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Siren (I) (2013)
9/10
Teen life is universal - with an added Israeli twist
23 February 2019
Siren opens like a curious sci-fi film but slowly transitions into a compelling story of real life horrors and the harsh realities of growing up in the Middle East. Set in an Israeli high school, Siren gives us a glimpse into the lives of fresh-faced youngsters not quite ready for the world beyond the confines of their school walls. The cinematography is breathtaking, relying on warm colors and natural light to bring out the innocence of the schoolchildren. Siren also shows us that jockeying for position, bullying, cliques, pranks, and flirtations are part of teenage life in every country on every continent. The students' fears and hopes and dreams are universal. The relationships are familiar. And that's ultimately what makes Siren so satisfying. We get to know these kids and the culture in which they are trying to survive - with the added twist that "survival" in this land takes on a more literal meaning than much of the world.
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Off the Road (2013)
9/10
Lessons for the adult world in the eyes of two boys
22 February 2019
The immense challenge of a short film is in telling a complete, fully-fleshed story in a brief period of time - and the filmmakers do this in under a half hour, in the case of Off the Road (Sortie de Route), and quite elegantly. Two rowdy boys from disparate backgrounds (Paul and Karim, played with shocking authenticity by Benjamin Eggenberg and Samir Melly) find they have a lot more in common than is apparent at first glance. It might sound like a story we've seen told many times - and it is, as it's a classic tale - but it's told with such heart and truth that it transcends expectations. Sortie de Route avoids a lot of coming-of-age tropes by remaining true to its characters - they drive the story more than the reverse. The innate talent in these young actors is one of the most pleasant surprises of the film. And that's why I was left wanting more. Wanting to stay with these kids and see what their next adventure would reveal. The relevance of this story, and the lessons that kids can teach adults, is palpable throughout. There's never been a better time for a film like Sortie de Route.
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Suspendu (2015)
9/10
Both a heartwrenching and joyful coming-of-age drama
22 February 2019
Suspendu is a captivating coming-of-age drama that's more Darren Aronofsky than John Hughes, with hints of Black Swan as our teen protagonist faces his biggest fears. We can almost feel his pain every time he hits the hard floor. Told with minimal dialogue and gorgeously shot in cinema verité style, Suspendu brings us into a world not unlike our own - where hopes and dreams can be dashed in an instant, and small obstacles feel like life-changing failures. In a film like this the filmmakers can either look for actors who can dance or dancers who can act. This one was a no-brainer. Not only can these young people dance (and act), but they are actual students in leading conservatories who've performed to great accolades. Making the transition to the big screen was a natural for them, especially as they really are their characters. Max Ricat, an accomplished dancer and actor, puts his talents on display here to full effect, with a stunning performance that carries the film from opening to closing frame. He makes Suspendu both a heartwrenching and a joyful experience - no small task.
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Salam (2018)
10/10
One of the best short films I've seen this year
18 February 2019
The U.S. is truly a nation of immigrants, and nowhere is this more apparent than New York City, where Salam is a Lyft driver with a complicated family situation. With the perfect balance of humor and humanity, Claire Fowler's Salam turns conventions on its head and opens our eyes in the most unexpected ways. As secrets are slowly revealed we find ourselves questioning assumptions at every turn. This powerful and poignant film touches on everything from discrimination to bullying to politics. Stellar production values help make Salam one of the best short films I've seen this year. You will not walk away unaffected.
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9/10
Untold story of the humble man who saved a generation
9 January 2016
There are essentially two kinds of documentaries. The first turns you on to a story you knew nothing about. The second documents an incident you've heard of -- maybe even have read about or studied -- but uncovers facts that are not only new to you but also put a completely different perspective on what you thought really happened. Call it a revelatory experience. This film from Slovak co-writer/director/producer Matej Minac and co-writer/producer/editor Patrik Pass is a triumphant example of the latter.

Nicky's Family tells the dramatic story of the Kindertransport, a mission to save children from Central and Eastern Europe as Hitler rose to power in the late 1930s by secreting them onto trains to the United Kingdom. The film focuses on one man, Nicholas Winton ("Nicky"), who singlehandedly rescued 669 primarily Jewish children from Czechoslovakia in just a few short months. Winton, a wealthy but unassuming British entrepreneur without many political concerns, was off on a ski trip to Switzerland in 1938 when he changed plans to meet up with his friend Martin Blake in Prague, who saw the swastikas on the horizon and was helping Jewish refugees out of the country. The Nazi campaign was beginning to exert its influence on the local population, turning neighbor against neighbor as Hitler's disciples marginalized those who didn't fit his Master Plan -- not just Jews, but also Czechs and Slavs, Gypsies, and homosexuals.

As homes and businesses were destroyed or commandeered by the Nazis, and as unwitting, otherwise law-abiding citizens began to be crammed into ghettos and shipped off to transit camps on the way to more horrific locations as yet unknown, families were often broken up to fulfill the needs of the regime. It quickly became apparent to the 29-year-old Winton that there was a narrow window of opportunity in this pre-war period during which he could use his connections, communication skills, and business acumen to help shepherd the doomed children out of the country before the fate of these innocents was sealed.

Nicky's Family reveals not only the tenacity with which Winton pursued this seemingly impossible task but also the tremendous luck involved in such a massive undertaking. It achieves this through a cleverly constructed three-layered approach: narrative recreations mixed with poignant archival footage and present-day interviews with the survivors. Minac and Pass have crafted a literate script that captures every nuance, each dramatic twist and turn along the way towards freedom for these children, without sacrificing historical accuracy. There's a wealth of information packed into this movie but it never overwhelms the viewer or feels rushed.

Slovak cinematographer Dodo Simoncic has shot 40 theatrical and television motion pictures, and his experience shows in the almost-palpable sensitivity which leaps off the screen in the telling of Nicky's achievement. The recreated historical scenes look breathtakingly authentic, unlike similarly structured documentaries which often resemble amateur home videos more than serious, professional films. Shooting locations for this sprawling epic, filmed over the course of almost six years, include the Czech Republic, France, Great Britain, Slovakia, Israel, the USA, Canada, Hungary, Cambodia, and Denmark. The original score by composer Janusz Stoklosa is magnificently haunting and perfectly matches each time and place as the story unfolds. This was clearly a labor of love for the production team. The reenactment cast is outstanding, led by Michal Slaný's heartwarming performance as Nicky -- Britain's "Oskar Schindler." Actual survivors, witnesses, family, and friends brought in for interviews were not shy at all in relating their experiences (except the ever humble Sir Nicholas himself).

The details of how Winton was able to save so many, and have such an impact on the world today, were lost to history for a half century. But how we have come to know "Nicky's" story, as well as what it took to save the 669, is best discovered in the viewing of the film -- the awe-inspiring undertaking, filled with happy accidents as well as cunning craftsmanship, needs to be seen to be believed. It's all in Nicky's Family, and viewers will be moved to tears by what one man was able to accomplish, and what those he saved -- and their children, and children's children -- have done to repay his generosity and kindness.

At age 102, reluctantly, even now, he finds himself surrounded by extended families who, quite literally, would not exist today if not for a simple idea. "If something isn't blatantly impossible there must be a way of doing it," Winton believed. One man's determination to make a difference grew into an odyssey that has left a legacy of generations performing acts of kindness, saving exponentially more human beings than Winton ever imagined when those first trains left Prague.

========= UPDATE: Sir Nicholas Winton passed away on July 1. 2015 at the age of 106. May his kind soul rest in peace.
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8/10
Wonderfully heartfelt family movie (despite the awkward premise)
10 October 2013
The titular Katsuya Maruyama (Takuma Hiraoka) is a typical 14-year-old boy who thinks about, and attempts to do, what most teens (and older males, certainly) try to do at least once in their lives, if not every day. It takes some dexterity and a limber body. That's not all the movie is about, of course. It's a multi-layered narrative, essentially a sincere coming of age film, with a lot more going on than this youngster's home project. Still, there's no way to avoid discussing its central idea, so I've been conflicted about how to describe it without being vulgar. However, if the Japanese people don't see anything unusual about it, it would be hypocritical of me as an American to dance around the topic and try to come up with euphemisms and polite ways of discussing what he does. But hopefully you get the picture. And the camera does not shy away from showing his clumsy attempts to accomplish this feat, just in case you don't.

And this wonderfully sweet movie has oh, so much more going on. Besides Maruyama's intense passion for wrestling class, the four main story lines include the mother who's obsessed with a Korean soap star and spends her afternoons fantasizing in front of the television, the enigmatic grandfather with dementia who wanders off aimlessly, and the mysterious neighbor who's either a secret government spy or a pedophile – the high-rise apartment complex residents love to gossip – who takes a special interest in the youngster. Then there are bikers, bullies, dead bodies, girlfriends, boyfriends, and superheroes. Oh, and there's dad's obsession with fresh fruit. Once you get past the creep factor, "Maruyama, The Middle Schooler" is alternately a joyous and painful look at the world from inside the mind of an adolescent. But his on screen, occasionally graphic flexibility exercises are not coming from a place of prurience. This is a story about innocence more than vulnerability, desire more than obscenity, and curiosity more than shame.

Like many Japanese filmmakers, Kankurô Kudô is a multitasking man of many talents on both the big and small screens. He's primarily an actor and writer with over 200 television shows and features to his credit. "Maruyama, The Middle Schooler" (Japanese title "Chûgakusei Maruyama") is his third feature directorial effort.

The movie's authenticity rests on the diminutive shoulders of 14-year-old Takuma Hiraoka (now 15). He's a relative newcomer with just a few projects to his credit. This is his first time on the big screen and there's no doubt he's got a long, successful career ahead of him. The ensemble cast features standout performances from Tsuyoshi Kusanagi as the puzzling neighbor Tatsuo Shimoi, Toru Nakamura as fruit-loving dad Katsuyuki, Maki Sakai as soap-obsessed mom Mizuki, Yang Ik-June as Korean TV idol Park Hyeon-Hun, Kenji Endo as the senile grandfather with revelatory hidden talents, and Hiroki Miyake as the gruff but inspiring wrestling coach Umeda.

"Maruyama's" Fuji Television-backed budget allows for noticeably high production values, highlighted by outstanding visual effects, along with creatively eclectic cinematography from Kazunari Tanaka. His signature style produces an image oversaturated with bright, candy store colors, a palette typical of many Japanese motion pictures, especially kid-oriented titles. The teen's fantasy sequences are distinguished by soft focus and a delicate score to match. There's a perfectly balanced ebb and flow to the narrative, from long, poignant melodramatic scenes (e.g., heartfelt discussions between odd neighbor Tatsuo Shimoi and Maruyama) to rapid-fire editing in the film's many exciting action sequences which dominate the third act.

The fact that a story about a boy who has autofellatio at the top of his wish list was funded by and intended to be shown on Fuji Television to the country's 127 million people speaks volumes about cultural differences. Maruyama thinks nothing of dropping his pants when the mood suits him and working on his exercises, even in public in full view of passersby and classmates. It's uncomfortable, yet hilarious and utterly endearing. Conservative parents' groups here in the US would likely call it kiddie porn, which would be a darn shame. Audiences will love it, although I imagine it might be awkward for a boy to sit and watch this movie with his mother.

This is a wonderful family film, especially for young people. Many might look at the synopsis and wonder how in heck this could be considered a kids flick. Yes, it's about a middle schooler, obviously. But the subject matter is easy to misconstrue. "A movie about a boy trying to pleasure himself orally?" (Not the words one might use but I'm being polite.) "No thanks." Unfortunately, those who can't stomach that idea will miss out on of the best family films I've seen recently. Despite its provocative themes, "Maruyama, The Middle Schooler" is hilariously entertaining and a richly rewarding way to spend two hours. If you can find it...take the kids, find some seats, then split up and move to the back row. They'll be glad you did.
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9/10
Rich coming-of-age tale & a colorful postcard from Morocco
2 October 2013
Set in Morocco, this rich coming-of-age picture stars Samuel Schneider as Ben, a German teen whose father, Heinrich (Ulrich Tukur) is on the road staging theater productions. On summer break, Ben travels to Marrakech where his dad is directing a show. Ben has been living with his mother while his estranged father has been pursuing his career (and other carnal interests). In a common theme for the genre, the boy is torn between two worlds, the one he's comfortable with in his native country and that of his father, a man he hardly knows yet is a magnet for an impetuous youth whose sense of adventure (and own carnal desires) will draw him to this colorful land. It's a classic story done with a passionate attention to detail -- a boy on the cusp of manhood placed into a strange world where anything is possible.

This is only the sixth narrative feature for writer/director Caroline Link, yet the acclaimed German filmmaker already has a slew of honors to her credit. She won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2003 for Nowhere in Africa. Five years after her last film she's back with Exit Marrakech (AKA Morocco).

The film's success rests largely on the shoulders of young Schneider. Just 17 at the time, his casting was a bold move, as the teen was essentially a non-professional actor with just one feature to his credit along with several television productions. There's certainly no paucity of German talent, yet Link smartly took a chance on a relative newcomer for a demanding role that carries the picture from start to finish. It was tailor-made for him, to some extent, as the original script called for an awkward 14-year-old. Schneider is anything but, testament to how enamored she was with his charismatic presence and natural talent. Just a typical German schoolboy, the level of authenticity of his performance is central to the movie's rise above what could have been an all-too-familiar storyline. He's destined for stardom.

Tukur is an award-winning legend in Germany, having successfully crossed over into the international market in films like The Lives of Others (2006) and The White Ribbon (2009). Still, his character is secondary to Schneider's, and the older actor's experience shows in his on screen generosity. Basically a two-character study, Exit Marrakech feels unscripted as the natural bond between Ben and father Heinrich develops in sync with that of actors Schneider and Tukur. The growing affection between the two is palpable, although a great deal of patience is required on the part of the viewer as the layers are slowly peeled away.

Ben's love interest Karima, played by Hafsia Herzi, is a young French actress who won France's equivalent of the Oscar in 2007 as Most Promising Newcomer. She's simply delightful in her portrayal of a girl spotted by Ben along the way, a local whose traditional ways cast an exotic spell on the boy. The time Ben spends with Karima are some of the most thoughtful, heartfelt sequences in the film.

Link smartly sticks with the same creative team that gelled so well on her previous projects. Cinematographer Bella Halben also shot her last movie, while both composer Niki Reiser and editor Patricia Rommel worked on her previous four titles. The unspoken language of experienced collaborators translates into a beautifully orchestrated production that's magnificent in its execution.

Exit Marrakech has a foreign film sensibility from the start, with a look and sound honors the local culture, amounting to a polished family travelogue. Production values are high but stray from Hollywood slick. Natural lighting is used in scenes where villages have no electricity and the action is lit by candlelight and lanterns. Halben's camera-work is simply stunning, a loving video postcard from Morocco. Marrakech is full of life, and one can almost smell the marketplace where Ben begins to discover local treasures. As the narrative moves from the city to the mountains to the dunes, we can feel the dust rising from the desert floor. Many scenes employed guerrilla filmmaking, eschewing permits, as the camera captures real life, literally, and local residents – not actors – throughout Ben's journey. Halben often relies on hand-held camera, with numerous intimate closeups of the young man as he's lit like a Greek (German) god. The camera loves him, and the audience's emotional relationship with the boy is key to the film's effect on the viewer.

Reiser's score is a mashup of traditional Middle Eastern music and contemporary styles. The plaintive, haunting strains of Moroccan songs match the changes that take place in the protagonist's persona.

Coming-of-age films are ubiquitous at festivals and tend to be somewhat formulaic. The often predictable character arcs are filled with mild tension, both psychological and sexual. In this case (as in many), the parents split because of a cheating husband, leaving the boy to grow up without a father figure. The estranged dad makes repeated feeble attempts to bond with his adolescent son. Vacation comes along and the boy makes the decision to go to his father's place abroad, which he sees not so much as a chance to reconcile with his dad as much as an opportunity to wander off and find himself. What happens next is believable or not in direct proportion to the credibility of the son's performance, and that's where Exit Marrakech departs from the norm. The initially brooding Ben endears himself to the audience through playful interactions with the local kids. That Ben is surprisingly sweet is something we see coming, but it reveals itself slowly, as his guard comes down and he opens up to the possibilities presented by this new world. These are themes we've seen before, but not done with this much cultural richness and grace.

At just over two hours, Exit Marrakech is a Cinemascope widescreen mini-epic that's sure to be an audience-pleaser. Put it on your radar. You'll be glad you did.
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Looper (2012)
7/10
Intriguing and enjoyable as long as you don't take it too seriously
17 October 2012
Writer/director Rian Johnson's third feature ("Brick," "The Brothers Bloom") is another mashup, of sorts, in a season full of genre hybrids. On the face of it, "Looper" brands itself as a time travel tale smack dab in the classic science fiction tradition of films like "The Butterfly Effect" (in which Ashton Kutcher goes back to the past to change the present), "The Jacket" (in which Adrien Brody goes into the future to change the present), and "Donnie Darko" (in which Jake Gyllenhaal, well, we're never quite sure where he goes or why, but he looks good doing it). Of course, there's the iconic (and quite dark for its era) "The Time Machine" and the (much lighter) "Back to the Future" franchise, both of which send the protagonists forward or backward in time to escape an unexciting and, possibly, dangerous present.

"Looper's" premise (laid out in the opening narration) is that time travel has been, or will be, invented at some point in the future. Bad guys can, thus, be sent back in time to be exterminated in the present, thereby eliminating them before they can get to be the bad guys they are to become. "Loopers" are the assassins in the present (well, 2044) who've been given the lucrative assignment of preemptively eliminating these to-be-bad guys (from 2074, follow?). As it always has been, and always will be, ethics are trumped by dollars. It's a tough job but somebody has to do it. As the movie opens, we see "Joe" (the always-dependable Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as the somebody in the process of carrying out this mission as future felons pop into view, only to be blown away seconds later in the middle of a cornfield. A Field of Nightmares, as it were. But Bruce Willis appears and, as he is wont to do, throws a major monkey wrench into the production and the story barrels off from there.

Rian Johnson's project benefits from a stellar cast, including Emily Blunt, Paul Dano. Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, and Jeff Daniels, all turning in intriguing performances that confound at every turn. Look for little Pierce Gagnon as Cid, a Damien/Omen meets Haley Joel Osment's "I see dead people" Cole as a sweet but creepy kid who steals every scene he's in, no easy task in this sea of veteran talent.

Cinematographer Steve Yedlin (who also shot Johnson's previous features) maintains a consistent style throughout, making the present day settings somewhat indistinguishable from the future, adding to the delightful confusion of the audience. The music is never obtrusive as composer Nathan Johnson's original score serves the narrative without being showy. The pace is on par with the typical thriller, as editor Bob Ducsay ensures that the action flows at a steady rate without extended periods of introspection, as the filmmakers foil every attempt on the viewer's part to calculate the machinations and solve the riddles appearing on screen.

Sci-fi morphs into action-adventure and psychological thriller as the viewer attempts to fit the puzzle pieces together. The identity of many of the characters, present and future, is a mystery -- and, as it turns out, that's really the point of it. There's plenty of eye candy, to be sure, but figuring out who's who and what they're really doing occupies most of the brain throughout "Looper." Johnson had a choice here. One option was to make the narrative so confounding that, a la "Inception," people would be scratching their heads afterward, at the risk of them becoming disgusted at what they view as self-indulgence on the part of the filmmakers. The other option was to push the movie ever so slightly in that direction but, with a bit of humor and well placed tongue-in-cheek, not take itself so seriously as to annoy the audience into writing it off as a lost two hours (and it is long at 118 minutes). "Looper" walks a fine line between the two but, in the end, is more feast than famine, putting it in the category of films that must be seen again to be appreciated.
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Unit 7 (2012)
7/10
Based on actual events, a gritty, gripping action thriller that runs on all cylinders
10 October 2012
Flash back to Seville, Spain, in the late 1980s as the city prepares to welcome millions of visitors to Expo '92, The Universal Exposition of Seville. In order to present a modern, safe image to the world, the government wisely decides to try and rid the downtown area of its rampant drug crime. "Unit 7" is created, an elite group of narcotics officers with a mandate to use whatever means necessary to wipe out drug trafficking. Just make sure it's legal and, if not, that nobody finds out.

Based on actual events, the original story was penned by Rafael Cobos and Alberto Rodriguez. Cobos developed the screenplay and Rodriguez directed. This is their third collaboration.

The four team members, Ángel (Mario Casas), Rafael (Antonio de la Torre), Mateo (Joaquín Núñez), and Miguel (José Manuel Poga), are predictably thrown together with the typical rookie vs. veteran, family man vs. womanizer dynamic that sets up what could be clichéd character arcs. The fact that they're not owes much to Cobos' taut script, to be sure, but the narrative's spark of authenticity is mainly due to the heartfelt performances and obvious on screen chemistry of the actors.

Despite its ensemble setup, the star of the film, in reality, is Mario Casas. With his adoring wife, newborn baby, and, of course, a sweet doggie at home, Ángel is the soul of Unit 7, and the story is told primarily through his eyes. He's lit like an angel in a stained glass church window and behaves like one, to boot. It's established from the start that the appropriately and not coincidentally named Ángel, as the most sympathetic character, is the one to watch.

His transformation from baby-faced naif to wannabe Clint Eastwood is what the audience expects, and Casas delivers, yet still surprises at many turns. He's a worthy protagonist in an otherwise Central Casting narc squad. Poga, Núñez, and de la Torre do an admirable job as contrasting characters and in comic relief. But without Casas, while this would be a fine project, it would lack the humanity he brings to the story.

Technical elements are superb with big budget production values. Single-point lighting is favored in the officers' homes, with soft shadows and a warm color palette bathed in amber, reflecting the safe, comfortable environment they have to look forward to at the end of the day. Stark street exteriors are cold and pushed blue, mirroring the vulnerability and harsh reality of the workplace where there's little safety and notorious drug gangs lurk around every corner.

Julio de la Rosa's incessantly pounding score perfectly matches the brutally fast-paced action. When the "drug bust theme" kicks in you know there's some major whuppin' about to go down.

Cinematographer Alex Catalán sticks to stationary tripod shots in the characters' "safe places," at home and at the police station. As the action moves outdoors and into the streets, the camera-work phases into Steadicam and hand-held. The action sequences are filled with heartstopping crane and helicopter shots, along with a copious amount of hand-held closeups, coordinated to the throbbing drug bust theme. There's a grainy grindhouse feel to these scenes which is evocative of the thrilling police dramas of the 70s. Never lost is the breathtaking landscape of the city and its beautiful surroundings, captured elegantly in Catalán's lens as a loving postcard from Seville.

This Spanish entry in an otherwise well-worn genre could have been formulaic but, with passionate performances and Cobos' smart and witty script, it remains focused and compelling. "Unit 7" is a gritty, gripping action thriller that runs on all cylinders.
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Sinister (I) (2012)
9/10
The movie for jaded horror fans who think nothing can scare them
10 October 2012
Directed and scripted by Scott Derrickson ("The Exorcism of Emily Rose," 2008's "The Day the Earth Stood Still") from a C. Robert Cargill story, "Sinister" is an exquisite realization of an original paranormal theme. The movie debuted in this same town's SXSW Film Festival in March.

Ethan Hawke is Ellison Oswalt, a true crime author and devoted family man with a what-have-you-done-for-us-lately fan base and editor anxiously awaiting his next blockbuster. Wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and youngsters Ashley (Clare Foley) and Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) are tired of constantly moving from town to town as Oswalt is wont to plant temporary roots close to the subjects of his ripped-from-the-headlines novels. As the film opens, the Oswalts are moving into yet another new house, but Ellison swears this is the last time, and selectively informs his family of his intentions.

In the process of unpacking, Ellison discovers a box of the previous owner's old home movies in the attic. Thus begins the odyssey into the unknown. Let it be said at the outset that this is not "just another found footage film." In reversing the role of viewer and protagonist, to some extent, it's Hawke's character who discovers the reels while we see his story played out on screen. We don't spend two hours watching shaky 8MM footage. They are integral to the narrative but aren't the sum of its parts.

In his horror debut, Hawke turns in a striking tour-de-force performance that rivals anything I've seen recently ("Insidious'" Patrick Wilson comes close). Rylance is delightful as the patient but exasperated wife who's barely willing to stand by her man for one more moment. Foley (Abby in "Win Win") and D'Addario (Josh in "People Like Us") are frighteningly authentic as the glue that holds this tight-knit family together. Fred Dalton Thompson ("Law & Order's" D.A. Arthur Branch and former U.S. Senator) does a star turn as the stubborn sheriff who will have nothing to do with outsiders tarnishing his town's already-shaky reputation. Welcome comic relief comes from underrated character actor James Ransone ("Ken Park," "Inside Man," HBO's "The Wire").

This is Ethan Hawke's first foray into this genre, a simple consequence of his passion for the material. "He said he'd never do horror," paraphrasing the filmmakers in the Q&A following the screening here, but he fell in love with Derrickson's script. The casting of Juliet Rylance as his wife was also done at his suggestion. Their on screen chemistry is undeniable.

The technical team doesn't miss a beat. Top-notch visual effects are always key in a film like this, but the common flaw in this genre lies in overdoing it. CGI and post-production trickery can certainly advance the narrative where appropriate but "Sinister's" old school in-camera effects, done while shooting, enhance the believability of the action.

Cinematographer Chris Norr eschews hand-held for stationary tripod shots and Hitchcockian slow pans, with POV tracking shots that allow the audience to sense the protagonist's growing paranoia. The occasional subjective POV angle, where the character looks at the camera, effectively places the viewer into the scene.

Lighting in the Oswalt home, where most of the action takes place, is appropriately subdued and rife with interplays of light and shadow. Hawke is often seen in silhouette, masking dark corners hiding secrets, literally. Terrifying night scenes beg the question, "Why are you going up into the attic?" Christopher Young's original score blends perfectly with needle-drop songs from some of the filmmakers' favorite indie bands. In a typical production, where third party songs will be inserted, the actors work to a temp track -- music that plays in the background until the company can obtain licensing for the tunes they want for the finished product, usually unknown (although often hoped for) during filming, that are then added to the soundtrack in post-production. With "Sinister," Derrickson and his team were able to purchase the rights prior to shooting so the cast members performed to a playback of the songs that would actually be used in the final cut. It does make a difference, especially when seasoned professionals like Hawke are "acting" in sync with the same music the audience hears in those scenes. It creates a symbiotic ambiance that links viewer to actor.

As a reviewer, I try to keep expectations out of my thoughts and writing. After all, it's only fair to the filmmakers (and me, and my readers) to judge a movie on its merits. Fortunately, it's not too much of a challenge to be as objective as possible when entering the theater, especially if it's a premiere and no other reviews are out there (and you haven't watched a trailer). But Fantastic Fest is a genre festival, after all, and one would not attend, theoretically, without being a fan of same. So expectations are placed on the film simply by virtue of the fact it's even being shown.

That's why I'm happy to report that "Sinister" was all I hoped it would be. Yes, this is why I attend Fantastic Fest and movies like this make it worth the trip. This is the flick for jaded horror fans who think nothing can scare them. This one does it. "Sinister" will give you nightmares.
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Antiviral (2012)
8/10
How far would you go to own a piece of your celebrity crush?
10 October 2012
Brandon Cronenberg's auspicious debut feature is a visually stunning, compelling science fiction story that asks the question, "How far would you go to own a piece of your celebrity crush?" Directing from his own script, the young Canadian takes a decidedly cynical view of the cult of personality in this sci-fi paradigm shift -- "Antiviral" isn't necessarily showing us what will be in the future but what could be now as it appears to be set more in the present day.

The film opens in a pristine medical facility where a desperate young man, Edward Porris (Douglas Smith in a too-brief but important establishing role), is about to be injected with a live virus taken from his favorite superstar. Being bedridden with the same illness infecting the woman of his desire is the ultimate autograph. The shot is administered by Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), a strictly professional, unemotional clinician who knows not to take his job home with him. Of course, everything is not as it seems and March becomes embroiled in a mystery that pulls in the viewer like a syringe drawing blood.

The cast is focused on a small handful of characters. 22-year-old Caleb Landry Jones (Sean Cassidy/Banshee of "X-Men: First Class") is in virtually every shot, undergoing a total physical and emotional transformation that's almost painful to watch, reminiscent of the award-winning performance turned in by Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia." His masterful characterization of Syd's downward spiral is breathtaking and central to the picture's potency. The iconic Malcolm McDowell is satisfyingly engaging as Dr. Abendroth, in a role that stands proudly with anything he's done. As Hannah Geist, the gorgeous object of men's desires, Sarah Gadon is a heartbreaker. Naive diva one minute, vulnerable victim the next, Gadon provides much of the heart and soul of "Antiviral" in a film otherwise devoid of color, literally. Joe Pingue and Nicholas Campbell are notable in support.

"Antiviral's" narrative is curiously fascinating, to be sure, but this is a film to examine more on the surface the way an old-fashioned family doctor can tell what ails you by looking at your skin. The highly stylized production is best appreciated by those enriched by a leisurely walk through an art museum. Every frame is like a painting, with lush cinematography and score that can only be effective when director, DP, composer, editor, and the entire visual team work in lockstep, resulting in a brilliant vision executed with highly disciplined precision.

Much of March's day is set in the clinic and his home, which mirrors his workplace in its cold sterility. The color palette is nothing but black and white. Lighting is oversaturated with characters bathed in bright white, giving the outward appearance of good health that belies the reality of what literally lurks beneath the skin. The outside world is like a parallel universe, where dirt and grime cover a worn out, used landscape as if diseased itself.

Cinematographer Karim Hussain ("Hobo with a Shotgun," one of my 2011 Sundance Film Festival Top 4) goes against the hand-held trend with stationary camera throughout much of the movie. These tripod shots often feature perfectly centered props and sets following the rule of 3s -- left, center, and right objects perfectly balanced with the action in the middle of the field of view. Many frame-within-a-frame shots continue this classic visual style as the viewer peers through doors and windows, with straight lines and rectangular shapes filling the screen. It's a refreshing break with tradition although, ironically, it's a look established long ago in sci-fi classics like Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." Much is owed to editor Matthew Hannam for the patient pace of the picture. E.C. Woodley's haunting electronica score is filled with biologically-inspired rhythms that reflect the throbbing hearts and mechanical drone of a scientific setting.

Viewers are cautioned not to underestimate the profound importance of the camera-work and visual effects. The look of "Antiviral" is as much, or more, responsible for the film's impact than the script, a notion which may be lost on those simply trying to figure out the plot and following the dialogue. This is a feast for the eyes and ears, not just the mind.

Brandon Cronenberg proves himself a welcome and worthy addition to the cinematic stage with "Antiviral," a delicious visual showcase and emotionally satisfying, albeit scathing look at one of the perils of modern society.
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I Declare War (I) (2012)
9/10
What happens when innocent fun gives way to danger? Classic theme well-executed.
9 October 2012
In the tradition of "Stand by Me" and "Lord of the Flies" comes a poignant dark comedy that puts a timely spotlight on the games kids play and the consequences of seemingly innocent actions when fun gives way to danger.

Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson co-directed from a Lapeyre script. Wilson is an accomplished producer -- this is his second feature directorial effort (he serves as a producer on this as well). This is Lapeyre's followup to his first narrative feature "Cold Blooded." The movie had debuted as a work-in-progress print at ActionFest in North Carolina in April, where it took home the jury prizes for Best Film and Best Screenplay. It went on to a triumphant premiere at last month's Toronto International Film Festival. It took top honors here in Texas, winning the Fantastic Fest Audience Award.

The premise of "I Declare War" is deceptively simple -- a group of kids gets together on a regular basis to play war games in the woods, challenging each other in mock battle with harmless paintballs and tree branch bazookas. We used to play cowboys and Indians with water guns and toy pistols. Some of us graduated to Civil War reenactments. We turned out okay. So when these youngsters choose to head out into the forest and get a good physical workout trying to steal the opponents' flag from their home base, while most of their peers are engrossed in role-playing games on their computers, this looks like a marvelously healthy alternative.

But boys will be boys, as they say (okay, there is one girl), and the situation inevitably turns sour. Rivalries turn real as jealousy, love, and loss come to the fore, and some players take the game one menacing step further. The timely topic of bullying suddenly rears its ugly head as we see its root causes on display before having the chance to look away. As in 2004's "Mean Creek," one of my all-time favorite indies, innocent joy turns to potential tragedy as the line between fantasy and reality blurs both on screen, for the viewer, as well as in the minds of the youngsters.

What the kids begin to see in their minds -- a stick of wood is suddenly a rifle, a paintball is a real grenade -- is reflected in the film itself. This is just one of the many masterful strokes that sets "I Declare War" apart from its brethren and makes it such a powerful cinematic experience in its contribution to a rich cinematic tradition, the classic morality play writ large when the protagonists are vulnerable adolescents.

This character-driven study on the limits to which a man/boy can be pushed rests on the abilities of this age-consistent ensemble cast to make these characters believable. Without that the narrative would fall apart like an army facing mutiny. Standouts include Gage Munroe as PK and Michael Friend as Skinner. Both turn in frighteningly genuine performances that may draw a tear or two. All team members are on somewhat equal footing in significant roles with few in background support. Kudos must go out to Siam Yu, Aidan Gouveia, Mackenzie Munro, Alex Cardillo, Dyson Fyke, Spencer Howes, Andy Reid, Kolton Stewart, Richard Nguyen, Eric Hanson, and Alex Wall. Another bold choice -- there are no adults in this tightly-focused production.

The movie's authenticity also stems from its unscripted feel, as the youngsters were encouraged to insert dialogue using their own teenage vernacular and improvise where it was agreed the young actors would best know how to behave in a certain situation. The language is raw, to be sure, not unlike my 2012 SXSW Film Festival favorite "Funeral Kings," with F-bombs galore and enough obscenities to make their parents blush. But it always effectively serves the plot and is never gratuitous or overtly offensive.

Production values are well above the typical indie or foreign film. The entire picture was shot in one exterior location, a seemingly simple task made much more difficult by the limited hours allowed for underage actors and inability to avoid shadows no matter how well lit. Still, it always appears to be magic hour with the kids awash with the stunning beauty of nature, bathed in sunlight, their angelic innocence filling the screen.

Composers Eric Cadesky and Nick Dyer have crafted an intricate score that's surprisingly heavy, serving as a perfect dramatic counterpoint to the child's play in the great outdoors. The action dictates the viewer's emotions, not the clichéd tugging of heartstrings with violins and cellos, and that's as it should be.

The camera-work is virtually all Steadicam, affording cinematographer Ray Dumas the ability to maintain fluid motion throughout, despite the natural obstacles inherent in shooting on a forest floor. The combatants often move with the frame and not through it, as though we were running right alongside them. These tracking shots bring the viewer right into the action, allowing us to feel as if we're part of the game. But we're playing both sides -- but they don't know that -- and that's part of the fun of I Declare War. Spies abound, and you're one.

"I Declare War" also works because we've all been there, more or less -- every audience member will see a bit of their golden youth in one or more of these kids, for better or worse. If painful it can be cathartic. If pleasant it's sweetly evocative of a time past to which many wish we could return.
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Cloud Atlas (2012)
10/10
Look up "epic" in the dictionary and you may see the poster for "Cloud Atlas" staring back at you
9 October 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Based on the David Mitchell novel, "Cloud Atlas" boasts a triumvirate of writers and directors. German Tom Tykwer and the sibling team of Andy and Lana Wachowski served as screenwriters, producers, and directors. Tykwer, an accomplished composer, also wrote original music for the movie along with Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek.

It's incredibly challenging to write about this enigmatic film without giving anything away. While I still won't reveal details of the plot or actions of the characters, "Cloud Atlas" cannot be reviewed without some discussion regarding what it's about, and that's no easy task.

Pigeonholing a film into a specific genre is something I generally frown upon. After all, it's Hollywood that loves catchy terms like romantic comedies, spy thrillers, and murder mysteries. In the indie world within which my sensibilities lie, movies mirror real life -- funny, sad, tragic, poignant, mysterious and puzzling and absurd, often within the same scene. That's the kind of authenticity that can set the heart racing.

"Cloud Atlas" unfolds as a historical narrative set in the 1800s. Suddenly it morphs into a 20th century period piece. It's at turns a pensive drama, detective potboiler, action/adventure flick, political thriller, dark comedy, and pure sci-fi. Then it cycles back again. The plot continually interweaves all the above -- six multiple story lines, all set in different eras with different characters. The only thing connecting these apparently disparate narratives is one curious conundrum that stares the viewer in the face, "What does it all mean?"

The cast is an ensemble within an ensemble, with many stars playing multiple roles across various story lines. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, portraying three to four characters each, are clearly the names which dominate the scoreboard but every actor went well above and beyond for this production. Most play more than one role, even different sexes at times. This is the stuff of awards. But just mentioning what their roles are would reveal more than I already have, or am about to, so it will be left to the astute viewer to discover who's who.

The production values on this omnibus cinematic achievement are stellar. That this is an independent film and not a Hollywood movie is incredulous at times. Each of the half dozen narratives has its own lighting scheme to match the era and mood, with a color palette befitting their respective landscapes -- earth tones in the early pre-industrial periods, primary colors in the present-day segments, and grayscale in the future, back to earth tones again in the great beyond.

The camera-work is also story-dependent. Small wonder it "only" took two cinematographers, not six, to shoot this film. Frank Griebe and John Toll are staring Oscar in the face with this superior display of visual genius. Every possible photographic technique is used here, capturing extreme closeups and sweeping landscapes, often in the same shot, yet the work is never self-indulgent art for art's sake.

As literate as it is, the script doesn't take itself as seriously as many viewers will. While filled with platitudes and truisms, there's also quite a bit of comic relief at much-needed intervals.

Despite the multiple parallel narratives, each piece has its own distinct mood. "Cloud Atlas" is triumphant in its ability to integrate every inch of the emotional continuum. There are overt tonal changes across the story lines that, on paper, would appear to be an almost insurmountable task. Yet the filmmakers accomplished this by carefully sliding from comedy to dark comedy to drama to historical drama to mysterious present-day curiosity to scientific achievement leading to the wonders of the future and science fiction, cycling back again, never shocking with abrupt awkward transitions that would require some severe mental adjustment on the part of the viewer.

This subtle ebb and flow is not unlike the composition of a symphony, literally echoing that being written throughout the course of the movie itself -- the "Cloud Atlas Sextet" -- which also happens to form the basis of the soundtrack. It's an original piece composed for the film and its creation is the subtext for one of the story lines. Life imitating art imitating life. These movements, to continue with the musical metaphor, are accomplished by editors Frank Griebe and John Toll through long dissolves whenever possible, blending one narrative into another, a useful device that, again, relieves the viewer of having to put together the puzzle pieces ("Where are we now?"). This frees up the mind to contemplate the overall messages being imparted by the action instead of straining to understand the visuals (a la Inception).

"Cloud Atlas" is one of those films that you think you get...then you revise your thinking...again, and again, and again. It's about slavery! No, wait...it's about the Holocaust! Or is it both? Aha, it's about prejudice through the ages -- against dark-skinned people by whites, against Jews, homosexuals...that's it, yes. It's about discrimination, bigotry, racism. But wait, no...there are themes of past lives and reincarnation here. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. That's it! No, wait...what's going on here? Aha I get it now...it's about love! The next decision we make changes the future. You come to a fork in the road...do you build? Or destroy? Will your next act be of criminality or kindness? This choice can change mankind. Yes, that's the idea. Everything that occurs is the result of individual decisions. The ocean began with one drop. Is that what "Cloud Atlas" is about? In the end, the answer is...all the above. But it can all be summed up in two simple words: Eternal Recurrence. That's it. (Really, that's it.)

Look up "epic" in the dictionary and you may see the poster for "Cloud Atlas" staring back at you. Quite possibly you'll also find it under "M" for "masterpiece."
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Frankenweenie (2012)
7/10
A family-friendly entry-level feature into the world of Tim Burton and an evocative experience for viewers of all ages
8 October 2012
The latest animated feature from auteur Tim Burton, the black and white "Frankenweenie" is, on its surface, a classic "boy and his dog" story. A tale of a tail, as it were. Sure, it's been done before -- many times. But eye-popping state of the art stop motion animation, combined with a loving homage to the great movie monsters of the past century, makes this film a unique joy to watch. Add into the mix a message about the importance of science education, a pitch in favor of under-appreciated teachers, and a healthy dose of schmaltz.

The story and characters were first developed for a 1984 short, directed by Burton and scripted by Leonard Ripps. This full-length version was co-written by John August and Burton, who directs and produces.

"Frankenweenie" opens with a "film within a film" as the Frankensteins watch appropriately cheesy home movies of son Victor (the voice of Charlie Tahan) and their devoted dog Sparky. They're viewing Super 8MM film -- the picture is set, roughly, in early 60s suburbia although deliberate anachronisms abound. A tragedy befalls the family and it's up to the boy to use his love of science to make things right.

The voice cast showcases talented newcomers and familiar icons. Charlie Tahan, most recently Zac Efron's little brother Sam in the tearjerker "Charlie St. Cloud," turns in an understated and heart-tugging performance as young Victor. Landau's Rzykruski is the audience-pleaser who brings down the house again and again. As the naif Elsa Van Helsing, Winona Ryder is the perfect schoolboy crush with her sweet innocence. Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara excel at several roles, including Victor's well-meaning but (of course) bumbling parents. In a worthy homage to Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant, Atticus Shaffer (Brick of ABC's "The Middle") steals the show as Victor's classmate Edgar E. Gore.

As in many animated features, the characters were modeled after the actors voicing them. While in the recording booth, the performers mimed the action of the puppets, not only to give themselves some context, but also because it enhances the emotional believability of what ends up on screen.

If you haven't recently experienced the filmmaking method of puppetry with stop motion animation you'll be amazed at what can be done. Burton's attention to detail is legendary, and fully on display here.

Viewers may be familiar with the term "magic hour," typically the first and last hour of sunlight when just the right visual balance is achieved. Animation affords filmmakers certain luxuries. Magic hour can happen 24 hours a day. The interplay of light and shadow in "Frankenweenie" is wondrous.

Peter Sorg's cinematography features dramatic crane and dolly shots with a liberal amount of slow pans that effectively mimic a live action production. Co-editors Chris Lebenzon and Mark Solomon get special credit for seamlessly integrating poignant flashbacks and witty dream sequences at the most unexpected moments.

Audiences will immediately be aware of composer Danny Elfman's magnificent score. It flows superbly from opening to closing credits and serves as a critical element in advancing the narrative.

But the real fun is in spotting the homages...from early-mid 20th Century classics like "Frankenstein" (and his bride), "Dracula" (Martin Landau's depiction of science teacher Mr. Rzykruski is dedicated to Boris Karloff), and "Godzilla," to more recent faves "Gremlins" and...hmm...is that "The Mummy?" "ET?" Well, that's the point. Some see monsters that even Burton swears weren't intended. (I spotted more on my second viewing, truth be told.) Burton's latest foray into animation is truly a delight. It's a highly accessible entry-level feature into the world of a director whose previous work may have been a bit too quirky and mature for families with small children. "Frankenweenie" is an evocative experience for viewers of all ages.
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Tower Block (2012)
8/10
In a well-worn genre, a classic trapped ensemble piece that exceeds expectations
7 October 2012
The "tower block" drama has become a sci-fi/horror subgenre in itself. Known as high-rise apartment buildings in the West, they are especially ubiquitous in Europe where they provided cheap postwar housing in countries which didn't have the large tracts of land or economic and political hubris that "allowed" us to build highways and expansive suburbs on this side of the pond. In America, they were primarily constructed in cities as public housing for low income residents displaced by interstate highway construction and leveling of aging dilapidated neighborhoods in the name of "urban renewal." Many of these large projects were built in Eastern Europe by the Soviet regime and have begun to fall apart and be abandoned, mirroring the actions of their government overseers. But everywhere, including Western Bloc countries like the UK, they've fallen into disrepair and are rife with rampant crime and crippling poverty. This is fertile ground for writers of mystery, sci-fi, and horror -- hence the proliferation of films set in these often enigmatic structures.

"Tower Block," the first feature for UK co-directors James Nunn and Ronnie Thompson, focuses on the last remaining residents of the ironically-named Serenity House, a rundown building which is slated for demolition and has been abandoned save for its top floor. Eviction is on the horizon, no authorities are present to ensure anyone's safety, and a boy is brutally attacked with impunity. What happens next will challenge everyone's sanity and sense of moral judgment.

Nunn is an industry veteran, serving as First Assistant Director on two dozen titles prior to this directorial debut. Writer James Moran scripted "Severance," which I saw at my first Toronto Film Festival in 2006 after an auspicious Cannes debut. It was one of the biggest hits on the 2006-07 festival circuit. He also penned "Cockneys vs. Zombies" which played here at Fantastic Fest immediately following my "Tower Block" screening.

Every actor gets kudos for the movie's emotional punch, making it hard to single anyone out. But, as Kurtis, Jack O'Connell provides much of the heart and soul of the film, as well as its dry wit and comic relief. He was clearly the audience favorite here. Sheridan Smith, Jill Baker, Ralph Brown, Loui Batley, Russell Tovey, Steven Cree...all are affecting and outstanding.

Cinematographer Ben Moulden's appropriate reliance on hand-held camera with extreme closeups is crucial in capturing the dangerous confines in which the protagonists attempt to survive. Rapidfire action sequences are ratcheted up by the astute, sharp editing of Kate Coggins.

Lighting serves the narrative perfectly. The typical look of these buildings is cold, with a color palette that pushes the blue and pulls life out of the towers' public spaces, and "Tower Block" doesn't disappoint. Hallway lighting is dim and subdued with shadowy cold spots that often frame the actors in silhouette, almost giving the film a black and white appearance. Apartment interiors are warm with an amber glow, safe spaces where the innocent can find solace, at least for awhile.

Certain genres demand a soundtrack that helps build tension and enhance the desperation of the characters. Owen Morris' original score accomplishes this admirably. Sound design is spectacular and creates a character unto itself. Rarely have sound effects been used so effectively as a plot device in ways the viewer will discover.

This is a classic trapped group in peril piece, set in the narrow, claustrophobic hallways that define the titular tower block. As a familiar subgenre film, we have a general idea where the narrative will take us, so the key to the story lies in the ability of its ensemble cast to arouse audience empathy. Whether old or young, male or female, rough or sweet, mean or compassionate, including parents and children, victors and victims, and those who inevitably transform via dramatically satisfying arcs, there are sympathetic characters for every viewer. We can all relate to one or more of the residents, making palpable their fear and confusion. We become invested in who survives or not, and one thing I can guarantee: you will not be able to predict the outcome. In the end, that's why "Tower Block" exceeds expectations.

What makes the high-rise building fodder for freaky films? Perhaps it's simply the sight of these structures, haunting hulks of concrete and steel that beg the question, "What goes on behind those hundreds of windows?" "Tower Block's" answer? Don't go in. You may never get out.
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Vanishing Waves (II) (2012)
8/10
A sci-fi conundrum interspersed with an erotically-charged, luscious program of modern dance
7 October 2012
Stanley Kubrick meets Gaspar Noe in Lithuanian director Kristina Buozyte's third feature, co-written with Bruno Samper, a visually stunning, sexy sci-fi romantic thriller that's winning awards and taking festivals by storm. Here, at Fantastic Fest, "Vanishing Waves" took four of the five jury trophies in the Fantastic Features category: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Actress (Jurga Jutaite).

Don't arrive late because a brief opening narration sets up the story's premise. In a line, scientists discover a way to wire the "inactive" brain of a comatose patient (Aurora, portrayed by Jurga Jutaite) with that of a healthy subject (Marius Jampolskis as Lukas) as a way of peering into the secret workings of the coma victim's mind. Of course, things don't necessarily go as planned. Fans of 9 Songs and Anatomy of Hell will appreciate the continual forays into what some might call a soft porn ballet as the neurological experiments progress.

More than anything, the movie is a sci-fi conundrum interspersed with an erotically-charged, luscious program of modern dance. Jutaite and Jampolskis are absolutely wedded to these performances. Emotions are delicately underplayed, with the focus on the on screen pas-de-deux. There's very little dialogue as the script favors feelings and thoughts over actions and reactions.

The lush look of the film is its overarching achievement. It opens with a ONEr -- a single long take that immediately establishes this as a cinematographic showcase. Director of Photography Feliksas Abrukauskas helps craft a motion picture that would be gorgeous to watch even without any plot at all. "Vanishing Waves" has, unquestionably, some of the most beautiful cinematography of any film I've seen all year.

The regular but judicious use of single takes and long tracking shots enhance the fluidity of the action and keep the characters constantly in motion within the frame. There are no shaky hand-held images here -- this is a study in the effective use of Steadicam in telling a story beyond the limits of the scripted page. Editor Suzanne Fenn trusts the viewer's eye will know when to take a rest from this delicious assault on the senses and keeps cuts to a minimum.

Aurora and Lukas are bathed in light, viewed in oversaturated images almost devoid of color. The film is filled with the blacks and grays and whites so ubiquitous in the science fiction genre. The monochromatic clinic set is black and white. Shots in Lukas' house utilize a cold color palette dominated by pastel blues. The only primary colors on display owe their appearance to the occasional food-centric dream sequence.

Peter Von Poehl's sweeping original score rests on a continuous humming that echoes the electronic drone of the medical equipment as well as the imagined workings of the human brain. It's magnificently integrated into the narrative.

"Vanishing Waves" is simply gorgeous to behold. The premise is elegant but the execution of the dream sequences will sweep you off your brain. This is a singular cinematic experience to savor like an all-night gourmet meal or foray into sexual experimentation. Or both at once.
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American Mary (2012)
8/10
Hell hath no fury like a female surgeon scorned
7 October 2012
Co-writers/directors Jen and Sylvia Soska, the Twisted Twins, have created a highly stylized, exquisite entry in the horror subgenre known as the women's revenge film. This is the bloody nightmare an angry young female surgeon might have after watching "I Spit on Your Grave."

We open on an extreme closeup shot of lovely Mary Mason (Katherine Isabelle) in her kitchen, sewing a turkey with careful precision. It isn't Thanksgiving, though, and there are no guests arriving. She's just practicing her surgery skills as a budding med student. But when professional relationships run afoul, fowl just isn't an adequate substitute for the real thing. And just when you think you know where the film is going, our hearts are touched by Mary's benevolent foray into a world few are aware of. So begins the occasionally chilling, often twisted odyssey of "American Mary."

There's much praise to go around for this talented ensemble cast but, more than anyone, it's the exquisite Katherine Isabelle who brings the Soskas' script to life. Isabelle so inhabits Mary that she creates a totally original, unique character that raises the bar for all the actors around her. The reversal of roles in this narrative is clever and crafty. To be more specific would reveal too much. Things are not as they seem as stereotypes are shattered at every step of the way.

The look of "American Mary" is a study in the almost-forgotten techniques of creative filmmaking. Single point lighting is used liberally, as Mary moves in and out of the shadows of the strange new world she's created. More than in most modern films, the color palette is central to subliminal psychological changes transmitted to the viewer. Black, the color of death, and red, the color of love (and blood), dominate in key scenes and trigger subtle emotional cues that slyly blend in with the milieu.

Peter Allen's original score magnificently balances contrapuntally with the gruesome on screen action. Lush classical strains underscore unimaginable real-life horrors. We're watching a ballet of death. The more terrifying the images, the more charming and delightful is the opera in our heads. The beauty of the soundtrack belies the ugliness beneath.

"American Mary" boasts some of the most stunning camera-work of the festival. Cinematographer Brian Pearson exhibits such passion for the material that every frame is like a painting. Editor Bruce MacKinnon allows the film to proceed patiently, another departure from the typical genre production. Locations are like characters unto themselves, and the set design reflects that with tremendous attention to detail that allows the photography and music to work together with the backdrop to help propel the story.

This is true art, rarely seen in cinema today. It's a slightly more civilized, 21st century take on torture porn with high production values and a killer narrative but there's much more here than meets the eye. Yes, it's hard to watch at times, but those who appreciate movies the way they used to be made won't want to turn away. In "American Mary" we gorily discover that hell hath no fury like a female surgeon scorned.
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Blackbird (I) (2012)
9/10
A juvie drama that gets it right
5 October 2012
My career as a movie journalist began with a juvie drama in 2006 when I traveled to the SXSW Film Festival to attend the World Premiere of "The Bondage." That picture, starring Michael Angarano and Mae Whitman, made my first festival Top 10 list. In 2010, two other juvie dramas, both at the Philadelphia Film Festival, ended up on my Top 10 from that event. Those films, the Romania/Sweden co-production "If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle" and the Canada/France/UK co-production "Dog Pound," raised the bar a bit more for this oft-explored sub-genre. Now another Canadian entry mines this fertile territory with "Blackbird," the auspicious feature debut of writer/director/producer Jason Buxton.

Let it be said at the outset that this is not an overly complicated narrative, and isn't meant to be. There's essentially one set, the detention center where the boys are held. Although the storyline is chilling and timely, it would be best not to reveal the details of why they're there, and it isn't really what "Blackbird" is about. Ultimately, this is an intense character study revolving around a couple of jailed teens, Sean and Trevor. In that sense it's quite theatrical, and one can easily see this as a stage production. It's a two-man show, and the filmmakers triumph because of the actors' palpable passion for and commitment to the project.

Connor Jessup is Sean, protagonist in the delicate dance on which his survival depends. His nemesis Trevor is played by Alex Ozerov. Buxton made the wise decision to cast actors of the same age, so Jessup's commanding performance -- he was 17 at the time -- is that much more remarkable. Not a huge surprise, though, since he's been acting since the age of 13 and in five short years has almost 50 television episodes under his belt, including a season of the Steven Spielberg-produced "Falling Skies." He's also accomplished behind the camera, as well, having executive produced and handling assistant camera for last year's Toronto Film Festival hit "Amy George." Ozerov has several television productions and shorts to his credit as well. This is his first feature. Yet he's on screen in virtually every scene and is a worthy foe to Jessup. The film doesn't work without his almost demonic counterpoint to the just this side of angelic Sean. The movie's success largely rests on the shoulders of Jessup, and he's more than up to the task. What a casting coup. The camera loves him and the physical transformation he goes through, although expected given the genre, is surprising nonetheless. Connor Jessup is a star in the making.

There are other characters intertwined with the primary pas-de-deux between Sean and Trevor. The triumvirate of Sean's pivotal relationships is rounded out by his dad Ricky (Michael Buie) and friend Deanna (Alexia Fast). The cast also includes a rowdy crew of fellow inmates. Their improvised actions and dialogue just add even more to the authenticity.

The film's look effectively matches the protagonist's (and our) emotions. Lighting is harsh and subdued in the cold facility, with shadows in Sean's dark world when his life seems to make little sense. He's more brightly lit as his character starts to transform. The soundtrack serves the narrative and is never distracting in what is basically a quiet experience on many levels.

Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron's cinematography is appropriately claustrophobic. In Sean's life, the walls are closing in. He's a stranger in a strange land. Long takes with little dialogue echo the work of Gus Van Sant, who's covered similar ground in his films. Rear tracking shots mirror the increasing paranoia of Sean's entrapment. One can sense him asking, "Is there someone behind me?" And there is -- the viewer.

There's more character development than one may be used to as it's vital for us to be drawn into Sean's world long before his situation begins its downward spiral. By the time the threats to his well-being become real, we feel his pain. Just as we settle into a comfort level with this crew, the roller coaster begins. From that point on Sean is the heart and soul of "Blackbird." Told with limited dialogue, the film is so compelling that I could not look away for fear I'd miss another dramatic glance, or glare, or flinch. By the time the credits rolled I felt drained, as though my emotions were incarcerated in Sean's cell. That's the very definition of art, being moved, feeling alive even as your heart is being put through the wringer. That's not an easy task to accomplish for young actors and a first-time feature director, but "Blackbird" does it, and gets it right.
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8/10
The quintessential "sweet little indie," overflowing with authenticity
5 October 2012
As I make the festival rounds every year I search for that elusive "sweet little American indie." I don't come across them very often, certainly not often enough, but when that moment happens there's a little pitter-patter in my heart as I know I'm witnessing what could be the launching pad for hot new talent -- writers, directors, actors -- who will go on to produce exciting, creative work in the years to come. I found that here in "Writers."

First-time writer/director Josh Boone has crafted an exquisite film which successfully combines several themes that few are able to tackle successfully. Like David Gordon Green's "Snow Angels," my #1 Top Pick of 2007 and one of my favorite indies of the past decade, we see three couples struggling to cope with the primordial human connection -- the innocence and fear of first love, the seesaw of a mature relationship, and the pain of an estranged couple. Ironically (or perhaps not), "Writers" is privileged to have enlisted Green's longtime Director of Photography Tim Orr. But this is a much lighter picture than "Snow Angels," making it especially accessible to young people and families.

Greg Kinnear is William Borgens, the classic what-have-you-done-for-me-lately author who hasn't had a hit in ages but refuses to allow anyone to sense his self-pity. His wife Erica, played by Jennifer Connelly, is the quintessential partner cast aside at the expense of William's inattention and indiscretion. Their teenage children Samantha and Rusty, portrayed by Lily Collins and Nat Wolff, are discovering their own offbeat paths into the wacky world they've inherited. High school student Rusty, in particular, is a struggling writer himself who is beginning to experience the first frightening pangs of adolescent desire. Dad isn't the best role model, after all, but this is a father-son relationship that has promise if either or both can get their acts together. Samantha is in college and headstrong in the ways of a young woman determined to control her life and career at the expense of entering the dating scene and submitting to the wants of a man. Enter Lou (Logan Lerman), the earnest intellectual who'll stop at nothing to win her over.

From top to bottom -- Kinnear, Connelly, Collins, Wolff, Lerman -- "Writers" is perfectly cast. All inhabit their roles as if they created them. In fact, to some extent, that's true as the dialogue's authenticity is at least partly rooted in Boone's generosity in allowing the actors to improvise some of their material (a technique favored by the aforementioned David Gordon Green, as well). Wolff, in particular, takes advantage of this opportunity to add a good deal of the narrative's comic relief with his ad-libbed lines. Interestingly, he did the same in last year's Toronto hit "Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding," in which he played virtually the same character -- a naive youth, physically inexperienced, gently and innocently exploring his potential with the tender yet intimidating opposite sex. Lerman, 19 at the time of filming, played a 15-year-old in his other world premiere selection at this same festival, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower." In "Writers," he goes in the opposite direction as a 21-year-old who couldn't be more different from Perks' Charlie. In that film, his role is similar to Wolff's as the vulnerable virgin. Here, he's a self-assured, bright college student who is destined to charm Samantha off her feet. The fact that he can convincingly portray both these characters in two pictures at the same festival is testament to his talent and versatility. As his would-be suitor, young Lily Collins is an able foil to Lerman's advances and wins over the audience with her sharp wit.

The adults who anchor the film deserve far more credit than they're given. Jennifer Connelly, who won an Academy Award opposite Russell Crowe in 2001's "A Beautiful Mind," is a beautiful soul inside and out as the wounded spouse who still has a place in her heart for a potentially loving husband. He still holds a torch for her, as well, an intensely personal plot device that could easily lack credulity in the hands of lesser professionals. Oscar-nominated Kinnear proves once again why he is one of the industry's go-to guys. Few actors handle comedy and drama equally well, and he has no problem convincing the audience as a tormented has-been. He may be down on his luck but retains the earnestness that brought him fame and a loving family not that long ago. He's poised for a comeback and it's a role tailor-made for Kinnear.

The film is technically well-balanced between slick Hollywood production values and a relaxed indie look. Bright lighting belies the turmoil beneath the surface. The quaint beach house setting used in many of the scenes is awash with a color palette of earth tones and rustic furnishings, a counterculture milieu befitting this family of intellectuals. Mike Mogis and Nate Wolcott's score is combined with a soundtrack of indie music featuring Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, whose attraction to the material led him to write original music for the movie.

Tim Orr is truly a master cinematographer. His signature style is the ability to capture beauty in nature and everyday objects -- a dripping gutter here, a playground swing there -- and photography that is comforting, enveloping the actors in a warm glow that matches their affections. Nobody does it better. Boone was truly fortunate to have Orr on board.

"Writers" is overflowing with the authenticity of real life. You'll laugh, you'll cry -- often in the same scene -- and, most of all, you'll empathize with at least one of the characters. There isn't one of us who hasn't experienced the feelings and emotions exhibited by the members of this richly complex family. That's key to this ensemble that features many of our best and brightest young independent film actors. For what I expect a "sweet little American indie" to accomplish, "Writers" is simply perfection.
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The Hunt (2012)
10/10
Emotionally draining but truly moving "ripped from the headlines" story
3 October 2012
"The Hunt" is the latest unflinching drama from Danish auteur Thomas Vinterberg. Co-written with Tobias Lindholm, this is an ambitious star vehicle for legendary actor Mads Mikkelsen, an icon in Denmark and familiar face around the world as well. He plays Lucas, a small-town kindergarten teacher. At its heart the story is ultimately a powerful comment on prejudice, based on true incidents, that may leave you emotionally drained but truly moved.

To delve into the plot here would reveal too much. So I'll just say that the film is quite dark and deals with some very difficult subject matter that can be very hard to watch at times. I'll leave it to you to decide if you want to be more aware of the details by looking up a basic synopsis.

This is essentially a one-man show. While supporting cast members are all up to the challenge, Lucas is on on screen virtually every moment of the movie and its overall success rises or falls on his believability. Mikkelsen's delicately underplayed characterization of a man under fire likely won't be appreciated or understood by all viewers. His restrained performance is remarkable and does much to make The Hunt a haunting, memorable experience. Among the children, Annika Wedderkopp's portrayal of Klara is frighteningly brilliant. She steals every scene she's in.

The physical beauty of the production belies the ugliness beneath. Natural lighting is used to match the heights and depths of the kindergarten children's emotions. Their innocence is reflected in its intensity. When surrounded by love, they are glowing. The color palette is warm and inviting. As fear rises, they appear in shadow. The tableau turns increasingly darker as the narrative does.

This is a very quiet and thoughtful experience in many ways. Nikolaj Egelund's score is sparse. Editors Janus Billeskov Jansen and Anne Østerud keep the pace measured and deliberate. The focus is on the story. Long takes without dialogue are quite effective as so much is said in the eyes, in the faces, of Lucas, the kids, and townsfolk. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen allows the lush landscape of the Danish countryside to lull the viewer into a sense of peace, in contrast with the turmoil just under the surface, ready to jump out like a demon in a horror film. But these are real life nightmares, not the product of a genre writer's imagination, which chill to the bone.

Hollywood could never touch this subject and have anywhere near the impact. Backed independently by Swedish and Danish production companies, director Vinterberg actually intended to set and shoot the picture in Canada but better tax incentives and financing led him back to his native country of Denmark. It doesn't matter, though. This is the kind of isolated little village that can be found anywhere in the world.

"The Hunt" was easily the saddest film I've seen all year but in a cathartic way that only a great work of art can accomplish. It's a gritty and hard-hitting statement on our judgmental society that pulls no punches in its recounting of a controversial ripped-from-the-headlines story, repeated all too often in recent history, that's both poignant and polarizing in its authenticity.

It was difficult for me to hold back tears during the screening. I broke down several times. Many will be touched by certain scenes more than others, but "The Hunt" is one of the most affecting and emotional films I've ever seen and one of the best of 2012.
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Dead Europe (2012)
8/10
The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons
3 October 2012
Christos Tsiolkas' 2006 novel "Dead Europe" was a chilling tale of a young Australian photographer bringing his father's ashes back to his native Greece, where he begins to have some otherworldly experiences. Being Jewish, gay, and of Greek descent, the Aussie author weaves his own sexual and spiritual beliefs into the character of Isaac to craft a thoroughly believable narrative that resonated with readers worldwide.

Turning this award-winning book into a movie involved a set of serendipitous circumstances, as director Tony Krawitz explained in the Q&A following the screening here in Toronto. He got a call from his producer Liz Watts, telling him about a book by an Australian author that would make a good motion picture. In fact, Krawitz had just read Tsiolkas' novel a month earlier but Watts had no idea. It was one of those rare moments that could only be labeled "fateful." Adapting the book for the screen was the next challenge. Louise Fox, a hugely successful writer of over 100 Australian television movies and series episodes, was called upon to craft the script. The resulting film is a triumphant followup to director Tony Krawitz's 2005 feature debut "Jewboy." The picture contains some of the same frightening thematical elements as in Stephen King's novella "Apt Pupil," which director Bryan Singer turned into a controversial feature film in 1998 with Ian McKellan and Brad Renfro. But in "Dead Europe" the atrocities of World War II, most notably involving the treatment of Jews and gays, combined with Eastern European traditions of curses and mysticism, produce a much more chilling narrative a la Hitchcock and Serling than the Singer work with its notorious but subtle homoerotic undertones. Krawitz takes the paranormal aspect a giant leap further, along with a more overtly sexual storyline, resulting in an unflinching, often painful examination of one man's sad descent into the present-day horrors still being visited upon Europeans today, ostensibly as a result of their (and/or their descendants') past actions.

The film's success relies on the delicate pas-de-deux between Ewen Leslie as Isaac and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Josef, an enigmatic youngster who mysteriously wanders in and out of the Australian's increasingly-puzzling encounters. Leslie appeared in Krawitz's previous feature "Jewboy" and is an Aussie television veteran. He's in virtually every scene and captivates the screen with his swarthy aggression and self-confidence. Smit-McPhee wowed audiences as the boy Viggo Mortensen takes under his wing in "The Road" and as the naif Owen in "Let Me In," director Matt Reeves' American adaptation of the 2008 Swedish hit "Let the Right One In." The critical role of Josef, who had to be played by a young teen dealing with some very adult issues, went to Smit-McPhee on the basis of a series of Skype calls. Kodi convinced Krawitz that he was mature enough to tackle the provocative role. A paucity of dialogue means the actor's eyes need to say more than any words can, and few are better at that than him. A lesser actor would have stopped short of the dramatic edge he deftly walks, and Smit-McPhee turns in a tour de force performance that will haunt the viewer long after leaving the theater.

"Dead Europe" is a technical wonder to behold, with surprisingly high production values atypical of the grainy, cold appearance often found in Eastern European cinema (it's an Australian production but is set and shot on location). Clever interplays of light and shadow help mask the hidden dangers that lurk beneath. State of the art visual effects are employed, albeit sparingly, to help peel away the many layers of the strange world Isaac unwittingly discovers. Music supervisor Jenna Burns helps create a perfectly balanced genre soundtrack that adeptly weaves themes of horror with classic psychological thriller beats.

Germain McMicking's cinematography combines claustrophobic hand-held closeups with breathtaking exterior shots from Australia to Athens to Paris to Budapest, composing a European travelogue that both entices and frightens in the same moment. Numerous point-of-view shots help create tension and build paranoia, as the captivated viewer is drawn into Isaac's terrifying territory.

This is a uniquely European story to the extent that those residing there, more than anywhere, are living with the ghosts of the past. If the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons, it will happen in countries like Greece and France and Hungary, which gives the film a unique authenticity that's firmly rooted in historical reality. That chilling fact alone makes Isaac's journey credible enough to instill fear in the hearts of anyone who believes our actions may come back to haunt us. "Dead Europe" brings us into a world from which we cannot escape.
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On the Road (2012)
9/10
Kerouac's novel helped define and inspire a generation. The book remains a classic. The movie does it justice.
2 October 2012
It's hard not to have expectations when a movie is based on a classic novel like Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." So when the film opened with a rambling narrative that's all over the map, I became increasingly frustrated at what appeared to be overly random character development -- albeit somewhat necessary -- that was more continuous than transformative.

Jose Rivera's screenplay starts out scattered, like its characters, and I simply was not getting into it. At one point I was just lost. Then an epiphany. Suddenly I found myself becoming invested in these wandering souls, empathizing with them and their seemingly aimless plights. "All over the map?" "Lost?" The movie was mirroring the book on which it was based. It should be all over the road, because that's what the story is about. "On the Road" doesn't follow a traditional three-act structure, and it's not meant to. Once I had that lightbulb moment I began to settle into what, after the first half hour or so, became a captivating journey which so entrapped me in its grasp that by the closing credits I was crushed at having to bid adieu to this crew.

The film, like the novel, is told in first person from the perspective of Kerouac's alter ego Sal Paradise. The Second World War has just ended. Sal is a struggling New York writer (redundant?) in search of a story and he does what all authors are told -- he writes what he knows. But, aye, there's the rub. There's not much to mine. His sense of self isn't fully-formed yet, so he relies heavily on the advice and acceptance of his ne'er-do-well compatriot Dean Moriarty and a mix of lost souls stuck in the wandering generation between battle-scarred veterans and the yet-to-be Baby Boomers. Little defines them outside the mind-altering substances and jazz bars around which their lives revolve. Sal's was a life of sex and drugs and be-bop. He decides that the answers lie elsewhere, physically and metaphorically, so he heads out on the road -- in a quest for adventure and experiences to fill in the ellipses of his book and, in so doing, his mind.

As the narrator Sal, Sam Riley's perfectly underplayed performance helps define the movie. His cocky yet inquisitive nature allows him, and the viewer, to explore his curious relationships with a certain degree of acceptance. In so doing, we are less judgmental when encountering the often self-destructive exploits of Dean (Garrett Hedlund), sexual explorations of Carlo (Tom Sturridge), and Bohemian whims of Marylou (Kristen Stewart). Hedlund, Sturridge, and Stewart totally inhabit their characters. Marylou's role is significantly less vital in a male-centric story but Kristen Stewart pours everything she has into it. When Stewart is on screen she always delivers on her promise. Hedlund, even more than Riley, provides much of the heart and soul of the film. Sal sees his life more through Dean's druggy eyes than his own, and his emotions rise and fall on the occasional successes and, unfortunately, frequent failures of his beloved friend and mentor. One of the most unexpected surprises was the performance of British actor Tom Sturridge, almost unrecognizable as a free-spirited American poet seeking his sexual identity. His portrayal of Carlo Marx demonstrates why he's long overdue in entering the pantheon of our most talented young actors.

Critical in support, as the women who weave in and out of Sal's life, are Kirsten Dunst as Camille, Amy Adams as Jane, Alice Braga as Terry, and Elisabeth Moss as Galatea Dunkel. Pivotal male performances, although occasionally in a single scene along the way, are turned in by Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, Terrence Howard, and Rocky Marquette.

"On the Road" has the true look of a classic American indie from the start (and it's a France/Brazil co-production). Opening in late 1940s New York City, one can almost feel the gritty, grimy streets and smell the dirty, smoky air in the bars where the hipsters congregate. Within 15 minutes you feel like a good shower. Dim, single-point lighting enhances the mysterious, shadowy corners within which the characters lurk in search of meaning. The jazz soundtrack is perfectly matched to Sal's voice-over in iconic noir style.

Eric Gautier's passionate cinematography primarily relies on hand-held camera with extreme closeups. Together with François Gédigier's rapid-fire editing, the tight action and fast cuts emphasize the frenetic, manic episodes our protagonists experience. Once the crew hits the road, the viewer is treated to the occasional breathtaking shot of the American west in all its then-pristine pre-suburban glory. Long periods of quiet introspection are sprinkled throughout, the pace slows, and the viewer takes a breath and a mental pitstop before hitting the road again.

Emotions are all over the map as well, as Rivera's script turns poignant and sad one minute, comic the next, and often puzzling. But such is life in the world Kerouac creates, and we are just visiting. How can we fully comprehend everyone's actions when they don't understand themselves? Kerouac's novel helped define and inspire a generation to head out "on the road" and discover America and, in so doing, a piece of themselves. This filmed version has the potential to inspire a new generation to head out into the country's hinterlands -- there's still plenty of wilderness out there -- and discover something, whether within or without.

"On the Road" isn't just about a search for adventure in far off places. Not at all. It's also about a search for self, or selves in this case, and the characters aren't fully-formed because the people aren't. It's this reality that justifies the film's often rambling parallel story lines that are more stream-of-consciousness than linear narrative. But that's what Kerouac wrote, and Salles remains true to his vision. The book remains a classic. The movie does it justice.
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10/10
Sets a new benchmark for what the coming-of-age genre can accomplish
2 October 2012
"The Perks of Being a Wallflower" redefines the classic American coming-of-age story. Writer/director Steven Chbosky has raised the bar on the traditional adolescent drama, with an emotionally-charged narrative infused with just enough bold strokes of joy and heartbreak to set a new benchmark for what the genre can accomplish.

Based on Chbosky's own novel of the same name, the movie is about growing up in a tough and unforgiving world, yes, with its requisite lessons on overcoming obstacles. But it also touches on tragic notions of loss and grief, rarely explored in coming-of-age films with such mastery.

Chbosky has said that if viewers take away one message from the film, it's that "you are not alone." This seemingly simple thought can't come at a better time, as bullying and its often devastating consequences have dominated headlines in recent months.

The book's premise is deceptively straightforward. 15-year-old Charlie (Logan Lerman) keeps a diary of letters addressed to someone real or imagined. "Dear Friend," each entry begins, as he recalls his tumultuous high school days, celebratory one moment, heartbreaking the next, but always poignant and full of promise. The movie brings Charlie's writing to life, with a charming cadre of schoolmates (and the occasional peripheral adult) taking the stage as Charlie stands in the spotlight. It's an ideal structure for a narrative as free of boundaries as the promising world of the adolescent. Charlie is everyteen, we've all been there, or have we? The Perks of Being a Wallflower wanders down paths seldom seen on screen, into surprisingly shocking territory that challenges audiences to open their hearts.

The indie look and feel of the film is undeniable from the start. Single-point lighting is used effectively as a plot device. Charlie's face often appears split down the center, one side brightly lit, the other in soft shadow, mirroring his conflicted soul and sense of confusion, trapped between two worlds. Light falls gently on him when he's serene, more harshly in moments of crisis. The darkness hides the secrets he deftly keeps to himself as the narrative unfolds.

Audiences of all ages will be able to relate to the 80s modern rock soundtrack -- evocative songs you undoubtedly know and love, spanning generations from Boomers to today's teens. Sound design is brilliantly orchestrated with action timed perfectly to the music cues. Michael Brook's original score is appropriately minimal. Nothing needs to be underlined here in a story that has no filler or room to breathe. Not a frame is wasted on extended character development or conventional transitions in this visualization of Charlie's nonstop roller-coaster of a diary.

Andrew Dunn's stunning cinematography patiently engages the viewer, eschewing the hand-held shaky cam style so prevalent in the genre. His use of slow motion dolly shots brings us, literally, into Charlie's world. The boy's fear and sense of unease is heightened by intense closeups that reveal the bittersweet emptiness in his eyes. There's a lot more going on in that youthful head than he allows those around him to see, but even he isn't aware of it. We are but voyeurs, watching, examining, trying to make sense of Charlie's vulnerability and confusion.

Editor Mary Jo Markey's loving hand allows us to embrace the plot's twists and turns without skipping a beat. The pace is calm but deliberate, and it's clear that Dunn, Markey, and the rest of the production team are as devoted to Chbosky's vision as a boy experiencing his first romance. You only have one chance to get it right.

Chbosky has unquestionably assembled one of the most talented young ensemble casts in recent memory. As Charlie's love interest Sam, 22-year-old Emma Watson dominates the screen with the maturity and wisdom that only a polished veteran could bring to the role. Nina Dobrev, Julia Garner, and Mae Whitman are the free-spirited girls who surround Charlie and attempt to bring him to life. Their performances shine with an authenticity that is clearly rooted in passion for the material. On the male side, Johnny Simmons portrays football jock Brad, whose enigmatic personality figures prominently in the story in ways which will be left to the viewer. Nicholas Braun and Reece Thompson are standouts in support and much-needed comic relief.

As Charlie's would-be best friend Patrick, Ezra Miller is shockingly brilliant as a gay-go-lucky teen who lives life as if every day is his last. His joie de vivre is infectious and vacuums the pain out of anyone who comes near.

But "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" primarily rests on the shoulders of Logan Lerman. As Charlie, his ability to play down to 15 (he was 19 at the time) owes itself to a physical transformation he brings to every role -- in this case, widening his eyes and keeping an expressionless face that projects puppy dog innocence. His posture, walk, and pattern of speech all serve to underscore Charlie's youthful vulnerability. However "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" is remembered, wherever it stands in the pantheon of coming-of-age pictures, Lerman's authentic characterization of Chbosky's semi-autobiographical protagonist should stand as one of the most iconic adolescent portrayals of our time.

Some films are intensely personal, and that's as it should be. Art should move you, and you bring your own life experience to the table when considering it. "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" was so much more than I imagined. I expected to be moved but I had no idea where the film would take me. Whether or not you will be similarly affected is something you'll need to discover for yourself. I think you will.
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Disconnect (I) (2012)
10/10
A powerful "ripped from the headlines" experience that packs an emotional wallop
2 October 2012
The Internet has dramatically changed the world. That much we know. Our lives are better for it, on balance. But it's the other side of that scale, the harm caused by our web-connected lives, that is the weighty focus of "Disconnect." The damage that can be done, intentionally or not, has been well-documented. Writer Andrew Stern and director Henry Alex Rubin have selected several examples of the Internet age's unfortunate downside and crafted three compelling story lines, all based on actual cases. This common narrative structure will inevitably be called "Crash-like," but whether or not the stories connect isn't really the point of "Disconnect." The movie raises a danger sign that, if gone unheeded, will only result in more senseless tragedies -- countless lives ruined, innocent children lost -- and putting the spotlight on several unsuspecting victims of our Internet society makes for a powerful experience that packs an emotional wallop from opening credits to finale.

This is one of those films for which, as a non-spoiler reviewer, it's best for me to avoid the specifics of the script and who does what here. You'll have to discover that for yourself. But, needless to say, Disconnect is not the feel-good movie of the year. It's often sad and scary, dark and depressing at times, and knowing it's based on true stories makes it all the more devastating when we witness the consequences of our seemingly-innocuous actions when entering a chat room, looking for virtual companionship, playing a childish practical joke, or putting our personal information online.

Every actor in the huge ensemble cast, from adults to teens, is superb. Without giving away their exact roles, Jason Bateman does a dramatic star turn here as a caring father in an unfathomable situation. One of our most prolific and underrated actors, Bateman has appeared in 22 features since I began attending the Toronto Film Festival six years ago, including my fest faves "Juno" (Toronto 2007), "Up in the Air" (Toronto 2009), and "Paul" (SXSW 2011). As the commanding lead in one of Disconnect's three story lines, charismatic 23-year-old Max Thieriot dominates the screen in every scene he's in. Colin Ford (15 at the time) turns in one of the most heartwrenching youth performances I've seen in years as a typical mischievous youngster with a penchant for playing pranks. Other standouts include Paula Patton, Frank Grillo, Alexander Skarsgård, Jonah Bobo, Aviad Bernstein, Andrea Riseborough, and Hope Davis. All demonstrate a clear passion for the material and belief in Henry Alex Rubin's lofty vision. Your pulse should be checked if you don't shed a tear (or two, or more) during the viewing of this movie.

Production values are quite high for an independent film. Lighting subtly matches the tonal changes of each storyline. A warm color palette provides a soft amber glow around characters driven by affection. A family whose life is orderly and organized is bathed in white, with bright primary colors on flat surfaces with square geometric shapes and sharp angles. The milieu turns dark and shadowy as innocence turns to evil. Max Richter's haunting score similarly complements each disparate narrative as their respective characters are drawn deeper into the dilemmas they've created.

The cinematography is a character unto itself. Ken Seng's adept camera-work is consistently magnificent in its use of techniques like frame-within-a-frame, with shots peering through windows and doors as though we're voyeurs, faces often half obscured by laptops. Objects move in and out of frame, partially blocking our view, as though we're spying on the subjects. Point of view shots of computer and phone screens occupy much of the frame in many crucial scenes. The film is filled with such bold choices. All serve to enhance and echo the themes laid out by the broad premise of unintentional connections caused by the disconnect between our fingers on the keyboard and the humans at the other end.

Editor Lee Percy had the challenging task of making it all coherent. Knowing where and when to cut, whether or not to weave the stories together or keep them parallel, when to converge and diverge -- these are all crucial decisions that are key to the success of the project.

"Disconnect" sits near the top of all the pictures I've seen this year and is one of the few which prompted me to utter the word "masterpiece" quietly as the credits rolled. As one tends to have intense feelings about a film in its immediate afterglow, I often wait for the emotional excitement to die down before writing my review and assessing its impact. "Disconnect" haunted me throughout the rest of the festival and has continued to do so. Will a movie like this alter the way we interact with technology? Probably not. But one less life shattered will make it worth it.
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8/10
Noir thriller-cum-coming-of-age dramatic comedy that delights
12 July 2012
Star Adir Miller plays Holocaust survivor Yankele Bride, a shady matchmaker with some mysterious operations on the side. He takes on a wide-eyed young apprentice, Arik (Tuval Shafir), who just wants an easy summer job. Naturally, the boy gets more than he bargained for in this classic tale of an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation.

Miller, a veteran television actor, writer, and producer, is captivating (and a dead ringer for Vincent D'Onofrio). He dominates the screen, masterfully orchestrating the actors, and action, in every scene he's in. Shafir plays the streetwise assistant with a magnetic vulnerability that charms everyone who crosses his path. He's quite experienced himself as a teen idol in his native country, having grown up on Israeli TV as the star of a long-running hit series.

Writer/director Avi Nesher is a true veteran (this is his 16th feature), and it shows. Production values are high, befitting a director considered an icon of Israeli cinema. Veteran cinematographer Michel Abramowicz effectively captures the dramatic landscape of this Mediterranean port city, filled with bright blue skies, lush vegetation, and sweeping mountain vistas. "The Matchmaker" uses multiple locations, both exterior as well as interior. Arik's youthful world is brightly lit with a vibrant primary color palette -- not the pale, washed out blues and grays typical of modestly budgeted European films. In contrast, the seedy underbelly of the city within which Yankele operates is ominously dark and dusty, filled with shadows and potential dangers lurking around every corner.

Although set in Haifa in 1968, "The Matchmaker" could easily be a classic American noir thriller-cum-coming-of-age dramatic comedy. The evocative soundtrack of original late 60s songs is a plus (Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride," Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit"). Definitely worth repeat viewings.
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