Monday, September 17, 2018

‘Green Book’ opens to awards talk as TIFF People’s Choice winner

By now you might have heard that Peter Farrelly’s Green Book was named the “Grolsch People’s Choice Award” winner at yesterday’s closing ceremony for the 43rd annual Toronto International Film Festival.

What you might not know is how the prize probably sets up the extremely entertaining pairing of Viggo Mortensen, as a kind of Copa bouncer-turned driver, and Mahershala Ali, as a brilliant but eccentric musician, for end-of-year award possibilities.

I mean, nine of the last 10 “People’s” choices have gone on to earn Best Picture Oscar nominations, including Academy Award winners Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech and 12 Years a Slave. Those latter two entries also won acting Oscars for at least one of its principles, as did TIFF-winning Precious, Silver Linings Playbook, Room, La La Land and last year’s “People’s” winner, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which brought home Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor victories.
Here are some personal choices among more than 30 TIFF movies seen:

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali dominate "Green Book."
Favorite films: The people got it right again with Green Book, whether you call it “The Sopranos Meets Driving Miss Daisy” or appreciate its sad but true tale of racism in the early ‘60s, it says here that it will go down as the “Hidden Figures” of 2018. A Star is Born is another one that will grab you from the get-go, as first-time director and co-writer Bradley Cooper keeps the best of the 1954 and 1976 versions to fashion a crowd-pleaser for today.

Very good ones to see: Destroyer (with Nicole Kidman as a tortured and relentless cop); Free Solo (“The People’s Choice” for Best Documentary keeps you almost breathless watching Alex Honnold climb mountains alone, without ropes);  The Sister Brothers (a funny and violent western with a heart, sort of); and Widows (Steve McQueen’s first film since “12 Years a Slave” soars with a remarkable cast in a terrific crime caper).

A couple whose length got in the way: Alfonso Cuaron’s sleepy Roma, and Damien Chazelle’s technically grand, but emotionally lacking First Man.

Wish I’d seen ‘em: “People’s Choice” runner-up If Beale Street Could Talk (from “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins), and doc runner-up The Biggest Little Farm, which everyone seemed to be raving about.

Sorry I did: The Front Runner. Didn’t we see enough of politician Gary Hart 35 years ago? Besides, its first half never shuts up, and the second half rarely says anything.

Actors’ accolades: Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born), Viggo Mortensen (Green Book), Robert Redford (The Old Man & the Gun), and John C. Reilly (The Sisters Brothers)

Actress attention: Viola Davis (Widows), Lady Gaga (A Star is Born), Nicole Kidman (Destroyer), and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Superior support: Mahershala Ali (Green Book). Elizabeth Debicki (Widows), Sam Elliott (A Star is Born), Claire Foy (First Man), and Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)             

Best Party: The Blue Ice Pictures event at a sensationally swanky restaurant called Copetin, whose chef apparently is a judge on “Master Chef Canada.” Certainly the food was to die for; then there was a vodka called Beattie’s (from a little potato farm in Alliston, Ontario) that recently won the 2018 World Beverage Competition. Very smooth!

Olivier Assayas' "Non-Fiction" stars Juliette Binoche and Guillaume Canet. 
A typically TIFF tale: When Festival Director and CEO Piers Handling, who is stepping down after 25 years, introduced director and screenwriter Olivier Assayas before the screening of his Non-Fiction last week, the French helmer never even discussed his film, a literate comedy about book publishing in the digital age.
Instead, Assayas, who has placed an astounding dozen movies at the Toronto Festival since 1989, chose to praise Handling “for (your) support, generosity and understanding of our work.”
The filmmaker then turned his attention toward the sold-out crowd with, “who would believe that you’d see a full house at a movie screening at 9:30 in the morning on a Wednesday?  It doesn’t happen anywhere else, and that’s why we all love coming to Toronto.”
Assayas was right on both counts: Handling’s leadership has been essential to the growth of TIFF into its world-class standing, and audience response – to every film shown -- is nothing short of phenomenal, not for just one weekend, but for an entire 10-day run every September.
Their enthusiasm must be seen to be believed. And, of course, so does the quality of their films. Information on any and all of them, including an entire list of award-winners, remains available at Otherwise, that’s a wrap from TIFF 43! 

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

We're headed for Toronto and so is the last film in: 'A Private War'

TORONTO — TIFF announced today that Matthew Heineman’s "A Private War' will make its world premiere at the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, Sept. 14, at Roy Thomson Hall — joining the Festival’s Gala Presentations lineup.

The movie marks the feature narrative debut of critically acclaimed director Matthew Heineman ("Cartel Land," "City of Ghosts"), whose previous work in documentary filmmaking has earned him an Academy Award nomination, two Primetime Emmy Awards, and two DGA wins for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary Award.

Rosamund Pike stars in "A Private War," last flick in at TIFF 43.
"A Private War," a biopic based on the true story of award-winning war correspondent Marie Colvin, stars Rosamund Pike ( "Gone Girl," "Hostiles") in one of her most intense roles to date. Based on a "blistering" 2012 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, the drama follows Colvin to the front lines of conflicts around the globe as she risks everything to reveal the truth. Pike is joined by a supporting cast that includes Jamie Dornan ("The Fall," "Fifty Shades of Grey"), Stanley Tucci ("The Lovely Bones," "Spotlight"), and Tom Hollander ("The Night Manager").

The film is the last of almost 260 features added to a solid, star-studded lineup that runs from Thursday night, with the world premiere of "Outlaw King," through Sept. 16 when the festival closes with "Jeremiah Terminator Leroy." If it means anything, the final film added to the Toronto festival agenda at this time last year was "Roman J. Israel, Esq." which earned a Best Actor nod for Denzel Washington.

By the way, yours truly will be attending TIFF for a 25th consecutive year. Watch for a wrap-up here in mid-September and follow my regular reports from Toronto at (Coverage will be linked continuously at left.)

Friday, August 24, 2018

'Happytime Murders' brings no joy to Muppetland in a late-August misfire

Mixing silly and mostly tasteless film noir with an Agatha Christie-like plot certainly does no favors for an extremely R-rated band of Muppet relatives in “The Happytime Murders,” a rag-tag comedy whose late-August release blends perfectly with its ineptitude.

McCarthy and partner Phil Philips chase clues among the clueless.
I mean, there are maybe two big laughs in the whole shebang. A very loud one is produced right at the outset when a put-upon puppet shouts a well-placed expletive at an L.A. creep who rudely pushes him away from the cab each is trying to hail. Coming about an hour later, there's a gross, yet perfectly timed warning about the mirror being used to snort sugar, believe it or not, the drug of choice in a dirty den masquerading as a crack house.

Otherwise, there's nothing remotely perfect about some of the year's most incoherent screenwriting and a pair of totally outrageous sight gags -- both of which can be called sexually explicit, even as performed by some other puppets in a LaLa universe where humans treat them like scum-stained socks.

The most amazing -- and disappointing -- aspect of it all is that the guy pulling the strings here is director Brian Henson (who previously helmed so-so films called "The Muppet Christmas Carol" and "Muppet Treasure Island"). Of course, Brian is the son of the late Jim Henson, creator of all those lovable Muppets (including Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy), not to mention the education-oriented gang featured on PBS-TV's long-running and equally embraced "Sesame Street."

Now, we all know that the elder Henson always sought out a more adult audience, including by introducing those odd-looking creatures on "The Land of Gorch" sketches in a few very early episodes of "Saturday Night Live." What is so hard to believe about the current "Murders," though, is that Jim Henson actually would allow such poorly executed cinema to hit the big screen.

This is just shoddy filmmaking, folks, despite a premise that could and should have been a laugh riot, particularly with its (anti)hero, foul-mouthed puppet private eye Phil Philips, looking like a cross between Harvey Keitel and Count von Count (from the aforementioned "Sesame Street").

Longtime Muppet vocal whiz Bill Barretta effectively gives raunchy resonance to "disgraced" ex-cop Phil, investigating a string of serial murders opposite an assortment of allegedly real actors: Leslie David Baker, Elizabeth Banks, Joel McHale, Maya Rudolph, Michael McDonald and, primarily, Melissa McCarthy. By the way, Ms. McCarthy now has been credited as a producer on four consecutive largely humorless comedies.

Rated “R”: strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material; 1:31; $ and ½ out of $5

Friday, August 17, 2018

'Scotty' and 'McQueen' docs boost today's movie scene; 'Mile 22' does not

Did you ever wonder about the sex lives of some of your favorite old movie stars? Of course you haven't! But you will, if and when you see an engaging little film called "Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood," one of two documentaries opening here today.

Personable Bowers and his longtime wife still live in not-so-secret Hollywood.
Spencer Tracy and (alleged longtime love) Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Walter Pidgeon, Charles Laughton, Rock Hudson, Lana Turner, Cary Grant and considerably more are among a long list of famous movie names associated with the titled "Scotty" Bowers, a WWII veteran-turned "pimp for the stars."

As based on Bowers' 2012 best seller, "Full Service," the doc claims that Pidgeon pulled into a Hollywood Boulevard gas station one fateful afternoon, took a liking to the handsome Marine working there, and offered him a ride that would change Scotty's life forever.

The way director Matt Tyrnauer tells it, Bowers basically got the idea to start hooking up movie stars with vets like himself after his own fling with fellow bisexual Pidgeon, and that meant all comers in both sexes. Most importantly for Bowers, who has been telling his story on various legitimate TV and radio talk shows for years now, is how he kept his life and loves secret throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood, when spilling the beans would have ruined careers, if not an entire industry.

Certainly his conquests -- and clients -- now all long gone, owe him a debt of gratitude. Currently well into his '90s, and given show biz's penchant for hyperbole, Bowers actually might be called a legitimate living legend. In fact, seeing how the man still putters around with what his wife of 35 years calls "a constant twinkle in his eye," such ongoing good nature somehow even lends credence to what unfolds in this fascinatingly well-told film.

Not rated: 1:37; $ $ $ $ out of $5

On the other hand, if fashion keeps you more involved than gossip, then the dark-tinged "McQueen," a second bio doc making its debut appearance today on northeast Ohio screens, might be more your movie cup of tea.

"McQueen" works best when fashion is at his fingertips. 
This one showcases the relatively brief career of young and outrageous designer Lee Alexander McQueen, a hip Londoner who founded his own label in 1992 after rising from the ranks of tailor and even before working as the chief designer at Paris-based Givenchy for five years.

The shadiness of it all comes from the creative mind that made significant splashes with an assortment of collections inspired by the likes of Jack the Ripper, books about the murder of women and even the sordid crime of rape. It's no wonder McQueen was called "the hooligan of English fashion," but his own personal tragedy, which included mental illness and addiction, are revealed as well.

Together it all becomes a mostly absorbing analysis of facts, offered up by friends and family, easily mixed with many good-looking film remembrances of McQueen's still-famous signature fashions.

Rated "R": language and nudity; 1:51; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Meanwhile, in the realm of mainstream action candy, Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg continue their movie bromance with "Mile 22," the fourth and, perhaps, least appealing pairing of the producer/director with his certified producer/star.

Unlike "Lone Survivor," "Deepwater Horizon," and "Patriot Games," their latest collaboration is not based on actual events, although it might play like it is with a lengthy pre-credits sequence that has Wahlberg's tough-as-nails secret squad of CIA types taking out seven KGB operatives on American soil.

Wahlberg shoots but rarely scores in "Mile 22."
From there Berg moves us into "Indcocarr City" (allegedly in Southeast Asia) where, now 16 months later, Wahlberg keeps acting like a total nut job in barking out commands and asides during a prelude to moving an "asset" (played by Iko Uwais from "The Raid" films, both much sharper pictures). Naturally, the trip  to an airfield and apparent safety takes the titular 22 miles.

Team members along for the weapons-heavy, ultra-violent ride include Lauren Cohan (TV's "Walking Dead") and former MMA-turned WWE badass Ronda Rousey who, honestly, probably should stick to her day job.

Cohan, though, as a rugged mom very anxious to return home to her little girl, and martial artist extraordinaire Uwais combine to nearly save the day, at least in terms of making the movie-going experience something more than gaping at an oddly edited mish-mash of motion (without the "e").

Rated "R": strong language and violence throughout; 1:30; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Two more world premieres open and close 43rd annual TIFF

Pine stars as Scottish "Outlaw King" Robert the Bruce.
"Outlaw King," David Mackenzie’s much-anticipated period drama chronicling the rise of a 14th-century Scottish hero, has been announced as the Opening Night Gala Presentation at the 43rd annual Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, Sept. 6.

This epic David-versus-Goliath tale reunites award-winning director Mackenzie ("Starred Up," "Young Adam") with his "Hell or High Water" actor Chris Pine, who takes on the starring role of  legendary Scottish king Robert the Bruce leading a band of outlaws to reclaim the throne from the clutches of the English crown and its army. The film also stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Florence Pugh, and Billy Howle.

“TIFF’s Opening Night Film tells a powerful story that is rich in drama, excitement, romance, and adventure,” Piers Handling, Director & CEO of TIFF, said this morning. "Audiences are promised a thrilling journey back in time, as David Mackenzie masterfully unwraps history with taut dramatic flare and brings to life the true story of a real Scottish hero."

Dern and Stewart co-star in this year's TIFF Closing Night film.
The closing night film, also announced today, is "Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy," from director Justin Kelly and based on one of the most famous literary gambits in American history. The true story "goes beyond the headlines to reveal the most compelling literary hoax of our generation," with Laura Dern starring as an author who writes under a fictionalized persona, a disenfranchised young queer man named JT LeRoy. The movie also stars Kristen Stewart, Diane Kruger, Jim Sturgess, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Courtney Love, James Jagger, and Dave Brown.

“I am beyond honored that my film will premiere at TIFF as the Closing Night Film,” Kelly said in a festival press release. “I can’t wait for people to see the fascinating true story behind JT LeRoy, brought to life via incredible performances by a total dream cast.”

The 43rd Toronto International Film Festival runs from Sept. 6-16. For film synopses, cast lists, images, and more information, see Festival tickets go on sale Sept. 3.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

'Predator' and 'Halloween' get Midnight Madness treatment at TIFF

TORONTO — Midnight Madness has just announced its lineup for the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival, including world premieres of "The Predator" and "Halloween." Screening to an audience of die-hard film fans every evening at 11:59 p.m., the 2018 program also features eight other "quintessential genre movies that are guaranteed to either terrorize or mesmerize."

“This year’s Midnight Madness slate promises another idiosyncratic confluence of established and emerging genre filmmakers,” said Midnight Madness Programmer Peter Kuplowsky.  “That includes the section’s two much-anticipated sequels,  'The Predator' and 'Halloween', each of which boldly and brilliantly builds upon its mythic iconography to thrilling and surprising effect.”

Shane Black’s 'The Predator,' the director’s reinvention of the iconic film series, will begin the series on festival Opening Night, Sept. 6. "Halloween," directed by David Gordon Green and starring Jamie Lee Curtis, follows later in the festival and features one final confrontation with serial slasher Michael Myers.

Michael Myers in "Halloween" and "The Predator" will get world premieres at this year's Toronto Film Festival.

The program closes with the North American premiere of "Diamantino," Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s bizarre, genre-bending film that fascinated audiences at Cannes earlier this year.

Midnight Madness also will present the North American premiere of "the electrifying" Gaspar NoĆ©’s "Climax"; Peter Strickland’s highly anticipated "In Fabric," which follows the life of a cursed dress; the Canadian premiere of "Assassination Nation," directed by Sam Levinson, and Vasan Bala’s "The Man Who Feels No Pain," the first Indian film ever selected for TIFF's Midnight Madness.
All 10 MM films are listed here.                                                       

Friday, August 3, 2018

Pooh and pals help 'Robin' fly, but 'Minds' remains more vacant than dark

McGregor's "Robin" shares a balloon adventure with Winnie-the-Pooh.
The 2018 dog days of August movies begin today, with a decent Disney family offering easily topping a teen centric sci-fi flick we've seen way too many times before.

The former, the A.A Milne-based "Christopher Robin," stars Ewan McGregor as the grown-up title character, but it's childhood friends Winnie-the-Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet and Tigger stealing the cinematic thunder.

Those same pals threw a melancholy going-away party for Robin near the end of Milne's classic "The House at Pooh Corner," and a sweet similar  gathering actually starts proceedings here (after some equally neat illustrations during the opening credits).

The farewell picnic in the famous Hundred Acre Wood occurs because young Chirstopher is being sent to boarding school. Then, next thing we know, he turns into McGregor's workaholic adult, who's concentration on fixing things at a stuffy luggage firm seriously keeps him away from his lovely wife (Hayley Atwell) and loving daughter (Bronte Carmichael).

Re-enter Pooh (the nifty bear voiced perfectly by Jim Cummings), along with the rest of his collection of CGI-stuffed animal chums, to maybe save the day -- and a marriage -- even if it's all a lot of fantasy fluff.

Certainly small fry won't care or notice, for that matter, while longtime followers of Pooh might be surprised how the bear-tinged humor gets served up with so much respect.

Rated "PG": for some action; 1:45; $ $ $ out of $5 

On the other hand, nothing really works well in "The Darkest Minds," which plays like a Saturday morning kids' show, complete with TV-level production values, shoddy special effects and Mandy Moore (NBC's "This Is Us").

Moore meets Stenberg's mysterious Ruby in "Minds."
We mention Moore, who only has a supporting role here, because two of her most recent releases, "47 Meters Down" (2017) and "Swinging with the Finkels" (2011), each landed with heavy August thuds. Expect "Minds" to do the same, especially since its abrupt finale literally erases everything that came previously for two of its most appealing characters in an obvious reach for franchise possibilities.

The film stars Amandla Steinberg (from "The Hunger Games," speaking of franchises), Harris Dickinson (TV's "Trust" miniseries), and Skylan Brooks as three "special," on-the-run survivors of  a worldwide mystery event that killed 90 percent of the world's kids.

Of course, the cause of it all never gets explained and, unless we read the Alexandra Bracken young adult novel on which it's based, it says here we'll likely never know.

Rated "PG-13": violence including disturbing images and thematic elements; 1:43; $ $ out of $5