September 7, 2019

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “Just Mercy,” “Pain & Glory,” “The Personal History of David Copperfield” & “Varda By Agnes”


JUST MERCY (Warners – December 25):  As the release date suggests, this is a straight-down-the-middle Oscar play, and it may have some success in that arena (although Warners will also be campaigning for The Goldfinch and Joker).  Destin Daniel Cretton’s film, co-written with Andrew Lanham, belongs to the Innocent Man On Death Row subgenre, and it’s based on the true story of Bryan Stevenson (played here by Michael B. Jordan), who founded the Equal Justice Initiative program to defend Death Row inmates.  The film centers on Stevenson’s crusade to save Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), an Alabama man imprisoned for the murder of a white woman, based on weak and horribly corrupt evidence.  The overall arc of the story won’t have many surprises for anyone who’s seen similar sagas on big screen or small before, and the filmmaking here is less striking than in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series When They See Us.  What distinguishes Just Mercy is the low-key intensity of its storytelling.  Jordan and Foxx avoid easy histrionics, and their work is all the more powerful because its fury is kept under check.  Cretton also devotes a significant section of the script to Stevenson’s struggle to keep Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan, of The Last Black Man In San Francisco) out of the electric chair, a contrasting narrative because Richardson was by his own admission guilty, although largely because of his post-Vietnam PTSD.  Morgan is superb, and the rest of the supporting cast, which includes Cretton’s muse Brie Larson as Stevenson’s second-in-command, and O’Shea Jackson as another of Stevenson’s clients, is impeccable.  Just Mercy doesn’t break new cinematic ground, but for Cretton it’s a welcome return to the soft-spoken impact of his Short Term 12, after his melodramatic wrong turn with The Glass Castle (and before his coming detour into the Marvel universe with Shang-Chi).  For Academy members, it could well land in one of their sweet spots.

THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD (Fox Searchlight/Disney – release date 2020 TBD):  Armando Ianucci’s brand of scathing political satire is so well-established that it’s a shock to see him undertake a genial literary adaptation.  The source material, of course, is the Dickens classic, and Ianucci makes the adaptation itself part of the fabric, as David (Dev Patel as an adult) presents his story to an audience that includes us.  Ianucci pointedly includes non-traditional, color-blind casting not only with Patel, but with Benedict Wong and Rosalind Eleazor as the father and daughter Wickfield, among others, and he employs 4th wall-breaking devices like images projected on walls and backdrops that can be pulled aside.  For the most part, though, this is fairly traditional Dickens, with more emphasis on the sunny side of the tale than recent gloomier adaptations that have focused on the social crusader aspects of the novels.  The books are famously doorstops, and in an age of multi-hour television dramas, plotlines race by over 119 minutes, some almost to the point of incoherence.  The script by Ianucci and Simon Blackwell is witty and intelligent, as one would expect, and Copperfield features one of those British character actor all-star ensembles:  Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, and Gwendoline Christie among them.  Everyone seems to have had a lovely time, and receptive audiences will enjoy a familiar tale well told, but this isn’t Ianucci doing what he does best.

PAIN AND GLORY (Sony Classics – October 4):  Pedro Almodovar’s avowedly most personal film is also a departure from his usual farces and melodramas.  It’s an extremely serious work of semiautobiography about a celebrated film director named Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas, whose first film was Almodovar’s second, the 1982 Labyrinth of Passion) who has been absent from the screen because of a combination of chronic illness and pain, along with (or causing) a creative block.  When Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), a star of one of his old films with whom he hasn’t spoken for decades, comes back into his life, Salvador joins the actor in a particularly dark version of pain management, but that eventually leads him to a road of recovery.  That includes visits to memories of the director’s past, revolving around young Salvador’s relationship with his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz, also an Almadovar veteran).  Pain and Glory is a very fine piece of work, with perhaps the most vulnerable and impressive performance of Banderas’s career, and it’s a moving account of age, disease and regret that culminates in a lovely final image.  As with many popular artists who decide to create Something Serious, though, it sometimes feels as though Almodovar feared that an instant of levity would dissolve the image he was determined to create.  The filmmaker’s emotional honesty can sometimes seem close to Oscar bait, and indeed Pain and Glory is certain to be a favorite for the newly-renamed Best International Film category.  The nature of its high quality also makes it more conventional than the distinctive works that made Almodovar’s name.

VARDA BY AGNES (Janus – TBD):  An unwitting companion piece to Pain and Glory by another celebrated foreign filmmaker, Agnes Varda’s final project (which premiered as a TV presentation just days before her death) is a reminder of what follows age and disease.  Varda lived to be 90, and as the film’s premiere date demonstrates, she worked to the very end.  Varda by Agnes is more of a self-retrospective than a genuinely independent work.  It intercuts selections from talks about her career that she gave to various audiences late in life with clips from her work.  Her oeuvre more than justifies the detailed inspection, from her beginnings as a still photographer in the 1950s to filmmaking that ranged from arthouse prominent (Cleo From 5 to 7 in 1962) to socially relevant (a documentary about the Black Panthers in 1968) to less so, then a resurgence in 1985 with Vagabond and renewed appreciation recently as a creator of art installations, such as those documented in her Oscar-nominated Faces Places in 2017.    One thing abundantly clear in Varda By Agnes is her love for her art, and her charismatic, succinct descriptions and insights are to be prized.


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."