‘Snowpiercer’ has been at the center of a dispute between its director and its distributor, Harvey Weinstein (owner of The Weinstein Company). According to reports, Weinstein requested the removal of 20 minutes of footage before he would release the film. The director refused to cut it. I’ve met Harvey Weinstein. He can be really pressing. The director succeeded in keeping the film at the full length, but Weinstein decided to retaliate by relegating the film to a limited release in art house cinemas.

Damn the release controversy. This is why you may not have heard of ‘Snowpiercer’. It is currently on Video on Demand, so you can see it in the comfort of your own home and be blown away. However, it is playing (only) at TIFF Bell Lightbox; if you can make the trek there, I would urge you to do so. This is a movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen.

Based on the French graphic novel ‘La Transperceneige’, ‘Snowpiecer’ is the latest from Bong Joon-ho who gave us ‘Mother’, and ‘The Host’ (not the stupid ‘Host’ with Saoirse Ronan from 2013, I’m talking about the Korean monster flick from 2007). This is his first English film.

The plot: It’s the future. We’re screwed because apparently in an attempt to arrest global warming, we created a new ice age that caused the extinction of all life forms. What is left of humanity is living on a super train that is making its way around the world endlessly on the loop of the track. In the back of the train are huddled masses fed on protein bars, which are comprised of, well, you don’t want to know what is in them. They are kept in line by a combination of propaganda and brute force. Toward the head of the train, the more fortunate enjoy access to schools, nightclubs, sushi bars, greenhouses, aquariums, saunas, you name it. An unseen, quasi-folkloric entrepreneur is in charge, and a group of rebels decide to challenge his authority and the extreme preferentiality he represents. The plot moves its unwashed, soot-filled grimy characters from the rare section to the progressively pristine cars in the front. If this sounds like a big political metaphor, that is because it is. But, it is all very exciting.

Chris Evans gives a full-on movie star performance. Unrecognizably so as the darkly brooding hero with scruffy facial hair, a heavy coat, and a black wool watch cap. He is effectively subverting the Captain America persona that made him a superstar. There is substance and depth to his character. Tilda Swinton is amazing (as she always is) and almost as unrecognizable as Chris Evans in this with her prosthetic teeth and oversized church-lady glasses. The uniformly excellent international cast also includes Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Song Kang-Ho, Alison Pill, and Ed Harris.

‘Snowpiercer’ is so inspired and full of surprises. It is totally badass; I love this movie. Its structure and socioeconomic political allegory may have you recalling other great cultural works (including some of Terry Gilliam’s post-apocalyptic efforts; non-coincidentally, there is even a character named Gilliam), but this is no copycat effort by any means. It is wondrous to look at in the most varied, detailed ways.

Opening the doors to each new car provides a multitude of possibilities, with Marcos Beltrami’s solid score underneath it (without stepping out of line). Each represents a beautifully detailed, self-contained world. Each is a marvel in production design and art direction.

The script appears to be structured around the layout of the train. Each successive compartment has its own function and introduces another piece of the story. It makes for a fluid, fully captivating narrative. The luxurious forward section of the train remains unseen until the sixty-three minute mark (the exact midpoint of the film). And even though this section offers all the tangible benefits of upper class living, an inescapable sense of dread coils underneath.

On the outset, the idea of watching insurgents march through to the engine of an unstoppable train would appear as though the film would have to operate within the parameters of its visual and dramatic limitations. However, Bong Joon-ho is a playful and rigorous visual thinker. This is an unsettlingly stylish movie and an intelligent one. The premise is a big metaphor, yes, but it is an interesting and relevant one. I take no issues with an action picture that uses its genre tropes to engage our minds with consequential topics.

Despite its confined spaces, Bong also comes up with a number of inventively staged action sequences, the best of which is a first-person view of a pitched battle as seen through night-vision goggles as the train enters a long, dark tunnel. The camera is nimble, the editing quick.

‘Snowpiercer’ does function as a representation of our recognizable world, and it does provide some level of realism in terms of what happens in each of the cars, and their raison d’etre in order for the entire system to maintain a sense of equilibrium.

Bong Joon-ho does dazzling things with lighting not only to distinguish these sub-universes but also between the indoor and outdoor worlds and between light and dark. As the film’s heroes move forward, there is a gradual palette shift from the bleak, monochromatic, grimy, and textured to the lush, and chromatic. The more luxurious cars contain windows providing their inhabitants with a glimpse of the spectacularly snowed-in world around them. A lot of care went into crafting such a fully realized world.

The film’s black humor is punctuated with shocking bloody violence, the unfortunate long-running currency of humanity in extremis. Other moments are electrifying because they are so surreal – an uneasy confrontation or a classroom in which you see a teacher with an unexpected lesson plan. The control in the shifts of mood (within its train compartment-like structure) is astounding. The ending, which I won’t spoil beyond my reaction, is not conventionally satisfying (I suspect many will have an immediate “Huh?” reaction) but I liked the integrity of it. I viewed it as a combination of triumph and personal trepidation.  Some may see it as hopeful. Others may see it as misanthropic. Can’t it be both?

Even though the movie is very much a 21st century product in its hodgepodge of various styles, moods, and genres, there is something refreshingly old-fashioned about the way it tells its story and it’s adventurous exploration of human nature contained therein. This is a terrific, unforgettably bizarre, thrilling action parable. If you’re in the mood for allegory, see it. If you want a summer action movie that isn’t a “summer action movie”, see it. The sort of destruction and mayhem associated with big summer blockbusters are resituated inside a steel can. It’s not about comic book characters even if it stars Captain America. QED.





‘Boyhood’ provided me with one of the best movie-going experiences of my life. If it doesn’t end up on the #1 spot on my Top 10 Films of this year, then 2014 will be a record year in cinema.

A boy, and his family, grow and change over the course of a dozen years, but in ways we’ve never seen. That is because director Richard Linklater shot (on 35mm film) in 39 days over the course of a dozen years with the same core cast. No lookalikes plugged into roles. The making of this movie alone is so inspired – an audacious tightrope of an experiment.

What a risky undertaking. Cast members could have pulled out, changed their minds, withdrawn from acting entirely, or have scheduling conflicts with other projects. Ellar Coltrane plays Mason, the young man at the center of the film. It was a gamble to choose him as a round-faced, wide-eyed six-year-old. What if he grew up to be a terrible actor? The actress playing the boy’s sister is Richard Linklater’s daughter (Lorelei Linklater). What if six years ago she realized she didn’t want to be in dad’s movie? Fortunately for Linklater (and for us), everyone was joined in his commitment to the project. Ellar Coltrane blossoms into a young man with a striking physical resemblance to Ethan Hawke (who makes his eighth appearance in a Linklater film, this time playing the boy’s father).

“Cinema is far too rich and capable a medium to be left merely to the storytellers.” Peter Greenway once said. I have been talking about ‘Boyhood’ a lot since I have seen it; a friend texted me and asked what ‘Boyhood’ was about. A few moments go by. I still don’t have a response. It isn’t that there isn’t a story. But, there isn’t a plot in the traditional sense. Apart from growing up, getting older, and life itself unfolding around you. ‘Life Itself’, the title of Roger Ebert’s memoir which Steve James’ new documentary is based on, could have easily applied here.

The film’s ambition is matched by its execution. We see Mason grow from a first grader to a college freshman.  The movie is about the small moments from childhood you never forget, the major events that shape your future, and all that is in between. Listening to music. Arguing. Moving away from friends. Struggling to fit in a new school. Crying over a bad haircut. Suffering a first real heartbreak. Finding your passion. Deciding what you want to do for the rest of your life.

‘Boyhood’ runs at 166 minutes but it zips by, and by the time the credits roll, you won’t want it to be over.  Do you have any idea how rare that is? You feel so immersed with these people. It unfolds like a documentary truth. The cumulative sensation of caring deeply for this young man and the people around him ultimately sneaks up on you with a surprising punch. You truly feel as though you have gotten to know these people, and that they are real.

In the first scene which doubles as the movie’s poster image, we see Mason lying on his back in green grass, staring at the sky and daydreaming while waiting for his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) to pick him up. What is in his head? We don’t know. The movie similarly contemplates the fleeting nature of existence.

A divorced single mom, Olivia is raising Mason and his older sister, Samantha alone while the kids’ mostly absent father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) is on some selfish adventure in Alaska. Since the film is called ‘Boyhood, Lorelei Linklater’s character doesn’t get the same level of attention but has close to two-thirds the screen-time Ellar Coltrane has, and she steals every scene she is in as the annoyed voice of reason (we also see her grow from a precocious brat to a confident young woman).

We follow this family from 2001 – 2013. They weather a good deal of churn in their home lives. During this time, they move around a lot all over Texas, live in apartments and houses (and dorms) of various sizes. The movie is called ‘Boyhood’, but the world Linklater has conceived is grand enough to include motherhood. Olivia will find herself, go back to school, experience peaks and valleys financially, explore new romantic relationships, become a college instructor, and be an influential person within her community. She wants the best for her children but also for herself and makes some terrible decisions along the way. This is especially true as she looks to replace her ex husband and “fix” her broken family.  She is fixed on the notion that husband + wife + 2 kids = happiness (beyond the passage of time, ‘Boyhood’ explores questions about social conditioning, particularly normalcy).

One character in particular (an alcoholic played by Marco Perella) is an awful, abusive, terrible human being and one of the most appalling characters I’ve seen on screen in a long time. I noticed he has a “W” magnet on his refrigerator, so I know where his political allegiance lies.

Mason Sr. is sometime present in their lives as the bohemian free spirit enjoying the life of a non-custodial parent. At first, he seems like an eternal adolescent – his most prized possession is his GTO muscle car; he takes the kids bowling, camping, to baseball games, and to post campaign lawn signs for Barack Obama in 2008 whilst yanking out the McCain signs. He fully acknowledges that he isn’t the most responsible, reliable father in the world. And, like everyone else in the film, he changes and the years bring forth some wisdom (delayed maturation and all; he is maturing on screen along with his kids).

All the characters are complicated; they are all flawed, they make bad decisions, but they all figure it out, and you’re so invested in these characters because you’ve been with them all this time and because the movie is kind to its characters. The knowledge that comes back to you over and over as you’re watching it (that we’re watching them over a 12-year period) washes over you with warmth and poignancy. Mr. Linklater is one of the best filmmakers working today and is so humane in terms of understanding people’s foibles and not judging them for those mistakes. There is a lovely scene when Mason Sr.’s new in-laws, who live in rural Texas, give a teenaged Mason Jr. the gift of an engraved bible and a shotgun, and there’s nothing snarky or ironic about it. The gifts are given with good intentions and the gifts are accepted with good intentions.

There are many moments in this movie that are recognizable and human. One of the things I love that Linklater does is he very subtly weaves in references to technology and pop-culture to mark where we are in time.  Thankfully avoiding the trappings of coming-of-age movies, there is no voice-over narration, and there are no title cards announcing the passage of time. Mason and Samantha get a little older and change into someone else (new versions of their former selves). It’s also the changes in geopolitical references, or when we notice the music and technology change that we realize where we are in time. It’s tough for the filmmakers to do because they have to anticipate what will be recognizable in 2014 at the time they’re shooting it; in telling the story at a given point in time knowing the full product will be released years later.

‘Boyhood’ reminded me of my two all-time favorite documentaries – ‘Hoop Dreams’, and the ‘Up’ series. Both projects span a number of years in the lives of their subjects (a half-decade for ‘Hoop Dreams’ and the ‘Up’ films have spanned half a century and revisit their subjects every seven years). These documentaries were ambitious enough to take on this idea, but it has never been done within a narrative framework in such a compact span of screen time. Until now. And this makes ‘Boyhood’ a landmark achievement in cinematic history.  It is a pitch-perfect living time capsule. It channels the flow of real life. One minute, Mason is dressed up as a Hogwarts wizard in training to buy a copy of ‘Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince’; and then, just like that, his voice drops, he is sporting facial hair, wearing earrings and nail polish, and speechifies about his generation’s addiction to Facebook. Where did the time go?

But, beyond the gimmick of it, the film is well written, well acted, and very observant about just what growing up is like and the mistakes you make, and what you learn along the way (and what you don’t).

‘Boyhood’ is very tightly scripted the way the ‘Before’ movies are but it feels lucid and improvised. That’s the neat, tricky feat Linklater pulls off with the ‘Before’ movies. The big 30-minute argument at the end of ‘Before Midnight’ feels like you’re watching people in the moment tearing each other apart. In ‘Boyhood’, you feel as though natural, loose conversations are happening but the script acknowledges character pauses and speech imperfections.

‘Boyhood’ reminds us just how precious life is. And it does so without amping up the conflicts, the crisis, or the resolution. As an example, the movie examines divorce and its rippled effects with minimal emotion expressed. It allows us to feel the passing formative years without pushing every button emotionally. If Olivia’s story feels somewhat dismissive, I believe that the shapelessness could either be a consequence of its high ambitions or the filmmaker’s intention to remind us of appreciating what we have in our lives while we have them.

By the time young Mason is off to college and his mother finds herself feeling sentimental about his impending departure, we feel the same things about ‘Boyhood’ coming to an end, and about watching this child we’ve seen mature going out on his own into the world.  I mentioned the film’s signature moment of young Mason lying on his back looking at the sky. Twelve years later, he is still looking. But, this time, with someone next to him. He is about to begin a new chapter.

Don’t be daunted by the runtime. ‘Boyhood’ is only one minute longer than ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’. This is a masterful work of art. I would love to be able to check in with Mason and Samantha in another decade. It may be years before any other filmmaker can match the ‘Boyhood’s achievement. QED.

Best Films of 2014 So Far

I believe that 2012 and 2013 were two of the best movie years in recent memory. However, the majority of quality films were reserved for the end of the year (for both years, nine of the ten films that made my Best Of list were released in the final ten weeks of the calendar year). The first half of 2014 was better than the first half of 2013. Included below (in alphabetical order) are my Top 5 films of the year so far. Only films that opened theatrically in Toronto between January 1st and July 1st qualify for this list (film fest titles with impending release dates do not qualify). I suspect at least two of the films on this mid-year list will end up on my end-of-year list in about six months’ time.



‘Edge of Tomorrow’

‘Edge of Tomorrow’ directed by Doug Liman is a superbly entertaining, effects-driven black comedy. It isn’t so much a time travel movie as much as an experience. A military officer (Tom Cruise) is stuck in a time loop where he repeatedly relives the same day in which alien invaders ambush the military assault directed against them. Cruise has always been a likeable actor; he is 52 years old, and he is still an action star. But, age is finally bringing forth his vulnerability and this gives the film its poignancy. ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ is simultaneously about what it is about while also serving as a metaphor for the actor’s career: this is an actor you can’t bring down, even in Hollywood’s current universe of computer generated creatures, robotics, and explosions. Everything is of a piece and the results are dazzling – star, structure, set-up, script. This thing really moves, and it has a great sense of humor. We’re now halfway through the summer movie season and ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ still looks like it will be the summer’s best blockbuster. Currently playing in theaters.



‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

Wes Anderson is now one of my favorite filmmakers and I think this is because he has one thing most filmmakers lack – an original vision and one that is expressed seamlessly. The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is his most ambitious undertaking yet. A new lobby boy (newcomer Tony Revolori) at a 1930s era luxurious hotel assists the concierge (Ralph Fiennes) who is contending with the aftermath of receiving a priceless piece of art from one his late clients. ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is, among other things, a story about stories; or, at least how it provides weight to something seemingly meaningless. For those hoping that Anderson would take a new direction, this isn’t the movie where he does what you want him to. His distinct visual sensibilities remain intact, and he continues to elaborate on familiar themes, and present us with eccentric characters – they appear silly on the surface but contain a lot of depth. The movie is a blast, yes. But, it’s at the service of something more substantial. I was charmed (as I usually am with Mr. Anderson’s work) but didn’t expect to be as moved as I was. Currently available on Blu-Ray.




Pawel Pawlikowski’s’ ‘Ida’ (pronounced Eeda), a compact masterpiece that takes place in Poland in 1962, is about a woman who learns, days before taking her vows at a convent, that she is a Jew. Superb performance from first-time actress Agata Trzebuchowska as the title character. ‘Ida’ is both a road movie and a detective story. Little is stated directly; we infer from offhand remarks, and subtle suggestions. What’s also distinctive about the picture is the look of it – I was enthralled by it visually. ‘Ida’ is beautifully photographed; shot in inky black-and-white, deployed almost entirely in static long shots, and contained within a narrow frame that is almost square. This is an appropriate visual aesthetic given the characters’ initial black-and-white conceptions of the world. But most importantly, you’re wrapped up in this story – you care about Anna’s (Ida’s) fate. There is so much feeling here, and the fact that this is a return home for the filmmaker (who was born in Poland but grew up in Great Britain) makes me believe that this movie must have come from a personal place. Thrilling, haunting, original, and masterfully accomplished. Polish with English subtitles. Currently playing in theaters (limited); on Blu-Ray September 9th.



‘Like Father Like Son’ 

Heartbreaking scenario: six years into raising their only child, a young couple is told that their son is not theirs at all – a hospital error switched two baby boys at birth. The couple meets their biological child for the first time as well as the family that raised them. What happens next? ‘Like Father Like Son’ will be an especially tough watch for many parents but the questions posed by the film are universal in nature. There are no easy answers here. Especially in a patriarchal society like Japan, in which the momentousness of blood ties cannot be overstated. This moving drama from master filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda follows the relationship between these two families over the course of a year, documenting the rhythmical pattern of their lives with such care and empathy that even miniscule changes to their routine have unsettling impact. Kore-eda never judges his characters or their actions. Everything about the film (performances, tone, pacing, editing) is outstanding. This is filmmaking of the highest order. Japanese with English subtitles. Currently available on DVD (no Blu-Ray release date as of yet).



‘The Raid 2′

The cop who survived the events of the first film goes undercover in prison to cosy up to the son of a crime kingpin so he can eventually get into the organization. He does that very thing but, of course, it gets way more complicated,. Writer-director Gareth Evans is painting on a wider canvas. The expanded scope allows for more focus on character and plot, but the film has a great sense of momentum, with one violent confrontation leading to another and another and another. I was informed that the sequel’s plot was what Mr. Evans had intended for the original picture. Maybe he needed to warm up first. The first is a generic exercise. The sequel pulls no punches. Literally. I could care less for violent action pictures; but with such dazzlingly stylized visual flourishes, every confrontation feels substantial and there is a heightened sense of danger. Just when you think the movie has reached its peak, it manages to surprise us by incrementally raising the stakes until we reach the breathtaking, and exhausting climax (which is spectacular, even by the standards established previously in this movie). After watching this movie, you will feel as though you have been in combat. Currently available on Blu-Ray July 8th.