Movie Reviews

You’ve got to see: Room

One of the best films I saw at TIFF this year was also one of the best books I’ve read over the past several years. ROOM. And it won the coveted People’s Choice Award.


roomThe past few years’ winners of the People’s Choice Award include:
The Imitation Game, 12 Years a Slave, Silver Linings Playbook, The King’s SpeechSlumdog Millionaire etc. etc. 
And going back a few more years, winners include: Hotel Rwanda, American Beauty, The Princess Bride, The Big Chill, and Chariots of Fire.

All this to say that the People’s Choice prize at TIFF is typically a “this is a great film” stamp of approval (voted on by actual movie goers, not critics) and often the winners go on to be nominated for multiple Oscars.
So, back to Room.

This film covers difficult topics–abduction and rape–but because the film (and the book) are anchored in the point of view of a five-year-old boy, the film is also surprisingly upbeat and sweet. Look at the poster for the film. Sweet, right?
The performance from Brie Larson (who was amazing in Short Term 12 — find it, if you haven’t seen that one yet — and as Amy Schumer’s sister in Trainwreck was astounding. She is definitely one of the most unaffected and talented actors in Hollywood these days.
And the boy, Jacob Tremblay, who plays her son! Wow. The kid was actually eight when it filmed, but you totally believe that he’s five and he’ll steal and break your heart–then ultimately warm it.
I’ve spoken to a few people who are afraid to see this film, thinking that the subject matter is too difficult, but I say don’t worry. Just go. You won’t be sorry. Especially if you’re a mom, or have one. 😉
And for me, personally, it was fun to see so many shots of Toronto and to see a Canadian film (well Canadian/Irish co-production) doing so well. (Even if it’s supposed to be somewhere in the US.)
If you go see it, let me know what you think! I hope you love it as much as I did.

Favorite TIFF Memories — Crash

It’s time for the Toronto International Film Festival again!

I swore I wasn’t going to go this year (for the first time since 2002) but when a friend offered to go online to buy me some tickets I couldn’t resist. I’m seeing 7 movies. A record low for me, but I have other things going on at the moment….

That said, I hereby promise to share my thoughts on all the films I see. :)

In the meantime, I decided to revisit some of my favorite memories from TIFF over the years.

One of the first TIFF moments that came to mind was the world premiere of the movie CRASH.

crashWhile Crash won the Oscar for Best Film in 2005, I actually saw it on September 10, 2004. And was one of the very first people, ever, to see the film. Writer and Director Paul Haggis, during his introduction, told us that he didn’t have any industry or press screenings prior to the public premiere at TIFF–he cheekily told distributors who might want to bid on the film, to show up to the public screening–and that in itself was exciting. (Distribution rights sold at auction later that same night, or very early the next morning.)

The feeling in the beautiful Elgin theatre that evening was electric. And I was buzzing. I’d selected the film knowing almost nothing about it, and it was during one of my years where I’d purchased a Festival Pass, good for 50 films, so was on a serious movie overload.

But while waiting to get in, I was lucky to be admitted to the lobby ahead of time (thanks VISA Canada) and Sandra Bullock (in a beautiful pink satin gown if I’m remembering correctly) literally tapped me on the shoulder to get by to the elevator, saying, “Gotta pee. Excuse me. Gotta pee.” In real life, she was just as amazing as you want her to be.

And the film… It simply blew me away. I gasped, I cried, I marveled at the connections and the riveting performances from actors (including Bullock) who I’d underestimated before.

And I became a lifelong fan of Paul Haggis. Remember, I saw Crash several months before Million Dollar Baby came out, and as of that night he was mostly known for being a writer on The Facts of Life.

Few other TIFF nights have lived up to that one… but over the next week or so I plan to share a few more that did.


By far the best film I’ve seen so far this TIFF.

In other news…

Compliance is a finalist in the Golden Leaf contest!

And today, Deviants hit #11 in the kindle store!  And #1 in a whole whack of categories. Very excited and grateful.

Near perfect movie day

Yesterday was Father’s Day, but my dad was on a train (still is) on the way back from Saskatchewan, and so all I could do was call him. I had plans with my brother and his family, but one of the kids had a fever, so those plans fell through.

My first instinct was to get some work done. So many things to do… But then I thought, “You deserve a day off!”

So I gave myself one, and I went to the movies.

And I saw 3. :) It almost felt like film fest time.

First stop: This is the End.

I loved this movie. I thought I might be making a mistake going to a film like this at noon, and not under the influence of anything but coffee… but I found it hilarious.

Was it silly? Sure. Was some of the humor juvenile? Of course. Is it Shakespeare? No.

But it was also a pretty tightly told story, with a lot of snappy dialogue and so many references and cameos I’m sure I’d have to see it a couple more times before I caught them all. Whether you like Seth Rogen or not as an actor, dude can write. And dude is willing to poke fun at himself, his friends, his lifestyle.

Highly recommend if you want a good laugh. My favorite actor send up was either Jonah Hill or Michael Cera. Both really let themselves be skewered in different ways and I found the film versions of them very funny. I guess the Michael Cera send up was a bit reminiscent of Neil Patrick Harris in the first Harold and Kumar movie…  But it went a little further and was so, so, funny… Oh, and Danny McBride who I normally hate… His character version of himself was also very funny. So was James Franco’s version of himself. And how obsessed he was with Rogen. Okay. Just thinking about this, I’m remembering how funny this was.

Overall: Had tears of laughter much of the time. The dialogue is surprisingly subtle and smart. Would see it again.

Second stop: Man of Steel.

I liked this movie, too. But wasn’t blown away.

I found out this morning that my great friend Molly O’Keefe hated it, so I might challenge her to a cage match over at Storytelling Rules… But for now, things I liked about it were:
– image of Krypton, great worldbuilding
– Lois Lane wasn’t just a damsel in distress, but a genuine heroine who wasn’t TSTL and affected the outcome of the story
– the villain had strong motivation. It’s been a long time since I saw the original Superman and I haven’t read the comics, so maybe this motivation wasn’t new… but I liked this villain. Michael Shannon is always strong and his motivation was too. He was trying to save his people, Superman was trying to save humans. That’s some damn good conflict, IMHO.

Third stop: Before Midnight.

If you’re not familiar with these movies, Richard Linklater made this quiet little indie film in 1994, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, about a young couple who meet on a train and decide to spend an evening/night walking around Vienna together. He’s American and flying home from Vienna in the morning. She’s French, and on her way home to Paris. It’s called Before Sunrise and it’s excellent if you haven’t seen it. Very romantic and probably my favorite of the three.
Then about 9 years later, he made Before Sunset, which showed the pair 9 years later, wandering around Paris for a few hours. To say much more about that one, would be spoilerish. But like the first one, it’s excellent. The dialogue and acting are actually pretty astounding in these films. And the chemistry between Hawke and Delpy is hot.
Before Midnight is an end to the trilogy… and shows the pair as a married couple, 18 years after they first met on that train. Saying they’re married is somewhat spoilerish for the first two films, but I don’t think it really ruins anything. Things aren’t perfect between the couple, and they spend a good chunk of the film fighting, but the dialogue and acting were once again great, and I loved the parts where they weren’t fighting. This is the first film in the trilogy where we see them interacting with other characters, (rather than just themselves), and the dinner scene, with couples of different ages, in different stages of their relationships was probably my favorite part. The shots of the Greek Island they’re on were wonderful too.

Then I went home and watched Mad Men and The Killing.  (Forgot about the True Blood premiere…)

Yes, it was kind of a perfect day. :)

The Great (and Terrible?) 3D Oz

Oh, how I wanted to love this movie. And oh how it disappointed me.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on why and here are a few thoughts:

1) This is a movie that used 3D in the worst kind of way. I love how movies over the past few years (notably Hugo, Pina, Avatar) used 3D to put you in the scene with the characters (or with the dancers in the case of Pina). And how they used the technology to make the world seem more real. Awesome.
But this movie uses it to make things come out of the screen toward the audience. In that respect it reminded me of all the really bad 3D movies from the past. Or Joe Flaherty in a vampire costume moving his face toward the camera in old SCTV sketches.

Fast fwd to about the 2 minute mark to get the first example of what I’m talking about. These old sketches were hilarious. But long… Oh, 1970’s Canadian TV.
Back to Oz:  It felt as if the action sequences were planned with the central question being: How can we maximize the number of objects that shoot out into the audience’s faces? Rather than: How can we make this scene exciting and further the plot?

2) The film felt really juvenile. Now, I get that people probably want to take their kids to this movie. But really little kids will be terrified. Big, scary-toothed flying gorillas coming out at you from the screen… (And I thought there could be nothing scarier than flying monkeys…) And yet the tone and dialogue and character development felt like it was aimed at 5 year olds. Or 4 year olds. I’ve seen movies aimed at 5 year olds which entertained me more than this did…

3) They had too many character arcs. I feel like the witches’ stories got badly short changed. I get that it was a story about how the wizard of Oz ended up in Oz… but they why try to tell the wicked witch creation story at the same time? It just didn’t work. Now that I’m typing this, I realize there have been tons of films where the writers successfully told both a hero and villain creation story in one (just about any comic book movie, for example) but this one did not succeed. Maybe because they spent too much time trying to be cute. Or giving us winks to things. Don’t know. But the transformation of the Mila Kunis character from good to evil seemed like an incredible wasted opportunity. And I’d have loved to know more about the Rachel Weisz character too. And the politics of the good vs wicked sides of the witch world… And why witches are in charge in Oz etc. etc. So many interesting things, unexplored.

4) I’ve decided James Franco can’t act. This might be heresy, but it’s how I feel at the moment. I remember seeing him in that James Dean biopic years ago and being blown away. And the critics and everyone from that point on seemed to take it as fact that he was the next coming… But looking back on his filmology, I think he’s annoyed me as many times as I’ve been impressed. It’s like squinting and talking through his teeth, which worked for Dean, is the main tool in his actor’s chest. Now… I did love him in 127 Hours… And I do admit that the Oscar hosting gig, when he acted like he was so above it all, might have turned me against him. But it does say something that I reached this, “Huh, Franco can’t act,” conclusion in the middle of watching Oz. I almost felt like he thought the entire movie was a big goof. Like I was watching Franco on SNL or something, doing a spoof on an Oz prequel, rather than watching him as a character in a movie.

5) Bad romance. Wow. I just thought of this while composing this post. But it was another big problem. First, they start to develop a romance with the Mila Kunis character. And we start to care about her and them. And see problems on the horizon for their relationship because clearly she’s more invested in him than he is in her (which fits his philandering character to this point). So those of us who like romance subplots are rubbing our hands together thinking, this could get interesting! And then we’re yanked out of that romance subplot. And another witch is tossed in his path. And for no reason other than they’re on the same side in a fight, and she looks like a girl he tossed aside back in Kansas, (and she’s blonde?) we’re supposed to believe he’s going to fall in love with her. And her with him. Insta-love. Does not work.

So, in spite of all the above, I actually didn’t HATE this movie. And I thought some things were really cool. (like the way they eventually create the Oz illusion.) But overall, I was disappointed.

Has anyone else seen it?

Feel free to disagree. :)

Telling Stories with Images

I recently saw a few movies that made me think about how it’s possible to tell great stories with images, or how significantly images can enhance a story.

Last night I saw Life of Pi.

Full disclosure. I LOVED this book. Loved it. Loved how it made me think about the power of faith and/or how the human mind uses storytelling to cope with not only the unknown (God) but also to cope with traumatic experiences…

And the movie did the same, if maybe in a more heavy handed way. This movie is an interesting one for this topic because, while I think a big part of the appeal of the movie was the images, I also think images were a big part of the appeal of the book. The writer was able to describe things in such a way that we saw them as a reader… I must go back and take another look. It’s been nearly a decade since I read the book.

Good news is that I loved the movie, too. The story is framed differently than the book, (I’m pretty sure… **see I haven’t read the book in a decade) but the framing worked and added some context and a sense of reality and was a more interesting framing than a boy in a hospital bed talking to Japanese businessmen. Which, if I recall, didn’t actually frame the book, just ended it… (And the framing in the movie meant we got some nice shots of Montreal.)

The other two I want to mention are probably a little harder to find: Beasts of the Southern Wild and Samsara.

Beasts of the Southern Wild I actually saw months ago and meant to talk about it then. If you can find this one somewhere, I highly recommend it, and also highly recommend seeing it on a big screen if you can.

It’s the story of a little girl named Hushpuppy living in a swamp called the Bathtub. I’m not 100% sure, but I got the impression it’s an area that was purposefully left partially flooded and unprotected after Hurricane Katrina. The government tried to move everyone out of the area, but some people refused to move. And still refuse to even when another storm approaches and floods them again.

But it’s not really about that. It’s about this very little girl (5 or 6?) who’s almost living on her own. Her dad is around, but he makes her live in her own dwelling and barely takes care of her and he’s not doing too well and often she needs to take care of him. The girl has been learning about prehistoric animals and imagines danger in the form of these great mastodon-sized pigs. And that image/idea comes to a head near the end of the film in an inventive way and shows the great bravery of our young heroine.

Great movie. Try to find it.

And Samsara. This one is purely visual. I’m not sure if there is a word spoken during this movie. It’s a series of spectacular images set to music and it’s mesmerizing. Wow. Hard to describe. Try to find it in a good movie theatre. And Go. :)

This trailer intrigued me enough to want to go, but it doesn’t do the film justice.

End of Watch

The first film I saw at the Toronto International Film Fesitval this year was End of Watch, which actually opens today.

For me, this was a really good film if a difficult one. It becomes clear, not that far in, that there’s no chance this movie is going to end well… and I kept thinking, D’uh, you dummy, of course it’s not going to end well, it’s called END of Watch.

The performances were really strong and ultimately it’s a story about two men in a working relationship who really care about each other and about their jobs. A bromance.

Sadly, it’s also about how sometimes it doesn’t pay to do the right thing. It was kind of depressing to see this demonstrated so clearly–why some police officers would choose to look the other way at times. Almost like the worse the criminals the more the police have to lose by pursuing them.

But it’s also about the real (friendship) love between two men and a glance into the lives of police officers in one of the most dangerous parts of LA.

I was at the second screening for this film, so the actors weren’t there :( but the director was :) and he did a brief Q&A.

Interesting things learned:

– that the part of LA these police work in is as dangerous as was depicted in the film. Police officers there see more action in a typical day than most others do in their entire careers
– an AK 47 is a highly inaccurate gun. I can’t remember the exact stats the director gave on their accuracy, but basically it made sense of all the scenes I’ve seen in movies where the hero is being fired upon by multiple  automatic weapons, yet manages not to get hit…
– Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña did not get along well (according to the director). This made me more impressed with their acting performances.

If you’re in the mood for a tension filled not so happy film, check this one out.

Style Over Substance

Thinking about last night’s Oscars, I can’t decide whether the sub-title should be:

Style Over Substance
Old People Rule! or
Behold the Power of Harvey Weinstein

I was a little underwhelmed with the Oscars last night and I’m a huge Oscar fan. Even the years that most people don’t like it, I usually do. Maybe I was just distracted about other things — like coming up with a new title for my new book and series — so I only half watched.

I really enjoyed both The Artist and Hugo when I saw them, but neither were “best picture” kind of movies for me. And I really don’t think The Artist would have gotten so much attention without the campaigning by the Weinsteins. I caught part of The Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday night and The Artist swept those too, so the Oscars felt like a re-run.

Hugo swept all the more arty and tech awards. That film for me was interesting in that it was the best use of 3-D that I’ve seen (maybe including Avatar?) and it was truly beautiful to watch… But the story didn’t work for me. It wasn’t tight enough. It didn’t know whether it was a story about a kid or a story about an old man or a documentary on silent films. The last third or so of that movie seemed like Scorsese’s self-indulgence. Him caring more about his interests than caring about the audience or about telling a good story…

And if we’re only judging based on whether a movie was beautiful to watch, I’d vote for The Tree of Life, which was thought provoking as well as mesmerizingly beautiful to watch. But whatever. That film was never going to win. Too weird and not enough people saw it.

I think for me, some of my favorite movies this year weren’t even nominated… Drive, Melancholia, Martha Marcy Mae Marlene… Hmmm… What else did I love? I need to start blogging about movies again so I don’t forget.

Onto The Artist. I loved this movie when I saw it. Truly delightful. But I saw it before all the award season buzz and so didn’t really think about it critically and went in with low expectations. But I did enjoy my time in the theatre and fell in love with that little dog. :)

I think ultimately it was the lack of surprises that bothered me about the Oscars. The only possible “upset” was Jean Dejardins winning over Clooney, but since it was clear by that point that The Artist was going to sweep all the major awards, it didn’t feel like an upset. A brief aside… I did love how the director of that movie spoke about his wife and the female star during his acceptance speech. Especially since she was kind of passed over in favor of Dejardins in all the awards for no reason that makes any sense to me… Not that I would have put her in the same league with the performances in the best actress category… (Streep, Close, Williams, Davies, Mara) but sitting side-by-side, I don’t see why Dejardins’ performance was acknowledged and not hers…


I did love seeing Christopher Plummer win an Oscar. (Go Canada) Cirque du Soleil is always impressive. (Go Canada again.)  Meryl Streep was so humble and gracious. And Octavia Spencer was thrilled to tears and so sweet. And I loved the Scorsese drinking game joke… (I want to be best friends with those women.) And I was moderately amused by Ben Stiller being the straight guy to Emma Stone. (That was fearless on her part. Not sure how well it went over but — fearless!)

But other than that, I was kinda bored.

Melancholia — Oddly Beautiful

I will get to some slightly more accessible movies, I promise, but I wanted to say a few things about Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.

First, I’ve been a fan of Danish director Von Trier since Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark and Dogtown. I also saw a very bizarre documentary about him and one of his mentors at the festival one year. I wish I could remember the name of it, but I suppose it would be hard for people to find anyway.

He is one strange dude. But strange in a fascinating if unlikeable way. And his movies are often kind of like that, too. Strange and somewhat unlikeable. He definitely has a point of view and isn’t afraid to express it. (Even to the point of that horrible quote he said at a press conference in Cannes this year that got him kicked out.)

But even given that the movie’s strange and unlikeable, I really enjoyed Melancholia. It’s about the end of the world and two sisters, one of whom is very seriously depressed. To the point she spends a good chunk of her lavish wedding reception hiding out in the bathtub. (and she married Eric from True Blood–that she wasn’t joyous enough about that to get through her reception is proof enough of her serious mental illness. 😉

The depressed sister is played by Kirsten Dunst and I liked her in this more than I’ve liked her in anything since Interview With a Vampire–when she was about twelve. I really believed her character. Hard to play someone that severely depressed and not make it one note. Her sister is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg who is always fascinating in films. I find her real life, or the idea of it, fascinating enough, as she’s the child of French singer/songwriter/icon Serge Gainsbourg and the sixties fashion icon Jane Birkin (yes, the Birkin bag was named after her mom.) Kiefer Sutherland plays her brother in law. And both Alexander and Stellan Skarsgaard are in it, playing father and son, in fact.

Anyway… the film is very surreal and has two parts. The first is essentially from the Kirsten Dunst character’s POV and covers the night of her wedding reception. (The first five minutes at least are a scene of a long limo doing endless tiny adjustments trying to get around corners on a steep narrow road to take them to their reception. Symbolism…) The 2nd part is from the Charlotte Gainsbourg character’s POV, but it’s not quite that clean cut. The first part shows the disastrous wedding reception where the bride is an unbelievable mess. And that night they all spot a strange star in the sky no one’s seen before.

Turns out it’s not a star, but a planet that was previously undiscovered because it was hiding behind the sun. Don’t quibble about the science. You kind of just have to go with it. Point is, this planet is moving toward the earth and may or may not destroy the world if it gets too close as it passes or actually hits. The second part is about the characters preparing for this disaster/possible doomsday.

The irony here, or von Trier’s “message” is that the one who was already clinically depressed is the one who deals with this impending doom the best. And the cheeriest, most “together” character (Kiefer Sutherland’s character who is the very wealthy husband of the Gainsbourg character) is the one who handles it the worst.

Since I think it’s fair to assume that Mr. von Trier has struggled with a few mental illnesses himself, it’s not hard to get his point here… Maybe the mentally ill among us are actually the most sane.

If you hate surrealism, or strange movies, and didn’t like, for example, The Tree of Life, then you probably shouldn’t see this one. But it’s beautiful to look at, seriously beautiful, (the first ten or so minutes have no dialogue and are just a series of very surreal images), and the performances are astoundingly good (Dunst won best actress at Cannes or maybe Venice… or maybe both) so if this description hasn’t turned you off…. go see it. And keep an open mind. :)