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
As a first-time press member at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), I had a fantastic experience! Over two weeks, I saw nearly 50 films and felt so fortunate to meet many fellow critics from across the globe. The staff and volunteers at TIFF were top-rate, and whatever trepidation I had going in about getting from one theater to the next was squashed on day one when it became clear that everything was nearby and, if you planned correctly, you would be able to see pretty much anything you set your mind to. Over the next five days, I will release my reviews from TIFF in the order I saw them. Most of the films screened at TIFF don’t have a release date or are still waiting for a distributor, so most of these are the capsule reviews requested by the studios and PR teams representing the movies. When a film does get released, I will expand my review (note that several films have been released, and there are links to these films at the end of the capsule review).
Here is a link to all of the films I saw at TIFF. Stay tuned for more film festival coverage in 2024 – exciting things are already booked and planned! My full film festival coverage (including Tribeca, SXSW, Fantastic Fest, Fantasia, etc.) is here.
Director: Jen Markowitz Synopsis: At Camp fYrefly in rural Alberta, queer, non-binary, and trans teens get to be kids in a supportive space, surrounded by counselors who can relate to their experience ― and help them toast the perfect marshmallow. Thoughts: As a young and sheltered only child, YMCA summer camp terrified me when I was faced with having to go. I went from having my own space and sleeping in a bedroom alone to spending a week in a cabin with nine other boys with different experiences. Having yet to find my voice and extrovert personality, I didn’t enjoy it, so I was the kid who cried all week, wanting to go home. It’s horrifically embarrassing now, and I’ve spent the last thirty years wishing I could go back to have a do-over, watching as many camp-related movies/TV shows as possible and living vicariously through them. I wish I had known there were other camps out there to try, like a theater camp that would be more tailored to my interests or the kind featured in Summer Qamp, a documentary by Jen Markowitz. Located in Alberta, Camp fYrefly provides a safe environment for LGBTQ youth and allows them to mingle with their peers who have a shared understanding of what it’s like being a member of this community. Staffed with counselors who have faced similar challenges and can relate, the camp is a valuable resource for youth who are often ostracized from their student group based on their self-identification. Coming into this camp environment where everyone is on the same page, the fear of being judged or cast out is lessened (social norms being as they are, there is always going to be a division of hierarchy), and the campers can instead focus on having fun and being treated like any other camper would be. Originally conceived as a television documentary, you can feel some of that smaller scale come through in the assembly of the material Markowitz filmed with cinematographer Lulu Wei. Following several campers before and during their camping experience, there is a slightly disjointed feeling in the narrative flow, which makes it hard to get very close to anyone. You get the sense of the filmmakers wanting to have the best of both worlds in the documentary realm, to be both flies on the wall to pick up off-the-cuff moments and get in there and ask the subjects probing questions about their time at the camp. That can hamper the film with some clunkiness. Still, Summer Qamp is recommended overall for its resistance to not just being a promotional piece for Camp fYrefly but being as interested in its subjects as it wants us to be.
Director: Meredith Hama-Brown Cast: Ally Maki, Luke Roberts, Nyha Breitkreuz, Remy Marthaller, Sarah Gadon, Chris Pang Synopsis: A week at a couples’ therapy retreat — where kids can explore the Pacific coast while their parents work on their issues — exposes the fractures in a biracial family. Thoughts: There’s no right way to grieve, and everyone goes through that process differently. For many, grief can be The Great Equalizer, bringing clarity into one’s own life that assists them in coping. Pieces of your routine suddenly are unnecessary, tiny allowances you could overlook become dealbreakers, and seizing precious moments is a driving factor toward happiness once you realize how everything can change instantly. When we first meet Judith (Ally Maki, Shortcomings) in Meredith Hama-Brown’s Seagrass, she’s still struggling to move through the recent death of her mother. Raising two young girls with her husband (Luke Roberts, The Batman) in Canada sometime in the ’90s (it’s never pinpointed), she’s reached a point in her marriage and motherhood where she’s looking for additional support. They’ve all come to a secluded resort for the week so the couple can work on their marriage in intense therapy sessions, and the girls can mingle with other couples’ children in session. Each family member can wake up a bit during their time, opening to their passion, curiosity, shortcomings, and ultimately to one another. Hama-Brown brings some of her own experience to the film, and while it tends to drift into a dreamy state with gossamer edges, it never loses its focus on the dynamic interplay between the families. With a tinge of the supernatural (maybe) filtering in and out of the narrative, it keeps what could have been a rote bit of family agony elevated to a higher plane. Maki is excellent, capable of making a character that is hard to warm up to, one the audience can empathize with. This is a small movie in scope but not in execution. With a clearly conveyed tone and an ear for dialogue that resonates, Hama-Brown is a filmmaker to watch out for in the future.
Chuck Chuck Baby
Director: Janis Pugh Cast: Louise Brealey, Annabel Scholey, Emily Fairn, Edyta Budnik, Cat Simmons, Celyn Jones, Sorcha Cusack Synopsis: A film of love, loss, music, and female friendship, set in and around the falling feathers of a chicken processing plant in industrial north Wales. Thoughts: Many filmmakers will be making their feature-film debuts at TIFF after working in television and limited series for years, and for most, the transition to a full-length movie is a natural progression. I’m not sure if all these movies needed to be as fleshd out as they turned out to be, though. Take Chuck Chuck Baby, for example. Written and directed by Janis Pugh, this is a queer rom-com semi-musical, but it never can figure out how to entirely focus on either niche long enough or with the degree of success needed to maintain our interest. That’s not to say there aren’t elements to the movie that do work. Louise Brealey is a quirky lead, a woman who lives with her dolt of an ex-husband and his wacky girlfriend so that she can be close to her kindly ex-mother-in-law. Working to make ends meet at a local chicken plant, she reunites with a female high school crush who has recently returned to town and offers the sheltered woman an opportunity at happiness. Their relationship comes at a cost, though, with small-town gossip threatening to ruin this good thing. The musical elements are more karaoke than anything, finding the actors singing along to songs playing over the radio and other broadcasting systems. If Pugh had only gone all the way with the musicality of it, immersing the two women along with their lively bunch of co-workers into a fantasy world and out of their hum-drum lives, it would have given the movie a bit more of the zing I think it was going for. I understand wanting to keep the narrative grounded, but who hasn’t been working a mundane job and imagined an elaborate production number livening things up? Pugh’s film has a good heart but never really sings like it should.
Anatomy of a Fall
Director: Justine Triet Cast: Sandra Hüller, Samuel Theis, Swann Arlaud, Jehnny Beth, Milo Machado Graner, Saadia Bentaïeb, Antoine Reinartz, Camille Rutherford Synopsis: Winner of this year’s Palme d’Or, A woman is suspected of her husband’s murder, and their blind son faces a moral dilemma as the sole witness. Thoughts: Starting my TIFF in-person journey off right, I began my journey with the Palme d’Or winner from Cannes, Anatomy of a Fall. Director Justine Triet poses enticing questions throughout Anatomy of a Fall, and the discussions of them by the characters are so rich that it doesn’t matter if she fully answers them or not by the end. That’s part of the deep resonance of the world she’s created: the human realities of the tragedy that happens initially to the family and the possibly more devastating fallout after the fact. It’s as if Triet is asking, through the lens of a polarizing courtroom thriller, the cost of over-examining personal flaws and using those as evidence of guilt in a more significant crime. Running 2 ½ hours, you’d never know it because of the breathless pacing and because Triet kept the question of guilt up in the air for so long. How the verdict falls is for you to experience, but it’s almost beside the point by the time we get there. Triet and Sandra Hüller have given you enough evidence through performance and narrative structure by that time for you to decide what you believe. Even an explanation as a summary near the end doesn’t seem to close the book on the subject. Full Review Here
The Zone of Interest
Director:Jonathan Glazer Cast: Christian Friedel, Sandra Huller, Johann Karthaus, Luis Noah Witte, Nele Ahrensmeier, Lilli Falk, Medusa Knopf Synopsis: Jonathan Glazer won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes for this horror about Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss and his wife, who quite literally live amongst the ashes of their actions. Thoughts: Crossing the second big Cannes winner off my list on my first day at TIFF was an excellent way to start the day, even if it meant confronting my typical aversion to Holocaust dramas. What a deserving film to be recognized, though. Director Jonathan Glazer hasn’t directed that many films, and the ones he has (2004’s Birth and 2013’s Under the Skin) are conversation starters, to put it mildly. He finds common ground with The Zone of Interest, one of the most haunting films about the atrocities in Auschwitz I’ve ever seen, and not because it depicts in any graphic detail what went on inside the camp. Instead, Glazer’s focus is entirely outside the walls of the camp, in the home of the commandant and his family, who live in quasi-luxury (regularly pilfering the goods/clothes stripped from the prisoners) while heinous evil is happening mere feet away. The contrast between the stunning cinematography that suggests a home in the German countryside and the sound design, which always has the faint sound of pain and death ringing in our ears, will gnaw at your bones for days/weeks after. In her second terrific performance I’ve seen today, Sandra Hüller (as the selfish wife of Christian Friedel’s aloof captain) cements that this is her year for major recognition in her field.
Director:Luke Gilford Cast: Charlie Plummer, Eve Lindley, Mason Alexander Park, Rene Rosado, Robyn Lively Synopsis: A young construction worker accepts a job with a group of queer rodeo performers and discovers formerly dormant parts of himself in photographer Luke Gilford’s captivating feature debut. Thoughts: Armed with a frankness, authenticity, and respect for tone that most queer-facing cinema lacks, there is a simple beauty in much of what we see in Luke Gilford’s first feature. Part of that comes from Gilford’s journey growing up in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association with his father. This world provided context for the community he creates in National Anthem. Forced to grow up faster than he’d like to support his mother and small brother, a young man takes up odd jobs around his home in New Mexico, eventually landing one on a ranch where a queer rodeo lives and trains. Drawn by some unknown pull to this foreign world, emotions he has tamped down, and his boss’s girlfriend create less of a coming out story and more of a coming home journey that is told with sensitivity. Charlie Plummer (who plays a similar role in 2017’s Lean on Pete) has the right mix of curiosity and tension recognizable to anyone who’s been on a similar path, and Eve Lindley is a breath of fresh air as the catalyst for his willingness to be vulnerable. The real revelation of the film is Mason Alexander Park as a rodeo chanteuse who doesn’t sugarcoat words but conveys great care all the same. The script gets a little thin near the end and probably falls too quickly into the traps of a generic third act, but Gilford’s eye for detail throughout (and the stark beauty of the untouched New Mexico land) is a sight to see.
Evil Does Not Exist
Director:Ryûsuke Hamaguchi Cast: Hitoshi Omika, Ryô Nishikawa, Ryûji Kosaka, Ayaka Shibutani Synopsis: A place of bucolic serenity is threatened by cynical urban developers in this exquisite slow burn from Ryûsuke Hamaguchi that reveals the hidden potential for transformation on both sides of its fraught power dynamic. Thoughts: The worldwide success of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car in 2021 came as a bit of a late-breaking shock to much of Hollywood, even those that were buzzing about it out of Cannes, where it nearly won the top prize but left with Hamaguchi taking Best Screenplay instead. Eventually winning Best International Feature at the Oscars, Hamaguchi became the third Japanese filmmaker to be nominated for Best Director, and with those credits alone, seeing his new film Evil Does Not Exist, which made its North American Premiere at TIFF, was a no-brainer. I’ll say that I appreciated Drive My Car’s structure and its performances, but I also felt it was too long and repetitive. That’s probably why I gripped the armrests on my seat as Evil Does Not Exist started its slow unspooling at TIFF because you get the impression from the beginning that Hamaguchi is out to test his audience. Well, maybe that’s unfair. I don’t think a filmmaker is ever out to alienate a viewer deliberately. Still, ‘challenge’ is a more accurate word to describe the acclimation to this chilly would-be thriller that covers several hot-button issues without addressing them directly. After a prolonged dialogue-free opening, Hamaguchi switches gears to a lively debate about urban development overflowing with words and then eases off again. It’s a constant battle of extremes and compromises on a personal and artistic level. That’s where the success of Evil Does Not Exist is found. Unfortunately, it’s a fleeting win, and much of the movie comes across as extraneous extra pieces, which, like Drive My Car, I feel should have been excised.
Director:Nikhil Nagesh Bhat Cast: Laksh Lalwani, Raghav Juyal, Yogita Bihani, Yatin Karyekar, Tanya Maniktala, Rupesh Kumar Charanpahari, Calib Logan Synopsis: A passenger train bound for New Delhi becomes a bloody battleground of brutal close-quarters combat as a pair of commandos square off against a 40-strong army of invading bandits in this relentless martial arts thriller Thoughts: Maybe it’s because I caught this at the end of a long first day with inordinately heavy material that Kill disappointed me so much, but what I thought would be a violently fun actioner was an overlong trip with lackluster style. Proof that you can have too much of a good thing is found in a movie like Kill. While this gonzo-gory action thriller has some delicious moments, they could almost be counted as filler sandwiched between long stretches of tragically poor dramatics. Some of that is with the intention of director Nikhil Nagesh Bhat and the moviemaking industry in India; it’s just how movies are assembled. By this point, I understand the tonal differences inherent between countries, but that can only take you so far when you’re desperately searching for a fizzle when things have gone flat. A man trying to save his love and her family from a rogue group of thieves on a speeding train has all the makings of a rollicking winner (and you know a US remake of Kill can’t be far off), and there is a decent amount of story here to cut a great film out of. I did think the direction was sometimes hideously ugly with its bloodletting, even though it has moments of ravaging revenge that have midnight cult hit in the making all over it. What, ahem, kills this one is a feeling that it will never reach its destination, though. The long run time gets exhausting, making it hard to recommend, even as a time waster.
The Boy and the Heron
Director: Hayao Miyazaki Cast: Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Ko Shibasaki, Aimyon, Yoshino Kimura, Takuya Kimura, Karou Kobayashi, Shinobu Otake Synopsis: Encounters with his friends and uncle follow a teenage boy’s psychological development. After finding an abandoned tower in his new town, he enters a magical world with a talking grey heron. Thoughts: With much fanfare and a tinge of sadness, Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement after the release of The Wind Rises in 2013. The news was monumental in the world of animation, considering Miyazaki’s films are consistently ranked among the highest and most influential. As it turns out, the then 72-year-old wasn’t quite ready to hang up his paintbrush, and it wasn’t long before he was back to work on small projects that led to the announcement of his return to Ghibli with The Boy and the Heron. Of course, all eyes were on the film to see if this would be the master returning in full force or a pale reflection of what had come before. Thankfully, Miyazaki proves again to be the best of the best, and the 10-year gap between features doesn’t show any noticeable change in his magical touch. Based on a 1937 novel, it follows a boy who travels with his father and stepmother to her country home, where he finds a hidden world in the surrounding grounds. Talking birds, ghosts of the past, hungry parakeets with a taste for children, and family secrets are all discovered during his adventures, all told with typical Miyazaki tenderness balanced with a historical edge that doesn’t shy away from exposing the lasting impact of WWII on the Japanese. The Boy and the Heron is brimming with the kind of delights Miyazaki fans have been waiting for and will be an excellent gateway to new fans who are now at the right age to view it and then travel back in time through the director’s previous films. There’s rumored to be more Miyazaki in the pipeline, and with The Boy and the Heron already a gigantic hit in Japan, once it arrives in US theaters, I can’t imagine the coffers won’t be full enough to fund more flights of fancy.
Working Class Goes to Hell
Director: Mladen Đorđević Cast: Tamara Krcunovic, Leon Lucev, Momo Picuric, Ivan Djordjevic Synopsis: A small-town labor union turns to the dark arts for empowerment against the corrupt forces in their community in this timely and disturbing socio-horror satire. Thoughts: Arriving from Serbia, Working Class Goes to Hell has a heckuva wonderful title and caught my eye with several buzz words in the plot description that seemed like the movie was made with me in mind. Unfortunately, Mladen Đorđević’s film has a first-gear premise with a neutral execution. I’m all for the blending of horror and dark comedy, but when there is so little of both that you are left with no genre to latch on to, you begin to realize the pointlessness of the filmgoing experience. You keep waiting for something, anything, to connect, but it never follows through with what it lays out. That’s unfortunate because there is so much material presented that could have led to a more compelling narrative. In our cash-strapped economy and with unemployment rates being what they are, there is a place for a film depicting a town dying out because of factory jobs vanishing and the community looking to evil deeds and low-level witchcraft to influence their changing fortune. Alas, when Đorđević does make a bold and/or bloody statement, it’s a feeble battle cry drowned out by a weak production. A strong lead performance from Tamara Krcunovic is the only pro grounding the film in place, but too many oddball supporting characters (some who can barely mumble out their lines) muddy the dark waters. Running past the two-hour mark, it must be cut by at least 30 minutes before it can be commercially released, or I doubt anyone can sit through it.
Woman of the Hour
Director: Anna Kendrick Cast: Anna Kendrick, Daniel Zovatto, Nicolette Robinson, Autumn Best, Tony Hale Synopsis: Examines uncomfortable gender dynamics with the stranger-than-fiction story of Rodney Alcala’s appearance on The Dating Game in the middle of his 1970s murder spree. Thoughts: One of a few films at TIFF directed by A-list actors (and making their feature debut), I don’t think anyone expected Anna Kendrick’s film to leave the festival with the most accolades. Yet, Woman of the Hour is terrific, a confident and tense look back at a pop culture factoid that’s never treated with cheap triviality. This world premiere (picked up by Netflix for 11 million) is two stories in one. The first follows a struggling actress (Kendrick) in 1970s Los Angeles who agrees to go on The Dating Game on the advice of her agent to get her face out there for potential work. One of her possible matches is Rodney Alcala, a charming man who’s a little…off. In reality, Alcala was a serial killer who had murdered several women and would victimize more after his appearance on the nationally broadcast program. It’s a story that seems like it could only be made up for the movies, but Ian MacAllister McDonald’s skilled screenplay bounces back and forth between Kendrick’s actress storyline and Alcala’s terrifying encounters with his victims. Kendrick’s dramatic side has consistently been underestimated (underappreciated?), but this should seal the deal for solid respect. Tightly paced and nicely evocative of the era, the supporting performances shine, too. As Alcala, Daniel Zovatto is rattling, and he shares a sustained sequence with Kendrick that is more tense than most full-length suspense thrillers I’ve seen. I also appreciated the driving urgency of the performances from Nicolette Robinson and Autumn Best. This won’t arrive until 2024, and I hope Netflix positions Woman of the Hour well for Kendrick to get the proper recognition for a job well done. She wasn’t originally supposed to direct this (only star in it), but she handled both roles with strength and compassionately focused on the women who weren’t as lucky as her character.
The Dead Don’t Hurt
Director: Viggo Mortensen Cast: Vicky Krieps, Viggo Mortensen, Solly McLeod, Garret Dillahunt Synopsis: Set in the 1860s, the fiercely independent French-Canadian Vivienne Le Coudy embarks on a relationship with Danish immigrant Holger Olsen. Thoughts: Is the Western dead? Check in with Viggo Mortensen on the genre’s status, and he’ll sit you down to show you a print of The Dead Don’t Hurt as an example of how the Western can thrive with the right creatives in command. Mortensen takes on a multi-hyphenate role in the film, serving as producer, writer, director, and star. Oh, and he composed the original score, most of it before the movie even started filming because, in his mind, the movie was matched to the music, not the traditional other way around. The result is a beautifully rendered take on the Western, free from the usual leathery garb of dusty horses and nooses. Instead, Mortensen etched out a love story and let his co-star shine brightest. As if I didn’t love Vicky Krieps enough, she does enough acting with a single tear in this gah-orgeous dream of a Western to more than justify the TIFF Tribute Performer Award she received at the festival. The love story created between the characters Krieps and Mortensen play is familiar but far from simple, and it’s played out by two ace actors. That makes some of the narrative blandness excusable because the characters are rich in flavor. I’ll be interested to see how they market The Dead Don’t Hurt when it is time for release; this delicate film needs the perfect platform to catch the right audience.
Director: Grant Singer Cast: Benicio del Toro, Justin Timberlake, Alicia Silverstone, Eric Bogosian, Ato Essandoh, Domenick Lombardozzi, Michael Pitt Synopsis: Tom Nichols is a hardened New England detective, unflinching in his pursuit of a case where nothing is as it seems, and it begins to dismantle the illusions in his own life. Thoughts: Evocative of the procedural thrillers that were popular in theaters and direct to video in the mid-to-late ’90s but died off as collateral damage with the revitalized serial killer genre, Reptile is slick entertainment that isn’t out to break the mold it comfortably fits into. It’s a right up-my-alley kind of film, from A-list stars who lead the cast down to the dependable character actors who fill out the most minor supporting roles. A woman’s murder opens the door to an investigation that uncovers a viper’s nest of hidden agendas, cruel motives, and soulless corruption. For a detective (Benicio del Toro) newly transplanted to the area, it’s a chance to crack a case more significant than he realizes, but the cost of his digging comes at a hefty price. Many will receive it as ” standard, ” but it’s incredibly effective and often viciously ruthless. Directed by Grant Singer, making his fiction feature debut, Reptile convinced me that del Toro (who co-wrote the screenplay) is one of the greats. Co-star Justin Timberlake might have enjoyed a few more good notices on this if a certain autobiography hadn’t arrived around the same time this made its debut on Netflix…but his victory lap for a solid job was short-lived. Also, let me say again that I’m always a fan of Alicia Silverstone’s appearance in anything. There’s a complexity to her role that was fascinating and, if not fully explored, made you crave her presence even when she was offscreen.
Director: Cord Jefferson Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, John Ortiz, Erika Alexander, Leslie Uggams, Adam Brody, Keith David, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown Synopsis: A wicked satire about the commodification of marginalized voices and a portrait of an artist forced to re-examine his integrity. Thoughts: (Note: I wrote this after seeing this early on at TIFF): Well, there you go. American Fiction can’t be beaten for the surefire crowd-pleaser, with laudable performances and a biting script. It should be considered a must-see for TIFF23 audiences and be on everyone’s radar when released in November. By now, saying Jeffrey Wright is giving an awards-worthy performance seems old hat, but let this be true with his work here. Cord Jefferson’s film is timely and effective, with a stacked cast down to the minor turn—big props to the always grounded/grounding Erika Alexander and Tracie Ellis Ross. I can’t wait to see this again. (Added after the film won the Audience Award, often an early indicator of Oscar potential): I’m so thrilled that TIFF audiences embraced this one as fully as I hoped they would. I’m also glad that when I said, “I can’t wait to see this again,” I meant it because I could see the movie once more on the closing night of the festival, confirming that it deserved the prize. If anything, American Fiction gains laughs on a second viewing, and the deep satire present in Cord Jefferson’s screenplay comes out with more razor-sharpness. Let us please live in a world where Jeffrey Wright gets an Oscar nomination for his work here and where the film, Jefferson, and the ensemble cast are recognized by the appropriate awards entities when it comes time to vote.
Synopsis: Activist Bayard Rustin faces racism and homophobia as he helps change the course of Civil Rights history by orchestrating the 1963 March on Washington. Stars: Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Jeffrey Wright, Audra McDonald, Aml Ameen, Gus Halper, CCH Pounder, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Johnny Ramey Director: George C. Wolfe Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 106 minutes TMMM Score: (4/10) Review: 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, or if it is, it is used as a sidebar tangent that factors in 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 not just for justice but for the right to be who he was and to stand for democracy at the same time.
Unfortunately, in Rustin, a new film from Netflix that I screened at the Toronto Film Festival, 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. With a story credit to Julian Breece, most of the screenplay is surprisingly attributed to Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Black, who won his award for 2008’s Milk about human rights activist/congressman Harvey Milk, can’t replicate that film’s sincerity here. Missing is the passion Black brought to the table for his Milk biopic. What’s left is a just-the-facts effort that doesn’t expand into anything deeper when it could have been more nuanced in its sketch of a black gay man during a time of great unrest.
Set mostly in and around the time leading up to the historic March on Washington held in 1963, the film nimbly moves through the early history of the movement and Bayard’s involvement in landmark moments that helped further the Black political cause. While he was ultimately pushed to the side or left out of the conversation entirely because of his relationship with men, his renewed fire that came with planning the March on Washington may have started as a way to show his peers he could pull off the impossible while opening the eyes of the world, but it gradually turns into an effort that was bigger than himself.
As biopics that cross paths with pivotal moments in history go, there are appearances from key historical figures (all of whom make sure we know who they are by essentially looking at the camera and reading a short bio) and extended scenes with Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen, Till Death) who was at one time a close friend and political mentee of Rustin’s. Black’s screenplay eventually begins to go from one factoid to another in what could be described as a book report come to life. The one thread that is partially tweaked, Rustin’s longtime relationship with a white activist (Gus Halper, Ricki and the Flash) and his affair with a closeted NAACP preacher (Johnny Ramey), feels underdeveloped and, ironically, the one Wolfe is least comfortable staying with for any length of time.
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 bad casting choices in supporting roles (Chris Rock…oof) and its impassioned grandstanding, which often rings resoundingly false. In the theater world, Wolfe is a formidable director, 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.
In a small preview of what’s to come next year, I know that Domingo is so much better in Sing Sing (which I also saw at TIFF – it’s terrific), but he will likely get his first Oscar nom for this. Domingo is an actor just waiting to be recognized by an awards body, so I’m all for a spotlight being shone on him (he may even be nominated twice if he’s as good in December’s The Color Purple as I think he’ll be). Still, I wish that he was in a movie that matched his talent. Far and away the best thing about Rustin is the Lenny Kravitz song playing over the closing credits. That’s an Oscar campaign I could get passionate over.
Synopsis: World-changing events spectacularly disrupt the itinerary of a Junior Stargazer/Space Cadet convention in an American desert town circa 1955. Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Rupert Friend, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Jeff Goldblum Director: Wes Anderson Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 105 minutes TMMM Score: (2/10) Review: A few years ago, I was elbowing my way through an estate sale when I came across a pristine oversize coffee table book on the American West. If you’ve been to one of these sales before, you know that there’s often little time to consider your options, so after flipping through a few pages and seeing some exquisite photography, I decided on a purchase for the easy asking price of $10. Later that day, I lounged around casually looking at the fantastic pictures documenting the people, places, and things that were too vibrant to fade into the history of legend. I couldn’t believe what a find I found; clearly, this was something the owner had treasured, and I was shocked it was still around when I arrived. It was fate.
Then I looked closer at the text.
All the text in the book, all of it, was that nonsense typography that was used as a placeholder for the actual writing of the author. No captions, identifying descriptions, or illustrative prose took you to the same place the whimsical photographs had done so visually. It was a misprinted copy sold for cheap. Of course, the book was left for some chump like me, but at least I had the pictures to keep me company.
Watching Wes Anderson’s new film Asteroid City was like paging through this crisp tome. It’s a superb exercise in production design and a feast for the eyes (the nicest thing you can do for them, aside from sleep), but it makes absolutely no sense when it comes time to need to understand it. Sure, you can squint and try to force it to make sense, but you’re connecting the dots the filmmaker hasn’t bothered to put into any workable order in the first place. That makes for a mighty frustrating experience, especially for those equipped with an Anderson decoder ring already tuned to his frequency.
Legendary playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton, Glass Onion) wrote a play, Asteroid City, that is being broadcast on national television in the mid-1950s. As the black-and-white program progresses, it transitions to a full-fledged color presentation (or is it real life?) following the events that transpired in a small town over an increasingly strange few weeks. Centered around a Junior Stargazer convention and the kooky families and scientists that converge to celebrate, the arrival of an unexpected visitor throws things further out of whack. Now, as everyone is quarantined and forced to make do with a new normal, how will they adjust to the possibility of global change?
It’s not hard to decipher that Anderson has made a COVID-adjacent movie and wants to make a semi-statement about the bubble we’ve all been gradually emerging from. That’s all well and good, but even that message starts to get lost amid the falderol of its twee-ness run amuck. No one in Asteroid City (the place, the movie, or its “real” life interstitials) can have a straight conversation, preferring to talk in a broken code that even Alan Turing would have trouble deciphering. I longed for good actors like Jason Schwartzman (Saving Mr. Banks), as a widowed father denying himself his grief, and Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), playing a starlet so bored with her life she considers changing which shoulder she slumps onto be a highlight of her day, to get a chance for their characters to go somewhere, rather than be stuck in Anderson’s nonsensical dialogue.
Though Robert Yeoman’s (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) cinematography, Adam Stockhausen’s (West Side Story) production design, and Milena Canonero’s (Carnage) costume design guarantee you the kind of jaw-dropping visuals you’ve come to expect from a Wes Anderson flight of fancy (all should clear their award season schedules so they can attend every ceremony), they are the candy-colored icing on top of a russet potato of a script. Anderson attracts such extraordinary talent, and wow, this cast (Tom Hanks, Tilda Swinton, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody, Steve Carrell, Margot Robie) is tops, but zowie, does this film crater out as one of the more oversized duds Anderson has been responsible for.
Reaching his zenith with Moonrise Kingdom, still the best balance of the outlandish while balancing heart, Anderson almost touched Oscar glory with The Grand Budapest Hotel and has also found some success with animated projects The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs. His last film, The French Dispatch in 2021, was a costly fiasco, and even if Asteroid City is being embraced more by his critics, I can’t ever imagine revisiting it. Maybe on mute. Only on mute.
Synopsis: In his second year of fighting crime, Batman uncovers corruption in Gotham City that connects to his own family while facing a serial killer known as The Riddler. Stars: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan Director: Matt Reeves Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 175 minutes TMMM Score: (9/10) Review: Across the Marvel Universe/Multiverse and throughout the DC Extended Universe, there is an enormity of strong beings, big and small, that have been integral parts of many childhood fandom origin stories. It could be through comics, video games, TV shows, or any of the numerous movies made over time. There seemed to be a set image for heroes and heroines with slight variance for a while. Over time, the vision of these crime fighters has evolved as our world has changed. Other institutions may be frustratingly stuck in a cycle of sameness, but for all the countless comic book installments we get seemingly every month in theaters, at least there are options for those looking to see themselves represented up on the big screen.
I realize I’m writing this preamble at the start of a review of another film about a white superhero. Yet it’s important to note that what The Batman represents is a significant step forward for the DC Extended Universe due to the folks involved taking a considerate step back to look at the world as a whole. In doing so, they’ve allowed the unpleasant fester of the underbelly to surface in a way that comes across as more balanced an approach than what we saw in 2019’s Joker. In that film, it felt like it sought to identify and, by coincidence, laud support to a faction that didn’t need to be given strength. Some of those same ideas bubble up in The Batman, but they’ve worked within the fantasy framework model that essentially separates Gotham City’s reality from our everyday life.
For director Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and his co-writer Peter Craig (Bad Boys for Life), Gotham City is much darker than any previous incarnation we’ve seen. Barely skating by in his re-election bid, the current mayor presides over a city littered with crime and assault. Only a masked vigilante called The Batman has made an impact, emerging from the shadows to strike down those that would interfere with the good people of Gotham. The crude signal bearing his symbol created by James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, No Time to Die) that illuminates the night sky is both a call to action and a warning to crooks that vengeance is coming for them.
Of course, the tortured man behind the mask is Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), a wealthy orphan still haunted by the murders of his mother and father years earlier. Donning his cowl and body armor outfitted with an array of ingenious, practical gadgets and weapons, Bruce funnels his rage at his inability to save his parents into his speed at disarming criminals by any means necessary. In his second year as Batman, he already bears the body bruises and scars that reflect he’s just a man underneath it all and doesn’t possess the same type of superpowers other famous city sentinels do. Assisted by Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis, Black Panther), Bruce’s life is lived primarily out of the public’s view, despite his family obligations as head of his father’s company and philanthropy.
Someone else has been keeping an eye on the city and developed a plan to make people pay for their part of a high-stakes scandal years in the making and longer in the cover-up. Planting a series of deadly clues left for Batman, The Riddler (Paul Dano, 12 Years a Slave) begins laying traps for Gotham’s upstanding citizens, all tied to an event that started long ago and continues to infect the daily workings of city business to this day. Instead of simply exposing the truths and trusting justice or a court of public opinion to do their job, The Riddler takes it upon himself to escalate these shocking reveals by staging astonishing displays of his reach and capabilities as Batman, and the authorities stand by, helpless.
Somewhat amazingly, while this detailed detective story is happening, Reeves and Craig manage to work in another fully-formed B plot involving local gangster Carmine Falcone (John Turturro, Gloria Bell) and the patrons of a popular nightclub he likes to visit. Managed by Oswald Cobblepot, nicknamed The Penguin (Colin Farrell, Voyagers), who might be conducting illicit business, it isn’t long before Batman ties The Riddler’s plot together with the Falcone/Penguin operation. Of course, Batman isn’t the only one looking into Falcone’s business. Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz, Mad Max: Fury Road) is also slinking around in a catsuit and knit cap cut out just perfectly to look like a nouveau Gotham feline. The more clues received as to who the next victim is, the more intriguing the mystery gets, and soon Batman realizes that the next target might be someone extremely close to him. Someone staring back at him in the mirror when he takes off his mask.
That’s all I should mention about the film’s developments that run just shy of three hours…the same running length as The Godfather. I know; I saw both movies in the theater over several days. It should be noted that both movies may be three hours but neither feel like it. Reeves and Craig have carefully put their plot together but shaving off the best parts of a gumshoe mystery and blending in elements of Seven and braiding in a bit of Blade Runner for good measure. There’s an actual puzzle to be solved; clues are deliberately withheld so as not to allow you to get too far ahead of the action. I appreciated being led gently along this way, not dragged forth by force. It will enable you to relax and enjoy meeting these characters, letting them form fully in front of you.
It’s an unenviable task to take on Bruce Wayne/Batman, but I genuinely thought Pattison was excellent in the role. That sullen, distracted gaze that made all those fans swoon in the Twilight series is put to even better use here, and he’s a sounder actor now as well, which makes it all the more entertaining to watch. Saying he’s better suited up and hooded as Batman might sound like a dig, but it’s the truth; there’s a strength and a confidence that’s hard to pull off when you’re under all these layers. However, Pattinson doesn’t let that weigh him down. It certainly doesn’t hold him back from finding the chemistry with Kravitz’s Kyle character; though Kravitz is so skillfully playing the role as a femme fatale open book, it would be hard not to generate some spark with her to see what would happen if a flame took.
If Dano is maybe just playing another variation of his psychotic doughy creep role (I won’t say what other movie that is, no spoiler!), give him credit for conveying a lot of that scary energy through a frightening mask. Like the movie itself, my main criticism is that Dano’s third act isn’t nearly as strong as his first two, but up until then, it’s a chilling bit of work. As ever, Turturro and Wright are dependable in their more seasoned roles as opposite sides of the law coin. Reeves has made several other exciting casting decisions for his more minor roles, using actors such as Peter Sarsgaard (The Guilty) as Gotham’s District Attorney, Alex Ferns (Wrath of Man) as the current police Commissioner, Con O’Neill (The Way of the Wind) as the troublesome Chief of Police, and Jayme Lawson (The Woman King) playing the challenger for the mayoral seat.
In all honesty, though, everyone takes a backseat to Farrell whenever he is onscreen. In some ways, I was glad I knew it was Farrell underneath all that make-up, but on the other hand, it would have been fun to be surprised. I’m only mentioning it because it’s not been kept under wraps, so it isn’t considered a spoiler. You’ll be amazed at the work Mike Marino did to make the trim Irish Farrell look like an overweight, balding Jersey boy with bad skin. It’s an unbelievable transformation, and there’s not a frame where I even spotted a hint of Farrell’s natural features. On top of all that, Farrell is excellent in the role, managing to be both funny and the type of Penguin you could see yourself finding ways to cheer on. No one will beat Danny DeVito’s Penguin (or Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, for the matter) in Batman Returns, but this is a solid take on the villain.
With a fantastic production design from James Chinlund (The Lion King) and costumes from Oscar-nominated Jacqueline Durran (Cyrano), it’s the A-team behind the camera as well. I’d hope March isn’t too early to put cinematographer Greig Fraser’s (Dune) name into the hat for awards consideration at next year’s Oscars for the breathtaking shots he delivers. The topper is Michael Giacchino’s (Star Trek) dazzling score that gives you everything from the most haunting hint of Morricone to the slinky curve of John Barry at peak James Bond. The soundtrack for The Batman indeed might be Giacchino’s masterwork. I’ll be looking forward to hearing orchestras around the world play these tracks.
Ultimately, this is a high-water mark not just for a Batman movie but for the genre itself. It’s a superhero noir that bursts out of the gate with a brooding style and a moody tone it justifies with a complex plot that’s part pulpy mob flick and part hard-boiled detective yarn. Less origin story for Bruce Wayne and more of an engrossing look at how Gotham’s best and darkest first crossed paths, The Batman is a massive achievement for all involved in front of and behind the camera
Synopsis: James Bond has left active service and is enjoying a tranquil life in Jamaica. His peace is short-lived when his old friend Felix Leiter from the CIA turns up asking for help. The mission to rescue a kidnapped scientist turns out to be far more treacherous than expected, leading the former MI6 agent onto the trail of a mysterious villain armed with dangerous new technology.
Stars: Daniel Craig, Rami Malek, Léa Seydoux, Lashana Lynch, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Christoph Waltz, Billy Magnussen, Ana de Armas, David Dencik, Rory Kinnear
Review: So…here we are. After a long, very long, extremely long, wait…the new 007 film has arrived. It’s also the last time Daniel Craig will don the James Bond suits, drive the fancy cars, and play with the cool gadgets, so it’s understandable why the producers and studio behind No Time to Die kept firm with their decision to push back the release date over and over again so audiences could only experience this important chapter in theaters. This, after the movie was initially delayed on its way to the screen because of a departing director (Oscar-winner Danny Boyle left after disagreements on how the story should go), cast injuries, and damage to the filming studio. For a time, it looked like James Bond would NOT return, to riff on the famous last words at the end of each previous films’ closing credits. A release date was finally locked in but then…pandemic.
All that is behind us because the movie is arriving and now the question for the viewer will likely be two-fold. 1) was it worth the wait and 2) is it a fulfilling sequel? For me, as a life-long Bond fan and with a certain affinity for most of this last cycle of Bond movies with Craig as the star I will tell you what I responded when both the studio and my friend asked me what I thought. To me, when the 163-minute No Time to Die was over I felt like I had eaten a nine-course meal of my favorite dishes and then topped it off with an extra dessert. After something so huge, you need time to digest so I was happy to have over a week to think more about it. Craig’s tenure as Bond has had its highs (Skyfall, Casino Royale) and lows (Quantum of Solace, Spectre) and I would place No Time to Die smack dab in the center of them all, leaning strongly toward high praise for the elegant way it manages to close this part of what has already been a long adventure.
For the first time, a James Bond opening begins in the past and doesn’t even feature Bond at all. This intro becomes a key piece in action and location later in the movie and is but the beginning of the longest pre-credit sequence in any Bond film yet. By the time Daniel Kleinman’s haunting opening credit sequence pays over Billie Eilish’s spine-tingling title track (I originally found this song to be slow and boring but, in the context of the movie, the tone and purpose make it near perfect), retired 00-agent Bond and his love Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, The Grand Budapest Hotel) have faced down a vicious attack in Southern Italy and in the process revealed certain secrets from the past that have come back to snap at both of their hearts. Five years later, Bond is alone in Jamaica when he is visited by both his old friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, The Good Dinosaur) from the CIA and an MI6 agent (Lashana Lynch, Captain Marvel) who has been assigned his 007 number in the field. Both are interested in Bond getting involved with Project Heracles, a chemical weapon that has been stolen by a rogue villain. The CIA wants Bond’s help, 007 wants him to stay out of her way.
Bond can’t help but be curious and when he travels to Cuba to investigate, he’s teamed with new CIA agent Paloma (Ana de Armas, reuniting with her Knives Outco-star Craig) to infiltrate a secret SPECTRE party where they find an old friend has been keeping a watchful eye over them all. The deeper Bond seeks the truth, the more he finds that Project Heracles has ties not just to his old foe Ernst Blofeld but to a new enemy, Safin (Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody), as well as Madeleine. And all three are about to re-enter his life in a big way…with a number of surprises yet to come.
As is usually the case, there are a stable of screenwriters credited for this 25th Bond film but it doesn’t feel slap-a-dash or story by committee. Aside from usual suspects Neil Purvis and Robert Wade, director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre) contributed to the final script, and it’s widely known that Emmy winner Phoebe Waller-Bridge was brought in to punch up some of the dialogue and give the film some humor. Hold that wince if you are thinking there’s an extra dose of comedy that’s been shaken and stirred…yes there is more of a sense of humor to the proceedings, but they are small touches here and there which result in the characters feeling more fleshed out than anything.
It’s great to see the players back in action, from Ben Whishaw’s (Cloud Atlas) tech-guy Q to Naomie Harris’s (Rampage) Moneypenny. I’m glad the writers gave Ralph Fiennes (Dolittle) as M a bit more depth this time around because in Spectre there seemed to be a bit of stunted growth after being introduced so nicely in Skyfall. (Note, make sure to keep your eyes open for a scene where M is sitting in a portrait gallery and observe the paintings – it’s just one of several nice touches that callback not just to other Craig films, but all the way back to the beginning.) Waltz (Big Eyes) had his chance in the previous film to make an impression and he was sort of just…Waltz. There’s little more to elaborate on than that. Of the new crop, Lynch has the best success in a role that feels like a good step forward for the series but, like Halle Berry’s Jinx who played opposite Pierce Brosnan in Die Another Day, the character becomes a second thought once Bond decides to get back in on the action. Per usual, I’m not entirely sure what Malek is up to in performance or accent but it’s one of the weaker villains in the Bond franchise…yet he has one of the deadliest lairs. The appeal of Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods) is totally lost on me. So, there’s that.
Fans have been waiting eons for Bond to return and he’s come back with a high-wire epic that delivers maximum bang for your buck. It’s a hefty movie with a generous run time so be prepared to settle in and I’d advise skipping any/all bathroom breaks so you don’t miss any action. Things change on a dime in the life of a secret agent and despite the constant aural reminder of another title tune from an older Bond film, you do not have all the time in the world to take it in. When the stakes are this high, there’s no time to wait for No Time to Die.
Synopsis: A boy in New York is taken in by a wealthy Upper East Side family after his mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Stars: Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Oakes Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Ashleigh Cummings, Willa Fitzgerald, Aimee Laurence, Denis O’Hare
Director: John Crowley
Running Length: 149 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: When I was in school, I like to think I was pretty good with my homework. Sure, there were times when I wound up working late on calculus, having procrastinated my way into an all-nighter but for the most part I was on top of things. One thing I never failed to follow through on was doing any assigned reading. However, I’m admitting now in this public forum that lately, in my advancing age, I’m getting bad at finishing books. I’ll start them all the time but then I get distracted and can’t make it to that final page. If a movie is based on a book, I do everything I can to read it before I see it and in these last few years it’s often come down to the wire to get in those last chapters.
I give you that brief backstory because it helps illustrate how disappointed I should have been with myself for not reading Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-prize winning 2014 novel The Goldfinch before the film adaptation was released. You know what? I got on the waiting list for the library and waited months and months for it to be my turn. When I finally got the hefty novel home, I took one look at it in all its 794-page hardback glory and decided on the spot I was going to give myself a well-earned pass on attempting it.
I feel no shame.
In fact, having seen the movie I’m wondering if I was better off with not having any pre-conceived notions going in. With nothing to live up to, the film could make a play for my attention without striving to be exactly what I had envisioned in my head. I purposely avoided delving too deep into the plot or matching characters to actors prior to seeing the film but rather let the screenwriter Peter Straughan (The Snowman) and director John Crowley (Brooklyn, Closed Circuit) have a crack at telling me a story. It’s a long story, though, and one that doesn’t quite shake off its creaky contrivances and some muddled performances.
Narrated by protagonist Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars), we see how he lost his mother at a young age, when a bomb is set off in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Barbours, a rich family with a son that attends Theo’s prestigious prep school, soon take in Young Theo (Oaks Fegley, Pete’s Dragon). Initially hesitant to get too close to this broken boy, Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman, Secret in Their Eyes) warms to his love of fine art and kind spirit that shines even during his most dark days. Yet Theo has a secret he’s keeping from everyone and it involves a priceless painting, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, and a mysterious man he meets in the rubble after the bomb goes off. Both will lead him on journey forward while shaping his future from a past he wants to forget.
Straughan has a challenge in parsing down Tartt’s epic into a watchable two and a half hours and it winds up working some of the time. Having to manage two timelines with the younger Theo and the grown-up man he becomes gets a little tiresome over the course of the film, only because Theo as a boy is so much more interesting than the enigma he turns into. Every time the action switched back to Elgort in the present there is a marked dip in energy and curiosity into the mystery at the center of it all. It helps that Fegley is an assured talent, steering clear of your typical child actor trappings and giving the impression he’s an old soul trapped in the small frame of a youngster. The same can’t be said for Elgort who labors mightily with the material, rarely letting go and totally losing himself in the role. Sure, there are Big Acting scenes where Elgort puts himself through an emotional ringer but there’s a thread of falsehood running through his work that lets the character and, in the end, audiences down.
It’s a good thing, then, that Crowley has filled the supporting roles with such unexpected (and unexpectedly solid) actors. As is often the case, Kidman is terrific as a WASP-y Upper East Side wife, rarely without her pearls and pursed lips. Even in old age make-up later in the film, she manages to give off a regal air. Kidman always gives her characters sharp edges yet the performance never lacks for warmth. Luke Wilson (Concussion) was a nice surprise as Theo’s deadbeat dad that brings him to Nevada to live with his new wife (Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave, gnawing on the scenery like it was a turkey leg) but doesn’t seem to have interest in being a parent. Wilson so often plays soft characters but he gets an opportunity here to show a harder side and it works to his advantage.
I struggled a bit at first with Finn Wolfhard (IT, IT: Chapter Two) and his Borat-adjacent accent as young Theo’s bad influence best friend but he eventually won me over, though Aneurin Barnard (Dunkirk) as the older version of Wolfhard’s character rubbed me the wrong way from the jump. Ashleigh Cummings gets perhaps the best scene in the whole movie as older Theo’s unrequited childhood love, I just wish her character was better conceived. She gets all this wonderful material and then pretty much vanishes. Also absent for long stretches is Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale), turning in the most memorable performance in the movie. Wright has long been a valuable character actor, never quite making it to A-List leading man status but showing here you don’t have to be the focus of the film to effectively steal the show.
Crowley’s best move was to get Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall) to lens the film. Deakins is a master behind the camera and his gorgeous work here is another reminder that he’s one of the all-time greats. Everything about the movie looks wonderful and feels like it should work but there’s a curiously absent beating heart that holds it back from reaching the next level, one that I’m guessing would have pleased fans of the book more. For this audience member coming in blind, I found it to be a watchable but only occasionally memorable literary adaptation of a celebrated work.
Synopsis: As the war of Panem escalates to the destruction of other districts by the Capitol, Katniss Everdeen, the reluctant leader of the rebellion, must bring together an army against President Snow, while all she holds dear hangs in the balance.
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Natalie Dormer, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Michelle Forbes
Review: Unlike many readers of Suzanne Collins trilogy of novels, I wasn’t as disappointed in the final entry as most. For me, all three books had their high and low points but Mockingjay was the one that felt like it had the most consequences within its pages. It wasn’t an easy read with the fates of several characters being painfully revealed so it was with great trepidation that I approached The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 because I knew what lay ahead.
I still feel deep down inside that Mockingjay should have been released as one long movie. Audiences are willing to sit through a three hour (cinema) tour if the characters are appealing and the story engaging and I spent the first hour of Part 2 thinking that it came across as the middle part of a longer film, opening with the part where the action dips and audiences are given a breather before the final act begins. It was a mistake on my part to not re-watch Part 1 before because the film isn’t concerned with bringing anyone up to speed. Needless to say, I can’t write a review of Part 2 without including some spoilers from the previous films so…you’ve been warned.
Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook, as usual investing herself 130%) is still reeling after being violently reunited with a brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island), her former ally and would-be love interest. That pushes her back into the arms of brawny Gale (Liam Hemsworth, The Expendables 2) and she still can’t seem to make-up her mind as to who she believes she should be with. There’s no time for dewy eyed romance though with the final drive underway by the rebel army to seize the Capitol and destroy President Snow (Donald Sutherland, Ordinary People) before he can deploy more troops to wipe them off the map.
With the rebels being led by President Coin (Julianne Moore, Still Alice, looking fierce with a short haircut, cat-like contacts, and a wardrobe that feels Jetsons-esque) under the advisement of Plutarch (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master, in his last film role), Katinss finds a way back to the front line after being remanded to merely being the figurehead mascot of a force of people fighting for their freedom. Katniss has her sights set on Snow and will do anything to be the one to end his reign, if she (along with a small band of allies and officers) can avoid the booby trapped city blocks that lie ahead.
I never noticed it until my partner pointed it out to me but with its prominent golden eagles and red color schemes, the leaders in the Capitol have a distinct Nazi vibe going on. Themes of oppression and barbarism plague our real-life news feed and Collins’ novels tapped into some of that. While her world has definite fantastical elements, the underlying message of independence hard won is prescient.
The film is light on softness, deciding instead to keep its edges razor sharp and unforgiving. It’s not, I repeat not, a movie parents should remotely consider bringing their young children to. I’d ask parents to heed the PG-13 rating and know that it probably should have carried an R due to the amount of violence and frightening sequences of death. The carnage here is a far cry from the good old days of the first movie where young prospects picked each other off to become the victor of The Hunger Games. Here, the losses are devastating and uncompromising…making for emotional and exhaustive viewing.
After taking over for original director Gary Ross, Francis Lawrence (no relation to our star) has helmed the remaining films and done so without making concessions. From the production elements to the costume design and make-up, there’s a fully realized world on display, one that resembles ours but feels distant. Is it futuristic? Other-worldly? Yes and yes…but it also feels like it could be happening mere years from now. That’s a scary thought and one not to dwell too much on.
Since the first film was released, Jennifer Lawrence has become a true movie star with an Oscar under her belt yet she doesn’t show any signs of boredom with her involvement here. Other actresses may have started phoning these in once the first checks had cleared but Lawrence takes her job seriously…maybe a bit too seriously at times. No matter, the film has become the success it has largely due to her and the emotional depth she’s brought to a complicated character. Hutcherson too has evolved nicely over the course of the films, not just as his character but as an actor.
The main players involved are all given their due (even if Hoffman’s final speech is relegated to being read by Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me) and the good-byes have a sting to them. Watch the final shot of the exquisitely styled Elizabeth Banks (Man on a Ledge) as Effie Trinket and you’ll see how so much can be sadness can be conveyed with a single expression. I wish there were more for Jena Malone to do as Johanna Mason, a tough as nails former victor that both reviles and envies Katniss. Malone made a grand entrance in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and has been a value add to the series ever since. The final moments of the film may come off as maudlin and treacly to the more jaded among us but it feels like a fitting tying off of a well taken care of commodity.
There’s talk of the studio working on a new sequel or a prequel and I would beg of them to drop it. There’s plenty more YA literature waiting for their moment in the cinematic sunshine and the four films that have comprised The Hunger Games franchise have earned their chance to be distinguished. Don’t muck it up.
Synopsis: Katniss Everdeen reluctantly becomes the symbol of a mass rebellion against the autocratic Capitol.
Release Date: November 21, 2014
Thoughts: We aren’t that far off now from the beginning of the end for the tale of Katniss Everdeen. Though I’m no fan at all of the recent popular trend of splitting every film franchise written as a trilogy into four movies, in the case of this second sequel to The Hunger Games it may turn out to be a good thing. I’ve yet to read the book the film is based on (choosing instead to read it closer to the release date) but fans of the series have always been divided as to where Mockingjay stands against its printed predecessors with some loving it and some condemning it. So there’s room in two movies for the makers to right some potential wrongs devotees of Katniss and her quest may still be smarting over. It’s going to be a mega-watt blockbuster no matter what…but will Part 1 be more than a device to set the stage for the final hurrah?