TIFF 2015 Review: The Program


I don’t care about the Tour de France. I’ve never watched it, nor do I really care about cycling. It’s fine that other people like it, but it’s just not for me. But I’m really interested in the Lance Armstrong story. It’s a fascinating tale and instigates great debates about doping, athleticism, myth-making, and society’s desire to tear public figures down. For myself, revealing Lance Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs to win the Tour de France seven times always makes me think of one question: what did we accomplish?

The Program doesn’t answer these questions, but instead is a thrilling fact-based account about those seven tours with dramatizations of the doping that took place behind the scenes. Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster) is a young American cyclist tackling the Tour de France for the first time. He’s doing an interview with David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) while playing foosball. Walsh likes the young athlete, but privately tells his colleagues that the American will never be a true contender. In that first Tour, Walsh is right; Armstrong doesn’t even come close. And then Armstrong is diagnosed with cancer, and it looks like his career is over. But he returns to the Tour against all odds – a true Cinderella story – and wins it. Armstrong’s suddenly a true contender, but Walsh, unlike his colleagues, doesn’t believe everything is above board. He can’t be wrong.

Obviously, Walsh wasn’t wrong. Lance was doping. And the scenes of the “program” are captivating as a whole team of cyclists lounge in their tour bus with needles in their veins and IV bags above their heads. There’s a great scene where a drug inspector makes a surprise visit to the U.S. Postal team’s trailer to do a drug test on Armstrong, and Lance scrambles to inject himself with enough water to dilute the drugs running through his bloodstream. But here’s the rub: it seems like everyone in the Tour was doping. That first Tour that Lance did horribly in? Yep, doping scandal. Walsh laments that he wants to watch athletes race up a mountain, not chemists. So why isn’t that the bigger story – that doping is rampant and the systems in place to keep the sport fair are horribly ineffective? Frankly, taking down “athletes” (quotations, cuz doping) just seems like whack-a-mole at this point.

The film does a good job of being the Coles Notes of the scandal. It hits the major beats – well-shot racing sequences, scenes of Lance with his charity and the extension of his lies into the inspirational speeches he tells to crowds of cancer survivors, his scorched earth strategy of silencing opponents through numerous lawsuits, and endorsements from major companies as his star rises. Admittedly, the film is pretty much a dramatization of the documentary The Armstrong Lie that just came out two years ago. But what’s the problem with that? The Armstrong Lie is an incredible film, and The Program is a great one as well.

Ben Foster captures the look an essence of Armstrong to an eerie degree. He’s contained, precise, and calculating. But there’s a scene near the end of the film when the facade breaks down and Foster does some incredible work. Holding back tears, and through gritted teeth, he pleads with the board that competition is his life while they strip him of his titles. It’s a powerful moment. From the man who had everything, to a instant disgrace.

Grade: B+

Sidenote: Isn’t there something similar about Walsh’s dogged pursuit of the truth and Armstrong’s dogged pursuit of victory? And don’t journalists sometimes use dirty tactics to get an edge over other journalists? I’m not saying that Walsh did this, but I’m just thinking about the advantages in different areas of life that we may exploit unfairly but don’t suffer repercussions from. It all depends on the game though, right?

TIFF 2015 Review: Legend


What’s better than one Tom Hardy? Two Tom Hardys!

If you asked me that question in May – about the same time Mad Max: Fury Road was storming around theatres – I probably would’ve answered the same thing. The guy is a good actor. And even though he pulls off the dual performance in Legend and creates two entirely different characters, the rest of the film felt a bit flat. Two Tom Hardys is good, but two Tom Hardys plus an engaging storyline is even better. This one’s a bit generic.

Narrated by not-Tom Hardy (Emily Browning, playing the long-suffering wife Frances – because the wife is always long-suffering in these types of movies – why does the wife always want the career gangster to go “straight”? Isn’t it obvious that’s not going to happen? Wouldn’t it be preferable to just revel in the immorality and excess? But I digress.) the film tells the tale of twin gangsters – suave Reggie (Tom Hardy) and mentally unstable Ronnie Kray (Hardy again) as they become the most notorious leaders of the London underworld.

This isn’t really a gangster film in the typical sense, as much as you’d be led to believe. The central conflict of the film is about family. There’s the family we’re born with – our blood relatives like our parents or siblings. And then there’s the family we choose – our spouses and friends. If the two families conflict, which one do we choose? That’s the dilemma facing Reggie Kray. He loves his loose-cannon brother Ronnie despite his reckless behaviour and his penchant for violence. He also loves his wife Frances (Emily Browning), who loathes the gangster lifestyle and just wants him to be a regular businessman and nightclub owner. Who will Reggie choose? What will he do?

If only we cared.

My problem with the film is that it’s only Reggie that seems to be the fully-developed character surrounded by one-dimensional caricatures. Reggie stands steadfastly by Ronnie because Ronnie’s “his brother,” but what redeeming qualities does Ronnie show in the movie? He insults Reggie’s wife, almost single-handedly destroys their legacy while Reggie was doing a short stint in prison, and his constant paranoia threatens to derail their criminal empire at every opportunity. The biggest threat to the Krays’ legend isn’t rival gangs (they’re all dispatched fairly easily and with few repercussions) but Ronnie. He’s the ticking time bomb in their operation, and there needs to be a better explanation for Reggie’s protection beyond the half-hearted “he’s my brother.”

Meanwhile, the role of Frances is a thankless part. She falls in love with a charming criminal (and she knows he’s a criminal – he’s practically a celebrity in the East End neighbourhood he prowls in) then asks him to throw it all away to lead a “clean” life and is upset as he constantly fails to do just that. I’m sure the real Frances had dreams and aspirations. The film Frances only does two things – (1) asks Reggie if he’ll go straight and (2) is shocked and disappointed when he doesn’t. That’s about it.

Reggie is the only interesting character. He’s conflicted, he’s successful, he’s got motivation, and he’s torn between two people he loves. Good sympathetic stuff. And then THE SCENE happens and it leaves a sour taste of Reggie that casts a disapproving shadow over the character and undermines the “emotional” scenes that follow. In the television series Breaking Bad, the main character Walter White does some horrible things but perversely I still found myself rooting for him every episode (and judging by the universal acclaim of the finale, which is essentially a redemption story, other people were rooting for Walter as well). After THE SCENE in Legend, I couldn’t care less about Reggie’s plight. He’s an idiot who unconvincingly protects his ne’er-do-well brother and brought all that bullshit on himself.

One other thing before I end this rant – the film doesn’t treat the characters seriously. Ronnie is used mostly for comic relief, but is supposed to be an intimidating and intense character. I kept thinking about Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas, and how you never laughed at him (or with him) and how unpredictable and frightening he was. Ronnie is portrayed as kind of a lumbering dim-wit in this film, which is a missed opportunity but makes a good trailer. Also, the earnest detective (Christopher Eccleston) hot on the Kray brother’s trail is played like he was lifted from a slapstick comedy – i.e. he’s not really a threat to the twins – but look at those pratfalls!

So what are we left with? A watered-down gangster pic with tonal and thematic issues, but a killer double-handed performance by Tom Hardy. Which all adds up to: mediocre.

Grade: C-

TIFF 2015 Review: Hardcore


This is the type of experimental movie that’s perfect for seeing on the big screen at a film festival, because you might not get to see it anywhere else. This year’s winner of the TIFF Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award, Hardcore is obviously a crowd-pleasing film about an indestructible half-cyborg half-man soldier with memory loss, the inability to speak, and a penchant for getting himself into (and by spilling lots of blood, out of) sticky situations. Oh, and the film is completely shot from a first-person perspective. That’s the “experimental” part I mentioned.

Hardcore is the first video-game movie that captures the breathless essence of a first-person shooter, without being based on a video-game at all. It uses all the common tropes from the interactive medium it takes it’s inspiration from, including a brief introductory sequence set in a hospital, where the nurse explains what’s happened to “you” (because really, this character is an avatar for the audience), attaches a cybernetic leg and arm to your body, and then wouldn’t you know it – the hospital is assaulted by terrorists led by the telekinetic AKAN and its up to “you” to stop them.

This is a film that is begging for a feature-length documentary about how it was made, and would probably be just as mind-boggling as the final project itself. The camera (and the stunt man attached to it) leaps from buildings, zip-lines down a skyscraper, engages in hand-to-hand combat with countless faceless henchmen, and is thrown into the air by telekinesis. I really want to know how it was all done and choreographed, because it’s a pretty stunning feat when you watch it all in a theatre. Those who are sensitive to motion sickness beware.

Your buddy through all this mayhem is actor Sharlto Copley (of District 9 fame) who accompanies us on the journey in several different guises – such as a secret agent, homeless man, hippie, WWII-era soldier, wheelchair-bound genius, and many more that I am forgetting. His recurring appearances are a little strange at first, but the reason he can keep coming back as different people is skillfully explained using video-game logic (where everyone can re-spawn after waiting five seconds).

It’s a fun and energetic thrill ride that surprisingly has a sparse but involving story to cut up the numerous set-pieces and allow the audience some breathing room before the camera just barely misses getting crushed by a car, falling off a bridge, and rolling behind cover, again. It’s a perfect popcorn thriller and an experience no other action film can touch (a two-hour session of Call of Duty on the other hand….).

Worth the watch, and the award.

Grade: B+

TIFF 2015 Review: February


Emma Roberts, keeping her mouth shut about the macabre in “February”

It’s almost impossible to go into a theatre and not know what to expect anymore. Yes, I’ve touched on this before with TIFF movies, but it’s still one of the big draws of the festival for me: walking into a darkened theatre based solely off a brief synopsis, one film still, and the flickering hope that the movie you picked might just be a good one. And February is a helluva good one.

I would be doing a disservice to the movie if I wrote a complete review with details about its plot, so I’ll only provide the same information I had going in from the synopsis below (from the TIFF website):

Two young students at a prestigious prep school for girls are assailed by an evil, invisible power when they are stranded at the school over winter break. Starring Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men), Emma Roberts (American Horror Story) and Lucy Boynton.

Yes, I know there is more information about the film than that on the TIFF website, but I only read the longer version after seeing the movie, so the above quote is what stuck with me (and induced me to buy tickets). Upon reflection, it’s a bit misleading about the movie, but that’s part of the charm. February is the type of movie where you aren’t quite sure what’s going to happen next, but when it does happen it all makes sense.

I’ve been saving a quote from Stephen King’s Danse Macabre for years now that I’ve wanted to use on this blog. Now I’m finally going to use it. While it is specifically about horror movies, I think it applies equally to all films (and why some of us are obsessed with going to the theatres to see more and more):

“The true horror film aficionado is more like a prospector with his panning equipment or his wash wheel, spending long periods going patiently through common dirt, looking for the bright blink of gold dust or possibly even a small nugget or two. Such a working miner is not looking for a big strike, which may come tomorrow or the day after or never; he has put those illusions behind him. He’s only looking for a livin’ wage, something to keep him going awhile longer.” [Danse Macabre, page 222]

February is the type of film that keeps me watching. It’s such a pleasure to find a hidden gem in the deluge of mediocre movies that flood the multiplex. Even moreso to find a good horror movie, where the ratio is about 10 shlocky films to a single good one.

A few details are important – this is a slow-burn horror film. It takes place in an unsettling atmosphere, where all the characters speak with long pauses and sometimes have offbeat responses. The incredible score by Elvis Perkins (the director Osgood Perkins’ brother) creates an unbearable mood of evil that infiltrates every scene (including moments that seem sinister, but on reflection weren’t at all). This film and It Follows are showing the amazing (and sadly all too under-appreciated) work done by an ominous soundtrack. There’s not a lot of gore, and a lot of the “scary” moments are left to the imagination in darkly lit scenes. And the film actually has a pretty solid theme underpinning all the ghoulish stuff about loneliness, loss, and alienation.

Last year, horror aficionados were praising The Babadook and It Follows. In 2015 (or 2016…or the year this comes out), fans will be talking about February with the same reverence. At the very least, I will be.

Grade: A

Sidenote: This is Osgood Perkins’ first feature. It’s such a self-assured debut that I’m not entirely certain that can be true. Unless he made a Faustian bargain to make it….

TIFF 2015 Review: Green Room


Punk rockin’ in “Green Room”

It’s hard to be a musician these days. Songs and albums are downloaded as if they are free promotional materials and the piracy is justified as increasing an artist’s fan-base so they can “make the real money” in touring. In Green Room, the band is touring, but they’re not making any money. In desperation they take a solid gig that will pay the equivalent of roughly $85 per band member – “the real money” – at an isolated neo-Nazi clubhouse hidden in the middle of a forest. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best idea.

The punk rockers (Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner) start their gig off with a bang – by insulting the entire room by playing a cover called “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.”They get some death glares, and a few bottles thrown at them, but when the band starts their actual set, the crowd is surprisingly receptive. I guess they appreciated that it was a pretty ballsy – and punk rock – type of thing to do. Unfortunately for the band, they end up seeing something they shouldn’t see, and barricade themselves in the titular green room to try and survive the night.

Director Jeremy Saulnier has created another nail-biting thriller by throwing atypical and hapless heroes into deadly scenarios. Survival thrillers used to have gruff alpha-males that inevitably turned out to be ex-Special Forces (or ex-Green Beret, or ex-Navy SEAL, or ex-Boy Scout Troop Leader, etc.) with specialized and lethal skills that ensured they would see a sequel. But these characters don’t exist in Saulnier’s movies. In Green Room, it’s a quartet of punk rockers versus two handfuls of neo-Nazis. The punk rockers aren’t survivalists. They know how to siphon a tank of gas and one of them has some grappling skill to put an enemy into a sleeper hold. That’s about it. Admittedly, the neo-Nazis are deadlier, but they’re not that far off from our heroes. They just have better weapons. In Saulnier’s hands, the action is messy, the violence is brutal, and characters survive mostly by mishaps or chance rather than brilliant tactics or strategy.

The realism applied to the scenario seeps into the actor’s performances. Patrick Stewart plays against type as a villain, but his performance is pragmatic and understated rather than over-the-top. He plays the character as a man caught in a situation he doesn’t want to deal with, but must calmly figure out a solution to. He is effective and persuasive, and briefly convinces the rockers (and by extension, the audience) that he might be a reasonable guy about this whole thing. The punk rockers, meanwhile, are fully-realized characters with opinions on the value of live performance versus digital downloads, what record they would bring to a desert island, and how they really wouldn’t like to die by box cutter, pistol, shotgun, or vicious attack dogs.

It’s not quite a masterpiece (the film sometimes slips into unrealistic Hollywood moments that are in stark contrast to its sweaty-palmed realism), but it’s pretty damn close.

Grade: B+

TIFF 2015: Baskin


Baskin started off as a horrifying short film that garnered such praise and attention that it was expanded and developed into a feature. I use the word “expanded” in the sense that it’s still a short film with the same ideas, but now it’s ninety minutes long.

The Midnight Madness selections at TIFF have become my favoured festival picks. These are the type of films you won’t get to see anywhere else (like Hardcore, the POV action film that I will be seeing later in the festival) and pushes the boundaries on genre cinema – which is where all the fun stuff to watch is. Like all programmes, Midnight Madness is bound to have a few duds, and unfortunately that’s the one I got tickets to.

Taking place over one night, five Turkish policemen get a call for backup at an apartment building that looks like a haunted mansion hidden in the woods where the rent is probably dirt-cheap. The affordability and isolation of the location is probably what attracted the unsavoury types who live there – a bunch of ghoulish characters with dirty toilet paper wrapped around their heads, a horrible dental plan, and a penchant for walking and writhing on all fours. Oh, and they’re led by a wizened, scarred, and bald necromancer who requires a footstool to look his victims in the eyes. The casting director deserves some kudos for the actor who plays the evil leader – he has a unique and otherwordly look that is the creepiest part of the film.

Yada, yada, yada, the five policemen are captured by the ghouls (minus one who happily takes a large mallet to the head) and the remaining survivors spend an excruciating length of time being tortured by necromancer. The strains of adapting a short to feature length really shows during the second half of the film – whereas I imagine in the short there was only one or two victims to torture and torment, the feature adopts a “more is more” attitude and adds an additional two victims for diminishing returns. There’s only so many times you can watch a creepy necromancer lick a bloody knife before it becomes eye-roll inducing rather than shocking. In Baskin, that occurs around the fourth (or fifth) time.

Baskin could be the poster child for desensitization that future politicians will use as evidence of society’s moral decay. There is disturbing imagery in the film (and a weird sex sequence where a character is asked to “show his heart”) but it becomes fairly standard and boring as the film drags on. There’s no real empathy for the policemen (who are portrayed as obnoxious jerks), there’s no plot beyond the drive to the dilapidated apartment building, and the creatures, while terrifying in small doses, are overused. Despite the depravity and violence, the film overstays its welcome and incredibly becomes a self-parody where the only real suspense comes from wondering when the slog will be over.

Baskin is similar to a desperate circus geek (the geek that eats chicken heads, not the one that codes C++) doubling down on a disturbing act but revealing himself to be a one-trick pony. There’s only so many chicken heads one can eat before the act becomes a little tired. Same goes for demons gutting policemen.

Grade: D-

Sidenote:  There’s some Shining-esque paranormal powers that some of the policemen have, but it is woefully unexplained and adds little to the film, besides being a deus ex machina to conclude the film after the script has written itself to nowhere.

Better than the Real Thing: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Sometimes, watching the trailer is better than the real thing. Within two minutes, some previews get you so excited for a movie that you count down the days until it’s released in the theater and you immediately buy a ticket for the day it comes out. And then? Disappointment, generally.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the award-winning (and crowd-pleasing) Sundance film that was reportedly offered  a record-breaking $12 million for the distribution rights – although they apparently went with a different deal. It’s pretty typical indie fare – weird parents, quirky characters (like a heavily tattooed Jon Bernthal as a history teacher with the catchphrase “Respect the research”), self-consciously composed mise-en-scene and offbeat narration. It mostly succeeds at what it wants to do – tell a story about teenagers having to grow up too quickly in a situation they didn’t ask for – and has a particularly poignant message about how much we can still learn about a person after they have passed away.

But the film itself isn’t as good as its trailer. Check it out below:

The trailer hits all the right beats (and quirk) of the story, without overwhelming the emotions of the story itself. The actual film gets a bit too bogged down in cutesy details – Greg’s narration keeps reminding us that “it’s not a romantic story” and is transparently manipulative and self-conscious, the film relies a bit too much on the Criterion Collection parodies which stretches an already-thin joke to its limit, and the cutaway claymation scenes are overused that they induce eye rolls rather than laughs every time a subsequent one occurs.

The emotional wallop of the film is dulled because Greg is so self-absorbed and guarded that he doesn’t let any vulnerability through. When it comes time to express something other than sarcasm or cynicism, it doesn’t feel genuine. The film spends too much time building up the arms-length nature of Greg’s relationships (like calling Earl a “co-worker” rather than a friend) but neglects to include scenes of his defenses being incrementally torn down to let people in (at the end of the movie, I think Earl is still considered his “co-worker” rather than his friend).  Greg spends so much time proclaiming that he doesn’t care, that when the time comes that he does care, we treat it with a shrug because it’s too late. Think of a rendition of A Christmas Carol where Scrooge is miserly for three-quarters of the story and then undergoes a miraculous conversion to a kind and generous soul without being visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. It just feels false and you can see the screenwriter pulling the character’s strings.

That trailer though – easily worth the $12 million.


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