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.

a few TIFF thoughts 2014

So far the Toronto International Film Festival has been more about the performances than the movies themselves. Some of us are still awaiting “The Theory of Everything”, “The Imitation Game”, “Rosewater”, “The Good Lie”, “Time out of Mind” and “Wild” among others to finally screen. As many have pointed out, there hasn’t been that wow factor we keep looking for here at the fest, in other words a game-changer.

Jason Reitman’s newest film “Men, Women and Children” screened to a polite reaction. The film garnered decidedly mixed reaction after its early-morning screening on Saturday. It’s an immensely ambitious project about sex in the internet age that had Owen Gleiberman raving to no end and others calling it a disappointment. Tom McCarthy’s “The Cobbler” was definitely the biggest disappointment thus far, given the director’s track record you had the right to expect much more — as one producer told me after the morning screening “what the hell was that?” There are still 5 days left before the end but there have been quite a few solid contenders in the acting field.

David Cronenberg’s “Map to the Stars” got pushed back to 2015, in spite of the probability that Julianne Moore’s performance could have easily nabbed a best actress nod. She plays a down-and-out actress, desperate for her next big shot. In fact, every time she’s on screen the film ignites with excitement. Moore hasn’t been this great since 2002 when she played that lonely Sirkian housewife in Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven”. I really hope people will remember her performance a year from now, as she fully deserved her Best Actress prize at Cannes earlier in May.

In “The Judge,” Robert Duvall steals the show from an otherwise stellar cast. Playing opposite an impressive cast which includes Robert Downey Jr., Vera Farmiga and Vincent D’Onoforio, Duvall plays a judge accused of murdering an ex-con he convicted more than a decade ago. His performance is raw and riveting and the highlight of the film. He shows the aches and pains that come with aging and the inner demons that need to get fought in the process. He hasn’t been this good in god knows how long.

Talking about an aging actor giving a great performance, in Barry Levinson’s “The Humbling” Al Pacino is dynamite and might garner some major Oscar buzz once the films gets released this fall. Playing a has-been actor known for his Shakespearean roles, Pacino’s performance isn’t just unusually subdued it’s also hilariously spiced with humor. He falls in love with his good friends’ daughter — played by Greta Gerwig — a girl that has had a crush on the actor ever since she was eight. They start an unusual, sex-free relationship that you know will implode in any second. This is primo Pacino and deserved of all the buzz its been getting so far at the festival.

Add Marion Cotillard’s name to the shortlist of Best Actress contenders. She is mesmerizing in her role as Sandra, a young Belgian mother that discovers her co-workers were pressured to choose between getting a significant pay bonus only if she got fired from her job . The way Cotillard approaches each and every co-worker, pleading — sometimes even begging — for them to change their votes is heartbreaking. The movie ain’t that bad either, making you cringe and heartbroken with every scene.

In “Nightcrawler,” Jake Gyllenhaal lost close to thirty pounds to give his creepiest performance ever. With shades of Travis Bickle, this astoundingly intense movie has Gyllenhaal chasing down murder scenes and videotaping them for L.A news outlets in exchange for cash. It’s a shady business and Gyllenhaal’s character is a dirtbag trying to make it to the bigtime, even if it means having to blackmail, lie or murder his way through fame and fortune. This is the best acting performance I’ve seen thus far at TIFF and everybody is talking about it. It’s the kind of performance that just can’t get away unnoticed — and maybe the best of his career.

TIFF Preview 2014


The Toronto Film Festival always brings the big names. Maybe that’s the problem and the reason why many in the industry are starting to skip it in favor of Telluride. I know quite a few people doing both this year, and at Telluride last week, almost all of them were cringing at the thought of going to Toronto. That’s just the way it’s been the last few years with Telluride being the more intimate and friendly festival with less of the glitz and glamour of TIFF.

2013 was a landmark year for movies, which translated into one hell of a festival season. I remember Sasha raving about the dynamic duo of “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” at Telluride and yours truly following suit not too long after at TIFF. It doesn’t look like there will be such intense, invigorating movie-going experiences this year until the New York Film Festival when “Gone Girl” and “Inherent Vice” screen in October. Want to know how strong 2013 was? Some of last year’s fest films can already count as some of the best released of this year: “Under the Skin”, “Only Lovers Left Alive”, “Stray Dogs”, “Ida”, “Enemy”, “Snowpiercer”, “Stranger By the Lake”, “The Double”, “Abuse of Weakness” and “The Immigrant” all had their debuts at various films fests last year, the majority of them at TIFF.

So with that in mind, can the 2014 festival season actually live up to 2013? Of course not – it’s not possible to maintain that kind of high quality year after year. Think of 1999, a year that many – including myself – believe to be one of the greatest cinematic years in movie history. It was followed by one of the worst the following year – a year that pitted “Gladiator” vs. “Erin Brokovich” vs. “Traffic” in the Oscar Race, the first two aforementioned movies coincidentally released in March and May. Those ain’t Oscar months, but 2000 was so weak that that year they were. And so we come to 2014, where we already have three strong – although bewildering – contenders emerging from Telluride: “Foxatcher”, “Birdman” and “The Imitation Game”. Two of those three will be at Toronto and it will be interesting to see the reception they both get. “The Imitation Game” looks to be a crowd pleaser that might sneak out with a bigger high once the fest ends at the end of the next week, or it might not and another contender will emerge instead. With that in mind, here are the burning questions I have about the festival, which will start tomorrow morning with its first batch of screenings.

 1) “The Imitation Game”
 Telluride loved it but the critics have so far been safe and cautious about their enthusiasm for this movie. If you take a look at Metacritic, its 9 reviews and score of 70 will tell you this won’t be a critic’s darling like “Foxcatcher” or “Birdman”, but it will have something more powerful on its side: word of mouth. “The Imitation Game” looks like it will be THE crowd pleaser to beat once its first screenings start this week. Will it sustain what it built up at Telluride? I’m on the fence about it but I sure hope Sash, Kris and Co. are right about this one – which also features an unproven filmmaker at its helm. From what I’ve been hearing, Benedict Cumberbatch is emerging as a force to be reckoned with in the Best Actor category, but that the film itself is routinely pleasing.

 2) “Foxcatcher” The momentum will most likely not stop for this Benneth Miller film. Miller has become a real fixture of the Oscar race with “Capote” and “Moneyball”, but more importantly has become one of the genuinely brilliant American filmmakers out there. His classical style of filmmaking is done so well and with such genuine passion that I can just picture “Foxcatcher” coming out of TIFF with its profile skyrocketing. Especially when it comes to Steve Carrell, who’s been carrying a wave of praise ever since Cannes.

 3) Witherspoon in “Wild” and “The Good Lie” Reese Witherspoon is loved, we all know that. Her performance in “Wild” seems to be the real deal as well. She went all out to nail this role and I have no doubt that her buzz will continue onwards at TIFF. However, don’t discount this movie as just a strong central performance kind-of-movie. I reside in Montreal and have seen the staggering rise of Quebecois filmmakers in Hollywood the last few years. Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”, “Enemy”) is just one of many French-Canadian filmmakers trying to make art out of commerce in Tinseltown, and Xavier Dolan – who’s “Mommy” is also screening at the fest – is on his way to big things.

 Jean-Marc Vallée is clearly another good example. I met Vallée 4 years ago at the premiere of his then new film “Café de Flore”. He seemed happy with what he was doing – making homegrown, personal movies – but I have a feeling he likes the freedom Hollywood is giving him at the moment. With “Dallas Buyers Club” he proved his worth and with “Wild” he will likely continue his rise among the best mainstream filmmakers working today. Another Quebecois filmmaker at the fest? Philippe Falardeau, Oscar nominated for “Monsieur Lazhar” a few years ago and making his American film debut directing – again – Witherspoon in “The Good Lie”, a film that is getting its fair share of buzz as well and might make it a banner year for the incredibly talented actress.

 4) “The Theory of Everything” Oh, boy. Here’s a film that no one really knows what to make of. This is the story of Stephen Hawking’s life as told by James Marsh, who made the brilliant documentary “Man on Wire”. He might just break through with this film, or it might be one of many films that have come out of Toronto down, out and defeated. The potential is there. They will be screening the film in Los Angeles at the same time as TIFF. It’s about time someone made a movie about the brilliant Hawking, a man whose life was filled with so many ups and downs that I’m surprised Hollywood didn’t come knocking at his door sooner. We’re going to have to just wait and see with this film, but since the comparisons I’ve been hearing and seeing to “The Imitation Game” are dumb and unfounded, I’m not sure what people are thinking comparing these two genuinely different movies. They are looking at them from an Oscar campaigning perspective (because everyone is an expert) and assuming that both men are geniuses, both men are struggling with disabilities. But there is a huge difference between contracting a body debilitating illness and being gay at a time when it was illegal, not to mention these being two different time periods and two different countries. But hey, they look like Oscar movies!

 5) Two Adam Sandler movies? “Men, Women and Children” & “The Cobbler” Yea, you heard me right: Sandler has two films premiering here, and not just by any directors. I remember a time when Sandler had a small teeny weeny phase where he decided to make more mature, serious fare with well renowned filmmakers such as Judd Apatow, James L. Brooks and Paul Thomas Anderson. Remember “Punch-Drunk Love”? Still Sandler’s best movie and performance. The Sandler film most people are talking about is “Men, Women and Children”, which is directed by Jason Reitman, who really needs another well received film after last year’s decent but average “Labor Day” walked out of Toronto with practically nobody talking about it. His new movie looks more socially relevant and seems to harken back to the style of his older more mature efforts like “Thank You for Smoking” and “Up in the Air”. This new film tackles the internet age and our communication breakdown in the age of the internet.

 Although I am looking forward to seeing “Men, Women and Children”, the Sandler film I am most looking forward to see also closely resembles “Punch-Drunk Love” in terms of its magical realist style, or at least that’s what I gathered when reading the synopsis for Tom McCarthy’s new film “The Cobbler”. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t McCarthy one of the singular, most underrated American directors around today? “The Station Agent”, “The Vistor” and “Win Win” are all movies that get better with age, and his minimalist approach to filmmaking is really a breath of fresh air. Having Sandler star in one of his movies is as big a what-the-fuck as Paul Thomas Anderson casting him in 2002. It worked then and I hope it works now. Can’t wait.

 6) Richard Gere and Jennifer Aniston for an Oscar? “Time Out of Mind” and “Cake” So here’s the deal, Gere and Aniston have never been nominated for an Oscar. In fact, the year we thought Gere had a shot at winning a supporting actor trophy he ended up not even getting a nomination for “Chicago”. He’s continued giving us stellar work over the years, most notably a few years ago in “Arbitrage” which was a strong performance, but sadly that year was one of the strongest Best Actor lineups in years. Sucks, bad luck. Not even a nomination over the years for far ranging work like “American Gigolo” or “Primal Fear”. In “Time Out of Mind” he is directed by Oren Overman, an Israeli born filmmaker who now resides in New York. Overman has turned some heads over the last few years, directing “The Messenger” and “Rampart” back to back. No matter what happens in this year’s Oscar race, Gere is and always will be an underrated talent.

 On the other end of the spectrum is Jennifer Aniston. Her new film is “Cake” and it looks to be the darkest role she’s ever tackled. She’s proven her worth as a serious actress in the past, most notably in Miguel Arteta’s “The Good Girl”, but never has she fully been taken seriously on the big screen. Some actors just can’t get past their iconic small screen roles, and Aniston’s Rachel is and always will be her legacy, and so her most successful big screen endeavors have all been in comedies. However, “Cake” is her chance. It really is. She is surrounded by a top notch cast of talents which include Anna Kendrick, William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman, and the role seems to dig into some of the darkest territory the actress has ever pursued. I think she can pull through and hit this out of the park.

 7) “Cannes” they do it? “Leviathan”, “Timbuktu”, “Mommy”, “Winter Sleep”, “Goodbye to Language”, “Two Days, One Night”, “Wild Tales”
 This year’s Best Foreign Film race kick-started at Cannes and continues over at TIFF. These are not films that are “Oscar material” and that’s sometimes a good thing. They don’t follow anything about formula and they go by their own furious beat. Here are films by filmmakers trying to reinvent the language of cinema and tell their stories in ways that have never been attempted before. “Wild Tales” had such an impressive showing at Telluride last week that people were demanding another screening at a bigger location and they got it. Word of mouth is building and this could be our next Foreign Language winner.

 8) What to make of “The Judge” I have my reservations about this courtroom drama starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. For starters, the director is David Dobkin, who’s more known for his work in comedy (Wedding Crashers) than drama. However, I wouldn’t bet against the cast. Downey Jr. especially. He’s proven to us time and time again what a great actor he can be – just take a look at “Chaplin”, “Tropic Thunder” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” for proof. The guy has talent. He’s never won an Oscar and this is major Oscar bait. If he hits it out of the park he can become a major player in the race. As for Robert Duvall, well…it’s Robert Duvall. 

9) Will American indies have a surprise up their sleeves? Remember when the Oscars was just five nominees for Best Picture? And usually one of those spots was reserved for a small indie gem”? “Juno”, “Little Miss Sunshine”, “In the Bedroom” and in later years “Precious”, “Winter’s Bone”, “An Education”, “The Kids Are All Right” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. It happens. Most of the time these movies start off at Sundance and only grow in momentum as the year goes. This year the only film that can possibly do that is also a film that won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance: “Whiplash”. I have already seen Damien Chazelle’s film and it really is an amazing watch. Miles Teller and J.K Simmons are both phenomenal and would most likely garner an instant Oscar nomination if we didn’t live in such a cruel world. Reality is that there will be a struggle for “Whiplash” to even nab one Oscar nom, but I’m betting that if it garners the reception that I think it deserves in Toronto, then watch out, because this is a movie that deserves everything that might be coming its way.

 10) The fate of “Mr. Turner” Ever since its triumph at Cannes, Mike Leigh’s newest film hasn’t kept up with the momentum that it built at La Croisette. TIFF is most likely the make or break moment for the film and will tell us a little more of what to expect come awards season. I just want it to be a great movie, awards or not. That’s why I’m here watching 3-4 movies a day – I want to watch stuff that’ll knock me out, put me on a high and have me talking about it for days on end. That is why most of us are here in the first place.

 11) Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” This finally leads me to Noah Baumbach’s newest film. Here’s a director I greatly admire who has never gotten the awards recognition he deserved. Well, that’s too bad. That means people have missed out on such Baumbach gems as “The Squid and The Whale” and “Frances Ha”. Not surprisingly, this Brooklyn born filmmaker started out as a writer for another Oscarless but brilliant filmmaker: Wes Anderson. “While We’re Young” is one of my most hotly anticipated films of the fest, yet I doubt it will get recognized in any categories. Consider that a good thing. It means he doesn’t play by the rules and has a unique vision all his own, and I wouldn’t want it another way. Word of mouth is building and this could be our next Foreign Language winner.