The Fifth Estate

The Toronto International Film Festival opener this year was ‘The Fifth Estate’ and admittedly I was pretty psyched for it. But, when I realized that the 30-year anniversary for ‘The Big Chill’ (which won the People’s Choice Award in 1983) was showing at the same time, I decided to wait for the film’s theatrical release. It is now here. And boy, what a disappointment.

Directed by Bill Condon, who helmed the last two ‘Twilight’ films (heh, you won’t see that in the quote adds), and based on two novels about the information-transparency site WikiLeaks, ‘The Fifth Estate’ doesn’t offer anything to interest its viewers until its final twenty minutes (which by then is too little too late).  

Benedict Cumberbatch was not much of a household name prior to this year. Mr.Cumberbatch was in three pictures that premiered at the TIFF this year (most people will recognize him as the villain in the latest ‘Star Trek’ movie). I enjoyed his performance as the editor and founder of the WikiLeaks site Julian Assange – the arrogant crusader spin and the intriguingly creepy ambiguity he brings to the character; though the white hair and flamboyant body language are Volturi-esque. The movie focuses on the relationship between Assange and German programmer partner Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Brühl).

Mr.Condon is now tackling more mature material though his MTV filmmaking sensibilities remain pubescent. The sight of seeing someone type away at a computer isn’t all that interesting; but the filmmaker’s fantastical attempts – whenever Julian and Daniel work, they are transported to some sort of sandy beach with a seemingly infinite number of desks and monitors– makes me feel that Mr.Condon hasn’t left the ‘Twilight’ zone. The script is able to create an international drama out of the hacking material, but there is nothing to involve the viewer – the movie is more interested in telling us what happened rather than showing. It supplies the subject, but not the inspiration.

The bouncy camerawork and electronica-filled montages (I recognized ‘M83’) only make the proceedings all the more painful. With a budget of $30 million, the filmmakers have no excuse not to use a steadicam.
The movie doesn’t provide us with a sense of its position on WikiLeaks – how the watchdog site’s unauthorized release of confidential information belittles state secrecy and government accountability. Such equivocation in theory should supply the film with moments of tension; but I would say that this is a muddled attempt at achieving fair-mindedness. The movie showcases the thrill of the WikiLeaks initiative but also points the finger when things have gone too far – this makes it difficult to determine what Mr.Condon is trying to achieve. Instead, the only existing tension is between the filmmaker and the subject. At the very end of ‘The Fifth  Estate’, the filmmakers offer Julian Assange a chance to tell us his thoughts about the film. Not the actual Assange – Mr.Cumberbatch. He replies with “*snort* The Anti-Wiki Leaks Movie”. The real-life Mr.Assange has been quoted to call the movie “a reactionary snoozefest that only the U.S. government could love” – him and I aren’t too far off on this one.

To me, it’s ‘The Anti-Social Network’. I admit, I like Aaron Sorkin more than some of you do (I watched eight episodes of ‘The Newsroom’ back to back this past Sunday). Despite whatever reservations you may have, there is no denying that his dialogue crackles with intelligence – the characters in ‘The Social Network’ spoke in a believably elevated way. This movie is in desperate need of that witty writing; there isn’t a single memorable line to be found here. The movie throws a lot at its central character – in terms of the freedom of the press and the future of the media; as good as Cumberbatch is, he just doesn’t have the necessary range to play the XL-version of Assange created by the screenplay. Boring. QED.


The hype is real. Though cinema has been around for over a century, there has never been a motion picture like ‘Gravity’. I wouldn’t exactly call it a perfect film; but it’s a perfect filmgoing experience, which is equally satisfying.

Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a mission specialist onboard a space shuttle to repair the Hubble Telescope. Out on a spacewalk to do that work, Ryan must not only contend with motion sickness due to lack of gravity but also the never-ending yammering of Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) who’s on his last mission. But because this is a movie, the fact that he is on his last mission means that something bad will happen – and does it ever. Soon, all space hells breaks loose in the form of debris from a destroyed Russian satellite. Before they can get inside, the debris destroys the spacecraft and cuts off communication back to Earth.  

The movie had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, which is where I was hoping to see it but tickets were off-sale almost instantly. I thought about waiting in the Rush line on the day of the premiere but took note of the fact that it would open in theatres in October; so, I sought out less commercial pictures (that did not have a distributor or a North American release date). In retrospect, I wish I had waited in the Rush line on the day of the premiere if only to get some insight into the filmmaking process behind this. What I do know (based on what I’ve heard from TIFF-goers): Cuarón said the movie took 4.5 years to make (a miscalculation given that the initial forecast was that this would be a one-year project). Mr. Cuarón was also pleased by the questions relating to the characters and themes as opposed to the technical questions – he saw the technical elements as a backdrop but wanted the thematic elements to bare more weight. His most difficult technical challenge was “gravity” – both the film and being bounded by gravity as the film takes place in micro-gravity. How does one make this happen? Once the theoretical constructs/figures were realized, how do the actors perform in these conditions? Cuarón confessed the challenge was more for those around him rather than himself – he said his job was easy.

I was blown away by ‘Gravity’. This is a gorgeous film and it does just about everything right in both big and small ways. From a technical standpoint, it’s astonishingly beautiful and intimately detailed; but, it is also precise in tone and a masterwork of controlled acting. The movie opens with a 13-minute tracking shot which is amongst the longest in Hollywood history and certainly the first of that length in 3-D. There is a speck in the distance surrounded by the infinite blackness which grows closer and closer until we realize that we’re looking at actual people. We get the sensation that we are actually watching Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in space – it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen and as I was watching the movie I couldn’t help but wonder “How did Alfonso Cuarón (or his technological wizard) do that?”

When the collision in the movie takes place, the camera moves so fluidly, gliding through the debris (and technical conventions of filmmaking) before closing in on Ryan – going right through the visor on her helmet to demonstrate the stark terror on her face. What a thrilling experience this was – I was tense the entire time.

The bravura opening makes the camera the star of the picture. But, we need to talk about Sandra Bullock – she won an Academy Award four years ago for her work in the ‘The Blind Side’ and she will be nominated again for her work here. For a long period of time, this is a one-person show and the movie relies on Bullock’s performance – she is incredible. Her character is a scientist, not an astronaut (though she was trained as one); she is in the most stressful situation anyone can possibly imagine. But, my goodness, what an impact she leaves simply through breathing, her voice modulation and her facial expressions. She conveys her character’s history, arc, and “battle of will and can’t” in the most subtlest of ways in the most extraordinary of circumstances. This is the performance of Ms.Bullock’s career; perfectly illustrating the impact of a catastrophe on the human psyche. George Clooney (as always) is charming and charismatic – but these traits aren’t used for character exposition here. His appealing character qualities help calm Bullock’s petrified character. This isn’t just Danny Ocean floating in space ready with the perfect line for any situation. The performers’ faces and voices bear the burden of carrying all of the meaning.  

We do learn a lot about these characters – it is essentially just the two of them (unless you factor in the voice speaking into their ears – Ed Harris; an ‘Apollo 13’ nod there). They have to learn about each other in a situation where every second counts – they’re tethered together, cut off from the Earth, and running low on oxygen. These two play off each other brilliantly.

Some idiots have complained to me about the movie’s believability and some incorrect science. This is a science-fiction movie. We don’t go into a movie like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ looking for realism. To quote a tweet from @peterhowellfilm “It’s a backwards compliment to the believability of #Gravity, a fictional space drama, that so many people are debating the science of it.” I noticed an “error” early on in the film – the proximity of the international space station relative to the Hubble Space Telescope; I believe they are actually in different orbits – knowing this, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment in the slightest. This could be why I’ve chosen to describe Gravity as an imperfect movie but a perfect moviegoing experience. Is there even such a thing as a perfect movie?

‘Gravity’ was the top-grossing movie at the box office last weekend and I suspect it will have many repeat viewings. I’ve expressed my loathing for 3-D in many previous reviews, but I strongly recommend that this movie be seen in IMAX 3-D; it is as mesmerizing an experience as you can ever hope for in this format. In fact, the 3-D is essential to the storytelling – this isn’t a gimmick to charge a premium for an inferior experience. Nothing in the movie — whether it be human bodies or space stations maintains a state of rest either on a vertical or horizontal plane. The 3-D renders the enormity of outer space – if a character recedes, they appear to be falling into a void. If someone approached me with $13.50 in their hand and asked “What movie should I see today?”, I would reach my pocket for $6.00, give it to the person and say “Go see Gravity in IMAX 3-D. You’re welcome.”

The budget for ‘Gravity’ was $100 million – this is less than half the budget for many of 2013’s big summer blockbusters. With $100 million, Mr.Cuarón was able to show us (ahem, Hollywood, take note) what wondrous things cinema is capable of. Cinema is still a young art form and I think the possibilities of film are unbounded; a film like ‘Gravity’ makes me believe that. This past summer, I may have been a little more cynical – for the most part, I saw expensively made pictures featuring great explosions but little heart or humanity. The “thinking man’s blockbuster” is a rarity – I hope ‘Gravity’ sparks this new genre.

Note: Having been to the Toronto International Film Festival this year, I was lucky enough to see many of the big Oscar contenders; based on the universal critical acclaim that ‘Gravity’ has received, many have offered me their prediction saying that this is the movie that will win the Best Picture Oscar. I still think it will go to ’12 Years A Slave’ (which was a great movie for very different reasons). Only time will tell….QED

Don Jon

If nothing else, ‘Don Jon’ will go down in movie history as one of the most perversely exaggerated uses of New Jersey accents. Given that his a movie about porn addiction, I’m surprised that I’ve chosen to use the word “perverse” to describe the accents in this movie – people don’t “talk”, they tawk in an ova da tawp sort of way.

I didn’t like ‘Don Jon’ as I was watching it and now that a few days have passed and I’ve had some time to reflect on my experience as I write this review, I dislike it even more. The movie is sort of like a comedy version of ‘Shame’. Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears three different hats – he’s the main star, writer, and director of ‘Don Jon’. I like him. I wish him all the best in the future as a filmmaker. He shows signs of promise but this is an entirely misguided effort – a failure of a film that is bad enough to make the purely innocent and untouched open their laptops and download gigabytes of obscene X-rated pornography.

Jon is a buff young dude. He hits the clubs on Saturday night, ogles some girls with his boys – they score the hotties on a scale of 0-10 and Jon makes his move on the one scored the highest (I don’t know if this is based on Jon’s score or the arithmetic mean of the three) . His technique is so good, his friends call him “The Don”. One day, he lays his sights on Barbara (played by Scarlett Johansson in a Razzie-worthy performance). Jon tries to overcome his pornography addiction when he enters a committed relationship with this woman.

The club moments are shot like montages; and so are Jon’s routines – we see him go to the gym, vacuum his place, dish out road rage en route to church, confess his sins to the Priest again and again and again. The quick cuts of these scenes are annoyingly repetitive.

Jon is addicted to porn because he can’t lose himself in another person. When the big moment between him and Barbara happens, he complains about the fact that she wanted to do it in the missionary position; and in a way, he believes that is how all women would like to have sex. Given his luck at the nightclub, I find it incredibly difficult to believe that he wasn’t able to find anyone who was willing to do anything even remotely freaky. Maybe he should try picking up at another club (at least it would permit a minor variation in the club montages).

Most of the women in the movie are unlikable. Jon’s overbearing mother seems only concerned about not having any grandchildren. Barbara as the arrogant, high-maintenance girlfriend is easy on the eyes, but when she speaks, it is the sound of nails on a chalkboard. I haven’t even mentioned Esther (Julianne Moore); but, because she is Julianna Moore, we know that this character is not going to be played for laughs. And Jon’s sister (Brie Larson) remains muted until the very end when she delivers her one line of dialogue – because she has only one line of dialogue, what she says has to be profound; am I right?

At least we get to hear Tony Danza droppin’ f-bombs – such are the meager joys of ‘Don Jon’.  

‘Shame’ was a great movie – we were viewing the Michael Fassbender character from under a microscope and the close-ups on his face show us a man exorcising his sexual demons. We didn’t like him but we didn’t want to see him continue along the course of self-destruction. ‘Don Jon’ wants you to love its protagonist and tries tirelessly to get you to love him. The more the film tried, the more I resisted. As a filmgoing experience, the movie’s commentary about the pleasures and limitations of masturbation didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know. Even more unforgiving is the fact that this is a comedy and I didn’t laugh very much. QED.


Shockingly, ‘Rush’ isn’t a documentary about everyone’s favorite Torontonian band. Those of you who love Formula 1 (I do not) should be familiar with the story: two 1970s era egotistical drivers – James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) compete for first place in the fast and furious world of Formula One racing. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t require you to know anything about Formula One or what took place in this sport during the time period – this is a very thrilling picture.

Both Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl capture the physical look of their real-life counterparts and deliver great performances (particularly Daniel Bruhl who I predict will be receiving a Best Actor Oscar nomination – and it is worthy). Both perfectly capture the characteristic traits that make them rivals; Hunt – the playboy who drives recklessly and Lauda – calculating the odds and mitigating the risks accordingly.

This is an extraordinary film from a director (Ron Howard) who has had some big hits (‘Apollo 13’) and some big misses (‘The Da Vinci Code’). The terrific script by Peter Morgan (who also collaborated with Ron Howard on ‘Frost/Nixon’ in 2008) hones in one what makes these guys risk their lives each time they go to work – Lauda’s character states that he calculated a 20% chance of getting killed during each race. Hunt describes his car as a coffin surrounded by high-octane fuel – a bomb on wheels.

‘Rush’ is a great-looking movie – the pic looks and feels like it was made back in the days before disco. Credit cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (he’s worked on Danny Boyle’s movies) for his grainy cinematography that transports us back in time. There are some horrific car crashes (the movie earns its R-rating) – there is very little between the driver, the metal, and the flames. I saw ‘Don Jon’ the same weekend and dumped on that movie for its overly repetitive quick edits. It is a challenge to make a movie about racing not feel repetitive and Howard succeeds admirably in this regard – whether it is the use of close-ups to make a grand sport like auto racing feel intimate or the first person point of view camerawork from inside the car. This is a stylish picture that never (pardon the pun) feels like it is just spinning its wheels.

I ended up caring about the main characters (which is uncommon in today’s moviegoing world) and how things would unfold for them. Mr.Howard doesn’t pick sides – this mano-a-mano between two very different people fighting for the same thing; you don’t want either of them to lose, despite their many human flaws which have been brought forward in this story. I think the real-life James Hunt would have loved this movie. QED.