Friday, September 29, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Hardcore (1979)

Hardcore (1979)
Directed by: Paul Schrader.
Written by: Paul Schrader.
Starring: George C. Scott (Jake VanDorn), Peter Boyle (Andy Mast), Season Hubley (Niki), Dick Sargent (Wes DeJong), Leonard Gaines (Ramada), Dave Nichols (Kurt), Gary Graham (Tod), Larry Block (Detective Burrows), Marc Alaimo (Ratan), Leslie Ackerman (Felice), Charlotte McGinnis (Beatrice), Ilah Davis (Kristen Van Dorn), Paul Marin (Joe Van Dorn), Will Walker (Jism Jim).
John Ford’s The Searchers hangs heavily over quite a few of the films written or directed (or both) by Paul Schrader. Ford’s story, of an obsessive quest by John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards – a Civil War veteran, who no longer recognizes the world around him – to find his kidnapped niece is one that the “hero” of Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle - an increasingly alienated Vietnam war vet - can relate to – as he sets about saving a child prostitute (played by Jodie Foster). Ethan Edwards and Travis Bickle are two of the most famous characters in American film – but Jake VanDorn, the “hero” of Hardcore is very much like them. He lives an ordered life in Grand Rapids Michigan – he is a member of the Christian reform church – as Schrader was growing up – and he is raising his daughter, Kristen (Illah Davis) by himself (we will eventually find out what happened to his wife – well, sort of). On a trip to California, Kristen goes missing – and obviously, Jake wants to find her. He hires a detective – Andy Mast (Peter Boyle), who is at least somewhat shady, but he does “find” Kristen – not in person, but on film. The film is a low rent porn film – and Kristen seems like a willing participant. Jake will travel back to California, and sink into the world of sex shops, porn films and prostitutes all in an attempt to save his daughter. Like Edwards and Bickle however, VanDorn never stops and asks himself a very basic question: Does the young woman he’s trying to save, want to be saved?
George C. Scott is at the center of the movie, and it really is one of his best performances. He plays VanDorn as a quiet man – one we do, at least initially, sympathize with. He runs his business, and basically lives a quiet ordered life. He doesn’t drink or smoke or swear – but he’s also not really trying to force his tightly held religious beliefs onto anyone, outside his family anyway. He is a quiet man, who keeps to himself – he doesn’t much understand the world outside his bubble – and he doesn’t much care about that either. It’s only when his daughter goes missing that he leaps into action to try and get her back. Throughout the film though, we do start to question a little bit his motives. He never shares any memories about Kristen – never talks about who she is as a person, or what she means to him. He is almost completely emotionally shut down. The poster has the tagline “Oh my god, that’s my daughter!” – but VanDorn never actually says that in the movie. When he is shown the movie with his daughter in it, he’s quiet – he covers his eyes and leaves. When he confronts Mast about the movie later, he doesn’t talk about his daughter as much as he talks about Mast – and how he must have enjoyed showing him that movie.
In California, VanDorn goes “undercover” to try and find his daughter – after it becomes clear to him that acting and dressing like himself will simply get everyone in this sleazy underworld think he’s a cop. He frequents sex shops and peep shows (apparently, Schrader insisted in shooting in the real business he portrays – something Scott says if he knew, he wouldn’t have made the movie – and this led to a rocky relationship between Schrader and Scott – although Scott’s unease in those places works for the movie, whether it was real or acted). He meets with porn producers, puts out a phony add looking for talent, and follows one lead after another, down one rabbit hole after another, each darker than the last. He finally teams up with Niki (Season Hubley), a young sex worker herself, who knows some people, who she thinks know Kristen. Their relationship is the best, deepest one in the movie. Niki is the only person who VanDorn opens up to at all – revealing his religious beliefs, and what really happened to his wife (kind of) – whereas Niki opens his eyes a little bit to the reality of what she does, and why. For a time, he becomes a surrogate father to her – although she correctly reads what the reality of the situation is going to be when it ends.
As many, including Roger Ebert, have pointed out – the end of the Hardcore is a little bit of a mess (spoiler alert). Schrader had always planned on VanDorn never finding Kristen – instead, he learns that she died in a car accident, and he slinks home a broken man. For whatever reason, he changed the end – but to make it fit in terms of plot, he needed to add in a previously unseen villain, as well as some violent action. The conversation that VanDorn and his daughter end up having is the most awkward and unconvincing in the film – it tries to assign a reason as to why she left, and a reason why she’ll come back with him. The Searchers and Taxi Driver both (smartly) avoided this problem – neither Natalie Wood or Jodie Foster have to say anything after being “rescued” – those films, instead, allow their parents to  do the talking, even if it’s clear they don’t understand their children (as it is here as well). But it’s not quite fair to describe the ending of Hardcore as a forced happy ending either. The final shot of the movie makes it clear that despite everything he has previously said, VanDorn will be yet another man who abandons Niki – making him less principled than he thinks he is – and the fact that he’s going to go home with Kristen will make it much harder for him to return to his bubble – which he could have done had she died.  Ethan and Travis get to live with their fantasies – VanDorn won’t have that luxury. (end spoilers).
Despite its flaws, Hardcore is one of Schrader’s best, and most complete, directorial efforts. As a director, he has been uneven to be sure – but he is hardly ever boring. Hardcore explores religion, masculinity, sexuality, pornography and many of Schrader’s pet themes. It’s one of his best films, and deserves to be more widely seen and discussed than it is.

Movie Review: Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Kingsman: The Golden Circle ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn.
Written by: Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn based on the comic book by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons.
Starring: Taron Egerton (Eggsy), Mark Strong (Merlin), Colin Firth (Harry Hart), Julianne Moore (Poppy), Hanna Alström (Princess Tilde), Channing Tatum (Tequila), Halle Berry (Ginger), Elton John (Elton John), Jeff Bridges (Champ), Pedro Pascal (Whiskey), Poppy Delevingne (Clara), Edward Holcroft (Charlie), Tom Benedict Knight (Angel), Bruce Greenwood (President of the United States), Emily Watson (Chief of Staff Fox).
The first Kingsman movie from 2015 was a surprise hit – a fun, over-the-top action movie that probably shouldn’t have worked as well as it did, but dammit, it did anyway. It was hardly a perfect film – at 130 minutes, it was way too long, and kind of ran out of steam after the great Church action sequence – and there was an anal sex joke near the end that left a bad taste in my mouth (although considering the sequel makes two, non-explicit references to said joke, perhaps I was alone there). It was not the type of movie that demanded a sequel, but it certainly was the type of movie in which a sequel could be easily made – being based on a comic book and all, one supposes that there are lots of stories that have already been told about these characters. The best thing that can be said about the movie is that if you’re a big fan of the first film, you’ll like this one as well – it is essentially the same movie, with the same over-the-top stylized action sequences, the same nihilism at its core – the same pretty much everything. It doesn’t have a sequence that comes close to that Church sequence however, and is even longer than the first film, so that by the end I was just tired and wanted out of there. But, on the plus side, Julianne Moore is an absolute delight, so there’s that.
The sequel opens with essentially all the Kingsman who are not our hero Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and gadget wizard Merlin (Mark Strong) being killed by a series of missile strikes (you would think having that many misses exploding in London would be a bigger news story than it appears to be here, but I digress) – and Eggsy and Merlin having to enact the Doomsday scenario – which after some complicated plot mechanisms, takes them to Kentucky – where they meet their American counterparts – the Statesman. They team up and have to fight another insane billionaire – this time it’s Poppy (Julianne Moore), who apparently controls ALL the illegal drug trade in the world, but is tired of living her life in secrecy, on her island compound that is made to look like the set of a 1950s nostalgia movie.
If you walk into this Kingsman movie having seen the first one, you know what you’re going to get here – and this film delivers MORE of it. More action, more style, more “witty” banter, more sex jokes – more everything. I didn’t really buy Eggsy relationship with Princess Tilde – the Swedish Princess of the aforementioned anal sex joke near the end of the first movie – because this really isn’t a series about relationships and feelings – everything moves too fast for that, and the series is so cynical that a genuine emotion isn’t possible. The film tries to outdo everything about the first film – but really cannot. I will say, I almost appreciate the fact that they killed off all the Kingsman in one foul swoop at the beginning – because if we had to keep track of them and the Statesman, it would have been chaos. I don’t think the likes of Jeff Bridges and Channing Tatum add all that much to the series – both probably have less than 10 minutes of screen time, and do nothing except play off their charm, but hell, they are charming. Pedro Pascal and Halle Berry have more to do – and they do it just fine, I suppose. I don’t know what the hell Elton John was doing in this movie – and why he was in it so much (it’s bigger than a typical cameo – hell, I think it’s bigger than Tatum or Bridges role) – and even though he’s not a good actor, I did typically enjoy him on screen. The returning players are all fine, I guess, although Colin Firth seemed bored throughout the film. The best thing in it – easily – is Julianne Moore, playing a wholesome, chipper psychopath. No, it’s not exactly an original role – but Moore absolutely kills it anyway. I loved every moment she was on screen.
I do wish more action sequels would try something different with their follow-ups – give the audience something they do not expect, rather than something they do. I understand why risk averse Hollywood doesn’t – but still, I wish it were so. The first Kingsman was a surprise – a fun action that looked terrible in the previews, but won you over. You cannot be surprised by the same tricks twice – which is pretty much why, while The Kingsman: The Golden Circle is far from a terrible movie, it’s also fails to impress the same way the original did

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Movie Review: Stronger

Stronger **** / *****
Directed by: David Gordon Green.
Written by: John Pollono based on the book by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (Jeff Bauman), Tatiana Maslany (Erin Hurley), Miranda Richardson (Patty Bauman), Richard Lane Jr. (Sully), Nate Richman (Big D), Lenny Clarke (Uncle Bob), Patricia O'Neil (Aunt Jenn), Clancy Brown (Big Jeff), Kate Fitzgerald (Aunt Karen), Danny McCarthy (Kevin), Frankie Shaw (Gail Hurley), Carlos Sanz (Carlos).
Movies like Stronger – that are based on real world tragedies – are difficult to pull off. They often dwell in the details of the day in question, risking rubbernecking at tragedy, before ending with some sort of phony uplift that ignores all the lasting pain the event has caused. The previews for Stronger – based on the true life story of Jeff Bauman, a young man who lost both his legs below the knee in the Boston Marathon Bombing – make it look like one of those phony inspirational movies that aim to make us all feel great again. The film itself though isn’t that – at least not quite. This is a film that dwells on that middle ground – the long, hard road between the tragedy and uplifting ending – a period when it really doesn’t seem like everything is okay – and may never be okay again.
As Bauman – the young, cocky Boston native who works at Costco as a chicken cook, Jake Gyllenhaal adds another impressive performance to a growing list of strong work. In the opening scenes – before the blasts – he almost seems like a background player in Good Will Hunting come to life, but in a mostly charming way. His on-again, off-again girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) is off-again – she’s frustrated that he doesn’t seem to want to grow up or show up – anywhere – but he assures her – when she crosses the finish line at the Marathon, he’ll be there – with a big, homemade sign for her and everything. We know how that turns out.
In the aftermath of the bombing, Bauman becomes a symbol for Boston Strong – they want him on talk shows, they want him at Bruins and Red Sox games – everyone recognizes him, and everyone thinks he’s a hero. But Jeff doesn’t think that way – he doesn’t know what is heroic about having his legs blown off. When someone tells him that he “showed the terrorists that they can’t win” – he responds “From where I’m sitting, it looks like they at least got on the scoreboard”. He drinks more, he slacks off on his rehab assignments – his relationship with Erin – which is now on-again – becomes strained. He is enabled by his family – especially his mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson) – who drinks a lot herself, and just wants everyone to see how great and strong her son is. He certainly doesn’t feel heroic – he simply wants to move on with his life. But how do you do that with no legs?
Gyllenhaal and Maslany are the reason to see the film, as they give remarkable performances, from the outside in. For Gyllenhaal, there seems to be a realization that what he needs to overcome is something internal – he’s not beating “it” – but beating something inside himself, that wants to wallow in self-pity. Maslany has, in some ways, the more difficult role – the ever supportive wife/girlfriend in these inspirational movies have sunk many a talented actress, who cannot breathe life into the stereotype – but that’s not what she asked to play here. She has her own struggle – as much as she loves Jeff, she isn’t going to stick around and be a nurse to him, or watch him destroy himself.
The film was directed by David Gordon Green – and it shows the talent that was readily apparent in his first (and best) movie George Washington – and its indie follow-ups before he went Hollywood. The most striking scene is the first time Jeff has his bandages removed – which is a shot that lasts for a few minutes, focused on Jeff’s face, with his legs blurry in the background. It’s a moment where you feel that pain that he is trying to overcome. Green does a good job here, mainly undercutting the sentiment in the story – unless he there is nothing really he can do, like in the big Red Sox game sequence.
The closing scenes of the movie do revert – at least a little – to those inspirational movie clichés – it kind of has to, given how the story turns out. But even then, the film realizes that Bauman’s story is not inspirational for him, and those who lived it day in and day out – for them, it was painful. It’s only inspirational when you don’t have to go through it. There is value in that inspiration to be sure – but there’s value in seeing behind it as well.

Movie Review: The Hero

The Hero ** ½  / *****
Directed by: Brett Haley.
Written by: Brett Haley & Marc Basch.
Starring: Sam Elliott (Lee Hayden), Laura Prepon (Charlotte Dylan), Nick Offerman (Jeremy Frost), Krysten Ritter (Lucy Hayden), Katharine Ross (Valarie Hayden).
I fully support what seems to be writer/director Brett Haley’s newly found mission to give older, talented character actors and actresses lead roles in movies that treat those older people with respect. Haley had a surprise indie hit a few years ago with I’ll See You in My Dreams, in which Blythe Danner played a woman who has been widowed for 20 years, and finally finds love again – but not quite in the way you expect. What I appreciated about I’ll See You in My Dreams is that it wasn’t one of these phony, senior citizen uplift movies that seem so popular with people like my mother (which I don’t begrudge, but don’t really respond to either). Haley seems to be playing with the genre in some interesting ways, but while he avoided the clichés we are used to seeing, he didn’t really replace them with much. That movie gave the great Sam Elliott a fine supporting role – and I suppose Haley and Elliott liked each other, because they’ve reteamed now for The Hero – with Elliot in the lead (this seems like a pattern for Haley – whose next movie stars Nick Offerman – a supporting player here). It is a fine performance by Elliott, but it’s in the center of a movie that doesn’t really go anywhere, or have all that much to say. It’s interesting, it’s always a pleasure to watch because of Elliot, but when it ends, you wish there was something, anything more to the film.
In the film, Elliot plays Lee Hayden a figure not unlike Sam Elliot – an aging actor, with an iconic voice and mustache, who doesn’t work much anymore. He is best known for a Western – The Hero – from 40 years ago, and in some ways has coasted on that ever since. He’s divorced, although he’s friendly with his ex-wife (Elliot’s real life wife, Katherine Ross – always good to see her, and perhaps Haley can create a vehicle for her) but he doesn’t much talk to or see their daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter). He has one friend – Jeremy (Offerman) his one time TV co-star, and now pot dealer – the two get stoned, and watch Buster Keaton (not a bad way to spend the day to be honest with you). It’s at Jeremy’s where he meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon) – a stand-up comedian decades Lee’s junior, who (I think, probably coincidentally) not unlike his daughter, although no one mentions this – and they start seeing each other. What Lee doesn’t tell her – or anyone, at least not right away – is that he has pancreatic cancer – and probably not much longer to live.
Elliot is always an intriguing screen presence – and in recent years, that has been used well in supporting roles. Everyone knows Elliot – if not for being the Narrator in The Big Lebowski – than as someone else in any of his other nearly 100 screen roles. He always seems utterly at ease in his own skin, comfortable and confident. It’s interesting to see him in this role, playing an actor who gives off that same vibe, but then peaking behind the curtain a little bit, and seeing the insecurity behind that. The film, like I’ll See You in My Dreams, plays with a few ideas that we would normally see in a film like this – first, Lee mounting one last movie himself, and then getting another crack at stardom in a bigger movie – before swerving away from them.
I do think though, that unfortunately, The Hero does more fully embrace the clichés that I’ll See You in My Dreams didn’t. Prepon’s Charlotte is a thinly written character, so the whole creepy May-December romance never really feels real, as you have no idea why she’s interested in him – or why, beyond sex, he is interested in her (Prepon also has one stand-up comedy scene, in which she doesn’t seem convincing at – although the movie does her no favors by forcing her to follow BOTH Ali Wong and Carmen Esposito). We also know that we will eventually get a big scene between Lee and Lucy – but as much as Ritter gives it, the scene doesn’t quite click in the way it should.
The film does look good – deliberately evoking old Westerns at points, and Elliot is such a pleasure to watch that the film really does work a lot better than it should. That doesn’t really mean that the film is good though. I want Haley to continue to make movies like I’ll See You in My Dreams and The Hero – movies that give great actors a chance to stretch a little in lead roles, later in life. I just want those movies to be better.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Movie Review: First They Killed My Father

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Angelina Jolie   
Written by: Loung Ung & Angelina Jolie based on the book by Loung Ung.
Starring: Sareum Srey Moch (Loung Ung), Phoeung Kompheak (Pa Ung), Sveng Socheata (Ma Ung), Tharoth Sam (Khmer Rouge Leader).
It is fairly common when an actor becomes a director for critics – and others – to describe their films are vanity projects. Often, this is because the actor, of course, casts themselves in the lead role. Angelina Jolie got (more) than her fair share of that when she made By the Sea – her third film as a director, and the only one she also starred in, alongside then husband Brad Pitt (I really need to see By the Sea – I somehow missed it). It’s also unfair, given that Jolie has now made four films behind the camera, two of them in a language other than English, and three of them without her in them. If nothing else, I hope that goes away with First They Killed My Father – which I don’t think is a great film, but is one that I think has greatness in it – and shows just how talented Jolie is behind the camera. She is the real deal as a filmmaker.
The film opens with a montage of American talking heads – mainly Nixon and Kissinger, talking about Cambodia – pretty much denying that they are conducting a secret war and bombings inside that country during the Vietnam war (spoiler alert – they’re lying), before putting us on the ground in Cambodia in 1975, after American troops have left Vietnam. Those scenes are the only bit of context that the film will give you for the next two hours and fifteen minutes, until the end credits, which will provide a little bit more. The rest of the movie stays focused on Loung Ung – who was five in 1975, and witnessed the atrocities that were about to happen in her country, saw and learned things she never should have had to, and somehow made it through. Because she doesn’t really understand what is happening and why, the film never explains to us either. And because she is five, and doesn’t truly understand, the emotions in the film are strangely muted as well. This is a film where horrific things happen, yet it ends of a slightly up note, and yet it is never quite as harrowing or inspirational as you would think it would be.
This seems to be by design for Jolie. Her biggest film to date – Unbroken – told a harrowing and inspiring story as well, but the film itself was rather muted in terms of those emotions. That didn’t make all that much sense to me than watching that film – but it does here. Children are strange in their ability to adapt to whatever situations they find themselves in – sure, they may cry, but then they soldier through. First They Killed My Father is about how Loung Ung does just that. We first see her being forced, alongside her whole family, to leave their home – she doesn’t understand why, and believes the soldiers. She doesn’t quite understand why her father is telling her to say he’s a dock worker either, since he doesn’t do that. She doesn’t understand when they take him away – or why her mother tells her and her siblings to split up run away. And on and on and on – she just doesn’t quite understand – she just listens to the adults around, and does what she is told – because that is what children do.
They film is very well made by Jolie – with great cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle, who stays on the same level as the film’s child protagonist. Because of the structure of the movie, and its point-of-view, it does at times feel like it’s a parade of misery – a rather by-the-numbers “then this happened” feel comes over the film at times. Still, I do think that’s deliberate on the part of Jolie. The film was co-written by the real life Luong Ung, and based on her book. She is looking back at her childhood with a strange mixture of horror and detachment – and the film gets that tone right.
What the film makes clear is that Jolie is a real filmmaker – she is not out to do a vanity project, and she doesn’t want to make a film full of false dramatics and phony uplift – but something closer to the ground. The film probably should have been shorter, and less repetitive, but overall, it is a solid, very well made film.

Movie Review: The Lego Ninjago Movie

The LEGO Ninjago Movie ** ½ / *****
Written by: Bob Logan & Paul Fisher & William Wheeler & Tom Wheeler and Jared Stern & John Whittington and Hilary Winston & Dan Hageman & Kevin Hageman. 
Starring: Jackie Chan (Master Wu / Mr. Liu), Dave Franco (Lloyd), Fred Armisen (Cole), Kumail Nanjiani (Jay), Michael Peña (Kai), Abbi Jacobson (Nya), Zach Woods (Zane), Justin Theroux (Garmadon), Olivia Munn (Koko).
It’s a rather troubling trend in the three big-screen Lego movies so far, that each has been not as good as the last movie. That was probably inescapable – everything seemed new – and awesome – in the first film, simply entitled The Lego Movie, because the film had a completely and totally difference animation style than anything else out there – and because it played on adults inherent nostalgia for the toys they played with as a child. Earlier this year, we saw The Lego Batman Movie – which was almost as delightful as The Lego Movie – again at least in part because of nostalgia, but also because the live action Batman had become so serious and dour, that we needed something to come along and mock it. The problem with The Lego Ninjago Movie – at least for someone like me, is that I have absolutely no connection to the source material this time – I went into the movie having no idea what a Ninjago was (and left, not knowing much else. Lacking that connection, what we’re left with is an animated, action comedy that is amusing in fits and starts, but doesn’t really add up to much. I’m sure that people who watch the Ninjago TV show will enjoy it more than I did – and my superhero obsessed six-year old daughter had a blast, despite never having seen the show – but this is the first big screen Lego movie in which almost all of it will work better for kids than adults – a few isolated jokes aside. It’s not bad per se – just not as good as what came before.
The film takes place in Ninjago – an island city of some kind, that is under constant threat of attack from Lord Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux) – a four armed ninja, clad in head-to-toe black cloths who wants to take over Ninjago, even if he’s not entirely sure why. Garmadon’s son is Lloyd (voiced by Dave Franco) – and everyone hates him because he is Garmadon’s son, even if he hasn’t seen his father since he was a baby 16 years ago. Lloyd is secretly the Green Ninja – the leader of the ninja crew that always defeats Garmadon when he attacks. They each have an element – fire, water, ice, earth and lightning – although poor Lloyd doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do with “green”. They are trained by Master Wu (Jackie Chan) – Lord Garmadon’s brother, and a true ninja master. The bulk of the movie is essentially a road trip – where Lloyd and his ninja pals are forced to play nice with the evil Garmadon, on a quest to get the Ultimate Ultimate weapon – the only thing that can defeat the Ultimate Weapon, which Lloyd deployed to disastrous effect.
Walking into the movie knowing nothing about Ninjago is entirely possible – the film establishes the relationships between all the characters from the outset, and you’re never lost in the plot – which is relatively simple and straight forward. Yet at the same time, it does feel like something is missing – basically, a reason to care about anyone or anything in the movie. Everything is so simple here, that it never really feels like anything is at stake. The quips and one-liners can be amusing – but they’re in isolation more than anything. The action sequences are, for the most part, okay – although they are more chaotic than in The Lego Batman Movie – and especially when they’re in the city, they can be hard to follow. The animation is still good for the most part – yet, I couldn’t help but wonder why this movie had to be done with Lego, instead of normal animation – there is none of that idea, cleverly played with in the previous big-screen versions about this all being a child’s game.
I keep saying big screen version rather than simply movie, because Lego has been making direct-to-DVD versions of many different stories over the years – again, as someone with a superhero obsessed daughter, I’ve seen a few different version – mainly the Justice League, although she particularly loved the first DC Superhero Girl Lego movie earlier this summer. For the most part, those movies are passably clever, and enjoyable for adults who know the characters, and my daughter who loves Wonder Woman (but is too small for the Gal Gadot version) absolutely loved it. The Lego Ninjago Movie feels more like one of those Lego movies, than the big screen versions – cheapie films, made to order, and done quickly for fans of the characters. There is nothing really wrong with that – but it does leave one wanting more. Both The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie provided clever takes on their subjects, nostalgia and more, making them appealing beyond their immediate target audience. The Lego Ninjago Movie does not. Sadly, it’s still better than most of the animated films I’ve seen so far this year – even as it doesn’t come close to the features Lego has made before.

Movie Review: Slack Bay

Slack Bay *** / *****
Directed by: Bruno Dumont.
Written by: Bruno Dumont.
Starring: Fabrice Luchini (André Van Peteghem), Juliette Binoche (Aude Van Peteghem), Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (Isabelle Van Peteghem), Jean-Luc Vincent (Christian Van Peteghem), Didier Desprès (Alfred Machin), Brandon Lavieville (Ma Loute Brufort), Raph (Billie Van Peteghem), Cyril Rigaux (Malfoy), Didier Després (Detective Inspector Machin), Cyril Rigaux (Detective Malfoy).
Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay is simultaneously unmistakably one of his films, as it addresses the themes and obsessions that has run through his entire body-of-work, and completely different than anything he has ever made before – because he has completely changed the tone of his latest film. Dumont has always obsessed over absurdities in French society – and often focused, unblinkingly, at a parade of miseries in front of his camera – rapes and murders, often extreme versions of both, have happened in his films, and his camera captures them with unblinking, cold, detachment more often than not. You don’t just watch Dumont’s films, you’re punished by them. Slack Bay tells a story not unlike any of Dumont’s other films – it actually closely resembles his last one, the four hour, made for French TV Li’l Quinquin – except this time, Dumont has framed it all as an absurdist, over-the-top comedy. I’m not sure the film works – I’m not sure that the film had any possible way in which it could “work” – but you kind of have to admire Dumont for making something this bonkers.
The film, set in 1910 on the French coast, is about two families. The Van Peteghem’s are wealthy eccentrics, who live up on the hill, and have nothing of any importance to say or do – they obsessed over things that do not matter – the patriarch Andre (Fabrice Luchini) lurches around his vast property taking up time with meaningless observations, and his wife Isabelle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) obsesses over the cleanliness of the house – driving the staff nuts. Andre’s sister – Aude (Juliette Binoche) exists, I think, only for the joy of watching the normally serious Binoche go entirely over-the-top goofy – the entire performance full of eye rolls and giggling, as she basically says nothing of value the whole time. Down below, right on the water, are the Brufort’s – a poor fishing family, who make extra money transporting tourists across the water (they literally pick them up and carry them over) – and sometimes, they knock out those tourists, kill them and eat them – something the movie tells us almost casually, very early in the proceedings. The only other major characters are the Laurel & Hardy-like detectives who show up to try and figure out where all these missing tourists have gone – which shouldn’t be too hard to figure out, because it appears that these are the only two families in the area. Then again, they are not very good detectives – as one of them is always falling down – and rolling, rolling, rolling, down hills.
This community is so isolated, it’s no wonder that eventually these two families are going to come together in some strange way. That happens when Billie (Raph), the teenager daughter of the Van Peteghem’s, falls for Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville), a teenage Brufort (who also, oddly, is the title character of the film – which was titled Ma Loute in France). Their relationship is, of course, doomed from the outset, but is a way for Dumont to bring these two families into contact with each other.
Dumont is clearly trying for some sort of Bunuelian exercise in surreal absurdity – a satire of French culture, both high and low, in which everyone is an asshole and a hypocrite. You have to admire the ambition behind that to a certain extent. Yet, I don’t quite think his surreal satire lands quite as it wants it to. The film is all over-the-map, his target is probably too broad, and so the whole satire seems rather bland instead of biting. It’s still something to witness to be sure – with some great performances sprinkled in (newcomer Raph is particularly good as Billie – the character who really grounds this thing as much as possible) – and it’s amusing to see someone normally as serious as Dumont, repackage his film as an over-the-top comedy. Does it work? Does it have to?

Friday, September 22, 2017

Classic Movie Review: The Driller Killer (1979)

The Driller Killer (1979)
Directed by: Abel Ferrara.
Written by: Nicholas. St. John.
Starring: Abel Ferrara (Reno Miller), Carolyn Marz (Carol), Baybi Day (Pamela), Harry Schultz II (Dalton Briggs), Alan Wynroth (Landlord), D.A. Metrov (Tony Coca-Cola).
Abel Ferrara is a difficult director to get a handle on. On one hand, he has made his career making fairly sleazy, exploitation movies – and at the same time, there is a real artist inside there, that is looking to get out in those films. His best film is probably 1992’s Bad Lieutenant – a film that was rated NC-17 for all the sexuality, nudity and violence in it, but there is something beautiful in its ugliness – which is something you could say about most of his best films – from 1981’s Ms. 45 – where a mute seamstress goes on a killing spree after being raped twice in one day or Body Snatchers (1994) – where he took the infamous story and made it into an AIDS allegory or The Addiction (1995) a vampire-as-addict tale, or even his most recent film, Welcome to New York, in which Gerard Depardieu grunts like a pig in extended sequences in which he either has sex, or is raping someone (strangely, I’ve never seen King of New York – one of his best known films). I’m not sure you can realistically say it is there in his debut film – 1979’s The Driller Killer – and yet watching it, you can tell this isn’t an average exploitation, grindhouse film from the 1970s.
The film stars Ferrara himself as Reno Miller – a painter living in New York, with two female roommates – Carol (Carolyn Marz), who is loosely Reno’s girlfriend, and Pamela (Baybi Day), who is Carol’s lover. Neither of them have a job, nor is Reno making very much with his painting – although he does know a gallery owner (Dalton Briggs) – who has previously given him advances for his latest work. The rent is due though, the phone bill is high, the electric bill is high, and they have nothing left. To make matters worse, a band called The Roosters has moved into the building, and play day and night, which drives him crazy. We also meet his estranged father, a bum living on the street – who Reno denies knowing. All of these pressures build and build on Reno, until he snaps one day, and heads out into the streets with his drill, and becomes the title killer – murdering a series of homeless people in brutal fashions. Eventually, he is unable to hide his increasing violence – and those close to him become targets as well.
This plot outline, probably makes the film sound like an exploitation flick – and to be fair, in many ways it is. The violence in the film is bloody and extreme – in the way that 1970s movies are, meaning it’s tough to take most of it all that seriously, because it’s so over the top – although to be fair to Ferrara, he finds a lot of interesting ways to shoot a man killing bums with a drill. The movie pretty much stops all forward momentum at one point to have a sex scene in the shower between Carol and Pamela – for no other reason than because a movie like this needs to have a sex scene to help justify its existence – and if it’s a lesbian sex scene, all the better (you then may even be able to claim your movie is progressive, as it doesn’t judge this relationship – which is true – even if much of the rest of the movie borders of misogyny – also true – and if the depiction of a gay man – the art dealer – is downright offensive). The Driller Killer ended up being one of the so called “Video nasties” – films banned in England in the 1980s – which, of course, helped its notoriety.
Yet, one of the interesting things about The Driller Killer is even when Ferrara is making an exploitation film, he cannot fully commit to that – and finds various excuses to follow his characters into dark places, and various subcultures. He spends more time then you’d think with that band – The Roosters – and its various groupies and hangers on – literally just watching them rehearse. He seems to like to spend time on the streets of New York – the dirtier, the seedier, the better.
I’m not going to argue that The Driller Killer is a very good movie – it really isn’t (and apparently, if you were to listen to Ferrara’s DVD commentary, he makes fun of the film throughout). IF the film wasn’t directed by Ferrara – who went on to make several very interesting films, and wasn’t included in the Video Nasties banning in the UK, then the chances are The Driller Killer would be forgotten today. Yet, it’s an interesting little movie – one that shows that there was a real artist in there, struggling to get out. Sometimes, I still feel that Ferrara is a real artist, still struggling to get out of his nastier side, but even if that’s true, he’s had at the very least an interesting career – one that started here.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Movie Review: mother!

mother! **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky.
Written by: Darren Aronofsky.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (Mother), Javier Bardem (Him), Ed Harris (Man), Michelle Pfeiffer (Woman), Brian Gleeson (Younger Brother), Domhnall Gleeson (Oldest Son), Jovan Adepo (Cupbearer), Emily Hampshire (Fool), Stephen McHattie (Zealot), Kristen Wiig (Herald).
Director Darren Aronofsky doesn’t do things half way – when he goes for something, he goes all in. This approach doesn’t always work – his Biblical epic Noah was a little bit of a misfire for him, and as much as I liked The Fountain, I still don’t know if that film actually works on the level Aronofsky wanted it to. His latest film, mother!, has already become notorious with at least as many people hating the film as loving it – and that’s just among critics – the consensus among moviegoers seems to be that most weren’t interested at all, and those that were, hate the film. I completely and totally understand that as mother is wildly unconventional, and goes to some insane places, that most viewers just don’t want to go. The film is a biblical allegory of course (Aronofsky has really become one of the few directors so willing to directly engage religion in his films) – and it goes for broke from the beginning. If you want something more conventional, there is literally every other movie playing at your local multiplex right now. I am amazed and delighted this film got this wide of a release, even if most audiences seem to hate it. This is one of those films that you may love, you may hate – but you won’t forget. It will be talked about for years.
May I also say, good for Jennifer Lawrence – who is one of the biggest movie stars in the world right now, for throwing caution to the wind and starring in this film? I like Lawrence as an actress, although I’ve been starting to think that she needed something to break her out of the type of roles she was doing – which were starting to grow stale (there were diminishing returns to her performances in David O. Russell movies for example – despite the three Oscar noms she scored for them). This is a different type of role for her – one that at first seems rather passive, but eventually gets more unhinged. In the film, she plays the younger wife of a “greater writer” (Javier Bardem) – and the pair live in the secluded house where he’s lived his whole life. A fire destroyed the interior – and she’s doing the work to restore it (“I want to build a paradise” she says in one of the films more thudding obvious metaphor lines). They seem to be happy in their childless existence, even if he cannot write anymore. Then a man shows up on their doorstep (Ed Harris) – saying he thought it was a bed and breakfast. Bardem invites him to stay anyway, much to Lawrence’s chagrin. The next day, Harris’ wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up. These uninvited guests make themselves too much at home, place themselves too much into their lives, ask invasive questions, and don’t listen to anything Lawrence says. Then they’re two bickering adult sons show up to argue about the will. Things turn violent, more people show up, etc. and things spiral downwards. Just when it seems everything has come to an end, the cycle repeats itself.
You can take the film on a literal level in that this is the life the younger wives or older, temperamental “genius” artists have to put up with – that they are never wholly yours, and you are subject to their whims (the fact that Lawrence – 27 – started dating Aronofsky – 48 – while making this film is more than a little weird). The Biblical parallels are also there, and pretty hard to miss unless you actively want to miss them (a lot of people seem to want that). It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of God to show him this way – or to reframe the creation the way this film in its final act. But it’s a wild ride.
Aronofsky matches his outlandish material with outlandish style. There are a lot of close-ups in the film – which seems focused on Lawrence’s face throughout, often with long shots as she storms through the house. The sound design in the film is brilliantly over-the-top, as is pretty much everything else. It’s a testament to Lawrence that she keeps the film together – like everyone else in the film, she is playing less a character than a symbol, but she holds the center wonderfully. Bardem is great as the almost ever smiling center of attention – proclaiming his love for Lawrence, while unable to turn away his acolytes, ever. I loved Michelle Pfeiffer as well, showing up to ruin everything. There are smaller roles that are also well played – especially by Stephen McHattie and Kristen Wiig – who show late in the proceedings.
Listen, I know most people are going to hate mother! Most viewers want a cleaner narrative than this, and don’t really want one long metaphor to stand in for a narrative. They want something less weird than this – more linear, more conventional. I get that, and I don’t necessarily think there is anything wrong with wanting that from your movies – especially, when you head to the multiplex on a Saturday night, thinking you may see a horror movie like Rosemary’s Baby (an obvious touchstone for this film) – and get this instead. But for me, I admired every crazy moment of mother! – which starts out crazy, and just get weirder from there. You should see it if for no other reason than you’re unlikely to see anything like it ever again.

Movie Review: Strong Island

Strong Island *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Yance Ford.
Documentaries made about a family, by a member of that family, aren’t often a mixed blessing. On one hand, you get access to material that no one else would ever have access to – and your family may be more candid, less on guard, when you interview them than if it’s someone they do not know as well – allowing greater insight. On the other, the filmmaker may be too close to the material to see it clearly – and ends up giving you a rather biased, or one side portrait. There is a little bit of both of those things in Strong Island – a very good documentary that bills itself as a true crime documentary – but is something more than that. Yance Ford has made the film to investigate the killing of his brother way back in the early 1990s – an unarmed, black man, who was shot and killed by a white 19 year old, who then claimed self- defense – and was never even indicted. While the film pulls back the veil on the type of story we still hear about all the time – it’s also a powerful story about grief, identity and family.
(Note: To avoid confusion, Yance Ford is a transgender man – although when the killing took place, he was a woman and identified as such. Ford never addresses being transgender in the doc – he does say that they are “queer” but that’s it. At the time the killing took place, he identified as a woman and a lesbian. This was confusing to me, as a few of the reviews I looked at referred to Ford as a “he” – and until I found out he was transgender, I was confused).
The details of the case are depressingly common. There was a traffic accident, and Ford’s brother William agreed not to go to the police if the wronged party simply took his car to their garage and fixed it themselves for free. The repairs took longer than they were supposed to – and one night, William goes down to the garage with his friends. Words are exchanged, and William is shot once, and dies right there. To both William’s family – and his friend who was on the scene that night – it appears like the cops and prosecutors always looked at the incident as self-defense – and never wanted it to be anything other than that. William Ford was just another dead, young black man. Throughout the film, Ford pieces together the crime – although it’s not much deeper than that – and a portrait of who William was leading up to his death, and the effect it had on William’s family.
If there is a flaw in the film, I think it’s that Ford withholds two rather critical pieces of information until fairly late in the film – one that makes her brother look bad – a previous, threatening incident at the garage, that although it never turned physically violent, lends at least some credence to the story that someone might be scared of him, and one that makes her brother look good – the courageous actions he takes to stop  a man who shot an Assistant District Attorney at an ATM, and was trying to flee the scene.
The film works best as a portrait of this family. After a short prologue of Ford on the phone with a former cop who investigated the death, the film heads back to the family before the killing – their lives growing up, their parents’ marriage and how they were raised – the closeness of this family. From there, it becomes a portrait of pain and grief – as the surviving family members feel ignored and pushed aside by the police – as if their feelings never did matter. How does a family pick up and pull themselves together after that? Can they?
The film may be a little too long for what it sets out to portray, and as mentioned, I wish it was slightly more upfront than it is. But those are minor quibbles to what I mainly thought was a powerful and timely documentary. William Ford was not killed by a police officer, but in many ways, his case resembles those we do hear about. Was it okay for the man who killed to be scared? Why was he scared – because William was black, or because of the previous incident? Did the cops really take this seriously? When Ford does get one of the investigators to talk to him, he is sympathetic, and says he did everything he could to find the truth – and he feels sincere. But what preconceived notions did he have when he started? Strong Island provides the type of glimpse into this family that we usually do not see. I have my quibbles with it, but mostly, it is a moving, deeply felt and valuable film.

Monday, September 18, 2017

My Mini TIFF 2017 Recap

Every year, a part of me wonders if it will be my last year attending TIFF. When my oldest daughter was born 6 years ago in mid-August, I skipped TIFF that year, and in the five years since, I’ve only attending two or three days – far from the week I used to spend, watching between 30 and 40 films. This year, it was 3 days and 14 movies – and I thought often that I have no idea how I used to do this for a week – especially considering in those days, I had to go back and forth on the train at the beginning and end of each day. I’m spoiled now springing for a cheap Toronto hotel – and I’m still exhausted my sometime on day 2. TIFF certainly has its share of problems – which I won’t really delve into here – but this year, like every year, I still loved it. Yes, I was tired – but it was also exhilarating. I liked or loved most of the films I saw this year – only hated 1 (we’ll get to that) – and it’s always a pleasure to be surrounded my so many film lovers and films for three days. So, as much of a headache (literal and figurative) it is to attend TIFF every year, I’ll be back, God willing, next year. As is my usual custom in my TIFF recap, I’ll start with the worst film I saw – and end with the best – although the rest is certainly not in order of preference, but just in an order that made sense. I even managed to see the People’s Choice Award winner at the fest for the first time since Slumdog Millionaire in 2008 – and two other prizewinners as well – the People’s Choice Documentary Winner and the Platform winner as well. Anyway, on with it.
First the film I hated - April's Daughter (Michael Franco) – which is a film that annoyed me to no end. Franco is clearly inspired by Michael Haneke (who, while being a great filmmaker, does have a lot to answer for in terms of the filmmakers he has inspired) – but the story he tells is nonsensical – a needless, thoughtless provocation about a woman (Almodovar favorite Emma Suarez – doing what she can with a horrible role) as a woman who has all but abandoned her two daughters – one in her early 20s, another who is 16 – and now seven months pregnant. Suarez eventually does return – saying she’ll be there to help raise her grand-daughter – but then basically kidnaps the baby, and seduces the kid’s 17 year old father. Why she does this – or the idiot teenager lover does it – is never explained, and no information is given. I’m all for ambiguity, but Franco is cheating here, as he gives you nothing to work with. How this scored a win at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard program is beyond me.
The only film I didn’t really like was The Insult (Ziad Doueiri) – his follow-up to The Attack. That film looked at all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and saw victims and victimizers on all sides – and offered all humanity and sympathy. The Insult tries hard to do the same thing – this time in terms of the conflict between Christians in Lebanon, and the Palestinian refugees, who have been there for decades. I appreciate what the film is trying to do – but it withholds far too information from the audience, just so it can spring it on you to “shock” you – and after a while, it just feels like you’re getting jerked around. Still, until April’s Daughter which was frustrating and boring, The Insult is neither – it’s an entertaining bad movie – one with good performances, that fully embraces the contrivances of the courtroom drama. It’s a foreign film I could envision becoming a box office hit in North American (meaning it makes like $1 million here) – because it offers confront in more sense than one.
While I cannot really say I enjoyed Makala (Emmanuel Gras) – I admired it a great deal. This documentary follows a young man in the Congo who chops down a giant tree, chops it into smaller pieces, makes charcoal out of it, packs it all in bags, straps them to his old bicycle, and pushes it 50km into the closest town, where he has to try and sell it all. All that sounds about as entertaining as it plays – and yet, I couldn’t help, but be drawn into the film. Yes, it goes on a little long, and I’m not 100% sure what the extended church sequence at the end is supposed to mean. You also have to simply admire the filmmaking – and the dedication it took to make the film, and the young man’s journey. I know now more than I ever need to know about how you make charcoal in the Congo – but I’m glad I did.
For the second year in a row, I went to see the latest film by the most prolific Korean auteur The Day After (Hong Sang-soo). Like most of Hong’s films, it deals with the romantic dealings with a powerful middle aged man, and the younger women in his life. This time though – he’s not a film director (shock!) – but as the head of a publishing house and a writer – who spends most of the day with his new assistant (Hong favorite Kim Min-hee) – while he’s also juggling a wife and mistress, both of whom will show up during the course of the day. The film is undeniable minor Hong – it’s nowhere near as good as my favorites of his Right Now, Wrong Then or The Day He Arrives (although it shot in the same beautiful black and white as the later) – yet seeing it at the end of a long day of screenings was somehow very comforting. He repeats his themes most of the time anyway, but watching his variations on that theme are fascinating. I hardly loved the film – but I still quite liked it.
For filmmakers working (just) outside their comfort zone, we had Let the Corpses Tan (Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani). They team behind Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears apparently decided they had taken their barely narrative exploration of giallo films as far as they could – so they set their sights instead on spaghetti westerns and low-budget European exploitation crime films. For a feeling of what the film is like, just think of a Quentin Tarantino almost completely devoid of plot, character or dialogue – and add more leather than you could imagine. All that probably sounds like I didn’t like the movie – but I had a blast with it – as a group of criminals, hiding out at the secluded home of an artist – who is crazier than any of the criminals – are confronted by a pair a of cops, and then start double and triple crossing each other with such frequency that you couldn’t keep track if you wanted to. The film is a wickedly stylish blast – full of gunshot blast, creaking leather and blood galore. None of it makes sense, or is trying to – and I a lot of fun with it. It’s too bad most will not see it in a theater, where they will be deafened by each and every gunshot (there are a lot).
Another film that looked to the past for much of its style was the Platform section winner Sweet Country (Warwick Thornton) – who clearly watched some Sam Peckinpah before making this outback Western about an aboriginal man who kills a white man – with very good reason – and goes on the run from the law. The film is great on style, and has some fine performances – and it’s good to see a film like from the point of view of the aboriginal for once (and made by Thornton, who is aboriginal himself). The film runs out of steam for me in its last 30 minutes, when it goes from a tracking film a la The Searchers, into an outback courtroom drama – but overall, this is a solid film, and a welcome addition to the genre.
His first film, Lebanon, won the Venice Film Festival all the way back in 2009 – and second prize there last week for his long awaited follow-up - Foxtrot (Samuel Maoz). In many ways, Foxtrot is a companion piece to his first film – that documented his time during Israeli-Lebanon war, and this one is about a veteran of that war, who is told his son was just killed during his military service – and too paralyzed by inaction. The film takes some surreal twists from there – the highlight is the second act, set at a remote checkpoint in the middle of nowhere – and is funny, touching, and ultimately heartbreaking. It’s also a tough film that has angered some back in Israel – but Maoz is fine with that. Foxtrot will hopefully find the audience it deserves – it should be seen and discussed.
A couple of French directors made stunning debuts films here. The first Custody (Xavier Legrand) about a custody battle between the parents, that turns violent. The film starts with a lengthy, tense sequence in family court – and each scene after grows more and more intense from there. The final act of the movie is as terrifying as any horror movie you could imagine, and all the more so because it feels so real. It’s such a simple story in so many way – but just done really, really well. The second is an actual horror movie Revenge (Coralie Fargeat) – a rape-revenge movie from a female director for a change. This time neither the rape itself nor the gorgeous woman at the center are eroticized or fetishized – it’s harsh and unrelenting. From there, it really does go fairly bonkers and bloody, right up until its wonderful climax. This is a new horror classic – and I cannot wait to see what Coralie Fargeat does next.
From new French filmmakers to a French legend - Faces, Places (Agnes Varda & JR) – which won the People’s Choice documentary award was a pure delight from beginning to end – as the 88 year old Varda teams up with a photographer more than 50 years her junior, to travel around France talking to people, and putting up giant photos wherever they are able to. I’m not sure what else to say about it, other than to note that Varda is already winning an Oscar this year – a long overdue lifetime achievement award – and if she added a Best Documentary award to her mantle as well, I wouldn’t complain. The film is simple, yet perfect just as it is.
Now, let’s move onto the four larger films I saw at the festival – those that will be vying (or attempting to) anyway Oscars in a few months. You can certainly pencil in a Best Actor nomination (and possible win) for Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (Joe Wright). The film itself is a straight ahead prestige movie – albeit with some very impressive aspects (the cinematography and especially the score are great) that along with Oldman’s brilliant, blustery performance under layer upon layer of make-up, help make up for some of the screenplays missteps (no one is going to believe that sequence on the underground). The film itself makes an interesting companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk – this one concentrates on the first month of Churchill’s time in office, when he was getting pressured to make a peace deal with Hitler – and both films culminate with his famous speech in the wake of Dunkirk – in Nolan’s film delivered by a soldier reading it in the paper, here with Oldman screaming it brilliantly. Oldman has been one of the best actors in the world for decades now, and yet he only has one Oscar nomination (for his great turn in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). The film should also get Joe Wright back on the career path he probably envisioned for himself after his first two films – Pride & Prejudice and Atonement – as he’s struggled since then. No one is going to call Darkest Hour innovative or original – but it works on precisely its own turns.
A better biopic for me was I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie) – the wonderfully funny film documenting the life and times of Tonya Harding – wonderfully played by Margot Robbie, with a killer supporting turn by Allison Janney as her mother, and fine work by Sebastian Stan as her ex-husband as well. The film knows its time period well – hell, this feels like a 1990s film in almost every way, which makes me as easy mark, as this was the era that made me fall in love with films as a teenager – and this is the type of film I loved then. The film is wickedly funny, and yet strangely sympathetic to all its characters – it would have been easier to mock them all, which this film stays just on this side of not doing. The film is also a reminder of just how miraculous Harding’s story almost was – if she hadn’t been involved in what everyone in the film calls “the incident”, and got a few different breaks, it would have been one of the greatest underdog sports stories in history. Instead it’s this wonderful mess of a thing – and the film fully embraces that mess.  Pure entertainment done well.
It was a surreal experience to watch The Shape of Water (Guillermo Del Toro) in the Elgin Theater, considering parts of it were shot in the Elgin Theater. In many ways, this feels like the film Del Toro has been warming up his entire career – this man who clearly loves monsters has crafted a rich fantasy about a mute woman (a wonderful Sally Hawkins) who quite literally loves a monster. Surrounded by a fine supporting cast – Richard Jenkins is a delight, Michael Shannon oozes menace, and both Octavia Spencer and Michal Stuhlberg do fine work as well – and containing Del Toro’s trademark eye for production design, cinematography, costumes, and a wonderful Alexandre Desplat score – this is Del Toro at his most whimsical and fantastical. It’s hard not to fall for this film.
But the best film at the festival that I saw, was also the film that won the People’s Choice Award - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh). McDonagh’s screenplay is the star here, in his film fully of snappy dialogue in which Frances McDormand plays the mother of a teenage girl who was raped and murdered, and whose killer has not been found – so she takes some drastic steps to put pressure on the police. You aren’t like to see a better ensemble cast this year – Woody Harrelson is great as the Sheriff, dying of cancer, who can dish out as well as take, Sam Rockwell, finds surprising levels to a violent deputy – and Peter Dinklage turns what I first thought was a nothing role into something quite great (his final scene in the film is I think perhaps the key one in the film – as you see things in a different way after that. The film starts out hilarious, but edges into darkness and tragedy – and ends on a note that I cannot quite describe. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one McDonagh pulls off effortlessly. This is one of the very best films of the year.
So that’s it for me for TIFF 2017. Here’s hoping I can attend next year as well.