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#TIFF16 Reviews: The Magnificent Seven, Weirdos, Snowden and Trespass Against Us

September 10, 2016

By John Corrado

the-magnificent-seven-posterWe are now right in the thick of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, and below are my thoughts on four more films that I have seen, including the opening night selection The Magnificent Seven.  Please come back throughout the rest of the festival for more capsule reviews, and you can find information on tickets and showtimes through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

The Magnificent Seven (Gala Presentations): A remake of the classic 1960 western, which was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven is a new take on a well-worn tale, that feels fresh and entertaining thanks to its kick-ass and refreshingly diverse cast.  After her husband is killed by capitalist land baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Saarsgard) who wants to buy up the small town of Rose Creek, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) enlists bounty hunter Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) to help her both get vengeance and protect their land.  Sam rounds up a motley crew of men to help, including gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), the hard-drinking sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-throwing sidekick Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), grizzled mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Commanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), to prepare the town for the coming showdown.

Although The Magnificent Seven takes a bit of time to get going in the first hour, it’s kept enjoyable by the interplay between the cast, and once it really kicks into high gear in the second half, the film delivers thrilling entertainment.  Boasting epic cinematography and a great score by the late James Horner, it all builds towards a showdown that offers pretty much wall-to-wall action, delivering the wild shootout that we are promised from the buildup, with violence that pushes right to the edges of its PG-13 rating.  There isn’t a weak link in terms of the ensemble cast, with Denzel Washington bringing his signature coolness under pressure persona to the leading role, and Chris Pratt stealing the show as he spouts wisecracks that do a good job of lightening the mood.  The racial diversity of the main characters actually adds a new layer of depth to the story here, with a personal vendetta between Sam Chisholm and Bartholomew Boque that gives added weight to the finale.

Weirdos (Special Presentations): The year is 1976, and Kit (Dylan Authors) and his best friend Alice (Julia Sarah Stone) are a pair of outsider teenagers craving a change from their small Nova Scotia town.  They decide to hitchhike to Sydney, so Kit can reunite with his free-spirited mother (Laura Parker), and escape an unresolved conflict with his father (Allan Hawco).  The latest from veteran Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald, who is in top form here delivering one of his most heartfelt films, Weirdos is an endlessly charming and surprisingly touching coming of age story built around a fine script by Daniel MacIvor.  Dylan Authors does an excellent job of making us relate to his character’s journey of emotional awakening, and Julia Sarah Stone turns in another fine performance after her breakout work in Wet Bum.  Even the film’s most offbeat elements, like the apparition of Andy Warhol (Rhys Bevan-John) who becomes like a spirit animal to Kit, are naturally woven into the story in a way that works surprisingly well.  The lush black and white cinematography adds to the film’s charm, Weirdos is a delightful little film that is as entertaining as it is sweet and poignant, all topped off with an excellent soundtracks of ’70s songs that provide the cherry on top of an already wonderful trip.

Snowden (Gala Presentations): It’s an almost gargantuan task to try and encapsulate the story of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden into a single film, but Oliver Stone proves himself up to the challenge with Snowden, an engaging and provocative dramatic thriller that successfully depicts one of the most polarizing and important figures of our time.  Boasting a carefully measured performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the title role, the film uses a narrative that jumps around in time to show Edward Snowden’s career trajectory from a patriotic army hopeful who was discharged after breaking his legs, to working for the CIA under Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), and being sent to a secret base for the NSA in Hawaii.  This leads him to the startling realization that the government is using terrorism as an excuse to enact overreaching surveillance measures that allow them to hack into any computer to use the webcam as a virtual window into the lives of private citizens, compelling him to steal classified documents proving to the world that the United States is spying on its own citizens.

Although there is no doubt that Edward Snowden is a controversial figure, who is wrongfully viewed by some as a traitor to his country, Snowden admirably treats his actions as heroic, and the film does a good job of showing the complex moral reasoning that went into his decision to expose the NSA.  We see how his “smart conservative” ideals are initially challenged by his very liberal girlfriend, free-spirited amateur photographer and pole dancing instructor Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), as his work causes him to question the government in a way that he never did before.  The film also depicts documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), and Guardian reporters Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Levi) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who have to convince their paper to publish the leaks.  Even though this material was already explored brilliantly in the documentary Citizenfour, Snowden packs a lot of information into its surprisingly quick 134 minute running time.  The film is edited to give it a decidedly modern feel, keeping things moving at an engaging pace, and even mixing in bits of news footage.  Oliver Stone’s best and most politically charged film in years, Snowden is a well acted, stylishly made and often gripping account of Edward Snowden’s fearless actions, that leaves the audience engaged in the important debate about government surveillance that his leaks have allowed us to have.

Trespass Against Us (Special Presentations): Chad Cutler (Michael Fassbender) lives with his wife (Lyndsey Marshal) and their two young kids in the same trailer park as his father Cal (Brendan Gleeson), a notorious crime boss who doesn’t want his son to stray from the family business.  Chad is desperate to break away from a life of crime and go clean, not wanting his son to grow up like him, but Cal is keeping him under his iron grip, and sends him out for one last heist that brings their conflicts with the law to a head.  Although Trespass Against Us sometimes follows the familiar tropes of other stories of men struggling to break free from poverty and their crooked fathers, the cast keeps things entertaining.

Michael Fassbender turns in a typically committed performance in the leading role.  He does an excellent job of making us feel sympathy for Chad, a man who is illiterate and struggles with the fact that he has no formal education, finding it nearly impossible to escape the life he was born into.  Brendan Gleeson, in a type of role he excels at playing, does memorably off-kilter supporting work as the religious zealot father who has a penchant for speechifying.  With a background doing music videos for The Chemical Brothers, who provide a propulsive score here, first time feature director Adam Smith does a fine job of handling the film’s mix of tones.  The film moves smoothly between the dramatic scenes and more unexpected comedic moments, as well as several exhilarating car chases that are allowed to have a delightfully humourous feel.  With the emotional anchor of a family drama and the feel of a crime caper, Trespass Against Us is often fun to watch, building towards an oddly poignant final scene.

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