Film

Dispatch: Early Hits, Misses and Mehs at Toronto Film Festival

In just its first few days, the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival has presented dozens of films to thousands of eager audiences. Some (the movies, that is) have arrived to acclaim and appreciation; others, less so. As just one person, I’ve not been able to see them all since landing in Canada, but I think I’ve made a decent dent, tallying up nine films in just over two days.

Below are a few quick takes on what I’ve been able to catch; watch for full reviews when these films open in theaters in Chicago and you can head out to see them, too. In the meantime, allow me to whet your cinematic appetite.

Waves

Image courtesy of TIFF

Waves

The third feature film from Trey Edward Shults (Krisha, It Comes at Night), Waves quickly became a hot ticket in the first days of the festival, so much so that they added an extra screening just so more people could see it. The film is a whirling, spinning roller coaster of emotion and drama, often literally. Shults and cinematographer Drew Daniels make liberal use of cameras wheeling this way and that to give us a sense of the chaotic, pressure-cooker world inhabited by protagonist Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr), a star wrestler with a promising future. All that comes tumbling down after a series of bad decisions and bursts (waves?) of emotion, and soon Shults has shifted his gaze to Tyler’s sister Emily (Taylor Russell) and her new boyfriend, Luke (Lucas Hedges), as they fall in love and try to move on from all her family has been through. With several moving pieces to manage (their parents, played by Sterling K. Brown and Renee Elise Goldsberry, have their own devastating arc, too), the film never feels overly complicated. And with an ever-growing confidence at the helm, Shults creates a gorgeously inventive film that plays with transitions and aspect ratios and relishes in its exceptional score. (A24 will release Waves in theaters on November 1.)

Blackbird

Image courtesy of TIFF

Blackbird

An English-language remake of 2014’s Silent Heart, Roger Michell (My Cousin Rachel) creates a moving family drama about a matriarch (Susan Sarandon as Lily) with a terminal illness who, with husband Paul (Sam Neill), gathers her family for one final gathering at their secluded seaside home. Grown daughters Jennifer (Kate Winslet) and Anna (Mia Wasikowska), their partners Michael (Rainn Wilson) and Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus), their grandson Jonathan (Anson Boon) and best friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan) come together to honor her wishes, but soon family tensions and secrets bubble up in ways Lily couldn’t have anticipated. With a stacked cast, the film mostly works as a reminder that any family, no matter how picture-perfect, has their issues, even if a few moments don’t ring true in the midst of the larger narrative. (Blackbird does not have a theatrical release date yet.)

My Zoe

Is the world ready for Julie Delpy, sci-fi filmmaker? We shall see, as the French filmmaker’s latest delves squarely into the space of the eerily unbelievable, with a healthy dose of psychological thriller added for good measure. In addition to writing and directing, Delpy also stars in My Zoe as Isabelle, a hard-working immunologist in the throes of a contentious custody battle with ex James (Richard Armitage) over their young daughter, Zoe. Set in Berlin in what appears to be present day, Isabelle and James keep up appearances in front of the adorable Zoe, all positivity and innocence; but really, each stakes their claim on their daughter’s time as they navigate their new reality as single parents. Everything changes when tragedy strikes this broken family; it’s a cryptic description, to be sure, but necessary in order to preserve the narrative left-turns Delpy has embedded in this original and intriguing film. Also starring Daniel Brühl and Gemma Arterton, Delpy is clearly delving deep into her own questions about life, love, loss, parenthood and yes, even science. (My Zoe does not have a theatrical release date yet.)

The Personal History of David Copperfield

Filmmaker Armando Iannucci is best known for his gut-busting (and very vulgar) humor in the likes of In the Loop, “Veep” and last year’s underrated The Death of Stalin. In The Personal History of David Copperfield, a wonderfully whimsical adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel he wrote and directed, Iannucci appears to have tamed his talent for visciously creative, profanity-ridden insults, crafting instead a story of a young man with one very interesting existence. On its surface, there’s no real reason for this film to exist; who is David Copperfield (Dev Patel), and why should we care? There is no quest here, no mission or end goal. We’re simply along for the ride, as young David is banished from home when his mother remarries; when he’s sent to boarding school when his relations in London (including Peter Capaldi) can’t continue to host him; when he loses it all and moves in with his dear aunt (Tilda Swinton) and her slightly crazy lodger (Hugh Laurie); when he lands a job as a proctor, whatever that is. And yet, it’s all recounted with such vivacity and enthusiasm, one can’t quite help but be swept along for the ride. (Fox Searchlight will release The Personal History of David Copperfield in theaters in the fall.)

Hope Gap

Annette Bening is having a bit of a comeback. Or was she ever gone? Either way, her recent turns in the likes of 20th Century Women, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool and the like are strong reminders of what a living legend she is. Such is the case with Hope Gap, a flawed but well-intentioned drama about the dissolution of a marriage. Bening is Grace, married nearly 30 years to Edward (Bill Nighy) with one grown son, Jamie (Josh O’Connor, God’s Own Country), and it’s clear from the start that the spouses are at a divide, unable to communicate and not all that interested in the other. When Edward breaks the news that he’s leaving, writer/director William Nicholson (who based the film on his own experience with his parents’ separation when he was in his late 20s) does something most filmmakers avoid: he stays in the moment. Rather than move on from the actual break and show us what happens next for each of them, Nicholson sets us up in their family kitchen to watch the pieces of this life get dismantled one by one, from the timing of the conversation to the awkward insistence that Jamie play middleman between his parents. Hope Gap is far from a perfect film (sequences with Jamie and his friends back in London fall horribly flat), but gets an A for effort in my book. (Screen Media Films will release Hope Gap in the US in the coming months.)

Pain and Glory

Image courtesy of TIFF

Pain and Glory

Though it originally premiered at Cannes back in May and has been released theatrically in Spain and elsewhere, Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory arrives in North America to take your breath away. Part memoir, part masterpiece, Antonio Banderas delivers the best work of his career—measured, vulnerable, resonant—as Salvador, a stand in for the filmmaker, exploring his relationship with his mother (played in flashbacks by Penelope Cruz), his first true love, and his long career in filmmaking. When a local cinematheque asks him to screen the fictional Sabor, that first film, as part of a retrospective, a whole host of memories and emotions are stirred up, including his strained relationship with the film’s star. As the two reunite in a cautious if familiar friendship, Salvador navigates his chronic pain and health issues, a budding drug addiction and his own unresolved memories of his mother and his childhood in poverty. Nostalgia can all too easily warp into self-indulgence; in Almodóvar’s more than capable hands, it is simply sublime. (Sony Pictures Classics will release Pain and Glory in theaters on October 4.)

Radioactive

A couple of years ago, I spent a long week in Paris, exploring more of the city than I ever had before; I even wandered through the Panthéon, a massive structure in the city’s Latin Quarter. Once a church, it’s now a massive mausoleum, where France’s most notable citizens are interred, including the famous scientist Marie Curie, and her husband, Pierre. On the day I visited, notes and flowers adorned her tomb, notes of thanks from girls studying science, notes of wonder and awe at all she’d accomplished. Though it will cost more than a movie ticket, that trip may be a better tribute to Madame Curie and her work than Radioactive, a narrative so oversimplified it’s nearly offensive. Written by Jack Thorne from a graphic novel (!) by Lauren Redniss, Marjane Satrapi directs Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) in this polished period piece that doesn’t trust its audience enough to know the Curies’ legacy even today, that their discovery of radium and polonium would have lasting (and quite detrimental) effects on generations. Pike succeeds (as always), and the early descriptions of the Curies’ work is intriguing, but the film overall is a ghastly consolidation of the life of a woman who deserves much more. (Amazon Studios will open Radioactive in 2020.)

Seberg

Image courtesy of TIFF

Seberg

Having matured as an actor quite significantly since her Twilight days, Kristen Stewart is enjoying a prime moment in her career, with projects like Personal Shopper serving as vehicles for her considerable talent. She does similarly well in Seberg as the film’s title character, Jean Seberg, the American actress who, by the late 1960s was being targeted by the FBI for her involvement with civil rights causes and activist groups like the Black Panthers. Unfortunately, the film cannot live up to Stewart’s standards, as it meanders through far too many plotlines, never quite capable of deciding which one it’s most interested in. Is this the story of Jean Seberg, the actress haunted by her traumatic experiences on set with Otto Preminger and searching for love and meaning wherever she can find it? Is it the story of a single-minded, wrong-headed government intelligence organization that goes to great (and illegal) lengths to prove its case? Is it the story of a movement that would forever reshape the fabric of the country through protest, legislation and violence? Yes. Or something. (Amazon Studios will open Seberg in theaters in the coming months.)

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