The Anniversary

A Toronto couple, Teresa (Deborah Hay) and Sam (Ben Carlson) reaching middle age with nothing but disappointment to show for their 20 year relationship, come to a breaking point on their 20th wedding anniversary when Sam decides to take a jog and never returns.

The Anniversary is an absorbing chamber piece that takes place during one night in a downtown Toronto home where Teresa has invited a few of her family and friends for a dinner party while undergoing a personal crisis due to her husband having walked out on her exactly one year ago.

Toronto based Canadian actress/writer and director Valerie Buhagiar known for such films as Adriatico My Love (2011) Expecting (2002), Highway 61 (1991) and Road Kill (1989), and having directed many short films, has just completed her first feature length film as director. The Anniversary was made on a meager budget in ten days during a cold Toronto December, and is a well-crafted quirky slice-of-life drama that has many off beat comic moments. 

Unable to move on from the mysterious disappearance of her husband, Teresa withdraws suffering from loneliness and depression. But she continues to hold out hope that one day he will return, perhaps even tonight. “He just needed a break”

The theme of loss and hope is prevalent as all the guests at the party seem to have lost something and are disappointed with who they have become. We wonder if Sam will return as we learn more details about the couple’s relationship through a varied group of characters who all have their own interpretation of the unexpected walk out, and are dealing with the crisis in their own way. 

The film explores underlying questions of relationships and marriages, and society’s expectations, but feels much lighter due to the ensemble cast’s often humorous and awkward interactions. The characters are well written, each having a life of their own and feels at times like an intervention support group with people of varying ages and backgrounds.

There is a middle aged business man Carl (Colin Mochrie), who has hopes of stepping in as Teresa’s boyfriend, next is Teresa’s gruff mother who wants to put some sense into her daughter, a lonely middle aged singer who had an affair with Teresa’s husband, there’s Teresa’s son Nicky who has withdrawn into his world of rap music and art, a university art student who had worked with Sam, and a neighborhood security guard who is also looking to court Teresa.

The atmosphere is thick with a simmering crisis where everyone is in denial and there is no consensus on reality or truth. Everyone seems to be in a state of limbo, waiting for something to be resolved or a moment of clarity so they can move on with their lives. 

The performances of the ensemble cast generally feel spontaneous and improvised making for some amusing moments and writer-director Buhagiar skillfully imbues the film with a gentle charm using music by local artists like Manteca, Michele McAdorey, Mary Margaret O’hara, and Lyne Tremblay helping give the film an alluring and hopeful quality.

JP

Kabukichô Love Hotel (Sayonara Kabukichô)

Kabukichô Love Hotel is a sweet heartfelt, thought provoking examination of a little-known and mysterious aspect of Japanese culture through genuine love stories of people from all walks of life who converge at a ‘love hotel’; a Japanese version of a sex themed hotel in Shinjuku district of Tokyo. 

It’s a hilarious unusual but honest, sensitive look at the lives, loves and ambitions of a group of ‘Love Hotel’ employees and their customers. We get to know the young troubled staff and their work environment intimately as we follow multiple storylines during a typical night at the Atlas Love Hotel over a 24 hour period. 

Rarely fazed by the illicit events that occur on a typical shift, they sometimes find themselves and their clientele in awkward predicaments. Clearly not their idea of an ideal job they lament their prospects while passing the time hanging out in the employee lounge dreaming of future aspirations.

Unique to Japan, where there are all manner of such seedy but colorful establishments in the entertainment districts, they are frequented by couples who want some privacy and a quick discreet getaway where and they can pick from a variety of small romantic themed rooms of their choice on an hourly or overnight basis. 

Director Ryuichi Hiroki has a personal connection to these characters and this shadowy district, having grown up close to one of these hotels. One senses that this film was a labor of love for him. The 61 year old director, who started out making soft porn films, has a talent for getting the most intimate and genuine performances out of his young ensemble cast who find themselves in the strangest and most embarrassing of situations. He skillfully reveals intimate and touching moments taking place in bizarre circumstances. Some are sad and others border on comedy but all are sincere.

The atmosphere is like that of a close knit family doing unusual work and we are privy to the whole spectrum of experiences that transpire during a typical day and night at the hotel, providing a revealing insider’s look at the intimate private sexual culture in Japan. 

Some of the down and out characters we encounter at the Atlas Hotel consists of a cleaning lady who is hiding a secret and keeping a low profile from the law, a young couple who want to save money to start their own business, and the young disheartened manager of the hotel (Shôta Sometani), who is shocked to discover his girlfriend with another man at the hotel while also having to confront his sister about acting in a porn shoot which is filming there. 

This film touches on some of the many social issues that Japanese youth are struggling with today. Often what brings people to these hotels are painful personal problems of loneliness, and sex in many cases is just a way to relieve or deal with that pain. 

A hit on the festival circuit, this extraordinary brave film transcends cultural boundaries and should find a broader audience outside Japan with its truthful depiction of human frailties and our strong desire for intimacy and love connections. 

JP

Downton Abbey

This is the first TV series I feel compelled to write about, it’s just that good. This highly acclaimed multi-award winning series from Masterpiece Classic has achieved a level of excellence that I associate only with high quality, big budget feature films, displaying top notch talent, writing and production values. And it has sustained this level of excellence throughout its entire five season run and is still going strong. I now know why this show has become such a worldwide phenomenon. 

The idea of a post-Edwardian era aristocratic family living in a large ancestral mansion with a staff of servants catering to their every need was a premise I initially felt reluctant to embrace and I felt was perhaps more suited to a niche Royals obsessed traditional English audience. I soon realized after watching only a few episodes that Downton Abbey has a far broader appeal. 

Marking the beginning of the end of British aristocracy, the show deals with the highly organized inner workings and politics between a diverse staff of service workers under a strict social hierarchy who keep the manor running as much as or even more than the aristocratic Crawley family members whom they serve.

This cinematic production feels like a lavish costume drama, with episodes of approximately one hour long each forming a continuous ongoing story; it easily lives up to and exceeds the standards of similar high budget films in the genre. The period drama follows all manner of lovable characters working and living at the Estate, from the kitchen maid to the Lord of the manor, the Earl of Grantham, and their often hilarious and intriguing interactions.

The large country estate runs like clockwork and everyone in it has their place and function. Despite individual conflicts and crisis, everyone pulls together as a family. Relationships and romances form in the unlikeliest of places by the unlikeliest of people all living under one roof. Keeping track of it all with so many characters is part of the fun. 

Downton is a complete fully realized world playing out against a backdrop of actual historical events in turbulent times at the turn of the century, deftly juggling multiple storylines simultaneously, as we’re kept engaged with the plotting scheming characters living and working within the halls of the grand Mansion known as Downton Abbey.

The accuracy and well researched wealth of historical details on display makes for an experience that’s as educational as it is delightfully entertaining. Reflecting on a truly epic era of change spanning from the sinking of the Titanic through to the Second World War, we are shown a new perspective on significant historical events that only a show of this length and caliber can achieve. This is what the British are after all so remarkably good at.

The estate itself takes on a character of its own as the home and sanctuary, passed down through the ages that everyone works to protect against an ever changing age of new technology and vanishing traditions at a time when many of these estates were falling into ruin and tolerance for such extravagant and ornate ways of life was waning.

Downton Abbey may be the first actual evidence I’ve seen, along with BBC’s Sherlock series, of that often used expression when describing the current era in television as being the new golden age of TV. This is a series that will stand the test of time with its universal stories of people from a bygone era struggling with life and issues not so far removed from our own. 

A warning to anyone embarking on their first adventure in this grand world of Downton Abbey, no matter where you pick up the story, it will grab you with its charm, wit and social commentary bringing you under its spell as it has so many others.

JP

Burden of Dreams

Burden of Dreams (1982) is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the people and places involved in the making of Werner Herzog’s jungle epic Fitzcarraldo (1982), the story of one man’s impossible dream to bring Opera to the Amazon jungles of South America as a metaphor for conquering our darker primal nature through enlightenment by enchanting the Peruvian natives with music.

Les Blank was hired to document the making of this grand sweeping adventure tale as it was being shot in the most isolated and inhospitable tropical forests of Peru. The herculean task of bring this film to life became just as harrowing as the adventure story it was depicting, which Herzog says is based on a news story he read.

The making of Herzog’s jungle odyssey Fitzcarraldo, is an epic tale of man’s struggle against nature that has much in common with the making of Apocalypse Now (1979), which was documented in the film Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991).

While on location Herzog’s cast and crew lived in the remote jungle for months among wild animals and tribes of native Indians. Indigenes tribes where used in the film as actors and we discover how the rivalries among these natives led to some extremely dangerous situations for the film crew.

At one point in the story of Fitzcarraldo, the eccentric character of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), obsessed with building an Opera house in the jungle, must find a way to haul his mammoth three deck riverboat over a steep hill between two river tributaries. With the help of the Machiguenga and Asháninka Indians using only the raw materials found in the jungle, they must clear the rainforest by hand to create a land passage through the jungle.

The jungle and the enormous river ferryboat become characters in the film symbolizing the grueling up-hill struggle of one man’s passion for Opera music. Herzog likens it to his own chaotic and sometimes absurd battles to get his films made. He says ‘If we don’t strive to realize our dreams than life is meaningless’. 

Coming from a documentary background and for the sake of art and realism, Herzog attempts to achieve this part of the film by doing it for real; actually bulldozing a path through the jungle and pulling a real life-sized riverboat over a large steep chunk of Peruvian jungle.

Much like the heavy unwieldy riverboat slowly being dragged through the mud, the film production is eventually bogged down and engulfed in its own mounting obstacles that include financing, politics, accidents, conflicts with the crew and the natives, weather, and the wild unpredictable antics of the lead actor Klaus Kinski.

Herzog and Kinski’s collaborations have become legendary, an infamous partnership that spans 5 classic films including Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Cobra Verde (1987), and their earlier classic jungle epic Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972).

This extraordinary documentary is a must-see for anyone interested in movies, filmmaking and anthropology, and a perfect companion piece to the film itself. Fitzcarraldo is Herzog’s magnum opus, his most ambitious masterpiece and a timeless piece of art, and this document of its making is invaluable for its insight into the process and motivations of those involved in its creation.

JP

Whiplash

A throwback to art school dramas like Fame (1980), without the spontaneous singing and dancing in the streets, Whiplash takes place in the musty wood paneled halls of a music conservatory where one notorious teacher is determined to bring out or break out the best in his music class. But are his extreme methods crossing the line between inspiration and psychological abuse?

Essentially a two person drama focused on a mentor protégé relationship, we follow Andrew (Miles Teller), a first year jazz drumming student, as he tries to impress and win the admiration of the most demanding and merciless music teacher in the country. 

Unlike the apathetic, languid Mason in Boyhood, this intense coming-of-age tale takes its subject on a harrowing journey in pursuit of perfection and what it takes to be great at something, taking the adage that greatness is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, or in this case blood sweat and tears, to extreme levels.

The volatile Mr. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) gets results because he’s a brutal disciplinarian who accepts no excuses and runs his jazz orchestra class like a boot camp, kicking anyone not up to his standards out without a moment’s hesitation. He is the Chef Ramsey (Hell’s Kitchen) of music school instructors played brilliantly by J.K. Simmons, known for his role as obnoxious newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-man movies.

Andrew is in for a rude awakening when he first arrives in Mr. Fletcher’s class. However, his desire and stubborn determination to be the best is so strong that he will not be so easily discouraged from his goal, including having a cymbal thrown at him, relationship demands or well-meaning parental advice. 

Mr. Fletcher believes that “there are no two words more harmful than ‘Good job’” which indicates his philosophy that teachers/mentors should always encourage their students to continue to strive for better work and not to settle for anything less than their highest potential. The danger is that some people can be pushed too far and will not be able to live up to the instructor’s high expectations which may result in depression and suicide.

Whatever your opinion about nurturing talent or teaching techniques, this film is an eye opening wake-up call and a must-see for anyone wishing a career in the arts. The message is an important one. How much would we sacrifice and push ourselves to achieve our dreams? 

Visually, Whiplash lives up to its title with rapid fire close up snapshots of instruments, sheet notes and anguished concentrated faces edited together with heart pounding orchestra Jazz music that is absolutely riveting and mesmerizing.

Music and Jazz lovers will connect with the film’s hard hitting passionate love for the art form and pursuit of excellence. Everyone else will definitely get an education they won’t soon forget and be entertained at the same time. 

The performances are first rate especially that of J.K. Simmons as the instructor, who has been winning accolades and awards at every award show. His Oscar nominated performance is the surest bet to win this year for Best Supporting Actor award. 

You may need to check your ego for injuries after seeing this exceptionally brave and daring drama that will leave you transfixed and shell shocked. 

JP

Wild Tales

The slogan on the Spanish poster of the Argentine film Wild Tales (2014) or Relatos Salvajes reads “We all have our animal side” and it certainly lives up to its promise of savage stories so rabid that they seem to be more closely related to the primal behavior of the animal kingdom. 

Oscar contender for Best Foreign film, Wild Tales is a collection of six short films that take place in various locations around present day Argentina with a running theme of how frustrated people in bizarre situations can explode, losing all civilized pretensions and inhibitions.

These daring revenge stories begin innocently enough; a casual conversation between travelers on an airplane, a waitress serving a patron in a roadside diner, a driver enjoying a scenic ride on a winding highway through the mountains, a demolition engineer picking up a birthday cake for his daughter’s birthday party, a newlywed couple enjoying their wedding reception, but these events suddenly erupt absurdly out of control beyond what anyone would imagine possible.

The violent tales of operatic mayhem are exhilarating, depicting such common frustrating occurrences in contemporary Argentine society as having your car towed for no reason and having to pay to get it back, or dealing with road rage when confronted by a driver who gets under your skin, or the corruption of the callous wealthy who have no regard for the less fortunate, or discovering your husband’s infidelity on your wedding day.

I’ve heard many stories or urban legends of the volatile Argentine temperament and the frustration with a corrupt justice system that prompt people to settle their own disputes often in violent ways. But until now I have not actually witnessed a depiction of what director Damián Szifrón from Buenos Aires has said he personally experienced in similar shocking situations.

The film is a high octane, often insanely hilarious and outrageous black comedy with Pulp Fiction (1994) inspired energy and humor but without using any guns. You almost expect Dick Dale’s surfer rock rendition of ‘Misirlou’ to play after the opening sequence. The mostly Spanish audience I saw it with, were in stitches from the opening segment to the end.

Visually, all the episodes are innovatively presented adding a bold visual dimension that gives the film a polished sophisticated look. But it’s clearly the authentic engaging performances by the ensemble cast that give the film its powerful satiric punch.

Two of my favorite segments, one called ‘Bombita’, stars the superb Argentine actor Ricardo Darin who is well-known for his roles in Nine Queens (2000), The Aura (2005), and The Secret in Their Eyes (2009). 

Another great segment involving road rage is called ‘Road to Hell’ and stars Leonardo Sbaraglia, who I recently saw in another Argentine film called Aire Libre (2014) – click on link to read my review - at the Toronto International Film Festival, is one of the funniest things you’ll ever see.

Wild Tales has been playing the festival circuit to enthusiastic crowds and critical acclaim around the world since it was first shown at the Cannes film festival in May 2014. Its intense brutal action stands out, making for a truly gripping experience that’s not afraid to show humans at our most vulnerable and barbarous.

Make this brilliant, hysterically courageous film a must-see and judge for yourself. It’s an unforgettable experience that will not disappoint.

JP

Begin Again

Bask in the warm glow of this exuberant feel-good romance. There are so many wonderful things going for this film including a great cast of actors who can sing, and singers who can act. This movie is not a musical but it is music driven and some characters do sing because they happen to be singer-songwriters performing in various New York locations.

If you loved Alan Parker’s soul music film The Commitments (1991), you will also love this movie. Both are about community and like-minded people and musicians from different walks of life coming together to make great music and a name for themselves while attaining new heights and reconciliation in their personal and professional lives.

A washed-up alcoholic middle aged New York music producer Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) is fired from his job at the music studio he co-founded because he finds himself at odds with today’s changing corporate mind-set of a profit driven production environment that dominates the music business. 

Meanwhile, in another part of town, a young songwriter, Gretta (Keira Knightly), suddenly finds herself alone after being dumped by her longtime partner, a singer-songwriter on the verge of landing a major label, while in town to help him produce his new album.

Drowning their sorrows, these two sad souls both end up in the same bar one night. When Gretta is pressured onto the stage by her friends to sing one of her songs, she immediately draws the attention of Dan, who is entranced by her song and sees great potential in her. From there, these two people, who were at the bottom of their emotional strings, suddenly find new inspiration to be better than anyone would have imagined them capable of.

When his studio is unable to see the potential in Dan’s new prodigy, he decides to help her make a demo by gathering some backup musicians and recording her songs in outdoor locations around well-known parts of New York City. What follows is a spontaneous joyful musical journey of expression that’s inspiring to see and hear.

Begin Again has a great message about passion, the joys of music and being true to yourself while at the same time being extremely entertaining with lots of songs and great performances by a fun cast. It’s a satisfying film with genuine characters that’s also about how today’s music industry has changed to become a dishonest business taking the music away from its authentic artistic roots.

Written and directed by the Irish filmmaker John Carney, well known for another fine film about musicians, the Sundance Audience Award winner Once (2006), has once again given us an exceptional and inspiring charmer of two people coming together in the unlikeliest of circumstances, and is nominated at this year’s Oscars for Best Song – Lost Stars, performed by Adam Levine who plays Gretta’s ex-partner in the film.

Begin Again, like its characters and the songs they write, is a genuine soulful gem among the big studio hyped block busters that deserves our attention and will not disappoint those who seek it out and put their faith in this delightful little film from the heart.

JP

Force Majeure

A luxury ski resort with all the modern conveniences catering to a wealthy clientele nestled among the scenic snow covered mountain peaks of the French Alps, is the setting of a tumultuous anguished ski holiday for a modern Swedish family. 

Husband and father, Thomas, has taken some time off from his job to spend quality time with his wife, Ebba and their two kids, enjoying some much needed relaxation and escape from the daily distractions of the modern rat race.

Soon after arriving, Tomas’ manhood and leadership is called into question as he comes under increasing attack and scrutiny by his wife and children after an impulsive slip in judgment has him abandoning them during a crucial moment of fear when they needed him most to be the alpha male protector. 

Force Majeure is the French name for an extraordinary event. It’s commonly used in contracts between two companies absolving both parties of liability if either party is unable to fulfill their obligations due to an unforeseeable or unavoidable crisis such as an earthquake, power failure, riot or strike etc.

As the ominous mountains looming over the collection of precarious ski lodges threaten to unleash the fury of an unexpected avalanche, we get a sense of impending danger among the towering altitudes overshadowing the vulnerable chalet buildings. Muffled sounds of distant explosives are heard echoing throughout the day and night in an effort to control the risk of a snow slide that will keep the skiers safe. 

Much like the cascading white storm which is the catalyst that causes a major crisis in the relationship of the vacationing Swedish couple, there is a lot of pent up anxiety and resentment under their calm icy exterior. Our seemingly typical nuclear family is showing signs of dysfunction, no longer conforming to our traditional preconceptions. 

Ebba has good reason to be concerned. She expects her husband to be the selfless protector and provider that men have been raised to emulate, but somewhere along the way our society has changed so much that we can no longer rely on those traditional role models from the past.

Director Ruben Östlund’s visual style deftly reveals the growing turmoil just beneath the surface through banal scenes of intimate routine and subtle non-verbal behavioral gestures.

Visually, the film is almost Kubrick-like in the way it uses titles as each day passes, showing still shots of a majestic primordial mountainscapes juxtaposed with formally framed designer interiors and manicured ski slopes accompanied by the repeating Vivaldi Concerto No. 2 in G Minor also known as ‘Summer’ from the Four Seasons. It’s almost like The Shining (1980) as we gradually witness the cracks forming in the family facade until it snaps and there’s a downward slide to a complete breakdown.

The family eventually comes to an uneasy conclusion that the patriarch is not without his faults and vulnerabilities. Under certain extraordinary circumstances, the marriage contract may be nullified, subject to the Force Majeure clause when either half may not behave as expected or provide the support they feel is required of them.

Winner of the prestigious Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the Cannes film festival, the film asks revealing questions about masculinity and men’s roles in modern society, provoking stimulating conversations among couples.

JP

Big Eyes

If you had a wife with a talent for art, but who lacked the drive to promote herself and her work, which just happened to be your specialty, what would you do? 

Big Eyes is Tim Burton’s ode to the sensitive shy artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and the people who helped and took advantage of her. It’s a biographical film whose story is as strange and captivating as her paintings.

Keane’s unique trademark style consisted of eerie lost girls known as waifs with dark eyes as big as pancakes that looked straight out at the viewer. Margaret painted her subjects with oversized eyes so sad and lonely that they appeared out of all proportion to the rest of the faces that were sometimes set among dingy stark alleyways. 

The driving force behind the popularity of Margaret’s big eyed paintings in the 1950s and 60s is a charming self-promoter and plagiarist Walter Keane, played with relish by Chistoph Waltz - Django Unchained (2012), who claimed to be the creator of Margaret’s paintings, believing that people wouldn’t buy or pay as much for works by a female artist. 

Walter Keane’s crime was not that he promoted his wife’s work and made her paintings an international sensation, although some might argue that it was a crime of bad taste. His crime was that he insisted that he had painted them himself and then convinced his wife to play along by hiding the truth. 

What’s the harm in a little white lie if it brings riches beyond your imagination? After all, he was the one who had done all the promotional leg work, coming up with the ideas to get her paintings noticed by the biggest celebrities and they were both benefiting from all the fame and money coming their way. 

Tim Burton who is an avid collector of Margaret Keane’s popular doe eyed portraits has created a beautiful, sometimes hilarious and thoroughly enjoyable film which doesn’t even look much like a typical Tim Burton film.

Big Eyes is a movie that’s most like one of Burton’s other fun charming conman tales, Big Fish (2003); about a man child who’s living in an imaginary world of wonder. Some comparisons can also be drawn to the documentary My Kid Could Paint That (2007), a controversial story about a father who claimed that his 4 year old daughter was a prodigy who painted abstract art that sold for thousands of dollars.

Amy Adams plays the conflicted and frustrated artist who longed to be recognized for her talents but was kept isolated from her friends and family by her dominating husband to prevent her from revealing the fraud scheme and losing everything they’d achieved.

But it’s Christoph Waltz who almost steals the show with his charming maniacal performance as the sly manipulative Walter Keane, whose unfulfilled ambitions of being a famous artist drove him to plagiarize other's work instead.

Margaret painted from the heart and her prolific work acquired many admirers including Andy Warhol. She believed that the eyes were the window to the soul and she was able to express the essence of people and animals through her unique portraits. 

This film works as an eye opener that may anger and amaze those who are not familiar with the phenomenon of Margaret Keane’s influential surreal Big Eyes art. At 87 her passion for art continues and she is still painting today. 

JP

The Imitation Game

“Sometimes it’s the people that no one imagines anything of, who do the things no one can imagine”

This often repeated quote from the film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbach, is certainly an apt one for this story of British attempts to break the unbreakable Nazi Enigma code used by the Germans to communicate secret messages during W.W. II, which was cracked by a man with a passion for crossword puzzles.  

The story is a fascinating one that puts W.W. II’s allied victory over the forces of aggression in a whole new light, but I’m not sure this film does it justice. The focus of The Imitation Game is on the English mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing, who not only broke the code but invented the forerunner of the modern computer in the process and was eventually recognized as the father of computer science. 

Like The Social Network (2010), the story is more about Alan Turing’s relationship or lack thereof with his colleagues and his strange anti-social nature, than it is about the Enigma machine or how Turing’s computation machine actually worked and helped to break the German codes. Either the movie doesn’t trust its audience or just isn’t interested with the technical aspects of the story and touches very little on the war itself and the bombing of England by Germany.

Realizing that solving the problem of cracking the enigma code, which changed every day with 590 million new permutations each day, had possibilities that were too numerous for anyone to figure out in a 24 hour period, Turing concentrated his efforts on building a giant calculator using alphabetical symbols that would be able to “break every code, every day, instantly”, using mathematical principals.

Extremely arrogant and condescending to his colleagues, but also brilliant, Turing is here portrayed as a British version of Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory or Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network (2010). He could be difficult to work with and had a single minded focus on cracking the code and thus winning the war.

The structure of the film, as with The Social Network, starts with a framing device that has Turing being interrogated by police after his arrest for indecent behavior in 1951, and we flash back as he tells the unusual story of his secret service during the war.

Using intelligence provided by Turing’s team, leaked disinformation and secret lies at the top levels of government the Allied forces eventually gained the upper hand, tipping the balance of the war in our favor. In the end it was a combination of elimination and luck that broke the code, but once it was cracked, the war still continued for years so as not to alert the Germans to the fact that their code had been discovered.

The film has a few too many clichéd dramatic devices and would probably have been better served by a more experienced director, but is helmed instead by Norwegian action director Morten Tyldum in his first big budget English film. 

Still, the film does an excellent job of dramatizing the lives of an intimate group of brilliant nerds stuck in a room agonizing over a solution that will end the war quickly while people are being killed by the thousands every day they failed.

JP

Point and Shoot

Part Boyhood (2014) and part Full Metal Jacket (1987), this extraordinary coming-of-age documentary follows a boy’s harrowing journey to manhood. We see him grow from naïve innocent kid to hardened revolutionary soldier choosing to put himself in the middle of the most dangerous Middle East conflict since the Iraq war.

The world is a scary and dangerous place, and so many of us have lost or given up on that time honored tradition of striking out on our own, making a name for ourselves in the world by going into the unknown and facing our fears.

But what if we had been less afraid and more courageous or foolish? Point and Shoot is the story of just such a person, Matthew Vandyke, raised in a middle class family in Baltimore, he is the sheltered only child of divorced parents and a pampered kid who had dreams of becoming the next Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker like many of us did.

His incredible quest for adventure and manhood would have been unthinkable even for the sanest and most physically conditioned thrill seeker, but for the scrawny Matthew, who is diagnosed with OCD, has strong phobias of causing harm to others and compulsively washes his hands, it's almost inconceivable.

Just out of University with a degree in Middle-Eastern studies, he decides to travel through all the Arab countries in North Africa on a 35,000 mile motorcycle trip, hoping the experience will make him into a man and the person he wants to be, while overcoming his phobias.

Matt admits to being inspired by his boyhood heroes he watched growing up on television and Hollywood movies like Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Before he leaves on his quest, Matthew decides to give himself an alter-ego calling himself Max Hunter and buys a camera to document every aspect of his trip with himself as the hero.

He spends three years traveling the Arab nations and makes many strong friendships along the way, especially a good natured, easy going soulful hippie from Libya. While in Afghanistan he visits many of the places where American troops are deployed and helps by becoming a war correspondent. The troops take a liking to him and eventually train him in weapons use. Now Max starts to feel more like his movie heroes.

Matthew seems more serious about life than most and takes his friendships and his challenges seriously. So when revolution breaks out in Libya and his Libyan friends are describing the violence and murder that the ruthless dictator Muammar Gadaffi is inflicting on them while protesting, like Luke Skywalker he immediately feels he must go back and help them.

Academy Award nominated director Marshall Curry, known for If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011) and Street Fight (2005), synthesized hundreds of hours of footage taken by Matthew on his travels and skillfully edited them into a compelling and riveting documentary.

Smuggling himself back into the now war-torn Libya, he manages to meet up with his friends. What follows is nothing short of incredible and shocking, giving us an intimate view of war and revolution in that country with unparalleled footage of the fall of a forty year totalitarian regime. The closest thing I can compare it to is another war documentary called BattleGround: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge (2004) by Stephen Marshall.

Point and Shoot will leave you humbled and inspired, and is a fascinating commentary on the meaning of manhood, proving oneself by going out in the world isolated from family support, and finding ones identity through the power of images and associations with the people and cultures that become a part of our life.

JP

Nightcrawler

Watching Nightcrawler, as disturbing as it is, is like watch a slow motion car crash; you can’t take your eyes off it. In that sense the film itself is much like the darker uncontrollable side of human nature it tries to illuminate.

A self-absorbed loner, Louis Bloom, roams the deserted nocturnal Los Angeles streets for opportunities to make money from anything he can put his hands on. He is the Travis Bickle of the 21st Century working the sprawling urban West coast. There is nothing he won’t do or place he won’t go to succeed in life.

Louis, (Jake Gyllenhaal), unlike Travis from Taxi Driver (1976), has a gift for corporate gab and is completely self-educated on the home computer. But like Travis Bickle he also has a disdain for people and an obsession for one special woman in the corporate world he desires to be a part of, who may just be as unscrupulous as he is.

With an over-developed sense of purpose and a single-minded focus and drive, he has learned quickly what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur and is fast-tracking himself into the highly competitive world of gathering on-the-scene disaster video footage. 

But Louis is no ordinary Videographer, he is a scavenger, a lean cutthroat hunter of bloody victims of shootings, stabbings and drunk drivers and he gets paid extremely well by the ever ravenous public appetite for tragic and graphic violent stories as they happen.

Tabloid media coverage of violence in the streets is to today’s viewers what the gladiatorial games must have been to Romans, and our appetite for graphic reality is still as strong as ever. 

Tracking police communications from his small used car with camera in hand, we get to see how Louis progresses from naïve amateur to ruthless capitalist. His skills quickly increase along with his ambitions as he learns from the other night crawlers around him and tries to out maneuver them to increase his own value and his video’s desirability. 

Soon he has a television news director, played by Rene Russo, salivating and eating out of his hands. But corporate lingo spouting Louis, who has taken entrepreneurialism to a whole new level, has even bigger plans than she can imagine.

Jake Gyllenhaal is mesmerizing and completely convincing as the creepy amoral Louis Bloom, having lost weight for the role to emulate the desperate coyote-like presence of the character.

As we watch this night urchin break every moral code, we as a society are outraged but at the same time enable him to continue. It’s strange as we try to decide who is worse; the criminal on the street causing pain and suffering, the media manipulation by the broadcasters or the scavenger who lurks unnoticed among us making a living off the misery of others? 

He’s not the kind of person you’d want to know or work for. He lives on the edge of our moral boundaries but at the same time he serves our human desire to see the worst in us during our worst moments. As Louis proudly states with a sincere smile on his face, “I'd like to think that if you’re seeing me, you are having the worst day of your life.”

JP

BIRDMAN

A surreal hallucinogenic riff on mid-life crisis, lost youth and a desperate attempt to regain relevance in an ever trending world, Birdman swoops in like a vulture picking away at the carcass of past glories with alternately hilarious and dazzling results.

The film takes place entirely in and around a famous old New York Broadway theater during the crazy maddening days of rehearsals and previews leading up to opening night. Much like Black Swan (2010) or The Dresser (1983), Birdman is one of those revealing backstage theater films that tackles the chaos and insecurities of a group of performers nervously preparing and trying to get their act together before the big night.

A young recovering addict asks an older character in the film “what would you want to do to me if you weren’t afraid?” The answer: “I would pluck out your eyeballs and put them in my head so I could see the world again the way I did when I was your age.”

That pretty much sums up the idea behind the story of a middle aged actor who once achieved fame for playing an iconic super hero, Birdman. He now struggles with his past to reinvent himself as a serious actor in a Broadway play which he wrote and directed.

In a desperate bid to shed his alter ego, Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) who is haunted by the voice in his head which sounds a lot like Batman, tries to launch a Broadway stage play to gain a more prestigious legacy as a serious thespian. Riggan, who seems to be out of touch with the new age of social media, wants desperately to be relevant again, to leave a lasting legacy he can be proud of the only way he knows how. 

Michael Keaton is perfectly cast here, as he was himself well-known for playing the legendary caped crusader Batman in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), another iconic superhero with a cult fan base, and bares all to give a riveting performance.

Alejandro González Iñárritu, who is known for making films with multiple interweaving storylines and filming in the most authentic immersive locations, skillfully transporting us with vivid and inspiring cinematography in films like Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006), has once again achieved an amazing technical and emotional feat with Birdman

Iñárritu, who just turned 51, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who won an Oscar for Gravity (2013), shot this film in what appears to be one continuous unedited take, a la Russian Ark (2002). But far from feeling gimmicky it works wonderfully. Even while time passes as we follow the various characters through their experiences, at no time does the camera stop moving or cut from one moment to another. We hover and glide through hallways and doorways as we turn and follow from one character to the next without any noticeable edits. Only a few subtle transitions are apparent near the end.

The camera moves organically around people and rooms following multiple stories as if invisibly eavesdropping on them while the soundtrack keeps a continuous rolling, clashing rhythm of offbeat jazz drum riffs skillfully improvised and integrated into the natural flow of the film by solo drummer Antonio Sanchez.

This highly entertaining film is more than just a fascinating feat of inventive filmmaking; it also makes poignant comments on the subtle and not so subtle ways that we refuse to be marginalized, even as we slowly lose touch with and stop relating with the ever changing world around us.

JP

FURY

With Remembrance Day approaching, Fury reminds us of the sacrifices that were made by so many young men and women during W.W. II.

We haven’t seen such a blazing and sobering W.W.II film since Days of Glory (2007), Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Defiance (2009), and there hasn’t been a tank film since Lebanon (2010). Tanks and tank footage are an integral part of many war films but now Fury brings W.W. II tank warfare to a whole new vivid level.

This is Das Boot (1982) with Tanks instead of U-Boats. We’re thrown in with a group of hardened American tank soldiers who have been fighting the Nazis from North Africa to D-Day landings in France and are now well into enemy territory; 1945 Germany, helping to give the final death blow that will end the war in Europe. But as Brad Pitt’s sergeant Collier says; ‘A lot more people have to die before that happens’

Director David Ayer, who brought us the excellent End of Watch (2012), delivers a worthy entry into the W.W.II war film from the Allied forces perspective. The story focuses on a young inexperienced battle shy recruit, Norman, who’s assigned to replace the tank gunner just killed in battle when the films opens and the effect it has on the rest of the group led by Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier.

Fighting the last remaining vestiges of desperate German resistance, while traveling from town to town, the Fury crew, who have a reputation for being the best at getting the job done, joins up with other armored tank divisions to liberate civilians who have been pressed into war by Hitler’s SS to defend the country.

As sergeant Collier takes the rookie Norman under his wing, he tries to teach him how to become a ruthless Nazi killer. The film is not afraid of showing us the brutal horrors of war, not shying away from the questionable morals of men pushed beyond their limits and some not so heroic behavior that may violate some of our common perceptions of the war. 

We get to know the tank soldiers intimately as they maneuver their death machine to destroy the enemy from inside a heavily armored hellish steel tight box on tracks. Working together like a well-oiled machine is the only thing keeping them alive. Their leader, the seasoned battle-scared Wardaddy, will stop at nothing to kill every last enemy but the violence he has witnessed seems to be taking their toll on him. 

Fury gives us a hair-raising tanks-eye-view of the war from inside the confines of an actual Tiger I W.W. II Tank. The images are violent and graphic but always authentic with an eye and feel for the time and the horrendous reality of fighting in tank warfare using real Sherman tanks. 

The spectacular fire power of the tanks is matched only by the strong emotional performances of the whole cast who clearly show extreme dedication in their mesmerizing portrayals that genuinely draws us into the human conflict. 

This gripping war drama keeps the suspense and the action coming at a steady unwavering pace. Memorable set pieces include a tank battle showdown with a German Panzer facing off with four Allied Sherman tanks and a tense confrontation between the tight-knit Fury crew after they enter a town held by fanatical Nazis who are using children to fight. 

Fury is well worth seeing for the intense grisly action and suspenseful drama set in a historically important time.

JP           

The Hundred-Foot Journey

The Hundred- Foot Journey is a feast for the eyes and heart. Film making has so much in common with great cooking and Swedish director Lasse Hallström is a master chef among film makers, choosing all the perfect ingredients to make this film the most palatable it can be for its audience.

After tragedy strikes a family from Mumbai India with a long illustrious reputation of cooking traditional Indian dishes, they are forced to move to Europe seeking a new home where they will re-establish their trade mark culinary excellence. 

Hallström is no stranger to satisfying comfort films having directed such appetizing feel good films as Chocolat (2000), Cider House Rules (1999) and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011). 

After a long arduous trek through several countries looking for a place with just the right culinary vibe, they eventually stumble across a quaint rural French village where the local market bursts with exceptionally fresh locally grown produce. 

Based on the best-selling debut novel by Richard C. Morais, the story is a sumptuous banquet blend of Ratatouille (2007), Chocolat (2000) and Under the Tuscan Sun (2003), stunningly filmed in the picturesque medieval country villa of St.-Antonin-Noble-Var in southern France.

Papa (Om Puri), the family patriarch immediately decides that this is the place to set up their new Indian curry house and sets to work creating a magical Indian palace that exudes spicy aromas wafting on the evening breeze right across the street into a long standing posh French fine dining restaurant. They quickly find themselves at war with the owner Madam Mallory (Helen Mirren), over cultural differences and the battle of tastes begins.

This is definitely a foodie film and a very good one too, with culinary clashes fusing traditional French cuisine spiced up with exotic Indian fare. So if you go in before having lunch or dinner you may find yourself coming out with a mouthwatering craving for Indian and French cuisine.

The garish bright and loud new Indian eatery does not sit well with the reserved local residents whose tastes are not used to the heavily spiced Indian dishes and the new restaurant suffers from lack of interest, but Papa has a few secret ingredients up his sleeve that will give his French rivals some real competition. 

An enchanting romantic fairy tale, this flavorful experience will leave you satisfied that you’ve cultivated your senses. Much effort was made to make the food, kitchens and cooking techniques look absolutely authentic and the scenic photography of charming old world villages will make you salivate as much as the orgasmic gastronomy on display. 

The film touches on many contrasting philosophical views of life; rural village vs. big city, traditional vs. innovation, sophistication vs. fun loving, modern vs. vintage, and money vs. passion, it all gives the film a visual dichotomy and food for thought.

Whatever your tastes, you will enjoy the rich, luscious emotional smorgasbord on offer and leave with fond visions of a unique toothsome film experience. 

JP                                   

Tokyo Fiancée

Tokyo Fiancée is a fun romantic cross-cultural charmer adapted from the autobiographical novel by Amélie Nothomb and based on her own personal experiences during the time she spent in Japan in 1989.

Obsessed with all things Japanese, Amélie (Pauline Etienne), a young adult in her 20s from Belgium, who was actually born in Japan, has just returned to the country where her heart is and where she feels most at home.

This film is a humorous heartwarming look at Japanese culture through the eyes of a bubbly wide-eyed westerner as Amélie goes on a personal journey of discovery and enlightenment. 

Pauline Étienne’s innocent comic performance is so captivating with her exuberant smile, pixie cut and stylish European fashion, that she keeps the viewer enthralled throughout the film. With the intention of making a life in Japan she begins working as a French tutor, giving private lessons to wealthy Japanese boys.

Tokyo Fiancée is very much a story of a flourishing romance between Amélie and one of her Japanese students, Rinri (Taichi Inoue). During their French lessons Rinri takes Amélie on tours to various parts of Tokyo to educate her about Japanese culture, and soon an awkward romantic connection between the two begins to blossom. 

Their romance quickly deepens further than expected given the culture clashes and Rinri’s disapproving parents. Western women are seen as too independent for Japanese men. But can they really overcome the ideological gap in their personalities to sustain a lasting relationship? 

If you enjoy romantic travel  and soul searching films like Lost in Translation (2003) or The Lover (1992), which are personal accounts of a secret romance abroad while discovering exciting and unusual new cultures, this is the film for you.

One of the funniest parts in the film is when she and Rinri go out one night with another expat and her Japanese boyfriend and a natural role reversal occurs when the couples are shown from the women’s perspective and the boys follow them like two puppies.

Amélie must do some deep soul searching of her own to find out how she really feels about Rinri after he proposes to her and she decides to go on a long solitary hiking trip to Mt. Fuji and the surrounding area to find some answers, leaving Rinri back in Tokyo.

The film captures the unique Japanese style of living and the charming village atmosphere of close-knit urban neighborhoods but also the sometimes difficult and lonely experience of living in a foreign country. As much as she loves Japan, Amélie loves her freedom and struggles with the idea of being tied down in a traditional marriage.

This is a delightful clash of cultures comedy that’s a thoroughly absorbing and enjoyable experience.

JP

A Girl at My Door

A Girl at My Door, the remarkable first feature film from Korean director July Jung is a brave and sharply observed drama about the ugly side of small town prejudices and thought-provoking inconvenient truths. 

We are introduced to a seaside fishing village on the Korean coast through the eyes of a newly arrived police chief, Young-nam from the capital city of Seoul.  She comes with her own psychological baggage after being reassigned but is determined to keep a low profile until she can return to the city.

This exceptional film keeps us completely entranced by the intensely captivating performances of Doona Bae as the new police chief and the story of a sullen ten year old girl, Do-Hee, who she finds wandering through the village late at night.

Curious about this glum girl’s strange behavior in her tattered clothes, Young-nam soon finds herself running to Do-Hee’s defense when the local kids, her drunken stepfather and crazy grandmother are regularly seen beating and abusing the defenseless girl.

There are many social issues that are touched on in this film about domestic violence and the state’s responsibility to protect children from abusive families. Korean films in general are well known for making jabs at Government incompetency and this film is no exception. 

The story is carefully set up from Young-nam’s perspective and we slowly discover more about the psychological damage the girl has suffered as she comes to seek refuge with the new police chief who is forced to take her in for a while to protect her from the village and her family.

Doona Bae brings the same intensity and piercing stare that she brought to her bow and arrow wielding character in The Host (2006). She is mesmerizing as we watch her battle with her inner conflicts and the town’s local bullies who seem to take pleasure in abusing the motherless Do-Hee.

Much like the fishing villages of Newfoundland that was so beautifully portrayed recently in The Grand Seduction (2014), A Girl at My Door was filmed in actual fishing villages around the Korean coastline and we get a sense of these insular communities and the small town politics that prevail there. 

Do-Hee quickly flourishes under Young-nam’s loving care and grows into a happy child over the summer vacation, but she must eventually return to her own home. And when Young-nam’s past comes back to haunt her, the only one who can protect the vulnerable Do-Hee is eventually arrested and the desperate girl is forced to take matters into her own hands.

The film makes a powerful statement about how the social system, like any government agency, fails the people they are there to protect in spite of their best intentions and is vulnerable to manipulation. 

July Jung is a powerful new voice in Korean cinema who I anticipate will be a force to watch. One of the best films at TIFF14.

JP