Reviews of new films by Oliver Stone, Paul Verhoeven and Ben Wheatley

Snowden, the controversial Elle and instant cult classic Free Fire screened at TIFF yesterday, along with the doc The Eagle Huntress.


Joseph-Gordon Levitt (left) in Snowden

I thought I had it covered when I saw six movies in advance of TIFF; these screenings are generally set up by distributors to allow press to have already seen the movie by the time interviews roll around and plan their schedule accordingly. For Toronto press, however, the process is a little different. The preview screening schedule starts in early August, which means that some Toronto outfits have something like 70 movies under their belt before the festival starts. (This is also useful because Toronto residents can actually attends TIFF screenings instead of waiting patiently for the film’s release like the rest of the world.) If you’re looking at my coverage and thinking “How come Alex isn’t on the #twitterbuzz train that all of my favourite Toronto writers are on?” that’d be why.


There has never been as obvious a pairing of subject and filmmaker as Edward Snowden and Oliver Stone. It’s a real-life story that played out exactly like an Oliver Stone film, a paranoia thriller where the result actually turned out to be that people weren’t paranoid enough. It’s little surprise, in that sense, that Snowden is one of Stone’s most straight-forward efforts, cinematically speaking. Most of the work was done for him.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the sometimes monotonous tech whiz that uncovered the NSA’s secret surveillance programs and leaked that information to the world thanks to journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who holed up with him in a Hong Kong hotel room in order to break the story. The film follows the entirety of Snowden’s career working within government, moving from a patriotic conservative to a tortured would-be liberal as he uncovers increasingly worrisome cover-up tactics in his work.

Half the fun of Oliver Stone movies are the leaps of faith he asks the audience to take in the “facts” presented. JFK may be mostly baloney, but it’s incredibly fun baloney. Snowden, on the other hand, is much more straight-forward — and thus, a little safe. It’s the trouble with making films about very recent history, when it still feels so fresh in our memories: it’s likely to feel bland and familiar, but chances are history will be on Stone’s side.

Snowden hits theatres on Sept. 16. Watch for our interviews with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Oliver Stone next week.

Free Fire


People always ask me what my most anticipated movie at TIFF is. If I were realistic, I would probably have said Free Fire, but I was so certain that I’d love it that anticipation seemed like a waste. The fact is that Free Fire ticks so many of my boxes that I really saw no point in looking forward to it. Unsurprisingly, it delivered, and then some.

A shady arms deal between a member of the IRA (Cillian Murphy), his entourage (which includes Brie Larson, Armie Hammer and Michael Smiley) and a colourful South African gangster (Sharlto Copley) and his entourage (which includes Noah Taylor and Babou Ceesay) goes south when a pre-existing conflict between two of the more impulsive goons (Sam Riley and Jack Reynor) escalates. Soon, everyone’s shooting everyone and dragging themselves through the rubble for an increasingly far-fetched chance at taking the money and running.

Free Fire is Ben Wheatley’s (Kill List, High-Rise) most accessible film yet, a rollicking comedy of errors that takes an expansive cast of ringers and almost immediately afflicts them with flesh wounds and ill-conceived vendettas. It combines many of my favourite things: tight quarters, pressure-cooker plotting, repetitive bloodshed of an existential nature and meditations on the pointless nature of conflict, in a highly entertaining package. It’s a little transparent in its bald-faced desire to be a bonafide cult classic. While time will tell if that’s the case, there’s no denying how entertaining and meticulously crafted it is.

Free Fire does not yet have a Montreal release date but is slated for 2017.

The Eagle Huntress


Aisholpan stands out more than a little in her native Mongolia. She’s not only the youngest person ever to compete in the centuries-old sport of eagle hunting, she’s the first girl ever to do so. That’s the irresistible pitch behind Otto Bell’s slick documentary The Eagle Huntress, a film that’s both charming and overly polished. The film follows Aisholpan’s efforts to secure her own eagle for the competition and to convince the elders of her worth in the competition. While her dad is behind her 100 per cent, the other old dudes aren’t so convinced that a woman’s place is anywhere but the home.

Narrated by Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley, The Eagle Huntress is a compelling portrait of a life and tradition most people know nothing about, but Bell’s slick style sometimes threatens to divert from the point. Using lots of crane shots and beautiful (but not exactly organic) sequences out in the wild, Bell paints a National Geographic-esque portrait of the wilderness, but the heavy editing gives the film a sort of reality-TV sheen that’s a little distracting.

I’m not suggesting that Bell went full-on Nanook of the North here, but there’s clearly some creative editing and staging at play in The Eagle Huntress that detracts from the overall experience. It’s so slickly constructed that it basically has no surprises; even the film’s most dramatic sequences feel like a foregone conclusion. It’s certainly not a fatal flaw, especially considering the film is aimed at family audiences, but a little more grit wouldn’t have hurt.

The Eagle Huntress is set for a Montreal release in November.



Isabelle Huppert in Elle

Paul Verhoeven hasn’t made a feature in 10 years. It was unlikely that the provocateur and satirist was going to deliver something less than caustic in these times, but his latest might be his most twisted film yet — and certainly his most likely to cause a barrage of thinkpieces that threatens to crush the Internet as we know it.

Isabelle Huppert stars as Michèle Leblanc, the CEO of a videogame company who also carries the burden of a troubled childhood as the daughter of a mass murderer. When she’s sexually assaulted by a masked intruder one night, her entourage encourages her to go to the cops — but Michèle instead begins a cat-and-mouse game with her assailant, who soon begins dropping hints that he’s someone she knows.

The general buzz on Twitter after the first few screenings of Elle were of the “I do not want to hear what straight white men think of Elle” variety — certainly the presence of straight white men behind the camera here makes the whole thing even more complicated. (In the interest of full disclosure, I, too, am that.) What I can say is that this might be a career-best performance for Huppert (which is saying something); she simply carries the film over its thornier issues and its plethora of subplots (an unfortunate carry-over from the story’s first incarnation as a novel). Verhoeven shows more restraint than usual in most respects, though the film is unmistakably Verhoeven. ■

Elle hits Montreal theatres on Nov. 18. Perhaps by then I will feel more confident saying something about it.

TIFF continues through Sept. 18. See regular reports at

See our report from day 1 here.