Though made for the streaming company Netflix, Outlaw King, which opened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last week at Roy Thompson Hall, deserves to be – no, demands to be – seen on a vast movie screen. The better to take in the glorious helicopter shots, the lush greenery of old Scotland, and the superb battle sequences inspired by The Lord of the Rings trilogy (01-02-03) and HBO’s Games of Thrones. The film is an argument, like Roma, for the streaming naysayers, a bold, huge film that draws upon memories of the best of David Lean without ever quite matching the artistry of his work. Director David McKenzie gave us the sparse, brilliant Hell or High Water (2016) with Chris Pine and Ben Foster, and impresses even more with this massive picture.
The story is that of Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine), whom we know from Braveheart (1995), the Academy Award-winning epic directed by Mel Gibson and starring the actor as William Wallace. According to that film, Bruce unwittingly betrayed Wallace, leading to his violent death, only to rally his men to attack the British at the conclusion of the film, carrying on Wallace’s fight for freedom.
This film picks up pretty much at that moment, with Bruce as the young king of Scotland trying to get his country out from under being under English rule. King Edward I (Stephan Dillane) enjoys having Scotland under his thumb, and even more, enjoys the power he has over Bruce, (or rather the power he thinks he has, as Bruce gathers his armies for an all-out assault).
The Scots continue their battle for their independence, proudly marching into war against a superior enemy who has just invented the deadly catapult. There is something terribly noble about marching towards certain death for something one believes in, which director McKenzie captures with beautiful visual poetry.
His strength as a director up to now has been the performances he draws from his actors. While Ben Foster might have received the best reviews, and Jeff Bridges the Oscar nomination, the best work in Hell or High Water was that of Chris Pine as the quiet more thoughtful brother. Here as Robert the Bruce, he is brilliant, giving the best performance of his career and making it clear that he is both movie star and actor. Still best-known to audiences as the young James T. Kirk in the Star Trek reboot, they might think of him differently after this. Brooding, angry, yet fiercely devoted to his men, whom he loves likes brothers, Pine creates a fascinating character that I believed men would follow into battle. His blazing blue eyes bring an intensity to the role I did think he would achieve, yet he does, with apparent ease. It is a brave performance, containing full frontal nudity, brave for anyone, male or female, and such an honest portrayal or a king and warrior.
Aaron-Taylor Johnson is outstanding as always as the Bruce’s right-hand man, James Duncan, a grizzled, bearded warrior who happily die for the Bruce if asked to do so. So good in Kick Ass (2010), even better in Nocturnal Animals (2016), Johnson continues to impress as an actor.
The film marks an obvious evolution for McKenzie, moving from intimate drama to massive epic and he pulls it off beautifully. If the Academy is not biased against Netflix films, and we know they will be, this could grab some Oscar attention. It certainly had the full attention of the audience on opening night.
A STAR IS BORN
Wow! Talk about knocking it out of the park! In his directorial debut, Bradley Cooper creates the finest of A Star is Born films, far surpassing the 1976 version and eking by the Judy Garland version. Further, he gives the finest performance of his career as a rock star, chronic boozer and drug addict, Jackson Main, a gifted artist on the downside of his career.
Too much booze, too many pills, too much cocaine has cost Main so much and he knows it. One night after a show he stumbles into a bar and hears Ally (Lady Gaga) sing and is smitten by both her beauty and her obvious talent. He encourages her to write her own songs and drags her out on the stage with him, making her a star overnight. When a hotshot manager offers to sign her, she goes along, though is not pleased when he demands changes be made.
Main despises the changes, wanting her to just be honest in her music, to be the real Ally. But Ally climbs, they marry and her career soars as his sinks. On the night of the Grammy Awards he causes her a terrible embarrassment and hurts her deeply. With rehab the only answer, he checks himself in to get clean, and the drag he has become on her career becomes apparent. In a right-between-the-eyes conversation with her manager, he is told about the damage he did and what she had to do to get past it.
Bradley Cooper has become one of the finest actors of his generation, with three Academy Award nominations and pocketsful of rave reviews. His great performance in American Sniper (2014) challenged the actor more than any role until this one. Jackson Main is the greatest challenge of his career and he gives the finest performance of his career. Weary, beaten down by the emotional turmoil in his life, his past, the arguments with his brother, whom he loves very much, his voice a near growl from too many years of heavy smoking and hard whiskey, and watching his wife soar past him on the charts, Cooper captures that bone-weary exhaustion of a man at the end of his rope. The one thing he has that is constant in his life is Ally, and he knows, or comes to know he is hurting her by being with her.
Lady Gaga is already a big star as a recording artist, so making it in acting is not that big a deal for her. That said, Madonna never quite managed to be a great actress or give even a good performance. Gaga is spectacular, giving a breathtaking performance that audiences will adore and critics will write raves about. She is never anything but truthful in her work, the chemistry between she and Cooper is electric and her final song will have tears cascading down your face.
Expect each to be nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress, along with Sam Elliott, who is wonderful as the wounded brother who watched his younger sibling become the star he hoped he would. That voice, sounding like dark chocolate and a bass guitar is perfect, and the old boy just might be an Oscar nominee for the first time.
The concert scenes are stunning, filled with the energy of the audience on screen, but flowing down to allow the audience in the cinema to be one with them. Who knew Cooper could sing? Who knew he could play a mean guitar?
His greatest achievement here is, of course, directing the film and bringing everything together. The trust between the actors is due to his direction, the trust he instilled in his cast, the comfort he brought to the set allowing them the freedom to create.
Two stars are born with this film, Gaga as an actress, and Cooper as a director. It is a magnificent achievement, potentially the year’s very best film.
THE FRONT RUNNER
In 1987, Gary Hart was the leading contender for the presidential nominee of the Republican party after losing the nomination to Walter Mondale in 1984. He had it all – good movie star looks, movie star friends such as Warren Beatty, a lovely wife, he had the Kennedy appeal that would win voters over from George Bush Sr. But Hart was brought down by a sex scandal when a group of reporters preyed on some comments he made, after he dared them to follow him, and they did. In the process they discovered a young model, Donna Rice, with whom he had been having an affair.
Director Jason Reitman impressed the film world with Juno (2007) and Up in the Air (2009), both TIFF premieres, both best picture and best director nominees, but stalled after that. He made a comeback of sorts in the summer with Tully (2018) and is back with this political drama that tells the true story of Hart.
In many ways the media were hypocrites, ignoring the high number of affairs and sexual dalliances by JFK and even more so Lyndon Johnson. Yet with Hart, times had changed and they showed no mercy. They went after Hart, his wife and daughter, and Donna Rice, making their already very public lives a living hell. You can see the weight of the world landing on Hart, well played by Hugh Jackman. He lets Hart get drowned out by the people managing him, which is likely what happened, but it did not help us understand him. When presented with the evidence the reporters have against him, he is like a deer in the headlights, while his wife, portrayed by Vera Fermiga, silently seethes with rage. All she had ever asked of him, knowing of his exploits, was that he never humiliate her, and he did exactly that.
Miss Rice suffered as Monica Lewinski did; and her life was pretty much ruined because of the affair.
The best performance in the film comes from the great character actor JK Simmonds as Dixon, the campaign manager for Hart, who knows before the candidate does that it is over.
Reitman gives the film a Robert Altman feel at the beginning, lots of motion and talking when I think he should have been working out the characters and allowing us to get to know them.
Sadly, I felt nothing for Gary Hart, Jackman did not bring one iota of sympathy, but his wife and daughter? My heart wept for them.
Nicole Kidman looks rancid and moldy as the tough detective in Destroyer. Never before has the actress allowed herself to look so rough for a film, it is as though she is rotting from the inside out, corruption attached to her very soul. Her skin is sallow, blotchy, her teeth yellow and dark, she is skinny, sinewy, her eyes dead, bloodshot filled with self-loathing. She is lost and knows it, living with the past, a past she cannot let go of or escape.
It is a bold impressive performance absolutely free of vanity as she disappears under the skin of her character to go as far into a role as she ever has, and she has been mighty good before. Kidman has shone in films such as To Die For (1996), Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Moulin Rouge! (2001), The Others (2001), The Hours (2002) for which she won the Academy Award, Cold Mountain (2003), Birth (2004), Fur (2006), The Paperboy (2012), and most recently in The Beguiled (2017), but nothing will prepare you for what she does here. It is though Kidman ceased to exist and this character has taken over her body.
When she discovers a vicious killer is back in business, she tracks down a group of criminals she knew while undercover, hoping they can lead her to them. Her superiors know she is a drunk and drug addict, her daughter hates her, her ex-lover does not understand her, her partner worries for her, and the criminals she tracks down fear her. When she goes to visit a wealthy lawyer protecting a crook, it turns ugly fast, with Kidman on the ground writhing in pain, vomiting, but she quickly turns it around and beats the bodyguard and the lawyer, displaying extraordinary tenacity.
When she figures out what the criminals are up too, she arms herself with an automatic rifle, storms into the bank and starts firing. It is astonishing to see Kidman doing this because it is unlike anything she has ever done before, and yet she looks right at home. Her cop is intensely focused, a rogue and dangerous because as she says she has nothing to lose.
Surrounded by fine character actors, Tatiana Maslany shines as a wealthy girl tied up with a gang and unable to get out. Maslany is a hugely gifted actress whom I suspect we will see one Oscar night. Bradley Whitford is superb as a sleazy, smug lawyer who works with criminals and is proud of it.
As good as they are, the film belongs to Kidman, who could and should be heard from come Oscar time. The film has some self-indulgent moments, slow motion sequences that do not need to be so, but overall it is a first-rate entertainment, however dark and nasty. These are not the sort of people you want to spend much time with, they are repellant…but damn, you cannot take your eyes off Kidman.
The love of a parent is something children will never understand until they are parents themselves, should they ever be so lucky. It begins the moment we see the newborn child, a ferocious sense to protect from harm is what we father’s feel, to love and nurture what mothers feel. And we never give up on them, no matter how crazy they might be; however dark their behaviour might become, we are always there for them. The greatest reference I can offer about the depth of love parents feel is to point to killer Karla Homolka and her mother, who knew of her daughters’ crimes (her own sister among her victims) and still loved her, supported her and visited her in jail.
Nick (Timothee Chalamet) and his father David (Steve Carell) were as close as a father and son can be, David retaining custody in the divorce when his wife, Vicki (Amy Ryan) needed to ‘find herself.’ Nick loves David’s second wife, Karen (Maura Tierney), and adores his step brother and sister, who love him with equal abandon.
When Nick begins experimenting with marijuana his father is not worried, but things escalate very quickly and before he realizes it, Nick is a drug addict, having graduated from pot to cocaine, heroin and now crystal meth. David watches in horror as his son, his beautiful boy, becomes a stranger to him, one who lies, steals, cheats and betrays him in every possible way. One after another rehab visits fail to get Nick on the straight and narrow, and though bright, realizing what the drugs are doing to him, he seems powerless to stop. Nick is as devastated as his father by what happens to their relationship, his father eventually little more than an ATM to the drug-addled kid, until finally, he stops all giving, realizing he cannot help. When eight dollars goes missing from his little brothers’ life savings, David realizes Nick is beyond help.
Nick hooks up with his college sweetheart and they return to his fathers’ home not to visit but to rob him, breaking in, stealing electronics to sell for drugs, the greatest betrayal he could conceive. The next time Nick calls, the father ends contact for good, but of course nothing is forever. When Nick overdoses and nearly dies, his father is there yet again, and this time the young man fights harder than he ever did before, and end credits tell us he now is eight years clean.
The film is a devastating account of what addiction must be like not only for the addicted, but for the parent, who watches helplessly, not understanding the need for the drug.
If the film has a single failing, it is never answering what drove Nick to such hard drugs? A creative kid, excellent writer and student, college would have allowed him to surely spread his wings and fly, but instead he fell to earth a hopeless drug addict. Why? Not lack of love that is for sure. He tells us when he took meth for the first time he felt better than he ever had before, and I suppose the need is to repeat that feeling over and over, but of course the first time never can come again.
Chalamet is extraordinary as Nick, cementing his growing reputation as one of the finest young actors at work. His sublime performance in Call Me By Your Name (2017) earned him a Best Actor nomination and he should be in the running this year for Best Supporting Actor. Beyond the obvious drugged out or withdrawal scenes he captures, and beautifully, the need for the drugs, knowing they are his ruin. He must have them and though he apologizes over and over to his poor father, it is always going to end the same. You can see him all but swoon with pure bliss as the drug hits his brain, and altar his perception. The mood swings are explosively real, frightening, coming without warning, and breaking the hearts of those around him.
Steve Carell. When did this guy become some a profoundly good actor?? He was great in Foxcatcher (2014) a couple of years ago, but goes further, deeper with this. You can feel the weight of concern, of worry, of abject terror on his face as he worries about his son. The late nights, the calls to the police and hospital, he goes through a living hell with this boy he so loves.
Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan have smaller roles, but each actress fills them out with great compassion and humanity.
Director Felix Van Groeningen does a fine job with the actors, and balancing the tricky broken narrative he uses in exploring the relationship of father and son. A fine film, filled with hurt and heartbreak. Broken souls are captured on the silver screen.
“Let’s God the gay out of him” is the war cry of many a church in the Southern United States when it is suspected one of their flock might be, gasp, a homosexual!
Ignorance breeds fear.
When their son is accused of homosexual acts he did not commit (willingly) at his college, the Dean calls his parents and he is sent to be evaluated by a religious organization who pride (wrong word, sorry) themselves on bashing the gay out of the young people who are brought to them. Everything from reading the Bible, attacking homosexuality as an abomination, to bringing in a tough ex-con to talk about how to carry themselves as men are just some of the shocking treatments used on these kids.
The excellent Lucas Hedges, so good in Manchester By the Sea (2016) is the young man accused of the acts after he himself is raped by his best friend, no doubt the informant. But he goes to satisfy his father, a minster portrayed with haughty superiority by Russell Crowe. In an exceptional display of range, after Destroyer, Nicole Kidman is the uptight mother who loves her son and will see this through with him no matter how it turns out.
Russel Crowe is a commanding force as the father, stunned by the allegations of what his son might be, though when he looks at him he sees only a boy he loves. Crowe has lost none of his power as an actor, and it was good to see him back in something worthy.
Lucas Hedges is the real deal, a sensitive actor who reminds me of a young Montgomery Clift, not in looks, but in what he brings to each role. One of the most powerful moments he has in the film is a moment where he sobs alone in the bathroom after the rape, filled with shame. The shame that is happened, and perhaps the shame he did not do more to stop it. You can see the conflict building in him, it is a lovely performance.
Where the film fails for me is the near immediate decision to send him to this conversion camp, filled with other kids who suspect or know they are gay. Do his parents not trust him entirely? Are they so blinded by their religion and belief in God that they cannot see their son is in pain? He was assaulted?
Lots of questions asked, few answered.
Directed by Academy Award winner Steve McQueen, the guiding force behind the Oscar-winning Best Picture 12 Years a Slave (2013), this high octane caper film is a twist on both heist pictures, and in its own way noir. Dark, nasty, twisting, these are not the sort of people you care to encounter in life, you would just never be able to tell when they would put a bullet in your head, or back, which is more likely. As with all McQueen’s work, this is radically different from anything he has done previously, and like his other work, is well cast with a terrific group of some of the best actors in movies.
It opens with a stunning juxtaposition as we are introduced to the widows, and at the same time see the botched robbery that cost each of them their husband or partner. Veronica (Viola Davis) deeply mourns the loss of her husband because this is the second major loss in her life, having lost their teenage son a few years before. When a local drug dealer visits her after her husband’s funeral and intimidates her, threatens her to pay back the $2 million he stole from him, which is assumed gone up in smoke in the robbery, she is terrified because she knows this man means business. The mobster’s hitman is a dangerous psychotic, who likes to intimidate and play games before he kills. He is portrayed with alarming intensity by last year’s break out star from Get Out (2017), Daniel Kaluuya, who is astonishing in a part light years away from his work last year. His baleful stare is genuinely frightening, and it is quickly made apparent he is lethal, when he turns up people are going to die. Like a dangerous cat he likes to play with his prey before killing it, but make no mistake, they are going to die.
Veronica, out of desperation, rounds up two of the other widows and hatches a scheme to get the money she needs and maybe take care of them as well. Her husband, Rawlins (Liam Neeson) wrote down all of his jobs in a journal which she is now in possession of. She believes with the right group, trained properly, they can pull off a heist and bring them $5 five million. What they do not realize is that the person they are going to hit is at the very top of the food chain, and equally dangerous.
With her crew, Veronica prepares for the robbery, constantly on the edge, knowing one mistake could bring them down. Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Ervin and Elizabeth Debicki are exceptional as her partners in crime, each given a task, each with different ways of getting down what needs to be done.
The plot just keeps twisting and there are a couple of jaw dropping twists I did not see coming….at all. One will gut Veronica, stun her with the betrayal of her life. The heist goes almost as planned, but the complications that do creep up are major events that cannot be ignored. The girls are brought to the edge of ruin.
Davis is outstanding at the head of this cast, giving a commanding performance of a desperate woman somehow staying in control for the sole reason she must! Given thirty days to make right the theft of the money, she has no choice but to hold things together. Utterly fearless when pushed, the role is something very different for her. As her husband, Liam Neeson is never quite what he seems, the sort of guy who could love her for twenty years and then disappear in a puff of smoke. It is a nice reminder of his enormous gifts as an actor, and builds hope the either Scorsese or Spielberg make that George Washington biography with him.
Colin Farrell does well with his politician in over his head, wanting out, but knowing he must keep his father’s legacy intact. Robert Duvall is ferocious as Farrell’s corrupt father, the angry old man who must leave politics but pulls the strings behind his son, or at least thinks he does.
Where the film soars is in showing the cost of a life, what you are willing to do, and tasks if you are prepared to live with those choices?
McQueen keeps the film hurtling along at a brisk pace, but his actors never fail him, digging deep into their characters. Davis could receive Oscar consideration for Best Actress, and Kaluuya should be an absolute front runner for Best Supporting Actor, he was terrifying.
Widows promises to be an audience favourite.
BEN IS BACK
Ben is Back is attracting attention because it stars Julia Roberts in a demanding role in which she does outstanding work, but is failed by the screenplay.
Out shopping with her kids, Holly (Roberts) returns home to find that her wayward son, Ben (Lucas Hedges), has arrived home for Christmas. This puzzles her, her children, and most of all her mistrustful husband because Ben is in yet another rehab trying to get clean. His addiction has turned their lives upside down, and up to his arrival Holly thinks she has seen and heard it all, but realizes, quickly she knows nothing about her son.
Ben is buoyant charm and happy to be home, but he is dishonest, lies to his mother constantly, and in a trip to the local shopping mall, is spotted by some people who want him to pay for the betrayals he brought upon them. He spots the people who see him and knows that it will be around town very quickly that he is home. The family attend church on Christmas Eve, where the growing awareness of what he has done to his family and others around begins to hit home, causing him to weep in the church. Touched, his mother gently rests her head on his shoulder, hoping all might be well.
Returning home, they find their home robbed. Worse, the beloved family dog has been taken. Holly suspects Ben knows who did it, and together despite the protests of her husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance), the two of them head off into the night to find the dog. The journey overwhelms Holly, who learns her son prostituted himself to a school teacher (male), broke into homes to get drugs or steal money, was a dealer, and got himself in deep with a dealer who has taken offence to Ben leaving the life. It seems the farther into the black of the night they go, the darker his life becomes.
The problem with the film is the same one I had with Beautiful Boy – what drove Ben to get addicted to drugs? Small town boredom? It can happen, a challenging life at home, though everyone seems to love each other, though no one trusts him. It feels too often like a TV movie with strong language, and might be better suited for HBO or Showtime rather than the big screen.
That said the performances, two of them at least are remarkable.
Lucas Hedges, so good in Manchester By the Sea (2016) is astounding as Ben, tormented by what his actions have done to his family, and though determined to break free of the action, he just cannot manage to do so. Filled with genuine self-loathing, hating what he has brought upon his family, placing them in danger at the hands of drug dealers, he is terribly conflicted. He feels terrible guilt for the death of a young girl he hooked on drugs, and knows his mother and sister are as afraid of him as much as they love. It is a terrific performance that furthers this young man’s career.
Roberts has always been a good actress, and at times shown flashes of greatness. There were moments of brilliance in Pretty Woman (1990), and that Oscar winning work in Erin Brockovich (2000) cannot be denied, nor can her superb, under-appreciated turn in Closer (2004), so it no surprise that she delivers the goods here. She has a key scene in which she sits down in a food court with the doctor who first prescribed her son pain killers, the beginning of her nightmare. Tormented by what her son has done, but as much for him as for her family, the agony registers clearly on her face, the weight of his actions wear her down. Like any parent the guilt she feels is staggering, her love fierce, and her grief and disappointment haunting every moment of her waking life.
Written and directed by Peter Hedges, father to Lucas, I wish I could say the film was better than it is, because the intentions are noble. Tough to watch, especially I think if families have suffered through this sort of hell.