Sunday, September 29, 2019

TIFF: Wrap-up

After 11 days of screenings and other film industry-related activities, the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival has come to an end. And as the curtains came down on Sunday, it was Taika Waititi‘s irreverent, anti-hate satire “Jojo Rabbit” that nabbed the coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Award. The announcement came as a surprise to many who favored more universally beloved contenders such as “Marriage Story” and “Parasite.” In retrospect, its victory was a perfect reflection of the 2019 edition of the festival, where many directors challenged audiences with their risky themes and filmmaking approaches.

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TIFF: Harriet

As much as Hollywood tries to convince us otherwise, the world doesn’t need another biopic. But with a subject as underappreciated and vital to history as Harriet Tubman, a cinematic tribute is certainly justified. With Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet,” that long overdue biopic of the legendary freedom fighter has finally arrived. But this underwhelming drama fails to truly capture the awe-inspiring efforts of its extraordinary heroine.

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TIFF: The Cave & Adam

Issues of women’s rights have long been a subject of heated debate in the Arab world. While situations vary considerably throughout the region, women are still fighting against culturally and religiously imposed restrictions rarely faced by their counterparts in the rest of the world. At TIFF 2019, a pair of films stand out in this regard, in the form of the documentary, “The Cave,” and the narrative feature, “Adam.” Though set in drastically different environments, both highlight issues surrounding women’s rights through affecting stories about the power of female solidarity.

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TIFF: Blackbird

It is never easy to accept the impending death of a loved one. Even more troubling is the knowledge that they have chosen to die. Following in the vein of award-winning films such as “The Sea Inside” and “Million Dollar Baby,” the controversial topic of euthanasia features prominently in “Blackbird.” A remake of a Danish film, this formulaic drama from Roger Michell likely won’t garner many accolades. But the tender performances from its gifted cast elevate it to something worth seeing.

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TIFF: Instinct

People have long claimed that women prefer bad boys. Whether this is true or not, this widespread belief has formed the basis for many of the most popular films in history. With her daring directorial debut “Instinct,” Halina Reijn attempts to explore this phenomenon through the eyes of a trained psychologist. The result is a film that is at once challenging, frustrating, perplexing, and thoroughly fascinating.

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TIFF: Jojo Rabbit

With a filmography that includes such heartwarming comic gems as “Thor: Ragnorak” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”, Taika Waititi is hardly a director who comes to mind when you think of Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. The traumatic genocide of Jews certainly doesn’t lend itself to his trademark offbeat sense of humor. Yet in one of the year’s most daring directorial achievements, Waititi keeps his distinctive voice in tact with “Jojo Rabbit,” a poignant anti-war satire that is also his funniest film to date.

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TIFF: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

“It’s not really about Mister Rogers.” So remarks a character in Marielle Heller’s new film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” in response to the profile of the iconic children’s TV host that forms the basis of the narrative. For better or worse, that statement is true of the film itself, which eschews traditional biopic expectations for an endearing tribute to Mister Rogers’ legacy of kindness and empathy.

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TIFF: Synchronic

If you ever wondered what a gritty cable drama about paramedics would look like, it would probably be something like “Synchronic,” directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Featuring a duo of tough guys responding to a mysterious series of gruesome deaths under dim lighting, it might cause you to wonder if “True Detective” had been remade as “True Paramedic.” Indeed, “Synchronic” captures the brooding aesthetic of recent HBO miniseries, but with an intriguing sci-fi twist that almost elevates its otherwise dreary filmmaking.

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TIFF: Just Mercy

When a director gets an inherently powerful story, it doesn’t take a herculean effort to make a film that will resonate with audiences. With “Just Mercy,” director Destin Daniel Cretton accomplishes just that. Channeling the classic legal dramas, Cretton delivers a genuine crowd-pleaser by trusting in the power of the film’s story and the ability of his actors to convey its essential message.

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TIFF: Disco & Hala

If you delve into the various sections of the Toronto International Film Festival this year, you’ll find a number of films which explore issues surrounding religion and morality. In Special Presentations, you’ll find Fernando Meirelles’ “The Two Popes“, which examines the tensions between the worldviews of a traditionalist and a more modern pope. In the Masters’ section, Terrence Malick continues his career-long interest in spirituality with “A Hidden Life“, about a conscientious objector to the Nazi cause.

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TIFF: Preview

With all the buzz emanating from the Venice and Telluride film festivals, there’s no denying that the fall movie season is upon us. Indeed, films like “Ford v Ferrari” and “Marriage Story” have already ignited Oscar talk about journalists, as some of the year’s most anticipated films have finally made their debuts. But while several of these contenders seem to be booking their places at the Oscars, there are still many challengers waiting in the wings as the Toronto International Film Festival brings their own exclusive premieres to the table. As a smorgasbord of films jostle for attention among its famously massive slate, here are 10 world premieres we are most excited about for TIFF 2019.

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CTFF: A New Day for African and Caribbean Films

While Toronto will be abuzz with the excitement of this month’s Toronto International Film Festival, there’s another September festival in town that is worth your attention. Founded in 2006 to promote emerging filmmakers from the Caribbean and the diaspora, the CaribbeanTales Film Festival celebrates its 14th edition under the theme “A New Day.” Playing from September 4-20, the CTFF will feature 8 themed nights of programming, with eight feature-length films complimented by an array of short films.

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Friday, September 27, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

If there's one thing that Hollywood loves is movies about movies. And if there's one filmmaker who loves making those movies, it's Quentin Tarantino. Famously known as a film nerd, Tarantino's filmography is filled with homages to film history. Whether it's the blaxploitation era in "Jackie Brown" or the spaghetti westerns in "Django Unchained", his love of cinema is always on display. You could therefore argue that his latest Best Picture contender - "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood - represents a culmination of his filmography to date. Chock full with references to classic cinema, Tarantino shows off his film literacy with a comedy-drama that educates as much as it entertains.

Indeed, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" is practically a crash course in classic cinema. Set during the late 1960s, it reflects the turning point when Classic Hollywood was making way for the New Hollywood movement which would emerge in the next decade. Incorporating real life figures of the time with fictional characters, the film thus follows a fading star of 1950s TV Westerns - Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio - who struggles to find his place in the new world order. With his trusted stunt double and closest friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) by his side, he attempts a personal reinvention as a movie star. But it will prove to be his greatest challenge yet, as a growing, youthful counterculture threatens to leave him behind.

That tension between old and new hollywood is at the core of "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood", as it serves as a time capsule for a turning point in the film industry. In this regard, Tarantino instills an evocative atmosphere of 1960s Los Angeles, thanks to the music, clothing, sets, and the hair. Oscar nods for the film's aesthetic would definitely be well deserved, particularly for Best Production Design. And Quentin Tarantino will surely garner the respect of his peers in his Best Director bid.

Tarantino's attention to detail brings a tangible authenticity to the settings, augmented by playful nods to films and stars of the era, ranging from "The Great Escape" and "Rosemary's Baby" to "The Wrecking Crew". Indeed, the latter notably draws attention to the subplot involving rising star (played with eager gusto by Margot Robbie). But while initial promos highlighted the ill-fated Tate - and the murderous Manson Family plays a major role in the film - she remains more of a concept than a fully drawn character.

Ultimately, Tate's storyline becomes a casualty of a screenplay that struggles to cohere. As such, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Thankfully, its best parts truly resonate enough (and will surely push it forward in the Best Original Screenplay race). Namely, the friendship between Dalton and Booth and the charismatic performances from DiCaprio and Pitt. Indeed, Brad Pitt is cool personified in a performance that will likely net him a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Meanwhile, DiCaprio will also garner himself yet another Best Actor nod for his outstanding work. Using every ounce of his physicality and expressive eyes, he is often self-deprecating and vulnerable as a man who must prove to himself and the world that he is a true movie star. Ironically, DiCaprio is effortlessly charismatic in the role, once again proving his movie star bona fides. And perhaps that's the essence of the film and Hollywood itself. No matter the era, it's a town built on make believe and only the most convincing imposters survive.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

REVIEW: Pain and Glory

With a career spanning more than four decades and a filmography that includes such masterworks as "All About My Mother" and "Talk to Her", Spanish director Pedro Almodovar is rightfully one of the most highly regarded auteurs in cinema. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, however, I think "Pain and Glory" could arguably be considered his magnum opus. Supremely artful and poignant, it is a stunning showcase of his unique skills as a filmmaker.

Antonio Banderas stars in this semi-autobiographical drama as Salvador Mallo, a film director in the twilight of his career. Suffering with several ailments, he struggles to reclaim his former glory. As he searches for inspiration, he reflects on the momentous occasions of his life, recalling the good and bad memories which shaped him.

Though the film is only loosely biographical, it's hard not to see its creator in the figure of its protagonist. Indeed, with his ruffled, silvery hair, Banderas is a striking stand in for Almodovar. And with the character's background as a filmmaker whose best work was seemingly behind him, this metatextual context brings a natural empathy to his plight, especially for longtime Almodovar fans similarly hoping for another masterpiece.

It therefore brings me great pleasure to report that Almodovar does indeed deliver another arthouse gem. Working at the top of his game, "Pain and Glory" is a reminder of what makes Almodovar such a distinct storyteller. Every facet of the filmmaking is gorgeously wrought, from the colorful costumes and sets, to the beautiful music.

As can be expected of an Almodovar film, the cast also shines. Once again, he is able to garner tremendous performances from his actors. And in this case, he reunites with two of his favorite muses - Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz. Long known for their sex appeal, Almodovar's script has crafted roles which bring a fresh perspective on their personas. As his character requests of another actor - the equally brilliant Asier Etxeandia - tasked with playing him in a play, Banderas underplays the sentimentality and brings a world-weary gravitas to his afflicted character. Meanwhile, Cruz recalibrates her innate sensuality to portray a fierce mother with all the passion of her signature roles.

The elegant musicality, touching performances and exquisite mise en scene all come together to convey the film's poignant themes. Through flashbacks and present scenarios, "Pain and Glory" embodies the saying "time heals all wounds". Despite the physical and emotional pain he endures, Salvador recognizes that it's all part of the school of life. Ultimately, all we can do is live, learn and continue to love.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

REVIEW: What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire?

A boy leading his scared younger brother through a haunted house, a woman preparing to host a party, and a mother scolding her son for coming home past curfew. These are some of the images that greet audiences in the opening minutes of Roberto Minervini’s “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?” On the surface, these introductions to the characters reflect typical scenes from across America. But after the subsequent two hours of this pointed documentary, a very specific slice of Americana emerges.

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Virtually as certain as death and taxes, humanity has proven that it cannot escape its addiction to war. Likewise, in cinema, filmmakers have shown an affinity for the subject, where narratives surrounding violent conflicts have become a prevalent staple of the art form. Some of these directors choose to portray the dangerous thrill of the battlefield. Meanwhile, others, like director Benjamin Gilmour, focus on the aftermath of war and its far-reaching effects. Indeed, such is the case in Gilmour’s latest film “Jirga,” an unusually understated drama about a soldier wrestling with his demons.

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REVIEW: For Sama

“We never thought the world would let this happen,” so laments director Waad al-Kateab in the opening scenes of her film “For Sama“, co-directed by Edward Watts. This deeply personal documentary is not the first to depict the ongoing Syrian Civil War, but the sentiment behind that statement remains as vital as ever. As she recounts her experiences during five years of the conflict, this harrowing film reminds us of one of the most urgent human rights crises of our time.

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REVIEW: Three Peaks

A deceptively cheerful scene opens “Three Peaks,” the new film from director Jan Zabeil. It’s summertime in Italy and families are merrily playing in the pool. One of them is a couple exploring their new relationship with a son. But this seemingly idyllic vacation eventually becomes one that they and, unfortunately, audiences will want to forget.

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REVIEW: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

A few years ago, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag brought much needed attention to an ongoing problem in the film industry. With a lack of diversity throughout all levels of the filmmaking process, the recipients of the art form’s highest honors often reflected a largely white-male clubhouse. As evidenced by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ illuminating new documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am“, this problem has not been exclusive to cinema. In profiling one of the greatest literary minds of our time, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” engagingly reminds audiences of the inherent politics in how we value art and honor artists.

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OSCAR WATCH: International Oscar Hopefuls

Though we are still months away from the first wave of official submissions for the newly renamed Best International Feature Oscar, the spring/winter festival circuit has already introduced some worthy candidates. As major awards are won and distribution deals close, the excitement is mounting for another competitive year among the non-English Oscar contenders. Here’s a look at some of the early contenders from the three biggest international film festivals so far, namely Sundance, Berlin, and Cannes.

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REVIEW: The Third Wife

Despite existing for more than a century, the art of filmmaking still has the power to surprise and transport us. Whether it’s a fictional African metropolis or a remote tribal community in the Pacific, cinema possesses an unparalleled ability to open our eyes to new cultures and societies. Such is the effect in Ash Mayfair’s debut feature “The Third Wife“, which delicately uncovers the lives of patriarchal Vietnamese society through the eyes of a young woman.

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REVIEW: Shadow

Grabbing attention from the very first frame, there are few films as visually striking as Zhang Yimou’s “Shadow“. Though the director is known for more colorful spectacles such as “Hero” and “Raise the Red Lantern,” Zhang delivers a fresh surprise with the awe-inspiring greyscale palette of this latest effort. Coupled with a storyline rife with meaningful symbolism, “Shadow” is a stunning addition to the wuxia film canon.

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Inside Jamaica's Growing Film Industry

Though it may not be making major headlines, Jamaica’s film industry is currently having a significant moment in the spotlight. This month’s release of “Sprinter” marks the third film made by, or heavily featuring, Jamaican talent to be distributed in North America in 2019. Showcasing an array of filmmaking sensibilities, these films – Storm Saulter’s “Sprinter”, Idris Elba’s “Yardie” and Khalik Allah’s “Black Mother” – reflect the changing dynamics of the nascent Jamaican film industry. As “Sprinter” prepares for a unique theatrical run, caught up with some key figures of the contemporary Jamaican film scene to get an inside perspective on the factors that are fueling the industry’s recent growth.

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REVIEW: Sprinter

“Hope is the thing with feathers.” Famed poet Emily Dickinson surely wasn’t thinking about 21st century immigration and athletics stardom when she penned this quote in her poem of the same name. But the sentiment behind those immortal words resonates strongly throughout Storm Saulter’s new film “Sprinter“.

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REVIEW: Sauvage

The trope of the “hooker with a heart of gold” has become such a mainstay in cinema that ardent cinephiles and casual movie fans alike can easily recognize its cliches. When it comes to such matters of love and sex, however, you can always count on the French to bring a fresh and often subversive perspective. Such is the case in Camille Vidal-Naquet’s “Sauvage“, which turns this trope on its head with a surprisingly tender-hearted drama about a gay male prostitute.

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