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Janna is a staff writer for The Hudsucker. Born and raised in a small Ontario town, she made her move to Toronto for university and immediately fell in love with the excitement and pace of the big city. She holds an Honors Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film Production from York University, specializing in editing and screenwriting. She currently works as an assistant editor for a television production company. Janna loves stories told in all mediums, especially film, and takes herself to the movies as much as she possibly can. She can generally be found taking a Zumba class, exploring some of Toronto’s lesser-known gems, or relaxing with her fluffy feline roommate.

Janna Does TIFF: Reviews from the Second Weekend

As an avid film-goer, the Toronto International Film Festival is my favourite time of year. As always, this year’s festival has a diverse lineup of interesting, captivating films—and it’s impossible for anyone to see them all. But I’ve seen my fair share, and below you’ll find reviews for some of the most talked-about films from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Read on for advice on which films you should watch out for in the coming year – and which ones you’re better off skipping.  This is the second of two posts—you can find the first set of reviews here.

Noruz Films

Credit Noruz Films

Directed by Ramin Bahrani
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern

Ramin Bahrani, director of such acclaimed films as Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, has an incredible knack for taking the stories of ordinary people who struggle in society and turning them into compelling, compassionate dramas. His latest, 99 Homes, does exactly that. Set during the US housing market crash of the late 2000s, it tells the story of Dennis Nash (Garfield), a man struggling to keep his son and mother (Dern) afloat and regain his family home after an eviction, while earning money working for the very realtor (Shannon) that evicted him. The script and the film itself are intense, pulling drama and humanity out of a very somber, upsetting topic. The characters, too, are incredibly well-written. Shannon and Dern are both fantastic in their roles—Shannon’s character is slick and unlikeable, while Dern’s is hopeful and a little misguided, and both actors bring out the nuances and dimensions of their characters well.  But it is Garfield that is the real star—he makes Nash layered, sympathetic and relatable, despite the moral entanglements he finds himself in. He is captivating, and it truly is one of Garfield’s best roles to date. The eviction of Nash’s family right near the top of the film is powerful and one of the film’s best highlights. While the whole story may rise to unnecessary dramatics in the third act, it’s well worth the watch for the layered characters and stellar performances all around.

Credit G4 Productions

Credit G4 Productions

Directed by Chris Evans
Starring: Chris Evans, Alice Eve

Chris Evans brings his directorial debut, Before We Go, to the festival, a romance about two strangers who spend the night together roaming around New York City after missing the last train out of Grand Central Station. Reminiscent of so many small romance movies, so many walk-and-talk films such as Richard Linklater’s beautiful Before Sunrise trilogy, Before We Go doesn’t quite hit the mark. Some of the plot points that Brooke (Eve) and Nick (Evans) find themselves in feel contrived and unrealistic, and the third act drags when the plot falls away altogether as we watch the two finally allow themselves to feel romantic. It’s clear that this is Evans’ first project behind the scenes, as the script (which was written by four other people) isn’t structured particularly well and there is a certain vision and confidence missing from the film’s cinematography and editing. However, Before We Go does have its redeeming qualities—namely, the pairing of Evans and Eve. The two work together well, both with relatable and funny moments, and there’s a lot of chemistry there. They have an easy rapport. Evans in particular is charming as Nick, even if his character’s backstory is a little more romanticized than is necessary. The two leads’ dialogue flows naturally, and nothing feels as if it’s read off the page. Many scenes really are quite enjoyable, most notably a running joke in which Nick and Brooke use a payphone to call their past selves and give them advice.  Is Before We Go a great film? No, but it isn’t a bad one, either. It has its charms. Evans certainly does have potential to continue on with a career in the director’s chair—he just needs to continue to work at it, and to learn to pick better scripts.

Credit BBC Films

Credit BBC Films

Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Daniel Brühl, Kate Beckinsale, Valerio Mastandrea, Cara Delevingne

Set in Siena, The Face of an Angel follows film director Thomas Lang (Brühl), a recently divorced father who is in Italy to do research for his next film. He follows an American journalist (Beckinsale) as she attends the appeal for a murder trial—a names-changed version of the Amanda Knox-Meredith Kercher murder case.  As he struggles to learn the facts of the case, he meets a strange man who may know more about the case than he lets on (Mastandrea) and a young waitress who shows him the underbelly of the town (Delevigne). The film is described in synopses as having “richness and complexity”, but that’s too kind—it’s overwrought, pretentious, and confused. It draws heavily on imagery, story arcs, and themes from Dante’s Inferno, infusing the film with dream sequences and discussions of literature that are eye-rolling. Winterbottom certainly has his vision for the film, but it’s muddled and weighed down by the literary comparisons. In the film, Brühl’s character is conflicted, torn between the story he’s supposed to be telling (the true crime thriller tale) and the story he wants to tell (a dreamy tale of truth, innocence and objectivity). Winterbottom falls into the exact same trap as his main character. The film is part whodunit, part courtroom drama, part allegory and part tale of redemption. Nothing quite comes together, as if Winterbottom can’t settle on a firm narrative or direction for the story itself. Others may see this as intellectual, moving, or inspired; I see it as a director so infatuated with his concepts and themes that he’s unable to tell a clear story.

Credit Black Bear Pictures

Credit Black Bear Pictures

Directed by Morten Tyldum
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Charles Dance

Many people are familiar with the ins and outs of the dark days of the Second World War—the U-Boats, the air raids, the dates and the names of the biggest players. But fewer know the extent of the British military efforts to break Nazi codes, and the story of the man who played a large role in it all: Alan Turing. In The Imitation Game, Cumberbatch plays Turing, the brilliant Cambridge mathematician hired by the British military to work on a team to break Enigma, the Nazi coding machine. He’s joined by Joan Clarke (Knightley), an incredibly intelligent woman who is almost barred from the team by both commanding officers and her parents until Turing gives her a way in. Cumberbatch is brilliant as Turing, revealing every facet of his character to us in interesting, sympathetic ways. Knightley, too, shines in her role, a captivating and admirable woman who proves herself to be irreplaceable on the team—and in Turing’s life. The film celebrates Turing’s achievements and doesn’t shy away from depicting how terribly he was treated, especially after the war while being persecuted for his sexuality. The world owes a lot to Turing, and it’s wonderful to see such a nuanced, compelling film made of his story. Some may find the flashback scenes of his childhood to be too much, too heavy-handed, but I enjoyed the humanity and perspective they brought to his character. The Imitation Game won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award at the festival, and it was well deserved. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this film show up in this year’s Oscar race.

Credit Paramount Pictures

Credit Paramount Pictures

Directed by Jason Reitman
Starring: Judy Greer, Jennifer Garner, Adam Sandler, Dean Norris, Kaitlyn Dever, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ansel Elgort, Elena Kampouris

Reitman has had both hits (Juno, Up in the Air) and misses (Labor Day), in his career, and Men, Women & Children is another hit. Featuring a strong cast in multiple storylines, all of which tie into one another in some way, the film takes a look at today’s technology and social networking culture, showing how it can both help and hinder our relationships. The film shows the struggles of many—a married couple lacking intimacy wish to feel loved again, a teenager looks for help in being a more effective anorexic, a young couple find ways to communicate and be there for each other through their struggles. The aspects of online communication and activity portrayed in the film are realistic, making the film relatable for likely many an audience member. It is easy to see oneself in aspects of some of these characters. The script is strong, with some funny moments mixed in with some dramatic ones, and the cast all around holds its own. Judy Greer in particular is wonderful as a mother who gets in over her head trying to help kickstart her daughter’s career of fame and fortune. The portrayal of teenagers, of the disconnect they often feel and the confusing struggles they go through to understand themselves and to grow up, is nuanced and handled very thoughtfully. But the real strength of Men, Women & Children isn’t that it condemns technology or those who use it—it keeps the focus on the characters, leaving viewers free to think, to contemplate and decide for themselves how they feel about its pluses and minuses. And that, I feel, is the most important thing.

Credit Bifrost Pictures

Credit Bifrost Pictures

Directed by Paul Bettany
Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Mackie

Homeless on the streets of New York, Paul Bettany’s directorial debut sees two people from very different worlds (Connelly and Mackie) come together to find strength and solace in one another as they struggle to overcome addiction, citizenship status, and the ever-changing New York weather. Hannah (Connelly) comes from a well-off background, destroyed by an addiction and willingly alone on the streets as she suffers. After taking his jacket, she meets Tahir (Mackie), a kind-hearted African refugee in the country illegally. The two struggle together as a boiling hot summer turns to a stormy and frigid winter, illness and addiction leaving them both in trouble. While Mackie is solid as Tahir, he’s given less to do than Connelly—and Connelly shines, especially as the film progresses and she becomes increasingly more desperate to take care of her loved one and get them both to safety. The film drags in the early middle, as the two are falling in love, but picks up in the second half as the two fight to get their lives together. It isn’t a warm and happy story—there are no Hail Marys, no wise and wonderful people to help them out of their bind. Everyone they ask for help may have an agenda. Towards the end, Hannah’s backstory works against her and the film does a little twisting and hand-waving to prevent her and Tahir from easily going back to her family and having all their problems solved; it may have been better to alter or eliminate Hannah’s backstory to avoid these plot issues. But overall, Shelter is a solid directorial debut for Bettany, and an empathetic and eye-opening view of the type of people that many would rather pretend doesn’t exist at all.

Did you attend the Toronto Film Festival this year? What are some of your favourite films? Share with us in the comments below.

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