [which includes Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Tommy Lee Jones],  The Family is an only intermittently
funny gangster comedy," FJI's Daniel Eagan laments.

Family robert de niro michelle pfeiffer
The specialty slate this weekend is slight, but IFC Films is using the slot to release Blue Caprice, a festival pickup about the Beltway sniper. Comparing the story to other true-life tales like Fruitvale Station and Elephant (a stylistic cousin), critic Ethan Alter feels the movie succeeds in creating emotion, but fails in a cerebral sense. The drama "comes armed with answers, but misses the chance to pose bigger questions."

On Monday, we'll see if Insidious: Chapter 2 is able to break any September records, and if The Family is able to rally past its so-so opening projection.


Thursday, September 12, 2013

Toronto docs: Mystery photographer Vivian Maier, irrepressible 'Dog Day' thief

Among the most surprising
discoveries at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival were documentary portraits of two
very different but equally fascinating and complicated individuals: Vivian
Maier and John Wojtowicz. The former has only just recently become known among
devotees of photography; the latter name you may recognize as the inspiration
for the ’70s movie classic Dog Day

Finding Vivian Maier is the remarkable story of the discovery of the
eponymous Maier, a Chicago nanny who became a celebrated photographer only after the film’s co-director John Maloof purchased her
cache of 150,000 negatives at auction two years before her death in 2009, was astonished by her photos,
and proceeded to post a selection online. Maloof makes it his mission to

Finding vivian maier_01_medium
just who Maier was, and finds a very private, eccentric, troubled woman who
also happened to be a phenomenal artist. The evidence is there onscreen, in
brilliant, evocative street portraits that bear comparison to greats like
Robert Frank, Helen Levitt and Diane Arbus. But they were never made public
until Maloof’s acquisition.

So what kept Maier from
exhibiting her work? Her reasons remain a mystery, although Maloof discovers
late in the doc that she did intend to market the photos she shot in her
ancestral village in France. Otherwise, Maier was content to live a discreet
life as a nanny, an occupation which allowed her the freedom to take to the
streets with her low-slung Rolleiflex camera (sometimes bringing her young
charges with her to dicey neighborhoods).

Always an odd duck,
Maier became increasingly mentally ill as she got older; her few friends and
her former employers (including talk-show host Phil Donahue!) and their children
recall her obsessive-compulsive disorder, her out-of-control hoarding, and her
transformation from a loving nanny to an abusive one.

Although Maier’s
wonderful photographs have been exhibited in galleries around the world, the
art establishment is still resistant to welcoming her as a major photographer.
Maloof’s revelatory documentary is another step toward helping her claim her
place in 20th-century art history.

Dog Day Afternoon is one of the great “stranger than fiction”
movies of all time, but wait till you hear the full story from the subject of
Sidney Lumet’s film, John Wojtowicz. In August 1972, the New York media (and a
neighborhood in Brooklyn) went crazy once word got out that the reason behind a
bank robbery turned hostage situation was Wojtowicz’s desire to fund his
lover’s sex-reassignment surgery. For the TIFF documentary The Dog, directors
Allison Berg and Frank
Keraudren go behind the headlines and the subsequent
movie, with Wojtowicz’s full cooperation. And what a character he is!

Wojtowicz proudly admits
to being a sex addict, attracted to both men and women. (He has no other vices,
he claims.) A former Goldwater Republican and Vietnam veteran, he was
transformed by the war (where he had his first same-sex affair with “a
hillbilly from Kentucky”) and became active in the New York City gay rights
movement in the years right after the Stonewall riots. (He and his trans lover Ernest
Aron even staged a wedding ceremony in Greenwich Village in 1971.)

Wojtowicz, with his huge
ego and profane outlook, is very entertaining movie company, even if you can’t
always take his self-justifying statements at face value. (The sex-change
motivation for the robbery has been disputed, even by Aron, seen as Liz Eden in a
later TV appearance.) But his narrative of the days leading up to the robbery
(including several other failed tries) supports the movie’s portrait of him and
his partner Sal Naturale as anything but pros. And his unapologetic pansexuality
is weirdly refreshing coming from a man Liz’s good friend Jeremiah Newton calls
a “troll.” As Wojtowicz sees it, “Anybody can be straight. It takes somebody
special to be gay.”

Nearly stealing the film
is John’s lively mother Terry, who disapproves of her son’s same-sex adventures
but dotes on him all the same. And John’s most admirable moments involve his
affectionate devotion to his mentally challenged older brother Tony.

John Wojtowicz died in
2006, and The Dog (his nickname) is an admirable ten-year labor of love for the
filmmakers. For any fan of Dog Day Afternoon, the movie is catnip.

I saw 23 and one-third movies
during my six days in Toronto. (The one-third is Mandela, which was surreally
shut down due to technical problems during a scene when Nelson Mandela and his
fellow activists enter an all-white movie theatre and stop the show.) Other personal high points of this bountiful festival not already covered in previous reports include: Jason Reitman's surprisingly romantic hostage drama Labor Day; Belle, the handsomely produced, involving true story of the daughter of a white British admiral and a black Caribbean slave who is raised as an aristocrat (but not quite a full member of the family) in late 18th-century England; Ralph Fiennes directing himself as Charles Dickens in the plush romance The Invisible Woman; director Denis Villeneuve's double appearance in Toronto with the creepy kidnapping thriller Prisoners and the even creepier doppelganger tale Enemy, both starring Jake Gyllenhaal; Hong Kong director Johnnie To's entertaining mix of comedy and mystery thriller in Blind Detective; French auteur Patrice Leconte's assured English-language debut with A Promise, a tale of love deferred; the tough and compelling British prison drama Starred Up; Kevin Kline impersonating Errol Flynn quite well in The Last of Robin Hood, the story of the actor's scandalous late-life romance with an underage aspiring actress played by Dakota Fanning; Jude Law in Ben Kingsley/Sexy Beast mode as a hotheaded gangster in the crime comedy Dom Hemingway; and Scarlett Johansson as a highly seductive alien visitor in director Jonathan Glazer's abstract and eerie Under the Skin. Now it's back to New York and the real, non-movie world.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Music in Toronto: 'Can a Song Save Your Life?' and a Jimi Hendrix biopic

Twelve years ago today,
like everywhere else in North America, all business stopped at the Toronto Film
Festival as the world watched the terrifying attacks on the World Trade Center.
Here in Toronto this morning, thinking of that day, it seemed appropriate to be
watching a film that’s an unabashed love letter to New York City. Can a Song Save Your Life?, the new
film from John Carney, the Irish director of the sleeper hit Once, is a
fairytale about the music business and as far from somber as a movie can get.
The festival has certainly hosted better films this edition, but Carney's lovely
location shooting all around the city was a sweet antidote to today’s

Keira Knightley plays an
aspiring songwriter and sometime singer who we later learn has broken up with
five-year boyfriend Adam Levine (the Maroon 5 front man and “Voice” coach)
after he’s achieved stardom and cheated on her. Singer pal James Corden
encourages her to perform a song at one of his bar gigs, where she catches the
ear of Mark Ruffalo, playing an alcoholic record company co-founder who’s just quit
over long-simmering “creative differences” and after a dry spell without a
successful new discovery. Ruffalo (platonically) pursues Knightley, who, after
putting up considerable resistance, decides to cast her fate with this wild
card. They hit on the idea of recording a demo album outdoors at various spots
around the city, incorporating the sounds of the neighborhoods.

You can surely predict
where all this is going, but Can a Song Save Your Life? is very genial, the songs are catchy, and screen
beauty Knightley reveals a fine singing voice. The Weinstein Company pounced on
this feel-good musical after its debut screening in Toronto.

Another musical
attraction today was All Is By My Side, which traces the early career of Jimi Hendrix from
his time playing backup with a funk band at New York’s Cheetah Club to his
extended stay in England, up to just before his jaw-dropping breakthrough at
the Monterey Pop Festival. The
biopic marks the second feature directing effort of
writer John Ridley, also represented in Toronto by his gripping screenplay for
the festival smash 12 Years a Slave. Ridley adopts a jagged style both visually and aurally,
evoking the whirlwind life of the groundbreaking, spacy and introspective
guitarist during a time when he was still finding his artistic identity and
sometimes confounding his listeners. It’s Hendrix before he became Hendrix, the
rock ’n’ roll wunderkind who briefly thrilled audiences before his death at 27.

All Is By My Side is still awaiting a
U.S. distribution deal, most likely because it’s an art film about the rock
legend, eschewing narrative drive for a more naturalistic approach to Hendrix’s
relationships and his evolution as an artist. Two women play central roles in
the story: Imogen Poots as Linda Keith, Keith Richards’ girlfriend, who is
presented in the film as the first true believer in Hendrix’s exceptional
talent and an important catalyst in his career; and Hayley Atwell as Kathy
Etchingham, a not-very-bright groupie who is utterly devoted to her man (and
sometimes oversteps her bounds). Hendrix is played by Andre Benjamin of
Outkast, who not only creates a reasonable surface facsimile of the music icon
but burrows into his earnest ’60s flower-child personality (and seems to be
doing the virtuosic guitar work required).

Even though it portrays
the pre-Monterey years, the film could have included Hendrix’s early U.K.-based
hits “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze.” It doesn’t. But you will hear a pretty wild
version of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” nervily performed by
Hendrix before an audience including two Beatles. For the rest of the canon,
there’s always the documentary Jimi Plays Monterey.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Powerful '12 Years a Slave,' outrageous 'August: Osage County'

Toronto is such a movie-mad city that an 8:30 a.m. screening can attract a packed house. That was the case this morning at the press and industry screening of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, but of course much of the intense interest stemmed from its electric pre-Toronto showings in Venice and Telluride. For this writer, it certainly ranks as one of the most powerful movie experiences of the past few years.

12 Years a Slave is based on the amazing true story of Solomon Northup, a well-educated, free black violinist living with his wife and children in Saratoga, New York in the 1840s, who is drugged and
kidnapped by a pair of con men and sold into slavery. (Northup published the memoir of his ordeal in 1853.) What follows is searingly painful to watch, and supports Spike Lee’s argument that the jokey Django Unchained (however much a revenge fantasy) was in questionable taste.

McQueen likes to push boundaries, as he did in the scenes of prison brutality in his IRA drama Hunger and the edgy sex scenes in Shame. Here, the camera doesn't turn away from hangings and whippings, particularly in one extended take involving the brutal lashing of a young slave woman who’s displeased her psychotic master played by McQueen regular Michael Fassbender.

Watching 12 Years a Slave, one realizes that a feature film depicting the bane of slavery from the slaves’ perspective is a rare thing indeed. And thanks to British-Nigerian actor Chiwetel Ejiofor’s charismatic, quietly seething, fully committed performance as Northup, that perspective becomes immediately relatable to any viewer of this film, black or white or of any race. The injustice, the arbitrariness of cruelty, the suffering and the struggle to survive are vividly conveyed by McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley. And when those 12 years come to an end, I dare anyone to hold back the tears. I’m not ashamed to admit I was physically overcome during the film’s concluding scene.

Along with the many harrowing moments, thank goodness McQueen also includes a couple of lovely grace notes, each centered on a tight shot of the highly photogenic Ejiofor: one as he joins in the singing of the spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” the other a silent close-up as he ponders his future fate. Talk about putting a human face on a shameful American legacy…

After the devastation of 12 Years a Slave, something a bit lighter was needed. I rushed across town to the 11 a.m. Elgin Theatre screening of August: Osage County, director John Wells’ film of the
Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts (who also wrote the screenplay). This is one of the more successful stage-to-screen adaptations of recent years, capturing all the laughs and shocks of the play while opening it up rather deftly from the confines of the original’s multi-level house to the parched vistas of Oklahoma. (The tradeoff is that the claustrophobia of the walls enclosing the story’s bickering family is lost.)

Substituting for the excellent but not widely known Steppenwolf company actors who originated the play in Chicago and New York, some major marquee names have gathered for the film: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Ewan McGregor, with able support from the likes of Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Abigail Breslin, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch and Sam Shepard. Shepard plays the family patriarch, a noted poet, who suddenly disappears after the first scene; Streep is his pill-addicted wife, an uncensored holy terror who’s battling mouth cancer. Roberts, Nicholson and Lewis are her three daughters: Nicholson is the responsible caretaker, Lewis the flighty one, and Roberts the one who fled the coop as soon as she could. When Dad is found dead, the family reassembles for the funeral and a dinner that erupts in cruel taunts and recriminations, many coming from the diseased mouth of Streep’s blunt and drug-addled matriarch.

The protean Streep knocks it out of the park again, nailing every uproarious laugh out of her devilishly mean and manipulative character. And Roberts, in her first pairing with Streep, rises to the occasion of those fierce arguments with the mother from hell. McGregor, in the film’s least rewarding role, makes a wan impression, but Cooper and Martindale make the most of their big moments, and Nicholson breaks your heart as the dutiful daughter with a big secret.

A number of Academy Award nods may materialize here, but one thing seems for certain: Get ready for Meryl Streep’s 18th Oscar nomination.

Jewels and Misfires at Toronto 2013: 'Philomena' and 'Night Moves'

Arrived here fresh from Venice, Philomena directed by Stephen Frears more than fulfills the buzz.  Frears has stumbled with such recent efforts as Cheri but in this searing story of the search for a lost adopted child -- and an indictment of aspects of Catholicism --he's again in top form.  As the "inciting incident" (in moviespeak), Martin (Steve Coogan), a world-weary political journalist, gets bounced from his job, then wooed by an editor interested in "human interest" stories, a genre for which Martin has only contempt.  Enter humble single mother and devout Catholic, Philomena (Judi Dench), who remains haunted by the disappearance of her little boy, literally sold to American buyers by the Sisters in an Irish abbey for wayward -- i.e. pregnant -- girls.  The consuming joint search of Martin and Philomena for a boy swallowed by cruel circumstance becomes the very human interest story Martin has so disdained.

The subject of pregnant Irish girls forced into slave labor in church-run homes is familiar from Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters.   But in Frears's telling, the subject remains fresh due to a brilliant screenplay which explores the dynamic bond of cynical Martin and pious Philomena, surprising at every turn.  While the theme of a mother's disappeared child is in itself heart-breaking, Frears makes the story especially haunting when the child's destiny as a successful lawyer--and beyond--is finally uncovered.  But given Frears's social concerns, this is no mere weeper.  In exposing the machinations and concealments the Irish Sisters use to separate mother and child, he mounts a scathing critique of righteous villainy under the guise of saintliness.  The story's complex resolution, which I will not reveal, is deeply satisfying.

Less successful is Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves. The film is particularly frustrating because so many elements are in place: a splendid cast; the director's trademark feeling for Oregon's beauty, and, best of all, a relatively high-concept plot after such past meanderings short on story as Old Joy.

Aptly titled, Night Moves unfurls mainly in darkness and at night, which makes the daylight scenes on an Oregon farming cooperative all the more striking.  The film centers on a trio of eco idealists whose efforts to halt the industrial despoilment of the planet turn to violent acts.  Jesse Eisenberg is the kingpin of a plot to blow up a dam, assisted by rich girl Dakota Fanning and ex-marine Peter Sarsgaard.  The actors are all superb, the naturalness of their dialogue vintage Reichardt.   Eisenberg is intensely private and a coil of angry energy, though you never forget you're watching this particular actor rather than his character; Fanning a revelation as a confident, impassive cohort who cracks when the scheme goes wrong; and Sarsgaard magnetic and inscrutable portraying the idealist as loose cannon.  As the trio implements their scheme we root for them--as we do for characters undertaking a difficult task.  Reichardt newly reveals her talent for suspense as the trio docks their dynamite-loaded boat at the dam before making their getaway in a canoe.  Then, along with the dam, the film implodes.  A finger-wagging morality lecture is added on about the dangers of idealistic violence.  Are we meant to conclude that extreme protest can bring only mayhem and madness?   Somehow Night Moves has shifted into Kathy Boudin/Weathermen terrain, dissipating  the power of its original vision.   

Monday, September 9, 2013

'Gravity' soars as a modern 3D landmark

The buzz out of Venice was sensational, and I finally caught up with Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity at this afternoon's screening in Toronto (alas, minus the presence of Cuaron or stars Sandra Bullock
and George Clooney, who attended last night). And yes, the advance word is justified—Gravity takes its place with the other great landmarks of modern digital 3D cinema, Avatar, Hugo and Life of Pi.

Cuaron's film recaptures some of the awed excitement '60s and '70s audiences felt on their first viewings of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. The entire film takes place in the dazzling and terrifying vastness of outer space, with only two characters (if you don't count one ill-fated fellow far in the background who has perhaps two lines). Cuaron tops the virtuosic single take of an attack on a vehicle and its occupants in his Children of Men with an amazing opening 13-minute sequence which begins at a very far distance and gradually closes in on astronauts Bullock and Clooney at work outside their spacecraft. Then, in the very same take, they're ordered to abort their repair mission and get inside their ship, only to be quickly overtaken by fast-moving, hurtling
debris from a destroyed Russian satellite. Again, within the same shot, the astronauts and their ship are hit and
Bullock becomes untethered from the craft.

Like Robert Redford's upcoming solo seafaring drama All Is Lost, Gravity is a stripped-down tale of survival—stripped-down in the narrative sense, but incredibly visually rich and nail-bitingly suspenseful. Bullock, always one of our most relatable actresses, is the audience surrogate we root for, in arguably her most demanding and emotionally open screen performance ever.  Cuaron and his CGI team have created screen spectacle with a searing human dimension, and bring a true sense of wonder to this groundbreaking movie experience.

'Riddick' reigns amid September slump

In late August and September, it doesn't take much in order to ascend to the top spot. For Riddick, it took just $18.7 million to lead in the slowest weekend yet in 2013. This marks the third time Vin Diesel has played the Riddick character, and the third film fell somewhere in the middle: better than the accompanying film Pitch Black, and weaker than The Chronicles of Riddick. Even with back-to-school obligations and the start of NFL season drawing away interest, Riddick connected with its core audience, which skews male, 30+, and Hispanic.

Riddick vin diesel
Box office as a whole was down, but a couple of movies bucked the trend. Last week's Spanish-language hit, Instructions Not Included, went up 3% to $8.1 million, maintaining its audience as it expanded into twice as many theatres. That's an excellent second week, and distributor Pantelion's biggest hit yet. Sony was able to squeeze another $2 million from This Is the End in a one-week return to over 2,000 locations, which put the comedy just shy of $100 million.

The faith-based inspirational movie The Ultimate Life had a solid, if not spectacular, debut of $650,000 in limited release, with a so-so per-screen average of $1,500.

The Weinstein Co. had one hit and one miss this week. Salinger, the documentary about the reclusive writer, debuted to a solid $22,000 per screen in four locations, the highest average of the week. Meanwhile, its French import, Populaire, averaged just $5,500 per-screen while playing in three locations.

This Friday, the action-comedy The Family will go up against the sequel to 2011's sleeper horror hit, Insidious: Chapter 2.


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Spike Jonze previews tantalizing virtual romance with 'Her'

"Why are you so lazy?" Meek's Cutoff director Kelly Reichardt jokingly asked filmmaker Spike Jonze after a dazzling montage of his music-video and feature-film work opened a Q&A session at the
TIFF Bell Lightbox Sunday afternoon at the Toronto Film Festival. Reichardt, who sheepishly confessed to being capable of doing only one thing at a time, was clearly in awe of Jonze's energetic, inventive approach to his craft, which encompasses landmark videos for the likes of Bjork, Beastie Boys and Weezer and such mind-bending movies as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are.

The event was designed to pique interest in Jonze's new film, Her, and the sequences presented by the director more than accomplished that goal. Written by Jonze very much in the mode of his former collaborator Charlie Kaufman, Her is a satire of our increasing disconnectivity with real human interaction thanks to all the modern electronic devices that command our attention. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a "creative writer" at a company that composes poignant audio-letters for those too busy or lacking in confidence to pour out their hearts on their own.

When Theodore brings home a new computer with a virtual personal assistant (think Apple's Siri with unlimited terrabytes of personality), he's amazed by how natural, responsive and utterly disarming she is. Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, she calls herself Samantha (after a microsecond scan of a book of names) and is the perfect companion. Soon, she and Theodore are having an affair...of sorts.

As in Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, Jonze takes an outlandish situation and treats it in a wry, low-key manner that gives the surreal a patina of realism; the believable character interactions and the avoidance of rib-poking make the comic conceits more droll. I can't wait to see the finished film when it debuts as the closing-night attraction at the New York Film Festival.

Jonze and Reichardt, who are clearly good friends and mutual admirers, indulged in some good-natured joshing, especially when Jonze praised the "feminine" qualities of his new (male) cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and Reichardt grilled him on whether that was a compliment or condescension. When an audience member wondered whether Jonze was seeing signs of his influence among newer filmmakers, Reichardt observed, "I think he just called you old."

In all, Jonze came across as humble and the kind of filmmaker who encourages play on his sets. "I work with people I'm close to," he said, "and I like to try out my ideas on my friends." His method on his Beastie Boys videos, for instance, was simply a matter of "cracking ourselves up" and turning those antics into MTV staples. His friend and fellow music-video pioneer Michel Gondry was a big influence; although Gondry was constantly experimenting with visual effects, his videos always had their own unique personality.

Jonze has been in the editing room for 14 months with Her, and the final version is yet to be locked. The editing process is when he "finds" the movie. For him, the message of Her and what it says about man and machine is still being crystallized. "It's about the way we connect, the way we long to connect." And though it's certainly about "how quickly technology has changed our lives," to his mind "it's always been a relationship movie."

Friday, September 6, 2013

'Riddick' poised to overtake box office

Post-Labor Day, kids are returning to school and the deliciousness of popping into an icy, air-conditioned theatre during the summer has dissipated. September is often a dead period at the box office, but this year there appear to be more appealing options than usual, both on the genre end (Insidious: Chapter 2) and movies with a sheen of quality--and maybe even awards seekers (Rush). This weekend, there's just one wide release, Riddick (3,107 theatres).

Riddick vin diesel 2
Given that Riddick is the third film in an action-dominated series by Vin Diesel, who isn't exactly a critical darling, and the previous installment was a box-office flop, it says something that the Tomatometer currently stands at 58%--for a movie like this, it's practically a big thumbs up. Performance-wise, Riddick should benefit from being a fresh offering in a wide-open space. Less competition will also help returning films, which should expect smaller-than-average decreases. In particular, The Butler should hold strong. Pantelion's Spanish-language hit from last week, Instructions Not Included, is doubling the number of locations in release, upping the screen count to 717. The sweet family-centered comedy should do at least as well as last week, when it surprised the industry by debuting to $10.3 million.

With just one wide release, almost two dozen indies crowded into the seemingly vacant release slate. The largest of them is The Ultimate Life (412 theatres), a faith-based movie that could cross $1 million. For those interested in seeing a bit of sinning, there's A Teacher, a nail-biting, performance-focused indie about the illicit relationship between a teacher and her student. Bibliophiles can buy a ticket to Salinger (4 theatres), a documentary about the reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye. For wannabe oenophiles curious about the wine market (the surprise is that Chinese have priced everyone out of the best French wine), there's Red Obsession. Or learn about recent activism with 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film. Then there's the frothy (but disappointing,) Populaire, a 50s-set French romantic comedy about a competitive typist. With such a crowded market of indies, it will be interesting to see which ones can turn out theatrical audiences, and which ones will quickly scurry (if they aren't there already) to VOD.

On Monday, we'll see if Riddick indeed tops the box office, and where the rest of the field ends up.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Pre-Toronto, hype builds for 'Gravity' and James Cameron gives his endorsement

For those that have been following the Venice and Telluride film festivals, there's one movie that keeps being talked about: Gravity. Our contributor Tomris Laffly named it in her festival top two. Now, leading up to its next appearance at the Toronto Film Festival, the buzz is approaching an onslaught. Variety just released an article going into deep detail about how writer/director Alfonso
GravityCuaron conquered the incredible technical challenges of making the film---so much so, the movie took 4 1/2 years to make, in part because of the technology needed to film realistic, weightless scenes in space, and needed to do so using his trademark long takes. I try not to get too excited about films that get this much early hype, but in this case, it's hard not to get worked up for this feature. Nearly everything Variety says sounds like Gravity is chock-full of Oscar nominations.

On Sandra Bullock, who already looks like a Best Actress contender:

"Because it was laborious to get in and out of her rig, Bullock chose to
stay inside the light box alone for nine or 10 hours at a time,
communicating only through a headset. Though she calls those hours
isolating and silent, she adds, 'It also gave me the opportunity to dig
as deeply as I needed to for whatever was required, in privacy. … To me
it felt as though there was nothing but the thoughts in my head to give
me company.'"

On just one of the lighting challenges faced by Cuaron's cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, a five-time Oscar nominee--I'm pretty sure that alone makes him a shoo-on for the statuette:

"Lubezki suggested folding an LED screen into a box, putting the actor
inside, and using the light from the screen to light the actor. That
way, instead of moving either Bullock or Clooney in the middle of static
lights, the projected image could move while they stayed still and

And there's the endorsement of the film (and by extension, writer/director Cuaron) by one of the most technically precise filmmakers out there, James Cameron:

“'What is interesting is the human dimension,' Cameron says. 'Alfonso and Sandra working together to create an absolutely seamless portrayal of a woman fighting for her life in zero gravity.'"

For those eager to get past the September slump and catch some Oscar-worthy films, they're in luck: Gravity will be one of the first awards frontrunners to release, coming out on October 4.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Telluride on Labor Day: Salinger, and playing catch-up with TBAs

Photo (2)The town of Telluride
empties considerably on Labor Day Monday, even though the screenings continue,
and the festival’s final event –The Labor Day Picnic- takes place then. Many
film industry people (and to my surprise, many regular festival goers) take off
and head back to the real world outside of this surreal-looking mountain town.
But Monday is actually a perfect day to play catch-up with some of the films
you have heard people talk about throughout the festival, but not had a chance
to fit in your schedule until then. 

Navigating the Telluride program is incredibly tricky. As you get closer to the end point, the number of TBAs noted in the festival booklet grows, and Monday ends up being a day that is entirely made up of TBAs. That said, you can’t plan in advance and determine what you’re seeing each day and trust that you’ll have checked off all your priorities from your list of must-sees when the festival comes to a close. The festival announces all the TBAs the night before. Therefore, you pretty much have to wait until the last minute on any given day to decide on an optimal screening schedule for the next day. Complaining about how many of your “must-sees” are clashing or omitted (e.g., if I had only known they were/weren’t going to screen such and such) is a big part of the fun, as I quickly discovered. And I chipped in with my fair share of complaining.

As soon as Monday’s TBAs were announced late Sunday night, I knew what my schedule was going to be. The 9am sneak screening of Shane Salerno’s Salinger, despite the fact that it’s hitting theatres in just a few days on September 6 via Weinstein Co distribution, was a must-see in its first-ever public screening. John Curran’s Tracks, which screened in Venice and Telluride earlier in the week and got acquired by The Weinstein Co, was also going to be a priority. And the final film was going to be J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, simply because that was the only film (among the ones I hadn’t yet seen) that logically fit my schedule. It’s worth mentioning here that some exceptions aside, I consciously tried to distance myself from many Cannes-hailers that are headed to the 51st New York Film Festival, thinking, if one traveled all that distance, one should try to make a schedule unique to Telluride as much as possible. That said, I purposefully skipped the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska and Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is The Warmest Color (which won the Palme D’or) and saved them for New York.

UrlAs expected, the 9am screening of Salinger was packed with a curious crowd. I joined the priority patron line in order to guarantee my seat, and spotted Indiewire’s Eric Kohn, Thompson on Hollywood’s Anne Thompson, The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg, my friend, Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone (whom I caught most of the sneaks with) and Michael Moore. A side note here: Members of the attending press are given four patron tickets each to be used at any screening of their choice. We were all promised a “reveal” at the end of Salinger (which took Twitter by a snark storm just a few weeks ago), and in Telluride, it is important to be one of the first few to discover a secret. Hence, that was going to be a patron ticket, well spent. 

Photo (3)
Post-Screening Q&A, moderated by Ken Burns

Salinger did not disappoint as a documentary. Based on the titular book by Shane Salerno and David Shields, which is derived from nearly 200 interviews (and being cross-promoted alongside the film), Salinger meticulously chronicles the life of this legendary, mysterious, larger-than-life and personally unlikeable writer. Witnessing his struggles as a writer who constantly got rejected by The New Yorker in his early career, his relationships with very young and bright women, and his eventual choice to isolate himself from the public, I couldn’t help but think of Howard Hughes (who is also mentioned as a frame of reference in the film), but mostly, Citizen Kane’s unlikeable but ultimately vulnerable Charles Foster Kane. By the end of it, I thought –just for a hot second- that I had just been handed out a piece of the Rosebud sled that ought to have been burnt, and that only I knew about it. In reality, however (and trust me, this is not a spoiler – the news is all over the Internet), the reveal ended up being an announcement of Salinger’s completed but unpublished works, slated to be published between 2015-2020. Some appear very striking. Many will be looking forward to owning all of them. It is useful to put the reveals aside for a second, and think about Salinger purely from a filmmaking standpoint. A perfect blend of archival footage and landmark interviews, Salinger has a convincing and immersive structure that makes you believe in and respect the amount of labor put into the project. It is largely engaging and entertaining. The only hiccup (and a big reason why I can’t give full points to it) is the musical bombast in the end that is completely overbearing and unnecessary (think of the music in Christopher Nolan movies –like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, and imagine how self-important that would come across in a documentary.) Once the film ended, Sasha and I exchanged thoughts while also tweeting about the film and taking notes during the post-screening Q&A (moderated by Ken Burns). Then she pointed out a woman in the second row who looked like the writer Joyce Maynard (whose relationship with Salinger is one of the long subjects of the film). I briefly thought to myself how ironic it was that Maynard somehow bookended this year’s festival: Reitman’s Labor Day (which I saw on the first day of the festival) is adapted from her book of the same title, and there we were, on Labor Day, discussing a story which she was a big part of. Sasha was quick to notice that Maynard (who saw the film for the first time that day) left the theatre in tears before the Q&A even ended. When we stepped outside, we spotted Anne Thompson –being the great journalist she is- doing an impromptu interview with Maynard, who is apparently “angry that the film does not come down hard enough on Salinger as a serial predator of young girls.I strongly urge you to read Anne Thompson’s piece here.


Following Salinger, I decided to head to my condo to catch up on some writing, and consequently, I skipped the Labor Day Picnic. Then I caught John Curran’s Tracks as I planned, with Curran and the star Mia Wasikowska in attendance. Adapted from the true story of Robyn Davidson's 1977 journey through the Australian desert towards the Indian Ocean, the existentialist Tracks failed to impress by not reaching its full emotional potential. It’s slow-moving, somewhat cold, and makes you wish it somehow realized the true power of the real story it is adapted from. Made watchable mostly by Mia Wasikowska’s elegant performance, Tracks deserves some attention by being a rare film about an empowered and independent female character who is not defined by her romantic attachments, yet it unfortunately doesn’t go much further than that.

Url-1After finally seeing J.C. Chandor’s brilliant All Is Lost (one of the exceptions I made to my Cannes-hailer-headed-to-NY rule) in which Robert Redford tries to survive in the harshest, most unforgiving of conditions and delivers an incredibly nuanced performance (the Oscar buzz you’ve been hearing is much deserved), I called it a festival and headed back to my condo, with a strange sadness that immediately washed over me. Telluride was officially over, and realized I was already looking forward to its next edition.

Thankfully, there were still some friends in town to help ease my gloomy mood. On my final night at the Rockies, I met with my friends Kris Tapley (of HitFix/In Contention) and his lovely wife April. We grabbed drinks, discussed our favorites/disappointments of the festival, and then decided to take the gondola to the top of the mountain one final time in order to do some stargazing. And what a great idea that was.
Too bad the festival directors are adamant about going back to their usual four days in 2014. As a first-timer, it’s impossible for me to imagine this festival a day shorter. With many experiences I couldn’t have fit in even with the extra day (such as the filmmaker tributes and free screenings in the park), what would I subtract? I guess I will find out what one less day means next year. Until then, “To Hell You Ride."

'Butler' returns to win in mixed bag Labor Day weekend

During a quiet Labor Day weekend, The Butler made a splash, becoming the first 2013 release to stay at the top spot for three weekends in a row. The Civil Rights-movement drama starring Forest Whitaker and, of course, Oprah, earned $14.8 million from Friday to Sunday and $20 million

One direction this is usover the four-day period. Its Monday total was enough to push it ahead of One Direction: This Is Us, which earned $15 million over the normal weekend period, and $18 million through Monday. Concert movies have been popular ever since tween singer Miley Cyrus (you know, the star that performed at the VMAs last weekend) took the sleepy Super Bowl weekend by storm and opened Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour to $31 million. Since then, concert movies have been a bit hit-or-miss, with the Jonas Brothers completely bombing their debut, and Katy Perry not doing much better last year. But Sony was quick to point out that the One Direction movie cost just $10 million, making it an inexpensive win for the studio.

A Spanish-language underdog of a movie, Instructions Not Included, made it to fifth place over the long weekend with a total haul of $10 million. It marks the biggest hit yet for Pantelion Films,
Instructions not included the Lionsgate arm devoted to distributing films targeted at Hispanic audiences. The family-focused narrative, a mixture of comedy and heart, wowed audiences, who gave the movie an "A+" in exit polls. Popular Mexican comedian Eugenio Derbez plays a man who takes in his daughter after her birth mother abandons her, then fights to keep her when the mother shows up after they've formed a close bond. In release in just over 300 theatres, it had the best location average of the week, $28,000 per screen.

The car-set thriller Getaway lived up to its 2% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with a four-day total of $5.5 million. Still, that was better than the thriller Closed Circuit, which earned $2.5 million over the weekend. Focus Features has used this time slot before for adult thrillers like The American and The Debt, but this opening was markedly worse than those two releases, coming in with just a fraction of the take of those movies' opening weekends.

While the long weekend was poor for new releases, other returning releases posted lower-than-average drops. Blue Jasmine, in its second weekend on over 1,000 screens, had a four-day total of $5.3 million, matching last week's performance day for day. The Grandmaster, which expanded onto over 700 screens, earned $3.1 million, an excellent showing for the martial arts feature.

This Friday will be a light in major releases, with only Riddick opening in over 2,000 theatres.


Monday, September 2, 2013

James Franco creates a stir at Venice Film Festival

FJI critic Jon Frosch continues his coverage of the Venice Film Festival, this time reporting on a Judi Dench tearjerker, James Franco-mania, a new-generation Coppola, and a drama about the JFK assassination.  Read his report for France 24 here.


40th Telluride Film Festival Weekend Recap: Gravity, Prisoners and other Sneaks...

All-is-lost-redfordThe weekend in the Rockies was marked by an interesting
trend that has emerged in this year’s festival. If you are the kind of person
who keeps an eye on Twitter for film-related news and musings every now and
then, you would have noticed a number of folks already talking about All Is Lost (lost in sea) and Gravity (lost in space) in some kind of
a thematic togetherness. But the weekend over here has confirmed that this
thematic trend would continue to be the talk of this year’s cinematic stories
under the umbrella of “survival”. Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Eugene
Hernandez posted a very insightful piece about Telluride being marked by extreme
stories of survival
, including not only Gravity
and All Is Lost under this theme, but
also (very rightfully so) 12 Years A
(which I talked about in my previous Telluride dispatch). Over at The
New York Times, A. O. Scott similarly hinted towards the same trend (by calling All Is Lost "another movie about the fight for survival in a hostile environment.") So here
we are, slowly heading into the madness of the awards season, with survival in
mind. Seems ironically fitting.

PrisonersSo, what did I see over the weekend? My Saturday was marked by ‘dizzying tension’, as well as survival. Early Saturday morning (8:30
am, to be specific), I started my day with a sneak peek of Prisoners directed by Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), which was a competent if not slightly overwrought
procedural/thriller. While capably maintaining tension throughout, Villeneuve’s
film lost some blood due to a few issues in its script (written by Aaron
Guzikowski), reminding us that it is never good news when characters take
unconvincing steps and make senseless decisions as a convenient means of
furthering the plot. Still, there is a lot to like here. Tension, for one.
Melissa Leo, for two. And most importantly, Roger Deakins’ gorgeous photography
that makes the experience worthwhile. Prisoners
will hit the theaters in just a couple of weeks under a Warner Bros
distribution. You may choose to check it out, or perhaps re-watch a masterpiece
called Zodiac instead that an
ultimately Fincher-esque Prisoners
will inevitably make you think of.

New_7639101_starred_upAfter a brief stopover at the Elks Park to hear a free panel
moderated by Annette Insdorf (Moving Pictures: How is narrative shaped by
evolving visual strategies? What makes a story cinematic?), with the attendance
of Jason Reitman, Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Asghar Farhadi; I continued
my Saturday with David Mackenzie’s excellent Starred Up, starring a jaw-dropping Jack O’Connell (whom you might
remember from This Is England and Harry Brown.) Depicting the corruption
within the British prison system through the story of a teenage criminal,
Mackenzie’s accomplishment lies in his unbending honesty and naturalism in
telling the story of another survival struggle. Starred Up is drawing a lot of comparisons to Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, and there is currently some
distribution buzz around it.

-2In the evening came this year’s hottest ticket, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity in 3D (and along with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, my favorite of this year’s festival). A dizzying, nauseating and heart-stopping space
adventure, Gravity is very much a tightly choreographed piece of
cinematic dazzle, completely free of excessive flashiness and overwrought
dialogues. For reasons you will understand as soon as you see it, many talk
about Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as a point of reference to this movie. But in
all honesty, it made me think of Ridley Scott’s Alien a lot more –
it was almost impossible to not recall Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney
Weaver) while watching Dr. Ryan Stone (played by a marvelous Sandra Bullock)
embracing all her intuitive instincts in order to survive in this masterpiece
that celebrates the classic adventure genre by slightly turning it over its
head. During the post-screening Q&A in front of an overexcited audience in
the Werner Herzog Theatre, writer/director Alfonso Cuarón (joined by his
co-writer and son Jonás Cuarón) said, “This film was a big act of
miscalculation. That's why it took four-and-a-half years to make.”, jokingly
addressing the challenges of pulling off an overambitious project such as this
one that deceptively looked easier to tackle at first.

Saturday was concluded with a laid-back (and surprisingly
under-attended) Fox Searchlight party over at the New Sheridan Bar. In addition
to prominent journalists and bloggers, the entire 12 Years A Slave team were in attendance (all but Brad Pitt). It
was the right way to end an epic day marked by Gravity; catching up with
friends over a few drinks, and watching the contenders Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o dance the night away.

NEFdPmZHz0viJF_1_2The following day, I was able to fit in Ritesh Batra’s
heart-warming and old-fashioned love story/drama The Lunchbox, which is slated for distribution by Sony Classics. Charged
by humanistic performances by Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur, this little film has
become a darling in the streets of Telluride, producing much enthusiastic word
of mouth. I continued my day with Yuval Adler’s Bethlehem – a powerful drama that navigates the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict through a Palestinian teenager’s troubling life. Following Bethlehem, I had an incredible 30-minute chat with The Past director Asghar Farhadi on his
latest movie and his cinema collectively. I can hardly wait to transcribe our conversation in which he offered generous insights about his narrative choices and cinematic aspirations.

Catching up with Twitter later on alerted
me about the three pieces of news that broke a little earlier that day. First
was The Weinstein Co acquisition of Tracks. The second was Hayao Miyazaki’s
retirement decision (which convinced me to catch his somber and beautiful The Wind Rises at Chuck Jones later that
night.) And the third was, the Weinstein Co Team bringing the Salinger documentary to Telluride
crash-landing in Telluride’s frightening regional airport. Thankfully, no
injuries were reported. Talk about a weekend being marked by stories of