Month: September 2014

The Drop Review

The Drop (2014)

Dir: Michaël R. Roksam

The Drop is another film based on a Dennis Lehane story (like Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone) which swaps out snowy Brooklyn for the usual Boston while retaining a strong sense of place. Like those previous Lehane adaptations, the world transposed to the screen here feels appropriately gritty and real. The story of familial responsibility and the sins of the past feels small by design, but is full of telling details (the chatter of barflies, how people act while alone)and strong performances (from a mostly foreign cast) that add richness. Tom Hardy (Bronson, Locke) once again proves chameleonic in the lead role, while the movie suffers from some pacing problems and odd character choices but remains interesting in spurts.

Hardy is Bob, a mumbling Brooklyn bartender with a soft spot for his booze-addled clients. His cousin Marv (James Gandolfini in his final screen appearance) is the bar’s namesake who long ago lost ownership to (more…)

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The Double Review

The Double (2014)

Dir: Richard Ayoade

The Double reimagines Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella of the same name into a bleak and darkly funny vision that features a fine dual performance from Jesse Eisenberg at his motor-mouthed best. Combining the production design of Terry Gilliam with a uniquely understated sensibility all his own, director Richard Ayoade creates an alternate universe of corporate drudgery and oppression peppered  with anachronistic technology and surreal humour.

Jesse Eisenberg is Simon, a meek office drone whose luck is beyond bad. He can’t leave an impression on his boss or colleagues, his mother has little use for him, and he pines fruitlessly over his aloof co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). He is a non-entity who exists in an uncaring world. Thankfully, watching the world piling onto Simon is Schadenfreude at its best and Eisenberg sells the yearning and (more…)

Cut Snake (TIFF 2014 Review)

Dir: Tony Ayres

Cut Snake opens on a slow motion close-up of a cigarette heater pulsating as a drag is taken. Smoke swirls and ebbs, backlit by the blinding afternoon sun. The shot is enticing and evocative, and makes promises that the disappointing Cut Snake is unable to keep. While idyllic and sun-drenched Melbourne is an inspired choice to set a period noir in, it’s the visuals alone that pop in this overblown melodrama.

Taking place in 1974, the film opens with Pommie (Sullivan Stapleton, memorable in Animal Kingdom and perfunctory as a place holder in 300: Rise of an Empire) being released from prison and tracking down an old acquaintance. Side-stepping ambiguity, Pommie’s motivations are quickly made clear from the ominous music overlaid atop scenes of him stalking parking lots and threatening the elderly. He’s searching for (more…)

Starred Up Review

Starred Up (2014)

Dir: David Mackenzie

Prison’s long been a ripe setting for drama and The Prison Movie is a storied genre with many stellar entries. The past few years have seen some standouts from Europe, including the surreal Bronson from Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn, and the Godfather-esque Un prophète from French visionary Jacques Audiard. You can now add the incendiary Starred Up to that list, as it’s a first rate masterpiece of the genre that delivers a cracking blow to staid senses.

Jack O’Connell gives a star-making performance as the 19 year old inmate Eric Love who’s been prematurely transferred to adult prison (“starred up” in UK slang) after a string of mostly unnamed offenses. The inhumanity of the intake system of prison is laid out in deliberate detail in the opening scenes as you begin to (more…)

The Guest (TIFF 2014 Review)

Dir: Adam Wingard

The Guest has so many familiar elements of VHS-era classics that it’s a wonder the end product feels as fresh and vibrant as it does. Credit writer-director team Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard, as they strike gold in their third collaboration together (after 2010’s mumblecore horror pic A Horrible Way to Die and 2011’s clever slasher You’re Next) and transcend 80’s fetishism to create an entirely new beast that’ll have midnight audiences cheering.

The film opens with David (British actor Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey) arriving at the Peterson homestead while claiming to be a fellow soldier of their late son Kaleb. Mother Laura (Sheila Kelley) is quick to warm to this surrogate son and invites him to stay in Kaleb’s old room. Father Spencer (Leland Orser) is hesitant at first, but soon finds in David a drinking buddy with a sympathetic ear to his failed career ambitions. Well ingratiated into the family, David soon stands up to bullies who have been terrorizing teenage son Luke (Brendan Meyer) in a raucous barroom confrontation that combines (more…)

Haemoo (TIFF 2014 Review)

Dir: Shim Sung-Bo

Haemoo (meaning “Sea Fog”, the film’s original working title) is a hybrid of sorts – a fast-paced, allegorical seafaring adventure that takes a turn towards the grim and gripping around halfway through. The Korean actioner comes from first time director Sung Bo Shim, with producing and co-scripting duties handled by the celebrated Bong Joon-ho (of The Host and Snowpiercer fame). Unpredictability married to strongly wrought (but sometimes broad) characters are Haemoo’s stock-in-trade, and they serve the story well by creating a lasting impression that lingers long after the final reel ends.

Kim Yun-seok portrays the down-on-his-luck Capt. Kang, whose fishing boat, love life and luck have all run aground and seen better days. Desperate and debt-riddled, he makes a last-ditch deal with the local heavy to transport illegal immigrants from China to South Korea. Along for the ride is his ragtag crew, most of whom are given a single defining trait (i.e. naïve, conniving, sex-starved) but are gradually fleshed out over the course of the film. After the crew of the Junjiho is given their share of the earnings and brought into the fold by their captain, they hesitantly set about (more…)

The World of Kanako (TIFF 2014 Review)

Dir: Tetsuya Nakashima

The brutal Japanese thriller The World of Kanako seeks to shock and destroy with its stylish pastiche of American grindhouse trends. Cribbing liberally from film noir, 70’s exploitation, Robert Rodriguez’s anti-heroes of Sin City, and Tarantino’s talky scenes intercut with shocking violence, Kanako  is drenched in even more sin and far less redemption than its forebears. The result is a mixed cocktail of blood and style that is both inebriating and toxic.

After some dizzyingly edited pre-credits scenes set the tone of the film (nauseatingly violent and heavily noir inflected), a whiplash credits sequence – all 70’s cool and throttling guitar – sets an impossibly high bar that the film itself has a hard time following. In the centre of this exercise in excess is Kôji Yakusho as Akikazu, a disgraced former cop and current P.I. tasked with tracking down his estranged teenage daughter, Kanako. The plot is often a mere excuse to string along a series of beatings, intimidations, betrayals and revelations. The end result can be (more…)

Clouds of Sils Maria (TIFF 2014 Review)

Dir: Olivier Assayas

Clouds of Sils Maria is the latest from French auteur Olivier Assayas (Something in the Air, Paris, je t’aime). The film finds Juliette Binoche thoroughly engaged and in top form in a layered narrative that reflects on aging, art and how the two intersect. Binoche is Maria Enders, an actress in her middle years that came to fame as the lead in a play called Maloja Snake. She was once the seductive ingénue, in the play and otherwise, and is now asked to return to the play as the older female character who is blinded by her lust.

Kristin Stewart plays Maria’s assistant Valentine, and they both retreat to picturesque Sils Maria, Switzerland to prepare for the role. The plotline of Maloja Snake is mirrored in Maria and Valentine’s interactions, and the play and these women’s lives become increasingly intertwined.  With much hinted at but not shown, answers and meaning are illusive in the film.

In addition to this narrative trickery, Assayas references both Binoche and Stewart’s real-life personas to add another meta-layer to the story as a whole. The allusions and winking references are (more…)

Best of Summer 2014: The Arthouse

This past summer turned out to have a surprising amount of quality blockbusters (read that here), but how fared the more limited releases? If the below list is any indication, then the answer is remarkably well as there was a wide variety of fantastic flicks being released in what’s typically the critical dead zone of summer.

For the purposes of this post, we’ll consider April 4 the start of summer.  That means stellar efforts like Grand Budapest Hotel, Nymphomaniac Volume I and The Raid 2: Berendal were all spring releases and will have to settle for appearing on a slew of end-of-year lists.  Without further ado, the cream of the arthouse crop:

Under the Skin

Scarlet Johansson has had a banner year and Under the Skin is a big part of that. Eschewing larger films for an esoteric sci-fi thinker helmed by Jonathan Glazer should win over the last few film fans in the world not already under her spell. Minimal almost to a fault and equally haunting, Under the Skin evokes an unnerving mood that stays with you long after the end credits roll. Utterly unique and uncompromising, the film rewards those who can stare at it long enough to unlock its pleasures. Full review here.

Secret Weapon:  Johansson commands the screen in a lead performance that asks a lot of her, but let’s call out the sound design and score for their key roles in the movie. So much of the oddness and alien nature of the character and the story itself is conveyed through sound and repetition, that without the keen audio much would be lost.

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Blue Ruin

Emerging filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier wrote and directed this striking thriller that wraps suspense and bloodletting around a meditation on revenge that stands tall with classics from The Coen Brothers and Chan-wook Park. Macon Blair stars as a bearded vagrant living a meager existence with seemingly no purpose to live. That purpose is found when the criminal who tore apart his family is released from prison and he sets out on a mission for vengeance. The initial storyline, which would be a complete narrative in other films, (more…)

Best of Summer 2014: The Blockbusters

Headed into summer 2014 it looked as though there were a few bright spots in the schedule, but it was likely to be a mere appetizer on the road towards an utterly packed 2015.  Lo and behold, Batman V. Superman got pushed to 2016 and Star Wars Episode VII was moved to late 2015, taking the shine off next summer.

Who could’ve predicted 5 months ago that Captain America’s second outing would successfully marry 70’s paranoid thrillers to modern action movies, or that the next Planet of the Apes would rocket the series into deserving A-list status?  It was truly a summer of overachievers. Here’s a rundown of the best blockbusters that hit, in order of release date:

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Cap’s second outing continues Marvel’s Phase 2 and delivers characterization, story , and epic action beats in equal measure. As directors, The Russo Brothers pivot from the first film’s gung-ho WW2-era jingoism to a more modern authority-questioning plot. Chris Evans continues to prove that he is the best choice for the role and brings a welcome lightness. The casting coup of Robert Redford pays thematic dividends and the rest of the cast shines as well: Anthony Mackie’s PTSD Falcon, Scarlett Johansson’s sly Black Widow, and even Sammy J’s squinting Nick Fury all get their moment in the sun. This is simply a well-balanced flick that set a high bar to clear in April (!) – which, I know, is not technically summer.

Secret Weapon: Sebastien Stan’s tortured and badass turn as Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier. Chris Evans’ Marvel contract is 6 films – when that’s up could Bucky Barnes fill Cap’s shoes? It would bring the Marvel Cinematic Universe closer in tone to the comics and could make for a nice redemption story. Falcon could slot in nicely here as well.

Neighbors

Neighbors

Seth Rogen has become such a ubiquitous screen presence (last year’s This is the End mined similar territory and this fall sees him re-teamed with frequent collaborator James Franco for The Interview) that a new movie of his is hardly an event. Thankfully Neighbors shakes off the fatigue and brings the funny in spades. As opposed to the “Slobs vs. Snobs” plotlines of 80’s films, Neighbors has “Slobs vs. Slightly Older Slobs” as rowdy frat boys next door – led by Zac Efron and Dave Franco – face off against Seth Rogen & Rose Byrne’s new parents. Sharp writing, a stellar supporting cast, and an overall contagious party vibe make this another notch in Seth Rogen’s belt and contribute to a movie that is perfect for throwing on and hanging out with.

Secret Weapon: Zac Efron as the Alpha frat bro Teddy. He’s a surprisingly nuanced character in a movie that actually has empathy for both sides. Efron brings dimension to what could’ve been a one-note character and, (more…)