Director: Kristin Scott Thomas
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Freida Pinto, Sienna Miller, Emily Beecham, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sindhu Vee, Joshua McGuire
Synopsis: Three sisters return to their home for the third wedding of their twice-widowed mother. But the mother and daughters are forced to revisit the past and confront the future, with help from a colorful group of unexpected wedding guests.
Thoughts: Making her feature directorial debut, Kristin Scott Thomas has gone personal with North Star, also handling co-writing duties and playing the mother of three daughters (Scarlett Johansson, Sienna Miller, & Emily Beecham) that come home for their mum’s third marriage lugging significant baggage. Based in part on her own life (Thomas’s navy pilot father was killed in action when she was six, and then her first stepfather was killed six years later), the movie wants to have all the flair of a quirky dramedy. Still, it can’t drum up much energy to convince us it cares much about anything. Not that it makes a lot of difference, but it’s regrettable for the film to be playing alongside His Three Daughters, a far more skilled look at the political dynamics between siblings. Thomas is barely in the movie (in one major goof, she’s missing from multiple group shots during a critical scene, only to magically appear out of thin air when she has a pivotal line), but when she is sharing time with Beecham, Miller, and Johansson, there is a distinct spark that is missing from the rest of the picture. Why more of these moments weren’t added to the film is anyone’s guess, but without that crackle, the film flatlines before the rehearsal dinner can get underway, let alone the wedding itself. Unpolished and, worse, uninteresting, there’s an aimlessness to it all (especially Johansson’s accent) that will have your eyelids swiftly drooping south.
The Movie Emperor
Director: Ning Hao
Cast: Andy Lau, Pal Sinn, Rima Zeidan, Ning Hao, Eliz Lao, Chao Wai, Daniel Yu, Kelly Lin
Synopsis: Andy Lau is perfectly, cheekily cast as a movie star seeking relevance via a film festival–baiting art-house role in director Ning Hao’s sharp satire of movie industry pretension.
Thoughts: Hong Kong actor Andy Lau is a verified superstar, a juggernaut at the box office in his home country, and the star of titles that have crossed over internationally. That fame created quite the buzz at TIFF23 for the world premiere of The Movie Emperor, a playful poke at the HK film industry, not to mention the fickleness of fandom and the overstuffed star ego. Lau plays an actor who takes a more serious role, hoping it will bring him the accolades (read: awards and respect) his peers have received. The joke of watching a movie featuring Lau’s character wanting to make art that finds success at a film festival not unlike a TIFF wasn’t lost on the packed crowd, which positively ate it up. Directed by Ning Hao (who also plays the director of the movie Lau is working on), this is an often hilariously deadpan takedown of an industry that both loves to be made fun of and reviles falling under the microscope. Hao has a way of introducing wild moments that catch you off guard, surprising bursts of frenetic energy that keep Lau and the viewer on guard and alert throughout. Unfortunately, it veers a bit off course during its last stretch when cancel culture and a porcine subplot come to the forefront to diminishing returns; however, Lau’s increasingly volatile run-ins with a motorist keep the movie mysterious and unpredictable until the end. One of the few films I almost didn’t get into because the demand for tickets was so great (Lau and Hao were both there, creating a major stir of fans clamoring to see them); I was glad I scored a ticket, and was granted a seat right as the house lights were dimming.
The Movie Teller
Director: Lone Scherfig
Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Antonio de la Torre, Daniel Brühl, Sara Becker, Alondra Valenzuela
Synopsis: A young woman uses her storytelling gifts to share the magic of the pictures she has seen in the cinema with the poor inhabitants of a desert mining community.
Thoughts: I’m a true sucker for movies about movies, so I was likely pre-disposed to take a shine to Danish director Lone Scherfig’s Spanish-language adaptation of Hernán Rivera Letelier’s novel. Set in a small town in Chile’s Atacama Desert and tracking one family through the eyes of a young daughter and her coming of age, with The Movie Teller, Scherfig once again demonstrates her talent of creating an all-encompassing vision of time and place. Scherfig has insisted that period details are delicate but finely tuned as she did with An Education. If the threads of the story go a little awry and fall slack as the film nears its second hour, the performances from Sara Becker and Alondra Valenzuela as the older and younger versions of the protagonist keep the emotional beats in rhythm. In the third act of the picture, Becker is involved with the less exciting developments when her character begins an illicit affair with a much older man (Daniel Brühl) who was rumored to have had eyes for her mother. Her mother is played by Bérénice Bejo (Final Cut), an actress I’m still waiting to get back on the Hollywood radar. She’s so good here (as usual) as a woman with unfulfilled expectations and desires who feels stuck in a dead-end town that you’re reminded why she snagged an Oscar nomination 11 years ago for The Artist. The character makes some questionable decisions, but Bejo consciously tries not to judge the woman she’s playing; instead, she interprets the role compassionately. The same can be said for Scherfig’s reflective approach to the Isabel Coixet and Walter Salles adaptation of the novel, which comes through as embracing the community’s people instead of simply rejecting the paths they choose toward happiness.
Director: Jason Yu
Cast: Jung Yu-mi, Lee Sun-kyun, Kim Gook-hee
Synopsis: Expectant parents navigate a nightmare scenario when a spouse develops a sleep disorder that may belie a disturbing split personality.
Thoughts: Arriving from South Korea, Sleep preys on our fear of when we are the most vulnerable…as we get our slumber. Filmmakers have been picking at this scratchy blister for decades (hello, Wes Craven!), but writer/director Jason Yu injects a refreshing dose of dread with this finely crafted creep-fest. It was rather appropriate to be screening Sleep at a midnight showing when I should have been in bed, and you better believe that after it was over, I had a hard time closing my eyes long enough to convince my mind there was nothing to be afraid of. Far from your traditional K-horror in that it eschews creating a central figure of terror to thwart, Yu instead builds upon a simple set-up involving historical lore that stretches across borders. When her actor-husband starts to display strange behavior while asleep, a pregnant wife fears for both her safety and the well-being of her unborn child. Enlisting any help she can after her spouse begins to harm himself physically and develops a taste for a midnight snack of raw meat, the wife even resorts to calling in her mom and an eccentric mystic to clear the apartment of any evil presence. Is the affliction something physical or truly supernatural? Does it have anything to do with the loud noises that have annoyed the couple and the downstairs neighbors? Or has something else snuck into their lives, something which arrived undetected and has hidden itself within the husband, waiting for the perfect time to strike? Presented in three chapters, Yu wastes no time raising the hairs on your neck and keeps audiences on red alert until the finale. Where Sleep goes is surprising and scary and indicates the arrival of another auteur with a vision conveyed with decisive precision.
Next Goal Wins
Director: Taika Waititi
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Elisabeth Moss, Oscar Kightley, Uli Latukefu, Rachel House, Kaimana, David Fane, Beulah Koale, Chris Alosio, Taika Waititi, Will Arnett, Rhys Darby
Synopsis: A comedy about the American Samoa soccer team’s attempt to make a World Cup — 12 years after their infamous 31-0 loss in a 2002 World Cup qualifying match.
Thoughts: There’s nothing that a packed theater loves more than getting behind a good underdog. An electric zing rushes over the crowd when our vested interest gets that much closer to success. So, I can understand why the early audiences for Next Goal Wins at the Toronto International Film Festival came out of their screenings buzzing. Much like 1993’s Cool Runnings (which is frequently similar in story and structure), the inspiring tale of American Samoa’s bid to pull itself up from last place in the World Cup rankings deserves its say on film, there’s no doubt about it. Unfortunately, Next Goal Wins is not the movie to do it. I’m pretty sure co-writer/director Taika Waititi’s latest is actively bad for much of its 105 minutes, this despite a last-ditch rally cry that only amounts to a modicum of audience rousing, likely to prepare them with enough energy to gather their belongings and go home. For a movie about community, it’s an isolating experience to sit through. That’s mainly because Waititi doesn’t know how to handle interpersonal drama as well as he does absurd humor. By the time I got around to seeing it on one of the festival’s final days, it was hard to drum up much enthusiasm for such mechanical entertainment.
Director: Thom Zimny
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Frank Stallone, Henry Winkler, Talia Shire, John Herzfeld, Wesley Morris, Quentin Tarantino
Synopsis: The nearly fifty-year prolific career of Sylvester Stallone, who has entertained millions, is seen in retrospective in an intimate look of the actor, writer, and director-producer, paralleling with his inspirational life story.
Thoughts: Ultimately, I find that the point of watching any documentary is to learn something about the subject, and too often, with a look behind the curtain of Hollywood life, it never feels like you’re finding out something authentic. That’s not the case in the new Netflix documentary Sly, which premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. Director Thom Zimny uses a brief 95-minute run time to cover the expected titles of Sylvester Stallone’s career (yes, even Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!) but expends more of its energy in allowing the audience to listen to the man himself tell us about the life he has led until this point. Though I think this could have been longer (hey, Arnold Schwarzenegger, interviewed here waxing poetic about Stallone’s talent, just got a 3-part doc on Netflix!) and explored more of Stallone’s family life, the concise nature of Sly aligns with the man himself.
Dicks: The Musical
Director: Larry Charles
Cast: Aaron Jackson, Josh Sharp, Nathan Lane, Megan Mullally, Megan Thee Stallion, D’Arcy Carden, Nick Offerman, Tom Kenny, Bowen Yang
Synopsis: A pair of business rivals discover that they’re identical twins and decide to swap places in an attempt to trick their divorced parents into getting back together.
Thoughts: Throughout TIFF, all I’d heard about was the epic first screening of Dicks: The Musical. While the reviews of the movie itself were very mixed from the crowd, A24 had sent a live choir into the audience, throwing beach balls and other organ-shaped inflatables into the crowd. No screening could match that burst of energy, but being at the Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award screening, the last screening at TIFF23, was a blast. And you know what? The movie from Borat director Larry Charles (The Dictator) is a rip-roaring riot. Yes, it’s offensive, explicit, raunchy, wrong, cheap-looking, and tacky. It’s also bright, sharp, self-aware, and committed, with songs that have no right to be as tuneful and comedically well-rounded as they are. There’s something to offend everyone in Dicks: The Musical, and if you don’t leave thinking about at least one joke stars/writers Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson should have cut, I’m not sure if the movie has done its job. Like The Book of Mormon (which, like Dicks: The Musical, has surprisingly excellent music) or South Park, the point in offending everyone and not just one group is to illustrate that everyone can be a target, and there is equal opportunity to laugh at obvious jokes that are not meant to be taken seriously.