The TIFF Report, Vol 5

North Star

Director: Kristin Scott Thomas
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Freida Pinto, Sienna Miller, Emily Beecham, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sindhu Vee, Joshua McGuire
Synopsis: Three sisters return to their home for the third wedding of their twice-widowed mother. But the mother and daughters are forced to revisit the past and confront the future, with help from a colorful group of unexpected wedding guests.
Thoughts: Making her feature directorial debut, Kristin Scott Thomas has gone personal with North Star, also handling co-writing duties and playing the mother of three daughters (Scarlett Johansson, Sienna Miller, & Emily Beecham) that come home for their mum’s third marriage lugging significant baggage. Based in part on her own life (Thomas’s navy pilot father was killed in action when she was six, and then her first stepfather was killed six years later), the movie wants to have all the flair of a quirky dramedy. Still, it can’t drum up much energy to convince us it cares much about anything. Not that it makes a lot of difference, but it’s regrettable for the film to be playing alongside His Three Daughters, a far more skilled look at the political dynamics between siblings. Thomas is barely in the movie (in one major goof, she’s missing from multiple group shots during a critical scene, only to magically appear out of thin air when she has a pivotal line), but when she is sharing time with Beecham, Miller, and Johansson, there is a distinct spark that is missing from the rest of the picture. Why more of these moments weren’t added to the film is anyone’s guess, but without that crackle, the film flatlines before the rehearsal dinner can get underway, let alone the wedding itself. Unpolished and, worse, uninteresting, there’s an aimlessness to it all (especially Johansson’s accent) that will have your eyelids swiftly drooping south. 

The Movie Emperor

Director: Ning Hao
Cast: Andy Lau, Pal Sinn, Rima Zeidan, Ning Hao, Eliz Lao, Chao Wai, Daniel Yu, Kelly Lin
Synopsis: Andy Lau is perfectly, cheekily cast as a movie star seeking relevance via a film festival–baiting art-house role in director Ning Hao’s sharp satire of movie industry pretension.
Thoughts:  Hong Kong actor Andy Lau is a verified superstar, a juggernaut at the box office in his home country, and the star of titles that have crossed over internationally. That fame created quite the buzz at TIFF23 for the world premiere of The Movie Emperor, a playful poke at the HK film industry, not to mention the fickleness of fandom and the overstuffed star ego. Lau plays an actor who takes a more serious role, hoping it will bring him the accolades (read: awards and respect) his peers have received. The joke of watching a movie featuring Lau’s character wanting to make art that finds success at a film festival not unlike a TIFF wasn’t lost on the packed crowd, which positively ate it up. Directed by Ning Hao (who also plays the director of the movie Lau is working on), this is an often hilariously deadpan takedown of an industry that both loves to be made fun of and reviles falling under the microscope. Hao has a way of introducing wild moments that catch you off guard, surprising bursts of frenetic energy that keep Lau and the viewer on guard and alert throughout. Unfortunately, it veers a bit off course during its last stretch when cancel culture and a porcine subplot come to the forefront to diminishing returns; however, Lau’s increasingly volatile run-ins with a motorist keep the movie mysterious and unpredictable until the end. One of the few films I almost didn’t get into because the demand for tickets was so great (Lau and Hao were both there, creating a major stir of fans clamoring to see them); I was glad I scored a ticket, and was granted a seat right as the house lights were dimming. 

The Movie Teller

Director: Lone Scherfig
Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Antonio de la Torre, Daniel Brühl, Sara Becker, Alondra Valenzuela
Synopsis: A young woman uses her storytelling gifts to share the magic of the pictures she has seen in the cinema with the poor inhabitants of a desert mining community.
Thoughts: I’m a true sucker for movies about movies, so I was likely pre-disposed to take a shine to Danish director Lone Scherfig’s Spanish-language adaptation of Hernán Rivera Letelier’s novel. Set in a small town in Chile’s Atacama Desert and tracking one family through the eyes of a young daughter and her coming of age, with The Movie Teller, Scherfig once again demonstrates her talent of creating an all-encompassing vision of time and place. Scherfig has insisted that period details are delicate but finely tuned as she did with An Education. If the threads of the story go a little awry and fall slack as the film nears its second hour, the performances from Sara Becker and Alondra Valenzuela as the older and younger versions of the protagonist keep the emotional beats in rhythm. In the third act of the picture, Becker is involved with the less exciting developments when her character begins an illicit affair with a much older man (Daniel Brühl) who was rumored to have had eyes for her mother.   Her mother is played by Bérénice Bejo (Final Cut), an actress I’m still waiting to get back on the Hollywood radar. She’s so good here (as usual) as a woman with unfulfilled expectations and desires who feels stuck in a dead-end town that you’re reminded why she snagged an Oscar nomination 11 years ago for The Artist. The character makes some questionable decisions, but Bejo consciously tries not to judge the woman she’s playing; instead, she interprets the role compassionately. The same can be said for Scherfig’s reflective approach to the Isabel Coixet and Walter Salles adaptation of the novel, which comes through as embracing the community’s people instead of simply rejecting the paths they choose toward happiness.


Director: Jason Yu
Cast: Jung Yu-mi, Lee Sun-kyun, Kim Gook-hee
Synopsis: Expectant parents navigate a nightmare scenario when a spouse develops a sleep disorder that may belie a disturbing split personality.
Thoughts: Arriving from South Korea, Sleep preys on our fear of when we are the most vulnerable…as we get our slumber. Filmmakers have been picking at this scratchy blister for decades (hello, Wes Craven!), but writer/director Jason Yu injects a refreshing dose of dread with this finely crafted creep-fest. It was rather appropriate to be screening Sleep at a midnight showing when I should have been in bed, and you better believe that after it was over, I had a hard time closing my eyes long enough to convince my mind there was nothing to be afraid of. Far from your traditional K-horror in that it eschews creating a central figure of terror to thwart, Yu instead builds upon a simple set-up involving historical lore that stretches across borders. When her actor-husband starts to display strange behavior while asleep, a pregnant wife fears for both her safety and the well-being of her unborn child. Enlisting any help she can after her spouse begins to harm himself physically and develops a taste for a midnight snack of raw meat, the wife even resorts to calling in her mom and an eccentric mystic to clear the apartment of any evil presence. Is the affliction something physical or truly supernatural? Does it have anything to do with the loud noises that have annoyed the couple and the downstairs neighbors? Or has something else snuck into their lives, something which arrived undetected and has hidden itself within the husband, waiting for the perfect time to strike? Presented in three chapters, Yu wastes no time raising the hairs on your neck and keeps audiences on red alert until the finale. Where Sleep goes is surprising and scary and indicates the arrival of another auteur with a vision conveyed with decisive precision.

Next Goal Wins

Director: Taika Waititi
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Elisabeth Moss, Oscar Kightley, Uli Latukefu, Rachel House, Kaimana, David Fane, Beulah Koale, Chris Alosio, Taika Waititi, Will Arnett, Rhys Darby
Synopsis:  A comedy about the American Samoa soccer team’s attempt to make a World Cup — 12 years after their infamous 31-0 loss in a 2002 World Cup qualifying match.
Thoughts: There’s nothing that a packed theater loves more than getting behind a good underdog. An electric zing rushes over the crowd when our vested interest gets that much closer to success. So, I can understand why the early audiences for Next Goal Wins at the Toronto International Film Festival came out of their screenings buzzing. Much like 1993’s Cool Runnings (which is frequently similar in story and structure), the inspiring tale of American Samoa’s bid to pull itself up from last place in the World Cup rankings deserves its say on film, there’s no doubt about it. Unfortunately, Next Goal Wins is not the movie to do it. I’m pretty sure co-writer/director Taika Waititi’s latest is actively bad for much of its 105 minutes, this despite a last-ditch rally cry that only amounts to a modicum of audience rousing, likely to prepare them with enough energy to gather their belongings and go home. For a movie about community, it’s an isolating experience to sit through. That’s mainly because Waititi doesn’t know how to handle interpersonal drama as well as he does absurd humor. By the time I got around to seeing it on one of the festival’s final days, it was hard to drum up much enthusiasm for such mechanical entertainment.


Director: Thom Zimny
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Frank Stallone, Henry Winkler, Talia Shire, John Herzfeld, Wesley Morris, Quentin Tarantino
Synopsis: The nearly fifty-year prolific career of Sylvester Stallone, who has entertained millions, is seen in retrospective in an intimate look of the actor, writer, and director-producer, paralleling with his inspirational life story.
Thoughts: Ultimately, I find that the point of watching any documentary is to learn something about the subject, and too often, with a look behind the curtain of Hollywood life, it never feels like you’re finding out something authentic. That’s not the case in the new Netflix documentary Sly, which premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. Director Thom Zimny uses a brief 95-minute run time to cover the expected titles of Sylvester Stallone’s career (yes, even Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!) but expends more of its energy in allowing the audience to listen to the man himself tell us about the life he has led until this point. Though I think this could have been longer (hey, Arnold Schwarzenegger, interviewed here waxing poetic about Stallone’s talent, just got a 3-part doc on Netflix!) and explored more of Stallone’s family life, the concise nature of Sly aligns with the man himself.

Dicks: The Musical

Director: Larry Charles
Cast: Aaron Jackson, Josh Sharp, Nathan Lane, Megan Mullally, Megan Thee Stallion, D’Arcy Carden, Nick Offerman, Tom Kenny, Bowen Yang
Synopsis: A pair of business rivals discover that they’re identical twins and decide to swap places in an attempt to trick their divorced parents into getting back together.
Thoughts: Throughout TIFF, all I’d heard about was the epic first screening of Dicks: The Musical. While the reviews of the movie itself were very mixed from the crowd, A24 had sent a live choir into the audience, throwing beach balls and other organ-shaped inflatables into the crowd. No screening could match that burst of energy, but being at the Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award screening, the last screening at TIFF23, was a blast. And you know what?   The movie from Borat director Larry Charles (The Dictator) is a rip-roaring riot. Yes, it’s offensive, explicit, raunchy, wrong, cheap-looking, and tacky. It’s also bright, sharp, self-aware, and committed, with songs that have no right to be as tuneful and comedically well-rounded as they are. There’s something to offend everyone in Dicks: The Musical, and if you don’t leave thinking about at least one joke stars/writers Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson should have cut, I’m not sure if the movie has done its job. Like The Book of Mormon (which, like Dicks: The Musical, has surprisingly excellent music) or South Park, the point in offending everyone and not just one group is to illustrate that everyone can be a target, and there is equal opportunity to laugh at obvious jokes that are not meant to be taken seriously.

Previous Volumes
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3
Volume 4

The TIFF Report, Vol 4


Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga, Audra McDonald, Niecy Nash-Betts, Nick Offerman, Donna Mills, Connie Nielsen, Finn Wittrock, Blair Underwood
Synopsis:  An inspired adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s life, digging into the nuance of discrimination in an unspoken system that has shaped America, chronicling how lives today are defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.
Thoughts: A sustained ovation greeted director Ava DuVernay before and after the screening of her new film, Origin, and one can hardly blame an audience for rising to recognize the phenomenal amount of work that went into adapting Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s beautifully researched novel, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. In taking the writer’s work from page to screen, DuVernay had a monumental task: translating a 500-page analysis of the Caste system across history into a narrative film. Incorporating Wilkerson’s life into the movie was a way to give structure to Origin and hand Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor a role that finally gave her the full spotlight she deserved. Though filled with some impressive supporting players (Niecy Nash-Betts and Audra McDonald received major applause during the credits along with Ellis-Taylor), our star commands the screen and leads us through difficult moments necessary to understand the reinforcement of hierarchy between socioeconomic status. Wilkerson’s novel and the overarching theme of DuVernay’s narrative may have allowed for a broader net to be cast cinematically (i.e., this could have been a limited series), but keeping this contained to feature-film length will enable you to walk away with a feeling that you’ve sat through a thesis with a beginning, middle, and an end. The conversation it elicits won’t ever be complete because every person who comes to the table has a unique perspective, but DuVernay has successfully (and powerfully) achieved what she’s set out to do. It’s a tough movie to summarize quickly (I doubt anyone could give you a plot description in less than three run-on sentences), but it’s not easy to forget.

Fair Play

Director: Chloe Domont
Cast: Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich, Eddie Marsan, Rich Sommer, Sebastian De Souza
Synopsis: An unexpected promotion at a cutthroat hedge fund pushes a young couple’s relationship to the brink, threatening to unravel far more than their recent engagement.
Thoughts: While the era of the sophisticated erotic thriller has passed, I think a film like Fair Play would certainly be a candidate for consideration if a new list for the 2020s were started. In less considered hands, the film could have been your standard corporate ladder-climbing fling, but writer/director Chloe Domont wants the effect of this grappling for power affair to last long after the credits have finished. Was I tempted to give Fair Play a 10/10 for opening with Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” off the bat? Maybe. It was the perfect way into this sexy thriller set in a sleek modern NYC where men and women supposedly work on a level playing field, but everyone knows the same old rules still apply. The final twenty minutes of Fair Play get unpleasant for various reasons; some work in context with the characters as they progress, and some seem to come out of the ether. Watching the film with a packed audience at TIFF made it clear whose side the public was on. Still, when I watched this again at home, I found that the finale might push those on the fence into the muddy waters of uncertainty. Still, I enjoyed Domont’s insistence on both characters never backing down…even amid certain (personal and professional) ruin. 
Full Review Here

The Teachers” Lounge

Director: Ilker Çatak
Cast: Leonie Benesch, Leonard Stettnisch, Eva Löbau, Michael Klammer, Rafael Stachoviak, Sarah Bauerett, Kathrin Wehlisch, Anne-Kathrin Gummich
Synopsis: When one of her students is suspected of theft, teacher Carla Nowak decides to get to the bottom of the matter. Caught between her ideals and the school system, the consequences of her actions threaten to break her.
Thoughts: Recently announced as Germany’s official entry in the Best International Feature Film for the Oscars, The Teachers’ Lounge sprung from director Ilker Çatak’s’ childhood memory of being searched at school when money went missing. Along with his co-writer, he’s expanded that story to examine what would happen if a teacher (Leonie Benesch) pointed the finger at one of her own. With the school already on high alert due to a recent spate of thefts, on a hunch, the teacher sets up a video camera, thinking she’d catch one suspect but winds up identifying another. When the accused is confronted and denies it, it has a ripple effect that flows back to the teacher’s classroom, where her students are still figuring out their interpretation of right and wrong. What’s so satisfying about a visit to Çatak’s The Teachers’ Lounge is the way it builds upon its central theme of accountability, ping-ponging back and forth between the teacher who feels a responsibility to the school but also ownership of her actions that are causing upheaval in the daily lives of so many. Benesch is marvelous, taking the role to places you won’t expect, and each time you think you figure out how Çatak will wrap it all up, he surprises you. I’d be shocked if this doesn’t get an Oscar nomination…and even an American remake.


Director: George C. Wolfe
Cast: Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Jeffrey Wright, Audra McDonald, Aml Ameen, Gus Halper, CCH Pounder, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Johnny Ramey
Synopsis: George C. Wolfe brings Bayard Rustin’s story to life with a joyous performance by Colman Domingo as the activist who organized the 1963 March on Washington while being forced into the background because of his sexuality.
Thoughts: There is no doubt about it: more people need to know about activist Bayard Rustin and his role in the history of Civil Rights in America. Many of the names that get mentioned often are legitimate trailblazers. Still, Rustin’s is rarely spoken alongside them; if it is, it is used as a sidebar tangent that factors into his personal life. As an out gay man at a time when just being one minority was tough enough, his homosexuality put him into a smaller box than the tiny one he was already being forced into. Ostracized by the men he was working alongside to affect positive change in this country, Rustin fought tooth and nail for justice and the right to be who he was and to stand for democracy at the same time. Unfortunately, in Rustin, the life of Civil Rights pioneer Bayard Rustin is brought to life via a biopic so textbook, you can almost hear director George C. Wolfe flipping the pages from one moment to the next. Though arguably grounded by Colman Domingo’s (Candyman) larger-than-life performance (which comes out of the gate like a locomotive), you’ll keep waiting for Rustin to take a different approach in the telling. Yet it plods along, hampered by Wolfe’s lousy casting choices in supporting roles (Chris Rock…oof) and its impassioned grandstanding, which often rings resoundingly false. Wolfe is a formidable director in the theater world, shepherding unforgettable works by new playwrights and introducing audiences to artists doing their most vital work. On film, though, he’s been largely a bust…and I’m including 2020’s too-stagey Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in that list. Rustin is yet another indication that he’s a theatrical director with a style that doesn’t translate to film.
Full Review Here


Directors: Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Cast: Annette Bening, Jodie Foster, Rhys Ifans, Karly Rothenberg
Synopsis: The remarkable true story of athlete Diana Nyad, who, at the age of 60 and with the help of her best friend and coach, commits to achieving her life-long dream: a 110-mile open ocean swim from Cuba to Florida.
Thoughts: Oscar-winning documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin make their narrative debut with Nyad to crowd-pleasing, rousing results. Skillfully blending actual footage from long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad’s life, including her numerous attempts to swim from Cuba to Key West, with dramatized events featuring stars Annette Bening and Jodie Foster, it’s got some rookie flaws (mostly continuity editing and slight pacing issues) but exists chiefly as a glowing showcase for its leads. Bening (Death on the Nile) trained for a year for her role, and her dedication, determination, and drive have paid off. If ever there was a time to give her that long overdue Academy Award… it’s for this. I want her to win an Oscar by golly, and by all accounts, she has nailed the unapologetically brusque Diana Nyad. And don’t count out Foster adding another trophy of her own to her shelf…what she’s doing here is supporting the star, yes, but also carving out a niche corner of her own for raising the bar for what a Supporting Actress can achieve. In a career dotted with goldstar performances, Foster again demonstrates why she’s so valued onscreen. And how about Ifans? Where did THAT sensitive performance come from? Often tasked with playing a slimy villain or snarky comic relief, Ifans is offered the chance to tug on some heartstrings, which he does with care. As a sports biopic, it checks all the boxes without falling into a staid formula; as a rah-rah celebration of achieved potential, it sets an example for us all to keep pushing…and have a friend by your side when you do.
Full Review Here


Director: Tony Goldwyn
Cast: Bobby Cannavale, Rose Byrne, Robert De Niro, William A. Fitzgerald, Vera Farmiga, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Goldwyn, Rainn Wilson
Synopsis: An unpredictable ensemble dramedy about parents struggling over how best to raise their child.
Thoughts: Over nearly two weeks, I was fortunate to see many movies, most of which ranged from entertaining to excellent. The outliers were medium-cooked and misguided, but only on select occasions did I encounter titles I wished I’d skipped altogether. The first true blue dud of the fest for me was Tony Goldwyn’s Ezra, a starved-for-laughs dramedy about a divorced comedy writer turned stand-up comic with anger issues who kidnaps his neurodivergent son when his ex-wife wants to send him to a school for the gifted. It’s as cringe as it sounds, and despite boasting an enviable cast (Bobby Cannavale, Robert De Niro, Whoopi Goldberg, Rose Byrne, Vera Farmiga, Rainn Wilson), it’s the first film at TIFF23 I nearly considered skedaddling from. There’s nothing worse than watching a movie about a comedian who isn’t funny but is supposed to be knocking it out of the park. Between the two of them, Goldwyn and Cannavale don’t land a single joke onstage…not that there’s any in Tony Spiridakis’s script to begin with. Strangely, offscreen husband and wife Cannavale and Byrne show little chemistry onscreen, even playing divorced parents of a child with special needs. That the entire set-up of kidnapping by a parent (a serious crime that is still prevalent in today’s society) is played for laughs is skeevy, and using the situation as a series of punchlines is more motivation to give this one the hook. Participation in this project felt like a favor to someone; the good news is that watching it doesn’t have to be.

Dumb Money

Director: Craig Gillespie
Cast: Paul Dano, Pete Davidson, Vincent D’Onofrio, America Ferrera, Nick Offerman, Anthony Ramos, Sebastian Stan, Shailene Woodley, Seth Rogen
Synopsis: The ultimate David vs. Goliath tale, based on the insane true story of everyday people who flipped the script on Wall Street and got rich by turning GameStop (yes, the mall videogame store) into the world’s hottest company.
Thoughts: Though incredibly topical and current, surprisingly, Dumb Money may be the most unremarkable bauble of digestible studio entertainment I saw at TIFF. Detailing the GameStop stock craze orchestrated by undervalued investors that shook up an unsuspecting Wall Street, it’s less flashy than similar examinations of financial coups (insert your chosen title here). Still, it lacks emotional tenterhooks to keep you fully engaged. You’ll forget you saw it 60 minutes after it ends. Maybe part of my apathy toward Dumb Money is partly self-imposed. I fell prey to festival FOMO and sacrificed a screening of another film to see this, even though I knew it would be released mere days after TIFF ended. I spent much of the movie, which I should say again is resoundingly average, running through “what if” scenarios of better films I could have attended. Stuck in low gear from the beginning, I’m not sure who the audience for Dumb Money is supposed to be. Anyone aware of current events will feel this is a star-filled recreation of what we only recently lived through, and if you haven’t been keeping up, it’s unlikely what transpired will keep your attention in the first place. Be smart; spend your money elsewhere.
Full Review Here

Other Volumes
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3
Volume 5

Movie Review ~ Candy Cane Lane

The Facts:

Synopsis: Determined to win the neighborhood’s annual Christmas decorating contest, a man makes a pact with an elf to help him win–and the elf casts a spell that brings the 12 days of Christmas to life, bringing unexpected chaos to town.
Stars: Eddie Murphy, Tracee Ellis Ross, Robin Thede, Nick Offerman, Chris Redd, Jillian Bell
Director: Reginald Hudlin
Rated: PG
Running Length: 117 minutes
TMMM Score: (1/10)
Review: I think we all must join hands, bow our heads, and agree that we’ll never get back the Eddie Murphy we once had. The Eddie Murphy who was discerning in the projects he took on. The Eddie Murphy who seemed to be energized enough to make movies fans of his wanted to see. This Eddie Murphy had a cool vibe, an anything-can-happen-when-I’m-starring-you-just-have-to-sit-back-and-let-me-take-control-spirit that made him box office gold. Before the endless Doctor Doolittle sequels, before he was lending his voice to whatever new Shrek special was being added to a Dreamworks BluRay special edition. For all the big swings of the Dolemite Is My Name, for which he should be rewarded, our punishment seems to be total garbage like Candy Cane Lane.

You won’t want to talk a walk down Candy Cane Lane with anyone, least of all anyone you love this holiday season, because this Murphy-led stinker is abysmally rotten. It’s a crushed holiday ornament sold as an upscale bauble the whole family will enjoy. If your family enjoys brainless dreck that looks like it was made for $5.99 in the backlot of Universal Studios Hollywood and one massive green screen, this could be your new go-to for Christmas cheerlessness. Despite the presence of the indispensable Tracee Ellis Ross (who works so very hard to mine any comedy out of her role) and wild-eyed Jillian Bell (the most insufferably over the top yet still more committed than anyone else), this Lane is a dead-end.

Opening with a CGI shot of a skateboarder so bad it’s both unbelievable but perfect for setting the tone at the same time, Candy Cane Lane displays its gaudy title cards as we travel down the titular road (which anyone who watched The ‘Burbs or Desperate Housewives will recognize as the same set/street), stopping at the home of the Carvers. Chris (Murphy, Coming 2 America) is putting the finishing touches on his yard displays, carved in “wood” and looking as flimsy as the cardboard they are; he’s worried his house will lose to neighbor Ken Marino (Goosebumps) and his ghastly inflatable menagerie, which has taken the top prize for five years. 

This year, the stakes are going to be high, though. A local television station (hosted by Home Sweet Home Alone’s Timothy Simons and Tell It Like a Woman’s Danielle Pinnock) is sponsoring a contest to pay $100,000* to the best yard design on the block! (I put the * there because there’s always a catch…I won’t spoil it.)   After he loses his job at a “plastics company,” leaving his wife Carol (Ross, The High Note) as the only one who works at a “shipping company,” Chris has free time on his hands. Chris eventually winds up at a pop-up shop underneath a freeway overpass, desperate to win and not trusting in the beauty of his cardboard cutouts.

The shop is run by Pepper (Bell, Brittany Runs a Marathon), and while she’s a bit eccentric, she loves Christmas as much as Chris does and has the exact decorations that would make the Carvers come out on top. Chris wants a 12 Days of Christmas Tree, a centerpiece with a few caveats he must sign for. In this fine print he doesn’t bother to read, it states that if he doesn’t abide by her rules, he will get shrunk to the size of a doll for her Victorian Christmas Village. Never mind that the tree doesn’t go with anything else in his yard and, when erected, lets loose the vile characters from the famous song who proceed to wreak havoc on the Carvers and Candy Cane Lane.

There’s even more plot to Kelly Younger’s script, but honestly, to delve deeper into the fraught Carver family dynamics, which interweave through attempts to herd the 12 Days of Christmas items, would be a fool’s errand. Director Reginald Hudlin (Boomerang) doesn’t seem to care much either, preferring to make the movie look, sound, and feel as garishly ugly as possible. The entire film looks like it was designed either by a four-year-old or with their favorite color palette in mind.  

Running nearly two hours long, my mind started to short circuit, and smoke came out of my ears around the 90-minute mark when a new character was introduced and additional plot details were unraveled. This is severely overstuffed and without any substance that makes it tastier along the way. Murphy is on complete autopilot, leaving Ross to do the heavy lifting. However, physical comedy is not her forte. By the time she’s gone headfirst into a box of packing peanuts trying to wrangle a CGI chicken, it comes across as feeling like she’s being forced into participating in a project she didn’t sign up for. 

The marginal highlight of Candy Cane Lane, and where it looks like some money was spent, is in the animation of several ceramic toy figures who fill Chris in on Pepper’s plan to shrink him to their size if he doesn’t meet the terms of her agreement. Played by Robin Thede (Bad Hair), Nick Offerman (Dumb Money), and Chris Redd (Joker), the trio provides some of the more consistent laughs throughout the movie, and they are brought to life with a realism that is often better than the humans they interact with. A little of these littles go a long way, though, and it isn’t long before even they have worn out their welcome.

I look forward to the barrage of Hallmark movies every year. I know they all share similar plots and actors, making it hard to distinguish one from the other, but here is why all of these are better than a big(ger) budget studio movie like Candy Cane Lane. Those films at least attempted to make a good movie or started with the hopes of being the rare gem of the holidays. You can spend five minutes in Candy Cane Lane, with its performances that range from Murphy’s zonked-out performance to Pinnock’s buffoonishly absurd take on an Oprah Winfrey-type TV host, shoddy CGI, lame plotting, and corner-cutting production measures and instantly see the lack of effort in aiming for quality. 

Movie Review ~ Silent Night (2023)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A grieving father left mute by a shooting that kills his son enacts his long-awaited revenge against a ruthless gang on Christmas Eve.
Stars: Joel Kinnaman, Scott Mescudi, Harold Torres, Catalina Sandino Moreno
Director: John Woo
Rated: R
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  Since its release in 1994, Mariah Carey’s Christmas tune “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has become THE holiday season song.   Certified Diamond (not Gold, not Platinum, Diamond) by the Recording Industry Association of America, its worldwide reach is in the billions. Carey is said to net close to 3 million each season when the song goes into major rotation. What has made it such an enduring classic, though? It’s well-written, of course, but there’s a musicality that worms into our brains and, most importantly, an appealing hook that makes it a nice jingle to jangle around the tree to.

The best previews also have hooks, a unique allure that should make viewers want to remember it and keep track of its eventual release. Much credit should go to the creators of Silent Night for devising a premise that would make an audience weary of too many expository action franchise flicks sit up a little taller in their seats while watching the marketing for this Christmas-ish revenge thriller containing no dialogue. Watching the trailer for this in theaters, I’ll admit to being sold on it based solely on the premise. I wish I could give the film itself the same high marks for following through on its promise to entertain, but alas, this is a heavy, if at times nicely polished, lump of coal.

Hong Kong director John Woo returns to Hollywood to make his first film in twenty years (2003’s Paycheck was his last flick here), and it doesn’t feel like he’s learned much in his time away. Though highly regarded in the Chinese film industry for his early works like The Killer and Hard Boiled, Woo has struggled to make the same kind of dent in the U.S. market despite landing big-budget projects such as 1997’s enjoyably campy Face/Off and the lackluster Mission: Impossible 2 in 2000. Silent Night has Woo’s trademark bold fight scenes and a few mid-size stunt sequences (mostly marred by terrible CGI) that remind you of what he’s capable of, but he’s the wrong person to handle the film’s gimmicky plot device of being nearly dialogue-free.

In Silent Night, California family man Brian Godluck loses the ability to speak after he’s shot in the throat by gang leader Playa (Harold Torres), whom Brian had been pursuing during the film’s title sequence. Playa was involved in a neighborhood shooting that left Brian’s young son the victim of a stray bullet on Christmas, and without thinking of the consequences, Brian took off after the men responsible. Barely escaping with his life, Brian slowly works his way back to health while his wife Saya (Catalina Sandino Moreno, The Quarry) looks on, unable to reach her emotionally detached husband.

Consumed with grief over the death of his son and filled with rage toward the gang members he holds accountable, Brian (Joel Kinnaman, RoboCop) spends the next year forming a plan. He will build up his strength, improve his skill with hand-to-hand combat, and amass an arsenal of firearms and other weapons to strike by the first anniversary of his son’s death. The final act of the film takes place on Christmas Eve, following Brian as he enacts his bloody revenge and stands up for not just his son but the other victims of gun violence who never had a chance to fight back.

The simplicity in Robert Archer Lynn’s screenplay is very John Wick-ian in scale, and there’s potential for Silent Night to have gone a more cerebral route as it leads towards its inevitable gonzo finale. In the hands of Woo and an oddly at-sea Kinnaman, the movie is a blunt force exercise in boredom, rarely finding its pulse rising higher than a few elite close-up fight passages. A film without dialogue is one thing, but the actors should still attempt to find a way to communicate in some form. Here, there are clever ways to avoid interactions (and maintain the premise) while occasionally letting talking on television and police radios establish some scenes that would otherwise be incomprehensible. (It’s also how we get the use of the word “gangbanger” in 2023, as in “a gangbanger just shot at me!”…unbelievable.) Yet no one in the film connects, and therefore the movie fails to connect with audiences.

I like Kinnaman; I think he’s a good actor and has shown potential in previous films, but here, he falls too deep into the character’s hole and can’t pull himself out. Brian is so damaged that he comes across as deranged, making the final fifteen minutes feel like a splatter film instead of one man’s avenging angel crusade. Transforming himself from an “everyman” to a ripped vigilante seems to motivate Kinnaman, and you can almost hear Woo salivating during the scenes at a target range where Brian fires about 50 rounds directly into the heart of a paper target, one-handed. (Does nobody at that gun range think that a tad odd?)

If Silent Night had used its premise with more nuance, it could have crafted a thriller that audiences could return to every few years as a nice pairing or alternative to other Christmas-themed action flicks. Even with the temptation of Woo behind the camera, viewers will likely put it on their naughty (movie) list as they exit the theater.

Movie Review ~ La Syndicaliste

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 2012, the head union representative of a French multinational nuclear powerhouse becomes a whistle-blower, denouncing top-secret deals that shake the French nuclear sector.
Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Grégory Gadebois, François-Xavier Demaison, Pierre Deladonchamps, Alexandra Maria Lara, Marina Foïs, Yvan Attal
Director: Jean-Paul Salomé
Rated: NR
Running Length: 121 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: There are two interpretations of the title of this political thriller, which premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival and has already had a successful run in France.  The first is literal: The Syndicalist, someone who works within their union to advocate for action-oriented responses for blue-collar workers.  The second is a little tricker: The Sitting Duck.  Both apply to the film’s protagonist at critical points in La Syndicaliste and could be seen as descriptors from opposing camps engaged in a debate over employee rights.  However, take a step further back, and you begin to see how each title is also an identifier of an outlier with vulnerability, a potentially easy target for manipulation.

I know about as much regarding the nuclear dealings within the French government as I do about the inner workings of a 1985 Mazda 626, so I thought that much of La Syndicaliste was going to go straight over my head.  However, the movie, based on Caroline Michel-Aguirre’s book from 2019, is far more engaging than a standard lesson in backroom government maneuverings, especially when you figure in celebrated actress Isabelle Huppert playing a real-life whistleblower who paid dearly for her bravery.  The further we fall into the murky waters created by co-writer/director Jean-Paul Salomé, the less we are sure of what happened to Maureen Kearney.

In 2012, Kearney (Huppert, Frankie) taught English at Areva, a multinational group focused on managing nuclear power.  Elected as the union representative, Kearney doggedly fought for the well-being of all members affected by unfair work practices, wage disputes, and wrongful terminations.  After helping to see a previous sale of technology from Areva to the Chinese canceled, Kearney was outraged to find out about a secret contract that was signed a short time later and began alerting anyone who would listen.  Warned off making further trouble, Kearney flew in the face of intimidation and pursued the exposure of the truth up to the highest level of government.

Then, just as she was about to meet with the President of France, she was brutally attacked in her home and horrifically victimized, apparently to silence her permanently.  When the investigation turns up with no leads, the police suspect Kearney faked her attack to gain sympathy for her cause and more attention, setting off a legal battle that would put her reputation on the line.  With only her account of the attack, which was fragmented due to the severity of the violence and small leads her legal team pursued on their own, could Kearney prove her innocence to the French courts and the public that had put their trust in her.

For her role in 2016’s Elle, where she also endured a terrifying violation, Huppert was nominated for an Oscar, so she displays empathy and ease with taking on Kearney’s story.  There are stretches in the screenplay where Salomé and his co-writer Fadette Drouard leave the door open for some doubt, but without spoiling anything, you can always tell which way Huppert has chosen to play the role.  Unfazed by verbal intimidation but shrinking when anything physical happens (side note: don’t ever grab women, like, ever) to her, Huppert instantly can give us a picture of where Kearney has been and how far she can be pushed.

When the film does slide into some geo-political debates, I’ll admit that my eyelids began to droop (doubly bad because there were subtitles to read here), but this remains primarily focused on the incident at Kearney’s home and its sordid aftermath.  With her husband by her side (lovingly played by Grégory Gadebois, Final Cut) and an ally in Areva who claims to have her back (Marina Foïs, The Beasts) but might jump ship if it means her downfall, Kearney fearlessly faces her accusers and likely victimizers, unwilling to be a sitting duck but her greatest advocate.  That keeps La Syndicaliste charged up as a first-rate thriller and an educationally eye-opening peek into the covert traps set inside the corridors of business.

The TIFF Report, Vol 3

Knox Goes Away

Director: Michael Keaton
Cast: Michael Keaton, Al Pacino, Marcia Gay Harden, James Marsden, Suzy Nakamura, John Hoogenakker, Joanna Kulig, Ray McKinnon, Lela Loren
Synopsis: When a contract killer is diagnosed with a fast-moving form of dementia, he is presented with the opportunity to redeem himself by saving the life of his estranged adult son.
Thoughts: If you didn’t think you needed to see a drama directed by and starring Michael Keaton where he plays a hit man with Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease in 2023…you were wrong. Knox Goes Away is pure Keaton cool cat, a crime pic that delivers on an early promise to follow through and not pull punches. There’s an efficiency to the film, to the directing, that can only come from someone who has been in this business long enough to know how to keep an audience engaged but still leave sufficient room for characters to be formed and explored. Is it the most refined crime film you’ll see this decade? Probably not, but there’s something special about seeing Keaton (the rare actor you want to root for, whether he is playing a good guy or a bad one) move through this world with confidence most actors half his age don’t possess. And who doesn’t love a good twist that gets dunked into the mix at the perfect time? Keaton must have cashed in a few favors to get Marcia Gay Harden and James Marsden for supporting players, and he creates some pleasant moments with Joanna Kulig as an escort who sees him as more than a client…for a while. Then you have Al Pacino (rarely moving from a seated position) awake and alert as Keaton’s trusted connection, apparently roused from the coma he’s been in for his last several movies. Consistently keeping you on your toes, this could be one to keep an eye out for those who love to untangle triple cross tales.

The Critic

Director: Anand Tucker
Cast: Ian McKellen, Gemma Arterton, Mark Strong, Ben Barnes, Alfred Enoch, Romola Garai, Lesley Manville
Synopsis:  Adversaries are forced to take desperate measures to save their careers in this scintillating tale of ambition and deceit in the theatre world.
Thoughts:  Ian McKellen in a period thriller as a snippy theater critic who resorts to murderous ways to stay relevant? All I needed was to read this logline, and I didn’t need to know more about The Critic because I was on board. I’m not sure if going in blind kept expectations low or didn’t level-set them at all, but the movie is middle-of-the-road Wednesday afternoon entertainment that feels overly worked and not half as wickedly clever as a Patrick Marber screenplay should be. Based on the 2015 novel Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn, director Anand Tucker has all the suitable material to create snappy suspense, but there’s a key ingredient missing.   That pivotal spice is interest and Tucker’s film strains to develop any (or keep ours) as it plods along with a frumpy slump. I was frequently bored with the goings on of this world, and as a theater/movie nerd who loves this period and all the backstage gossip and backstabbing that comes with it, I’m precisely the target audience this would/should be speaking to. The supporting cast of The Critic is stacked with dependable players (Gemma Arterton as McKellen’s critical target of ire and eventual accomplice, Mark Strong as his editor, and Lesley Manville as Arterton’s mum) who usually have nothing to do but look good in Claire-Finlay-Thompson’s costumes. No one does an exhausted sneer like McKellen, and as a nasty theater critic in pre-WWII London intent to keep his job and willing to resort to Shakespearean deceit to do it, he’s in fine form. If only the movie had as much bite as McKellen’s critical bark.

Sing Sing

Director: Greg Kwedar
Cast:  Colman Domingo, Paul Raci, John Divine G Whitfield, Sean San Jose, Jon-Adrian Velazquez, David J. Giraudy, Sean “Dino” Johnson, Sean “Divine Eye” Johnson, Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin
Synopsis: A theatre troupe finds escape from the realities of incarceration through the creativity of putting on a play in this film based on a real-life rehabilitation program and featuring a cast that includes formerly incarcerated actors.
Thoughts: It’s not coming out until 2024, but Sing Sing is one of those films you can tell is going places. Based on the Rehabilitation Through the Arts program (RTA) founded in 1986 at Sing Sing maximum security prison, Greg Kwedar’s film uses a handful of professional actors (namely Colman Domingo and Sound of Metal Oscar-nominee Paul Raci) but is predominantly made up of real-life former inmates/alums of RTA. Most of the time, casting non-professional actors can have drawbacks, but it is the key to Sing Sing’s ultimate soaring success, lending pure authenticity and raw honesty to the semi-fictionalized story as scripted by Kwedar and Clint Bentley. Domingo (also represented at the fest with biopic Rustin) plays Divine G, a leader of sorts in the RTA who takes a new member, Sean “Divine Eye” Johnson, under his wing as they begin to mount their spring production. At the same time, Divine G is preparing for his next parole hearing and assisting his fellow inmates on theirs, even though many have been resigned that making their case to a blank-faced board won’t change their sentences. As you may expect, there’s a degree of darkness to Sing Sing that gives it a weight to carry forward, which can sometimes slow the pace. Still, the beautiful hearts of the performers and the joy they feel from creating and performing are the electricity that energizes the movie. If some have suggested this is more of an advertisement/endorsement for RTA and similar programs, then so be it; it demonstrates the individualized power derived from placing the incarcerated into creatively fulfilling roles while they serve out their time. 

The Burial

Director: Maggie Betts
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tommy Lee Jones, Jurnee Smollett, Alan Ruck, Mamoudou Athie, Pamela Reed, Bill Camp, Amanda Warren, Dorian Missick
Synopsis: Inspired by actual events, a lawyer helps a funeral home owner save his family business from a corporate behemoth, exposing a complex web of race, power, and injustice.
Thoughts: Let’s not forget the power of the rousing David v. Goliath courtroom drama because director Maggie Betts and her co-screenwriter Doug Wright sure haven’t with The Burial. It may be old-fashioned, overlong, and frequently pandering to cliche (one summation is played to a horn-drenched underscore so loud it nearly drowns out the speaker). Still, it worked like gangbusters with our packed crowd at the TIFF. Set in 1995, the film follows a standard formula where a little guy (a small-town funeral company) is taken advantage of by the big guy (a big-town funeral company) and needs the help of a shiny savior. What makes The Burial interesting is that the little guy is played by Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones, who we might often associate as the one who would swoop in and save the day for Jamie Foxx (another Oscar winner), who instead is playing a flashy lawyer used to working with much more prominent cases. These types of courtroom-savvy films don’t get made anymore, at least not with the kind of regularity that we were used to. Thundering opening statements, “gotcha” cross-examinations, late-breaking reveals that threaten to derail the case, all the elements that made audiences think that trial cases were as exciting as a broadcast wrestling match. Of course, years of CourtTV have shown us otherwise, but movies like The Burial remind us how a little Hollywood magic can turn the mundane into grand, if unbelievable, entertainment. Betts has also made a good-looking and easy-to-watch film on top of it, which is almost icing on the cake.
Full Review Here

Pain Hustlers

Director: David Yates
Cast: Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Andy García, Catherine O’Hara, Jay Duplass, Brian d’Arcy James, Chloe Coleman, Britt Rentschler
Synopsis: Pharmaceutical drug reps unwittingly help kickstart the opioid epidemic in the pursuit of financial success.
Thoughts: From director David Yates, Pain Hustlers is a flashy, fast-moving chart of the rise of the opioid crisis via shady pharmaceutical start-ups with another sensational performance from Blunt (A Quiet Place). If only the rest of the movie were as layered with nuance as Blunt’s turn as Liza Drake, a down-on-her-luck exotic dancer who unexpectedly finds her calling as a rep for a Florida drug company. While Yates (The Legend of Tarzan) never lets the scope overwhelm the message, it can drag a bit as it moves toward the second hour. It’s a big production that wants to feel like it’s made with the same verve as The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short, but it lacks a hard-nosed edge to play in the same league as those films. It also suffers in the timing arena as well. I feel like this story has been told multiple times in film, limited series, and documentaries over the last half-decade, so my brain was already saturated with the structure of a) a person who comes from nothing who b) makes it big and c) learns there’s a considerable price for getting what they want. What I did appreciate in Pain Hustlers, and this is what has always made Yates a strong director, is the way he pays attention to minor character turns, casting excellent actors (like Britt Rentschler from the also fantastic Pretty Problems as the wife of a man who becomes addicted to the drug Blunt shills) to fill out pivotal roles.
Full Review Here

Hit Man

Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Glen Powell, Adria Arjona, Austin Amelio, Retta, Sanjay Rao, Molly Bernard, Evan Holtzman
Synopsis: A sorta-true crime comedy thriller about role-play, romance, and the precarious pursuit of self-knowledge.
Thoughts: Oops, it happened. I had heard it occurs at these big festivals but wasn’t sure I’d be affected. Yet, it still happened. The overhype machine got me with Richard Linklater’s Hit Man, a good but not great grey comedy that confirms Glen Powell is an A-List star who favors solidly B material. Powell plays an ordinary Joe Schmoe working for the local police in a tech support role who pinch hits for an undercover detective posing as a hitman for hire and displays a talent for being a master of deception. Creating different personas and crafting unrecognizable looks, the man at the center of this “sorta-true” story eventually falls for one of his marks. He gets in over his head trying to keep her out of harm’s way from his job and other criminal cohorts. Overlong and hinging on a second-act series of heretofore police ineptitude that is more convenient than plausible weakens what had started as a breezy good time. Though not exactly a newcomer, Adria Arjona makes a considerable impression. I suppose the blazing chemistry between Arjona and Powell creates the type of self-fanning fire rarely seen in movies, which is why Hit Man created such waves in TIFF and eventually sold to Netflix for release in 2024. I chalk that up to Powell being so charming that he could make an audience believe he’s attracted to the apple tree next door, but if we want to hang the success of Hit Man on the heat generated between Powell and Arjona, I won’t object. The two share a scene of aural deception, which will likely be mentioned in every review, that hints at the kind of high-stakes comedy the entire film should have partaken in. As is typical, Linklater’s knack for finding the right players of (un)familiar faces (to me) in minor roles gives the film homespun authenticity.


Director: Ethan Hawke
Cast: Maya Hawke, Laura Linney, Philip Ettinger, Rafael Casal, Cooper Hoffman, Steve Zahn, Vincent D’Onofrio, Alessandro Nivola, Willa Fitzgerald
Synopsis: Exploring the life and art of American author Flannery O’Connor while struggling to publish her first novel.
Thoughts: I grew up reading the work of Southern writer Flannery O’Connor in my high school English class, but it had been some time since I cracked open one of her novels featuring eccentric characters living through strange conditions. With his experience as a published author navigating a niche market often struggling for acceptance, poet/writer/actor/director Ethan Hawke was a perfect filmmaker to take on a biopic of the late writer. His approach is both literary and literal, frequently spinning off into small productions of O’Connor’s short stories that are arguably self-indulgent but not nearly as indecipherable as you may be led to believe; Wildcat is a hard-to-love look at author O’Connor as she navigates a chronic illness and being stymied artistically by an industry not used to her lyrical prose. As director and co-writer, Ethan Hawke can’t always balance blending reality with the short stories that play out (usually with stars Maya Hawke and Laura Linney in multiple roles) in fantasy. Still, every so often, the film locks into something that starts to burn brightly. Maya Hawke still can’t shake the extreme resemblance to her famous mother, Uma Thurman, she gives off onscreen but digs deeper than ever to try O’Connor’s mousy look and repressed attire on for size. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Linney perform poorly in a movie before, but she treads close in Wildcat with a few outlandishly overplayed roles that are beautiful buggy crashes we often can’t look away from. Not for everyone…but if you’re up for seeing MANY different sides to Linney, give it a go.


Director: Michel Franco
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard, Brooke Timber, Merritt Wever, Elsie Fisher, Jessica Harper, Josh Charles
Synopsis: Sylvia is a social worker who leads a simple and structured life. This is blown open when Saul follows her home from their high school reunion. Their surprise encounter will profoundly impact both as they open the door to the past.
Thoughts: This year at the Toronto International Film Festival was a bit different because of the ongoing Writers Strike and the Actors Strike, both of which hadn’t been resolved to allow these key figures to attend their premieres at fall film festivals without a special waiver. Thankfully, there were some exceptions. Hot off a strong showing in Venice, Memory arrived at TIFF23 and brought stars Jessica Chastain and Venice Volpi Cup for Best Actor Peter Sarsgaard to talk after. In the film, written and directed by Michel Franco (Sundown), Chastain is a single mother social worker carrying the tumult of unresolved pain from her childhood. A recovering addict, her efforts to remain on track are challenged after attending her class reunion and spotting a man she believes factored into her trauma. Sarsgaard plays the man, and as it turns out, he has his own obstacles which will open both up to a greater understanding of problems from their past and how they face their future.   While it’s clear both actors bring their typical dedication to the process, and their performances are admirable, they’re stuck in Franco’s flighty plot, which square dances around many heavy subjects but never bothers to face them head-on. I’m amazed that Sarsgaard was singled out for his role when Chastain is going for something far more profound and nuanced. Whereas he is playing something just below the surface, she’s several layers further down, exploring a new part of her craft. The resulting film has good actors (wow, does Merritt Wever need a lead role soon, and holy moly, when is Jessica Harper going to get some recognition for her years of work playing brittle women?) assembling thin connective tissues that eventually snap during a protracted finale. Memory begins with some momentum but quickly swings into an inertia it can’t escape.


Director: Christos Nikou
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed, Jeremy Allen White, Annie Murphy, Luke Wilson
Synopsis:  Anna and Ryan have found true love, and a controversial new technology proves it. There’s just one problem…Anna still isn’t sure. Then, she takes a position at a love testing institute and meets Amir.
Thoughts: There was a palpable excitement in the Princess of Wales Theatre before Fingernails held its International Premiere, and once Greek filmmaker Christos Nikou’s wistful sci-fi romance began, you could see why. The futuristic view of a love match and how we accept our mate starts strong, with Jessie Buckley, Jeremy Allen White, and Riz Ahmed all delivering wonderfully human(e) performances. It gets rocky in the second half when Buckley begins to question her match, and we begin to question why she’s making a fuss in the first place. Unsurprisingly, Nikou worked with Yorgos Lanthimos because this often feels like The Lobster for the McDonald’s crowd – easy to devour at the outset but gets greasy at the end. Fair warning: the entire premise of the picture is based on a test that is done by pulling out the, yep, fingernails of its subjects, and while the movie isn’t incredibly gory for the sake of being graphic, there are a few sequences that will have you cringing in horror as a nailbed gets ripped clean. The three leads are all doing admirably reflective work, and the role of the conflicted girlfriend, wondering if she should want more, seems to fit Buckley like a glove. I do wish Ahmed and White had pushed (or been written to push) their characters a bit further into some degree of decisiveness instead of making Buckley’s the only one that affects the action, but that’s also part of the reason Nikou’s script for Fingernails has drawn this love triangle with such sharp angles in the first place. Oh, and it’s got a killer soundtrack.

The King Tide

Director: Christian Sparkes
Cast: Alix West Lefler, Clayne Crawford, Frances Fisher, Aden Young, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Michael Greyeyes, Ryan McDonald, Ben Stranahan, Amelia Manuel, Cameron Nicoll, Kathryn Greenwood
Synopsis: Ten years after a child with miraculous gifts arrives at an isolated East Coast Island town, her adoptive parents must decide whether her safety is more important than their community’s prosperity.
Thoughts: Though the premise (mysterious infant child with mystical gifts washes up on the beach of a remote island fishing village) has all the makings of early Stephen King, The King Tide owes much to Shirley Jackson. Things get dark quickly as the town becomes more dependent on the girl and less inclined to let her leave…or anyone else enter. This TIFF23 world premiere from director Christian Sparkes is a Canadian-made gem, with gorgeous scenery giving it a real sense of place and isolation…making the situation that much more fraught the tighter Sparkes fixes his gaze on the danger in commodifying those we should be caring for. Exceptionally well cast with a mix of familiar faces and Canadian character actors, I especially warmed to the chilly Frances Fisher (also at the fest in Reptile), who is showing a continued verve for playing wicked women. Also finding a real groove in these slow-burn pictures is Clayne Crawford, who is nothing but confident charm as a conflicted father and mayor of the town. To its credit, it prefers to hold its cards close to its chest, never letting on how this might turn out. That allows the finale to catch you with breathless surprise, a haunting conclusion befitting an enigmatic tale told with an assured hand. I can see this one easily slipping by unnoticed because it may not have the name recognition or the flash, but it’s worth keeping track of for the artfully crafted screenplay and terrific performances.

Other Volumes
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 4
Volume 5

Movie Review ~ American Symphony

The Facts:

Synopsis: Musician Jon Batiste sets out to compose a symphony. Then, his life partner, author Suleika Jaouad, learns that her cancer is back. This documentary is a portrait of two artists at a crossroads and a meditation on art, love, and the creative process.
Stars: Jon Batiste, Suleika Jaouad
Director: Matthew Heineman
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  In 2017, during a jam-packed trip to NYC, I was lucky enough to score a seat in the audience for a taping of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on CBS. At home, viewers see a breezy program that runs under an hour, an edited-down version of what we who were there saw. This can be beneficial if an interview is a little rough and needs some tweaking in the editing bay to make it not so awkward (I won’t name names, but an actress who starred in Terms of Endearment, known for being difficult was a guest and purposefully gave poor Colbert nothing to work with – yet in the show that aired they came across downright affable.)

You also don’t see the enormous amount of crowd work leading up to the mid-afternoon taping and throughout the various breaks that are taken. A Late Show warm-up artist handles some of this, but most of it was in the hands of bandleader Jon Batiste. With an unyielding amount of energy and magnetic charisma, Batiste did everything he could to keep spirits high, and the audience whipped up into the kind of frenzy that would make you think we were all being whisked away to Rome. I’ve never clapped louder or harder in my life on the urging of Batiste to stay hyped. At one point, I looked at my palms and realized I had never seen them so drained of blood for all the applause I’d been maniacally giving.

All this is to say I’ve witnessed firsthand the power Batiste can have over a crowd and recognize the quality of his talent over the ensuing years as he’s broken big as a bona fide star of the music world. An Oscar winner (for composing the score for Pixar’s Soul) and multiple Grammy winner, the Julliard-trained multi-hyphenate born in Louisiana is the subject of American Symphony, a new documentary from Oscar-nominated director Matthew Heineman. In this doc, produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, Batiste is tracked over seven months as he lingers at a significant turning point of fame and personal struggles when his longtime partner’s leukemia returns.  

It’s challenging to approach a critique of a documentary such as American Symphony because it’s so deeply personal that one feels like they are ostensibly reviewing an individual’s life and what they have chosen to be vulnerable and share with the world. However, Batiste and partner Suleika Jaouad have gone there with Heineman, opening a door that can’t easily be closed. The film is at its best when it takes in the silence of Jaouad and her continued journey through the ravages of leukemia. A bestselling author who detailed her first battle with the disease in her novel Between Two Kingdoms, Jaouad is a serene presence throughout who is unfortunately shuttled off to the side in favor of Batiste and his other pursuits.

That may sound harsh, and I don’t believe that’s how the couple’s relationship exists, but it’s how Heineman shows it to have happened in American Symphony. Amid Jaouad’s barrage of tests, chemotherapy, a painful bone marrow transplant, and a difficult recovery, Heineman’s camera follows Batiste as he travels around the country shaking hands and readying for his Grammy performances. On Grammy night, a brief conversation with Jaouad (by then his wife) is shown, but Batiste seems to want to be in the moment of revelry more than anything. Shots of Jaouad watching with friends/family at home come off as celebratory but with more than a touch of melancholy at being unable to partake in the joy.

Had the film taken time to truly address this dichotomy of emotions (happy one moment and then crushing sadness the next), it would have given American Symphony a bit more of a soul to warm to. Still, it’s a chilly watch, an aloof view of a public figure who is always aware a camera is following him. Without identifying anyone or anything onscreen, we never have a sense of time, place, or person or if Batiste is talking to someone in the room or himself. Often, he goes from voiceover narration to speaking to himself to dialoguing over Zoom with collaborators, sometimes in the string of one or two sentences. 

Undeniably gifted musically, I found Batiste lacking (again, as presented in the film) in self-awareness of how he might be coming across. Toiling away at the titular symphony that is held at the climax of the film, we see him weighed down by the burden of pulling it all together and agonizing over the many decisions he must make…while his wife is in the next room recovering from a bone marrow transplant. Again, if there ever were a time when Heineman found a moment to include some sliver of thought when Batiste may have alluded to the fact that all his current strain doesn’t compare to staring death in the face (for a second time!), I might have warmed to this out-of-tune Symphony more.

The TIFF Report, Vol 2

His Three Daughters

Director: Azazel Jacobs
Cast: Carrie Coon, Elizabeth Olsen, Natasha Lyonne, Jay O. Sanders, Jovan Adepo
Synopsis: A tense, captivating, and touching portrait of family dynamics surrounding sisters who converge after their father’s health declines.
Thoughts: When I hear the words “film festival,” tight-quartered dramas dealing with fractured family dynamics are often the type of motion picture that comes to mind. No, really. There’s something about the potential for a hefty emotional impact of this pressure cooker environment that lends itself to the type of audience that would appreciate seeing this work first. The starker and rougher around the edges, the better; whatever gets to that raw center to expose the wound we all know exists in every family. His Three Daughters picks at that scab for much of its run time, with director Azazel Jacobs (French Exit) wisely balancing his screenplay with enough pleasant surprises that even a late-in-the-game big swing winds up working because what has come before is so strong.
A perfect match of director and actors, His Three Daughters features three outstanding performances from Carrie Coon, Elizabeth Olsen, and especially Natasha Lyonne as sisters coming together during a beautifully brutal moment in their lives. Coon could have created this brittle and biting person in her sleep, yet she’s always fully alert and playing off the other two women. I’m not as high on Olsen as others have been in previous projects. Still, she finds a necessary neutral core as the Switzerland sister usually tasked with sending the other two off into their respective corners. Lyonne has been a scene-stealer for years, but she graduates to heartbreaker in her best performance on film.   Builds and builds to a powerhouse finale that will leave many viewers, myself included, exhausted but nonetheless better for the experience.

One Life

Director: James Hawes
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Jonathan Pryce, Johnny Flynn, Lena Olin, Romola Garai, Alex Sharp
Synopsis:  Follows British humanitarian Nicholas Winton, who helped save hundreds of Central European children from the Nazis on the eve of World War II. an act of compassion that was almost forgotten for 50 years.
Thoughts: In many ways, there’s a “what you see is what you get” feeling involved while watching One Life. I went into this film starring Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins expecting a pat retelling of the known honorable work Sir Nicholas Winton and others did to save children in Prague at the start of the Nazi rise. I found much of the movie to be a well-made, if artfully talky, Sunday matinee paint-by-numbers way of illustrating this effort, and the performances across the board were blessedly as solid as you would want them to be. However, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional gut punch of its final act. The movie works in one of the best last-inning rug pulls, one that doesn’t feel as emotionally manipulative as it likely is. Then, right as you’ve cleared away the first round of tears, first-time feature director James Hawes circles back with another wave to ensure no dry eye in the house by the time the credits roll. The film would be an impressive achievement in general on a technical level, but I can’t remember the last time we’ve had a true three-hanky weepie that you could feel good about later. This is the one.
One thing to note: Anyone reviewing this outside of its premiere at TIFF23 might have trouble, like me, separating the film from the experience of being in the audience. When the movie was over, Hawes came onstage to say a few words (while the audience continued to compose itself) and delivered another whopper. One of the children Winton had saved was in the audience, watching their story be told. Queue the third round of crying. Hawes then asked anyone else in the audience who was there today because of Winton and his team’s work, and another half dozen people stood up. Sustained applause during the lengthy standing ovation that followed was the biggest I’d heard at TIFF, and being in this audience, THIS audience will forever be etched in my movie-going memory. 

Days of Happiness

Director: Chloé Robichaud
Cast: Sophie Desmarais, Sylvain Marcel, Nour Belkhiria, Maude Guérin
Synopsis: A young orchestra conductor faces a crossroads in her life and career.
Thoughts: We should get the obvious out of the way as we begin. Yes, Days of Happiness shares some overlapping plot points with 2022’s Tár, and comparisons to it are, I suppose, inevitable. However, pitting the two films together would be unjust because they focus on two different female protagonists with separate intentions. Writer/Director Chloe Robichaud’s intimate and beautifully nuanced Days of Happiness tracks a young queer music conductor rallying against an oppressive father/manager and her history of pleasing others. Faced with diminishing prospects in staying the course with what is expected of her, she wants to expand into new areas but is discouraged by the people who should be offering support. Robichaud’s screenplay may plunk out a few clunky notes here and there and lacks the kind of sharp denouement audiences may be tapping their toes for, but it builds slowly to a stirring, lasting crescendo. Of note is a brilliant leading performance from Sophie Desmarais with solid support by Sylvain Marcel as her harsh dad & Nour Belkhiri playing her conflicted lover. As with Tár, another selling point is to hear stunning orchestral music conducted convincingly by the star, in this case performed by Quebec’s Orchestre Métropolitain onscreen, which we found out at a post-show discussion Desmarais toiled diligently on to learn the proper methods, gaining high praise and respect from her seasoned coach.

Quiz Lady

Director: Jessica Yu
Synopsis: A tightly wound, game show-obsessed woman must come together with her chaotic sister to help pay off their mother’s gambling debts.
Cast: Awkwafina, Sandra Oh, Jason Schwartzman, Holland Taylor, Tony Hale, Jon “Dumbfoundead” Park, Will Ferrell
Thoughts: There’s a broad appeal to this very broad comedy written by Jenn D’Angelo (Hocus Pocus 2), but it sadly doesn’t showcase either Awkwafina or Sandra Oh operating at the top of their game. True, there are enough moments in Jessica Yu’s film that give both women opportunities to play outside their comfort zone, but neither look settled in this new space. Oh comes across as really swinging for the cheap seats and whiffing it…yet she never embarrasses herself like other actresses could have. There’s a bit of a desperation in Oh’s desire to break out of her usual role, and it’s admirable, but paired with Awkwafina, it feels misaligned. Awkwafina fares better, but I didn’t ever fully buy her as a person so withdrawn or reserved.
I’m going to toss a late-breaking curveball your way. Here are two reasons why I will tell you to 100% see Quiz Lady. The first is for Ferrell giving one of his least Ferrell-y performances and nailing it. As the host of the quiz show Anne idolizes, he has a Fred Rogers charm that isn’t phony or played for laughs. There’s a moment when Terry and Anne get 1:1 time that’s some of the best onscreen work Ferrell has ever done. The second is for a cameo appearance near the end that will get most viewers who grew up in the ’80s a little misty. That it involves national treasure Holland Taylor’s (Bombshell) crotchety next-door neighbor character is even better. Genuine feeling goes a long way, though it can seem at odds with a comedy that often takes on problems it can’t fully solve.
Full Review Here


Director: Ellen Kuras
Cast: Kate Winslet, Josh O’Connor, Andy Samberg, Alexander Skarsgard, Marion Cotillard, Andrea Riseborough
Synopsis:  A fascinating portrait of the great American war correspondent Lee Miller, whose singular talent and ferocious tenacity gave us some of the 20th century’s most indelible images.
Thoughts: It’s frustrating to realize there’s no good way to go about a biopic. No magic formula will make one life more interesting than the next. It’s all about how you find your way into this life and if you can successfully illustrate the world they impacted. While this biography of American war correspondent Lee Miller has a standard entry point (subject relates their story to a captive listener) and a script so musty theaters should come with dehumidifiers, it’s how director Ellen Kuras moves these pieces around that gives Lee its critical energy. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it has Oscar-winner Kate Winslet and her unimpeachable star power that will easily help to sell Lee to the masses. Winslet is terrific as the model turned photographer turned war photojournalist, throwing herself passionately into the role but never losing herself entirely. You always see Winslet’s bright eyes bringing Miller to life (the actress looks strikingly like Miller), and her investment gives everyone around her a reason to shine as well. The supporting cast of familiar faces, some appearing for one or two scene cameos, are intriguing. Notable standouts include Andrea Riseborough (To Leslie) as the editor of British Vogue, who sent Miller on assignment to Normandy, and Andy Samberg (Hotel Transylvania), who turned in a commendable performance as another journalist who accompanied Lee on her exploits and carried a torch for her. I did appreciate that there was more to the structure of Lee than initially met the eye, and the final reveal worked for me when I expect it may seem trivial to others. Still, Lee has stuck with me longer than I might have thought it would, and while it may not turn out to be the prestige-y awards contender its filmmakers hope it will be, I do believe it will (re)introduce the world to Miller and the vital work she conducted.

Mother, Couch

Director: Niclas Larsson
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Rhys Ifans, Taylor Russell, Ellen Burstyn, Lara Flynn Boyle, F. Murray Abraham
Synopsis: Three estranged children come together when their mother refuses to move from a couch in a furniture store.
Thoughts: I’ll admit that I expected to come out of Mother, Couch ready to write a review about Lara Flynn Boyle and how nice it was to see her back on screen after a long absence. I’m still high on Boyle after all these years (raise your hand if you still like Poltergeist III….no?), but she’s less of a factor in Mother, Couch than I was hoping to see, not that there isn’t plenty going on in this absurdist comedy to begin with. The cast alone (Ewan McGregor, Rhys Ifans, Taylor Russell, Ellen Burstyn, Boyle, and F. Murray Abraham) for Mother, Couch should attract attention. Still, the film has an uphill battle to keep a viewer focused on its critical message of parenting, living a flawed life, and letting go of what’s broken. I would best describe this as a mixture of mother! and Beau is Afraid, two movies that will likely scare more than a few of you reading this. If you like either of these films, you’ll buy into Larsson’s strange story of a man’s journey through hell during one day of furniture shopping with his family. It’s all a metaphor for the circle of life and how we become the parent to our parent at some point, yada yada yada, but it’s intent on being as weird as possible becomes fascinating after a while. McGregor is doing spectacular work here, capably handling the bizarre turns Larsson throws in, and I loved seeing Burstyn cast so deliciously against type. Often showing up as a calming peacekeeper, she’s a chilly antagonist here in a platinum wig (with a flip!) that gradually lets it be known what she thinks of her children in emotionless detail. This will not be everyone’s cup of herbal tea; it requires a bit more caffeine to get through a long middle stretch that feels like it’s treading water, but the finale is a Big Fish-y reminder that as much combat as we engage in with our parents, we have a responsibility to them in the end. 

The End We Start From

Director: Mahalia Belo
Cast: Jodie Comer, Joel Fry, Katherine Waterston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Gina McKee
Synopsis: A new mother, her partner, and their infant are driven out of London into the English countryside by cataclysmic flooding in this adaptation of Megan Hunter’s prophetic bestseller.
Thoughts:  For all its bells and whistles, I was expecting a bit more heft to this adaptation of Megan Hunter’s novel from 2017, The End We Start From. Hunter set up a doozy of a real-world feeling situation with a modern-day ecological crisis of Biblical proportions (massive flooding) wiping out much of London and lower-ground areas worldwide. Those who survived the initial destruction depend on finding shelter and food from the waste while fending off fellow scavengers who know the supply is limited. It’s during this frightening time that the pregnant leading character, identified only as Mother (Comer), gives birth and has to fight for the lives of both her and her newborn. Despite an unsurprisingly stalwart performance from Jodie Comer, the film, from first-time feature director Mahalia Belo, comes off like The Last of How We Live Now on The Impossible Road. Apocalyptic occurrences acting as catalysts are overdone without a creative edge for justification. It’s all so bleak and depressing, with Comer the one bright spot that stands out amongst the small cast. Muddy dialogue (maybe the sound mix was off?) kept characters at a distance, and even a slight turn from producer Benedict Cumberbatch couldn’t shake the film out of its expected path forward. This is not to say that director Mahalia Belo hasn’t crafted a good-looking movie that shows assured confidence, just one that we’ve seen done better in its previous similarly themed iterations. If it feels like more of a vehicle for Comer to show the type of range we already know she can muster, I would count The End We Start From as a modest success but not one that demands certain attention.   

Seven Veils

Director: Atom Egoyan
Cast:  Amanda Seyfried, Rebecca Liddiard, Douglas Smith, Mark O’Brien, Vinessa Antoine
Synopsis:  A young theatre director is forced to re-examine her own trauma while working on a remount of Salome.
Thoughts:  Celebrated Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan has worked for nearly forty years in the business and has amassed many awards for his character-driven, narratively complex works. None of them are expressly commercial, and when there is a hit (1997’s The Sweet Hereafter is likely the best example, netting him his only Oscar nominations), it’s often more of a critical darling than a box-office bonanza. My appreciation for him is quantified. For every film that fascinates me, there are three that I can’t embrace fully…or perhaps can’t get my tiny brain around. Also an acclaimed director in theater and opera, Egoyan’s new film Seven Veils blurs the line between both mediums to varying degrees of success.
The good stuff first. It was terrific to see Egoyan introduce the world premiere of Seven Veils, collaborating with, among others, the Canadian Opera Company, where he recently directed the production of Salome featured heavily in the film. And the singing by true opera talent was breathtaking. Unfortunately, despite a few arresting sequences of visual brilliance, Egoyan’s latest drama is a stark reminder that not everything can be molded into a psychoanalytic exercise. Amanda Seyfried is a dependable actress but completely miscast in her role as written.   Playing a young director enlisted to remount an opera originally staged by her former mentor with whom she shared a fuzzy history, Seyfried feels too young for the directing job and the role in general. Don’t even get me started on all the weird “that never happens” incidents during the rehearsal process, further taking any sense of reality/urgency out of the picture. Drop the curtain quickly on this one – it’s a flop.

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Series Review ~ Faraway Downs

The Facts:

Synopsis: An English aristocrat who inherits a sprawling ranch reluctantly pacts with a stockman to protect her new property from a takeover plot.
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brandon Walters, David Wenham, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson, Essie Davis, David Gulpilil, Ben Mendelsohn, David Ngoombujarra
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Rated: NR
Running Length: 6 episodes (~220 minutes)
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: “Do you like movies?” It was early 2008, and a woman with an official-looking clipboard asked me this question in a local movie theater lobby. I’d been stopped for random surveys before, so I didn’t think anything of it (aside from the fact we were being asked if we liked movies after we had bought a ticket to one), so I naturally answered, “Yes, of course.” Then she asked me if I’d like to see a test screening for a brand new “epic Hollywood blockbuster” later that week. She couldn’t tell me the title but said I “wouldn’t be disappointed by the director or stars.” Hmmm…let me check my scheduYES! 

Long story short, the movie was Australia, and my audience at the Mall of America was the first to see a rough cut of the film. I sat across the aisle from the studio executives, producers, and director Baz Luhrmann and his wife Catherine Martin (who was Oscar-nominated for her costumes) and, for the most part, enjoyed it quite a lot. Not being completed, there were a few hurdles to get through. The effects weren’t complete, so most shots of stampeding livestock were crudely rendered computer graphics that elicited laughter from the audience, and the music wasn’t yet added, so the Gone with the Wind score was used, but we all got the gist. Then we got to the ending, and…no. It was just a ‘no’ from me. On the lengthy feedback slip we had to fill out at the end, I made it clear that, in no uncertain terms, they had to fix that ending. 

When I saw the film after it was released in November 2008, I started to bite my nails as we got to the conclusion that I knew we were headed toward. The rest of the movie had been smoothed out and looked gorgeous. It was an old-fashioned romance set in the Outback with Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos) and Hugh Jackman (Logan) looking every bit the A-List movie stars they were. Additionally, it brought Australia’s shameful history of the Stolen Generations to light. It may have been a little corny at times, but it was all part of Luhrmann’s intention of resurrecting a cinematic grandeur and glamour that had fallen out of fashion. To my delight, the ending was changed, leaving Australia with a finale that made sense.

While the film was a mediocre success with critics, its domestic box office returns were disappointing considering all involved. It’s Luhrmann’s least successful film in America (but oddly, his most successful in Europe), and the labor of love went down as a costly failure for the studio that released it. The book seemed to be closed on Australia until the pandemic hit, and Luhrmann’s filming of Elvis was halted after star Tom Hanks became one of the most famous people to catch COVID. Suddenly, he found himself revisiting his homeland opus and wondering what he could do with the footage he didn’t use. There are director’s cuts aplenty, but could Australia have a new life if it was re-edited into a limited series?

The result is Faraway Downs (named after the large estate Kidman’s character owns in the dusty Outback), which streaming service Hulu has subtitled A Baz Luhrmann Film Told in Six Chapters. Now, instead of Australia’s 165-minute running time, we have six episodes ranging from twentyish minutes to nearly an hour for a total of 220 minutes. No new footage was shot, though Kidman and Jackman have recorded new dialogue to blend the edited footage seamlessly. Additionally, new music has been recorded by First Nations musicians. Oh, and Luhrmann restored the original ending. That I hated and that most test audiences hated.

So, the question remains: how does Faraway Downs compare to Australia, and does it “improve” upon the original film?   Watching the series, you can see how episodic the film written by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, and Ronald Harwood was in design and how it naturally seems to fit into a limited series structure. The chapter breaks are often cliffhangers or solid stopping points of transition, making each a satisfying watch on their own or to binge (I watched it all in one sitting). It had been a while since I’d watched Australia, but the threads of that narrative remain fresh in my mind. I can see where Luhrmann has tweaked character arcs and fleshed out some of the stories/lives of the Aboriginal people.

It’s easy to spot where most editing has been done; much of it comes in the first episode. Setting a strange mood and herky-jerky pace when it should be enrapturing its audience, Faraway Downs struggles with staying on track in the opening chapter. Introducing us to Kidman’s character is pivotal. While in the film, she’s presented as a naif but capable fish out of water, in Faraway Downs, she comes across as a Goldie Hawn-esque kook that’s lived inside a terrarium all her life and needs assistance batting her long eyelashes. This recalibration of character might give Kidman some fun antics to play, but it makes her transition to tough homestead woman more of a strain. Jackman (who has never looked better in a movie before or since) doesn’t get much more to work with; his character remains slightly aloof and mysterious until the final chapter. 

Filling out the cast with some of the top talent from Down Under, many of whom have gone on to splendid careers of their own (Essie Davis, Ben Mendelsohn, David Wenham), Luhrmann also yields the floor to First Nation actors like Brandon Walters (a child actor that’s a true revelation), David Ngoombujarra (who gets possibly the most emotionally charged scene with Jackman), and the late David Gulpilil as a tribal elder and the meaningful performances of all three have benefitted in the transition to Faraway Downs

Still, I wouldn’t say I like the ending, and I am disappointed it was added back in. I’ve read some interviews with the director about why he took it out initially and why he felt it was right to put it back in. While that is his prerogative, I don’t think it matches up with the investment audiences made in the movie/series until that point. Being a spoiler-free site, I’m not going to reveal it and am deliberately dancing around the topic, but it’s not fulfilling, having seen it in the context of the test screening and now in Faraway Downs.

A curiosity to be sure, Faraway Downs might not have made Australia into a better movie, but it has introduced an intriguing premise for directors to rethink their previous work in a new format. Could other movies benefit from a similar treatment if given the opportunity? I can think of a few good candidates from recent years, but let’s go back even further and see what middling movies from the famously muddy early 2000s we could toss into the hat for a retool.

Movie Review ~ Loop Track


The Facts:

Synopsis: On the verge of a nervous breakdown, Ian disappears from the world and takes a hike in the New Zealand wilderness. His efforts to avoid other hikers are futile, and he can never shake the constant feeling that they are being stalked by someone or something sinister… Far from society, Ian questions his sanity before plunging into a bloody battle for survival.
Stars: Thomas Sainsbury, Hayden J. Weal, Tawanda Manyimo, Kate Simmonds, Noa Campbell
Director: Thomas Sainsbury
Rated: NR
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: This past summer, I was walking in Hyland, one of the little treasures in my mostly urban Midwest locale. A park preserve largely untouched with plenty of walking paths free from city noise and traffic congestion, this is a calming spot to clear your head or leave the house to stretch your legs. The fresh air fills your lungs, and if you see people, they greet you with a small smile and a gentle nod as they leave you with the same peace you grant them.

On this occasion, I started a little later than I would have liked and got turned around from my usual path. It started getting dark, and suddenly, the trails looked less friendly than they did before, and the runners that came from behind seemed to do so with a bit more, was it aggression, or was it just my mind playing tricks on me? Then there were the branches cracking and various rustlings in the far and, later, near distance, which suggested some early evening denizens had stirred as the light was fading fast. Why did this benign locale now seem so treacherous and scary, and the people I passed feel like they could double back and jump me at any moment? Even the soccer mom on her brisk power walk?

Spoiler alert: I made it safely back to my car around the same time my Apple Watch congratulated me for hitting a new active heart rate, and I vowed in the future to clock the sunset and time my walk appropriately. This memory sprung to mind as the sly new thriller Loop Track unfolded before me. While the hike taken through a New Zealand forest by a troubled man paranoid he is in imminent danger had more twists and turns than my relatively straightforward trek, it made me realize once more how vulnerable we become once we enter an environment we can’t control.

What is going on with Ian (Thomas Sainsbury, Guns Akimbo) that would make him so jittery? He’s arrived in the parking lot of the loop track of the (fictional) Eyers Forest, unable to answer his ringing cell phone and jumping in fright when a park ranger knocks on his window. Ian doesn’t look like your typical hiker, and the beauty of the forest doesn’t seem to attract him. It’s just the ability to go deeper into its heart and away from the enormity of the outside world. Taking pains to avoid contact with anyone he sees on the trail, his tentative steps forward are interrupted by Nicky (Hayden J. Weal, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), an alpha male who claims to have been following him and wonders if he could join a reluctant Ian on his hike to the next hut where they will bed down for the night. 

At the hut, the two men meet up with a couple (Kate Simmonds and The Meg’s Tawanda Manyimo) and notice the bags of another group, but no sign of where they may be. This is not the experience Ian had planned, but he’s easily persuaded to join this threesome on their exploration of the loop track. Ian begins to feel that something is off in the forest as they travel, or is it within the new people he’s met? Occasionally, he thinks he sees a dark figure in the distance watching them, but when he pulls someone aside for them to look, there’s nothing. And what of the other group that never came to pick up those packs? Is Ian’s paranoia part of his reasoning for being there in the first place? Or is it a valid warning they must pay attention to if they want to survive until the trail’s end?

Written and directed by Sainsbury (who, it must be said, does a terrific job in the leading role), Loop Track is a tricky film that I wasn’t sure would be able to make it to its finale without twisting its ankle. Wow, did it ever surprise me, though. I won’t say if Ian’s suspicions about evil lurking in the forest are real or if he should be afraid of the strangers he has just met, only that Sainsbury has taken a page from the suggest-don’t-show films from the ’70s and ’80s to create a highly satisfying, spooky flick. That the solution takes so long to be revealed and doesn’t become frustrating is another positive for Sainsbury’s pacing. By the time we are let in on what’s happening, it’s such a rug pull followed by breathless action that we don’t have time to dissect any logic leaps.

An overall feeling of confidence runs through Sainsbury’s script that doesn’t overshadow its mystery; it likes keeping you off-kilter and playing a guessing game to Ian’s sanity. Is he the problem all along, or is the loop track hiding a more terrifying secret? The performances are level-headed and free from the over-the-top wackiness that could have spoiled the often-serious tone of the film, and the special effects are wisely used sparingly with practicality. These are the kind of suspenseful, calculated-risk movies that I love to uncover because had even one element of Loop Track been out of sync, this brisk and biting walk would have been an interminable slog.