Most anticipated films at TIFF
TIFF began in the latest 70s as The Festival of Festivals, the brainchild of three ballsy Toronto businessmen, an idea everyone said was doomed to failure. Dusty Cohl is gone, the great Bill Marshall, my dear friend, died in January of this year, leaving Henk Van Der Kolk as the surviving founder of this world renowned cultural event. I wonder if they ever dreamed what they started would become so vital to the cultural landscape of not only Canada, but the film industries of the entire world?
In the beginning it was tough getting Hollywood to take the festival seriously, but in 1978 they managed to bring Midnight Express (1978) for its North American premiere, a huge coup, as the film went on to win two Oscars on six nominations, including Best Picture.
Championed by Roger Ebert through the 80s, the festival grew in stature, and by the 90s was a major Oscar player. When the zen master Piers Handlng took over leadership, he changed the name to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and gave the festival broader reach as a world event. It has become one of three of the worlds most important film festivals under Handlngs guidance.
The official start of the Oscar season begins with TIFF. In the last 25 years, countless Oscar and winners have been screened at this festival; major films like LA Confidential (1997), Boogie Nights (1997), The Apostle (1997), American Beauty (1999), Lost in Translation (2003), Sideways (2004), Brokeback Mountain (2005), The Last King of Scotland (2006), Away from Her (2007), No Country for Old Men (2007), Juno (2007), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Michael Clayton (2007), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The Hurt Locker (2009), The King’s Speech (2010), The Artist (2011), The Descendants (2011), Argo (2012), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Gravity (2014), La La Land (2016) and Manchester By the Sea (2016), great films all.
Sometimes the best part of the festival is being surprised, as I was last year with the extraordinary Jackie (2016), for which Natalie Portman should have won the Academy Award.
Which film comes out of TIFF this year headed for the Oscars? True to form, the programmers have selected a bounty of great films for screening in the city. Here are the ones I am most looking forward to experiencing.
Downsizing – Alexander Payne is a hugely gifted director who takes a massive risk this time, a break from his realistic comedies and dramas. Matt Damon plays a man who agrees to be shrunk to help with life costs, but his wife backs out at the last moment, leaving him this generation’s incredible shrinking man. Sounds great! Sounds dark! And sounds like a Damon acting fest.
Surburbicon – George Clooney directed this strange tale of a small, picturesque, suburbia gone mad. Written by the Cohen brothers, set in 1959, casting his friend Matt Damon in the second major film of the year for the actor, Clooney is a fine filmmaker, and the fact he is directing this bizarre film set in the suburbs makes it worth a serious look. Julianne Moore co-stars. That Damon is cast makes it doubly exciting.
Molly’s Game – The true story of Molly, who for several years in Hollywood ran a highly profitable, high stakes poker game that attracted major players in LA and Hollywood, including actor Tobey Maguire. Jessica Chastain is cast as Molly Bloom, a world class skier who became the host of this game, in a film directed and written by Aaron Sorkin. It looks to be a great role for Chastain, possibly, along with Natalie Portman the finest actress of her generation. Idris Elba is her lawyer, Kevin Costner her father.
I, Tonya – Tonya Harding was one of the most polarizing figures of the 90s, a talented Olympic figure skater with a trailer trash mentality. Responsible for injuring Nancy Kerrigan to take her out of the Olympics, paving her own way to gold, Harding was a vicious, grasping woman, willing to do whatever it took for her own gain. Margot Robbie is Harding and that is enough to get me there. This is an actress on the rise, and her performance here could be her breakthrough.
Chappaquiddick – I remember this happening, which gives away my age, but very clearly I recall this event because it ended any chance Ted Kennedy had on being President. Car crash, young woman dies, Kennedy cover up, instant scandal. Kennedy survived the scandal, but would never be President. Bruce Dern portrays papa Joe Kennedy, who pulled a lot of strings for his boys. Jason Clarke is Kennedy. Kata Mara is Mary Jane, the doomed young woman whose ghost called for justice from the grave.
The Shape of Water – the trailer put a hook in me. It looks like a Cold War fairy tale for adults, with a mute woman, a janitor discovering an aquatic creature the government has found. She bonds with it, falls in love with it, and teaches it. The scientists are fascinated, the government wants to dissect it. Sally Hawking looks enchanting, Del Toro might have made a masterpiece. The effects look stunning, the look of the film is exceptional, and Hawkins moves as in a dream, it looks amazing. Here’s hoping it is.
Battle of the Sexes – Bobby Riggs, portrayed by Steve Carell, was an over the hill mouthpiece who believed women should remain in the kitchen and out of pro tennis. Billy Jean King, portrayed by Emma Stone, believed differently, and after declining his invitation to a game between the sexes she finally agreed, and kicked his arrogant ass around the court. Those are facts. Behind the scenes what we did not know was she was exploring her sexuality while he was terrified of being defeated. Great cast, solid directing team, great story.
mother! – Aronofsky is one of the most visionary directors at work today, and has been known to guide actresses to greatness. Ellen Burstyn and Jennifer Connelly in Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Natalie Portman, who won an Oscar, and Mila Kunis in Black Swan (2010) bear me out. In this thriller he guides a cast that includes Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfieffer, and Ed Harris through a mysterious film he has managed to keep quiet and off the Internet. Great, only makes me want to see it more.
Stronger – Based on the true story of Jeff Bauman, a young man who lost his legs during the terror attack on the Boston Marsthon. With Jake Gyllenhall as Bauman, and the brilliant Tatania Muslany as Erin his girl friend, we can expect a harrowing, uplifting drama about the power of love and the human spirit. Could this be the one that lands the actor an Oscar nomination? Will this be Muslanys’ rocket to features?
The Disaster Artist – The Room (2002) is among the worst films ever made, a hellish viewing experience. Directed and starring the untalented Tommy Wiseau, the film has become notorious for what it is not, and that is watchable, not a single redeeming quality. James Franco, unquestionably a brilliant actor, does double duty as actor and director, portraying Wiseau in the film about the making of The Room. James Dean (2000), Milk (2008), 127 Hours (2010), Spring Breakers (2013), for Franco? I am there with bells on.
The Mountain Between Us – Based on a true story, this film sees Idris Elba as a surgeon and Kate Winslet as a woman on her way to be married, who crash high in the mountains. That they survive the crash at all is a miracle, but now they must find their way down the snow-covered mountains. With cougars in their midst, the elements pounding at them, their own survival skill pushed to the limit, they make their way down, finding the will to live bolstered by a love that blossoms. Oscar bait for both.
Mark Felt – Liam Neeson is Mark Felt who was Deep Throat, the high placed government operative who secretly fed information to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward during the Watergate scandal. They met in underground garages, alleys, wherever Felt was safe, because what he fed Woodward would bring down a President. Neeson needs a role like this to get him out of the action realm and back to real acting.
Borg-McEnroe – The casting of bad boy Shia LaBouef as the ultimate sports bad boy John McEnroe intrigues me. LaBouef can act, no question, and has been known to take great risks for his art, but this is a high wire act because McEnroe’s temper tantrums are so burned into our minds. “Are you serious?” he would scream at the umpire as thousands booed him. Ferociously competitive, a proud and brash New Yorker, this could be brilliant, or bunk.
Woman Walks Ahead – Jessica Chastain portrays the woman sent to paint the portrait of Sitting Bull, and becomes a trusted advisor and friend to the great Chief. I love westerns, I love history and my adoration for Miss Chastain is well documented. Cannot wait. The question will be – for which film will she be nominated?
Darkest Hour – Many critics and film writers have already awarded Gary Oldman the Academy Award for Best Actor after seeing the trailer for the film, but in fact they had crowned him before that. It reminds me of Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond (1981), he was going to win the moment he was cast. Now I love Oldman, and yes he should have a handful of nominations, but let’s wait and see the film before giving him that Oscar, shall we? Joe Wright directs the gifted actor as Winston Churchill, in what might be the performance of his career.
Mary Shelley – The teenager that wrote Frankenstein must have been a fascinating young girl. What sort of thoughts did she conjure to write such a book before she was 20? Elle Fanning portrays the writer in this film about her life and her creation of one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written. When did Fanning become one of our most interesting young actresses?
Happy End – Michael Haneke? Isabelle Huppert? Enough said, I will be there.
The Florida Project – A Sundance hit, the film explores the lives of children trapped in poverty, living in a hotel just a few miles from Disney World, which they will never see. They make their own sort of Disney World in the hotel where they live, a run down dump managed by a decent man, Willem Defoe who becomes the surrogate father and protector of the kids. Said to be simply astonishing, I am curious, being a Dafoe follower.
Mudbound – Another breakout from Sundance that explores a family moving to Mississippi and dealing with the inherent racism all around them, and a family member returning from the Second World War. Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke and Mary Jane Blige are said to be standouts in the picture.
Call Me By Your Name – Rave reviews greeted this film at Sundance earlier this year, a coming of age story, a gay romance, the maturing of a teenager realizing his own sexuality. Armie Hammer is said to be exceptional, Michael Stuhlberg is said to be Oscar worthy in this strong film.
And there will be films I discover by accident, wandering into a screening while waiting for another to begin, following the advice of the press office and seeing something because they think I should.
Tick, tick, tick…how many sleeps?
You can feel something terrible is going to happen. It percolates under the surface of this film like boiling water, waiting to burn, to scald the lives of those within.
Mudbound, which earned strong reviews at Sundance earlier this year, is a visceral, powerful film about two families who find their lives intertwined before, during and after World War II
Henry (Jason Clarke) is a hard working man who courts and marries Laura (Carey Mulligan), an educated young woman whom he drags to a two hundred acre farm in rural Mississippi, where he learns he has been swindled. Forced to live in a tiny house on the farm, the house is over-crowded with their two kids and racist, contemptuous father. His number one man is a proud sharecropper who lives not far away in a run down shack with his large family. Hap is a good man, hard working, but never treated by Henry like an equal. Laura, on the other hand, is good to Hap and his family. Each has a family member at war, and their return sets in motion a series of devastating events.
When charismatic Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) return home from war, they are each haunted by different things. For Ronsel, a hero at war defending his country, he returns to Mississippi to find he still, even as a hero, has to sit at the back of the bus, and exit stores through the back. Nothing about racism, even when a man fought for his country, has evolved. He strikes up a friendship with Jamie, who is haunted by his experiences at war, drinking his life away, and against all the social norms in the South, the men become best friends. Though they see color, they look deeper into the wounded soul of one another. Watch their first encounter – when that car backfires, they are both plunged back into the horror of combat, and as they did then, they bond, this time because of their nightmares. Their friendship, and Ronsel’s actions overseas will bring about a life altering event that impacts both families.
The performances in the film are exquisite, especially Mulligan, who is stoic, raising her children in what must be hell. Mary J. Bilge is also wonderfully stoic and strong as Ronsel’s mother. Jason Mitchell is proud and defiant as Ronsel, not quite believing what he encounters back home; and the under appreciated Garret Hedlund is Jamie, his eyes betraying his nightmares.
The atmosphere is often overwhelming as we feel the heat, that scorching Mississippi sun, and can smell the wet earth, the mud that holds these people in place on the land.
The racism within the film gives the picture a double edge, the mere uttering of that terrible “n” word brought gasps in the audience. We feel the hate of the whites towards the blacks, and it is as much an abomination today as it was then. It as though the constant rain were the tears of God weeping for what his creations have wrought, and the muddy earth the infectious wound left behind.
A brave and powerful film.
Maybe it is only the Coen Brothers who should direct the scripts they write? They have an inherent understanding of the tone of their work that I am not sure other directors possess. Is George Clooney’s Suburbicon, written by the Coens, a black comedy or satire? It feels like a black comedy with its bouncy 50s music that opens the film, but never quite gels as a whole. The two stories told in the film sometimes intertwine, yet never become a cohesive whole. Though it always promises to be headed into the realm of the blackly hilarious, it never gets there.
The film opens with the lovely ads for Suburbicon, a major housing development in the 50s that becomes its own community, when, horrors, a successful black family moves in, drawing stares of disapproval. They keep to themselves as fences are erected around their home, they are made to feel unwelcome in the grocery store, and eventually are targeted as though their white neighbours were all members of the Klu Klux Clan.
Not far from them, Lodge (Matt Damon), wakes his son in the middle of the night with news there are men in the house. They are indeed, bad men, dangerous men, murderous men. They tie the family up – Lodge, his wife and her sister, who are twins, and Lodge’s son. The mother dies from excessive exposure to chorloform, leaving Lodge a widower and the child motherless. Quick as a whip, the twin sister moves in, and things smell bad. Very bad.
It soon becomes clear that Lodge is no innocent, and in fact hired the men to kill his wife. Wanting their share of the life insurance money, they begin to squeeze Lodge and things spiral out of control. As the surrounding neighbours wage maniacal war on the black family, purely decent people, there is a bloodbath taking place in the Lodge home that few know about. When a snoopy insurance investigator comes creeping around, the nightmare is quickly escalated.
George Clooney is a fine actor and gifted director, and I keep seeing him in the Damon role because that is the kind of role he does well, that slightly bewildered man who cannot believe what is happening around him. Damon brings more menace to the role, to the extent we do not know if he will go as far as to off his own son. It is a solid performance from Damon, just not very interesting,
Julianne Moore plays Lodge’s wife, and has even less to do, even playing two women: one wheelchair bound as a brittle, angry woman, while her sister clearly lusts after her husband but proves non too bright.
Oscar Isaac is brilliant as the knowing, sleazy insurance investigator, who rightly smells a rat, though it could be his own stench he smells.
You could strip away the story of the black family and not lose a thing. And that is sad, because the Coens do not write throw aways.
The Florida Project
Her name is Moonee and she will first steal, then break your heart in this breathtaking film.
Set in and around the tacky strip leading to Disney World in Florida, we are plunged into an array of cheap, brightly painted hotels, those cheap gift shops, all leading to the Magic Kingdom. Just a few miles from the world of Moonee and her friends, it is the unattainable fairy world far apart from hers. The little girl, a born hell raiser, is six years old. She lives in poverty, but never seems to notice. She wakes up to adventures borne in her active imagination each and every day. She might long for the Magic Kingdom, but knows she does not need it, she has her own all around her.
Her mother, Hayley, works scams all week selling perfume to be able to pay the rent, and counts on a friend for food. But when an act of vandalism proves too dangerous to her friend, she cuts off the food supply and bans her son from contact with the rambunctious Moonee. This sends the already volatile Hayley into a downward spiral and she begins hooking, careful to keep it from her daughter, who despite her poor choices, she clearly loves. When child protection services come calling, we realize, as does Moonee, her world is about to fall apart.
In an extraordinary, unaffected, strikingly authentic performance, little Brooklynn Prince is simply a revelation as Moonee. Her brown eyes see the world with wonder, despite there being little in her life. Part of that comes from her hot tempered mom, played by Bria Vinaite, who knows exactly her situation but makes everything a game for her daughter. Prince gives the kind of performance that gets kids nominated for Academy Awards, as astounding piece of acting, the likes of which I have not encountered.
Quietly and effectively protecting the child and her mom is Bobby, the cranky, much-put-upon manager of the hotel, who spends his days often fixing what Moonee and her friends have damaged. His watchful eye also sees predators getting too close to the kids, and he knows more about Hayley than she thinks he does. Willem Defoe is superb as Bobby, one moment bemoaning the kids dripping ice cream in his precious lobby, the next ferociously banning a man he senses is a paedophile from coming near them, physically tossing him off the property.
Vinaite is very good as Hayley, though you can sense some lack of training as her tantrums become redundant. That said, she is very good. Usually in films about poverty, the children are treated as a burden. Not here, when Hayley scores, Moonee wins, treated to a shopping spree in a dollar store, loving like all little girls, everything shiny and that sparkles.
Sean Baker brilliantly directs the film, seeming to capture life as it happens. Sometimes it feels as though he has simply plunked his camera down to capture life. The moment when Moonee realizes her world is about to fall apart, finally we see her break, and big tears fall from her eyes as her face crumples. It is simply one of the cinema’s most searing images.
There is no question that Shia LaBouef is a wackadoodle; unpredictable, notable, a first class ass. Yet it cannot be denied he is also an actor of mercurial talent, as gifted as he is troubled. His performances in demanding films such as Nymphomaniac (2014) and last year’s American Honey (2016) more than display a raw bravery and intensity in his work, a danger lurking just under the surface. Forget his work in the insipid, stupid Transformers franchise, and most of all, forget his leather jacketed, faux Brando ass in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008); give him credit for his good work when it happens.
John McEnroe, in many ways was the LaBouef of the late 70s, early 80s sports world. The hot tempered New Yorker would shout and curse as his father umpired, taunted the crowd and his opponent. He was brash, cocky, confident, and perhaps the finest tennis player to come out of the United States. His antics on the courts earned him headlines around the globe, as well as suspension after suspension, but never shut him up. If he disagreed with a call he attacked the umpire with obscenities, shouting at them for the whole crowd to hear.
As McEnroe, LaBouef is electrifying. He might have been born to play this role.
The film traces the inevitable showdown between the fast rising McEnroe and the current tennis god, Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gundason) a quiet, intense player with a fierce dedication to winning. Having already won Wimbledon four times, the wealthy Borg has nothing left to prove, but like all great athletes, he sees McEnroe coming in his rear view mirror and wants to play him to beat him.
Through flashbacks we see that their backgrounds are not so different, though Borg has been tormented by anxiety his entire life. On the court he is all business – calm, cold, with a devastating serve and return, a champion celebrated the world over. McEnroe is the player people love to hate, but his talents cannot be denied. He is astounding on the court, merciless, has an equally vicious serve, and is able to find his opponent’s weakness very quickly. On a crash course with each other when they finally meet on the Wimbledon court in 1980, it is a showdown of the best in the world.
Gundason brings the intensity of Borg to vivid life, showing he was not the iceman portrayed in the media, but a deep-feeling man tortured by his mind. As good as he is, and he is very good, the film belongs to LaBouef, who sinks under the skin of McEnroe to deliver the finest performance of his career. Explosive on the court, and it seems, off of it, it is a simply stunning performance.
A fine film about two of the giants of the tennis world.
Some films just speak to you. Though the screening was jammed with press, I felt like this film was speaking directly to me. More than once harsh memories washed over me, cold sweats came, even nausea.
In 2001 I was involved in a near fatal car accident that left me in a coma for three and a half weeks. My heart had been crushed, my rib cage broken, my right arm broken, my pelvis broken in three places, but worst of all my legs had been shatttered, broken in 18 places. Bedridden for four months, I wore external fixators to hold the knitting bones in place, and there was genuine concern I might never walk again.
My wife believed I would walk. So did I. And I do, but not without a cane, and my good friend, Pain. Sports are gone, though I can swim, but hockey, soccer and baseball are long in my past. Running is out of the question, standing for long periods of time brings great pain, long walks kill me, the intense meds take the edge off, but the pain is a constant companion. I am in no way feeling sorry for myself – I have seen people far worse off than myself, some who have died, this was the hand I was dealt.
My wife and I vowed never to let the pain govern our lives. I was alive so I chose to live. One of the doctors told me Sherri willed me to live, how can one ever be worthy of a love that deep. Without her I doubt I would have walked.
Imagine being Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhall) and waking up to both your legs gone? Not broken, not injured, but gone.
A likeable screw up of a person, Jeff worked at Costco, cheered for his beloved Red Sox, and was trying to back into the good graces of his ex-girlfriend Erin. Deciding to show her he can show up for someone other than himself he goes to watch her run in the Boston Marathon, and is terribly injured when the bombs set by young terrorists explode near him.
Waking up to find his legs gone, Jeff begins adjusting to the dreadful pain, but more and deeper, the alterations of who he is now as a person. With the support of Erin (Tatania Maslany), he begins the long, arduous and unspeakably slow process of finding his way back into life. Not just his life, but life in general because as much as we want to believe we are important, life moves savagely on without us.
Gyllenhall gives the finest performance of his career as a Bauman because the actor (and his director) choose to portray the character “warts and all.” Jeff is often dislikable, and it was refreshing to see a film such as this where the hero is not noble and basking in rays of goodness. He was hurt, for no reason, his legs are gone, he is in constant pain and pissed off. But rather than fall into a pit of self pity and despair, he eventually channels that anger and rage into healing, into learning to walk again, into living. Yes, he angers people, and yes he can be cutting and cruel, but these may be his necessary tools to survive. This should finally land the actor a nomination for Best Actor.
What I really liked about the film is the director had the courage to explore how the impact of the tragedy that befell Jeff impacted everyone around him in different ways. His mother, a drunk, wants the entire nation to know her son is a hero, and goes to extraordinary lengths to make that happen. No question her love runs deep, but we also question her thinking and the “what’s in it for him” mentality that Jeff does not possess. And his girlfriend Erin, who stands beside him at the beginning of this journey, but tires of his spiral and drunken escapades, which she more often than once is left to clean up. Her greatest war is fought with his family, as only she is aware of the dreams and nightmares that haunt Jeff, the memories of that day walking that landscape of his memory.
Maslany is an Emmy Award-winning Canadian actress, best known for her stunning work on television’s Orphan Black, and a handful of performances in Canadian films. I have watched her for a long time and believe she will be a major actress for many years to come. As Erin she is outstanding, the much-needed rock on whom Jeff leans, but also the target of his abuse, which she does not deserve. In the end she proves every bit as strong as he is. It is an exceptional piece of acting that could draw talk for Best Supporting Actress.
This is the second major film in a year to deal with the tragic Boston marathon, last year’s under appreciated and superb Patriot’s Day (2016) being the first. Each wisely chose to deal with the very human elements of the story. Smart move.
An exceptional work that struck very close to home for me.
She rose from trailer park roots to become one of the greatest figure skaters in the world, yet she was always a polarizing figure. Known for her use of vulgar language, Tonya Harding was as fearless off the ice as she was on it, and in the politically charged world of comptetuve figure skating, that was not a good thing for her. There was talent, no question, but there was also a troubled past, and present that always threatened to pull her off that precious podium.
Abused emotionally and physically by her mother, Harding began skating when she was three. What she lacked in the technical aspects of the sport she made up for in her free style skating, which was breathtaking to watch. Built differently than most of the girls in the sport, she was not tiny, for while short, she was stocky, with powerful, muscular legs,
By the late 80s she was bound for the Olympics as one of the finest figure skaters in the world, the first woman to execute and land the difficult triple axel jump in a program, and later in her career she accomplished two in a single program. Her main competition for Olympic gold was her teammate, dark-haired beauty Nancy Kerrigan. When Kerrigan was attacked after a routine, it quickly became apparent that the attacker tried to break her leg, but the attacker managed only to badly bruise her. Later it became clear that Harding’s husband had paid for the attack, and that Harding might have been aware and complicit.
Her career never survived the scandal, she famously broke down in tears when her skate laces and blades failed her, and bowed out of the Olympics, finishing a distant eighth. In true Cinderella style, Kerrigan won silver at those very Olympics.
Banned for life by the skating world, Harding was famous, but much more infamous. Reviled by America, what was she to do? This new film explores the life of Harding, with a splendid performance from Margot Robbie as Harding. The Australian actress, bulked up with padding, her natural beauty toned down, is very good as Harding, bringing to the performance that loopy mentality Harding became famous for having. After boxing there was a sex tape, then a short lived boxing career, then a best selling book, and today, after trying acting, she is a narrator of a cable TV series.
The film explores her rise from nothing to the greatest of heights in her world, and the sudden, stunning fall from grace. She is nothing if not a survivor.
Alison Janney is excellent as her abusive and controlling mother, but this is Robbie’s coming out party, announcing her as a major talent. I just wish she had a better film to showcase her gifts. This one feels like an ABC movie of the week with bad language. Despite fine work from Robbie, who is obviously committed to the film, it never rises beyond being average…at best. Rather like Harding herself.
Anything written by Aaron Sorkin crackles with intensity and intelligence, he is a masterful writer, be it for TV or feature films. His long-running TV series The West Wing was a magnificent creation, filled with sharp, fast paced dialogue, topical issues and gave an honest and intriguing look at life in the White House. Many awards were bestowed upon the show, and it features a the type of president I believe everyone longs to have in office. When I interviewed Martin Sheen a few years ago, I was not sure whether to call him Martin, as he asked, or Mr. President!
Sorkin’s screenplays have been outstanding, beginning with A Few Good Men (1992), which was adapted from his own play, and contains one of the greatest court room scenes ever filmed. The American President (1995) was a fine picture, said to be what brought him to create The West Wing. There was much to like in his political satire Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), but I think audiences were confused by the complicated and intricate story lines. In 2010 he wrote his masterpiece, The Social Network, which won all the major critics awards but incredibly lost the Oscar for Best Picture and Director to a lesser film, The King’s Speech (2010) and Tom Hooper. Sorkin, however, won the Oscar for Best Screenplay, richly deserved for writing one of cinema’s finest scripts. In the years since, he has written Moneyball (2011) and has been nominated for another Oscar, and the excellent Steve Jobs (2016), for which he was again nominated for an Oscar. This year, in addition to writing Molly’s Game, he also has stepped behind the camera to direct the picture, which is a biting, tough, uncompromising film – everything we would expect a Sorkin film to be.
The film opens with a young woman being arrested at five a.m., armed police surround her apartment and make quite a production of taking her out.
But then, she’s not just anybody.
Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) was a Olympic free-style skier injured in a qualifying race which ended her career. Moving to Los Angeles because she wanted warm weather, she becomes an assistant for a high end poker game that includes A list movie stars, directors, high-priced lawyers and sports figures, all well known. So good is she at her job she eventually takes the game over and begins making real money.
Betrayed by one she trusts, she is devastated, but rather than wallow in self pity, she heads to New York to set up shop there, and once established has the biggest game in town. So big that the mob comes calling for a piece, and when she declines, she is badly beaten and threatened with death. Shortly after that, her game is raided and she retreats from that life to break free of her drug addiction. Two years later she is arrested. Needing a lawyer, she hires Charlie (Idris Elba) a high-priced hotshot with a love for the play The Crucible, which plays brilliantly into the film.
Jessica Chastain steps forward as the frontrunner for the Academy Awards for Best Actress, with an electrifying turn as whip smart, ambitious Molly, who might be too smart for her own good. She miscalculated the viciousness of the mob and paid dearly for it, her eyes for the first time registering genuine terror. How could this smart woman not know she has always been in peril. She is riveting throughout, dominating the film with her edgy, tough character.
Elba is outstanding as her lawyer, not quite understanding why she will not take a deal until she quotes The Crucible to him, and then it sinks in.
Kevin Costner has a lovely scene with Chastain portraying her father, who read in her book about her being attacked and reacts in helpless horror that his little girl was beaten and terrorized. Once again Costner demonstrates as a character actor.
An outstanding film that is sharp, edgy and typical Sorkin.
The Shape of Water
When this film is over you might feel you dreamt it, so clear and pristine are the images, so awe inspiring and magical the story, yet equally unbelievable. Nothing like this has ever hit the screen before, it is quite simply a miracle of a film.
Eliza (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor working the night shift at a top secret government facility. She and her friend, the chatty Delilah (Octavia Spencer) spend their nights cleaning a secret place filled with Cold War Operatives and scientists. Into the lab is brought a strange amphibian creature worshipped as a God in South America. It has been captured and brought in to be studied, killed and dissected.
Eliza strikes a curious friendship with the strange creature once it knows she means him no harm. It responds to music, learns her sign language, learns to trust and to love. They become friends and something a great deal more. When it becomes clear the government means to harm the creature, she decides to break it out, not realizing the depth of her feelings or the trouble she is asking for.
Let me state right now, quite emphatically, that if Sally Hawkins does not win the Academy Award for Best Actress, the Oscars will finally have lost all credibility to me. She is a wonder, utterly enchanting with a sly smile on her face, slightly flirtatious, slightly sexual and when she needs it, utterly mocking. I had never thought of Hawkins as a sexual being, yet here she is ripely sexual, fearless in her nakedness, unashamed of her vulnerability. Her character is fearless in every way, and will descend to the depths of hell for this creature.
Richard Jenkins gives a lovely performance as her neighbour, a gay artist struggling to find love in the world, and who loves Eliza enough to believe in her and help her. As always, Octavia Spencer gives a fine performance and Michael Stuhlbarg is wonderfully compassionate and kind as a scientist. If there is a monster in the film it is Michael Shannon’s sadistic government security operative, the man who found and captured the creature and gets off torturing it with his beloved cattle prod. A bully and a psychotic, maniac to boot, he is a study in pure cruelty.
Everything in the film works from the breathtakingly beautiful cinematography, the haunting music, the sound, to the creation of the creature, it is utterly flawless.
The magic within and that rapturous performance from Hawkins will sweep you away and make your heart soar. Along the way the film gently strokes your soul.
The Battle of the Sexes
In this hugely enjoyable and entertaining film, Emma Stone surpasses her Oscar winning performance in La La Land (2016). Here she plays tennis star Billie Jean King, who not only revolutionized women’s tennis, and the sport itself, but made a huge impact on women’s rights.
Women athletes in the 70s were paid a fraction of what men made, and angered by this fact, number one ranked star Billie Jean King rallies the best players together to create their own tournament, sponsored by Virginia Slims cigarettes. When challenged by former champion, professional showboat Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) to an exhibition match worth a great pay day, she declines. But when Riggs makes short work of a fellow player, she takes the challenge. While on the road, Billy Jean finds herself struggling with her own sexuality, entering into an affair with a pretty young hairdresser. Knowing if it gets out that she is gay and she will be ruined, they are forced to keep it quiet, though King’s husband, a thoroughly decent man who adores her, knows what is going on.
Riggs pulls stunt after stunt leading to the match, while King trains, knowing that if she loses, women’s equal rights will be set back.
History tells us she won, but she did not just win, she destroyed Riggs on the court, making him look like a fool with her obvious skill and strength. His first words to her after the match, “I underestimated you,” make him forever a good sport.
Stone is terrific, capturing the aloof chilliness in King that many took as arrogance, but was in fact a woman single minded in her path to be the very best there ever was in women’s tennis. The performance will again land her in the race for Best Actress.
Carell, after shocking audiences as John Du Pont in Foxcatcher (2014), is outstanding as Riggs, terrified of being forgotten, needing to be in the limelight. It is a big, funny performance that gets serious only when he is on the court, which if you recall, was Riggs.
The film will no doubt be a hit with audiences, as it strikes a chord, and remains topical today.
The Disaster Artist
One of the best American comedies of the last 20 years, James Franco does an incredible job of acting the part of Tommy Wiseau and directing this often hysterically funny film about the making of The Room (2003). When discussions of the worst films ever made come up, this one is always in the mix.
Written, directed, produced and starring Tommy Wiseau (a mysterious man with a European accent, though he claimed to be from New Orleans, was wealthy, and possessed no talent as an artist at all), The Room is now a cult classic, and has played at midnight screenings where audiences howl at the dreadful acting and non-existent storyline. With a dream to be an actor, the older man, around 35, most suspect, fell in with a younger actor and they headed to LA to make their dreams come true. When neither can land work, Wiseau (Franco) writes a script, buys the equipment, does not rent, and decides to do it all himself, along with his best friend Greg (Dave Franco).
Obviously, it becomes painfully clear Tommy has no talent, but he pours money into the movie, estimates claim nearly $6 million in all, to create his opus. Often quietly laughing at his utter ineptitude, the crew cannot quite believe how bad he really is. But the cheques keep clearing so they keep coming back.
Blinded by his passionate ambition, Tommy forges ahead and eventually finishes the film, to disastrous results. This is beyond Ed Wood bad, a Z grade film if there was one, yet Tommy is oblivious to it. In his mind they are making, or he, is making a masterpiece.
James Franco is a comic revelation as Wiseau, more Wiseau than the real thing, with his black locks and strange accent. Rarely I have witnessed an actor nail another person so completely, in voice pattern, laugh, movement. He does not act the part, he inhabits the character in every way. The actor, so good in 127 Hours (2010), gives the finest performance of his career here. That he directed the film makes his accomplishment all the greater, but something more, you can see clearly how much fun he is having as an actor, and when unleashed as he is here, he can be astonishing.
His younger brother Davis does fine work as Greg, but must know he is in his brothers shadow. If the film catches on, James could be an Oscar nominee for Best Actor.
The recreations of the scenes in The Room ) are particularly strong because you have gifted actors acting badly! They match the terrible film to perfection, and yes there is a perverse glee in watching the creation of what is a train wreck of a movie. The press screening I attended greeted the film with long and hearty applause.
An absolute comic delight.
There is a great deal to admire and appreciate in the melancholy new western Hostiles, directed by Scott Cooper. Owing a great deal to the work of John Ford before him, Cooper has made a visceral, raw western that explores the hostilities between the whites and the natives, but also the capacity for admiration between them. It is so rare great westerns are made anymore, that when they are, we need to truly celebrate them.
Blocker (Christian Bale) is a war-weary man in the army who has killed too many people, has seen too much death, and is ready for a quiet life and his pension. Gruff, taciturn, he has made his life as a killer and offers no apologies for it, ready to challenge anyone foolish enough to take him to task. Ordered to take a dying native chief to his burial ground, he in none too pleased to be doing such a thing. When they encounter a woman we meet in the opening scenes, they know at once their lives are going to change.
She witnessed her family being slaughtered by natives – her husband and all three children, including an infant, shot in her arms. On the precipice to slipping over into madness, Block takes her under his charge to protect her, knowing the band that attacked her home will be tracking them. Worried enough to band with the natives he is escorting home, this begins a slow thaw as he and the dying chief (Wes Studi) begin to trust one another, to work together.
As they work their way to the old man’s lands they are attacked, but as often by white men as natives, and with greater cruelty. This serves to open the eyes of the party, Blocker in particular, who sees things from the natives’ point of view when he himself is attacked, and sees his men killed by white men. It awakens a kindness in him that was always there. Make no mistake, he is a ruthless killer when he needs to be, but he is also at a point in his life when he is finished with that. What he wants is right in front of him, his for the asking.
Bale is superb as a quiet though forceful man used to giving orders, widely respected, even feared, who is as haunted by the death he has seen. What seems to eat at him like a corrosive acid are the deaths of his own men, he feels a great responsibility for them. Under the rage is a good man, he is nothing but gentle and kind with the devastated woman he finds and cares for. Bale uses his expressive eyes for much of his performance, eyes that have seen too much pain.
Rosamund Pike, so frightening in Gone Girl (2014), is stunning as the poor soul who watches her entire family slaughtered. Her two pre-teen daughters are shot in the back inches from her, her infant is killed in her arms as she runs, how much can her mind bear? She is stronger than they imagine, becoming an integral part of the party in fighting those in their way. The actress digs deep, and gives a powerful performance that captures her grief, her rage, hate, but also her capacity for love and kindness. One of her final actions speaks to her humanity.
The great Ben Foster turns up in a small role as a dangerous soldier being taken to be executed, and CSI Miami’s Rory Cochran gives a fine performance as Blocker’s best friend.
Wes Studi is proudly defiant as Yellow Hawk, a once fierce warrior now broken with cancer, knowing they must unite to stay alive.
The vast outdoors becomes a secondary character as we move from state to state, through rock, thick green forests, it is spectacular. Underneath it all is a superb score that gives the film its heartbeat.
The film must be taken seriously as an Oscar contender, it is too good not to be.
Roman Israel, Esq.
We have never seen Denzel Washington as he in Roman Israel, Esq., his new film that screened here at TIFF as a late announcement. The actor, one of the finest, stretches himself further than he ever has before, easing brilliantly into the part of a high functioning man with Aspergers, a brilliant lawyer savant who is not presentable to clients, but handles the research and legal work behind the scenes.
With a towering afro, a three piece suit from three different suits, old 70s glasses, he looks like a person of the street, until he speaks and then the intelligence, and the issues are clear. It is a stunning transformation because the actor has never broke this far from himself in turns of appearance. Gone is the trademark toothy grin, whether flashed in anger or joy, replaced by a somber man who rarely meets the eyes of the person he is speaking with and can recite reams of law. He falls far deeper into character than say, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (1988), and is less affected than Hoffman. Despite the fact, initially, we know it is Washington, we lose him, he becomes Roman. Or rather he becomes as he announces, “Roman Israel, Esquire.”
Directed and written by Dan Gilroy, the script offers the actor one of the most challenging roles he has ever portrayed, and a true artist, he meets that challenge, soaring with a masterful performance.
Remember how truly devastated he was upon losing the Oscar last year in Fences? No need, he will be back this year and I believe he will win. It is a mesmerizing performance from one of our greatest actors who proves he still can astonish us. We have seen truly brilliant work from him: Cry Freedom (1987), Glory (1989), his astounding Malcolm X (1992), Philadelphia (1993), The Hurricane (1999), Training Day (2001), Flight (2012), but we have never seen anything from the actor like this transformation.
Forced to find other work when his boss suddenly dies, he is left working for a legal shark portrayed by the ever surprising Colin Farrell, having one of those dream years where he is everywhere, and good. What his new boss does not count is Israel and his ferocious commitment to the greater good, to lost causes, to his connection to what he believed in at the beginning. A fighter for those who cannot fight for themselves, he is unique, a lawyer who believes in the law and his clients.
Colin Farrell does very good work as the official courtroom lawyer at the firm, but make no mistake, he too knows the brains behind him belong to his curious colleague.
Washington is astonishing in the film, and the director needed him to be because the film is not in the same league as his performance. It is good, but no more, while Washington is remarkable. I have always believed his finest work was in Malcolm X, in which he gave a performance for the ages in a film for the ages, but this is by far his most daring work. Walking a high wire act, at a time when most actors have forgotten to be daring, he is nothing less than astonishing.
Move over Gary Oldman…Denzel is in the house.
There is a belief the Kennedy family was cursed, the karma came calling on father Joe for his misdeeds through life, tragedy befalling his children. One was killed during World War II, John was gunned down in Dallas while president, and Bobby was killed before he could get to the White House. The sharpest political mind in the family, Ted, never made it to the White House, his career forever clouded by Chappaquidick and the scandal which ensued. He died of brain cancer just a few years ago, a great statesman and patriot, his career forever tainted by the events that transpired in 1969.
It would seem deservedly so.
In this frank and very powerful film, the events and impact of Chappaquidick are presented with frightening honesty and a strong forthright power. We leave with a greater understanding of the events and those they impacted, we perhaps even understand Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) more than we did going in. We certainly understand the hell Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) endured while drowning in the car that dropped into the river.
Leaving a political party, Ted Kennedy takes with him Miss Kopechne, but drives the car off a bridge into the Chappaquidick River, where the young woman dies in the car. Kennedy escapes, leaves the scene, and then watches with some horror as the spin doctors, guided by his father Joe (Bruce Dean) weave their dark magic.
What he film paints is a frightfully honest depiction of Kennedy who, after promising to report the accident, did nothing of the kind, instead retreating to a hotel to bathe and sleep. He was dining with friends the next day when the car and body were found. Lying, trying to spin it all in his favour, he realizes he is in far deeper than he imagined, but his father’s team of lawyers work it out for him. What is appalling is the utter and disgraceful lack of concern for the dead girl. It is all about Kennedy, all about his reputation, the career, the White House.
Kennedy might have wept for the young girl, but he wept first for himself, he cared first and foremost for Ted Kennedy, behaving like a spoiled, entitled rich boy, not a man at all.
Clarke is outstanding as Kennedy, finding the right note of arrogance and shame in the character, allowing the audience to both care for him while we revile him. Clarke has the courage to portray Kennedy as callous, a bold move given the adulation for the senator, though they never loved him enough to elect him president. Seeing the manner in which the young girl dies certainly compounds our anger towards him. The actor is fearless in the role, because he must have known audiences would dislike his character. The Mara performance is very good; we feel for her, and Bruce Dean is brilliant as the insidious Kennedy patriarch, devastated by strokes, still able to shame his son and spin American politics.
There is a profound sense of melancholy and sadness over the film, a further loss of innocence in the 60s. Scandal followed the Kennedy family throughout their lives, making clear that money matters little. They might have been American royalty, but when the crown was tainted, it was forever tainted. When Camelot fell, thus did the Kennedys. This seemed to be the final blow for the Kennedy legacy, yet Ted served and continued to serve in Senate. His bid for the presidency ended with a defeat in 1980. He never did achieve his dreams.
But what of the dreams of Mary Jo Kopechne? Her dreams died at the bottom of a pond as she gasped for her last breaths. Who wept for her? Not, it appeared Ted Kennedy.
TIFF Wraps up
TIFF 2017 is over. All in all, it was a very good festival with at least four films breaking away from the pack on the path to Oscar.
I found many films just very good, which is not a complaint, just a fact. In the coming months I will review some of them more in depth; for now I hope the capsule reviews were sufficient.
The Shape of Water was the best film I saw, by far. A soul-stroking fantasy, with elements of Beauty and The Beast and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, it is mesmerizing. Sally Hawkins is luminous; it is simply breathtaking.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was sensational. A brilliant black comedy that is also a superb study of redemption and seeking forgiveness. That twist comes in the last quarter of the film and is a complete surprise. Sam Rockwell is devastating as a racist, a violent cop who, upon reading the letter of a dead man he admired, seeks to change his ways. Most of the reviews scream the praises of Frances McDormand, rightly so, but Rockwell is the dark soul of the film.
I saw Darkest Hour and think it is a great companion piece to Dunkirk, with a great Gary Oldman performance. But I do not feel this is the actor’s best work, nor that he should be handed an Oscar because some feel he is owed. I liked it, did not love it.
Lady Bird I loved. Loved it. Beautifully and confidently directed by its writer, Greta Gerwig, the film deals with the last turbulent year at high school for the self absorbed Lady Bird (Saorise Ronan) who refuses to be called by her given name, Christine. A fury of chaos and energy, she makes it hard to like her, but damned if she is not fascinating to behold. Ronan is superb, with great supporting work from Laurie Metcalf.
The Florida Project was a startling, honest film with a drop dead brilliant performance from seven year old Brooklynn Prince. Her breakdown at the end of the film is so sudden, so unexpected it breaks your heart as it is happening.
It was a great festival for women, actresses, directors, and writers. Actresses are taking charge of their careers, finding great roles for themselves, rather than waiting for the roles to come to them.
Directors are taking risks, breaking free of the comic book and super hero shackles that have chained creativity in the business. If the world is a place where Guillermo Del Toro can make a breathtaking film like The Shape of Water, I am ok with that world.
By the end of the festival my legs were screaming in pain and I was dead tired. But cinematically, I was sated.
Thank you, Cosmos readers – let’s do it again next year!
The ten best I screened this year are as follows, in order of preference:
The Shape of Water
The Florida Project
The Disaster Artist
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Battle of the Sexes
The worst film I screened was mother, just wretched, self indulgent, artistic masturbation nonsense.
Happiest surprises were the hilarious The Disaster Artist, and The Upside.
Biggest disappointment was Suburbicon.
The films that blew me away? The Shape of Water, The Florida Project, Lady Bird and The Disaster Artist.
Films I am sorry to have missed, Walks Far Woman.
Why all the fuss over Darkest Hour? Come on, realistically it is a good film, not a great one, with an almost great performance.
Best surprise performance? Hong Chau in Downsizing, Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project, Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
And I was moved to tears by The Shape of Water and The Florida Project.