September 14, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto 2014 Mini-Reviews


As has been generally reported, this year’s Toronto Film Festival wasn’t a dominant one, lacking the kind of overwhelming favorites that The King’s Speech and Argo have been in recent years.  Some potentially major upcoming films chose to screen at other festivals (Birdman at Venice, Gone Girl and Inherent Vice in New York), while others (Unbroken, Big Eyes, American Sniper, Selma) said thanks but no thanks to the festival circuit in general.

For me, 28 films in 7 days wasn’t a personal record, but a good haul nonetheless.  I got to just about everything I set out to see, the conspicuous exception being Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, for which I had a ticket that had to be dumped when the fourth movie listed below suddenly became the festival phenomenon.

The titles below are in a rough order of personal preference, although the distances between each of them vary.  US distributors and opening dates are listed where applicable:

THE IMITATION GAME (Weinstein – November 21):  Festival season is the traditional coming-out party for awards contenders, and Morten Tyldum’s biography of Alan Turing, from a crack script by Graham Moore, will certainly be in the thick of that discussion–especially since the film just collected Toronto’s People’s Choice Award, which has previously gone to, among others, 12 Years A Slave, The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire.  Benedict Cumberbatch’s dazzling portrayal of Turing is admirably different from his Sherlock Holmes despite the characters’ shared brilliance and lack of social skills.  Moore’s script cuts effectively between the thriller-like effort of Turing and his team of mathematicians and cryptologists to break the German Enigma code during World War II, inventing the world’s first real computer along the way, and Turing’s personal crises earlier and later in his life.   The superb supporting cast is led by Keira Knightley as Turing’s closest associate, along with Matthew Goode, Mark Strong and Charles Dance.

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (Focus/Universal – November 7):  Another British genius, and another strong biography.  All of the rules of “Oscar bait” suggest that Eddie Redmayne, playing Stephen Hawking, is instantly at the top of the year’s Best Actor candidates, as he not only gives a memorable, complex performance in general, but convincingly captures the physicality of Hawking’s gradual decline due to motor neuron disease, along with his enduring will to continue his investigation of the foundations of the universe.  Anthony McCarten’s script isn’t a mere chronicle of illness and science, but also the story of a full yet difficult marriage, with Felicity Jones as Hawking’s wife and chief caretaker.  Director James Marsh started as a documentarian, and Theory feels scrupulously real, rarely falling into illness-movie cliches.

WILD (Fox Searchlight – December 5):  After years of languishing in mediocre rom-coms, Reese Witherspoon gives Wild her all, and deserves to be penciled in as yet another Oscar frontrunner.   (Director Jean-Marc Valee was behind the camera for last year’s Dallas Buyers Club, so he knows something about getting performers to the Dolby Theater podium.)  Much of the story features Witherspoon virtually solo; she plays Cheryl Strayed in the film version of Strayed’s best-selling memoir, about her journey along the Pacific Coast on foot, and gradually out of a dark hole of drug use and despair.  Laura Dern is Witherspoon’s match as her mother, the key person in her life.  Nick Hornby wrote the artfully structured, unsentimental script, which permits Witherspoon to do tour de force work without the result feeling like a stunt, and the film is beautifully photographed and scored as well.

TOP FIVE (Paramount – no release date yet):  Chris Rock’s third movie as a writer/director/star swamped every other acquisition title at the festival and sold for $12.5M + a $20M marketing commitment.  It largely lives up to the hype, and plays as part Woody Allen, part Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, yet with a tone and humor that are all Rock’s.  He plays a former comedy franchise star who’s trying to be taken seriously as an dramatic actor while also preparing to marry a reality-TV star, and who agrees to be trailed throughout his new movie’s opening day and night by NY Times reporter Rosario Dawson.  The chemistry between the two is strong, and the script (despite some extreme plot contrivances) is both hilarious and unexpectedly trenchant, and more carefully constructed than it may at first seem.  The movie practically bursts at the seams with first-rate cameo performers, all of whom are used well by Rock.  Overall, it marks the first time his remarkable stand-up persona has successfully translated to the big screen.

THE LAST 5 YEARS (Radius/Weinstein – no release date yet):  A must-see for musical devotees (and possibly hell on earth for those who aren’t), because while the production values in Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s Off-Broadway show may be rudimentary, the movie is purely and simply a record of the wildly talented Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan singing Brown’s gorgeous songs.  LaGravenese has retained the structure of alternating solos by a wife (singing from the end of her marriage backwards to the happy start) and husband (singing in the opposite chronology), but has added enough interaction between the couple so that the film feels like a real movie rather than a filmed concert.  The score and performances are ideally matched, and that will be enough for its sure-to-be niche audience.

99 HOMES (no distrib): Ramin Bahrani (from a script he wrote with Amin Naderi) has tackled that part of the housing crisis no one really wants to see or even think about, other than in the abstract–the miserable plight of those who’ve lost their homes and their livelihoods–but he’s found such a dynamic angle for the narrative that for much of its length, it’s at least as gripping as it is depressing.  Andrew Garfield, eons away from swinging on CG webs, plays the everyman who loses his family home, but then finds a way to get it back by working for Michael Shannon’s amoral, utterly pragmatic realtor.  The script is a ruthless parable about getting ahead in contemporary America, and until it loses its nerve at the very end, it has an edge reminiscent of Mamet–back when that meant something.

NIGHTCRAWLER (Open Road – October 31): Jake Gyllenhaal has seemed determined to scrub the wholesomeness from his screen image over the past few years, and he achieves serious creep-hood in Dan Gilroy’s directing debut.  Gyllenhaal plays an ambitious, driven sociopath who finds his vocation in supplying raw news footage to local LA TV stations, grabbing the first and most violent shots of accidents and crimes.  Ultimately, he discovers the best way to get the job done is by manipulation–and worse.  Gilroy clearly means the material to be an allegory about capitalism and tabloid culture, and because of that, Gyllenhaal’s character is somewhat one-dimensional and surrounded by patsies.  Still, the unsparing lead performance, the movie’s harrowing tone and Robert Elswit’s elegant nighttime LA photography stay with you.

ST. VINCENT (Weinstein – October 10): Bill Murray has mastered the art of the reluctant hero, both as a character and as an actor, so that just getting him to appear in a film has come to feel like a feat.  First time writer/director Theodore Melfi pulled it off with this funny, sentimental mix of As Good As It Gets, Up and About A Boy.  Murray is a grumpy, heavy-drinking, gambling Brooklynite with a pregnant Russian hooker girlfriend (played, surprisingly enough, by Naomi Watts), who becomes the inappropriate caretaker of the new kid next door (talented newcomer Jaeden Lieberher) whose single mom (Melissa McCarthy) has to leave him alone while she works long hours.  The plotting and character arcs are predictable (yes, both boy and man become better people as a result of being in each others’ lives), but Murray puts on a gloriously messy show, and the supporting cast is right there with him.  Any movie that provides copious laughs plus a late-inning lump in the throat is going to sell tickets, and with Harvey Weinstein pushing it along, Murray could at least get his foot into the door of the very crowded Best Actor race.

THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU (Warners – September 19):  An even slicker mix of dysfunctional family comedy and drama, Shawn Levy’s film of Jonathan Tropper’s novel (Tropper wrote the script) is about a (barely) Jewish family forced to spend a week together sitting shiva after their father dies.  Levy, delving into light drama for the first time after a highly successful comedy franchise career, has a deft touch, and Tropper’s script, while superficial, gives everyone in the amazing cast (Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll and Adam Driver are the siblings, Jane Fonda is their mom, Rose Byrne, Connie Britton, Kathryn Hahn, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard and Abigail Spencer are people in their lives) strong laughs and moments of gravity.  It’s the movie this fall most likely to be recommended by parents to their adult children and vice versa.

ROSEWATER (Open Road – November 7): Jon Stewart’s feature film writing/directing debut has its moments of dark humor, but mostly it’s the spare, focused real-life story of Maziar Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal), an Iranian journalist arrested for being an American spy–in part because of his appearance as a guest on The Daily Show.  Much of the film details the interrogations that Bahari underwent, which involved a more subtle form of mind control and intimidation than we’re used to seeing in stories like this.  The acting is first-rate, and Stewart’s script is unfailingly intelligent, although the film may be a bit too determinedly small-scale to compete with some of the other true-life stories arriving over the next few months.

STILL ALICE (Sony Classics – no release date yet):  Julianne Moore is on just about every short list of performers who are due for an Academy Award, and although she’ll face heavy competition from Reese Witherspoon to name just one, Sony Classics has made it clear that they plan a major campaign for her.  She’s superb in a classic Oscar bait part, adapted from Lisa Genova’s bestselling novel by director/screenwriters Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, playing a brilliant linguistics professor who at the age of 50 discovers that she has early onset Alzheimer’s Disease.  Although Moore’s role lacks the showy physical transformation that Eddie Redmayne boasts in The Theory of Everything, she does a harrowing job of capturing the step-by-step feel of one’s mind slipping away.  The movie itself is perceptive but not particularly special as a piece of filmmaking, but the directors pull fine performances out of everyone in the A-level cast, which includes Alec Baldwin as Moore’s husband, and Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish as their children.  (It’s cynical to note this, but no doubt the film’s Oscar campaign will make heavy use of the fact that Glatzer has himself been diagnosed with ALS, and was only able to communicate with the cast on set through an iPad-synthesized voice app.)

THE DROP (Fox Searchlight – September 12):  Dennis Lehane’s writing has proven itself exceptionally adaptable to film, and while The Drop doesn’t have the impact of Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone or Shelter Island (it’s based, by Lehane himself, on one of his short stories rather than a novel), it still packs a punch.  That’s due to Lehane’s cunning plotting, which features a solid third-act twist, the atmospheric direction by Michael R. Roskam, and especially its cast, led by Tom Hardy as a Brooklyn bartender trying to live a simple life while working in a low-rent bar used by the mob to clean its cash, and by James Gandolfini as his boss.  As good as Gandolfini was in last year’s Enough Said, there’s an undeniable extra shot of pleasure and sadness in watching him play a gangster, even a lower-echelon one, one last time.

THE JUDGE (Warners – October 10):  Robert Downey, Jr finally breaks out of franchise-movie mode and exercises some of his non-superhero acting muscles, although this blend of sub-John Grisham courtroom drama with The Great Santini doesn’t bring him anywhere close to what used to be his best.  David Dobkin’s glossy melodrama features Downey as a slick Chicago defense attorney with daddy issues who has to return to his smalltown home and defend his stern, uncompromising jurist father (Robert Duvall), when Dad is accused of an intentional hit-and-run killing.  Do father and son spend the opening half antagonizing one another, only to hash things out and see their relationship gradually soften into mutual respect and affection?  Well, yeah, pretty much.  Still, the script by Nick Schenck and Bill Dubuque is absorbing enough, even with a 140-minute running time, and Downey and Duvall don’t take a wrong step in their pas de deux.  Having actors like Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton and Vincent D’Onofrio in small roles that are barely worthy of their talents doesn’t hurt, either.

ELECTRIC BOOGALOO:  The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (no distrib):  You may need to be a particular kind of movie geek to remember Cannon Films with affection.  It was a crazy film factory, run by Israeli cousins Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus, that churned out an incredible tonnage of unapologetic crap during the 1980s, from Charles Bronson vehicles (including multiple and increasingly insane sequels to Death Wish) and Chuck Norris epics, to Sahara, Masters of the Universe and Superman 4: The Quest for Peace, to Breakin’ and its sequel (with occasional forays into respectability like Barfly and Jean-Luc Godard’s disastrous King Lear).  It’s the Breakin’ sequel that gives Mark Hartley’s documentary its title, and he’s delivered a loving but clear-eyed valentine to the kind of madmen producers that just don’t exist in this more corporate age of movie finance.

CAKE (no distrib): Jennifer Aniston in Very Serious Movie mode, resolutely de-glammed by director Daniel Barnz.  She plays a woman whose chronic pain after a serious accident is the least of her problems; heavily dosed on antidepressants and alcohol, she hasn’t recovered from a tragedy in her life, and she viciously brushes away anyone trying to help her.  There’s nothing at all wrong with Aniston’s nuanced, committed performance, or with the supporting work by Chris Messina, Sam Worthington, Anna Kendrick, William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman and especially Adriana Barraza as Aniston’s concerned maid, but Patrick Tobin’s script feels forced as it carries Aniston’s character through the usual redemption arc via an obsession with the suicide of someone else in her pain management therapy group and too many mystical hallucinations.

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (IFC – no release date yet):  The French writer/director Olivier Assayas has given us one of the truly great films of the 21st century with Carlos and also the disaster Demonlover, with Clouds of Sils Maria somewhere in between.  Assayas seems to be trying too hard this time, loading his film with so many references to art-house classics like Persona, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and L’Avventura, not to mention strained metaphors about that Swiss cloud phenomenon of the title, that it barely has room to breathe.  Nevertheless, Juliette Binoche, as an aging movie star preparing to return to the play that started her career but this time playing the older role, and Kristen Stewart, as her personal assistant, do extraordinary work (much of the film is simply the two of them together), and until it becomes clear that Assayas hasn’t figured out how to make it all pay off, there are more than a few remarkable moments.

2 DAYS, 1 NIGHT (IFC – no release date yet):  Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are Cannes darlings who specialize in small, naturalistic stories with larger moral implications like Rosetta, The Son and The Kid With a Bike.  Unusually for them, 2 Days, 1 Night has a movie star in the lead, with Marion Cotillard starring as a factory worker ready to return to her job after a bout with depression, but who will be laid off unless she can convince the other employees in her department to voluntarily give up their bonuses in order to cover her salary.  There’s a repetitiveness to the episodic structure (Cotillard’s character spends the weekend visiting one co-worker after another, asking for their votes) and the result doesn’t have the transcendent power of the Dardennes’ best work, but it’s still compelling and often moving, and Cotillard effortlessly blends into the film’s tiny-budgeted aesthetic.

MAPS TO THE STARS (Focus World/Universal – no release date yet):  David Cronenberg’s black tabloid comedy about Hollywood, from a script by Bruce Wagner (a specialist in that subgenre), is certainly better than last year’s terminally pretentious Cosmopolis, although that’s not saying much.  Julianne Moore (again) seems to be having a high old time as a fading mid-level actress determined to remake one of her movie star mother’s hits while also being visited by her ghost, and Mia Wasikowska is her new assistant, a burn victim who wears elbow-length gloves to cover her scars and who has an initially mysterious tie to an obnoxious Justin Bieber-ish teen movie star (Evan Bird) with disturbing parents (John Cusack and Olivia Williams).  Perhaps we’re just all too jaded these days, but as hard as Cronenberg and Wagner try to shock us, Maps is rarely as funny or as disconcerting as they mean it to be, although a delirious scene where Moore celebrates after a terrible tragedy has won her the role she wants provides a hint of the movie that could have been.

FOXCATCHER (Sony Classics – November 14):  Probably the biggest disappointment of the festival, considering its auspices and the praise it won in Cannes, where it won the Best Director award for Bennett Miller.  Whatever its flaws, it’s a critical favorite and may well be part of the Oscar conversation, especially for its cast, led by an almost unrecognizable Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo.  Extremely high-toned, ponderously slow and (deliberately) photographed in shades of gray, it tells the very strange true story of super-wealthy John DuPont (Carell), whose obsession with the US Olympic wrestling team, and particularly wrestler Mark Schultz (Tatum) and Mark’s coach brother Dave (Ruffalo), led to an explosion of violence.  The script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman has plenty of intriguing details, but played out over 130 seemingly endless minutes, it’s all portent and implication, and little narrative satisfaction.  There’s no question that Miller has made the film he wanted to make; the number of non-critics who’ll want to watch it, though, is less clear.  Carell, however, definitely proves himself able to move beyond the lovable goofball persona we’ve all come to know.

THE HUMBLING (no distrib):  Barry Levinson’s film of Philip Roth’s next-to-last novel, with a script by Buck Henry and  Michal Zebede, has a lot of vitality and very fine work by Al Pacino as a Shakespearean actor who undergoes a meltdown (fading actors were definitely a festival theme this year) and Greta Gerwig as the lesbian who changes preferences to be with him.  Pacino has rarely been so unaffected in recent years, and Gerwig gives what may be her first truly adult performance, but the script tricks up the story with extended fantasy sequences and what-is-reality gamesmanship that diminishes the emotion of the story.  The novel is generally considered less than Roth’s best, an interesting narrative that doesn’t add up to much, and the film in the end doesn’t change that judgment.

TUSK (A24 – September 19):  It would be unfair to say very much about Kevin Smith’s foray into gonzo horror, because both the plot and the casting of a key supporting role in the second half (under a pseudonym) are meant to be big surprises.  Suffice it to say that the title is far more literal than you might expect, and that when loudmouth podcast host Justin Long seems to get an offer from retired sailor Michael Parks that’s too good to be true, he doesn’t know the half of it.  Tusk isn’t particularly scary, because even after 20 years as a filmmaker, Smith has little talent or interest in the visual side of filmmaking, and much less original directors can easily run circles around him in terms of constructing a fright sequence.  But along with Quentin Tarantino, Smith is one of the last believers in letting actors create drama with lengthy monologues, and he’s written some beauts for Parks.  That, along with Smith’s willingness to go for broke with his particular narrative conceit, make Tusk distinctive, if nothing else.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN (Paramount – October 3):  After Young Adult and Labor Day, Jason Reitman badly needed to break out of his moviemaking funk, but Men, Women & Children, adapted by Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson from a novel by Chad Kultgen, isn’t the one to do it.  It’s a cautionary tale, the message of which is that our electronic devices and growing online existences are deforming our relationships in the real world, and the extent to which this seems like a startling, original insight will define what people think of the result.  The film is structured much like a cable TV pilot, with related stories whose connections become clear over time.  Adam Sandler, giving one of his occasional genuine performances, plays a husband who seeks companionship online, as does his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt), while Jennifer Garner is a mother who polices every single keystroke her largely innocent teen daughter (the excellent Kaitlyn Dever) types, and Judy Greer is the internet version of a destructive stage mother.  There’s enough going on to hold one’s interest, but it’s all quite banal and presented at too high a pitch.

ADULT BEGINNERS (Radius/Weinstein – no release date yet):  An unassuming indie that stars Nick Kroll (also a writer and producer on the film) as an electronics entrepreneur who loses all his money and retreats to the family home to heal while serving as nanny to the son of his sister (Rose Byrne) and her husband (Bobby Cannavale).  Ross Katz’s direction doesn’t push too hard, and there’s some charm in the script by Liz Flahive and Jeff Cox, particularly in its depiction of the brother-sister relationship, but there’s very little that’s distinctive about the film as a whole.  It’s far less notable than The Skeleton Twins, now in theatres, or even This Is Where I Leave You, which have overlapping dysfunctional family themes.  Byrne, though, is really proving herself to be the go-to girl of the moment when a suburban female is needed, with Adult joining Neighbors and This Is Where in her repertoire.

MISS JULIE (no distrib):  Liv Ullman’s film of the August Strindberg play feels very much like a stage production captured for the screen, even though it’s been shot in an actual castle, and some of the scenes take place outdoors and in various rooms of the estate.  This version runs half an hour longer than previous Miss Julie adaptations, and for no good reason.  Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton give thoughtful, serious performances, but the pace is dolorous, and that affects the story, because Julie’s capriciousness as she treats her father’s footman alternately with flirtation and imperiousness feels artificial and stagy, and the tragic ending is so foreshadowed that it might as well be announced with a title card halfway through.  The production was clearly a labor of love, and perhaps a bit too much so–a rudely interfering producer might have helped move things along.

EDEN (no distrib):  Mia Hansen-Love’s memoir of the specific niche of House music known as Garage that became popular in the 1990s was inspired by her own brother Sven, a former DJ who co-wrote the script with her.  The story it tells is fairly familiar for an American audience that knows its musical melodramas:  the rise from obscurity to success (although a much lesser level of the latter than the US version of the story would have demanded), and then the crash back to insignificance, the drugs, the romances that fall apart, the friendships that are tested over the years, and the tragic death of someone far too young.   Hansen-Love is a subtle filmmaker (her works include Father of My Children and Goodbye, First Love), but that’s a mixed blessing here, as the believable detail of her account is watered down by its lack of storytelling drive, with characters that aren’t all that much deeper than the ones Hollywood would have plugged into the tale.

THE EQUALIZER (Columbia/Sony – September 26):  One of those movies whose best moments are all captured in the 2 1/2-minute trailer–bad news when the film itself is 131 minutes long.  The reunion of director Antoine Fuqua and star Denzel Washington has none of the snap or originality of their Training Day, and indeed little of the appeal of the old Edward Woodward TV show whose premise it adapts.  Richard Wenk’s script could hardly be more routine, as former government agent Washington, now working quietly in a Home Depot-type store, reluctantly dons his guns once again after a teen prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz, with a much smaller role than you’d think) is beaten.  He monotonously kills one group of anonymous Eastern European villains after another, with cute gimmicks like timing himself to see how long it takes to slaughter them, on his way up to dreary kingpin Martin Csokas.  Washington seems to be doing a Liam Neeson imitation throughout, there’s hardly more than a whisper of characterization, and the action sequences are so hackneyed and unbelievable that they have little force despite their brutality.

THE FACE OF AN ANGEL (no distrib): There may be no director more beloved of film festival schedulers than Michael Winterbottom (The Trip, The Look of Love, The Killer Inside Me, Tristam Shandy, 9 Songs, etc), who seems to be represented every single year at one major festival or another.  He made the Toronto cut this year, but with far from his best work.  It uses a (very slightly) fictionalized version of the Amanda Knox story as the springboard for an abstract, not entirely comprehensible meditation about a filmmaker (Daniel Bruhl) hired to make a movie about that trial, but who instead ruminates about Dante, tabloid culture, the fate of journalism, and his own broken marriage as he wanders around Italy.  Kate Beckinsale and the model Cara Delevinge (giving a creditable performance) are the women who are very enthusiastic about sleeping with him, and it’s all quite pretentious in that European art-film way.

BLACK & WHITE (no distrib):  Mike Binder’s film is reportedly inspired by events in his own life, which makes it perversely impressive that every single element of his script feels fake and contrived.  Kevin Costner plays the maternal grandfather of a mixed-race girl (Jillian Estell, given a sitcom level of characterization) a functioning alcoholic who has raised her since his daughter died in childbirth, and whose custody is challenged by the paternal grandmother (Octavia Spencer).  Since there’d be no movie if everyone concerned came to a reasonable compromise, but because Bender doesn’t want to make anyone a “villain,” he instead inserts ridiculous plot twists, like the return to the scene of the girl’s dismal father, who has the most clearly temporary sobriety in movie history.  In case that’s not bad enough, the script is loaded with embarrassing comedy relief, from the African immigrant who serves as a tutor and chauffeur to Costner and his granddaughter and who’s like the character a TV series would introduce 2 years after it jumped the shark, to the drinks constantly in Costner’s hand, to the ridiculous courtroom antics of Spencer’s character.  Costner, who co-produced, doesn’t stretch an inch out of his comfort zone, and it’s hard not to cringe at the lines Spencer has to deliver.  The movie meanders along through about 4 endings before it finally stops, and that’s at least 5 too many.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."