Spielberg's "The Post," a few reactions.

Spoke to a few people that said it was similar to the way he shot and told "Lincoln," and "Bridge of Spies," meaning the story does the talking, there's a lot of patient, held-back filmmaking, a very slow and dry affair. "Slightly square, old-school Hollywood craftsmanship," somebody told me, adding "It's no Spotlight." In other words, a movie that underplays its strengths. I thought "Lincoln" and "Bridges" were both ok, but that seems to be the direction Spielberg has decided to take on the last 5 or so years with his dramas.

"Captain Phillips"

Khat Ban is a herb that has been part of Somalian tradition for hundreds of years. It is a chewed upon Amphetmaine-like substance that causes excitement and euphoria. In Peter Greengrass' riveting "Captain Phillips", the pirates that are about to take over Richard Phillips' ship chew on Khat Ban to overcome the nerves and fears that come with taking on such a mission. The brilliance of Greengrass' film is how we get to know these pirates not as villains but as impoverished third world human beings with not much to lose. We've all heard about Somali pirate takeovers at sea in the news but the topic has never really been given a Hollywood treatment until now. Which makes the film even more interesting. Greengrass touches upon many themes, including the negative effects of globalization and the isolation of such impoverished third world nations. Somali actor Bakhad Abdi is exceptional as Muse, one of four pirates trying to overtake an American cargo ship 145 miles off the Somali coast.

Abdi's scenes with a brilliantly effective Tom Hanks as the Captain are what makes "Captain Phillips" indisputably great. Greengrass smartly decides to cast non-professional actors for the Somali roles, the risk pays off brilliantly. Abdi, looking jaunt and intense, matches Hanks scene for scene. He is exceptional and Oscar-worthy in a role that demands a lot of intense, real emotions. Muse nicknames Hanks "Irish" and calls him that many times throughout the film, their bond is a complicated one. Both men understand each other: Phillips knows Muse is doing what he has to do to survive and Muse knows that the Captain wants his men on-board unharmed and will do whatever it takes to achieve that. These two men share more in common than one might think and both are relying on the American government to get them out of this situation.

We all know how it ends, that's besides the point. What "Captain Phillips" ends up being about is the bond between these two men. They both come from significantly different cultural backgrounds yet they fully understand each other, they know why they are both there. While the other pirates, played by Barkhad Addirahman, Faysal Ahme and Mahat M. Ali, couldn't care less about Phillips, Muse does. Abdi is phenomenal and performs the rare -maybe never before achieved- feat of giving the best performance in a Tom Hanks movie. He and his pirate co-horts chew on Khat Ban religiously throughout the ordeal, trying to manage the situation by getting a simple high. They however find out it'll take much more than just herb to get through their botched hostage-taking attempt. The 135 minute "Captain Phillips" might sometimes feel by-the-books but whenever Abdi and Hanks are onscreen your eyes can't look away. They bring "Captain Phillips" up a notch and make it Greengrass best film since 2006's "United 93". 

TIFF day 4

As the festival winds down and my days are counted here at TIFF some movies are starting to stick with me more than others. Today was a quieter day and I had time to finally reflect on some of the stuff I had seen. Two films in particular seem to not be getting out of my head, those films are "12 Years A Slave" and "Prisoners". Both have been getting Oscar buzz over here and I am actually quite surprised the latter hasn't been mentioned as much by Sasha. Every person I talk to here says its chances come awards season are mighty high. Directed by Denis Villenueve "Prisoners" is an ambitious, sprawling, fascinating and -yes- flawed 158 minute movie about a missing children's case. Jake Gyllenhall and Hugh Jackman deserve nomination, so does Villenueve for his impressive direction.

I've already talked about "Prisoners" in a past post, so I won't go any further than that. Instead, I'm going to delve into other new stuff I've seen at the fest. Starting with Jonathan Glazer's much anticipated "Under The Skin" which -much to the delight of her male fans- features a naked Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress sent to earth to lure guys into her car and kill them. The film is going to be a love it/hate it kind of thing when it comes out. It caused the most walkouts out of any movie I have seen this year at TIFF. Johansson's alien drives her car for most of the movie, luring one male after another - the repetitiveness of the film's narrative might have turned off many but I had a blast watching Glazer's film. Its originality and absurdity is what I liked the most and of course I adored Johansson who seems to be having a deadpan blast here with her role. On a side note - it's refreshing to see actresses such as Johansson in this film and Winslet in "Labor Day" with a bit more weight and roundness to their bodies. They both look much better and healthier now.

"Joe" is yet another movie directed by David Gordon Green, after this year's "Prince Avalanche". Green has had a career of directing stoner comedies (Pineapple Express, The Sitter, Your Highness) and art films (George Washington, All The Real Girls, Snow Angels). "Joe" is clearly an art film and features a beefy Nicolas Cage. Cage's Joe is an ex con that is now a lumber merchant. He frequently visits the local brothel and is addicted to cocaine. An unlikely friendship happens when he meets a young 15 year old boy (Tye Sheridan of "Mud" fame) that is frequently abused by his drunkard of a dad. Even more trouble comes when Joe gets himself into debt with hoodlums visiting his small town. Green's film is quiet and devastating and Cage gives his best performance in a very long time (even though I have secretly admire for his absurd work in "Bad Lieutenant"). The film's small time Americana cliches are sometimes too apparent but the relentless intensity of the screenplay never lets up.

To conclude, a small note on Tsai-Ming Liang's "Stray Dogs" a polarizing film about a homeless Taiwanese family. Filled with long, endurance-worthy takes and not much plot, the film can sometimes be too much to handle but I dug it for all its weird, provoking madness. It's definitely a must see for anyone that is looking for cinema that pushes the boundaries and then some. It does say a lot about the poverty rates in that country and how the distance between rich and poor is enormous. You have been warned - it's not an easy watch. It has been chosen as official selection for next month's New York Film Festival, to not many people's surprise of course.

TIFF day 3

Jason Reitman's "Labor Day" is a film unlike any the director has made before. It stars Kate Winslet as a depressed, single mom that decides to give shelter to a wanted fugitive (Josh Brolin). The scenes WInslet and Brolin share are the heart and soul of this film. Winslet's Adele is a vulnerable mess, who's only reason to live is her 13 year old son. Sometimes we wonder if Brolin's fugitive is taking advantage of her vulnerability or if his love for Adele and her son is for real.Winslet is sheer perfection and as far as I'm concerned she's the second best working actress today (after Meryl Streep).  It'd be a real shame if she doesn't get a nomination for this fine, fine performance. Reitman's film doesn't always work, the subplot involving Adele's son and his crush at school is a bit too forced for my liking. However, whenever Winslet and Brolin share the screen this film just works really well. Reitman hasn't yet made a film to match the brilliant textures of "Up In The Air" -I'll be getting haters for this comment- but here he's made a movie that delivers.

 If Winslet's Adele gets her vulnerability tested wait until you see Isabelle Huppert in Catherine Breillat's "Abuses of Weakness" a film based on her own experiences. In 2004 Breillat suffered a stroke that paralyzed the left side of her body and then developed a "friendship" with a man that ended up being a con artist. This man made Breillat write him numerous checks that ended up putting the filmmaker on a 900,000$ debt. She ended up writing a book about it and now has made this movie. A brilliant, deceptive movie which explores the nature of vulnerability and tries to find answers as to how or why this could have possibly happened.

 Directed by John Ridley "All Is By My Side" or -as people here are calling it- "The Jimi Hendrix Bio-Pic" is a flawed mess of a movie that features a great performance by Outkast's Andre Benjamin as Hendrix. I wouldn't call this a Bio-Pic since it only covers a year in the life of Hendrix. An Important Year nonetheless. 1966, is when Hendrix moved to London and found fame. However, there isn't enough material in this one year to justify such a long, dull film. The only bright spot is Benjamin who's phenomenal as Hendrix and sometimes makes you forget that it's an actor playing the legendary guitarist on screen.

The biggest applause any movie got at the fest was John Curran's "Tracks", which is another film based on true events. In 1975 Robyn Davidson set out on a 1700 mile journey through the Australian outback with 3 camels and her faithful dog. Mia Wasikowska plays Davidson and she's great, so's Adam Driver as the annoying photographer that follows her through this journey. A lot of people are saying this will win the audience award and judging by the long ovation the film garnered i just wouldn't be surprised. This could be another "Whale Rider" type of win.

TIFF day 2

One of the joys of being in Toronto is bumping into people you really admire so much. Seeing Chiwetel Ejiofor sneaking into a quick afternoon screening and of course bumping into Harvey Weinstein, hiding his nerves, right before the first press screening of “August:Osage County”. The critics were in town too, I caught a glimpse of the New York Post’s Lou Lumenick quite a few times, Newsweek’s David Ansen lining up for the new Miyazaki and caught up with Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly on what’s been the best of the fest so far – we both agreed “12 Years A Slave” and “Gravity” by a landslide.

 “Gravity” is eye popping stuff. Alfonso Cuarron has made a movie that is unlike any we’ve ever seen before. It’s almost as groundbreaking as “Avatar” minus the flaws Cameron’s film had. A master is at work here and Cuarron has surely directed Sandra Bullock to her second Oscar Nomination – if not, her second win.

 Meryl Streep will be giving Bullock a run for her money with her juicy role in “August: Osage County”. Streep is a ticking time bomb as the dysfunctional mom that heads a large family gathering. Americana caricature after caricature comes with director John Wells’ film, one that is very imperfect and left the press at my screening with a very mixed reaction. Streep is the lone shining light in this otherwise forgettable movie.

 In my earlier article I talked about how good Chiwetel Ejiofor was in “12 Years A Slave”, competition has come in the form of Matthew Mcconaughey as Ron Woodruff. Sasha has already chimed in with this film but I will add to her praise and say that this is the Matthew Mcconaughey show. The 43 year old actor has been on a role lately (“Killer Joe”, “The Lincoln Lawyer”, “Bernie”, “Magic Mike”) but nothing tops what he’s done here with “The Dallas Buyer’s Club”. Looking gaunt and sickly, Mcconaughey wowed audiences here.

 Doppelganger films have been big at TIFF so far. Director Denis Villeneuve -on a roll already with “Prisoners”- brought us two Jake Gyllenhaal’s with “Enemy”. Gyllenhall plays a Toronto professor that finds out he has an exact look alike living in the same city. It’a film very much inspired by Cronenberg but that also lets Villeneuve bring his own voice to the picture. This is sexy, smart, mysterious filmmaking at its best. The other doppelganger film had Jesse Eisenberg going insane with the appearance of his doppelganger. Directed by Richard Ayaode (Submarine) “The Double” is a dark comedy that fizzled out at its end but has shades of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” throughout its running time.

A much anticipated film here was Kelly Reichardt’s “Night Moves”, a film about eco-terrorism that strips down the genre conventions and ends up giving us the bare bones of its topic. Contrary to many here I wasn’t a big fan of Reichardt’s past films (“Wendy And Lucy”, “Meek’s Cutoff”) but this one works because it moves. There are tense, gripping moments in “Night Moves” and its performances -notably those of Jesse Eisenberg and Peter Sarsgaard) move the film along admirably.

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr.

(If you want more praise for Buster Keaton, check out my review of The Navigator by clicking right HERE)

You gotta love Buster Keaton,whether you're a film school aficionado or not. He just -quite frankly- was brilliant and so ahead of his time. His films still so damn good more than 90 years later. In fact, I don't see one too many brilliant films like his these days. Think about 1922's Sherlock Jr. which is a Hugo of its time, infiltrating the frame of a movie -making it a movie within a movie! In fact, I don't think there was another movie before it that actually played with its narrative this way- a sort of Adaptation and a beautiful tribute to movies that stands along the best of them. Sheer brilliant set pieces and a Keaton in full form, playing a Sherlock Holmes-esque character in his own day dream of a movie; the hero, the man who saves the day, the person that gets the girl and solves the big mystery. He is a film projectionist that believes in the magic of movies, a man so devoid of harmful traits that he truly wants to be the hero. And oh the editing, so damn good - in fact one of the greatest edited movies of all time (along with other Keaton gems such as The General and The Navigator). We all want to be Sherlock Jr. - At least Keaton thinks so and makes a movie that proves to be entertaining as well as gasp-worthy in its action.

Fantasia Film Festival 2013

The Conjuring 3/4

Opening the Fantasia fest this year was The Conjuring, a film that scared the bejesus out of critics and audiences this summer and became a sleeper hit. Did the film deserve all the buzz it got? You bet it did. Director James Wan, working with cinematographer John Leonetti, crafts a movie that leaves the gore out of the window in favor of psychological thrills. Wise decision. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson play real-life paranormal investigators that get entangled in a case that is more than meets the eye. The last third of the movie sets the stage for an exorcism unlike any you've seen before and director Wan works on the experience he built with past films (Insidious, Saw) to construct his most mature work to date. Job well done.

Magic, Magic 3/4

Director Sebastian Silva's Magic Magic has a fascinating topic to deal with. What if some people just get on your nerves so much that you end up having a complete mental breakdown out of it. That's what happens to Juno Temple's Alicia who must deal with her best friend's family in a country retreat off the coast of Spain. She's stuck, wants out but home is far away. Things get worse when Alicia's best friend has to go out of town for an abortion and leaves Juno alone with her neurotic Cousin Brink (a never better Michael Cera) and her boyfriend Agustin. What ensues is the mental breakdown of all epic mental breakdowns. A transformation that leaves the audience in a state of shock. All credit must go to Juno Temple in what is a remarkably emotional and fearless performance. Her Alicia ends up haunting your dreams.

The Last Tycoon 1/4

I went into The Last Tycoon with the hopes of encountering another great film starring Chow Yun Fat. Instead director Jing Wong's film deals with every known cliche in the gangster epic manual. In telling the story of a man's rise to gangsterdom, from teenage years all the way to a prominent role in the chinese mob 40 years later, Wong brings a confusing and disjointed narrative structure that never lifts off its promising premise. I never once believed a single thing that I was seeing and the love story that comes with the violence only makes the film more unwatchable. This was a rare miss at a fest that had an excellent selection this year.

Mistaken For Strangers 3/4

Here's a documentary that might seem out of place at a film fest that prides itself in gore and graphic violence. However, Tom Berninger's documentary about indie rock band The National's first big tour in Europe and the States has a feeling of uneasiness to it. Director Berninger -an avid horror movie fan- is brother to National lead singer Matt Berninger and a total fuckup. Matt decides to invite his brother to work backstage for what is a very important tour. Big mistake. Tom ends up filming most of the time, that is if he isn't already drunk or high off something. The tension keeps getting upped as the documentary moves along and Tom doesn't realize how irresponsible his behavior is. The footage Tom catches in the process ends up making a solid documentary about life on the road, dysfunctional families and friendship. As an extra plus we get great concert footage of a band that is up there with Arcade Fire in terms of Indie Rock greatness.

Across the River 1/4

Across The River would have made a great short movie. instead what we get is an average 2 hour film about ghostly presences in the woods and a man that is stuck with them. There isn't much to say about Lorenzo Bianchini's slight film, everyone tries their best to make a mediocre -almost dialogue-free- screenplay work but it just doesn't burst out of its promising seams. What we get is a movie with a killer setup and a disappointing execution. I couldn't wait for it to end. Better luck next time.

Complex 2.5/4

We all know director Hideo Nakata as the Japanese horror master that had two of his movies (The Ring and Dark Water) remade as Hollywood films. Don't bet on The Complex to be the third one. It is too original and mind bending for a studio to tackle and features a head scratching finale that will leave much to discuss about afterwards. The plot starts off in a very familiar way as Asaka - a young 18 year old girl- moves into an apartment with her parents and starts to notice strange occurrences happening with the next door neighbor. Just when you think this will be a run of the mill horror flick the neighbor is found dead within a few days and we start to have doubts about what is real in the Asaka's life and what is not. Asaka is a deeply disturbed girl that should not be trusted and who's life is in a state of breakdown. Nakata messes with your head until it is all just too much but there's some fun in trying to solve his mystery riddled tale.