As busy I get from time to time, I find that I can't see every movie under the sun, leaving my friends and colleagues to fill in the blanks for me.  As poetically as I think I wax about movies on this website as a wannabe critic, sometimes a simple sentence or two from a friend says it all.  Sometimes, it inspires me to see the movie too and get back to being my circle's go-to movie guy.  Sometimes, they save me $9 and you 800+ words of blathering.  In a new review series, I'm opening my site to friend submissions for quick-hit movie reviews.


(Image: wegotthiscovered.com)

This week in my home base of Chicago opens the 50th Chicago International Film Festival.  I've been lucky enough through my published work on Examiner.com to earn press credentials to cover the event.  I attended the 49th event last year on my own dime, but I'm excited to make this year's coverage more thorough and official.  Greater than the Chicago Film Festival is the one held every year in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  The exclusive world premieres and red carpet events at Toronto International Film Festival, or TIFF, far exceed what Chicago is hosting this week and rivals the annual importance of the Cannes Film Festival in France for notoriety and quality.  In the last seven years, three of the winning TIFF films have gone on to win the Best Picture Oscar, including "The King's Speech," "Slumdog Millionaire," and "12 Years a Slave," just last year.

Heather (left) and her friend Jenni, walking the TIFF red carpet.  How cool is that?!

I was fortunate enough to have an old college friend be in Toronto on her own trip to attend this year's TIFF.  Let me introduce to Heather Hagan-McVeigh.  Heather and I are both proud Class of 2001 graduates of Saint Joseph's College in Rensselaer, Indiana.  Go Pumas!  I was an Elementary Education major and Heather was a Political Science major.  Our different student paths crossed on the school's campus newspaper.

For four years at SJC under the supervision and direction of Professor Charles Kerlin, Heather and I both worked on The Observer student newspaper. For several years, Heather was the head editor and the boss of all deadlines.  At different times during our tenure on The Observer, she and I were both winners of "Editor of the Year" and "Reporter of the Year" awards, respectively.  Our names still adorn plaques in the English wing of faculty offices on the second floor of the Core Education Center on campus.   

Both Heather and I spent several hours (probably days) that we'll never get back buried in the third floor office of the Halleck Student Center at SJC working on newspaper issues the semi-old-fashioned way with Adobe PageMaker, primitive digital cameras, floppy disks, and other now-obsolete software and equipment.  I look back on those days with joy and not dread.  It was an honor and pleasure to create something pertinent, fun, and creative.  I realize that it could have been worse.  We both could have been cutting lines, laying border tape by hand, and gluing articles in place with wax and brayers like I did on my high school newspaper before even the primitive advances in computers at the turn of the century.  Damn, we're old, Heather.

Since her days at SJC, Heather took her Political Science degree and turned it into law school at at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law, where she earned her Juris Doctorate in 2004.  Work has taken her from the Indiana Tax Court to the Indiana Attorney General's office since 2006, where she serves as the Deputy Solicitor General.  No, that doesn't mean her job is to prosecute and bust those annoying people that call you on the phone or bother you at your place of business.  It's not that kind of soliciting, people.  The Solicitor General's office handles legal litigation where the government is represented in one side of the case of the other.  Such a situation makes up almost two-thirds of all cases that hit the Supreme Court system.

When Heather is not breaking knees and blowing legal dreams out of the water (alright, now who's getting carried away), Heather enjoys her home city of Indianapolis.  She is a self-described "attorney by day, movie buff by night."  I think she's a superhero in disguise. 

She enjoys her fair share of pop culture and all things IU basketball and Indianapolis sports.  That legally proper woman you heard screaming at her television during a Pacers game or never coming close to being ejected at Lucas Oil Stadium for a Colts throwdown due to her perfect heckling was probably Heather.  As she mentioned, "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" are required viewing in her household, where she's been married to the lucky dog named Michael McVeigh since 2010.  In recent years, I got to run into Heather and her husband as they passed through snowy Chicago on their way to and from a lovely trip to Ireland, a place we now share in common on our travelogues.  Needless to say, notes were compared, just like the good old days in the newspaper office.


(Image: impawards.com)


At the outset, I feel I should confess that I’m a huge Jon Stewart fan.  "The Daily Show" is required nightly viewing in our house.  Accordingly, I went into this movie with high hopes and expectations and, for the most part, I was not disappointed.

Stewart directed and wrote this film, which was based on the memoir Then They Came for Me by the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari.  While covering the 2009 Iranian election protests, Bahari was arrested without charge and imprisoned for 118 days.  The film depicts his arrest and imprisonment, with special emphasis on the relationship between Bahari and his captors.

For a movie dealing with political unrest, unjust imprisonment, and torture (mostly of the psychological variety), "Rosewater" is an unexpectedly uplifting movie.  Bahari—played by Gael García Bernal—gets through his ordeal by maintaining his sense of self, his dignity, and his ability to find joy in the little things in life.  One scene showing Bahari dancing within his prison cell to music only he can hear is particularly moving and is both beautifully staged and acted.

Also surprising was the amount of humor in the film (although with Stewart at the helm, perhaps this should not come as a surprise at all).  I watched the film with a packed house at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the audience was in stitches on more than one occasion.  During an audience Q&A after the film, both Stewart and Bahari spoke of the importance of humor to this story and, indeed, to Bahari’s survival.

The film is not perfect.  It is at times a bit too earnest.  And a few of Stewart’s directorial choices left me scratching my head (one attempt at visualizing the sweep of the election protests through social media fell particularly flat).  But those are minor quibbles.  It is a compelling, uplifting story, lovingly told and beautifully acted.  In my book, that’s a good night at the movies.

(Image: impawards.com)

"Maps to the Stars"

It pains me to say this, but I cannot remember the last movie I disliked as much as I disliked "Maps to the Stars."  This David Cronenberg film is a dark (extremely dark) satire, which follows the lives of a troubled Hollywood family.  The father (John Cusack) is a psychotherapist to the stars (in particular, to Julianne Moore, who plays a fading actress) and the mother (Olivia Williams) manages the acting career of their 13-year-old, Justin Bieber-esque, absolute nightmare of a son.  Mia Wasikowska plays a mysterious outsider who has just arrived in L.A. after a stint in a Florida mental institution, and about whom I can’t say much without giving away crucial plot points.  Rounding out the cast is Robert Pattinson as a limo driver and aspiring screenwriter who befriends Wasikowska’s character.

Cronenberg has assembled an impressive cast and they do uniformly great work here.  Of all my complaints with this film, the acting is not one of them.  Rather, it is the characters these actors embody that kept me from finding any enjoyment in this film.  "Maps to the Stars" is, more than anything, a movie about terrible people doing terrible things to one another for reasons that are never quite made clear . . . but are probably terrible.  These are characters with no redeeming qualities and their unrelenting awfulness kept me from finding a way into this movie.  I’m all for dark, mostly-unlikeable characters (my love for Walter White and Don Draper knows no bounds), but I need to see at least some sliver of humanity in a character.  There is zero humanity to be found in "Maps to the Stars."

Beyond that, the story is convoluted and clunky and lacks the wit I would expect from a film classifying itself as satire.  The audience laughed throughout, to be sure.  But the laughter was often of the tentative, uncomfortable, “should I really be laughing at this?” variety.  In fact, “uncomfortable” probably is the word that best describes my experience with this film.  I rarely feel this way about a movie, but I was glad when it was over.


I would've loved to have seen more at TIFF, but we were there for such a short time.  Plus, some of the films we really wanted to see ("The Imitation Game" and "Foxcatcher," in particular) were sold out.  It was still a tremendously fun experience, though.  If you ever get the chance, you should attend.  It is an atmosphere unlike any other!


It looks like Heather landed on one winner and one dud from this year's TIFF.  Unfortunately, "Rosewater" is not on the schedule and slate for the Chicago International Film Festival this week or I would be jumping at the chance to follow-up on Heather's first take.  When it does come to Chicago, that one is getting circled on the "must-see" list. 

I will get the chance during the Chicago Film Festival this month to see one of the two films she was hoping to see in Toronto.  On Thursday, October 16th, I'll be catching "The Imitation Game" starring Benedict Cumberbatch, who attended the red carpet premiere for the film in Toronto.  "The Imitation Games" was the overall winner of this year's TIFF.  Like "12 Years a Slave" last year, this puts "The Imitation Game" as the early Oscar front-runner for Best Picture.  Where Heather made me jealous of being in Toronto, I get to beat her to that one.

I'd like to thank Heather for sharing her reviews of "Rosewater" and "Maps to the Stars."  You received the special title of "Special Event Guest Critic" by crossing over to our neighbors to the north to bring the good word.  Thanks for letting me play along and thanks for thinking of me with these shared reviews!

As always, let's keep this going.  Friends, if you see a movie that I don't see and want to be featured on my website (and get a fun fake biography written about you), hit up my website's Facebook page and you can be my next GUEST CRITIC!