Monday, September 23, 2013

TIFF 2013 Film Review - Rush

Race car drivers come mainly from two schools. The first stream that the public and team owners love want to go fast whatever the risk, are willing to stick the nose of their vehicle into any opening gladly embracing the reality that when the flag drops to start a race there is a real possibility that they may not make it to the finish line. The other set are more technical aware of every engineering aspect of their vehicle. They were willing to push themselves and their vehicles but will not take on any undue or unnecessary risk.  They tend not to be liked and a thorn in the sides of team owners, fellow driver's and the governors of the sport.  The main characters in Ron Howard's Rush James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and  Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) are the leaders of each school at the highest level of racing in the mid-70's.

The film focuses on the battle for the World Championship in the 1976 Formula 1 season. Lauda and Hunt have a rivalry that dates back to the lower levels of the sport. They are the classic foils; Lauda the precision technical student of vehicles vs. Hunt's show up late, jump in the car and push your right foot to the floor approach. Howard captures the essence of a by gone era where a single guy with money could buy his way into a team or a group of friends backed by a fading noble title could piece together a car in the lower levels to eventually take their shot at Formula 1.  Howard picked a story from the golden era of the sport featuring the massive cars with their V12 engines that were essentially time bombs on wheels at the peak of their power, speed and unpredictability.

Howard's realistic portrayal of the driving scenes gives the project an authentic look. The racing scenes convey the feel in the cockpit down to the vibrations that driver feels as they are behind the wheel. Howard displays on screen the sheer speed as the cars leave the pavement, draft and hurdle inches apart around the circuit. The other notable aspect of the film is the sound. The massive sound department created a film that roars. Revving engines, shifting gears, squealing tires, and breathtaking sequences of driver's loosing control and on occasion spinning into barriers.

The set decorators, art department special effect and visual effects team do a remarkable job of recreating the Circuits of the 1976 F1 season. Every details is identical from the helmets to look of the tracks to the sponsors signage around each circuit and stickers on the cars themselves. Two sets stand out above the others the designs for the Canadian and German Grand Prix.

Julian Day costume design team nails the racing suits and pit crew attire of the era. The stitching, sponsor logos and style of the fire suits match those of the actual drivers. The casual wardrobe of Hunt and his entourage are true to the time period. The wardrobe of Hunt's wife supermodel Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) is particularly identifiable of the time.

Anthony Dod Mantles Cinematography is a vital element of the piece. To make a successful racing movie the audience have to feel as if they sharing the driver's experience. Dod Mantle mounted small cameras on bumpers, engine blocks and helmets of the cars and actors to bring the viewer right into the actions. The look and feel of the blue rainy treacherous fateful day of the German Grand Prix is crafted through Don Mantle's lens.

Peter Morgan continues his current run of top level scripts on stories based on real people. In recent years his work has included screenplays for Frost/ Nixon, Last King of Scotland and The Queen. In his writing for Rush he presents the lifestyle of the racecar driver and has at his disposal James Hunt perhaps the driver that embraced the lifestyle to the fullest. A real life friend of Niki Lauda, Morgan presents the Austrian driver as a formable and determined man. He is not flashy but still willing to push himself sometimes beyond normal human limits to achieve his goals.

Rush is an hour and a half thrill ride that brings the viewer directly into the world of formula 1 racing. Even if you're not a Formula 1, racing or even a fan of sport the story of the rivalry between these two drivers, the adversity that they face and the steps that they take to overcome them is a compelling story. It's a film that I can highly recommend.

*** 1/2 Out of 4.

Rush | Ron Howard | U.S.A. / Germany/U.K. |123 Minutes.

Tags: Formula 1, World Championship, James Hunt, Niki Lauda, McLaren, Ferrari, Great Britain, Austria, 1976 German Grand Prix, Car Crash, Rehabilitation.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

TIFF 2013 Film Review - Prisoners

What would you do if your child was abducted and every bone in your body knew that they were alive and waiting for you to do something to help them? Would you follow the rules, wait for the police to do their job, respect due process?  These are the questions at the heart of Denis Villeneuve's new film Prisoners.

It's Thanksgiving Day perhaps the most popular holiday in America. The holiday is not religious one therefore all of the citizens participate fully. The Dover's are headed over the block to the Birch's for Thanksgiving day football and food. The families are a good match.  The Dover's teenage son Ralph  is about the same age as Eliza Birch while The families two young daughters Holly and Joy are inseparable friends. The four go out for a walk before dinner whereby they encounter a mysterious RV. Later that afternoon the two young daughters go out to the Dover house without their older siblings and do not return.

Villeneuve is at the peak of his craft with his work on this film. The introductory shots of Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) seen from the back in a sparse diner on Thanksgiving day set up his character as a lonely soul possessing the single-mindedness succeed with detective work. Another fantastic scene at a wooded area when the police first catch up with the subject R.V. captures the tension as the rain falls as the officers approach the vehicle trying to determine if the girls are inside.

Relative newcomer Aaron Guzikowski's script gives several characters the room to grow throughout the piece. Keller Dover ( Hugh Jackman) a tradesman and hunter who prides himself on being prepared for any event locks into a path from the moment his daughter Anna is abducted which picks up speed and altitude as the narrative progresses. Nancy Birch (Viola Davis) a mother and host of the Dinner shows her strength as she learns and reacts to some morally questionable activities. Her husband Franklin (Terrence Howard) an even keeled teacher takes the level headed approach as events unfold.

Veteran Cinematographer Roger Deakins who's recent credits include Skyfall and True Grit choices of lighting and colours serve the film well. The complete lack of light in the afore mentioned encounter with the R.V. bordered by the pitch dark forest raises the suspense level to a high level early on in the film.  His work along with Art director Paul Kelly and Set Decorator Frank Galline on the run down apartment complex that is a key location in the piece complement each other well to build the isolation and hopelessness of a place where once at no one will know where you are.

A key element in building suspense in any drama is the musical score. Johann Johannsson low eerie tones mixed with full symphonic pieces support the sequence of events and build anxiety equally in day  and night time scenes which is a rare feat.

The film is full of strong performances. Hugh Jackman is superb as the Keller Patriarch as is Terrance Howard in a very contrasting role as Franklin Birch. Violet Davis is exquisite as Nancy Birch as she  provides the main female perspective of the morally questionable actions.  Jake Gyllenhaal is effective as the local cop on the case moving steadily towards cracking the case collecting and following the evidence. Melissa Leo and Paul Dano also put in strong performances in supporting roles.

Prisoners is an excellent story that asks the individuals watching several important moral and ethical questions.  It is a well written, acted, directed and shot production that I can highly recommend.

*** 1/2 out of 4.

Prisoners | Denis Villeneuve | 2013 | U.S.A. | 153 Minutes.

Tags:  Child Abduction, Abuse, Police Investigation,  Interrogation, Confinement, Thanksgiving, Mental Illness,  Survivalist, Pennsylvania.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

TIFF 2013 Review - Ida

Director Pawel Pawlikowski has shown a knack for introducing young female talent. He cast Emily Blunt in her first major picture role as Tasmin in his 2004 film My Summer Love.  Pawlikowski may have done it again with his lead actress Agata Trzebuchowska in the title role of his new film Ida.

The film focuses on a novice nun in the days leading up to her taking her vows. As one of the last acts before she commits to the church Ida an orphan that has grown up in the monastery is sent to meet with her only living relative Wanda Gruz (Agata Kuleza). Ida travels to her Aunt's residence to discover at first glance they are complete opposites. Wanda is a much older, a drinker, promiscuous, and has a tendency to stay up late at night greeting the next morning in a hung-over haze.  At one point she was a judge after the War but the story is silent on what happened to her posting. Wanda also informs Ida that she is Jewish showing her pictures of herself as a baby with her mother, Wanda's sister Roza. The pair set out to find out about Ida's parents and to find their final resting place.

The film is shot in black and white. The choice is very effective for both the monastery and the scenes in the small countryside towns in 1962 Poland. Pawlikowski makes many compelling decisions framing shots. One particular shot of Ida in the lower right hand frame of the screen with the trunk of her Aunt's car open behind her and over her head is mesmerizing. The muted black and white tones suit the lonely stark roads that the pair travel as they pursue their goal.

Cinematographer Lukasz Zal does superior work with lighting and shadows to recreate the feel of the time. The colouring in the hotel bar where the duo spend a night and each separately check out the band in the bar is sharp, vibrant and warm despite the potential limitations of monochrome. At the monastery during the vow ceremony light coming in through the windows during the procession adds greatly to the significance of the moment and the act of the participants.

Music plays a significant role in the film. Ida and Wanda pick up a saxophone playing hitchhiker and bring him to his next gig. The bands jazz set is featured prominently for a segment of the film. Look for Joanna Kulig who Pawlikowski worked with on The Women in the Fifth as the bands singer.  The  standards of the time mostly played on upright phonographs are also featured prominently in the film.

The real strength of the piece is the writing and the story itself. Pawlikowski co wrote the script with Rebecca Lenkiewicz. The result is a very powerful narrative on religion, dispossession, wartime atrocities, and the lack of consequences for the perpetuators. The story starts out with a simple enough premise, hits with a major revelation early on, then continues to build and unravel complex segments of the narrative as the action progresses.

The two lead performances are outstanding. Agata Kulesza as Wanda is tough as she constantly pushing and tests Ida's religious devotion. She is loud and confrontational but determined to show Ida what she needs to see, know and experience before she takes her vows. Agata Trzebuchowska shines as the quiet, naive and understated Ida. She has little knowledge of the world outside of the convent but gets an impression thanks to her aunt to enable her to make an informed decision about her future.

Ida is a beautifully shot, marvelously written story centering on two female lead characters that I can highly recommend. It's a film destined form many top ten list by year's end.

**** out of 4.

 IDA | Pawel Pawlikowski | Poland / Denmark | 2013 | 80 Minutes.

Tags:  TIFF FIPRESCI Award Winner, Poland, Monastery, Novice, Vows, Religion, Catholicism , Judaism, Jazz.

TIFF 2013 - Final Words

The Toronto International Film Festival has wrapped for another year. This year I saw 47 films in total in 7 different venues; The Bell Lightbox, Scotiabank Theatre, Bloor Hot Docs, The Elgin, The Winter Garden Theatre, Ryerson Theatre and Princess of Wales.

Scotiabank was by far the worst venue.  They did not have the staff to handle the use of all 14 of their theatres for the festival. Scheduling was awful, the end of one film often almost ran into the start of the next. For one stretch 6 of 7 movies that I saw at the venue started late. Every inch of floor space upstairs and sidewalk space out front was used for lines. That aside it was an excellent year which was a pleasant surprise following a disappointing 2013 summer movie season and considering that 2012 was the best year for film since 1999.

Only 340 days until TIFF 2014!

Without further ado here is my top ten list for TIFF 2013 in reverse order:

No. 10  

No. 9                                                    The Wind Rises

No. 8                                                 We Are The Best

No. 7                                                  

No. 6                                                  

No. 5                                                    

No. 4                                                  

No. 3                                                    

No. 2                                                           IDA    


No. 1                                                

To contrast the worst three films that I saw at this years festival were Fading Gigolo a flat vanity piece written and directed by John Turturro, The Fifth Estate (see my review next article down) and Le- Weekend directed by Roger Michell featuring disappointing performances by Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan.

TIFF 13 Final Words.

Tags: TIFF13, Top Ten Lists, TIFF Venues, Movie Posters, Film Festival Flops.


Friday, September 13, 2013

TIFF 2013 Review - The Fifth Estate

Julian Assange invented a computer program allowing whistleblowers to remain anonymous when they submit information about wrongdoing by their employers. The main goal of is to protect the identity of those that submit documents to the site.

Director Bill Condon starts the film at the moment where the Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel coordinate the release of confidential U.S. Military documents leaked by Private Bradley Manning to the site. The opening sequence is well crafted as the three publication jockey around the start time as the Times wants to go early while Der Spiegel want more time to publish.

Condon then heads back to 2007 when Assange and WikiLeaks were unknown and struggling to get a 15-minute spot at a Berlin tech event. Here we meet Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) Assange's first hire and the point of view for the piece. Berg's first assignment for the Internet Start up is to gather information to verify a leak on an elaborate tax evasion scheme at Swiss Bank Julian Baer.

The key to the WikiLeaks is the platform where a poster submits a document.  The initial submission goes through multiple layers that renders attempts to find the location of the original point of entry into the system impossible. The site itself does not have or maintain the information. Their first shot at the U.S. government occurred when publishing the protocols for detailing with detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

The films two lead actors deliver strong performances.  Benedict Cumberbach is notable as Assange the troubled founder with zero social skills and issues that date back to his upbringing in a cult in Australia.  Daniel Bruel is credible as Berg the second in command and moral compass of the organization. Berg constantly pushes for one last fact check and a review of the consequence before they post.

Cinematographer Tobais Schliessler work is a highlight of the piece. Bright rich colours dominate the screen. The script contains several meeting scenes in nightclubs, bars, tech events and counterculture hot spots. Schliessler sets the tone for these scenes using different lighting techniques with an emphasis on vivid flashing images.

Where the movie falls short is its repeated use of the same devices. First among these is the constant use of dueling laptops amongst to demonstrate that the characters are doing very important programming quickly. The other main offense is the multiple uses of the virtual server room with rows and rows of desks showing nameplates of the main players. Perhaps the worse sequence in the movie combine the two when Daniel and fellow programmer Marcus (Moritz Bleibtreau) set up their laptops side by side to take down the site punctuated by Daniel flipping over desks in the virtual room to leave no doubt that the site has crashed.

Overall The Fifth Estate does not venture deeply into the subject matter. The film does not include any perspective from a whistle blowers point of view as they attempt to submit to the site. A secondary story featuring three state department employees and a Libyan contact serves as a distraction from the main story. The Fifth Estate is an uneven effort that I cannot recommend despite. good performances from the two lead actors. The material is weak and the script repetitive.

**  Out of 4.

The Fifth Estate | Bill Condon |  U.S.A. / Belgium | 124 Minutes.

Tags: Whistleblower,, Internet start up, privacy, U.S. Government, Julius Baer Bank, Guantanamo Bay, U.S. Diplomatic Cables.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

TIFF 2013 Review- Parkland

Dallas' Daley Plaza November 22nd 1963; Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) checks his Bell and Howell Zoomatic as he talks to his staff as his office.  The office is closing at lunchtime so everyone can head to the Plaza to see the President.  Dr. Jim Carrico ( Zac Efron) picks up the phone in the residence room at Parkland Memorial Hospital more asleep than awake as the Dallas F.B.I. office preps for a big day as the President will be in their care. Lastly, the head of the Dallas Secret Service Forrest Sorrels ( Billy Bob Thorton) and his team wait at the airport for the President's arrival.

In the opening sequence of the film first time writer director Peter Landesman lays out four main of the five main parts of the film.  Parkland Memorial, the hospital with it's Doctors and Nurses that will try to save President Kennedy then Lee Harvey Oslwald's life two days later.  The Dallas FBI office that were front and centre on the day but missed the watch listed Oswald when he was in their office 10 days earlier.  Abraham Zapruder who's name is globally known for the film he shot along with the Secret Service who had not lost "their man" before November 22, 1963 and have not done so since.

Director Landesman does an exemplary job with a notable cast. Each character has their moment to shine and no ones talents are underused or wasted. The scene in the operating room where they try to save Kennedy is choreographed chaos. Nurse Doris Nelson (Martha Gay Harden) is the first to take charge and get the team moving Resident Jim Carrico is stunned at first then begins procedures to find a pulse then get an airway open on the mortally wounded President until the senior doctor on staff Malcom Perry (Colin Hanks) can make it to the operating theatre.  The situation is not helped by the secret service men,  F.B.I. agents and government officials all in the room who don't leave until Nurse Nelson clears them out except for the First Lady and JFK's personal body guards.

The screenplay includes an unusual angle to explore as part of the narrative; the reaction and effect on Lee Harvey Oswald's family after the shooting. We meet his brother Robert ( James Badge Dale) at his office with the news first breaks of the apparent shooter they have in custody, first as a suspect for the murder of a Dallas police officer then untimely for the assassination of the President. Jacki Weaver continues her streak of strong performances as Marguerite Oswald speaking of potential book deals and how her son Lee was a government agent and a hero. A telling comment comes from a Dallas police office who advised Robert Oswald to leave the State with the rest of his family and change his name implying that the Oswald name is forever tarnished and they will not get any favours from the Dallas police department.

However the fastest recognition of the enormity of the event  comes from Abrahim Zupruder. He knows right away that he filmed the death of an American President.  He is instantly aware that his film will change the fortunes of his family forever. Zupruder would not relinquish the tape convincing F.B.I  head Sorrels that he was the person to maintain custody of the film. He would only give the stills to Life Magazine over the multitude of bidders after they promised that they would not publish the kill shot. Following a screening in his office he remarks that he wished that he had never shot the film.

Peter Landesman's production moves at a rapid clip. He explores areas of the shooting and aftermath that have been under represented on film. He introduces the audience to several main participants in a historical day in American history Landesman presents the hours before the event through the key activities over the next they three days that followed. At the heart of the film is two very different attempts save a life and two very different funerals. Parkland is a film that I can recommend.

***  out of 4.

Parkland| Peter Landesman| U.S.A.| 2013 | 93 Minutes|

Tags: Daley Plaza, Parkland Memorial Hospital, November 22nd 1963, President John F. Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Zupruder Film, Dallas Secret Service, Dallas F.B.I.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Film Review- Fruitvale Station

Following a sparse amount of opening credits a grainy shaky image that is obviously from a camera phone appears on screen. In frame, the open doors of a transit train, the train platform with four black youths sitting against the concrete wall of the station with several cops standing in front of them. One attempts to stand, he is handcuffed then pushed back down on his stomach. A scuffle ensues followed by the sound of a gun shot, screams on the train car, yelling then train speeds out of the station.

Next we meet Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) and his girlfriend Sophia (Melonie Diaz) it's the morning of New Year's Eve 2008. The couple is in a dispute about Oscar's fidelity. Their conversation turns to Oscar's mom Wanda (Octavia Spencer) birthday that evening and their four-year-old daughter Tatiana. The pair gets Tatiana off to school then Sophia to work.  The viewer is now alone with Oscar as he plans the rest of his day.

First time writer Director Ryan Coogler delivers an excellent script. The audience is along for the ride with Oscar as he makes his stops around Oakland. At each location we learn a little more about Oscar as his character significantly grows and develops.  We start at his job at the supermarket where he's picking up food for his mother's party. Oscar goes out of his way to help a young woman who is hopelessly lost as she tries to prepare a special meal for her boyfriend. He shows even more compassion helping a wounded animal while filling up at a gas station and the attention and care he takes with his  daughter Tatiana is admirable. We also see the other side of Oscar mainly through flashbacks. He has made some choices in the past that have not been positive. He can be stubborn, angry, has enemies and is often confrontational.

Eventually the Grant's make it to his mother's birthday party. As he's helping is mother with the post meal dishes she suggests that Oscar and his friends take the train to see the fireworks in order to be safe and avoid the possibility of drinking and driving. The group agrees to take the BART system into San Francisco later that night.  As midnight approaches the spirit on the train is jubilant as different segments of the Oakland community share laughs, drinks and songs as they head across the Bay to celebrate the start of 2009.

Coogler uses cell phone calls and texts to move the story along. Oscar's text messages often flash up on screen throughout the film. He has a funny exchange with his sister who has to work and can't make the party. She gives him specific instructions on the card she wants him to by for her mother which prompts Oscar to do the complete opposite. Another superb conversation occurs when his mother realizes that he is driving while talking to her on the phone. Oscar insists that he is using a hands free devise and proceeds to tuck the phone under his lid before he continues the call.

The soundtrack features several ay area hip-hop artists that provide the background as Oscar visits different venues throughout the day. The choice of music sets the tone for the gritty East Bay. Among the artist are The Jacka, Cellski & Pezzy and Mac Dre. The director's brother Noah Coogler is featured on another track Rubber Band.  

On the way back to Oakland Oscar charms a local restaurateur into allowing a bathroom break for the ladies in their group that leads to a chance encounter and a potential new job opportunity. Oscar runs into the woman he helped at the supermarket that morning on the train. An old rival hears their exchange sparking a beef that sets the events in motion towards the tragic event at that is at the core of the film.

Michael B. Jordan is outstanding in his first lead movie role. He is on screen for just about every frame of the feature and handles it with ease. Octavia Spencer, who has a producer credit for the film as his mother Wanda is particularly strong. Her work shines in two specific scenes in the film that are linked by a particular act. In the first she doesn't want to do it and in the second she's compelled to. Melonie Diaz is also strong Sophia the sometimes questioning but fiercely loyal girlfriend and young mother.

Coogler has crafted a well-paced drama that could have made an impressive documentary. The chapters fit and each scene is essential to the story. The cell phone video that opens the film is actual footage of the New Year's Day 2009 event. Be sure to stay for the entire credits as more real footage is presented to bookend the films opening. Fruitvale Station is a film that I can definitely recommend and is destined to be on many top ten lists at year's end.

**** out of 4.

Fruitvale Station | Ryan Coogler | U.S.A. | 2013 | 85 Minutes.

Tags: Oscar Grant, New Year's Eve , BART, East Bay, Oakland , Police Shooting, Court Case, Protest, Vigil, Anniversary,