Positioned as it is in early September, the Toronto International Film Festival has long been a first stop for films destined for Oscar glory by the end of any given year. What’s more, as it happens just a few weeks before Chicago’s own annual international film festival, it’s often a first chance to see a few films that will soon make the quick trip southeast to screen locally.
In the first of two dispatches from Toronto, we review a diverse selection of titles that gives a taste of the festival’s overall offerings. Some 300 films screen over the two-week festival, from gala premieres to debut short films from emerging voices. A few of them prove to be home runs. Others…less so.
A Star Is Born
Easily the most buzzed-about film out of Canada this week is Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, a new version of the classic story of an entertainment vet, a budding starlet and how their paths cross—and diverge. Starring Lady Gaga (also making her own debut, on screen) as Ally, a cocktail waitress turned superstar, and Cooper as Jackson Maine, the alcoholic rocker in decline who discovers her, it’s an accomplishment worth every single bit of praise it’s received. While ushering the story into contemporary times, Cooper and team have maintained—to heart-wrenching effect—its timeless themes of ego, insecurity, power and love. It doesn’t hurt that Gaga simply devours (in the best way) every single scene; time will tell if she’s An Actress or if she simply found the perfect role here. But that doesn’t really matter in the end, as the film more than delivers on every count, from the soundtrack (I admit, I’ll be queuing it up when it hits Spotify) to the solid emotional notes Cooper’s script elicits at every major plot point. If there’s any criticism to be had, it’s that the film, other versions of which have run as long as 189 minutes, is too short (it comes in at a healthy 135), as a few pivotal moments are deprived of the chance to fully develop their potential impact. A Star is Born opens in Chicago on Friday, October 5.
White Boy Rick
Matthew McConaughey is one of those performers who’s so famous it’s easy to forget that, between the red carpets and magazine covers, the guy can actually act. And it’s his multi-layered performance in the true story of a teenage FBI informant turned big-time hustler (McConaughey plays Rick Sr. to Richie Merritt’s Rick of the title) that carries a movie with much more depth than the marketing materials would have you believe. What’s being positioned in trailers as a latest entry to the gangster drama (Goodfellas, Scarface), this gritty Detroit story of poverty, crime and hustle is actually a thoughtful and at times touching examination of family and a stark commentary on the country’s broken justice system. Rick’s story, which includes helping with his dad’s illegal gun sales, informing on local drug rings in his neighborhood, becoming a dealer in his own right and eventually being abandoned by the same agencies that recruited him years before, is nearly unbelievable until one remembers the countless stories like his of overly aggressive incarceration, racism in policing and other injustices. Come for the gold chains and gun battles, stay for the social justice call to action. White Boy Rick opens in Chicago on September 14
In 2000, the Russian Navy sent a fleet of ships, including the Kursk, a submarine stocked to the hilt with torpedos and weaponry, out to sea for practice military exercises. One of the torpedos on board over-heated, blowing up the rear half of the submersible and stranding a couple dozen seamen on the ocean floor, helpless. Thomas Vintergerg’s (The Hunt, Far From the Madding Crowd) deeply moving narrative about the incident and what happened in the following days is a gorgeously filmed drama that weaves together the fumbled response by the Russian government, the frustration and fury of the wives on shore and of course, the heartbreaking efforts of the men on board to survive. Though it’s a bit odd to watch a film about Russians delivered entirely in English, it’s an understandable device to get the film to a wider Western audience. And the likes of Mathias Schoenaerts (The Danish Girl, A Bigger Splash), Léa Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) and Colin Firth delivering performances you’ll feel in your gut have you quickly forgetting this mechanism anyway. Kursk does not have a Chicago opening date yet
In the 13 years since it’s been released, Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, starring Keira Knightly as Elizabeth Bennett, has become a bit of a new classic, a period piece that holds its own among its ilk, including Emma Thompson’s other Austen adaptation, Sense & Sensibility. Such a long shelf life will not be the legacy of Knightly’s latest turn-of-the-century drama, Colette. Knightly stars as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, wife of a writer who spends more of his time supervising a team of authors than doing any writing himself. When Colette hands over a novel based on her childhood and he publishes it under his name, the book and the author quickly become the toast of Paris, its true writer left in the shadows. Filmmaker Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice), working from a script he co-wrote with Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, chronicles the true story of Colette’s journey from a dowry-less farm girl to celebrated author with just serviceable attention to detail and a bit too much of a male gaze. In life, Colette was a bohemian artist of the freest sort; she loved men and women, she divorced and made a living on her own, she went on to write dozens of books in her own name. It’s a shame the film version opted to be more titillating and overdramatic than to serve as a champion for an early French feminist. Colette opens in Chicago on September 28
Ulysses & Mona
French filmmaker Sébastian Betbeder doesn’t have a long resume, but what he does make—always intimate, often funny, and reliably interesting—is usually worth seeking out. Nights with Theodore was a swirling, youthful adventure through Paris at night; 2 Autumns, 3 Winters followed a couple through a relationship’s ups, downs and everything in between over the course of several seasons. And his latest, Uylsses & Mona, sits comfortably among these earlier offerings, a small but never insignificant observation of an artist past his prime, an art student with enthusiasm to spare, and the decisions we make when there might not be much time left to make them. There isn’t much of a why here—why this character, why this meet-cute, why this ending—but Betbeder doesn’t appear to be concerned much with explaining himself. Sometimes, a visit to the cinema need not be more than simply bearing witness to a moment in a life and the intangibles it leaves us considering as the credits roll. Ulysses & Mona does not have a Chicago opening date yet
Several actors popped up in more than one film at this year’s TIFF, from newcomer Lucas Hedges (who may take the cake with no fewer than three films) to America’s Sweetheart Julia Roberts. Jamie Bell, who is apparently still trying to get us to forget that he broke onto the scene as the titular role in the Irish ballet drama Billy Elliot, appears in two as well: Skin, the story of a white supremacist who turns his life around; and Donnybrook, about an ex-Marine trying to raise a family out of a trailer in a meth-filled backwoods. Nearby, there’s an off-the-books death match of sorts where burly men with too much testosterone and something to prove fight to the death for a $100,000 cash prize. Unfortunately, filmmaker Tim Sutton (Memphis, Dark Night) gets too caught up in trying to make his film moody and artful to deliver a script with any kind of momentum. There’s something about a dealer and his sister hell-bent on tracking down Bell’s Earl, and something about a cop battling his own demons who’s going after the dealer, but all this gets lost in a choppy story and editing that’s too fancy for its own good. If you’re going for a dark human story of poverty, addiction and fighting back, you’re better off watching Winter’s Bone. Donnybrook does not have a Chicago opening date yet.
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