Dardennes Interview

"Two Days, One Night" might be the best Dardennes movie yet. Marion Cotillard is mesmerizing in her role as Sandra, a young Belgian mother who discovers her co-workers were pressured to choose between getting a significant pay bonus and having her keep her job. The way Cotillard approaches each and every co-worker, pleading — sometimes even begging — for them to change their vote is heartbreaking. It’s a movie that once again places the talented directing duo on the short list of the very best filmmakers in the world today. I met up with them a few months back to discuss the process, Cotillard and the small details that make a Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne film so damn great.

What were the roots of this film ?
Luc Dardenne : We've been working on the screenplay for a very long time. The character of Sandra was the main focus. We always saw that character as someone who was scared but who fought through adversity no matter how intense or frustrating the times got it. There were a few questions we wanted to answer 1) Against social insecurity, how can she rebuild? 2) At the end of this voyage Sandra had to turn into a new person, a sort of rebirth. We didn't know exactly how how we would get to that point, but we knew that it would end -one way or another- with Sandra saying "I'm not scared anymore".

One of the interesting things about this film is that its episodic nature is revealed quite early in the film and that you know exactly what kind of film this is going to be
L. D. : We had to to take this formula seriously. We always knew there would be suspense with each of the meetings she had with her co-workers. Who will open the door? Will they say yes or no? Given her psychological instability, how will Sandra take it? We know from the first few minutes that she isn't a fighter. At the end of all this will she be able to rally the troops and get them to vote for her. We always knew repetition or an episodic kind of film would make for good drama if done right. We purposely had her co-workers give similar replies, such as "put yourself in my position" or "what are the others saying". It was a also a case of: If we told you that 10 out of the 15 people agreed to change their votes, would you be less scared?
Sandra doesn't really stigmatize her co-workers
L.D : It is not a story about good vs. evil.  Every meeting is very complex. Sandra understands them and sometimes you feel as if she doesn't blame them for taking the bonus. Would she have done the same thing in their position? She might have, that's part of the complexities of the film. We purposely chose a small-scale company where there weren't enough workers for there to be a union. The film would have been very different if it was unionized.
Most of your films have had less famous actors and that brought a feeling of realism to the surroundings. Cotillard is not an unknown actress, this was a stroke of genius in casting. What led you to choosing Marion?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne : 
Choosing a big name actress was a gamble and potentially dangerous for the realism we were going for, This became a somewhat exciting challenge for us, Marion found a way to deliver something she hadn't really delivered before, a new body, a new face, a new side to the Marion we all dearly knew.

We always wanted to work with Marion. We co-produced Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone and we wanted to meet when the film was going to shoot in Belgium. We met briefly for  around 10 minutes. We actually wanted to cast Marion as a doctor for another screenplay we were working on. When we abandoned the doctor project, the character of Sandra came back to the fold and Marion was the obvious choice. It had to be Marion. We had to make sure she was fine with the role, since we abandoned the doctor project, her response was "I really don't care, I just want to work with you guys" We rehearsed for a month and a half, as we do with all our projects. All that rehearsal and repetition really prepared Marion to be as raw and bar bones for a role that is very complicated and layered with undertones.

L.D It became quite obvious we made the right decision the moment we started shooting. There was something in those eyes and the expressions on her face that instantly made it an ideal match.
One thing that struck me is the color of the clothes Sandra wears. That -now iconic- pink top and other lively colors. Anything behind that?
L. D. : Good catch. We tried to dress up Sandra in colors that a person coming out of a past depression would wear. Colorful, never wanting to go back to the dark side. Even if at times she does fall off the bandwagon, the colors stay the same with the hope of going back to the light. We also were very careful with the shoes we chose for Marion to wear, the noise they made. We had the choice for lighter shoes but they didn't make any noise when she walked. We wanted every step heard on this journey she was in.
Do you guys do many takes?
L. D. : Depends. For the scene where Sandra breaks down in the room we did around 81 takes. If we have a scene where we find the flow is not right we will say something like : « Now Marion, can you please take a shorter silence in between so and so words and say so and so a little faster » but really it all comes down to how it flows in the editing room, thats why getting many takes is sometimes a great thing. Our editing has a lot to do with the certain flow we are going for even before we shoot the movie.

To end this interview I'm going to ask you guys a question that I tend to ask most filmmakers at the conclusion of an interview. Is there a movie that you've discovered recently that has renewed or solidified your passion for movies?

J.P.D Too many to name. The last Jia Zhang-Ke was phenomenal. Abbas Kiarostami never disappoints. Wong Kar-Wai. "Boyhood" the last linklater was phenomenal.

L.D. There's a great scene in that movie where the mother played by Patricia Arquette sits at the kitchen table and sends her son off to college and there's just such a simplicity and attention to detail that really just got to me. Everything in that scene just works right. 


Under the Skin
Blue Ruin
Gone Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel

Force Majeure
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Inherent Vice
Edge Of Tomorrow
American Sniper
The LEGO Movie
Grand Piano
Nymphomaniac Part II
Night Moves
Life Itself
Get On Up
St. Vincent
Love is Strange
John Wick
The Guest
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Two Days, One Night
A Most Violent Year
Straw Dogs
Starred Up

Stranger By The Lake
Listen Up Philip
The Raid 2
Goodbye to Language
The Interview
Top Five
The Babadook
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
The Drop
Guardians of the Galaxy
A Most Wanted Man
I Origins
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Labor Day
The Immigrant
X-Men: Days of Future Past

The Judge
Jimi: All is By My Side
The Gambler
22 Jump Street
Obvious Child
The Fault in Our Stars
Bad Words
Tim's Vermeer
The Last of the Unjust
The Wind Rises

Moore, Witherspoon and the inevitable

Julianne Moore. There, I said it. That’s a name you’re likely going to be hearing a lot in the coming weeks, hell, probably months. She is the surest thing to come out of this year’s awards race. Ever since I saw her incredibly moving performance in “Still Alice”, back in September, it seemed like a no-brainer. Based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 best-selling novel, the film is a striking look at the nastiness and brutality that falls upon an American family when one of their loved ones is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Moore is ever so brilliant in the movie, encompassing the way a person can lose track of herself and her own identity even when she tries ever so hard to retain it. Just through Moore’s eyes you can witness the slow detachment Alice is going through from society, friends, family, and herself. It’s a devastating film because, just like Alice, her ever deteriorating brain keeps getting erased of its precious memories without you even noticing the effects – it isn’t until the last few scenes that the devastation this disease has caused hits you.

“Still Alice” has some of the hardest scenes to watch of any movie this year, but it’s all so worth it for the humbling journey that is involved with it. Indie filmmakers Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer don’t try to pull at the heartstrings, they just tell their story in the simplest way possible, and why wouldn’t they? They have Julianne Moore at their disposal, one of the great actresses of our time (“Short Cuts”, “The Kids Are All Right”, “Boogie Nights”, “Far From Heaven”, “Safe”, “Magnolia”, “Children of Men”, “The Hours” and even next year’s “Maps to the Stars” directed by David Cronenberg, in which she plays a down-and-out actress, desperate for her next big shot). Every time she’s on screen, Cronenberg’s film ignites with excitement and his pitch black Hollywood satire gets even darker.

If Moore is the surest thing to come out of this year’s race, it doesn’t mean that the other nominees should pack it up and call it a night. For example, if Reese Witherspoon hadn’t won back in 2006 for “Walk the Line” we’d be talking about a close race to the finish. Witherspoon’s work in Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Wild” is astounding, equaling her Best Actress work as June Carter Cash. Coming out next week, the same week “Still Alice” is released, Vallée’s film is a stirring portrait of love, despair and hope. You can call it “Eat, Pray, Hike”, but that’s where comparisons should end with that Julia Roberts vehicle. Vallée, who directed last year’s “Dallas Buyers Club”, is an artist through and through. Ever since his beginnings in Quebec cinema I’ve kept a watchful eye on him. Just check out “Café de Flore” or “C.R.A.Z.Y” to see how great of a filmmaker he can truly be.

“Wild” has a more conventional storyline than those aforementioned films but he and Witherspoon make up for it with sheer artistry. It also helps that gifted writer/novelist Nick Hornby and Cheryl Strayed – on whose book this is based – wrote the screenplay. After a brutal divorce and losing her mom to cancer, Strayed went on an 1100 mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself to try to bring meaning to a life that was crumbling. It sounds like the kind of stuff the Hallmark channel would dig, but don’t kid yourself, Vallée knows better than to stoop down to that level. Apart from Witherspoon’s emotionally resonant performance, the other major thing you notice in the film is how incredibly well edited it is.

Going back and forth between present day, flashbacks, flash forwards and dream-like imagery can be a tricky business, but Vallée and his longtime editing partner Martin Pensa (“Dallas Buyers Club”) nail every detail. And Witherspoon, what more can be said about an actress who had me at hello ever since the day I first saw her in Alexander Payne’s “Election” (still the best performance she’s ever given). It wasn’t just that movie – her enormous talent has shone through over the years in films such as “Pleasantville”, “American Psycho”, “Cruel Intentions”, “I Walk the Line” and last year’s underrated “Mud”.

 How refreshing it is to have not one but two top notch female performances coming out in the same week. These two actresses are on par with the incredible work Felicity Jones has done in the recently released “Theory of Everything”, Rosamund Pike’s harrowingly hypnotic femme fatale in David Fincher’s “Gone Girl”, Anne Dorval in “Mommy”, Scarlett Johansson in “Under the Skin” and my dark horse favorite Marion Cotillard and the mesmerizing performance she gives in “Two Days, One Night”. The latter three might not get the nominations they deserve, but I advise you to seek these performances out because they will absolutely blow you away.


Foreign language race article

My article on the foreign language race is up now at Sasha Stone's fabulous site Awardsdaily. I haven't seen Timbuktu yet but I think I've possibly set something up to get to see it in the next week or two. It's been on my radar for quite a while now and cannot wait to check it out. The race is starting to shape up as a highly competitive venture for each of its participants, the foreign language movies I checked out this past year at various film festivals were quite exceptional, so much so that I already have a solid top ten list for 2015!

Happy weekend everybody, hopefully I'll be able to post either today or tomorrow.


The enigma that is "Foxcatcher" (dir. Benneth Miller)

Here's a movie that doesn't pander to you. It doesn't try to manipulate to you, nor does it try to get a cheap thrill for the sake getting a cheap thrill. Benneth Miller's quiet -and I do mean quiet- new film "Foxcatcher" is so simple that it can sneak up on you way after the end credits have rolled. Based on the story of Olympic winning wrestlers Dave and Mark Schultz and John Du Pont- the rich profiteer that took them in and eventually betrayed them- the film is a devastating american tragedy of the highest order but while watching the film you wouldn't even know it. All you know is that within each and every frame lies a dread that is almost indescribable- it fills you up with a feeling that cannot be shaken. I was angered, thrilled, bored, confused and stung by "Foxcatcher". The fact that Miller leaves out a lot of the story only enhances the fact that it might just be the most inaccessible studio picture in quite a bit of time -and I do mean that as a compliment.

It plays almost like a shakespearean tragedy with all three of its actors delivering on the buzz that has been building up since the film's debut this past May at Cannes. Steve Carrell -wearing a devilish prosthetic nose- is superb as Du Pont, a man that has been spoon-fed everything in his life. Getting rejected or having anybody say no to him is unacceptable, he gets his way, he always has.  Channing Tatum is Mark Schultz an aspiring wrestler that has already won Olympic gold and builds up a unique but disturbing friendship with Du Pont after the heir takes him into his Foxcatcher ranch and builds a wrestling facility all for him. Mar's brother Dave -also a gold medalist- is played by the always talented Mark Ruffalo who makes the most of his limited screen-time.

It is quite obvious that it doesn't end well for any of these tragic Shakespearian figures and chances are you already know about the tragedy that happened at the ranch back in the late 80'sFoxcatcher isn't the kind of movie you can love, it's the kind of movie you have the upmost respect for because of how courageous and bold it truly turns out to be. It's a bleak portrait of the American dream gone haywire. Miller doesn't let you go inside any of his characters' heads and leaves you out with not many questions answered. That can sometimes be very frustrating and

Citizenfour (dir. Laura Poitras)

Let's be real, we all knew we were being watched, it's the stuff that we usually joke about with friends. "Oh shit did I say that out loud? I'm sure someone's listening in on this conversation" and so on- I don't think after watching Laura Poitras' Citizenfour you will look at that joke the same way again. Poitras is a competent filmmaker with a decent hand at making absorbing stuff out of post 9/11 america. Truth be told the reason why she's getting such rave reviews for this newest film is because she struck gold by getting an in-depth 8 day hotel room interview with former NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, in fact most of the documentary takes place as the news is about to break about the dirty little things the NSA has been doing on not just its own citizens but many foreign countries around the world. The footage is landmark, historic, jaw-dropping as you see Snowden reveal details to stunned Journalist Glenn Greenwald from the Guardian and Poitras herself in a tiny Hong Kong hotel room. The film is so fascinating because even after all is said and done you still haven't quite figured out Snowden's intentions and the exact reason why he is putting himself and -eventually- his family and 10+ year girlfriend in this absurdly chaotic situation. It's mesmerizing stuff that -to me- was just as interesting from a journalistic point of view, the role of a journalist and the lengths one may go in getting this kind of information out in public no matter the consequences.

What is coming up? pt.2 "The Babadook"

Coming out in a week or so is Jennifer Kent's The Babadook which has been building considerable buzz for a few weeks now and has been compared -for some reason- to the horror greats. I wouldn't bank on the buzz. You just wish the movie were half as great as perennial classics like The Shining, The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby and -hell- even 2015's upcoming It Follows. What's missing from Kent's films is a move away from the usual formula. Yes The Badabook is a good by-the-numbers horror flick but it is nothing more. The script is conventional but -thank goodness- Kent's direction isn't. She infuses some much needed freshness to tried and tired formula that's been done two folds. A mother trying to protect her son from some sort of demon taking over the house and so on and so on. You're going to be hearing a lot of positive things about this movie in the coming week, don't keep your hopes up, just be warned that it does the job but nothing more and nothing less. Simple as that. Kent tries her best to raise the material to something more artful but the script she works with just can't go to that level.

what is coming up? pt1 "The Imitation Game"

Now that the year is coming to a close and you will all be preparing your top ten lists and predictions for upcoming awards season, I just wanted to give you the heads up on a few gems that are about to open up in limited or wide release. There are two weeks left to November and we are about to see the opening of what many are calling the front runner for Best Picture Morton Tyldum's The Imitation Game- a conventional yet sometimes exciting drama about Alan Turin, a British man that singlehandedly cracked the enigma code in WWII and was partly responsible for the end of that war. The best scenes revolve around Alan et co. trying to crack the code, the worst scenes are flashbacks of a younger Turin wrestling with his sexuality as a homosexual in an all boys covenant. Benedict Cumberbacth is phenomenal in the title role and deserves to get nominated even if he's just playing Benedict Cumberbatch circa WWII. It's a mixed package but these kind of movies are what the academy loves best -The King's Speech anybody?- and The Imitation Game is in fact a good movie but it isn't even close to being the best of the year.

Oscar race update: Foreign Language Film '14

The race for Best Foreign Language Film is as heated as its ever been this year. Movies from countries like Ukraine, Sweden, Canada, Turkey, France and Italy are in a heated race for the gold, but only a single film will emerge as the winner. Having covered more than 5 major film festivals this year I've had the chance to see most of the big contenders vying for the top prize. The quality this year has been unprecedented, so has the fact that now, more than ever, there are more ways than one to catch up with these fantastic films.

I've narrowed it down to eight films that have made their mark on the festival circuit and in theatres that stand a big chance for a nomination. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these had their debuts at Cannes and kept the momentum throughout the year. Of course, like any other year, there is a chance that some dark horses will emerge and trump the big boys, but for now this is how the race is looking. Take not that this is one of the most unpredictable categories and that in years best it was very difficult to correctly predict all five of the nominees.

Of note, I'm still dumbfounded by Ukraine's decision to submit "The Guide" instead of Myroslav Slaboshpytski's harrowing "The Tribe", a film in total sign language and without subtitles that hits you like nothing else that's come before it. It's a brilliant film that is already a contender for my 2015 ten best list.

Wild Tales 

"Wild Tales" is one hell of an original vision, which is not surprising considering it has been compared to early Tarantino because of its inventive narrative. This is a film that hits you hard, and then even harder, and then even harder, until you are left gasping for air when its final frame hits the screen. I guess you can tell I liked it. In fact, director Damian Szifron's film has been sneaking into every single major film festival with very little word of mouth to go along with it, but the buzz is finally building and people are finally noticing what an incredible film it really is. You'll be hearing a lot of comparisons to Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and those comparisons wouldn't be far off, as the film is composed of six standalone short stories that have a common theme of violence and vengeance.


Xavier Dolan's "Mommy" is already breaking box office records in Quebec and will most certainly become Dolan's highest grossing movie in the U.S. when it finally gets released early next year. It is then no surprise that his next movie will be his first shot in English and will star the incomparably talented Jessica Chastain. "Mommy" is a terrific movie that features mother and son constantly, maddeningly talking over each other, verbal fireworks that bring a rawness to a breathtakingly original movie shot in an absurdly squared 1:1 aspect ratio; there's a scene midway that brilliantly explains why he decided to shoot his film that way. Dolan's film might be overlong but his ambitious vision more than makes up for it. I wouldn't be surprised if he wins it all come Oscar night.

Winter's Sleep

Two Cannes favorites will also be duking it out for the top prize: Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Palme d'or winner "Winter Sleep" and Andrei Zviaguintsev's "Leviathan". "Winter Sleep" stands no chance to win, but has enough fans to maybejust maybe, squeak in as one of the five nominees. It's a frustrating but rewarding film that is also the talkiest film I've ever seen, even more so than Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage". It’s a mediation on violence, friendship, and family among other things, but more importantly is a film filled with beautiful landscapes and moments of sheer brilliance contrasted with a few moments of sheer boredom. I was a big fan of "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia", so much so that it made my ten best list in 2012, but "Winter's Sleep" doesn't reach those heights nor does it really want to.


"Leviathan" is an incredible moviegoing experience that was – surprisingly! – chosen by Russia as its Foreign Language submission, despite the fact that the film is a downright critique of the scorned society the Putin regime has molded over the past decade in the motherland. A Russian man recruits his lawyer friend to sue a corrupt mayor who's attempting to seize his house for demolishment. This corrupt mayor is the quintessential portrait of a Russia that its director Zviaguintsev isn't proud of being part of, and it’s is no surprise the 50 year-old director now resides in Toronto, far away from his native country’s harsh realities. Many thought "Leviathan" deserved the big prize at Cannes this past May, which would only be fitting if it beats out "Winter's Sleep" for a nomination.


If you haven't heard of Pawel Pawlikowski's "Ida", you better get used to the name. It will most likely be on a ton of year end top ten lists and is a sure-bet for a Foreign Language nomination. Its subtle, holocaust themed narrative is a definite draw, but so is the brilliant black and white photography by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal and the impeccable performances by Agata Kulesza and Agata Trebuchowska. The harrowingly quiet narrative draws you into its story filled with dark secrets and even darker truths, as an orphan brought up in a nun covenant meets a long lost aunt who tells her the story of her Jewish heritage and the dark past nobody wanted her to know about.

Two Days, One Night

My next write-up for AD will most likely be my fascinating interview with the Dardennes brothers back in September at the Toronto Film Festival. I had just seen what I thought was the best movie of their career and one of the very best movies I’ve seen about the economy crisis. It was a blast talking to them about the film, Cotillard and what they thought was the best film of 2014. Here’s a hint: It’s a Linklater. Marion Cotillard is mesmerizing in her role as Sandra, a young Belgian mother who discovers her co-workers were pressured to choose between getting a significant pay bonus and having her keep her job. The way Cotillard approaches each and every co-worker, pleading — sometimes even begging — for them to change their vote is heartbreaking. It's a movie that once again places the talented directing duo as one of the very best filmmakers in the world. A nomination for this movie seems a no-brainer at this point and I call Cotillard as a dark horse for a nomination in the Best Actress category.

Force Majeure

Just released this past Friday was Ruben Ostlund's sometimes frustrating but immersively brilliant "Force Majeure", a film that would play tremendously well in a double bill with “Gone Girl. Both films tackle a "modern-day marriage" in fresh and inventive ways. Where Fincher's film is a sly, devilish portrait of the modern day "cool girl", Ostlund's film is about the male ego and manhood in general.

A husband, his wife and their two kids vacation in the French Alps. On the first day they ski, dine, take "happy" pictures and nap together in bed. The scenery is picturesque and so is this – it seems – wealthy family. Everything changes on the second day. A moment happens that triggers the family's trust towards the patriarchal figure. The husband is caught in a "fight or flight" moment and in a quick flash his role in the family is questioned.

The questions "Force Majeure" asks are tough and not easy to answer. What exactly is "manhood"? Are we a society caught up in gender stereotypes? Are our illusions of security and responsibility skewed, flawed? It's a movie that sparks conversation but also asks us to look in the mirror and question everything we thought we knew about ourselves. In a brilliant third act, Ostlund pulls the rug under us and shows us the hypocrisy and lunacy of it all. This is a major contender.

When I interviewed Richard Gere ....

Below is a link to the interview I had with Richard Gere last month at the Toronto Film Festival. He was there promoting his latest film, a daring, plotlesss film directed by Oren Moverman. I got a couple more interviews that I wrote from TIFF that should see the light of day very soon.


Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Fall Movie Season is upon us and -yes- the movies are now going to be considerably better. In the next few months you're going to see for yourself how great movies like "Whiplash", "Foxcatcher", "Nightcrawler", "Gone Girl" and many more truly are- However, that doesn't mean there weren't solid movies in the summer. No, I won't be telling you about how great "Boyhood" was because more than enough people have written about Linklater's masterpiece.
In fact, you might have missed the exhilarating work Director Doug Liman and his star Tom Cruise gave us this past summer. Chances are you probably did miss "Edge of Tomorrow" when it played in theatres this past June. The paltry 90 million dollars it made at the box office was also further proof that Tom Cruise just isn't the box office draw he used to be. The star has had a bad rep of late, but -safe for the Oprah couch jumping - we should really give the guy a break. He’s still the talented actor that acted in “Magnolia”, “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Minority Report” just to name a few of his achievements. His work in Liman's movie is solid and reminds me why he became a movie star in the first place.
Then why did nobody catch on to the brilliance? It just came out that Warner Bros. moved their upcoming Wachowski Brothers movie "Jupiter Ascending" to 2015 because of how badly "Edge of Tomorrow" performed at the box office for them. Yikes. The reviews for "Edge of Tomorrow" were positive, earning a 90% fresh rating on Rottentomatoes, and the feedback I got from people who saw it was that it was the best Tom Cruise movie they saw in a very long time.
You might have dismissed the film as a sci-fi “Groundhog Day” and you wouldn’t have been wrong. However, Liman's film was more than just a gimmick; it had an originality and spontaneity that most other blockbusters failed to carry this summer. A playfulness that left you giddy with excitement. It also had a great, strong female lead performance in Emily Blunt’s war -torn hero. Is it just me or is Blunt one of the most underrated actresses around today? In everything she’s in, I always end up loving what she does with the role.
For a film that essentially dealt with Cruise's Colonel Cage time-looping the same situation over and over again, you might have expected the film to start getting a feeling of repetitiveness, but that never happened. In fact, the only quibble I had with the movie was the last 10 or so minutes when the plot deviated away from the time-looping and into anti-climactic combat mode. That was a small price to pay for what had followed before it, “Edge of Tomorrow” was one of the most thrilling cinematic experiences I had in a while and, surprisingly, also one of the funniest. The film’s humor was a definite plus as we were given the same situation over and over again, mocking itself with ingeniously constructed humor.
I could have written about "Lucy" and what an unusual, underrated treat it was but Sasha already did that beautifully with her review, I could have pondered the brilliant layers and colors of "Snowpiercer's" episodic, dystopian narrative but Ryan already chimed in about how incredible that movie was. So here I am, giving props to another 2014 movie that went under the radar. "Edge of Tomorrow" is a movie that should not have worked but it did, it kept me on the edge of my seat and was actually something to recommend at the multiplex this summer.

Two summer love stories

Love is Strange (R) ★★★

Blink and you might miss John Lithgow and Alfred Molina’s transcendent work in Ira Sachs’ “Love is Strange”. Blink again and you might miss its short stay at your local art house theatre. That is if it hasn’t already left town.  Sachs’ beautifully crafted indie, which had a phenomenal debut earlier this year at Sundance,  is such a simple story that you might shrug it off as something minor, but that’s why it’s so damn good: It sneaks up on you when you least expect it.
Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina) are a gay couple that just got married in New York, legalization has finally arrived and they embrace the moment and the times. However, not long after their union, George is fired form his job as head of the choir because word comes out that he is gay. A crisis hits, the apartment that the couple just bought is now unaffordable, and they must move out and find something reasonably cheaper. Ben moves in with his nephew, the nephew’s wife and their temperamental son, with whom Ben has to share a bunk bed.  George moves in with two friends, who also happen to be gay cops. Their constant partying becomes insufferable. Both are caught in a situation they never thought would be possible, and, with the New York housing situation being absurdly ridiculous these days, a newly found apartment seems very far.

Sachs’ film is a smartly written and assuring one. He bypasses the clichés by preventing his film from heading towards the same old traps and conventional structures that other lower tier movies have fallen into. “Love is Strange” is about many important things confronting the average New Yorker today: community, friendships, relationships, the economic demands of living in New York, what it is to be an artist and, of course, how the ideal of a “perfect marriage” fabricated by our society is a ludicrous one and that finding such a union is almost impossible. There are concessions that need to be made.

Lithgow and Molina are stunning and deliver career best performances. Here are two actors that have been around forever, yet have never been as good as they are here, especially Lithgow, whose aging has brought a real nuance to the 70 year-old painter he portrays on screen. The lines on his face bring out more emotional undertones to an already complex and unapologetic character. Ditto Molina, whose angst and desperation can be heard without words, just facial expressions. Nominations are far beyond the reach of this film but if this were a fair world, Molina and Lithgow would already be at the top of the list of contenders.

Life Itself (PG-13) ★★★

I used to love reading Roger Ebert’s film reviews. Even if you didn’t agree with many of his opinions, you couldn’t help but revel in the incredibly smart writing. He justifiably won a Pulitzer Prize for what he accomplished, yet here was man who had such bad luck with his health. Steve James’ “Life Itself” is an in-depth, intimate look at his final days, most of them spent at a Chicago hospital.  James’ “Hoop Dreams” was selected as the best film of 1994 by Ebert, which in turn helped James’ career tremendously. Here the filmmaker returns the favor by giving us an eloquent and mesmerizing tribute the late film critic.

It is safe to say that the most touching and important scenes of “Life Itself” take place at the Chicago hospital in which Ebert stayed during his final days on earth. There we see a man whose jaw was lost due to cancer and who now has to talk through a computer device. Yet, he has enough optimism to light up an entire room; his health seems to be deteriorating, yet there still is a fire burning to live and enjoy the precious moments.

His passion for life is still there: His brilliant blog was an infallible passion of his and so were the movies. In one scene he is excited by the thought of getting his hospital leave to go to the movies. As a movie buff you understand the pure, unadulterated joy he wants of escaping at the movies, and because of that, the scene has a subtle power.

Many moments in “Life Itself” are hard to watch because you see a man that looks defeated and too proud to admit it on the outside. In one particular scene, Ebert struggles to take baby steps on the treadmill at the physiotherapy clinic and tries to tell his trainer that he’s had enough. Another scene involves his struggle to go up the stairs once he gets home, and the anger that must be boiling inside him that he cannot express in words. Yet, when he speaks through his computer, you sense the un-relinquishing hope that stayed with him until his very last moments, as touchingly described to us by his loving and caring wife Chaz.

Chaz. You can say that she has an important role in the film. The love of his life, the person who stuck by him through the very end. She was the ultimate partner. “Life Itself” reveals itself to be a love story, just like life itself usually comes down to one thing: love. Whether it be through a lover, family, friends, spiritual, sexual, “Life Itself” makes you want to appreciate every moment that is to come and is – warts and all – a lovingly fitting tribute to a great writer.

The five best Robin Williams performances

1) John Keating, Dead Poets Society

Come on, admit it, you couldn't resist Williams' incredible performance as an english teacher that inspires his students to love poetry and seize the day. It's an unabashedly sentimental movie and incredible performance by an actor at the peak of his powers. His Professor John Keating is a man that embodies every professor who you thought was cool and respectful, every person who taught or enlightened with something out of the ordinary. Williams made it HIS performance and this is the one role he will likely be remembered for in 40,50,60 years from now.

2) Daniel Hillard, Mrs. Doubtifre

On a less serious, but no less brilliant, note Williams brought slapstick comedy to the forefront of his movie career as Daniel Hillard a man that wants to see his children so badly that he dresses up in drag and pretends he's a British nanny. The transformative Williams is tremendously good in a roile that could have easily delved into the ridiculous. It was a hilarious and heartfelt performance that used the snap-fast ADHD'ed tempo of his comedy. I will need more than two hands to count the number of classic one liners this film has and another few hands to count the number of times I have seen this movie in my childhood.

3) Genie, Aladdin 

Fine this was an animated voice performance but it also probably is the single greatest voice performance in animated movie history. This is how it all worked out: the directors brought Williams to his sound recording booth and asked him to just let'er rip and improvise with whatever the hell he felt like improvising with and only after did they do the animation to fit his voice. It worked out just fine. Williams' Genie is the clearcut highlight of this classic Disney movie and he ultimately set the bar for more adult-oriented jokes in animated features, which to this day is still an influential part of the animation process.

4)  Adrian Cronauer, Good Morning Vietnam

How can anyone discount this great performance. As a radio DJ for the armed forces in Vietnam, Williams' Cronauer tries to make a difference and speak up about what is really happening. Heavy stuff right? It is, to a certain extent. His character is scarred by war and his own inner terror. It was Williams' first oscar nomination and a sign of things to come for an actor that was about to break through big time in Drama while having some side jokes along the way.

5) Parry, The Fisher King

It is quite difficult trying to explain to somebody what Terry Gilliams' fantasy film really is about, but I think that's the beauty of The Fisher King, a film so devoid of cliches that it never seizes to amaze at every turn. Williams is the core of the movie, playing a homeless man scarred by tragedy and emotionally run over by his constant hallucinations. Parry is a man that is difficult to understand but easy to like.  Williams deservedly got Oscar nominated for this role. 

TIFF 2014 report

The performances keep getting the attention at the fest. Last year “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” were Oscar bound the minute they got screened (and were declared as such by Telluride), but this year there is no such movie.
Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller is the dark side of the American dream with an eerie understated score accompanying its tremendous performances, none better than Steve Carell, creepy as hell, playing a billionaire wannabe wrestling coach trying to get his recruit athlete, played by Channing Tatum, a gold medal at the Olympics. It’s a performance constantly talked about since Cannes, but it really is that good.
If “The Imitation Game” was a major hit at Telluride, it has some competition here with James Marsh’s “The Theory of Everything”, most notably because of Eddie Redmayne’s performance playing Stephen Hawking. You can’t take your eyes off of Redmayne. He doesn’t play Hawking, he IS Stephen Hawking. Whenever I get into a conversation with somebody about this movie, it always comes back to Redmayne, a 32 year old British actor known to Americans for his role as Marius Pontmercy in Les Miserables. Felicity Jones is also fabulous as Hawking’s wife Jane Hawking, a woman who stuck by her man until the task became too overwhelming.
You want electric? Look no further than J.K Simmons in “Whiplash”, one of the best movies to have played at the fest so far and one that warranted a rousing standing ovation. I’ve bumped into many TIFF-goers who are telling me this could win the Audience award and I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. It’s a blisteringly made crowd pleaser that makes excitingly high art out of jazz drumming. J.K Simmons is the teacher from hell, pushing his students to limits they might not even have –- think Sgt. Hartman from “Full Metal Jacket” but turned into a Jazz band professor at the best music school in the U.S. Don’t be surprised if Simmons gets tons of Awards attention by years end, he’s incredibly good. The movie asks us moral and ethical questions near its end but its rousing conclusion is the most exhilarating and sensational end to a movie I’ve seen so far this year.
The haunted genius of Bobby Fischer comes to us in “Pawn Sacrifice”, a by-the-books account of Fischer’s endless genius and torment. As played by Tobey Maguire, Fischer was one hell of a chess player but he also had paranoiac delusions that ultimately led to his downfall. That downfall is sadly not touched upon during the film, which mostly has to do with Fischer’s rivalry with soviet chess champion Boris Spassky, as played by always reliable Liev Schreiber. I don’t think Maguire’s ever given us such a performance, one that keeps you on the edge throughout and brings real humanity to a very conflicted human being. Edward Zwick, whose helmed “Glory” and “Blood Diamond” in the last, knows what kind of performance he’s getting from Maguire and he does what he should do, lets him rip.