TIFF Day 8 Review: The Art Of The Steal
Expectations are a funny thing. I’ve heard a lot of criticism aimed at The Art Of The Steal, and I get it. If you walk into it expecting a clever classic heist film, you are going to be disappointed, because in this regard it does not succeed. The crime is pretty dry, the twist can be seen a mile away, and the reveal is not particularly well-executed. However, if you go in expecting an offbeat Canadian comedy with a great cast of cons, this will be the film you’re hoping for.
Crunch Calhoun (Kurt Russell) gets sent to prison — Polish prison — for seven years after getting ratted out by his brother, played by the charismatic and snakey Matt Dillon, who would have been in for twenty had he not turned. Now a free man, staying out of the biz and doing whatever it takes to make ends meet, he gets pulled in for one last score as the whole gang is brought back together. His brother included. But family must be forgiven, right?
Anchored by Russell, in a role reminiscent to his iconic turns in Escape From New York and Death Proof, the entire cast is on top of their game here, delivering what mostly amounts to some great screwball humour. Jay Baruchel, as Crunch’s somewhat bumbling apprentice, manages to steal just about every scene he is in.
A strange mix of stylish and weird, The Art Of The Steal is a very funny film. Sure, it was trying hard to be a very cool heist film as well, but that part doesn’t work out so well. Regardless, this Canadian flick is full of charm and makes for a lot of laughs. 3.5 out of 5 stars.
TIFF Day 7 Review: Don Jon
Can actor-director-writer-producer Joseph Gordon-Levitt do any wrong? Based on the reception to today’s sold-out screening of his new comedy Don Jon, it certainly does not seem that way.
The story of a modern-day Lothario, Jon is a bartender and a womanizer. He knows what he cares about: his body, his pad, his car, his family, his church, and women. Oh, and despite being about to pull perfect-10s every night, he also cares about his porn. A lot. To him, porn is better than the real thing, the only way he can ever really lose himself. But when the perfect woman, Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), catches him indulging in his obsession immediately after going to bed with her, she forbids him from every looking at such disgusting imagery ever again.
First off, while there is no hardcore nudity, Don Jon is full of clips of pornographic material (and a Pornography Consultant was listed among the end credits), so if this is a deal-breaker, steer clear of this one. For everyone else, this is a fast-paced, brash, slightly offensive, and hilarious comedy about gender relations, family, and growing up.
Rarely taking itself too seriously, the characters in Don Jon are not particularly complex, with the exception of Jon himself. Here Gordon-Levitt is superb, completely ripped and a far cry from anything we’ve seen him as before. The accent, the look, he is transformed into a pretty-boy man-child who is unable to relate to women on a meaningful level, yet never so boorish as to earn our pity or our contempt. And, like the rest of the cast, his comedic timing is pitch perfect.
Despite (or possibly because of) the rather one-dimensional nature of her character, Scarlett Johansson is also worth talking about. In addition to being stunning and charming, even moreso than usual, her performance manages to avoid coming off as farcical or a complete caricature, something of a feat given the rather over-the-top nature of her role.
The previous actually applies to the entire talented cast, all playing very specific parts in the comedy, but doing it with charm, aplomb, and great timing. Tony Danza is particularly funny as the slightly lecherous father.
As far as the directing does, Gordon-Levitt also seems right at home, everything flowing right along as a snappy pace, and most of the cuts perfectly timed to provide the most comedic punch.
Sure, Don Jon has its problems. A few of the jokes fall flat, and the dramatic bits don’t work particularly well, but those are few and far between. It never becomes too preachy about the dangers of porn addiction or the value of a healthy relationship, but what moralizing it does do feels like an afterthought.
Taken purely as a comedy, Don Jon is fantastic, with superb timing by the entire cast all contributing to a great ride. Sure, there is some moralizing, and if you’re turned off by sexist humour you won’t last long here, but here we’ve seen yet another side to the talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and I can’t wait to see more. 4 out of 5 stars.
TIFF Day 6: PROXY
The first thing I did when I got home from my viewing of Proxy was check if it was based on a short film. Often when a movie feels this stretched out, this starved of content, therein lies the explanation. As far as I can tell it is not, which makes me wonder where things went wrong.
I will forego getting into any specific plot details here, as the director believes it best to go into this film knowing as little as possible, something I respect, but I will say that there are a handful of good, interesting ideas. As a high-level concept, Proxy works, and if it were cut down to about half of its length, may even work as a dark, twisted little thriller.
The problem lies in the fact that, at a running time of two hours, we spend the vast majority of that period not watching a taut thriller, but what seems like a never-ending subdued drama about the effects and fallout of grief. At points my boredom was so unbearable I found myself wishing that someone around me would be rude enough to pull out a phone so I could see how much longer was left.
I get what Proxy was trying to do, and my opinion of it has actually improved after thinking about it for a while. Alexia Rasmussen and Alexa Havins both put in good, satisfying performances. I think an aggressive round of editing could improve this film dramatically, but as it stands the solid thrilling aspects are completely drowned in a wash of mediocre drama. 1.5 out of 5 stars.
TIFF Day 6: Jodorowsky’s Dune
Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about the greatest movie never made. Back in 1973, a half decade after 2001: A Space Odyssey and before Star Wars, Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of surrealist cult hits El Topo and The Holy Mountain, began putting together an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune, which never saw the light of day. Ever since, cinephiles and Dune fanatics alike have swapped rumours about this legendary piece of cinema history. Director Frank Pavich shines a light on the storied history of this lost epic, and gives us a fascinating glimpse of what might have been.
A good deal of time is spent interviewing Jodorowsky himself, beginning with a look at his initial forays in the movie business, creating what may be the first cult films. Coming off as a mix of part charismatic genius, part mad prophet, he is intensely passionate and self-assured. When deciding to create an adaptation of Dune, he had yet to actually read the book, only knowing small details from passing conversations, yet absolutely sure of his path. It is this sort of idiosyncratic behaviour that makes Jodorowsky such an interesting subject.
When the film starts looking at Dune, we are presented with the original screenplay, a monolithic tome full of storyboards and conceptual artistry that puts your average phone book to shame, the end result of a pre-production process that cost $2 million alone. We are guided through the process of selecting the artists, musicians, and actors for the film, Jodorowsky explaining the reasoning behind every decision, and the difficulty (or fortuitous lack thereof) of meeting the talent and convincing them to come onboard — big names such as H.R. Giger, Pink Floyd, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dali. Many of these and others associated with the project are interviewed as well. Finally, we are given a glimpse at the art and story, the documentary occasionally attempting to recreate part of the action to give us an idea of what may have been.
All of the art is gorgeous, and Jodorowsky is lively and animated as he relates his tales. The stories of how he convinced such eccentric personalities such as Dali and Welles are of particular note, and even serve to remind us just how much more difficult everything was in the pre-Internet days.
Part of the legend is the degree to which this aborted project has influenced all science fiction that came after, and through comparing individual storyboards with scenes in movies such as Star Wars and Flash Gordon, even Prometheus, it makes for a compelling argument. For anyone who is interested in the history of film, anyone who always wished there was a better version of Frank Herbert’s classic novel than the disastrous David Lynch adaptation, Jodorowsky’s Dune is a must-see glimpse into the vision of a mad genius. 4 out of 5 stars.
TIFF Day 6: Blood Ties
Blood Ties takes us back to the roaring seventies, to tackle the theme of blood being thicker than water. Based on a real events, this is the story of two brothers — one a cop, one a lifelong criminal — and the familial ties between them, both of their lives enduing hardship as a result.
The seventies have been meticulously re-created here, replete with pastel suits, garish wallpaper, wood panelling, and hideous floral-printed sofas. Few films in memory have done a better job of taking us back to this period in time, when taste was questionable and moustaches were epic.
With a cast such as this one — Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Zoe Saldana, Mila Kunis, and reuniting Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts from last year favourite Rust and Bone — there’s no question that the acting here is top-notch (varying levels of success on New York accents notwithstanding). Owen in particular might be worth mentioning, if he had been given more to work with.
The problem with Blood Ties is that for all the commotion and intertwining stories and all-star cast, nothing interesting happens. Even at a running time of 127 minutes, the story is so desperate to fit in the myriad points in time it wants to cover that it never stops to allow us to become invested in these characters. It does, however, take the time to give us a car chase scene, which is always the least exciting way to generate excitement in a director’s toolbox.
It’s a real shame when this kind of talent goes to waste, and I suspect it may have been a dedication to telling the real story that was at fault here. However, with too much to say, Blood Ties never generates enough interest to make us care. 2 out of 5 stars.
TIFF Day 5: Enemy
A pale yellow light casts across the interiors, and deep shadows occupy every corner. The camera pans across exteriors of cheap apartment complexes and traffic clogged streets. Never has the city of Toronto appeared so sickly and claustrophobic as it does here in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in this foreboding psychological thriller based on José Saramago’s novel “The Double”. A history professor dreams about a film he watched that evening, only to be struck with the realization that one of the actors looks to be his twin. Distressed, the resemblance too exact, he knows that something is not right, and sets out to track down his doppelgänger.
Atmospheric lighting, an unrelenting, pulsing cello score, and grotesque, recurring arachnid imagery serve to set an unsettled mood that carries throughout the film. Gyllenhaal has rarely been so transformed, husky and unkempt in his role as the professor, a frightened, haunted look in his eyes. Yet, once they meet, he appears small and weak beside his alter ego, the actor, who quickly takes control of the relationship.
A doppelgänger film is always a great showcase for an actor, and this is no exception, Gyllenhaal expertly playing both sides of the coin. Sarah Godon is also a revelation here as the actor’s wife, her troubled looks speaking the sort of volumes the structure of this film demands.
While Enemy is something of a masterclass in mood, it ultimately fails in doing much with it, seeming like the tension itself has become the end goal. Traditional narrative has been traded for the metaphysical, intuition in the place of exposition. Like the characters in the film, I was left feeling that something was going on, but I certainly can’t tell you what. 2 out of 5 stars.
TIFF Day 5: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him & Her
It’s hard not to have a bit of trepidation before seeing this feature. After all, you’re about to see the same film twice. Well, not the same film perhaps, but the same story. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is a love story, or perhaps a breakup story, shot in two parts, from two different perspectives, as two separate films. Each film has its own feel, and its own visual style. Shown back-to-back in the order of Him, then Her (another screening at the Festival will be showing them in the opposite order), it seems my fears were unfounded.
Him is the story told from the perspective of Conner, played by James McAvoy. It is the story of a man attempting to reconnect with his estranged wife. Tragedy has rent asunder their perfect marriage, and he is left trying to understand what went wrong, what part he played, and how to put the pieces back together. At his side to help him figure it out is his best friend (and excellent comedic relief) played by Bill Hader, and father, played by Ciarán Hinds.
Her is the story told from the perspective of the eponymous Eleanor, played by Jessica Chastain. Is the story of a woman attempting to find herself. Tragedy has left her feeling alone, her very existence and identity no longer certain, and she feels the need to abandon the trappings of her current life to rediscover who she is. Returning home to her family, she heads back to school and finds an ally in her professor, played by the great Viola Davis.
What is wonderful about this project is how well the two sides of the go together, in large part because they do not tell the same story, and each part more or less stands up as a film in its own right. I won’t go as far as to say that either would make for an award-winning experience in isolation, but both are similarly engaging, with great acting and compelling storylines. One of the most interesting aspects is the shared scenes, the ones that occur in both films. Each film presents these situations differently, with slight changes in dialogue, tone, and body positioning, in order to illustrate how the same scene is remembered differently by both parties.
To identify the contributions of the individual actors would take overly long, as the skill on display here is superb. Chastain, in particular, continues her trend of just being spectacular in everything, and her scenes with Viola Davis are particularly memorable.
It may seem like a bit of stunt filmmaking, and while it assuredly is, the quality of the package makes it feel entirely natural. The small details — the divergent memories, the neutral palette of Him, the warm colours of Her — give it a life of its own. I really enjoyed The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and was thinking about it long after the credits rolled. 4.5 out of 5.
TIFF Day 4: Oculus
Oculus creeped me out. And that’s saying something.
Horror is a problematic genre for me. Whatever gene it is that allows people to feel terror at the sights on a screen, I don’t have it. At most I can generally appreciate creepiness in a fairly academic sense. As a result, I tend to review horror films on the same scale as everything else, which is problematic since almost without exception they devolve into a flaming wreck of inconsistencies, contradictions, and an endless series of attempted gotchas. Oculus circumvents a lot of these problems by refusing to establish rules, giving us mostly what amounts to an exercise in mood and tension.
About an evil mirror with a dark past, it’s essentially a modern haunted house story with a twist. It’ll raise the hair on the back of your neck and mess with your brain. The production value, direction, and acting are all top notch, with the ladies in the cast (Karen Gillan, Katee Sackhoff, and Annalise Basso) putting in particularly compelling and frightening performances.
It’s by no means perfect, as any story with a largely omnipotent evil is virtually impossible to bring to a close without a few bumps. Things start to fray a bit (or a lot) in the third act, but I found the resolution satisfying, even by my own high standards for this type of film.
Oculus is a wickedly fun ride. In keeping the tension high and avoiding the typical pitfalls that plague the genre, this is one of my favourite horror films in a long time. 4 out of 5 stars.
TIFF Day 4: The Wonders
You’ve got your hard-boiled detective, and your femme fatale with legs that go for hours. You’ve got your salacious scandal, and you don’t know who to trust. Sounds like you’ve got a crime noir on your hands. Of course, you also have animated rabbits and caterpillars with hookahs, so clearly you have something a bit more.
The Wonders is described by director Avi Neshar as Lewis Carroll meets Carol Reed (the director of crime noir classic The Third Man). It’s the plot structure of a crime noir without the hard boiled edge, with elements of drama, comedy, and a bit of fantasy mixed in.
Arnav (Ori Hizkiah) is a cartoonist and graffti artist who gets mixed up in things he’d rather avoid when the abandoned unit across from his apartment is occupied by a man, the powerful prophet Rabbi Knafo (Yehuda Levi) who seems to have been imprisoned there against his will. Or is he there of his own volition? Arnav soon meets a private investigator (Adir Miller) and his beautiful client (Yuval Scharf) and gets caught up in in the caper.
As the plot unfolds the film does a great job of keeping the audience guessing as to exactly what is going on and who to trust. The animation in the film, in the form of Arnav’s drawings briefly coming to life, add a bit of unnecessary but harmless wonder to the proceedings. You’d never know that the leads are acted by two of Israel’s leading stand-up comedians, as they both come off as seasoned actors in what are fairly straight roles. Overall it feels a bit long, perhaps one betrayal or plot twist too many, but it can be forgiven considering how much it’s trying to do.
Based on real events, The Wonders adroitly explores themes of the religious versus the secular world, about faith and belief, its genre mixing resulting in a fun little romp through the city of Jerusalem. 3 out of 5 stars.
TIFF Day 4: Around The Block
Christina Ricci is Dino, an idealistic teacher brought in to watch over a group of students living on the edge in a troubled suburb of Sydney. Not much is expected of her, and just getting the kids to come to class would be considered an accomplishment. One of absent students is Liam, who becomes the film’s both figurative and literal Hamlet when Dino announces the students in her drama class will be performing the bard’s play. He leads a troubled life and desperately wants to escape through his acting, though his past keeps trying to drag him back.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it is. Around The Block treads the sort of path that has been gone down numerous times before, most notably in Dangerous Minds. This film has a bit of a Hamlet twist to it, the events within echoing that of Shakespeare’s play, and also touching on issues of racism and intolerance within Australian culture, particularly towards aboriginals.
The film talks the talk when it comes to subtext, but Around The Block is about as subtle as a jackhammer. The music swells at all the appropriate times, and the requisite number of people tell her she shouldn’t bother trying to save these kids. The lead performances are well-acted, both Ricci and newcomer Hunter Page-Lochard giving it their all, a credit given that their characters are fairly one-dimensional, as are most of the supporting cast as well. There is a sub-plot involving Dino’s past that attempts to add an additional layer or two, but it ends up being anemic at best. Of course, subtlety isn’t everything, and I certainly heard some sobs at the appropriate times, but it wasn’t working for me.
This may sound pretty damning thus far, but it isn’t. Lack of subtlety aside, the film is well produced, has a good soundtrack, and actually serves as a fine bit of popcorn entertainment. Truth is, I’m having difficulty really identifying the good bits because they’re all so aggressively generic to this type of film, but they are there. The Hamlet bit is a nice touch. 2.5 out of 5 stars.