Most will have to wait until later in the year, or even next year, to see the movies screening at this years fall festivals. But festival audiences and critics are seeing some big premiers now. What are they saying saying? We’ve got the rundown of everything so far:
12 Years A Slave All Is By My Side The Armstrong Lie August: Osage County Bad Words Captain Phillips Can A Song Save Your Life? Child of God Dallas Buyers Club Devil’s Knot The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: His & Hers Enemy Fading Gigolo The Fifth Estate Gravity How I Live Now The Invisible Woman Joe Labor Day The Last of Robin Hood Locke Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom Palo Alto Parkland Philomena Prisoners The Railway Man Rush The Sacrament Salinger Under the Skin We Are the Best The Wind Rises Words and Pictures You Are Here The Zero Theorem
The Armstrong Lie: Enjoyment of this latest documentary from acclaimed director Alex Gibney seems to depend on expectations: Are you coming to the film for a further expose on Armstrong himself, or are you content to see Armstrong as a case study for the science of doping and the competitive culture surrounding professional cycling? As Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter points out, there is little information about Armstrong revealed that isn’t already known. The doc doesn’t make a pointed inquiry into whether or not Armstrong doped during his comeback in 2009 and 2010 (while admitting his guilt in his winning years, Armstrong maintains he was clean during his comeback, which included a podium finish in 2009). Neither, he claims, does the film do enough to probe why Armstrong threatened his own undoing by staging the comeback in the first place. On the other hand, Variety’s Justin Chang praises the film for its insight into the world of doping, including its interviews with disgraced doctor Michele Ferrari, who worked closely with Armstrong, as well as a behind-the-scenes look into the lucrative nature of competitive cycling, and the attitudes towards cheating it foments. Chang’s review seems to place the subject of the doc as not so much Armstrong himself, though he occupies a prominent position, but on the social, scientific, and psychological phenomena that contributed to Armstrong becoming the figure he was.
Child of God: As ever, James Franco is a divisive figure, not to mention a bit of an enigma. That’s how his latest feature, Child of God, (incidentally, the third feature he’s directed to premier this year, following Interior. Leather Bar. at Sundance and As I Lay Dying at Cannes) seems to be striking audiences in the early going, though reviews seem to be more positive than negative. Scott Haze, a relative newcomer who also appeared in As I Lay Dying is being almost (with a few notable exceptions) universally lauded for his portrayal of the crazed antihero Lester Ballard. More contentious are opinions on the cinematography, the supporting cast, and certainly the direction, with a number of critics feeling the film is an appropriate reflection of the source material while others claim the picture lacks inspiration, a firm direction, and can even be exploitative of its characters in is seeming malaise. That said, the majority opinion does seem to be that while this might have been a better movie if Franco were a little more focused on one project at a time, it’s nonetheless his best directorial effort thus far.
Gravity: Last Friday (8/30) marked the premiere of Alfonso Cuaron’s space odyssey Gravity as the opening title of the 70th Venice Film Festival. The ambitious and hotly anticipated film appears to be making huge waves with festival-goers, as early reviews are uniformly positive – a great launch to seemingly hard-to-sell film. The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy called the film, “at once the most realistic and beautifully choreographed film ever set in space, Gravity is a thrillingly realized survival story spiked with interludes of breath-catching tension and startling surprise” and says of star Sandra Bullock. who appears in the majority of the lost in space film alone, “is aces in by far the best film she’s ever been in.” While Variety‘s Justin Chang in his spoiler-prone rave proclaims, “the director’s long-overdue follow-up to “Children of Men” is at once a nervy experiment in blockbuster minimalism and a film of robust movie-movie thrills, restoring a sense of wonder, terror and possibility to the bigscreen that should inspire awe among critics and audiences worldwide.” In Contention’s Guy Lodge adds that Gravity is “a film both short and vast, muscular and quivery, as certain about one Great Beyond as it is curious about another.” The film has long been in the works and marks Cuaron’s first return to the screen in seven years following his critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated thriller Children of Men. The film has already been commended visually after the successful launch of the teaser trailer this past May and more footage that screened to rapturous praise at San Diego’s Comic-Con last month. The film was written by Cuaron based from an idea by his son Jonas. Gravity also reunited Cuaron with his longtime collaborator, the great cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki, whose contribution to the 3-D altered space saga has already earned praise, especially notable in the films long edit-free tracking shots. Lubezki, a four-time Oscar nominee is also the choice DP for Terrence Malick. (By James Tisch)
Joe: The performances of the two stars, Nicholas Cage (National Treasure) and Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life), are widely considered highlights of the film. David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter praised Cage’s performance saying, “Where [the film] really works is Cage’s bone-deep characterization of a man at war with himself…as a protagonist, the sullen loner scarred by life and prey to his own violent instincts seems a well worn figure. But there’s a soulfulness and integrity to Cage’s Joe that keep him real as he takes Gary under his wing and shows him genuine kindness.” Sheridan, in a role that is somewhat similar to his character in Mud, received the Marcello Mastroianni Award for the best upcoming young actor at Venice. Despite generally favorable reviews, the film is not without its flaws. Many reviewers believe Joe will be too long, dark and violent for the majority of mainstream moviegoers. Justin Chang of Variety claims, “The director extends his flight from the commercial mainstream with a patiently observed, often unsettlingly violent drama that can’t help but feel overly familiar in some of its particulars, rich in cultural texture but low on narrative momentum or surprise.” (By Jon Sbraccia)
Locke: With exceptions to a few details (and a minority of critics), Locke is being applauded for its measured, slow playing character study that teases out the story of a generally good (but flawed) many who finds his world unraveling. The story takes place nearly in real time in the singular location of the main character’s car, and is carried, by all accounts, by a tour de force performance by Tom Hardy (Inception, Warrior). The supporting pieces are being praised as well, in particular writer/director Steven Knight’s work which comes off far more mature than a sophomore directorial effort (he’s also the writer behind Amazing Grace and Eastern Promises. The extreme minimalism of the filmmaking makes it difficult to say much more; the script is generally thought strong, brought home not only by Hardy’s performance as construction foreman Ivan Locke, but by the voicework of the supporting cast of Ruth Wilson, Olivia Colman, Andrew Scott, Tom Holland, Ben Daniels, none of whom are ever seen, but are heard via cell phone conversations is being touted. The music and camerawork are receiving high marks as well. The only sticking points (and they are consistent gripes) seem to be a few instances where the script calls for Ivan to monologue against the specter of his absentee father and a couple other overstated rough patches (in a film that relies so heavily on its dialogue, there were bound to be a few). Finding a wide audience could be difficult. At an 84 minute runtime, the film hardly tries one’s endurance, but the patience of a public reared on action and special effects could be tested in such a slow playing, contemplative movie.
Palo Alto: Earlier this year James Franco launched a crowd-funding campaign in order to produce film adaptations of his collection of short stories. Palo Alto is the first such adaptation and it marks the directorial debut of Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Francis Ford and niece of Sofia Coppola. Palo Alto follows a group of teenagers as they struggle define themselves during that tumultuous stage between child and adulthood. Franco’s own experiences growing up in Palo Alto, CA serve as the inspiration for these stories and he appears in the film. Palo Alto has met with mixed reviews thus far. Most critics acknowledge that Gia Coppola’s debut features material already covered by many other films, including Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. While Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter was impressed with the portrayal of 21st Century youths, Hitfix’s Gregory Ellwood did not think that the film had anything new to offer. Variety’s Peter Debruge felt that Palo Alto was “overlong” and “didn’t seem to be saying anything new,” but was overall pleased with the result. As of September 3 Palo Alto has yet to find a U. S. distributor. (By Charlie Burroughs)
Parkland: Coming on the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, this film has the pedigree, with a number of strong actors and a producing team that includes Tom Hanks. Reviews of the picture, the first by director and journalist Peter Landesman, have been rather mixed, though, with some critics reacting positively to the film’s focus on the peripheral figures in the JFK assassination and the mosaic they attempt to create, and perhaps a few more thumping the film’s lack of focus and apparent trite treatment of the tragedy. The dialogue would seem to be a particular sticking point, with novice direction contributing to its rote and laughably melodramatic feeling. About the only positive thing detractors have to say about the film is the performance of James Badge Dale as the brother of Lee Harvey Oswald. Also curious is the universal panning of Jacki Weaver as the attention-starved mother of the assassin. Parkland stars Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Giamatti, Zac Efron, Tom Welling, Ron Livingston, Marcia Gay Harden, Colin Hanks, Dale, and Weaver.
Philomena: Audiences heartily applauded the Judy Dench/Steve Coogan-led dramedy, a true story about an Irish woman who was forced to give up her child conceived out of wedlock and the British reporter who helps her look for the boy 50 years later, at its premier screening at Venice, and critics were nearly as kind. The film is being praised for its warmth and earnestness that, generally speaking, doesn’t devolve into trite or manipulative emotionalism. The film is directed by Stephen Frears, best known for The Queen, and many are saying this is his best work since. The mix of comedy and genuine heart has seemed to draw out audiences. Dench and Coogan have both been widely praised for their performances, with Dench getting murmurs about awards nominations. Oddly, though, the few negative voices that seem to be surfacing, while still optimistic about the film as a whole, seem to center on elements of Dench’s character, though perhaps it’s more to do with the script than her performance. While most were absolutely taken with Dench and praised the simple and comedic quirks of her character, a few felt this was the one place the movie strained to maintain momentum and avoid becoming sycophantic towards the audience.
The Sacrament: The latest from horror filmmaker Ti West premiered at Venice Film Festival yesterday (9/2) (with an endorsement from Eli Roth, no less), and while there was no shortage of enthusiasm for the promising filmmaker’s efforts in changing up the typical found footage flick, recent reviews indicate that the audience was ultimately left wanting. The story (written by West) begins as a travelogue for Vice Magazine following fashion photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) as he searches for his estranged, recovering drug-addict, sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) with documentarian Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg). They find her in a seemingly peaceful commune in a remote location called Eden Parish, but soon discover that the commune is a cult that is preparing for mass suicide led by the “sinister” Father. Oliver Lyttelton of Indiewire expresses his mixed feelings on the film saying, “It’s refreshing to see a found footage film deal with this kind of grounded subject matter and doubly so that the film’s climax takes place entirely in the daytime. And yet it doesn’t quite work, not because it’s set in the light, but because the climax ends up being ultimately what you probably guessed it was early on…There’s not much left in the way of tension or surprises and it can’t do anything except feel like a huge anticlimax.” A similar sentiment is offered by Damon Wise in a report from Empire stating that “when the story kicks in, it all feels rather familiar” and adding, “aficionados on crackpot American behaviour will be better served by the superb 2006 doc Jonestown.” That being said, there were some shining aspects about the film including the tension in the early scenes which Lyttleton describes as “beautifully ramped up” and the way “the camera elegantly sets up the geography of the commune.” (By Janelle de la Cruz)
Under the Skin: One of the most heavily divisive films on the festival circuit is Under the Skin, the new independent science fiction thriller starring Scarlett Johansson. Premiering at the big three fall festivals, including an in-competition berth at the Venice Film Festival, Under the Skin became a huge source of debate amongst critics, film bloggers and festival-goers. Variety’s Scott Foundas called the film, “An undeniably ambitious but ultimately torpid and silly tale of an alien on the prowl,” while the Daily Telegraph’s Robbie Collin proclaimed, “If my legs hadn’t been so wobbly and my mouth so dry, I would have climbed up on my seat and cheered.” Johansson, however, in a clear about-face from her Avengers role as Black Widow, has earned near unanimous praise for her reportedly nearly wordless performance. Hit Fix’s Gregory Ellwood said, “Glazer may be the visionary behind “Under the Skin” cinematic highs, but it must be noted that this film lives and dies on Johansson’s incredible turn…the bravest performance of Scarlett Johansson’s career.” (By James Tisch)
The Zero Theorem: The movie saw its premier at Venice over the long weekend, where the consensus seems to be that it’s a solid effort, but one with some failing. Director Terry Gilliam is best known for films like Brazil and 12 Monkeys, and The Zero Theorem shoots for a similar high-mindedness. The story follows computer hacker Qohen Leth’s (Christoph Waltz) quest to discover the meaning of life, only to find himself sidetracked by the “Management,” which would appear to be a 1984-style Party (or pick your dystopian metaphor) with Matt Damon on as its head honcho. The movie would seem to be better for this commitment to its concept, but does a fair bit of meandering before not arriving particularly anywhere. The performances are generally strong, and you’d expect nothing less from the likes of Waltz and Damon, at a minimum, but some verbal and behavioral tics that were apparently very intentional could get in the way without much payoff. In fact, that would seem to be a good summary, by all accounts: pretty interesting, but a little on-the-nose, applying to the production design every bit as much as the story or the characters. As The Playlist’s Oliver Lyttelton puts it, “It might not be a return to the form [for Gilliam] of Time Bandits, Brazil, The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys, but it’s a lot better than what we’ve had from Gilliam in the last decade, and we sincerely hope there’s plenty more to come.”
12 Years A Slave: The adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s famous account of how he, a free black man living in New York, was kidnapped and sold into slavery, saw its world premier this past Friday (8/30) evening. Directed by Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup (plus supporting turns by Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Quvenzhane Wallis, and more), the film was met with rapturous applause by the Telluride audience, and Ejiofor’s performance in particular is the subject of much praise. Perhaps not unlike the book, the film has been regarded as a touch melodramatic at points by a number of critics, but (also like the book) is being praised for its unflinching portrayal of the horrors of slavery – this is not going to be a film for the faint of heart – in a compelling, nuanced, and human way. The comparison many critics seem to be making is to last year’s Django Unchained, albeit one that places 12 Years A Slave as the decidedly more realistic (befitting its source material) and less populist (if that’s possible). As Variety critic Peter Debruge puts it, “If Django Unchained opened the door, then 12 Years a Slave goes barreling through it, tackling its subject with utmost seriousness.”
The Invisible Woman: Following Coriolanus, The Invisible Woman is actor/director Ralph Fiennes second directorial effort, and brings Like Crazy star Felicity Jones along for the ride as Nelly Ternan, the young mistress of Charles Dickens. Reviews have been complementary, if not overwhelming, with Fiennes direction and each stars’ performance individually receiving its share of accolades. The principal gripe seems to be when Dickens and Ternan interact, both sexually and otherwise. While opinions are mixed, the consensus seems to be that the chemistry between Fiennes and Jones is lacking, leading to issues in the performance of one, the other, or both. Other than that, while The Invisible Woman seems fun enough and has received some stellar reviews, most seem to be of the opinion that it falls a little short thematically and structurally, making this a cut below some of the top festival films.
Labor Day: Jason Reitman wrote the screenplay and directs this adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s 2009 book of the same name. According to Variety, Reitman’s passionate fifth feature left many in the audience in tears, as they connected with Kate Winslet’s (Revolutionary Road, Titanic) performance. With a voice-over narration by Tobey Maguire (The Great Gatsby, Secretariat, Spiderman), Labor Day tells the story of Adele, a depressed (close to agoraphobic), divorced mother living with her son Henry, played by Gattlin Griffith (Changeling, Green Lantern, Couple’s Retreat). They are kidnapped by Frank, played by Josh Brolin (No Country For Old Men, W.) , an escaped convict/killer with some well-intentioned shenanigans up his sleeve. Said Peter Debruge, Variety’s Senior Film critic, “Subtract the kidnapping, and Labor Day depicts the most romantic long weekend a divorced hausfrau could ever hope for.” Though minimally reviewed to date, Labor Day is garnering positive buzz. William Goss of Film.com says, “The adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s Labor Day is as consistently assured a piece of filmmaking as we’ve ever seen from Jason Reitman”. High praise, considering Reitman’s been twice nominated for Best Director Oscars (for Juno and Up in the Air. Variety praises the Eric Steelberg cinematography as “elegantly sun-dappled shots that are ripe with nostalgia. What emerges is a powerful – if implausible – romance that builds to a series of emotional pay-offs that should elevate this moving weeper to a holiday sleeper”. (By Desetoiles)
Prisoners: The Hugh Jackman – Jake Gyllenhaal starrer has come across as a pretty by-the-books revenge drama thus far, but with last Friday’s (8/30) world premier – excuse me, “sneak preview” – it’s beginning to look like this might just be studio maneuvering to push box office performance. The film was written by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) and directed by French-Canadian arthouse veteran Denis Villeneuve (of the Oscar-nominated Incendies). Along with strong performances all around, led by Jackman and Gyllenhaal, these men and others like cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall) have crafted what’s generally being called a deeply meaningful psychological and emotional thriller. There’s more depth at play that your run-of-the-mill revenge story, and talk of Oscar nominations for a number of those involved is being bandied about. The violence is no joke, but by all accounts well earned by the story. This may be one to keep an eye on after all.
Salinger: Those excited by the mystery surrounding the documentary which focuses on the reclusive author’s later years will not be disappointed. Marlow Stern of The Daily Beast described the film as, “equal parts fascinating and exploitative, but one can’t deny the astounding level of comprehensiveness on display.” The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg seems to agree with this statement, but believes that while fascinating, Salinger is too exploitative: “While I respect and appreciate the biographical elements of the film…I feel much more conflicted about other parts of it that veer into tabloid-territory and brazenly violate the privacy that he fought so hard to protect.” Even with his troubled feelings surrounding the documentary, Feinberg admits that the film’s biggest revelation – that J.D. Salinger crafted five unpublished works during his life that will be posthumously published between 2015 and 2020 – “is certainly one of the most significant to ever hit the literary world.” By all accounts, Salinger will be in the conversation come Oscar season.
The Wind Rises: Though not its world premier, it seems worth making an exception to talk about the North American debut of what we now know to be Hayao Miyazaki’s final film. Known for such films as Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Ponyo, fans of Miyazaki may be surprised to hear that his final film is a historical biopic. The Wind Rises follows the life of Jiro Horikoshi, an airplane engineer who dreams of elaborate flying machines that he attempts share with the world. Despite the realistic setting, those wishing for more of Miyazaki’s fantastical imagery may rest easy. Hitfix‘s Guy Lodge reports that Jiro’s dreams are filled with “airplanes that seem to distort and grow plumage, gliding (and falling) through the atmosphere.” The Wind Rises is largely concerned with Jiro’s love of flight and events within his own life. While some have accused Miyazaki of ignoring the consequences of Jiro’s passion (the real-life Jiro Horikoshi designed fighter planes used by Japan in WWII), most critics have praised the story’s narrow focus. Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn remarked, “The Wind Rises can be largely forgiven for its apolitical outlook.” Overall, reactions to The Wind Rises have been positive, although Scott Feinberg from The Hollywood Reporter remarked that the 126-minute runtime felt, “way too long for a relatively simple story.” (By Charlie Burroughs)
All Is By My Side: Written and directed by John Ridley, All By My Side only covers the years 1966-67 in the life of Jimi Hendrix, before he broke into the UK and became a rock legend. Andre Benjamin, better known as music artist Andre 3000, was plays Hendrix, and from the sounds of the reviews does a solid job portraying both the quiet manner of the man and the seductive power of the rising star. The film builds a portrait of a man that is “sympathetic, but not flattering” (John DeFore, The Hollywood Reporter). Its content and style aim to create the ambiance of ’60s rock and roll. Owen Gleiberman of EW states, “A lot of the dialogue sounds semi-improvised, and the whole vibe and tone is less a matter of crystalized dramatic events than of sitting around in clubs and apartments, hanging out and drinking and smoking dope, exchanging a lot of casual, half-heard banter about what’s going down.” Henry Barnes of The Guardian shares a similar sentiment saying, “you leave it thinking that the essence of the man – exposed through the people around him – has been brought to the fore. Hendrix was never easy to pigeonhole. All Is By My Side has him, if not in sound, then in spirit.” All is By My Side appears to be an exciting triumph for Ridley, abandoning the expected biopic tropes in favor of the freedom and spontaneity that Hendrix himself exuded through his music. (By Janelle De La Cruz)
August: Osage County: Although overall opinions of the film range from excellent to merely passable, the overarching critique seems to be the same: it seems that August: Osage County might have learned a thing or two from last year’s stage-to-screen partial misfire, Les Miserables. Like Les Mis, August: Osage County is an adaptation of a Tony Award-winning play that typically runs about three hours in length here pared down to a more cinema-friendly two, and like Les Mis, most of its issues stem either from trouble moving into the new medium or difficulty compressing the story. Although the story centers on Meryl Streep’s Violet Weston, there are a lot of characters to deal with here, and played by a host of accomplished actors to boot. Individual performances, especially those of Streep and Julia Roberts, are being praised widely, with most of the cast seeming to get a moment or two to shine somewhere. But by most accounts, there’s some magic missing. There seems to be an overabundance of material to work with, but to varying degrees of vehemence critics are echoing HitFix’s Drew McWeeny’s sentiment “the film feels overstuffed, like director John Wells isn’t sure how to squeeze the most out of these moments,” and that the individual scenes have trouble adding up to something meaningful. That said, audience reaction at the TIFF premier was quite positive, and this will still be one to keep an eye on come December.
Bad Words: Guy Trilby’s (Jason Bateman) monologue towards the beginning of Bad Words notes that he, “is not very good at … thinking things through,” suggesting that he is aware of his problems, yet spends most of the film uninterested in bettering himself. Over the course of the story (in which Trilby cons his way into a spelling bee), Trilby befriends fellow competitor Chaitanya Chopra, a 10 year old boy with an over-bearing father. Andrew Dodge’s script successfully plays most of the ensuring shocking moments for laughs as critics frequently compared Bad Words to 2003’s Bad Santa. Both films follow utterly reprehensible leads as they either shatter the dreams of young children or introduce them to adult situations much too early. Opinions have varied as to which story was better, though Bad Words has still enjoyed a positive reception. Indiewire’s Eric Kohn had the harshest criticism, stating that the second half of Bad Words attempted to cram too much development and backstory for Guy into too little time. Nevertheless, reception to Bad Words was positive enough to get Focus Features to pick the film up for distribution. (By Charlie Burroughs)
Can A Song Save Your Life?: The Toronto Film Festival is currently in full swing, and amidst the intense selection of films, one that has been deemed a bonafide highlight is Can a Song Save Your Life? from director John Carney. The film, from the director of the much praised and Academy Award winning Once, is a comedy-drama about budding singer-songwriters starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo and ignited an all night bidding war after its world premiere this past weekend. The Weinstein Company, noticing the potential for a crossover, crowd-pleasing hit, snagged the film in one of the most eagerly-fought acquisitions in quite some time. The film earned rapturous praise upon its premiere. The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney wrote, “The film’s quiet pleasures creep up on you” and Screen International’s Mark Adams called the film, “a warm-hearted pleasure with a whole lot of soul, and effortlessly propelled forward by charming and compassionate performances by Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo.” More importantly, the adoring reception at the premiere signaled the potential for a crossover mainstream hit, something of which we can expect to be further exploited when the promotional machine hits its full stride now that the film is in Harvey Weinstein’s hands. (By James Tisch)
Dallas Buyers Club: Dallas Buyers Club premiered this past Saturday (9/7), and reviews were overwelmingly positive, particularly for the already much-discussed performance of Matthew McConaughey as AIDS sufferer Ron Woodroof. Woodroof, as nearly everyone has noted, is not a likeable fellow, but as noted by Variety’s Peter Debruge, “McConaughey commits to the character so fully, he never lets himself off the hook with that apologetic wink so often tossed off when actors play someone whose politics they don’t necessarily share.” Even critics who had a more negative opinion of the film agreed that it was still worth watching based on McConaughey’s performance as Woodroof alone. With the odd (but marked) exception, praise for Jared Leto as Woodroof’s transvestite business partner Rayon was nearly as high. The other elements of the film, including Jennifer Garner, are generally agreed to make the tapestry on which Ron’s story is told, but plenty serviceable. Turning again to Debruge to sum it up, he rather cleverly opines, “Rave reviews for both actors [McConaughey and Leto] should draw mainstream auds to one of the year’s most vital and deserving indie efforts.”
Devil’s Knot: The consensus is that Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary trilogy Paradise Lost and Amy Berg’s West of Memphis (both of which had been released within the last two years) have already covered the true story of the murder of three boys and subsequent conviction of three teens more thoroughly and effectively than this narrative treatment does. Neither Scott Foundas of Variety and Kevin Jagernauth of Indiewire found that Devil’s Knot brought anything new to the story. Notes Foundas, the film “only covers events up through the two 1994 trials” while “the subsequent two decades of revelations and public outrage — in many ways the most dramatic piece of the story — are relegated to card upon card of onscreen text at the end.” While most gave Witherspoon and Firth a bit of praise for their performances in a somewhat uninspired film, The Hollywood Reporter was more optimistic overall, offering their bottom line as a “compelling feature treatment of the much-documented scandal.”
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: His & Hers: Written and directed by Doug Benson, in his feature film debut, the film stars Jessica Chastain (Oscar-nominated last season for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty) and James McAvoy (Trance) as a couple in the midst of a horrific tragedy. Conceived as a two-part film and running nearly three hours put together, Eleanor Rigby tells the same story from the perspective of both Chastain’s title character and her romantic partner Colin Ludlow, played by McAvoy. The film has earned kind notices as a special presentation screening at Toronto. The Hollywood Reporter’s Deborah Young surmised that it was, “a sensitive, talented debut that makes the gimmick of telling the same love story twice, from his & her viewpoints, almost work,” while Norm Wilner from NOW Magazine stated, “Benson’s two-part study of a relationship torn apart by grief is not only a remarkable directorial debut but a stunning emotional study, in whichever order you experience it…Benson has been working on this project in close collaboration with Chastain and Cassandra Kulukundis for nearly a decade, and the compassion he has for his characters shines through in every frame.” (By James Tisch)
Enemy: Director Denis Villenueve’s other film, Prisoners, already had critics raving with its twists and turns, and Enemy brings an even more challenging puzzle. Critics were left scratching their heads over what they saw when Enemy screened Wednesday morning, though most have praised the film regardless. At the same time, Rodrigo Perez of Indiewire warns that Enemy is the “more experimental and arty cousin” of Prisoners. Similarly, Deborah Young from The Hollywood Reporter worries that Enemy will be much more difficult to advertise, due to its unorthodox presentation, and may have difficulty appealing to a wider audience (though star Jake Gyllenhaal’s presence should help on that count at least a little). Still, it sounds like viewers who manage to pick up on the clues dropped throughout will find another challenging and engaging thriller from Villenueve. (By Charlie Burroughs)
Fading Gigolo: John Turturro plays a cash-strapped New Yorker who decides to take part in the world’s oldest profession with a little help from Woody Allen. The high concept of Mr. Allen as pimp inspired many a giggle when the trailer to film debuted last month.The film has earned a few warm notices upon its premiere – The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy called it, “an odd, sometimes funny, other times touching, always modest look at a strange bunch of New Yorkers,” while The Guardian’s Catherine Shoard wrote “Turturro has given Allen his biggest and best on-screen turn in years: the part was written for him and it’s full of scope for aimble kvetching and nimble slapstick.” There is no word yet on when the film will be released, but it was just picked up by Millennium Films. (By James Tisch)
The Fifth Estate: The much-anticipated WikiLeaks narrative led off TIFF, and the sentiment was nearly of one voice: Benedict Cumberbatch, in the role of site founder Julian Assange, shines, but the narrative takes on too many details without enough perspective on the events it’s depicting. The drama is actually more Daniel Berg’s story (a German activist and former WikiLeaks spokesman played by Daniel Bruhl), fitting considering that one of the two major pieces of source material is his reflections on his time with the site. And by all accounts while much of the story is about Berg’s relationship to Assange, most are saying that it dips to frequently and ineffectively into other areas (historical, sociological, political, etc.). David Fincher’s The Social Network is a constant point of comparison, but the consensus is that Fincher’s effort was the better and far more human of the two; in fact, despite it’s subject matter many have said that The Fifth Estate at times struggles to hold interest. That said, no one’s calling it a bad film by any mean, just a meaningfully imperfect one. As The Guardian’s Catherine Shoard sums it up, “this is highly competent catnip for the watercooler crowd.”
How I Live Now: While there have been some critics who have praised the film’s ambition, particularly in displaying realistic violence called for in the book in the midst of a more teen-centered love story, reviews have generally been negative. Tonally, How I Live Now appears to suffer from an identity crisis, not only in that it fails to differentiate itself from the run-of-the-mill teen romance, but also in that it’s unsure of whether it wants to be a romantic character study or a postapocalyptic actioneer. Technical elements would seem to be at fault as well, with a schizophrenic camera and drab production design singled out. “There’s a lack of imagination at play,” says The Guardian’s Henry Barnes. “It’s OK if a broken society looks drab, but it shouldn’t look boring.” THR’s Todd McCarthy sums up the whole experience this way: “What starts as potentially interesting apocalyptic speculative fiction devolves into dreary sub-Hunger Games survivalism and banal teen romance in How I Live Now.”
The Last of Robin Hood: Todd McCarthy from The Hollywood Reporter was very complimentary of the script as well as Kevin Kline, Dakota Fanning, and Susan Sarandon in the key roles, but felt that the direction (from Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland) and visual style held the whole enterprise back. McCarthy states, “the film is virtually entirely lacking in visual dynamics or force … the surroundings are invariably pristine and never look lived-in.” ScreenDaily’s Tim Grierson saw it somewhat differently, his main critique being that while the actors do decently in their assigned roles, nether they nor the script bothers to dig more than skin deep. “The Last Of Robin Hood never really digs into the couple’s romance to explain its inner workings. Though Flynn and Beverly swear they love one another, we don’t see enough on screen to understand their compatibility beyond an obvious physical attraction.” In either case, the end result seems to be the same: an interesting story that is flashy at times, but fails to deliver a memorable experience. (By Charlie Burroughs)
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom: It seems William Nicholson’s adventure into adapting the lengthy Les Miserables (although surely he was constrained by the faithful – if flawed – appropriation of the musical) didn’t much prepare him for Mandela. The chief complaint is that the film is sensationalized, hitting every big, important historical fact, but doing very little to reveal a man who lived and breathed. The “CliffNotes version…[that] never opts for a light touch when a sledgehammer will do,” says Variety critic Scott Foundas. From production design to cinematography to (perhaps especially) Justin Chadwick’s direction, the consensus seems to be that while not quite exploitative, it’s certainly melodramatic to a fault. That said, this is Idris Elba’s show, and by all accounts he shines as Nelson Mandela. Where other elements of the film lack subtlety, he dives headlong into “Madiba,” mimicking his vocal tics with alacrity and presenting a nuanced portrait of a struggling man. Says THR’s David Rooney, “Elba conveys the changes and the consistencies of a half-century with subtle economy.” Of a similar quality is Naomie Harris. Though given, perhaps, less leeway by the script, Harris is sharp in the role of the increasingly militant Winnie Mandela, leaving some to wish Harris had been given more to do, particularly during Nelson’s imprisonment.
The Railway Man: This film, though it’s still seeking distribution, is a would-be awards contender. The pedigree of Oscar-winning actors Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) and Nicole Kidman (The Hours) made this one worth keeping an eye on, but it seems director Jonathan Teplitzky’s latest effort, the true story an English soldier and survivor of a Japanese internment camp who seeks peace forty years later, falls a bit short. Firth and Kidman, along with supporting actors Jeremy Irvine, Stellan Skarsgard, and Hiroyuki Sanada, are agreed to be passable at the worst and not infrequently very good at best, but it’s the plot that bogs this one down. Clunky structure seems to have robbed much of the drama and emotional connection from an otherwise incredible story. That said, this could still be on the shortlist for best score, the one element that’s universally confirmed as superlative.
Rush: Even before it’s official premier at Toronto, positive buzz is building around Ron Howard’s latest, a drama about real life Formula 1 drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). Variety says of the Peter Morgan script, “Modern audiences have been conditioned by the sheer volume of bad screenwriting they encounter day in and day out, to be wary of scripts that articulate their own themes as eloquently as humanly possible. Rush is such a film, a rare thing where every utterance is ‘on the nose’ and yet so perfectly calibrated, it would be a crime to force characters to bury their thematic scenes in subtext. Who needs reality-show naturalism when you can have life-and-death philosophy delivered at 200 miles per hour?” Peter Debruge gives director Ron Howard suma-cum-laude on his white-knuckle racing scenes. “Howard plays it anything but safe. He seizes the opportunity to elevate the racing sequences, integrating compact digital cameras directly into the automotive machinery itself. He places the audiences eyes where they could never fit, as cars hurtle forward at top speed, pioneering an intuitive visual logic. To witness this level of storytelling skill, where two leading men are so enthralling, it is impossible to tell where the practical photography ends and the visual effects begin.” Our own Tim Falkenberg assures us that Rush is not to be missed, regardless of whether or not you care one iota for Formula One racing. “The opening sequence positively grabs you, but in the end it’s all about Hunt and Lauda. The film is like a mosaic, each scene filling in the bigger picture of the lives of, and rivalry between, these two figures.” (By Desetoiles)
We Are The Best: Swedish director Lukas Moodyson’s 7th feature We Are The Best, playing in Toronto’s Special Presentation section, is garnering rave reviews and luring a flurry of buyers. Based on the graphic novel Never Goodnight by his wife Coco Moodyson, the comedy stars three teenagers who create a punk band, reacting to the boredom of their families and school lives. Variety’s Guy Lodge described the film as “an eccentric, authentic, and utterly delightful evocation of early teenage life.” David Rooney of the Hollywood Reporter says “the three girls turn in winning performances, creating a design that is colorful and wraps up the package. They create a delightful snapshot of teenage friendship from the giddy highs to the melancholy funks and are able to triumph.” (By Desetoiles)
Words and Pictures: Unfortunately, according to recent reviews, the film failed to satisfy the audience who hungered for a rom-com that differed from the usual Hollywood fare.The movie, written by Gerald Di Pego (Phenomenon, Message in a Bottle) and directed by Fred Schepisi (Roxanne), follows the rivalry between boisterous English teacher Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) and anti-social Italian painter Dina Desalto (Juliette Binoche). The consensus is that the relationship between the Jack and Dina is lukewarm at best. Tim Grierson of ScreenDaily notes, “Gerald DiPego’s screenplay focuses mostly on the debate between images and language that’s coyly waged by the two main characters, only later suggesting a growing romantic stirring within Jack for this prickly woman.” Another issue? Under-developed side characters. Deborah Young of The Hollywood Reporter states, “with the spotlight focused on Jack and Dina, there seems to be little interest in developing peripheral characters, and students and teachers alike are hastily sketched, easily predictable figures.” All that being said, there were a few redeeming qualities, including Owen’s “surprisingly literate” performance and Schepisi’s ability to get “actors to bring emotional depth to almost any kind of screenplay.” It did not, however, compare to Schepisi’s best works in the romantic-comedy genre (i.e. 1987’s Roxanne starring Steve Martin) nor did it hold the strong acting performances exemplified in his previous project, The Eye of the Storm, leaving Words and Pictures a tolerable film. (By Janelle De La Cruz)
You Are Here: Critics have not been kind to You Are Here. Owen Wilson (Wedding Crashers, The Internship) plays much the same role that he has played many times before; a man with no real attachments or relationships getting by on nothing but charm and good looks. The same can be said of Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover) as a failed writer living alone with little human contact besides Steve. Meanwhile, writer/director Matthew Weiner’s (Mad Men) screenplay fails to provide any kind of insight that might make this familiar setup more compelling. Hitfix’s Gregory Ellwood acknowledged that You Are Here has its moments of brilliance but, “when (Weiner) falls flat, he really falls flat.” Variety’s Peter Debruge and The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney were similarly unimpressed. All three reviews note that the film’s score felt especially lacking, and wondered if Weiner should have collaborated with a second creative voice instead of his collaborators from Mad Men. (By Charlie Burroughs)
Captain Phillips: This true story features three key elements: 1) Tom Hanks as the titular captain of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, 2) newcomer Barkhad Abdi as the ringleader of the Somali pirates who seize the ship, and 3) director Paul Greengrass in a very familiar, if nonetheless excellent, form. Captain Phillips is receiving universal praise and shockingly few specific gripes from critics who have seen it ahead of its New York premier, but to some it still seems like it’s missing a little bit of the secret sauce. The expectation going in is that this would be a chance for Hanks, who has not been nominated for an Academy Award since 2001’s Cast Away, to get back in the Academy’s good graces, and the critics generally agree that he’s there, despite a few flat notes here and there. Incredibly, some are saying that Hanks might only be second best in the film, with Abdi at minimum matching him step for step. And then Greengrass, well known for his two Bourne films as well as similar-in-style political/historical dramas United 93 and Bloody Sunday. Captain Phillips seems to be very much more of the same from Greengrass, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most are saying he was the perfect choice. All in all, it seems Captain Phillips might not be a box office bruiser, but it’s certainly a quality and sufficiently nuanced account of true events that starts fast and picks up speed as it goes.