TIFF in Review Part One: Fall Movies

Attending any film festival, a common dilemma is whether to go for the upcoming fall movies a few months, or weeks, ahead of release, or whether to pick the more obscure indie/foreign films still awaiting distribution. The advantages of  the former are that there’s nothing quite like seeing a world premiere with a rapt audience and the filmmakers in attendance, while also having the space to formulate one’s own opinion before a consensus is formed (or too many spoilers revealed). The advantage of picking the latter, is the chance of finding diamonds in the rough, and championing them—sometimes frustratingly, to a world that may never get the chance to see what you’re on about. My personal way around this dilemma is to mix it up and pick a smattering of both. And since I’ve just seen 12 movies in five days, I’ve decided to split my reviews accordingly, in two parts.  

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12 Years a Slave

It’s hard to talk about Steve McQueen’s searing, masterful film without reaching deep for every available superlative, and a few more besides. It may not be the first film about slavery, but it feels like the first to treat it with no filter, no safety net, no redemptive catharsis , but as an American holocaust, told entirely from the black perspective. To watch it with an audience is to participate in an act of communal, immersive exorcism, and the element that makes it not just bearable, but transcendent, is the pure, jaw-dropping artistry at every level of its production. The true life tale of Solomon Northup’s Kafkaesque nightmare—kidnapped from his free life and sold into brutal slavery—feels like a major step in healing the wounds of slavery’s past, by allowing us to take collective responsibility as we watch horror turned to exquisite art, without lessening any of its impact.  In a perfect world, it would win every Oscar hands down, but given the Academy’s predilection for unchallenging feel-good entertainment, it doesn’t stand a chance.  Fuck ’em. It’s not just the best film of the year, but one of the best films ever made. And here’s a few of those superlatives to underline my point: Unmissable. Essential. Fearless. Profound. Unforgettable. (Opens in limited release October 18th.)  

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Prisoners

I loved Denis Villeneuve’s last film, Incendies, so I already had high hopes for his first U.S movie, but I was still completely blown away by this epic, harrowing, uncompromisingly dark thriller. Hugh Jackman gives the first performance of his career that I’ve unequivocally loved, full of rage and helplessness as the survivalist father who takes the law into his own hands after his daughter is kidnapped. If that synopsis sounds predictable, rest assured the movie is anything but, following its brilliantly realized characters to a true heart of darkness as it explores big themes (faith, forgiveness, revenge, grief) while twisting the screws of its nail-biting premise to almost unbearable levels of tension and dread. Jake Gyllenhaal is equally revelatory in the role of the jaded but determined cop leading the investigation, as is the entire supporting cast. A brilliant script, brilliantly directed, that joins Seven, Silence of the Lambs and Zodiac in the ranks of the all-time great criminal investigation thrillers that resonate far beyond their storylines. (Opens in wide release Sept. 20th)  

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Labor Day

Jason Reitman’s fifth movie in seven years breaks away from the knowing, arch humor of his previous work (Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult) and embraces the genre of the “woman’s weepie” with unabashed, uncynical enthusiasm that will alienate many but reward those willing to be swept along by its charms. Set in 1987and awash in a golden-hued nostalgic glow that brings to mind a Wonder Years episode by way of Douglas Sirk, the story is told from the point of view of a 13-year-old boy living alone with his fragile, heartbroken mother (Kate Winslet) as an escaped convict enters their lives, and proves to be the perfect father/partner for each of them. Josh Brolin sells a potentially ridiculous role with rugged real-man charisma and soul, and Reitman ratchets up the emotional tension and release with old-fashioned skill—though my main criticism would be an over-reliance on score, especially during a pie-baking scene that provided unintentional laughter in the screening I attended. Nevertheless, it’s a good film to take your mother to, or to watch alone if you fancy a good cathartic cry, though I would warn away anyone who has zero tolerance for melodrama or sentiment. (Opens in limited release Dec. 25th)

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Philomena

Another great pick to take your mom to, Stephen Frears’ latest boasts a smart, witty, emotionally satisfying script by Steve Coogan—who in the role of a cynical journalist helping an elderly woman find her long-lost son, may have found the movie that finally sells him to an American audience. His chemistry with Judi Dench, playing the title character, is wonderful, and the story takes some interesting turns into darker territory while always remaining warm, humane and funny. Frears’ direction is solid if uninspired—I always think his films belong on TV rather than on a big screen—but his old-school professionalism is undeniably effective, always finding the right emotional beat in every scene, as well as the laughs. It won’t blow your mind, but it’s good, solid stuff, and easy to recommend, to just about anyone. (Opens in limited release Dec. 25th)

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Gravity

Wow. Beginning to end, I watched this movie with my jaw hanging on the floor and the back of my brain exploded onto the back of the theatre. It’s so rare to see a big-budget special effects driven movie that is so uniquely an auteur’s vision, and while Alfonso Cuaron’s space epic isn’t the philosophical meditation some hoped it would be, it’s a thrilling, genuinely awe-inducing ride like nothing you’ve ever seen. Evolving his use of long takes—so well-executed in the brilliant, underrated Children of Men—to a mind-boggling extreme (the film’s first take is something like 45 mins long), the astonishing visuals on display are used in the service of a genuinely emotional journey, that sees George Clooney use his charming, comforting presence to ably support Sandra Bullock’s moving, fierce and vulnerable star turn, unlike anything we’ve seen from her to date. Of all the films playing at Toronto, Gravity is most likely the one I will return to most often, just to bask in the wonder of its technical achievements, and surrender to its immersive window into zero-g existence, with our beautiful, distant planet circling below. Wonderful. (Opens in wide release Oct. 4th)  

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August: Osage County

This much-hyped adaptation of Tracy Letts’ excellent play, is a mixed, though mostly successful bag. It’s an actors’ showcase through and through, with a cast to die for, and material that’s hard to screw up—boasting great characters, rich, blackly comic dialogue, and enough dramatic turns to fill an entire season of an American soap opera. Meryl Streep acts with a capital A, and she’s unsurprisingly impressive as the monstrous matriarch of a large extended family, but it’s the quieter turns that really stick in the memory—especially Julianne Nicholson as the quiet middle sister, and Chris Cooper as the benign but strong willed uncle. There are numerous meaty scenes for all the players to chew on (everyone gets their big emotional moment under the sun), and it’s a thrill to see Julia Roberts and Streep go head to head, most effectively in the film’s brilliant center-piece, a post-funeral dinner that spirals way out of control. Unfortunately, the film’s impact is dulled by a pace that lags thereafter, and what seems to have been a deliberate decision to soften the play for a wider audience (namely through the amber cinematography, classic Oscar-movie film-making, and obtrusive, somewhat treacly score), as John Well’s fine but uninspired direction never lets the material soar as high or dark as it wants it to go. Still, a very entertaining, very watchable few hours, that while not as great as it could have been, is most definitely worth your time. (Opens in limited release Dec. 25th)  

And that’s it for the big studio releases. Up next: Iranian immigrants in Paris, scrap-metal hunting kids in Northern England, broke musicians in Manhattan, teenage punk chicks in Stockholm, and foul-mouthed adults entering spelling bee competitions, as we round out the films that came to Toronto seeking distribution, and a place on next year’s movie calendar.

Watch Meryl Streep, Benedict Cumberbatch, & Many More in the Trailer for ‘August: Osage County’

Well, any trailer that opens with narration by Sam Shepard whilst he tends to a boat, is aces in my book. And with the first trailer for August: Osage County, The Weinstein Company gives us the premiere look into the Weston family after a crisis brings them back to the Midwest house they grew up in.

Adapted from Tracy Lett’s play of the same title, John Wells takes the directorial helm to bring the dysfunctional story of a family dealing with the aftermath of death, confronting the past, and facing the future, to the screen. Starring Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard, and Margo Martindale, August: Osage County is slated to premiere this November, just in time for awards season.

Check out the trailer below.

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Tearing The Roof Off This Sucker With New ‘August: Osage County’ Poster

The play-to-movie jump can be ambitious, sometimes amazing and sometimes treacherous, especially when dealing with an acclaimed work. Adding to the hype around the upcoming adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Tony Award-winning August: Osage County, about a dysfunctional Midwestern family coming together after a death, is the stacked cast in this ensemble performance, from the Mighty Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts to perpetual Tumblr crush Benedict Cumberbatch to other big names like Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis and Dermot Mulroney.

Now, the film version has a poster that certainly gets “Midwest,” “dysfunctional family” and “all-star cast” across. The names of the cast appear to be falling into a house with an open roof, like a tipped hat, of a very classic American home, complete with a white picket fence and a lovely porch. The film hits theatres this November.

[via Pop Culture Brain]

Buying Theater Tickets Can Be More Intense Than Seeing Actual Theater

My boyfriend and I decided on Saturday morning to go see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Booth Theatre, as the months-long run of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Edward Albee’s monumental play was coming to a close on Sunday. I know what you’re thinking: theater is for old people, gays, and people with too much money to spend on cultural events! Oh no, I say: only one of those things are correct (the middle one, right?); my boyfriend pointed out in the middle of last week that the show was offering $35 tickets to those with student IDs, which delighted me because I really did not want to spent over a hundred dollars for tickets to a play, especially when there wouldn’t be any singing and dancing.

So we woke up early on Saturday morning and moseyed on up to 45th Street. (Have you ever been in Times Square before noon? It is quite eerie and quiet in a very Vanilla Sky kind of way.) The box office was opening at ten, and we got there just in time to see a line of youths snaking out of the box office doors. We were shocked that people wanted to see this old play, but it was closing the next day, and it would be one of the last chances to see Chicago theater veterans Tracy Letts (who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County) and Amy Morton (you may remember her as the mom from Rookie of the Year) together in this famous play. So we stood there in line, patiently waiting in the cold for tickets to the theater, trying to pump ourselves up as if we were seeing, like, a taping of SNL or something.

I should note here that neither of us are students. But the one thing I was able to take away from a very brief and regretful two quarters of graduate school is a student ID that has no expiration date. People: check your shoeboxes right now. Still hanging on to your old student ID for nostalgia’s sake? Well, pull it out of that box stuffed with birthday cards and ticket stubs, because you have got a one-way ticket to cheap (well, cheaper) culture in New York City. I have used this thing at plays, at museums, even at movie theaters. I have no shame, because I also don’t have a lot of money. 

So we stood there. And stood there. And that line, my friends, was not moving very quickly. When we finally moved into the actual, tiny box office, we noticed there were two ticket windows. At one was a long line of people, patiently handing money and cards to an elegant older woman behind a metal cage. At the other window was no line, but behind the ticket window’s gate was an older gentlemen going about his business, by which I mean doing not much business at all. Occasionally he would shout out, "The evening performance is sold out! Are you all here for the matinee?" And all of us would answer yes, glumly and quietly, because we had all been standing in that line without moving for ten minutes, and we had already known for ten minutes that the evening performance was sold out.

"What is going on?" I snapped to my boyfriend, because I hate lines and I hate waiting and nothing makes me lose my patience quicker than customer service ineptitude on both sides of the counter. The man at the front of our line seemed like he had been there for ages, slowly growing older to the point where if he didn’t buy those damn tickets he would no longer be a student. Before he finished his transaction, the man at the other ticket window must have thought, "Hey, there are a good fifty people in line, perhaps I should open my window?" I immediately remembered how much I hate almost everyone. And, of course, I immediately felt guilty for getting angry, as I was pretending to be a student to save about fifty dollars on theater tickets. 

Finally, the other man opened his window, and up to it stepped an older woman with messy reddish hair. She passed her student ID through the slot under the window, and I was relieved to see that this business was moving, finally. Then, a pause. "Your card has expired," the man said. "Oh, I know," the woman replied. "I don’t get a new one until classes start on the 12th." "Well, I’m sorry," he replied, "I can’t sell you a student rush ticket if you have an expired ID." "Hmm," the woman said. "How about my daughter’s student ID? Would that work?" (See? Do you see what I mean about hating everyone? Everyone is terrible.) If you’re going to break the rules (as I was doing), make sure at least you have an ID that works. Don’t hold up the line! The man turned her down two more times, and the woman sulked away from the window. Then, she had a bright idea! She turned to another couple in line—a young man and a woman who appeared to be his mother and a student (they both had valid IDs!)—and asked if they could buy her a pair of tickets if she gave them cash. Right in front of the ticket windows! Again, if you’re going to break the rules, at least be discreet about it.)

The woman behind the ticket counter, naturally, started yelling. “The only people who may buy student rush tickets are students with valid IDs!” she shouted, reiterating the very basic policy. “You cannot buy tickets for someone who is not a student! We have sold out of student tickets and we’re really going above and beyond to offer seats to actual students!” My boyfriend told the woman in front of us in line, politely, that she should probably leave, while I, in a panic, started coming up with stories in my head in the event that I get caught using my old student ID. “Why are you in New York,” I imagined being asked at the ticket counter once I presented my Chicago university ID. “Oh, I’m taking a quarter off. Oh, and I have a Brooklyn zip code because I’m staying here for a while. That’s why I’m taking the quarter off. Do you want my old Chicago zip code? I can tell you which classes I’m signed up for next quarter!” My stomach started turning in knots, I started sweating. The game was getting intense. All I wanted was theater tickets, and I was simultaneously mad at everyone else in line with me and with myself for waiting until the last possible weekend to see this damn show. Meanwhile, the next girl in line did not have her student ID. (“What is wrong with everyone!” I snapped under my breath.)

Finally I stepped up to the ticket window (the man’s, not the shouty woman’s), handed my ID and cash. (Best not to leave a paper trail, I thought, as if this were Ronin or something.) He handed me, in return, a pair of tickets. And good seats! The entire exchange took 45 seconds. I was relieved, and rushed out of the box office as quickly as I could because it was really uncomfortable in there with the growing aggression on both sides of those metal gates. (Maybe caging in the employees of the Booth Theatre heightens the intensity of those ticket transactions?)

A few hours later, after sitting in our seats in the second row of the balcony, I realized how stupid it all was: the balcony was practically empty, with the first three and the last three rows filled with people. I turned to my boyfriend and said, “Can you believe this? There is no one here! And they turned people away at the ticket counter! They could have at least made sixty bucks by selling tickets rather than waiting for people to pay full-price!” And that, my friends, is what is wrong with the theater industry. Well, just one of them: I didn’t even like the play. I don’t feel bad telling you that. It’s closed now, after all. 

Follow Tyler Coates on Twitter.

Morning Links: Zelda Kaplan Dies at NYFW, Whitney Houston’s Funeral Will Be Streamed Online

● The 95-year-young night life doyenne Zelda Kaplan died yesterday in the front row at Joanna Mastroiann’s New York Fashion Week show. [NYDN]

● The AP plans to host an online stream of Whitney Houston’s funeral for those who feel they need to bid a digital adieu. [AP/Huff Post]

● He said he wouldn’t, but it looks like Seal has gone ahead and taken off his wedding ring. Perhaps so as not to distract from his canary yellow manicure? [TMZ]

● T-Pain has named his next mixtape The Heath Ledger Project because, as he says, "that’s how much I love music." "I want to master my craft like [Ledger] tried to do before he died,” he continued. "I think he went so crazy trying to master his craft that he died for what he loved doing."  [Rap-Up]

● Meryl Streep will play Julia Roberts’s mother in John Wells’s Oscary adaptation of August: Osage County, set to begin production this fall. [THR]

● With a MoMA retrospective on the approaching horizon, Cindy Sherman is using photoshop to try something new. "It’s horrifying how easy it to make changes,” she says. [NYT]