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.
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.
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