12-years-a-slave-TIFF-review

Based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free northern man who was kidnapped and sold into bondage in the 1840s, 12 Years a Slave doesn’t shy away from the horrific aspects of a slave trade that existed for hundred of years, sweeping up more than 12 million souls. Familial separation, abuse, torture, the idea that the slaves were no better than beasts; it’s all laid bare for the audience to witness.

Though not a “light” film by any measure, this is a well-executed drama dealing with a horrific historical occurrence. Director Steve Mcqueen has proven that he’s a burgeoning young auteur, a vibrant force that should deliver us a slew of great films in the decades to come. Just as with his previous film, Shame, this is a gutting experience, and McQueen, as channeled through the extremely capable cast of Chewitel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt, crafts a two-hour story that can’t help but leave you drained as the credits come up. Read More »

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TIFF Review: ‘Gravity’ Soars Above the Rest

GRAVITY

Director Alfonso Cuarón is finally back, and he’s showing us truly amazing things.

Gravity is a technical marvel, an optical treat of the highest order. However, it can also lay claim to being one hell of a narrative, combining genius-level visuals with a taut script; the end result coming together as something really special. On the face of it, it’s the story of two NASA astronauts on a mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, and the obstacles they’ll have to overcome to survive in space. Really, Gravity is the age-old set-up in which humankind attempts to operate in an environment designed to kill. Indeed, though a far different film than Children of Men, both thematically and in terms of scope, Cuarón has created another film with weight, resonance, and a strong sense of style.

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock easily carry this briskly paced film, Bullock in particular (as Mission Specialist Ryan Stone). She turns in a remarkable performance, more textured and compelling than anything we’ve seen from her prior, including The Blind Side. Making the hostile setting of space the focal point of a film certainly comes with a huge element of risk, but I’m pleased to say everyone involved pulled it off. They’ve made a 90-minute cinematic gift for us.

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fifthestate

The Fifth Estate is an extremely strange movie. That’s fitting, perhaps, given the central focus of the film: Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Star Benedict Cumberbatch is his normal awesome presence, but the story itself should have been redacted.

As a story attempting to encapsulate massive cultural questions regarding government secrecy, privacy rights, dictators, and the misuse of power, it would seem that The Fifth Estate had everything teed up to be a vitally important film. That it doesn’t end up getting there is likely the fault of a weak script or lesser directing, because Cumberbatch, as Julian Assange, comes off pretty great. Yes, the Cumberbatch was willing, but the muddled mess of The Fifth Estate isn’t able to stitch together anything nearing cohesion, even with these significant built-in advantages. Read More »

The themes of Cloud Atlas are legion, and the 160 minutes the film spans are epic. Six or seven plots are considered, depending how you define your storylines, and the time period ranges from 1849 to somewhere 400 years into the distant future. What I’m getting at here is the grandness of the scope, the giantess of the spectacle, the massive overarching ambition of the work. Co-writers and directors Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski have delivered a weighty film tome for our analysis, and I have a feeling this one is going to be spurring conversations for years to come.

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Brave Logo Art

This weekend saw the release of Pixar’s latest film, Brave, a movie that easily won the weekend, garnering an overall “A” CinemaScore from appreciative audiences. Still, at only 74 percent on RottenTomatoes (Pixar’s second worst), and a 7 out of 10 from Germain Lussier, it is clear there is a bit of room for dissent.

Out there in audience-land, did you notice something a little “off” about Brave? Perhaps there are lessons that can be learned, or conversations to engage in?

To provide some context, and on the off chance we have completely different taste, here are my top five Pixar efforts:

1. WALL-E
2. Up
3. Toy Story
4. Finding Nemo
5. Monsters, Inc.

Until now, the only Pixar film I flat out didn’t enjoy was Ratatouille, though I admit to only having seen it once, and folks say I’d like it much more if I were to re-visit. Even Cars 2 had redeeming qualities. I can truly say I’ve never found a Pixar film entirely lacking, and that statement includes Brave. There’s no question the film had amazing visuals, setting a new standard for excellence within the animation genre. Unfortunately, the story lacked a bit of … what’s the word I’m looking for? Ooomph. As such, I’m compelled to break down where I feel the problems were, if only to restore everyone’s favorite animation house to the glory they so richly deserve.

One final note, just to head off the obligatory “comparing Brave to the rest of Pixar’s work isn’t entirely fair” argument, we’re in complete agreement there. It’s not fair, and in many ways Pixar’s own ambition and commitment to excellence have raised the bar for all movies. So no, Brave isn’t a bad movie on merit, it’s merely an average one, which animation houses make all the time without compelling anyone to write a 3,000 word article on the subject. But within the greater context of Pixar’s previous work, Brave does come up short, and I think we’ve got a bead on the reasons why.

Note: Massive SPOILERS follow, naturally.

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The 15 Big Ideas in Prometheus

Prometheus is going to be a controversial film. As a prequel to Alien, and a “summer” movie, it has a certain suspense / horror / sci-fi pedigree that generally belies serious conversation. There’s no particular reason Prometheus should have “big” themes running through it, any more than Battleship or MIB 3 would, except for the salient fact that we believe director Ridley Scott has embedded some interesting nuggets throughout, much as he did with Blade Runner.

So what are these “big” ideas? What are the questions and themes Prometheus tackles throughout its two-hour running time? We’ll start with the easy ones, and then progress toward the more philosophical questions.

Note: Massive thematic SPOILERS follow, naturally. Read More »

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