Festival flicks take viewers on journey of tragedy and suspense

Everything from the horror film mother! to the Darkest Hour drama graced the TIFF screens

Especially in its frenzied first days, the Toronto International Film Festival is a thing of beauty. There’s a sense that most of Hollywood—meaning the stars, directors, producers, publicists, critics, bloggers and even everyday Angelenos—migrates north of the border, at least for a time.

Lines regularly stretch across whole blocks as people gather in astonishing numbers. Sometimes, they spend hours waiting to see a movie that’s captured their attention, even when the odds of getting in are next to none.

With seemingly more people in attendance every year, you have to wonder how much a single festival can grow—especially one that’s based in the downtown of an already busy city. Logistical issues are to be expected—delays are the norm, and some screenings carry an air of unpredictability.

The first screening of Loveless on Sept. 7, for instance, was marked by an unusual occurrence. The Cannes-winning film, by Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, had to be restarted when organisers noticed there were no English subtitles. The audience was then made to rewatch the opening scenes—painfully slow-paced the second time around and, ironically, dialogue-free.

Luckily that took nothing away from the powerful film that followed. To call it a drama wouldn’t do it justice; it aspires for tragedy on an almost metaphysical level. Although the premise is fairly simple, the audience is made to feel like there’s more to the film than what they can grasp.

A man and his wife have fallen out of love and are going through a divorce. Neither seems overly excited about the prospect of caring for their 12-year-old son, who, in a nasty shouting match, is described as a burden. We observe the boy’s reaction as he overhears the exchange, his mouth widening in a silent scream. The next day, he eats his breakfast, exits the house and disappears.

The rest of the film follows the parents’ search for the boy, assisted by a group of dedicated volunteers. What may come as a surprise, if you’re familiar with Zvyagintsev’s previous works such as Elena and Leviathan, is the dark humour which carries the first part of the film. Perhaps it could be attributed to the attitude of the main characters, who remain oblivious to their son’s feelings until he decides to act on them. There’s a sense of pervading absence, an emptiness of feeling that renders the search grim and nearly hopeless. The director excels at creating ambiguity, leaving many open ends and a sense of dread that lingers long after the film ends.

The festival was studded with directors, fans and stars like Jake Gyllenhaal (pictured here). Photos by Elijah Bukreev.

Another fantastic picture screened at TIFF was Joe Wright’s eagerly awaited Darkest Hour. It is an examination of Winston Churchill’s first days as prime minister, in which he struggles with a choice between seeking peace with Germany or pursuing a potentially annihilating war.

The man is played by a fully transformed Gary Oldman, a performance that all representations of Churchill will now be measured against. Taking occasional liberties with the facts for dramatic purposes, the film reflects on an individual’s ability to shape history. It is infused with Churchill’s well-remembered wit and beautifully shot by Bruno Delbonnel.

Delbonnel’s style is often evocative of 18th-century painting, proving that he is a master of colour and lighting. It’s easy to imagine the film as a companion piece to Dunkirk, to which it will inevitably be compared. It is also something of a mirror image to Downfall, which depicted Hitler’s final days.

Wright had already created unforgettable Word War II scenes in Atonement, and here he draws the viewer into the conflict through the eyes of the British government. Churchill is strongly disliked at first, and the existential threat that the country faces does not impede any customary political games. He is evidently a figure of fascination for the director. The camera rarely leaves Churchill’s side, sometimes framing him as a man in complete isolation. This gives Darkest Hour an effective theatrical feel, and makes it a superb character study that reflects not only our evolving view of history, but also the current political anxieties which may colour your perception of the film.

If there is one final mention to make, it has to be mother!. The oddly titled new picture from the masterful Darren Aronofsky is a divisive film that has infuriated some and delighted others.

A much sharper and altogether more accomplished biblical allegory than the filmmaker’s heavy-handed Noah, mother! conveys the feeling of an extended fever dream, much like a nightmare scene from Black Swan extended to feature length.

Set in a secluded Victorian house, it follows an obsessive poet (Javier Bardem) and his young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) who must deal with the arrival of a number of unannounced guests with unexpected consequences.

The focus of the film is on Lawrence’s character, who is subjected to increasing tension. Rejecting any kind of realism, the film progresses like a raging wildfire, climaxing in a scene of utter destruction. Those hoping for conventional horror are bound for disappointment, as this is an artful mind game that defies traditional storytelling.

It is an experience both intensely creepy and thoroughly entertaining. The film unfolds with a dose of humour, taking great pleasure in creating multiple levels of meaning with every turn. Sure to provoke heated debates and fanatical analysis, mother! is an absolute success. A puzzling, unpredictable and uniquely cinematic treat.

While mother! is already out in theatres, most of the films screened at TIFF will take longer to get to you. When they do, you should also look out for Joachim Trier’s stunningly shot Thelma and Martin McDonagh’s gripping Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri.

Photo by Elijah Bukreev


Oscars predictions: Who will bring home the gold?

The Concordian’s film critic-in-residence gives his two cents about the upcoming Academy Awards

If you’re like me, there are few things you find as enjoyable as indulging in the entirely pointless, but enormously thrilling game of predicting the Oscars. The nominations aren’t as hard to predict, but only one can win in each category, so you either get it right or you don’t. Nervous? Just think of the eternal glory and bragging rights you will get with every correct guess. So let’s take a brief look at the main categories.

Best Picture

The big winner of the night hasn’t been this easy to predict in years—it can only be La La Land. The picture got a historic 14 nominations, which means that, if a different film were to win, it could be the biggest snub in Oscar history. Just like nothing could sink James Cameron’s Titanic, Damien Chazelle’s musical masterpiece is simply unstoppable. For all other categories in which La La Land is the nominee, it can safely be expected to win.

Best Director

Although there have been splits between Best Picture and Best Director in the last few years, the incredible support for La La Land could guarantee its success in both categories. That would make Chazelle the youngest Oscar-winning director ever—and he completely deserves the honour.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

This is one category La La Land is unlikely to win. The ongoing race is between Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea and Denzel Washington for Fences. The younger Affleck brother is the current frontrunner for his moving, subtle performance as a man consumed by guilt and internal anguish. But should the Academy go with Washington, he would join a very small club of three-time acting Oscar winners.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

And now back aboard the La La Land train. The competition in this category is absolutely staggering—heavyweight Annette Benning couldn’t even manage a nomination—but Emma Stone, being the emotional anchor of her film, is expected to win. You might also want to watch out for Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy in Jackie —it’s the type of role the Academy usually adores.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

After two years of noted absence, African-American actors are back in the Oscar race, dominating the supporting categories. Mahershala Ali is the favourite here, for a memorable part in the wonderful Moonlight. While it’s easy to root for this likeable performer, it’s okay to hope the Academy gives due consideration to Jeff Bridges as a sheriff in Hell or High Water, and even more so to Michael Shannon as another, more sinister sheriff in the underrated Nocturnal Animals.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

This Oscar belongs to Viola Davis already. She came close to winning for brilliant roles in 2008’s Doubt and 2011’s The Help, and the third time’s going to be the charm. She outdid herself in Fences, consistently stealing scenes and proving herself to be one of the finest talents of our time.

Best Original Screenplay

For a long time, it seemed like Manchester by the Sea was a sure winner here—musicals don’t win in the screenplay categories, we were told—but La La Land has emerged as the alternative. Here’s to the musical that could.

Best Adapted Screenplay

If there’s one film to even remotely challenge La La Land in the Best Picture race, it’s Moonlight. The movie, after all, comes as a powerful response to the call for diversity that has challenged the Academy in recent years. While its odds of winning in most categories are all but hopeless, the three-part story of a gay African-American young man making his way through life, which is adapted from an unpublished play, deserves to be celebrated for its unique and insightful screenplay.


A look back at some 2016 silver screen successes

Despite some rough seas for the film industry, there were some hidden gems

The year 2016 came and went like a hurricane, leaving many dumbstruck film fans from the unusually high list of casualties within the film industry. But, as hurricanes do, the year also washed ashore hidden gems and treasures—let’s look at the ones to be most thankful for.

  1. Paterson

Who, other than Jim Jarmusch, could have made a film this quiet, profound, ironic and heartfelt about a bus driver whose uneventful existence is enriched only by his poetry writing, which, perhaps, no one will ever read? Adam Driver nails the part, making a return to independent filmmaking after becoming a household name for his role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This one is about as far from intergalactic warfare as you can get. So if you’re currently feeling any Jedi and superhero fatigue—hop right in.

  1. 10 Cloverfield Lane

This is a loosely-connected sequel to the 2008 found-footage film, Cloverfield. No one saw it coming and few wanted it until it was here, yet what a pleasant surprise it turned out to be. A tense and claustrophobic mystery-drama, it improves upon the marketing-savvy original on every possible level. It plays out like a feature-length version of a Twilight Zone episode. You walk into it lost and wide-eyed, much like the film’s heroine, and even when you think you have the story figured out, you don’t. You never want to blink as you watch John Goodman’s sublimely ambiguous and terrifying character lead you through the rat maze.

  1. Finding Dory

Now here’s a sequel that few saw coming but everyone wanted. So did it live up to the original? Maybe not, but, like Monsters University in 2013, it offers a sweet reunion with characters we grew up loving. It’s not so much a continuation as it is a side story, told with the usual winning ingredients of a Pixar film: as-yet-unsurpassed animation and uproarious humour and emotion that creeps up on you before you know it.

  1. Hail, Caesar!

This is a Coen brothers film, so you can expect things to be more complicated than they appear. Senselessly over-complicated even, to the continued incredulity of the characters. Whether you want to contemplate the philosophical questions buried within the texture of the film or simply enjoy it as a zany period comedy is entirely up to you. Either way, it is great fun—a loving look at 50s Hollywood in which the Coens contemplate cinema as something of a religion. The cast is simply phenomenal, with George Clooney and Alden Ehrenreich as world-class idiots.

  1. Midnight Special

Many of last year’s most interesting films are united by a deep-seated nostalgia for cinema’s past. Some take their inspiration from the 50s and 60s. Others, like this one, are a clear throwback to the early Spielberg blockbusters of the late 70s. In other words, the people who are used to saying “They don’t make them like that anymore” must have rested relatively easy. Midnight Special is a smart sci-fi film, one that focuses on human drama instead of becoming a special effects extravaganza. Just the way it should be.

  1. The Student

A Russian film that hasn’t been seen much yet outside of the festival circuit, The Student offers a brutally honest look at religion in a once-atheist country. Filmed as a simple, if bleak tale of radicalization spreading uncontrollably in a society suspicious of rational thought, the film remains cool-headed and close to life even in its most surreal passages.

  1. American Honey

Speaking of cinematic experiences, few were as intensely engrossing and immersive as this one. A nearly three-hour epic road trip shared with a group of young outcasts, American Honey feels unscripted, with one choice leading naturally to another. Here’s a world of vibrant colours and infinite possibilities, with freedom-seeking characters who inspire in us a mix of hopelessness and awe. It’s an unusual film, a journey of discovery, a search for belonging in the vast, diverse and strange land that is the United States.

  1. The Handmaiden

The Korean film industry is one of the most creative, risk-taking and fun-loving in the world, and director Park Chan-wook is rightfully the leader of the flock. This might be the most purely entertaining film he has done, taking devilish pleasure in unraveling the story’s mysteries and deceiving expectations right until the end. Park continues to take inspiration from Hitchcock, while upping the level of violence and sexuality to something rarely seen in Western cinema—almost never gratuitously, of course.

  1. Nocturnal Animals

It appears Tom Ford was always meant to be a filmmaker. This second work confirms him as a master of style, a romantic visionary who knows how to imbue stories with his own sensibilities. It’s a haunting and dreamlike drama, bursting with symbolism and meaningful colours—the work of a perfectionist, who leaves nothing up to chance. At times terrifying and ultimately tragic, it is amplified by a large cast of performers at the height of their power, leaving an indelible impression.

  1. La La Land

This one’s going to be for the ages. It takes everything we—and director Damien Chazelle—appreciate about classic musicals, and rewires it as a bittersweet, old-fashioned story of idealized love and outlandish dreams in modern L.A. The music is stupendous—fantastically joyful at times while deeply melancholic at others—and the visuals are on par. The film conjures the kind of magic we stopped expecting from movies a long time ago. If La La Land doesn’t make you fall in love with movies—and someone dear to you—all over again, perhaps it’s just not meant to be.


Highlights from Cinemania film festival

Slack Bay and Personal Shopper were the talk of the town at the Cannes film festival this year

As a rift grows between the more conspicuously commercial elements of the French film industry and the personal, unconventional auteur pieces that defined French cinema for much of its golden era, it is the latter that continues to be a staple of international film festivals. Montreal’s Cinemania festival, which celebrates the brightest French productions of the year, featured two films that have been attracting attention since their premiere at Cannes this past spring.

Ma Loute, known in English as Slack Bay, is singularly grotesque. What could have been a straight comedy—the slapstick, satire and absurdity—is instead an entrancing, if unsettling experience. The film’s humour is so relentlessly over-the-top it seems to be mocking its own audience. Even the viewer’s act of marveling over the striking setting—a coastal region of Northern France, home to director Bruno Dumont—is ridiculed during the film.

Who are we to identify within this caricature of class warfare? On one side, we have a decadent bourgeois family, played by well-known actors who overact as if in a state of drunken insanity. On the other, a mysterious family of oyster farmers and ferrymen, played by eerie-looking locals whose presence intensifies the surreal style of the film, making it seductively hostile.

It is an often baffling, unclassifiable work, comparable in part to David Lynch and Monty Python but bathed in French sensibilities, incorporating both theatre and carnival traditions. It will alienate viewers who find it suspect for being fundamentally unexplained, or frustrating for its deliberate lack of cohesion. However, those curious to immerse themselves in a foreign vision, one that is unpredictable and perhaps beyond reach, may come out pleasantly mystified by the experience.

Another film at Cinemania is the much less compelling and blandly titled Personal Shopper, starring Kristen Stewart as a fashion assistant who attempts to communicate with the dead. Stewart, made famous by the Twilight series, has become something of a darling in France—she was the first American actress to win a César Award, which is comparable to an Oscar, and the film’s director Olivier Assayas called her one of the best actors of her generation. While it is true that she has successfully avoided being typecast and has proved herself to be a reliable talent, such enormous praise remains puzzling. Assayas’ assertion back in September that Stewart has “an infinitely [large] range” is at odds with the fact that she is notoriously inexpressive, and rarely has that been more obvious than in Personal Shopper, which barely gives her any character material to work with.

A ghost story provides ample excuse for suspense and frights generated by an invisible, watching presence, but such luxuries are in short supply here. The film works best when dealing with the supernatural, but it is essentially a parable for grief, more akin to a European existential drama than to, say, this year’s gripping Under the Shadow.  Personal Shopper indulges in long, empty scenes that involve Stewart’s character walking through a deserted manor or shopping for clothes and accessories—not an activity most audiences are likely to find exciting.

No release date has been announced yet for Slack Bay. Personal Shopper will be released in theaters on March 10, 2017.


Q&A with an up-and-coming Quebec director

Vincent Biron speaks candidly about his new film, Prank, now in theaters

Keep your eyes open for Prank, an unusual piece of Quebec cinema that is certainly an acquired taste. It’s vulgar, it’s immature and it shows teens doing what they do best—stirring up trouble in nasty ways, all while finding themselves and growing up, however slowly and unwillingly. The Concordian sat down with the film’s director and Concordia grad, Vincent Biron.

Where was the film shot?

A lot of places. Some of it in Montreal, some of it in Sorel… I wanted to create a non-existing place. I didn’t want to set it in Montreal or any given small town. I liked the idea of a no-man’s land.

That’s interesting, given that the film feels kind of universal, which could explain why it’s being talked about abroad.

Well, we all live through adolescence and, even though we all live through it differently, some experiences are quite common. They’re usually both difficult and enlightening at once… And you can find these kinds of nameless suburbs pretty much anywhere in the world.

Did you try to make the film more universal or specifically French Canadian? Or a mix of both?

I think it’s a mix of both. Because, you know, I do acknowledge the reality of French Canadian life, but I’d like to think that the art I create can be viewed as having a larger significance, rather than simply a part of its local context. Particularly in the sense that French Canadian films haven’t had an audience for a few years now. So I would be denying myself a larger audience. Cinema is an act of communication. There’s nothing sadder than a film that is not seen… That’s why we’ve been very involved in promoting Prank—I want people to hear our message.

You have experience as a cinematographer. Was it hard to make the jump to directing?

Not really, since I’ve made a lot of short films since I graduated [in 2006]. I do direct, but I’ve chosen not to become a director in the commercial sense. I was at a crossroads after I graduated: I was starting to work on cinematography, and I was asking myself what I should do, because you have to choose. It’s very hard to actively do both [cinematography and directing], and I decided that cinematography was a good choice because it didn’t require me to be as emotionally involved. As a director, I’m extremely passionate about my work and I get nervous at the thought of having to shoot commercials.

Were you involved in the cinematography on Prank?

I was actually the cinematographer. There were only three of us. I was shooting and directing, one of the co-producers was working on sound and another co-producer organized stuff… I usually don’t do cinematography on my own projects, but this time I wanted to avoid having to hire someone else because it’s a beautiful job, but it’s a demanding one. It takes assistants and lighting, and I knew I wanted to make the film using nothing.

Let’s go back to the theme of adolescence. Most descriptions of the film claim that it’s a coming-of-age story, but to me it’s rather a story of the characters refusing to come of age.

Yeah, I do think the characters [are being made to come of age] kicking and screaming. I think that’s how we all live through it… It’s a moment when we all kind of reject the adult world, and there’s some of that in the film because the adult world is very dramatic.

It’s like they’re two separate worlds.

Right, and that was deliberate. And your analysis is correct—it’s a film about refusing to be a part of that world… I really like sad humour. That allowed me to explore the adult world through that lens.

What surprised me is that we never see the main character’s parents, even though there’s a scene that his mother should logically appear in.

Yeah, that was deliberate… The screenwriters and myself didn’t want to make a “message movie.” We didn’t want to make a statement about a generation, because there’s something reactionary about that… I didn’t want to make an “old fart” kind of movie. I didn’t want to make a film about “young people.”… Adolescence, in my view, is a very insular experience.

How old are the characters supposed to be? I feel like the older ones are about 17 or 18 years old.

I knew we wanted to leave that ambiguous. I’d done an initial casting session and screen tests for younger actors and it was a bit boring. The contrast between them and [the main character] is more interesting if we feel that there’s more of an age difference. They’re more interesting to [the main character] because they seem more experienced … I’m a big fan of John Hughes, you know. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Matthew Broderick was 22 or 23 years old when it was shot, not 16. But the logic of the film sells it to you. As filmmakers, we’re too scared to let go of reality. Especially in Quebec, we have a strong history of documentary filmmaking, so people want to make stuff that looks real.

Do you have any future plans?

We’re writing another full-length film with the same team. I really enjoyed shooting this way, with no money, and I learned a lot doing it. I’d like to repeat that experience… It gives you complete freedom to say whatever you want, and not to wait. Because from the moment that you say you’re waiting to get [a larger budget], you’re gonna keep on waiting.

Prank is now in theaters.


Highlights from the Festival du nouveau cinéma

Here’s a look at a few of the festival’s films that have stood out so far for their remarkable storytelling

In this second week of the Festival du nouveau cinéma, let’s take a look back at some of the best films screened so far—some of these will be screened again, and all are expected to play in theatres.

American Honey

Undoubtedly one of the best films of the year, American Honey is the worthy winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes—the third such win for English director Andrea Arnold. It is a wild and memorable alcohol-fueled road trip through an invisible America, one of social outcasts and abandoned youth. Don’t let the 162-minute running time scare you away—this is an experience that deserves to be stretched out. For its startling authenticity and social realism, it demands comparison to the Dardenne Brothers’ best work. While it presents characters and situations that often feel all but hopeless, it never loses sight of the light at the end of the tunnel—one that is sometimes just a flicker, but can grow into a camp fire. Also, this film should end the debate on whether or not Shia Laboeuf can act. Spoiler alert: he can.

The Student

This is a rare and important look at religion in Russia—a once atheist country that is no longer averse to embracing fundamentalism when it suits a political purpose. It is odd to realize the film is based on a German play, when everything in it feels topical and adapted to the reality it depicts. A high school student suddenly and inexplicably becomes a Christian fanatic, interpreting the Bible as a call to arms in this tense and staggering story. If the film is somewhat didactic in its approach, it feels not preachy, but well-measured—in fact, much of the dialogue is lifted straight from the Bible—with the sources, such as book and chapter numbers appearing on the screen, and the structure seems to reference the great anticlerical texts of the Age of Enlightenment, something out of Voltaire.


Nowhere near an ordinary biopic—or even, perhaps, an ordinary film—this is a fittingly poetic exploration of Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda’s persona and art, depicting an episode of Chilean history through playful, contemplative experimentation with form and content. Luis Gnecco, as Neruda, on the run when Chile outlaws the Communist Party to which he belongs, and Gael García Bernal, as the inspector on his trail, are exquisite in ways that transcend the conventional cat-and-mouse relationship you would expect. The unnatural colours and dreamlike editing create a distinct environment in which truth and fiction overlap in tribute to a larger-than-life character.


Controversial in Brazil, its country of origin, for political reasons that have more to do with the filmmakers than with the film itself, this is a sensitive character study elevated by a career-defining role for aging legend Sonia Braga. A woman refuses to give up her apartment when the building is being bought up by a conglomerate that plans to destroy it. She hangs on to the apartment as a piece of the disappearing world she was once a part of. She knows she will die, and she knows the building will eventually be gone, but she will not allow it to happen on her watch. The accumulation of subtle details and elements of the woman’s life creates a portrait that conjures up feeling and respect for her.

American Honey will be released on Oct. 14. Neruda will be released on Dec. 16. Aquarius will screen again Oct. 15 at 6 p.m. at Cinéplex Odéon Quartier Latin (with French subtitles). Release dates for Aquarius and The Student have not yet been announced.


What’s coming to the Festival du nouveau cinéma

A host of new and exciting films and the addition of virtual reality awaits

For a festival that is about to have its 45th edition, the Festival du nouveau cinéma (FNC) is stunningly youthful. It all makes sense when you realize its founder, Claude Chamberland, seems to care not for prestige, but for rejuvenation. If the once-glamorous Montreal World Film Festival has crumbled under the weight of ambition, the FNC has only prospered.

“As extensive as [the Toronto International Film Festival], but completely different,” is how Chamberland described the festival during the press conference that unveiled this newest edition. Filmmaking is constantly changing and adapting to the market, technological progress and cultural trends, among other factors. If it wants to remain worthy of its name, the FNC must adapt along with it—if not run ahead.

In this spirit, several new sections have been added to this year’s program—the most noteworthy of which is FNC eXPlore. Its mission is to promote new mediums, including virtual reality, which is becoming a mandatory component at film festivals—not to mention art galleries—around the world.

Installations will be free, with 45,000 visitors expected daily. Another new section, Les nouveaux alchimistes, is a space of expression for the most experimental filmmakers who bring cinema down to its essence as the marriage of sight and sound.

That is not to say that the FNC is oblivious to the past. This edition is dedicated to recently deceased filmmakers André Melançon, Jacques Rivette, Abbas Kiarostami, Andrzej Zulawski, Ronit Elkabetz and Donald Ranvaud. Retrospectives are planned in several sections, most notably decicated to the late Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski. Several screenings will also mark the 100th anniversary of the Dada movement, an avant garde art movement that took place in Europe in the early 20th century.

As always, the programming is remarkable for the range it offers. It is no exaggeration to say any viewer will find something that will suit their taste—from the short Carte blanche films that precede most screenings, to the long Lav Diaz’ award-winning 4-hour and 8-hour films, and from the most innocent of the P’tits loups section aimed at younger viewers, to the most adult, Temps Ø section, which this year offers several films that explore pornography.

Even if you couldn’t make it to the Cannes festival this year, you’ll soon have an opportunity to see arthouse films such as American Honey, Sieranevada, Aquarius, Toni Erdmann, The Handmaiden (with French subtitles), After the Storm and Gimme Danger. Other festival successes to be featured at the FNC are Kirill Serebrennikov’s The Student and Ivan I. Tverdovsky’s Zoology from Russia and Studio Ghibli’s co-production The Red Turtle from Belgium—a sure-fire future Oscar nominee. In other news, notorious Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl will make a rare overseas appearance to present his new film, Safari, and deliver a masterclass about the film.

The festival runs from Oct. 5 to 16, with screenings in many venues across the city. Stay tuned for The Concordian’s coverage. For information on prices and programming, visit


La La Land will make you dance in the clouds

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s chemistry will make you believe in the old magic of cinema again

Somewhere along the way, the film industry forgot how to inspire hope, or decided it was no longer necessary. It used to be that, as the world grew gloomier, the movies grew happier. This was a natural counterbalance to the uncertainty and unquietness of real life.

Today, as the world approaches pre-WW2 levels of tension and confusion, the big screen is not being a source of comfort—gritty is still the new cool, and some like to speculate that cinema is altogether dead, with Netflix offering the hip alternative. This present context is what makes Damien Chazelle’s La La Land all the more significant, meaningful and timeless. The film will not be released until December of this year, but it already has the feel of an established classic.

The mood is set with a virtuoso opening dance sequence that takes place on a Los Angeles highway. You watch as dozens of people are kept waiting in a traffic jam, when suddenly magic happens, and irresistible joy is breathed into the most ordinary of proceedings. It is during this opening dance sequence that a chance encounter occurs between Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling musician, and Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress.

They are two dreamers in a city that couldn’t care less about them, and yet it inspires in them visions of love and enchantment, of star-bathed backgrounds and lushly coloured skies. Life circumstances ensure that they continuously cross paths—they meet again and again. First they dislike each other, then like each other, and finally they fall in love. All that jazz. The duo have a chemistry so pure that you know it is fate that brings them together, and not a team of screenwriters.

Sebastian (Gosling) and Mia (Stone) are two happy-go-lucky dreamers in a world that forgot how to dream.

What a strange concept it is to make an old-school musical in our day and age—but it works, both as an ode to dreams and to the power of cinema. Gosling and Stone are not professional dancers or singers, but the film doesn’t require them to be. The music by Justin Hurwitz—a key collaborator of Chazelle’s—is out of this world, written to emphasize tenderness and melancholy over vocal prowess.

The film is made with such nostalgia, and Chazelle—known for the 2014 sensation Whiplash—has such love for the history of music and cinema, that you almost expect the characters to make a wrong turn and be transported a century back, like in Midnight in Paris (2011).

The way La La Land confronts cinema’s dying past in a largely indifferent present recalls Sylvain Chomet’s animated L’illusioniste (2010)—although the latter mourned the retirement of magic, while Chazelle’s film all but screams that magic is still possible, even though it may not always offer a path to happiness. La La Land packs in all the pleasures of a musical, while offering a depth of emotion and a richness of form. It is a triumphant, generous masterpiece that feels bound for serious Oscar glory. You are right to be excited for it. Until the next time I see it, my heart will beat to the tune of Hurwitz’ songs.


Big films make their big debut at TIFF

The Toronto International Film Festival screen is alive with foreign films this fall

As the mid-way point of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) draws near, the streets of the city get evermore crowded with journalists and visiting stars. For both obsessive and casual film lovers, here is a short report from the scene.

Korean master of film Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is, in my opinion, one of the best films of the festival and of the year. It is a tense and visually exquisite erotic thriller that starts as a gothic melodrama, and gradually descends into the hell of perversion and violence that you would expect from the man who directed Oldboy. It’s sure to be a special experience if you’ve never heard of Sarah Waters’ novel, Fingersmith, which the film is based on, but I won’t tell you why.  What I can tell you is that it will leave you with some added understanding of the long-standing Japanese tradition of tentacle porn.

Maintaining the same level of perversion, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is a shocking and darkly funny French thriller starring the excellent Isabelle Huppert. The film starts with a rape—careful, it has trigger warning written all over it. It is being promoted as a revenge story, but that’s not what it is, and even the ‘whodunit’ is not always central to the plot. Instead, it’s a surreal look at sexual passion and family dynamics, which are shown in an unconventional light. Although it sometimes feels a bit too cynical and calculated, the film is nonetheless a treat. A particularly memorable Christmas Eve dinner is one of its highlights.

No movie generated as much talk at this year’s Cannes festival as Toni Erdmann, but for all its strong qualities, it’s hard to understand what made it such a sensation. Its key concept is so exceedingly simple, perhaps it would have worked just as well as a short film, which is odd considering it clocks in at two hours and 42 minutes. What makes it worthwhile, is its touching depiction of a waning father-daughter relationship, the dullness of adult life, and the  magic of childhood—something that can never be truly reclaimed.

Finally, Kim Jee-woon’s The Age of Shadows is a thrilling action drama set, like The Handmaiden, in Japan-occupied Korea—which might give you some insight into current Japanese-Korean relations. Entertaining, brazenly patriotic and ultimately moving, the film was made with a great sense of scope on a remarkably small budget (IMDB estimates it at under $9 million). It’s not as bold as Jee-woon’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird, but features wonderful set pieces and a solid cast, led by Song Kang-ho who plays a man caught between resistance fighters and imperial police.

TIFF, sometimes referred to as “the Cannes of North America,” runs until Sept. 18.


Segal Centre debuts The Producers in Yiddish

Mel Brooks’ classic Broadway show celebrates its 15th anniversary

You’d think there would be no way of making Mel Brooks’ work any more Jewish, but the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre did just that—by translating The Producers, arguably the American filmmaker’s most celebrated work, into mame-loshn. The resulting show, a co-production with the Côte-Saint-Luc Dramatic Society, had its world premiere at the Segal Centre on June 19.

Initially written as a film, The Producers came out in 1967 and, despite the controversy it caused, won an Oscar and became a comedy classic. Almost 35 years later, Brooks re-wrote it as a musical, adding catchy songs, longer scenes and some of the self-referential humour that was a staple of his famous parody movies. The musical conquered Broadway and this year is celebrating its 15th anniversary.

The story centers on an unlikely partnership between Max Bialystock, a slimy has-been Broadway producer, and a neurotic accountant named Leo Bloom, who devise a scheme to make a fortune from a flop show. The action is quick, the humour is sharp, and the musical has admirably lost none of its potential to offend. It is especially shocking to consider that The Producers, the plot of which essentially involves two Jews putting on a pro-Nazi show out of greed for money, was written a mere 20 years after WW2. The show-within-the-show, titled Springtime for Hitler—also the title of the wonderful theme song—is meant to be in the worst possible taste, so how do you mock poor taste without succumbing to it? The answer is, maybe you shouldn’t shy away from it—or, as Brooks himself once put it, you should “[rise] below vulgarity.”

The show is fully orchestrated and features a large cast of professional and nonprofessional performers alike, some of them actual Yiddish-speakers and others just apt mimics. Sam Stein and Mikey Samra star in the lead roles, with Alisha Ruiss as an exuberant Swedish blonde and Jonathan Patterson—also the show’s choreographer—often stealing the spotlight as Roger De Bris, a fictional theatre director that may be the worst to have ever lived, but is surely not the least memorable.

The Producers runs until July 10 at the Segal Centre. Tickets start at $45. Most of the show is in Yiddish, with English and French supertitles.


A small-town American science-fiction story

Midnight Special incorporates ‘80s nostalgia into a tight and suspenseful ride

Even before the first image appears, you know you’re in for a good ride. Voices of news anchors are heard sharing the news of a boy’s kidnapping. The man shown on a T.V. screen to be the abductor is standing in a barricaded motel room, while an accomplice, noticeably armed, looks outside. A small human form, sitting under an illuminated bedsheet, is revealed to be a young boy in swimming goggles reading a Superman comic book with a flashlight. All three leave in an aging ‘70s car, racing through an empty highway. The music intensifies. The driver cuts off the car’s lights, putting on night-vision goggles, and the vehicle dissolves into the night. Now you’re left staring at an essentially black screen, and you couldn’t feel any more ecstatic.

The mostly unspoken but evident father-son connection is the emotional heart of this film.

That is one of the coolest and most gripping opening scenes I’ve seen in a long time. A film usually builds to a high, but Midnight Special starts with one, and maintains it almost all the way through. An original, genre-defying mixture of the old, the new and the eternal, Jeff Nichols’ fourth film confirms the American director as one of this decade’s most exceptional new talents.

Grounded in a strong sense of authenticity, and featuring constant reminders of its setting in the Deep South, the movie feels real in a way that most action-based movies don’t. You’re used to seeing guns and shooting, often for entertainment, but here when you see a gun, you know blood might be shed, and there’s not a single character that you’d want to lose. The film is upfront about its sci-fi influences—if you squint, you can almost see the spectres of ‘80s Steven Spielberg and James Cameron—and also shares its basic plotline and distinctly American themes with Stephen King’s novel Firestarter, but it could hardly be confused with anyone else’s work.

Like Nichols’ masterful Take Shelter, it stars Michael Shannon as a father trying to protect his family when confronted with a supernatural occurrence. The supernatural here comes in the form of his own son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy of seemingly unlimited capabilities who can bring down a space satellite and draws information from an invisible parallel dimension. These powers catch the attention of both the U.S. government and the leader of a religious cult known as the Ranch, which leads the father, Roy, and his childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) to kidnap the boy from the cult and aid him in accomplishing his mysterious destiny.

The film takes place mostly at night, daylight being dangerous to the boy’s well-being, which helps justify the title. Adam Stone, the cinematographer and Nichols’ regular collaborator, made no use of artificial lighting even in scenes that could have required it, which made light a recurring visual theme: when there is some, it is usually to denote fantasy or mystery, such as in the strong rays of light that the boy radiates through his eyes, or the appearance of the room in which he is at one point taken by the F.B.I. This light also signifies a certain hope amidst the darkness that surrounds the characters, and a strong positivity that can be taken away from the film: despite its genre influences, it is remarkable for arguably having no antagonist, and delivering a story that is fundamentally about its characters and the emotions of a father who fears losing his son, but is resolved to let him determine his own path.

Midnight Special starts with no exposition, throwing you right in the middle of the action, and feeds you information by little pieces, which forces you to watch carefully and connect the dots. Dialogue is sparse and the tone understated, with wonderfully economical filmmaking that keeps you on the edge even when little is happening, while telling you no more than you need to know at any given point. If you can overlook some of the less convincing later developments, and even if you can’t, there is much to appreciate and admire on this unusual journey. Like young Alton, you can immediately tell that you’re in good hands.

Release date: April 1, 2016

Directed by: Jeff Nichols

Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher

Stars: 4

111 minutes


Superheroes have lost their way

Batman v Superman is neither fish nor fowl, but hey, it’s better than Man of Steel

It has been genuinely exciting to see the superhero genre come together in the 21st century as a force to be reckoned with. From the pioneering beginnings of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films to Christopher Nolan’s monumental Batman trilogy and the now-ubiquitous Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s become obvious that a new genre has emerged. In a way, it’s even more than a genre—it’s about establishing an American popular mythology, on the basis of the Greek tradition. The Romans, after all, renamed the Greek gods and retold some of their myths in an adapted form. The U.S.—a modern Roman empire if there is one—has done the same, while celebrating the myth as entertainment instead of theology.

Superman’s status as a near-deity makes him an enemy of both Batman and Lex Luthor.

Zack Snyder, whose own Watchmen was a visionary take on the superhero genre, deserves some credit for embracing that ideal with zeal and operatic gravitas, but let’s face it—his attempt to set the foundation for a DC Cinematic Universe has been maddeningly uneven. If Snyder’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel, was frustrating for its flavourless look and interminable fight scenes, the follow-up—Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—provokes pity rather than disappointment. It’s sad and even somewhat remarkable to see a film so eager to please, so willing to improve itself and address its flaws, but so lamentably incapable of capturing even a fraction of the greatness Nolan once brought to the franchise.

For better or worse, after four years of absence, Batman is back. There was a massive fan outcry—including a petition—against Ben Affleck being cast as the character, but he turned out to be one of the film’s stronger attributes. This Batman is obsessive, unhinged and bear-like, determined to stop Superman after witnessing the damage done to the city of Metropolis in the previous chapter of the series. This should have the viewer on his side—after all, the disproportionate and nearly irresponsible destruction was one of the key complaints against the first film—and it does, especially when Henry Cavill’s Superman is absurdly bland in comparison. Acting or personality, you say? Give him a break, he put on a ton more muscle than last time.

The many characters that spice up the storyline all have killer music themes written for them, but too little screen time to make an impression—Wonder Woman feels intercut into the film rather than an organic part of it, and even Batman and Superman struggle to comprehend what she’s doing there—except, of course, for Lex Luthor, played by Jesse Eisenberg, of all people. Eisenberg is truly cringeworthy, single-handedly derailing even the scenes that do otherwise achieve a certain harmony, at least on paper. Playing a sort of cocaine-fueled Mark Zuckerberg after a lengthy stay at Arkham Asylum, he squeezes out the jokes and the quirks with so much self-restraint that he never feels crazy, just annoying, so very annoying that you don’t know if you want to knock out him or yourself to bring the trainwreck to an end.

The fight between the two icons is psychological at first during a surprisingly decent first hour of exposition. Despite the film’s title, the conflict is mostly upstaged by the subtle—and not so subtle—references meant to establish the future of the series under the Justice League, a DC equivalent to The Avengers. What this inevitably leads to is a storyteller who is so focused on what’s ahead that he fails to engage in the story he is telling at present. This approach is the exact opposite of Nolan’s, who made each of his own films as if it were to be the last.

In fact, it’s important to mention Nolan—who has been an executive producer on Snyder’s last two films—to understand what went wrong with the DC Cinematic Universe. Instead of completely breaking away from his aesthetic and thematic style, which would have been the sanest thing to do, Snyder attempted to emulate it, compromising his own trademark vision in the process. Even though Snyder has now reunited with his usual cinematographer, Larry Fong, Batman v Superman only hints at what it could have been had it fully embraced its comic-book roots instead of settling on unsubstantial grittiness and illiterate psychology. For all its extraterrestrial wars and CGI-happy fight scenes, this series has been much too down-to-earth. Traumatised by the successful realism of Nolan’s trilogy, the DC universe is left in an ongoing identity crisis.


Release date: March 25, 2016

Directed by: Zack Snyder

Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg

Stars: 3

151 minutes

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