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.
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.
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.
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.
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.