Sunday, September 16, 2018

My TIFF 18 Film Reviews - The Oscar Race

As readers of this blog know, I attend the Toronto International Film Festival annually each September, hoping to see some of the best movie releases coming up for Oscar season and beyond.  I did not see the audience winner, Green Book but a friend saw it and loved it. This year, I was able to see 12 feature films and two documentaries over the course of a week, out of 342 total entries! 

In its commitment to gender equality, TIFF boasted that over a third of the festival entries were directed or co-directed by women (I saw three films directed by women here). Below are the films in the order in which I viewed them and my rating on a scale of 1 to 5 and the release date, if known.  A few of them are already in theaters.

Beautiful Boy – Based on a true story of how addiction impacts a family, particularly the father/son bond, this film directed by Felix Von Groeningen featured very strong performances from Steve Carell as David Sheff and Timothee Chalamet as his meth addicted son, Nic. 

The film is beautifully shot although the story does get a bit repetitive as Nic goes to rehab to get sober and falls off the wagon.  Maura Tierney is also strong in a supporting role as David’s wife and Nic’s stepmom. I also enjoyed the soundtrack which featured everything from David Bowie to Sigur Ros to Perry Como.  The post film Q&A was particularly moving since the real-life father and son were there to give their stamp of approval.  Chalamet will most likely get a Best Supporting Actor nod.  There were a few other addiction themed movies at the festival such as Ben is Back (which I did not see). 4/5 Release date: 10/12/18

Gloria Bell – At Newark airport, I spotted Julianne Moore and John Turturro boarding the flight before mine to Toronto.  I took that as a good sign that I would enjoy their film, Gloria Bell. Directed by Sebastian Lelio, this is an English language remake of his Spanish language 2013 film, Gloria.  Moore plays a 50-something divorcee with two grown children, who works at an insurance company in LA by day and goes looking for love at night.  Eventually she meets the divorced Arnold (Turturro) and starts a relationship with him full of ups and downs, mostly because he can’t seem to extricate himself from his needy ex-wife and two grown daughters who haven’t left the nest. 

The film has a great supporting cast, including a scene stealing Brad Garrett as Gloria’s ex, Rita Wilson as one of her friends and the always stellar Holland Taylor as her mom.  The mostly late 70s and early 80s soundtrack is used to great effect, including Laura Branigan’s “Gloria,” which plays over the credits.  Oscar winner Moore should get a best actress nod since she inhabits the title role perfectly.  Turturro may get a nod as well for supporting actor. (4.5/5)

This Changes Everything – This timely documentary (not to be confused with Naomi Klein’s 2015 doc about climate change) about female representation in Hollywood was co-produced by Geena Davis and directed by Tom Donahue.  Donahue has made another behind the scenes documentary called Casting By about unsung female casting directors.  

Plenty of A-list names populate the film including Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Shonda Rhimes and Reese Witherspoon, among others.  But the film belongs to the women behind the camera, the directors, writers and crew who struggle to make a sustainable living doing what they love due to systemic sexism.  (4.5/5)

Fahrenheit 11/9 – Michael Moore’s latest documentary purports to examine how Trump got elected in 2016, but mostly focuses on the Flint water crisis and the corrupt culture of politics.  He also criticizes the democratic party including former President Obama (in a shocking clip of him trying to downplay the crisis by drinking a glass of Flint water at an event) and profiles some up and coming Democratic candidates, including the Bronx’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who is running for Congress.  He is most provocative when comparing Trump to Hitler, using footage of Hitler at a rally using Trump’s voiceover.  

I felt the film was most effective examining the corruption behind the water crisis and the coverup that impacted thousands of children growing up in Flint, Moore’s hometown.  While the subject matter is all over the place, this documentary hammers home the message that people must turn out and vote in the upcoming midterms. (3.5/5) Release date: 9/21/18

The Black Book – A period piece by Chilean director Valeria Sarmiento, this French language film takes place in the late 18th century and centers on the relationship between an Italian nurse named Laura (Lou de Laâge) and her orphaned charge, Sebastian.  There are many dramatic turns that result in the two being separated with Laura spending much of the film trying to track him down as he grows into a young man.  While beautifully shot with gorgeous scenery and costumes, the story ends abruptly and melodramatically. (3/5)

Where Hands Touch – At 2016’s TIFF, I saw British director Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom about an interracial love story between a Southern African king and his wife.  I enjoyed the film even though some of the story was cliched.  Asante carries the interracial love story theme in this film about the little-known Rhineland bastards, who were born when French soldiers of African descent occupied Germany post WWI.

This fictionalized story revolves around Leyna (rising star Amandla Stenberg), a bi-racial 17-year old who lives with her Aryan mother (Abbie Cornish) and younger brother during the last years of WWII.  Leyna tries to fit in as a good German girl but her appearance makes her a target.  She meets young Nazi Lutz (George McKay) and they fall in love.  Then all hell breaks loose when Leyna finds herself pregnant, separated from her family and sent to a labor camp, where all sorts of horrors abound (and has been done before in Holocaust era films).  Somehow Lutz winds up at the camp and uses his influence to help her survive.

While the performances are strong, particularly from Stenberg who transforms from an innocent girl to mom-to-be trying to survive, the story is melodramatic and manipulative.  The subject matter deserved more. (3/5) Release date: 9/14/18

Greta – Many at TIFF felt this would be more at home in its Midnight Madness line-up of horror films.  I probably wouldn’t have seen it if it were, so I’m glad it was placed in the Special Presentations category. Directed by Ireland’s Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), this twisted tale stars French legend Isabel Huppert in the title role as a lonely widow who befriends naïve young waitress Frankie (Chloe Grace Moretz). Frankie finds an expensive purse on the subway and returns it to Greta.  At first their relationship seems innocent and only Frankie’s roommate Erica, (scene stealer Maika Monroe) is suspicious.

Filmed in Dublin and Toronto, although set in Manhattan and Brooklyn (I could tell it was not shot in my home city), this is a fun and twisted tale of obsession, stalking and murder.  Jordan takes many horror clichés and turns them on their ear, but the main fun is watching Huppert descent into madness.  It’s also a very female centered film with just two males in supporting roles (Frankie’s estranged dad and Stephen Rea shows up as a private detective trying to find Frankie when she goes missing).  This also was one of the few films at TIFF to strike a deal, with Focus Features snapping it up for $6 million. (4/5)

Clara – This debut Canadian feature from Toronto native Akash Sherman is an ambitious tale of Isaac (Patrick J. Adams), an astronomy professor with a messy personal life who is obsessed with finding life on other planets.  After misusing university equipment, he loses his job but continues his quest.  He winds up hiring Clara (Troian Bellasario), an artist and world traveler with a secret illiness, to help him analyze data and look for patterns that could prove life exists on other planets. 

While the film creates a mood and the real-life husband and wife leads are convincing in their roles, I felt that the role of Clara herself never materialized as a full flesh and blood character.  She’s more of the manic-pixie-dream girl trope who serves as a muse to Issac.  I also enjoyed Blindspot’s Ennis Esmer as the comic relief best friend to Issac’s moodiness.  Still, as a debut filmmaker, Sherman shows promise and I’d be interested in seeing what he comes up with next. (3.5/5)

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan – Directed by Canadian Xavier Dolan in his English language debut, this film apparently was in editing for two years and excised a character played by Jessica Chastain. (I wonder if it would’ve been better to leave her in) Semi-autobiographical, the story follows young Rupert (Jacob Tremblay) who starts a correspondence with a TV actor, John Donovan (Kit Harington).  Shown in flashback, the adult Rupert (Ben Schnetzer) is being interviewed by Audrey (Thandie Newton) to promote a book he’s written about the letters.

The film has a great all-star cast including Susan Sarandon as John’s mother and Natalie Portman (in a ugly wig) as Rupert’s.  I also enjoyed seeing Canadian actors such as Emily Hampshire (Schitts’ Creek) as John’s beard/wife and Sarah Gadon (Alias Grace) as a vacuous actress.

The film tries to say a lot about mothers and sons, closeted sexuality and fame, but never quite gels as a story or has much impact.  It also overuses songs to create emotion such as “Stand by Me,” “Rolling in the Deep,” and “Bittersweet Symphony” in cloying ways. (2.5/5)

Colette – Directed by Brit Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice), Colette is a biopic of French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) who marries Willy (Dominic West), a Parisian book publisher. Willy discovers his wife’s writing talent and she eventually writes a series of books about the fictional Claudine, although they are based on her life experience.  Colette is not given credit for her writing even when Claudine becomes the toast of Paris as a lifestyle brand and popular among young women, who were not considered a viable market.

Knightley is perfect in the role as she navigates from a pig-tailed country girl in love with her new husband to a sophisticated woman exploring her sexuality with both sexes and a transgender man, Missy (Denise Gough).  West is charming and three dimensional as the roguish Willy, and makes you almost sympathize with him as he locks Colette in a room so she can write to make him money.

Beautifully shot, the film may get a nomination for Knightley for Best Actress but we’ll see how the Oscar race goes.  (4.5/5) Release date: 9/21/18

Roma – Directed by Mexican Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) and shot in black and white, this film is set in Mexico City during the early 1970's about an upper middle-class family and their housekeeper/nanny, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).  Roma is the neighborhood where they live and also a laundry soap brand used in the film.  Not a lot happens until young Cleo gets pregnant and both she and her employer Sofia (Marina de Tavira) are abandoned by the fathers of their children.  There are a lot of heartbreaking as well as beautiful images in the film that will stay with you long after you watch this masterpiece. 

Roma has already won the top prize at the Venice Film festival and critics are rapturous.  I hope it finds an audience when released, despite having no famous stars, is shot in black and white and has subtitles. Netflix is the distributor, but it’s best seen in a theater with surround sound. (5/5) Release date: 12/14/18

First Man – Starring Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong, who was the “first man” on the moon, this somber film explores the human cost of the race to the moon during the 1960s.  Directed by Damian Chazelle (LaLa Land), this is an intense film from start to finish with claustrophobic shots of being inside space vehicles.  Gosling and Claire Foy, as his wife Janet, are both excellent as well as the supporting cast including Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Ethan Embry.

There has been some controversy that Chazelle decided not to show Armstrong planting the American flag (although it is shown as being planted) on the moon.  His reason is that it’s more about the human achievement and not one country. It didn’t bother me but others may disagree.

Either way, it shouldn’t detract audiences from seeing it and I predict lots of Oscar nods for this one including Best Actor (Gosling), Best Supporting Actress (Foy), Best Director (Chazelle), Picture and some technical awards. (4/5) Release date: 10/12/18

Museo/Museum – For the past few years, I have seen at least one film starring Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal at TIFF.  This year he had three, and I saw two of them (the other being The Kindergarten Teacher).  Museum is based on a true story of a heist of indigenous artifacts from the National Museum of Anthropology in the 1980s. 

As directed by Alonso Ruizpalacios, Bernal plays Juan, a man in his 30s living at home with his large extended family, who is studying to be a veterinarian.  He also works at the museum photographing artifacts to supplement his income, until he decides to rob it over Christmas break when it is closed for repairs.  He recruits his best friend from childhood, Benjamin (Leonardo Ortizgris) to help him and they succeed. Trying to fence the priceless artifacts proves to be a challenge and the remainder of the film sends the two friends on a road trip full of twists and turns. 

I enjoyed Museum and while I’ll never fully understand Juan’s motivation for the heist, Bernal makes him a fascinating and unpredictable character. (4/5) Release Date: 9/14/18

The Kindergarten Teacher – As I mentioned above, Gael Garcia Bernal is in this film but in a supporting role as a poetry teacher.  The film belongs to Maggie Gyllenhaal who plays the title character of Lisa, a restless Staten Island teacher who fancies herself an artist who wants to create poetry.  While married with two teen-aged children, Lisa is frustrated that her children are not interested in creative pursuits.

Instead, she discovers that one of her pint-sized students, Jimmy (Parker Sevak) is a poet, almost savant like in his recitations. Her drive to get his poetry heard includes plagiarizing them in her poetry class and then ultimately taking Jimmy in Manhattan to recite at a hipster poetry reading.  She does a lot of shady and questionable things to nurture his talent. Based on an Israeli film from 2014, director Sara Colangelo holds a steady hand over the proceedings even as Gyllenhaal's Lisa loses perspective.  

I found the film watchable and compelling but the abrupt ending was unsatisfying and unclear in what she was trying to say about the pursuit of creativity.  Gyllenhaal may get an Oscar nod for Best Actress but I don’t see the rest of the film getting recognition.  (3.5/5) Release Date: 10/12/18.

I'd love to know your thoughts below or reach out to me on Twitter @nydigitalmarket.

Andrea Goldstein is a digital marketing
professional with a passion for business and pop culture.
@nydigitalmarket on Twitter

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