Author: Aren Bergstrom

Is it possible for a superfan to be a good critic?

We live in the age of the superfan (often known as fanboys or fangirls).Massive movie franchises based upon comic books dominate our theatre screens. Old fan properties from the ’80s and ’90s, like Jurassic Park and Star Wars, are being revived to feed future generations of geeks. Events like San Diego Comic Con have swallowed the industry whole, forcing studios to compete with each other for the intense adoration of zealous but hypercritical uber-fans. Sequels, adaptations, remakes and reboots of genre films top the year-end box office. This focused targeting of fanboys/girls has overwhelmed the movie industry and film criticism has drastically changed to follow suit. While individuals like Roger Ebert and Andrew Sarris, who certainly loved movies but gave no specific favour to one genre or franchise, so long as the movies were good, dominated the past century of film criticism, our new millennium has seen the rise of critics with unabashed pop-culture favouritism. Websites such as Ain’t It Cool News, Birth Movies Death, Cinema Blend, Comic Book Movie.com, JoBlo, Screen Rant and SlashFilm now control the movie news landscape, publishing dozens of articles each day that repurpose studio promotional material into meaningless click bait. There are good articles to be found, but they sit uncomfortably alongside naked promotion for whatever fan property is deemed worthy of our collective attention at the moment. Even older and once-respected publications like Entertainment Weekly have changed...

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TIFF 2015 Review: Stonewall

Danny (Jeremy Irvine) flees his small Indiana home after he’s publicly outed as a gay man and heads to New York City and eventually Greenwich Village where he joins the gay subculture of Christopher Street in 1969. However, as tensions on the street rise and Danny adjusts to life as an openly gay man in the big city, violence breaks out, culminating in the historic Stonewall riots that kicked off the Gay Liberation Movement and is still commemorated today with Gay Pride Marches. Roland Emmerich is a curious choice to make a stirring historical epic about the Stonewall riots. While a story about Stonewall deserves intimacy and a sharp sense of cultural context, Emmerich trades in bombast and corn syrup. You wouldn’t think he’d be the right man for the job — and you’d be right. Stonewall proves it. From Jeremy Irvine’s whitebread protagonist whose motivations wildly vacillate scene to scene to the underwritten (and fictional) hustlers that dominate the film’s focus to the weak portrayal of the violently homophobic police, Stonewall is a dreadful miscalculation. Why the filmmakers chose to insert fictional protagonists into a narrative filled with fascinating, important historical figures is baffling. The end result is a whitewashed, soap opera version of a milestone in American civil rights. If you’re looking to understand the importance of the Stonewall riots in American history look elsewhere because Emmerich’s Stonewall will...

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TIFF 2015 Review: Stranger

In ’30s Kazakhstan, the Soviets take away a presumed dissident in the middle of the night, robbing his young son of a father. The orphaned boy flees into the woods, living a traditional hunter-gatherer existence amongst the wolves. There, the boy grows to adulthood, reflecting from a distance upon the Soviet regime and his country’s most turbulent time. Yermek Tursunov’s Stranger is a gorgeously shot, pastoral tale reflecting upon nature and the troubled history of Kazakhstan. A leisurely paced effort, Stranger focuses more upon images than narrative. Interpersonal conflicts take a backseat to shots of imposing Kazakh mountainscapes and decrepit villages. Intentionally constructed in the mode of classic naturalist cinema, like Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala, it captures the tension between man and nature, and the wild dignity of life beyond human society. However, Stranger’s early scenes are marred by poor acting from the adolescent cast, but once Yerzhan Nurymbet appears as the adult Ilyas, living in a cave in the woods, the film hits its stride. Nurymbet’s quiet acting never gets in the way of the film’s subtle socio-political reflections. He strikes a delicate balance. Kazakhstan is a country still coming to terms with its troubled history. Stranger is Tursonov’s attempt to reconcile that history with his nation’s...

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TIFF 2015 Review: Women He’s Undressed

In the early ’20s, a young Australian named Orry Kelly left New South Wales for New York City and, eventually, Hollywood, where he became a three-time Academy Award-winning costume designer, working on classics such as Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris and Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. Women He’s Undressed traces Kelly’s mostly forgotten career, drawing upon his memoirs to document the experiences of this gay costume designer during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Gillian Armstrong’s Women He’s Undressed will have a natural appeal to anyone with a passion for costuming. When it focuses on Kelly’s stunning designs, drawing upon interviews with designers such as Catherine Martin, and uses clips from Warner classics, it comes to life. Kelly’s contributions to costuming are inarguable and exploring his work is a fascinating history lesson in Hollywood cinema. It’s to bad, then, that when the film isn’t exploring Kelly’s design work it focuses on his love life, particularly exploring his early affair with a young Cary Grant. There’s salaciousness to this information and its weighted focus tips the film over into tabloid gossip. It also doesn’t help that Armstrong chooses to incorporate a framing device where Darren Gilshenan performs lines from Kelly’s memoir straight to the camera. It’s trying for playfulness, but comes across as...

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TIFF 2015 Review: Louder Than Bombs

After his famous war photographer wife (Isabelle Huppert) dies in a car accident, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), a middle-aged schoolteacher, struggles to reconnect emotionally to his sons, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid). However, Jonah and Conrad have more than their issues with their father to contend with, as each of them strives to carve out a purposeful life in the wake of their mother’s death. Jumping between different timelines and experiences, Louder Than Bombs grapples with frustration and loss in ways few films dare. It’s a bold work, full of startling images, most notably a slow-motion shot of a car careening through the air, which is simultaneously haunting and gorgeous, but it’s also quiet. Its narrative is purposefully stagnant and any emotional epiphanies are muted. Director Joachim Trier is approximating the poetry of reality. Trier uses an elliptical narrative to probe the psyches of these three men, investigating their identities, grief and relationships with women. While the narrative may focus on males, the film revolves around a female: the mother who’s the object of their grief. Isabelle Huppert is wonderful in the flashbacks, but the acting across the board is strong, particularly Devin Druid, who’s an actor to watch. Louder Than Bombs is intentionally oblique, but also honest and...

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TIFF 2015 Review: Invention

A silent city symphony taking viewers through the streets and buildings of Toronto, Paris and São Paulo, Invention juxtaposes the architecture of these urban environments against the everyday goings-on of the individuals inhabiting them. The first feature by acclaimed visual artist Mark Lewis, Invention is essentially a gallery installation condensed into a feature film. Thematically, Invention is as vague and muddled as any artist’s description plaque hanging in a postmodern gallery. However, formally it is stunning. Utilizing drones to capture roaming shots of cityscapes, Lewis radically pushes the art of unbroken aerial cinematography forward. Many shots last over ten minutes — one stunning moment gives us a 360-degree view of Toronto in the winter, before landing the frame on a woman inside a glass office building. The shot doesn’t cut as the camera pushes in on the woman from above, moving closer to her window and eventually through it, only to turn around and flip upside down to give a radically new perspective on what we are witnessing. Lewis’s film is dense and overwhelmingly slow, but it’s full of cinematographic...

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TIFF 2015 Review: Dheepan

A Tamil Tiger (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) flees the civil war in Sri Lanka, along with a female stranger (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and a random orphan child (Claudine Vinasithamby), so he can pose as the head of a refugee family, in order to cobble together an existence in the Paris suburbs. However, as life in the suburban apartments grows increasingly dangerous due to gang activities, the soldier and his false family find the spectre of violence once again threatening to overwhelm their lives. Winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Jacques Audiard’s (A Prophet) Dheepan is a startling look at a makeshift immigrant family struggling with poverty, culture clash and the violence of their migrant existence. One part refugee narrative and one part crime drama, Dheepan plays for both social relevance and genre thrills. Audiard is largely successful in achieving this tricky balance, although a greater statement about the migrant crisis is lost in the shuffle. Instead, he unflinchingly focuses on the man at the centre, capturing his resilience and rage. Jesuthasan is electric as the pragmatic Dheepan, who is gentle with children and frighteningly effective with a handgun. A long take late in the film drifting through a stairwell clouded in smoke is a handy visual metaphor for Audiard’s portrayal of insidiously pervasive violence in this sad man’s life. Although overly ambitious, Dheepan is grippingly effective...

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