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Author: J. Don Birnam

TIFF Film Review: American Pastoral

Ewan McGregor showcased his directorial debut with the premiere of American Pastoral at the Toronto International Film Festival last week. The movie, based on the novel by Phil Roth, is a tragic tale of a family torn asunder after the young daughter gets involved with radical leftist groups in the midst of the Vietnam War. Though clearly a powerful novel by Roth, the interesting social commentary that laces it never shines through in the more staid adaptation by McGregor. There are moments of powerful emotion, but the first-time director plays it safe—too safe—and delivers a mostly uninteresting product. The...

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TIFF Film Review: SING

Illumination Entertainment’s latest comedy, Sing, had a crowd-pleasing premiere at TIFF this week. The film showcases the studio’s usual strength in the animation department to go with a surprisingly mature story for a studio still struggling to find its footing in the narrative-telling department. Much like this summer’s mediocre The Secret Life of Pets, Illumination’s Sing is set in a world of talking and varied animals with the quirky personalities of the voice talent that brings them to life. But unlike Pets, Sing is a much more interesting story of everyday animals from all walks of life trying to explore their talents. We start with the somewhat slippery Buster Moon, an entrepreneurial Koala voiced by Matthew McConaughey, who is facing the foreclosure of his father’s beloved theater but has a plan to save it. He creates a singing competition that is sure to fill up the seats and offers a $1,000 prize to the winner (his last available assets). After an innocent mistake by his one-eyed, elderly assistant lizard adds a few more zeros to the trophy, all of the town shows up for the audition. The end result brings together a fun bunch that includes a mamma pig (Reese Witherspoon) that slaves away with her twenty-five children, a hustling white laboratory mouse who is as feisty as he is tiny (Seth MacFarlane), a porcupine with sting and an...

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TIFF Film Review: THE BIRTH OF A NATION

An eclipse washes over the cotton fields of Virginia with an eerie light during a pivotal scene in The Birth of a Nation. The lead character, Nat Turner, portrayed by the movie’s writer and director Nate Parker, views it as a potential sign from God, a sign that he should act in almost demonic ways. These acts will finally liberate but also condemn him to a world where there is no salvation. It’s a touching allegory in a gut-wrenching first feature, one that fires almost on all cylinders and manages to distinguish itself within this complicated genre. (I’m well...

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TIFF Film Review: Blair Witch

With all the mysterious happenings in those Maryland woods, you’d think the authorities would have erected a perimeter fence to keep teenagers from peril. And with all those mediocre sequels, you’d hope that someone would cordon off forever the Blair Witch Project franchise, to save us all from more of that horror. We should be so lucky. The latest attempt at reviving the smash indie hit from 1999, titled simply Blair Witch, is branded as a sequel but is really a thinly-veiled and terrible remake. The number of heedless young adults heading into their own predictable oblivion has doubled...

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TIFF Film Review: JACKIE

Biopics and retelling of well-known historical events are probably one of the hardest projects for a filmmaker to take on. But after Darren Aronofsky asked his pal, Chilean director Pablo Larrain (No, Neruda), to take on a project about the former First Lady in the days immediately after the JFK assassination, the film world braced for potential. Add the indomitable Natalie Portman to the mix, and you have one of the surprise players of the fall awards season, a personal and at times revelatory movie that never ventures into the simplistic and rarely gives in to indulgence. In Jackie,...

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