Knox Goes Away
Director: Michael Keaton
Cast: Michael Keaton, Al Pacino, Marcia Gay Harden, James Marsden, Suzy Nakamura, John Hoogenakker, Joanna Kulig, Ray McKinnon, Lela Loren
Synopsis: When a contract killer is diagnosed with a fast-moving form of dementia, he is presented with the opportunity to redeem himself by saving the life of his estranged adult son.
Thoughts: If you didn’t think you needed to see a drama directed by and starring Michael Keaton where he plays a hit man with Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease in 2023…you were wrong. Knox Goes Away is pure Keaton cool cat, a crime pic that delivers on an early promise to follow through and not pull punches. There’s an efficiency to the film, to the directing, that can only come from someone who has been in this business long enough to know how to keep an audience engaged but still leave sufficient room for characters to be formed and explored. Is it the most refined crime film you’ll see this decade? Probably not, but there’s something special about seeing Keaton (the rare actor you want to root for, whether he is playing a good guy or a bad one) move through this world with confidence most actors half his age don’t possess. And who doesn’t love a good twist that gets dunked into the mix at the perfect time? Keaton must have cashed in a few favors to get Marcia Gay Harden and James Marsden for supporting players, and he creates some pleasant moments with Joanna Kulig as an escort who sees him as more than a client…for a while. Then you have Al Pacino (rarely moving from a seated position) awake and alert as Keaton’s trusted connection, apparently roused from the coma he’s been in for his last several movies. Consistently keeping you on your toes, this could be one to keep an eye out for those who love to untangle triple cross tales.
Director: Anand Tucker
Cast: Ian McKellen, Gemma Arterton, Mark Strong, Ben Barnes, Alfred Enoch, Romola Garai, Lesley Manville
Synopsis: Adversaries are forced to take desperate measures to save their careers in this scintillating tale of ambition and deceit in the theatre world.
Thoughts: Ian McKellen in a period thriller as a snippy theater critic who resorts to murderous ways to stay relevant? All I needed was to read this logline, and I didn’t need to know more about The Critic because I was on board. I’m not sure if going in blind kept expectations low or didn’t level-set them at all, but the movie is middle-of-the-road Wednesday afternoon entertainment that feels overly worked and not half as wickedly clever as a Patrick Marber screenplay should be. Based on the 2015 novel Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn, director Anand Tucker has all the suitable material to create snappy suspense, but there’s a key ingredient missing. That pivotal spice is interest and Tucker’s film strains to develop any (or keep ours) as it plods along with a frumpy slump. I was frequently bored with the goings on of this world, and as a theater/movie nerd who loves this period and all the backstage gossip and backstabbing that comes with it, I’m precisely the target audience this would/should be speaking to. The supporting cast of The Critic is stacked with dependable players (Gemma Arterton as McKellen’s critical target of ire and eventual accomplice, Mark Strong as his editor, and Lesley Manville as Arterton’s mum) who usually have nothing to do but look good in Claire-Finlay-Thompson’s costumes. No one does an exhausted sneer like McKellen, and as a nasty theater critic in pre-WWII London intent to keep his job and willing to resort to Shakespearean deceit to do it, he’s in fine form. If only the movie had as much bite as McKellen’s critical bark.
Director: Greg Kwedar
Cast: Colman Domingo, Paul Raci, John Divine G Whitfield, Sean San Jose, Jon-Adrian Velazquez, David J. Giraudy, Sean “Dino” Johnson, Sean “Divine Eye” Johnson, Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin
Synopsis: A theatre troupe finds escape from the realities of incarceration through the creativity of putting on a play in this film based on a real-life rehabilitation program and featuring a cast that includes formerly incarcerated actors.
Thoughts: It’s not coming out until 2024, but Sing Sing is one of those films you can tell is going places. Based on the Rehabilitation Through the Arts program (RTA) founded in 1986 at Sing Sing maximum security prison, Greg Kwedar’s film uses a handful of professional actors (namely Colman Domingo and Sound of Metal Oscar-nominee Paul Raci) but is predominantly made up of real-life former inmates/alums of RTA. Most of the time, casting non-professional actors can have drawbacks, but it is the key to Sing Sing’s ultimate soaring success, lending pure authenticity and raw honesty to the semi-fictionalized story as scripted by Kwedar and Clint Bentley. Domingo (also represented at the fest with biopic Rustin) plays Divine G, a leader of sorts in the RTA who takes a new member, Sean “Divine Eye” Johnson, under his wing as they begin to mount their spring production. At the same time, Divine G is preparing for his next parole hearing and assisting his fellow inmates on theirs, even though many have been resigned that making their case to a blank-faced board won’t change their sentences. As you may expect, there’s a degree of darkness to Sing Sing that gives it a weight to carry forward, which can sometimes slow the pace. Still, the beautiful hearts of the performers and the joy they feel from creating and performing are the electricity that energizes the movie. If some have suggested this is more of an advertisement/endorsement for RTA and similar programs, then so be it; it demonstrates the individualized power derived from placing the incarcerated into creatively fulfilling roles while they serve out their time.
Director: Maggie Betts
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tommy Lee Jones, Jurnee Smollett, Alan Ruck, Mamoudou Athie, Pamela Reed, Bill Camp, Amanda Warren, Dorian Missick
Synopsis: Inspired by actual events, a lawyer helps a funeral home owner save his family business from a corporate behemoth, exposing a complex web of race, power, and injustice.
Thoughts: Let’s not forget the power of the rousing David v. Goliath courtroom drama because director Maggie Betts and her co-screenwriter Doug Wright sure haven’t with The Burial. It may be old-fashioned, overlong, and frequently pandering to cliche (one summation is played to a horn-drenched underscore so loud it nearly drowns out the speaker). Still, it worked like gangbusters with our packed crowd at the TIFF. Set in 1995, the film follows a standard formula where a little guy (a small-town funeral company) is taken advantage of by the big guy (a big-town funeral company) and needs the help of a shiny savior. What makes The Burial interesting is that the little guy is played by Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones, who we might often associate as the one who would swoop in and save the day for Jamie Foxx (another Oscar winner), who instead is playing a flashy lawyer used to working with much more prominent cases. These types of courtroom-savvy films don’t get made anymore, at least not with the kind of regularity that we were used to. Thundering opening statements, “gotcha” cross-examinations, late-breaking reveals that threaten to derail the case, all the elements that made audiences think that trial cases were as exciting as a broadcast wrestling match. Of course, years of CourtTV have shown us otherwise, but movies like The Burial remind us how a little Hollywood magic can turn the mundane into grand, if unbelievable, entertainment. Betts has also made a good-looking and easy-to-watch film on top of it, which is almost icing on the cake.
Full Review Here
Director: David Yates
Cast: Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Andy García, Catherine O’Hara, Jay Duplass, Brian d’Arcy James, Chloe Coleman, Britt Rentschler
Synopsis: Pharmaceutical drug reps unwittingly help kickstart the opioid epidemic in the pursuit of financial success.
Thoughts: From director David Yates, Pain Hustlers is a flashy, fast-moving chart of the rise of the opioid crisis via shady pharmaceutical start-ups with another sensational performance from Blunt (A Quiet Place). If only the rest of the movie were as layered with nuance as Blunt’s turn as Liza Drake, a down-on-her-luck exotic dancer who unexpectedly finds her calling as a rep for a Florida drug company. While Yates (The Legend of Tarzan) never lets the scope overwhelm the message, it can drag a bit as it moves toward the second hour. It’s a big production that wants to feel like it’s made with the same verve as The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short, but it lacks a hard-nosed edge to play in the same league as those films. It also suffers in the timing arena as well. I feel like this story has been told multiple times in film, limited series, and documentaries over the last half-decade, so my brain was already saturated with the structure of a) a person who comes from nothing who b) makes it big and c) learns there’s a considerable price for getting what they want. What I did appreciate in Pain Hustlers, and this is what has always made Yates a strong director, is the way he pays attention to minor character turns, casting excellent actors (like Britt Rentschler from the also fantastic Pretty Problems as the wife of a man who becomes addicted to the drug Blunt shills) to fill out pivotal roles.
Full Review Here
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Glen Powell, Adria Arjona, Austin Amelio, Retta, Sanjay Rao, Molly Bernard, Evan Holtzman
Synopsis: A sorta-true crime comedy thriller about role-play, romance, and the precarious pursuit of self-knowledge.
Thoughts: Oops, it happened. I had heard it occurs at these big festivals but wasn’t sure I’d be affected. Yet, it still happened. The overhype machine got me with Richard Linklater’s Hit Man, a good but not great grey comedy that confirms Glen Powell is an A-List star who favors solidly B material. Powell plays an ordinary Joe Schmoe working for the local police in a tech support role who pinch hits for an undercover detective posing as a hitman for hire and displays a talent for being a master of deception. Creating different personas and crafting unrecognizable looks, the man at the center of this “sorta-true” story eventually falls for one of his marks. He gets in over his head trying to keep her out of harm’s way from his job and other criminal cohorts. Overlong and hinging on a second-act series of heretofore police ineptitude that is more convenient than plausible weakens what had started as a breezy good time. Though not exactly a newcomer, Adria Arjona makes a considerable impression. I suppose the blazing chemistry between Arjona and Powell creates the type of self-fanning fire rarely seen in movies, which is why Hit Man created such waves in TIFF and eventually sold to Netflix for release in 2024. I chalk that up to Powell being so charming that he could make an audience believe he’s attracted to the apple tree next door, but if we want to hang the success of Hit Man on the heat generated between Powell and Arjona, I won’t object. The two share a scene of aural deception, which will likely be mentioned in every review, that hints at the kind of high-stakes comedy the entire film should have partaken in. As is typical, Linklater’s knack for finding the right players of (un)familiar faces (to me) in minor roles gives the film homespun authenticity.
Director: Ethan Hawke
Cast: Maya Hawke, Laura Linney, Philip Ettinger, Rafael Casal, Cooper Hoffman, Steve Zahn, Vincent D’Onofrio, Alessandro Nivola, Willa Fitzgerald
Synopsis: Exploring the life and art of American author Flannery O’Connor while struggling to publish her first novel.
Thoughts: I grew up reading the work of Southern writer Flannery O’Connor in my high school English class, but it had been some time since I cracked open one of her novels featuring eccentric characters living through strange conditions. With his experience as a published author navigating a niche market often struggling for acceptance, poet/writer/actor/director Ethan Hawke was a perfect filmmaker to take on a biopic of the late writer. His approach is both literary and literal, frequently spinning off into small productions of O’Connor’s short stories that are arguably self-indulgent but not nearly as indecipherable as you may be led to believe; Wildcat is a hard-to-love look at author O’Connor as she navigates a chronic illness and being stymied artistically by an industry not used to her lyrical prose. As director and co-writer, Ethan Hawke can’t always balance blending reality with the short stories that play out (usually with stars Maya Hawke and Laura Linney in multiple roles) in fantasy. Still, every so often, the film locks into something that starts to burn brightly. Maya Hawke still can’t shake the extreme resemblance to her famous mother, Uma Thurman, she gives off onscreen but digs deeper than ever to try O’Connor’s mousy look and repressed attire on for size. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Linney perform poorly in a movie before, but she treads close in Wildcat with a few outlandishly overplayed roles that are beautiful buggy crashes we often can’t look away from. Not for everyone…but if you’re up for seeing MANY different sides to Linney, give it a go.
Director: Michel Franco
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard, Brooke Timber, Merritt Wever, Elsie Fisher, Jessica Harper, Josh Charles
Synopsis: Sylvia is a social worker who leads a simple and structured life. This is blown open when Saul follows her home from their high school reunion. Their surprise encounter will profoundly impact both as they open the door to the past.
Thoughts: This year at the Toronto International Film Festival was a bit different because of the ongoing Writers Strike and the Actors Strike, both of which hadn’t been resolved to allow these key figures to attend their premieres at fall film festivals without a special waiver. Thankfully, there were some exceptions. Hot off a strong showing in Venice, Memory arrived at TIFF23 and brought stars Jessica Chastain and Venice Volpi Cup for Best Actor Peter Sarsgaard to talk after. In the film, written and directed by Michel Franco (Sundown), Chastain is a single mother social worker carrying the tumult of unresolved pain from her childhood. A recovering addict, her efforts to remain on track are challenged after attending her class reunion and spotting a man she believes factored into her trauma. Sarsgaard plays the man, and as it turns out, he has his own obstacles which will open both up to a greater understanding of problems from their past and how they face their future. While it’s clear both actors bring their typical dedication to the process, and their performances are admirable, they’re stuck in Franco’s flighty plot, which square dances around many heavy subjects but never bothers to face them head-on. I’m amazed that Sarsgaard was singled out for his role when Chastain is going for something far more profound and nuanced. Whereas he is playing something just below the surface, she’s several layers further down, exploring a new part of her craft. The resulting film has good actors (wow, does Merritt Wever need a lead role soon, and holy moly, when is Jessica Harper going to get some recognition for her years of work playing brittle women?) assembling thin connective tissues that eventually snap during a protracted finale. Memory begins with some momentum but quickly swings into an inertia it can’t escape.
Director: Christos Nikou
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed, Jeremy Allen White, Annie Murphy, Luke Wilson
Synopsis: Anna and Ryan have found true love, and a controversial new technology proves it. There’s just one problem…Anna still isn’t sure. Then, she takes a position at a love testing institute and meets Amir.
Thoughts: There was a palpable excitement in the Princess of Wales Theatre before Fingernails held its International Premiere, and once Greek filmmaker Christos Nikou’s wistful sci-fi romance began, you could see why. The futuristic view of a love match and how we accept our mate starts strong, with Jessie Buckley, Jeremy Allen White, and Riz Ahmed all delivering wonderfully human(e) performances. It gets rocky in the second half when Buckley begins to question her match, and we begin to question why she’s making a fuss in the first place. Unsurprisingly, Nikou worked with Yorgos Lanthimos because this often feels like The Lobster for the McDonald’s crowd – easy to devour at the outset but gets greasy at the end. Fair warning: the entire premise of the picture is based on a test that is done by pulling out the, yep, fingernails of its subjects, and while the movie isn’t incredibly gory for the sake of being graphic, there are a few sequences that will have you cringing in horror as a nailbed gets ripped clean. The three leads are all doing admirably reflective work, and the role of the conflicted girlfriend, wondering if she should want more, seems to fit Buckley like a glove. I do wish Ahmed and White had pushed (or been written to push) their characters a bit further into some degree of decisiveness instead of making Buckley’s the only one that affects the action, but that’s also part of the reason Nikou’s script for Fingernails has drawn this love triangle with such sharp angles in the first place. Oh, and it’s got a killer soundtrack.
The King Tide
Director: Christian Sparkes
Cast: Alix West Lefler, Clayne Crawford, Frances Fisher, Aden Young, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Michael Greyeyes, Ryan McDonald, Ben Stranahan, Amelia Manuel, Cameron Nicoll, Kathryn Greenwood
Synopsis: Ten years after a child with miraculous gifts arrives at an isolated East Coast Island town, her adoptive parents must decide whether her safety is more important than their community’s prosperity.
Thoughts: Though the premise (mysterious infant child with mystical gifts washes up on the beach of a remote island fishing village) has all the makings of early Stephen King, The King Tide owes much to Shirley Jackson. Things get dark quickly as the town becomes more dependent on the girl and less inclined to let her leave…or anyone else enter. This TIFF23 world premiere from director Christian Sparkes is a Canadian-made gem, with gorgeous scenery giving it a real sense of place and isolation…making the situation that much more fraught the tighter Sparkes fixes his gaze on the danger in commodifying those we should be caring for. Exceptionally well cast with a mix of familiar faces and Canadian character actors, I especially warmed to the chilly Frances Fisher (also at the fest in Reptile), who is showing a continued verve for playing wicked women. Also finding a real groove in these slow-burn pictures is Clayne Crawford, who is nothing but confident charm as a conflicted father and mayor of the town. To its credit, it prefers to hold its cards close to its chest, never letting on how this might turn out. That allows the finale to catch you with breathless surprise, a haunting conclusion befitting an enigmatic tale told with an assured hand. I can see this one easily slipping by unnoticed because it may not have the name recognition or the flash, but it’s worth keeping track of for the artfully crafted screenplay and terrific performances.