Sunday, September 24, 2017

TIFF: Wrapping up the festival

With the announcement of a surprise People’s Choice Award Winner that precious few predicted, the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival came to a close with less fanfare than previous years. The general consensus was that the festival lacked the slam dunk hits that Oscar dreams are made of. But on deeper reflection, there was much to appreciate from this year’s slate of films.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: A Ghost Story

The only certainty in life is death. But what comes after? With his latest film, David Lowery poses an answer to this question that provides even more room for thought. It may be titled "A Ghost Story", but it's also a love story and so much more.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play a couple simply known as C and M. They live in a quaint suburban home as C tries to make a living as a musician. But one day, he dies tragically in a car accident just outside their home. M is distraught, consumed by her grief and loneliness. C returns home in spectral form however, hoping to re-connect with his wife. She can't see him however, though she senses his presence. Unfortunately, the pain and memories are too much to bear. M plans to move out of their home, leaving C desperate to break through to her before it's too late.

The experience of watching C's subsequent odyssey is one that delivers endless surprises. In the first act, the heartbreaking tragedy of its love story is presented with stark austerity, emphasizing the quiet solitude of loss and the overwhelming impact of grief. Free from hysterics, Lowery instead channels these feelings through his evocative use of music and Rooney Mara's delicate performance.

But Lowery does an interesting thing with this heartbreak, turning the focus towards C's ghost in the most fascinating of ways. It truly becomes "A Ghost Story" of unusual depth, gradually evolving into a bleak contemplation of the meaning of life and the afterlife. If Lowery's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" was his faithful homage to the master Terrence Malick, then "A Ghost Story" is his graduation from his apprenticeship. With this effort he has truly found his voice, exploring an inspired take on cosmic existentialism to rival "The Tree of Life".

Indeed, "A Ghost Story" gets deeply philosophical - with a strikingly nihilistic outlook - but there's also an immediacy to the emotions that comes from his experimentation with recognizable genre tropes. Our protagonists' home is essentially a haunted house for example. But the haunting invokes despair rather than fear, as it plays off the "unfinished business" concept. Additionally, the film confronts the cruelty of time in a manner typical of sci-fi films. And these moments are so visceral that they put every 2017 film I've described as "profound" or "breathtaking" to shame.

In essence, "A Ghost Story is very sad, but it's also richly satisfying. Few filmmakers could take such a potentially comical premise (Casey Affleck haunts Rooney Mara dressed in a sheet with two holes for eyes) and make something so stunning. "A Ghost Story" is therefore a testament to the unlimited potential of a resourceful, visionary director. With minimalist production design, unshowy cinematography (i.e. a modest 1.33:1 aspect ratio) and little dialogue, Lowery conveys a story of tremendous beauty and power. "A Ghost Story" is a little film with grand ambitions. And it's easily one of the year's best.

Friday, September 22, 2017

INTERVIEW: Ruben Östlund and Terry Notary

On the basis of his first 4 features, writer-director Ruben Östlund has established himself as one of the most exciting voices of world cinema. His work is often mischievously satirical, giving him a reputation as the “Master of Discomfort.” With his latest film “The Square“, he soars to new heights with a brilliantly absurd comedy centered around the world of modern art. In celebration of the film’s TIFF premiere and its recent selection as Sweden’s Oscar submission, I sat down with Ostlund and actor Terry Notary for a discussion on pretension in art, the value in making mistakes and the gratifying feeling of awards recognition. Below is an edited version of our conversation:

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Sebastián Lelio

It feels like every few months we get an article decrying the paltry numbers of speaking roles for women in contemporary cinema. With his recent string of in-depth portraits of a diverse range of heroines, Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, therefore, feels like a rebel against the status quo. True to form, he brought not one, but two unconventional female-centric films to the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. In “A Fantastic Woman“, a transgender woman copes with an intolerant society in the traumatic aftermath of her boyfriend’s untimely death. For “Disobedience” he made his English-language debut, with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams starring as Jewish women harboring mutual feelings of forbidden love.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, September 17, 2017

TIFF: In The Fade

When we first meet Katja (Diane Kruger), the protagonist of “In The Fade” she seems to have it all. Living a comfortable lifestyle in Hamburg with her loving husband and son, she has no worries. In the blink of an eye, all that is taken away in this gut-wrenching revenge thriller from Fatih Akin.

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TIFF: Wajib & Sheikh Jackson

In a pair of TIFF films set in the Arab world, the tensions between Eastern and Western culture take on personal implications. Both are Oscar submissions for their respective countries, with “Wajib” and “Sheikh Jackson” representing Palestine and Egypt respectively. They also share similarities in their focus on father-son relationships, through which they discuss cultural differences surrounding religion, ancient traditions, and individual freedom.

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TIFF: Racer and the Jailbird

Film history has given us such memorable pairings as “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. For his latest film, Michaël Roskam sought to emulate these dynamic duos with his own take on love, crime, and punishment. The result is “Racer and the Jailbird“, a flawed but ambitious film starring Matthias Schoenaerts and Adèle Exarchopoulos.

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TIFF: The Disaster Artist

After receiving his first Oscar nomination for “127 Hours”, James Franco hasn’t exactly lived up to the expectations of that honor. Though he remained incredibly prolific and acted in a few hits, his place on the A-list became precarious. Most noticeably, he made a foray into directing, which resulted in a slew of underwhelming indie experiments that almost became a running joke for their consistent inclusion at major film festivals.

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TIFF: Disobedience

Not content to bring just one award-winning film ("A Fantastic Woman") to TIFF 2017, Sebastián Lelio doubles up this year with another engrossing female-led drama. Starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, “Disobedience” marks his English-language debut. And more significantly, it is arguably his most impressive directing achievement to date.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: A Fantastic Woman

Movies about “triumphs over adversity” have long been a staple of cinema throughout the history of the artform. Unfortunately, that ubiquity can lead to predictable clichés. But every so often, a film like “A Fantastic Woman” comes along that breaks the mold. Directed by Sebastián Lelio, this aptly titled drama features a uniquely inspiring protagonist, showcased through the perceptive eye of a brilliant filmmaker.

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TIFF: You Disappear

In the opening scene of Peter Schønau Fog’s “You Disappear“, a man (Frederik, played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas) recklessly joy rides his family car – with terrified wife and son inside – to a potentially deadly crash. Moments later, as the family exits the car to catch their breath, he falls off a ledge at the side of the road. When he’s taken to the hospital, the family gets unexpected news. A tumor has been found in his brain, explaining his erratic behavior. But there’s an even more troubling revelation to come in this challenging Danish drama.

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TIFF: Tulipani: Love, Honour and a Bicycle

With a title like “Tulipani: Love, Honour and a Bicycle“, you’d be correct in assuming this comedy-drama from Mike van Diem is not a simple story. Indeed, this cross-cultural, decades-spanning yarn is at its heart, a showcase for the art of storytelling. Whether you are narrating or being told a story, it can be a joyous experience, as shown with this highly entertaining film.

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TIFF: The Florida Project

In his latest indie gem “The Florida Project,” Sean Baker puts the spotlight on everyday heroes hidden in plain sight. Much like his Hollywood-set “Tangerine,” he looks at the “shady” side of another one of America’s famous dreamlands. This time around the setting is a cluster of cheap motels located just a stone’s throw from Disney World. And in the same empathetic way that made “Tangerine” a highlight of 2015, “The Florida Project” is one of this year’s most warm, vibrant films.

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TIFF: I, Tonya

In one the best surprises of TIFF so far, Margot Robbie stars in “I, Tonya” as Tonya Harding, the disgraced American figure skater who came to prominence in the early 1990s. Her story begins in Portland, where from a very young age, she longed to become a professional figure skater. With prodigious talent to go along with her desire, her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) encouraged her to aggressively pursue her dream. As a struggling waitress with a failing marriage, however, LaVona quickly realized that Margot’s humble background did not fit the elegant image expected of the sport. Through ruthless determination and undeniable skill, however, the combative (towards naysayers and each other) mother-daughter duo fought for Tonya’s place at the top of the figure skating world. But it all came crashing down in one of the biggest sports scandals in history.

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TIFF: On Chesil Beach

Adapted from an acclaimed Ian McEwan novel (“Atonement”), set in 1960s Britain, and starring the luminous Saoirse Ronan, “On Chesil Beach” has all the makings of a classic “prestige” period film. That it centers around a prickly romance also promises rich dramatic potential. But while “On Chesil Beach” offers the conventional pleasures of an engaging story and handsome production values and actors, this debut feature from Dominic Cooke falls short of its potential.

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TIFF: Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami

As a Jamaican, it is with great shame that I confess to knowing relatively little about Grace Jones. Outside of her androgynous persona and a general sense of her iconic stature and cultural influence, she remained an almost mythical figure of a bygone era in my mind. It was on this basis that I eagerly anticipated the documentary “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami“, an up close and personal look at this one-of-a-kind woman.

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TIFF: Call Me by Your Name

It’s easy to get caught up in unnecessary hyperbole when attending a film festival, especially under the excitement of your first screening. But after seeing Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name“, I am confident in calling it an instant classic of queer cinema. Filled with moments of pure bliss, this deeply touching film is a romance for the ages.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

TIFF: Preview

Now that we’ve come down from the rarefied air of Telluride, it’s time to head north for the Toronto International Film Festival. Known for its audience-friendly programming and major industry presence, TIFF is the last stop in the early fall Venice-Telluride-Toronto trifecta. With an abundance of big premieres on its slate however, this mainstay of Toronto culture is certainly no after-thought.

Indeed, despite a decision to scale down the number of films – by a considerable 20% – this year, there is still a plethora of choices for all tastes. With a total of 255 feature films to be shown, Oscar campaigns will be launched (or face an early death) and new talent will be discovered among an array of diverse perspectives from all around the globe. And notably, about a third of these films are directed by women, a significant contrast to the low numbers seen at other major festivals like Venice and Cannes.

In short, if you love movies, Toronto is the place to be over the next 10 days. And with so many enticing choices, Awards Circuit is here to guide you with our 17 Films to See at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival:

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Monday, September 4, 2017

COMING SOON: The Oscar Slate

After a surprisingly strong summer at the multiplexes, it's once again time to turn our direction to the "prestige" films vying for Oscar consideration. But first, it's worth mentioning the contenders that have already been released this year.

During the same weekend that "Moonlight" scooped a shocking Best Picture win, Jordan Peele gave us an early preview of the next awards race with "Get Out". This horror-comedy opened to raves from critics and chart-topping box office numbers, with audiences praising its astute satire about race in America.

Towards the end of the summer, another film about race relations made its own Best Picture claims in the form of Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit". But while some praised raw intensity of this true story, others criticized its depiction of brutality against African-Americans and questioned Bigelow's intentions as a white director.

With the bona fide "genre" style of "Get Out" and controvery surrounding "Detroit", it remains to be seen whether the Academy will ultimately embrace them. But there was one summer film that emerged with serious potential to go all the way. Namely, Christopher Nolan delivered another astonishing masterwork to his filmography with "Dunkirk", a truly nerve-wracking cinematic experience. You can expect Warner Bros. to pull out all the stops to get Nolan his first Best Director nomination to go along with a likely Best Picture nod.

Looking ahead, "Dunkirk" will surely face some stiff competition however, as evidenced by the reactions to the recent Venice and Telluride premieres. And in a few days, the Toronto International Film Festival gets under way with even more possibilities to consider. With so many Oscar hopefuls, it can be hard to keep track of the race. But if you dig deep enough, you can see the Best Picture field starting to take shape. With that in mind, here are the trailers for the major films to keep an eye on over the next 6 months: