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Author: J. Don Birnam

New York Film Festival Opening Night: THE 13TH

While other film festivals are dabbling in La La Land and basking in Moonlight, the 54th New York Film Festival opted for a more political and urgent statement by selecting Ava DuVernay’s powerful documentary The 13th for its opening night gala. The film screened this morning to a house full of teary-eyed liberal reporters (myself included) and there is no doubt that this moving, timely and also timeless film will find a welcome embrace amongst that wing of the intelligentsia. That it is a superb film helps it tons. But my skeptical mind wonders how much it will reach...

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TIFF Film Review: DENIAL

In politics, the difference between fact and opinion have perhaps never been as blurred as they are today in the age of social media. In this context, it is hard to imagine a movie more relevant and important than the upcoming drama Denial. And it is disappointing to see what the movie does not do—provide a compelling way to tackle the subject. The story of the film is that of real-life history professor Dr. Deborah Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz) after she is sued in England for libel by a man she named in her book about Holocaust deniers (Timothy Spall, with all his mousy evilness). To successfully defend herself, she must prove in court, essentially, that the Holocaust occurred. Led by a team of quirky barristers and solicitors (Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson), she sets out to achieve something that seems straightforward yet is not actually so. Have you ever had a conversation with a conspiracy theorist? You start at a natural disadvantage because they have become amateur experts on their subject matter. Try convincing a flat-Earther, for example, that the Earth is round, and you’ll be stunned at the many things that to you may seem obvious but for which they have dismissive answers like “those pictures are staged” or “the eyewitnesses are lying.” So, too, do some of the baddies in Denial dismiss, with wily cleverness...

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It was hard to figure out during the boxing movie that premiered at TIFF, Bleed for This, if I was watching a spoof called “Not Another Boxing Movie!” It worked for horror films and teen movies after all. But the filmmakers behind this project, improbably, are not kidding. They purport to take themselves seriously, even though the film is so cartoonish in some of its clichés that you won’t be able to. And you don’t have to: since the entire thing is rethreaded from other films, the movie feels more like a failed exercise in satire. Bleed for This...

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TIFF Film Review: LION

Not every extraordinary story makes for memorable filmmaking, but rest assured that if it contains even the hint of heartwarming ending Hollywood will be there to dramatize it regardless of the desirability of the project. Such is the rather unfortunate case of the movie Lion, which apparently wowed some audiences and critics after its premiere at TIFF last week. I was not so impressed. The film contains one interesting bout of technological triangulation and is otherwise an extended tourism infomercial. The rest is filler to what could have been an interesting three minute evening news segment. Familiarity with the...

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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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