September 18, 2021

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” “Sundown” & “The Mad Women’s Ball”


THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (Searchlight/Disney – in release):  The reason for expanding a documentary into a scripted narrative is typically to allow for an exploration of motive and emotional background not available in the existing footage.  A documentary can show what happened, but not necessarily why it happened.  That makes The Eyes of Tammy Faye all the more puzzling, as it adds little insight to the 2000 Fenton Bailey/Randy Barbato documentary that serves as its source material.  All of the events are present in Abe Sylvia’s script, as we follow Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) through her youth as the daughter of an evangelical church’s pianist (Cherry Jones), her fateful meeting at Bible College with Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), and their wild rise and resounding fall in the world of big-bucks televised religion.  However, anyone looking here for a deeper understanding of just what Tammy Faye understood about the corruption around her, and how much her own actions were performative rather than genuine, will find little to chew on.  In some scenes, Tammy Faye appears shrewd and business-conscious, and in others hopelessly naive, with no attempt at integrating them.  Additionally, the filmmaking by Michael Showalter is generally flat and no more than proficient.  That leaves the most publicized part of the project, Chastain’s transformation into Tammy Faye Bakker (Garfield’s Jim is a relatively minor creation).  Chastain and her team of hair, costume, make-up and prosthetic magicians have duplicated all the surface details, from the shape of Tammy Faye’s face to the permanent markings around her eyes and lips.  Chastain has put immense work into mimicking the inflections and mannerisms of her subject, and for the most part she avoids campiness.  And yet this isn’t a great performance.  One always feel like what’s on view is Jessica Chastain playing Tammy Faye Bakker, keeping herself one important half-step distant from the inner workings of the actual woman.  The film becomes a mere recounting of scandals, without much to say about them, even though arguably they were canaries in the coalmine that became the radical polarization of American culture and politics.  The Eyes of Tammy Faye is content with favoring cosmetics over substance.

SUNDOWN (no distrib):  Michel Franco’s New Order was one of the most violent and disturbing political dramas in recent memory.  His follow-up Sundown is comparatively compact, with a more existential bent, and still it packs a wallop.  Franco doesn’t have much use for exposition, and we’re thrown into the luxurious Acapulco vacation of Neil (Tim Roth), his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her grown children.  Eventually we learn that they run a multinational corporation, one not coincidentally founded on the slaughterhouse business.  When the family has to rush back to Europe, Neil tells them he’s forgotten his passport and will take the next flight.  But instead, he abandons them entirely, and takes up a new, modest life that includes shopgirl Bernice (Iazua Larios).  Neil is silent about his motives, and for much of Sundown‘s brisk 84 minutes, we have to make up our minds about what he’s thinking, although in the end we do get some explanation.  That’s not Franco’s place of interest, and he consciously echoes Camus as Neil faces his own concept of the meaning of life, even while other shocking incidents are happening around him.  Roth is superb in a role that requires him to be both unemotive and full of feeling, and Franco’s pacing (the editing is by Oscar Figueroa Jara and Franco himself) and the use of locations and music are masterful.  Sundown certainly isn’t going to be a crowd-pleaser, but it’s a provocative, cinematically exciting work by a filmmaker with a unique voice.

THE MAD WOMAN’S BALL (Amazon – now streaming):  Melanie Laurent’s career provides one of the clearest examples of the “one for them, one for me” principle.  While starring in Hollywood vehicles like Michael Bay’s 6 Underground and the Now You See Me movies, she’s been creating a growing body of smaller, independent works as a writer/director.  The Mad Woman’s Ball is her most ambitious effort to date, a period piece co-written by Chris Deslandes (based on a novel by Victoria Mas) and set in 19th-century France.  The protagonist is Eugenie (Lou de Laage), a free thinker who refuses to keep her opinions to herself, which her father finds unacceptable.  (In fairness, Eugenie also claims the ability to see and talk to the dead, which the film treats as literally true.)  Dad commits Eugenie to an asylum, which is horrifying as years of watching dramas and documentaries about such places have taught us  The inmates are subjected to awful “treatments” that include ice baths, near-starvation and solitary confinement in absolute darkness–and that’s not counting the staff members who physically abuse the women.  Eugenie, to put it mildly, has a tough time, but eventually she forges a connection to one of the nurses, Genevieve (played by Laurent).  This all leads to the climax referenced in the title, the one night of the year when the asylum is opened to guests and the inmates are paraded for their inspection.  The Mad Woman’s Ball is powerful and extremely well acted, although not much interested in subtlety, and opinions will differ about Eugenie’s ability to contact the dead.  For Laurent, though, it represents the next step as a filmmaker able to tackle projects on a more elaborate scale.  For her, that presumably makes her mere acting work worthwhile.

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."