September 20, 2020

SHOWBUZZDAILY Virtual Toronto Film Festival Reviews

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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This was a Toronto Film Festival unlike any other, and not just because I “attended” it from the laptop in my house.  Toronto has become an important stop on the road to the Academy Awards, with 9 of the past 10 Best Picture winners premiering or screening there.  (Birdman was the exception.)  But no one knows what this year’s Oscar race is going to look like, as the Academy has adopted pandemic rules that don’t require contenders to open until February 2021 or ever to see the screen of a theater.  Release schedules in general are in constant flux.  Consequently, the major studios, their arthouse divisions, the big indies and Netflix have largely decided to forego the festival circuit.  (Netflix did acquire some films during the course of the festival.)  In addition, those studios that did participate placed strict limits on festival access, in some cases–for example, the Kate Winslet/Saoirse Ronan film Ammonite and Halle Berry’s Bruised, allowing digital admittance to just a sliver of festival attendees.  And of course social distancing required that even the in-person screenings taking place in Toronto could only permit a portion of their seats to be filled.  The result was a Toronto that looked a lot more like Sundance, largely featuring low-budget productions seeking recognition and distribution, and with a total of only around 25% of the festival’s usual bursting line-up.  All that being said, there were some films worth seeing, and the reviews below are ranked in rough order of my personal preference, with the top dozen or so certainly meriting a look, and even the bottom of the list perfectly fine.  US distributors and opening dates are included where available.

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI… (Amazon – TBD):  The night is the one following then-Cassius Clay’s (Eli Goree) 1964 victory over Sonny Liston.  Regina King’s first film as a director, based on a play by Kemp Powers (who also wrote the script), imagines a post-fight motel room gathering organized by Malcolm X (KIngsley Ben-Adir), who has become Clay’s close advisor and under whose guidance Clay is soon to announce his identity as a Muslum–ironically, just as Malcolm himself is readying his own departure from the Nation of Islam.  The other guests are NFL legend Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and the singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr).  Clay is the most colorful character, naturally, but much of One Night boils down to a debate between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke about the responsibility of successful Black men at a time of national racial crisis.  Despite its setting more than 50 years ago, the film is, sadly, remarkably timely–even more so than King and Kemp could have known when they began production.  One Night doesn’t particularly try to disguise its roots as a stage play, and after the opening half-hour gathering the men together, much of the action takes place in that single room.  That may hold it back commercially if it ever has a theatrical run, but it’s perfectly suited for an initial film by a filmmaker previously known for her acting.  Kemp’s script is well-paced and sometimes eloquent.  It does require a gifted ensemble, and all four actors are superb.  Goree and Hodge perfectly judge the distance between impersonation of their famous characters and interpretation.  Ben-Adair has an even more difficult task, because he’s walking in the footsteps not only of Malcolm himself, but Denzel Washington’s classic performance of the role, and if he doesn’t eclipse Washington, he proves himself to be in that league.  This is Odom’s film, though, a breakout opportunity to play the most complex character of the quartet, which he seizes with both hands, including performances of several Cooke songs.  Whatever kind of awards season this is going to be, expect One Night In Miami… and its cast to play a part in it.

PIECES OF A WOMAN (Netflix – TBD):  By Hollywood standards, there’s very little catharsis to be had in Pieces Of a Woman, an almost entirely uncompromising look at the worst kind of grief, and the first English-language film from the Hungarian team of director Kornel Mundruczo and screenwriter Kata Weber, who were inspired by their own real-life story.  After a brief introduction in which we meet the very pregnant Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and her romantic partner Sean (Shia LeBeouf), the film launches into a stunning single-shot sequence that goes on for more than 20 minutes, taking us through Martha’s home childbirth, which involves midwife Eva (Molly Parker) and which ends horribly.  At that point, about half an hour into the film, Pieces Of a Woman is ready to actually begin.  The filmmakers refuse to sentimentalize Martha, and we dispassionately watch her relationship with Sean break down along fault lines that were already there, partly due to the class disparity between the two and Martha’s dominating mother Elizabeth’s (Ellen Burstyn) disapproval.  Martha exists at a remove from her life and family, and she isn’t given the usual studio crutches of a support group or sympathetic therapist to help her out.  Kirby, who won the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival for this performance, bravely keeps Martha detached, even to the point of seeming cold.  This is also LaBeouf’s most rounded performance in quite a while, and Burstyn has a third-act scene that may put her into the Supporting Actress race.  Pieces of A Woman loses its grip a bit when it actually decides to tell a story–courtroom drama is not the film’s forte–yet it finds its way to a conclusion all the more satisfying because it feels honestly earned.  The film won’t be to everyone’s taste–its tone may well alienate those most attracted to its plotline–but it’s a work that will be hard to forget.

NOMADLAND (Searchlight/Disney – December 4):  The only major studio release playing the year’s film festival circuit to date (and the winner of Toronto’s People’s Choice Award, historically a ticket to the Oscar race) is, like Chloe Zhao’s last film The Rider, a low-key, beautifully photographed (by Joshua James Richards), contemplative character study.  Inspired by a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, Zhao’s script concerns Fern (Frances McDormand, who also produced), a “van-dweller” who packed up after her town’s economy collapsed and her husband died, and set off on the road.  Fern is part a victim of systemic capitalism and part a committed wanderer, and she travels the country in her van with no desire to put down roots again.  McDormand’s flinty compassion is the foundation of Nomadland, and although David Strathairn appears in a fairly significant role, the bulk of the cast consists of non-professional actors who are playing versions of themselves.  There’s no traditional plot, and not even “episodes” as we understand them in the Hollywood sense, just a gentle amble as the film follows Fern from one gorgeous location to the next, dwarfed by and an integral part of the country she roams.  One’s reaction to Nomadland will depend on the viewer’s appetite for a narrative without much story, although McDormand’s will rightly be admired by all.  Zhao, who edited the film as well as writing, producing and directing, has clearly made the film she and McDormand had in their minds, and Nomadland is exactly judged, from the landscapes to the yearning score by Ludovico Einaudi.  In any other year, it would seem much more a likely candidate for Independent Spirit and critics awards than for Oscars, but this isn’t any other year.  (Zhao does provide one light in-joke:  a briefly lingering shot of a movie theater marquee showing The Avengers, presumably a nod to Disney’s remarkable decision to hand Zhao the reins of its upcoming Marvel movie The Eternals.  That one will either prove that even the most independent filmmaker can be bent to the studio’s IP-cracy or that Disney is opening its arms to a very different form of superhero movie.)

GOOD JOE BELL (Solstice – TBD):  A simple but in no way uncomplicated account of a true story, written by the legendary Larry McMurtry with Diana Ossana, reuniting the team that wrote Brokeback Mountain, and directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, of the Sundance success Monsters and Men. The story tells of Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg), who decided to walk from his home in Oregon to New York City to spread his message of anti-bullying, after his gay son Jadin (Reid Miller) was terrorized in high school.  Jadin is beside Joe as he walks, and it’s not hard to figure out what his place will be in the narrative, which thankfully the script doesn’t try to hold back for a last-minute “twist”.  This is in no way a triumphal celebration of Joe’s coast-to-coast walk, presenting crowds lining the roads as he makes his path east.  Rather, it’s largely a solitary, interior journey for Joe, who needs to come to terms with his own shame, guilt and intolerance even as he tries to tell others about the harm those can cause.  Wahlberg gives a restrained, moving performance, and Miller is touching both in the present-day scenes and the extensive flashback sequences.  In support, Connie Britton calls on all her Mrs. Coach empathy as Joe’s wife, and Gary Sinise contributes a small but pivotal performance as a man Joe comes across on his trek.

THE THIRD DAY (HBO – series began airing on Sept. 14):  “It’s creepy,” a little girl says as her car approaches the British island of Osea, accessible only by a causeway that’s washed out by the tides for all but a few hours each day, and she’s not wrong.  The outsider who arrives in a small town and wishes they hadn’t is a time-honored horror trope, and The Third Day appears to offer two prime examples.  “Appears,” because the festival showed Episodes 1 and 4 of the 6-part limited series (created by Felix Barrett and Dennis Kelly), which each seems to be the opening chapter of two tales of the macabre, with a link beyond the setting that–based on what was shown–is only revealed at the very end of Episode 4.  In one (written by Kelly and directed by Marc Munden), we follow Sam (Jude Law), a harried businessman who comes to Oshea for an apparently random good deed, and finds it isn’t easy to leave.  In the other (written by Kelly with Dean O’Loughlin and Kit de Waal, and directed by Philippa Lowthorpe), Helen (Naomie Harris) brings her daughters to Oshea for an increasingly forced gesture of birthday gaiety.  The Sam story is intriguing, and the Helen piece feels like the first act of something seriously scary.  There’s atmospheric photography by David Chizallet and Benjamin Kracun, brooding production design by Beck Rainford, and a tingling score by Cristobal Tapia Veer and Dickson Hinchliffe.  Whether all the pieces of The Third Day will assemble into something fully satisfying isn’t clear, but it makes an impression with its start(s).

AMERICAN UTOPIA (HBO – October 17):  David Byrne, of course, was a participant in one of the greatest of all concert movies, Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense.  Unlike that, American Utopia was conceived as a theatrical presentation, and Spike Lee’s film records the Broadway performance (originally directed by Anne B Parsons), which includes songs from Byrne’s album of the same name, as well as Talking Heads classics and–in one of the show’s most electrifying sequences–Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout.”  While Byrne begins in the cool, somewhat emotionally dislocated form usually associated with his work, American Utopia builds to a something much more emotionally and politically engaged, and Lee, who has directed quite a few stage performances over the years (notably the wonderful Passing Strange) captures the metamorphosis beautifully.  Working with cinematographer Ellen Kuras and editor Adam Gough, he shifts the feel of the film from uncluttered presentation to a more passionate and joyous experience.  Byrne, who’s 68 years old, is as physically adept as he’s ever been, and he’s joined by a spectacular ensemble that simultaneously serves as percussion-heavy band, dancers and back-up singers.  American Utopia, which along with the issues it raises overtly now carries its own nostalgia for the sheer ability to communally pack into a theatre and engage with a live performance, is expert and inspiring.

SPRING BLOSSOM (no distrib):  Suzanne Lindon’s accomplished, sketchy first film–she directed, wrote and stars, all for the first time, at the age of 20–exists on a border between charming and queasy.  Her protagonist, also named Suzanne, is a 16-year old Parisian high school student who develops an infatuation with 35-year old local actor Raphael (Arnaud Valois), who encourages her attentions  (Lindon, who in real life is the daughter of two well-known French actors, originally wrote the script when she was 15.)  Suzanne and Raphael are bored with the people around them, and the two spend a great deal of time alone together.  While Lindon is ambiguous about just how far their romance goes, it’s nevertheless tough to watch Spring Blossom with 2020 eyes and not feel somewhat odd about the matter-of-factness with which this relationship is depicted, without any of the psychological and sociological (and legal) tropes one would undoubtedly see in an American version of this story.  With a 73-minute running time, Spring Blossom can be frustratingly vague, a short story that could have been a novel.  But Lindon is unquestionably an arresting talent, both as an on-screen presence and as a filmmaker, pulling off unexpected choices like having the characters shift into dance at several key moments, and capable of some droll, incisive writing.  Spring Blossom, while not quite a great film, serves as an impressive calling card for a talent we’ll surely be seeing again.

A SUITABLE BOY (Netflix – TBD):  The entire 6-hour limited series was featured at the festival, and it’s a pleasingly old-fashioned, sprawling historical romance, bookended by lavish weddings, that’s been adapted by veteran Andrew Davies from Vikram Seth’s doorstop novel, and with all but one hour directed by Mira Nair.  Although the setting is early 1950’s India, shortly after the partition with Pakistan, the feel is very much 19th Century Jane Austen, as much of the action is framed through the search for the titular mate for Lata Mehra (Tanya Maliktala).  With Lata as a focal point, we explore the lives of her large family, those related to her by marriage, and her various suitors.  At times it’s a bit overwhelming in its scope, especially in the late chapters when the show launches us into the world of Indian politics and a particular race complicated by a near-murder.  There’s an argument to be made that if Old Hollywood had compressed the tale into 2 hours or so, much would have been lost, but it might not have been altogether a bad thing.  The larger focus, though, certainly expands our understanding of the context of what could otherwise seem like a familiar tale, and Nair effectively keeps the appealing Maliktala at the center of the emotional action.  The project, which was produced by the BBC and acquired by Netflix outside the UK, will be a good fit for the many fans of Downton Abbey and its comforting view that the heart, and a good marriage, can triumph over the world at large.

SHIVA BABY (Utopia – TBD):  We’re firmly in the subgenre of suburban Jewish comedy with Shiva Baby, a first film written and directed by Emma Seligman.  As the title suggests, virtually the entire story is set at a post-funeral gathering, where bagels and lox are inhaled and where college student Danielle (Rachel Sennott), schlepped to the event by her loving and endlessly embarrassing parents parents Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed), struggles to get through the day.  Danielle is hiding a host of secrets from most of the people around her, including her sexuality and how she makes a living.  Naturally, all the people she least wants to meet turn up at the event, including Max (Danny Deferrari) and his wife Kim (Diana Agron), and Danielle’s old friend Maya (Molly Gordon).  Shiva Baby is busy and amusing, with a cast that knows how to land its jokes, and at 77 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome, but it also doesn’t go very deep or venture far from its base level of comic frazzle.  Production values are basic, although the score by Ariel Marx is pleasingly restrained.  Seligman’s work has the feel of latter-day, loosely-plotted Neil Simon tinged with female ennui.

PENGUIN BLOOM (no distrib):  The world and the film industry may have swiveled on their axes, but Oscar bait will never die.  There is no more stalwart awards season staple than the star vehicle about a real-life person who had to cope with catastrophic illness or injury, and Penguin Bloom marks Naomi Watts’s turn at bat.  Sam Bloom (Watts) was a wife and mother who became paraplegic after a dreadful fall, and Glendyn Ivin’s film (from a script by Harry Cripps and Shaun Grant, based on the book co-written by Bloom’s husband) concentrates less on Sam’s physical ordeal than on the depression she suffered and its effects on her family.  (In this, it rather resembles Jake Gyllenhaal’s unsuccessful awards effort from a few years ago Stronger.)  The injured magpie the family takes in and nurses back to health was named Penguin.  If you think that watching Penguin gradually regain her ability to fly inspired Sam to fully return to her life, well, you’ve seen the same movies the filmmakers have.  Watts is an actress who rarely takes a wrong step, and she gives the role everything one could ask (she’s also a producer of the film), while Andrew Lincoln is sturdy as her supportive husband, and special kudos are due to Paul Mander, the credited magpie trainer.  There’s never a moment in Penguin Bloom where you don’t know what’s going to happen next, and for some that will be exactly right.

ANOTHER ROUND (no distrib):  About as close as Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration, The Hunt) is likely to come to high-concept comedy.  The concept is amusing:  four old friends in their forties who all teach at the same high school (one of them is played by Mads Mikkelsen) decide to test out a cockamamie biological theory that humans would be better off if they were always just a little bit drunk.  At first, things go swimmingly, as the alcohol loosens them up and smooths out their rough edges.  Inevitably, though, the guys push their limits and things start to go south–and since this is, after all, a Vinterberg movie, they eventually turn positively grim, with the genuine surprise that the filmmaker (who wrote the script with Tobias Lindholm) provides an honest-to-god feel-good ending.  Mikkelsen tends to be one of our most solemn actors, so it’s fun to watch him play light-hearted where the movie permits.  The rest of the cast is solid, and the production values are a bit glossier than in Vinterberg’s Dogme films .  This is slight stuff, though, neither flat-out hilarious nor all that moving when it becomes serious.  It actually seems prime for a Hollywood reboot (you could easily fill the cast from the roster of former SNL stars), which in the way of things would probably go broader, and that might be OK.

CONCRETE COWBOY (no distrib):  Someone actually delivers the line “Horses ain’t the only thing that need breaking around here,” thereby giving us Concrete Cowboy‘s elevator pitch.  The movie is an audience rouser, but not with much subtlety.  The script by director Ricky Staub and Dan Walser is fictional (based on a novel by G. Neri) but inspired by the real Fletcher Street stables in downtown Philadelphia, where a Black neighborhood has raised and trained horses for years.  To this set of enticing facts, the movie grafts a generic tale about troubled teen Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) who’s been getting in trouble in school, and whose mother, at a loss, brings him from Detroit to Philly to stay with his long-estranged father Harp (Idris Elba, also a producer).  What follows ticks every box in the genre;  the wild stallion who only Cole can tame, Harp’s demanding but inspirational teaching methods, the dangerous old friend (Jharrel Jerome from When They See Us) who’s going to cause a third-act crisis, the nice girl (Ivannah Mercedes) who’s there to provide Cole with a taste of what a clean life can offer, and so on.  It’s all presented with a full heart and certainly all the acting skill needed, if at a bit of a lope at 111 minutes.  Those looking for anything in the way of unpredictability, however, have bet the wrong horse.

FALLING (no distrib):  Lance Henriksen gives an unflinching performance as a terrible man undergoing dementia in Viggo Mortensen’s directing debut (Mortensen also wrote the script and composed the lyrical score).  Willis (Henriksen) is riven by racism, homophobia and misogyny, all of it a tangle now in his brain but still vicious.  Much of his spew is directed at his son John (Mortensen) and John’s Asian-American husband Eric (Terry Chen), although Willis’s consciousness is often stuck in his past, where his hatred for his two ex-wives Gwen (Hannah Gross) and Jill (Bracken Burns) is still white-hot.  Because of his failing health, Willis travels from his farm in upstate NY to stay with John and Eric in LA with the idea of living closer to his family, which also includes his daughter Sarah (Laura Linney) and his grandchildren.  But he can’t hold back the worst parts of his nature, unrelentingly awful to his family and unable to admit that he needs them, because that would be a sign of weakness.  Henriksen, who’s been known primarily during his 50-year career as an action movie fixture, makes his way through Willis’s ugliness to his pathos, and his self-created misery is memorable.  Mortensen directs sensitively and the actors are uniformly strong, although parts of Falling have a stagy and familiar feel, as though the script had been based on a play from the “kitchen sink” era of theatre.  It’s clearly a heartfelt subject for him, and in Wlllis he and Henriksen present a fully realized creation, one whose poison is matched by his frailty.

VIOLATION (no distrib):  One of Toronto’s most beloved festival categories is Midnight Madness, where every night 1000+ people pack into the Ryerson Theatre and yell their heads off in appreciation and/or terror.  That category doesn’t mean as much when you’re just clicking a video link on your laptop, but Violation still has an impact.  (The Ryerson performance that didn’t happen also might have been the film’s only chance for a huge live audience, since in its current form it would be unbookable in most US movie houses.)  Somewhat like the recent The Rental, Violation is a chamber piece that starts out as a relationship drama and morphs into something much darker.  Also like The Rental, it revolves around two couples, including a pair of siblings:  sisters Miriam (Madeleine Sims-Fewer, who gives a commanding performance, and also co-directed and co-wrote with Dusty Mancinelli) and Greta (Anna Maguire), along with their partners Caleb (Obi Abili) and Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe).  The disturbing developments here aren’t exactly horror–more like horrific, both in the tone and the film’s dogged insistence on staying in its unsettling lane.  All that should be said about where it takes audiences is that the other picture it brings to mind is Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (if Hitchcock faced absolutely no restrictions on content), and that Violation would be the world’s absolute worst date movie. It isn’t clear whether Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli have any interest in going mainstream, but they know how to hold a viewer’s attention.

WILDFIRE (no distrib):  There’s plenty of emotion but not a lot of meat on the bones of Cathy Brady’s first feature.  The set-up is that Kelly (Nika McGuigan, the actress now tragically dead at 33 from leukemia) has returned to her small Irish hometown after having vanished without explanation for more than a year.  Kelly’s absence and now her return traumatize her sister Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone).  Lauren has been living a relatively settled life, but she and her sister have never recovered from the sudden death of their mother in a car crash, and reuniting sets both of them over the edge.  McGuigan and Noone have remarkable chemistry together, and there are some indelible moments as the two of them clash and bond, as well as handsome photography by Crystal Fournier.  That’s set however, amidst a whole lot of baleful glaring, and the secret truth about their mother’s death is exactly the one that first comes to mind when the circumstances are explained.  There seems to be a metaphor intended here for the violent history of Ireland, but the connections aren’t made evident for an American viewer.  Even at 85 minutes, Wildfire feels longer than it needed to be, and familiar in its family travails.

MONDAY (no distrib – note that this was screened for the Toronto market, not as an official TIFF title):  We meet Mickey (Sebastian Stan) and Chloe (the brilliant theater actress Denise Gough) as they’re about to have a one-night stand after meeting in an Athens disco.  He’s a free-spirit DJ and musician, she’s a buttoned-up immigration attorney, and when we see them the next morning, awkwardly naked on a beach, it seems like the stage is being set for a sun-drenched rom-com.  But Argyris Paradimitropoulos’s film (co-written with Rob Hayes) is more ambitious than that, and Monday takes us through the next months of their relationship, which becomes more emotionally complicated as it moves along.  This is Gough’s first major big-screen role, and she brings a host of gradations to a character who’s simultaneously falling in love and feeling uneasy about her decisions.  Stan’s role is more conventional (he’s a musician who’s unreliable, who would have figured), but he matches Gough blow for blow in their big scenes together.  What keeps Monday from being special is that the characters rarely depart from the positions assigned to them from the start.  The result is an absorbing drama that isn’t as insightful as it needs to be.

SHADOW IN THE CLOUD (no distrib):  Roseanne Liang’s winningly idiotic horror movie (written with Max Landis) was also intended for Midnight Madness.  It’s a mix of World War II combat adventure, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet and Sorry, Wrong Number.  Set in 1943, it’s largely a showcase for Chloe Grace Moretz, who plays Maude Garrett.  She shows up on a New Zealand runway to board a flight at the last minute, with emergency orders that require her presence, a mysterious satchel, and many secrets.  She’s quickly relegated by the crew to the plane’s lower turret, and for almost an hour of the movie’s barely feature length (about 75 minutes without credits), the camera holds on her as she listens to the crew around her make misogynistic remarks and then ridicule her claims to see not only Japanese warplanes on their track but also an actual gremlin ripping apart the plane.  Shadow hits all the B-movie beats, and Liang delivers a couple of moments that would certainly make a crowded theater cheer through their guffaws.  The writing, though, is little more than functional, which is a problem for a project so dependent on voice-over dialogue, and Moretz’s performance is fun without ever achieving the Sigourney Weaver-level intensity it needed.  Shadow doesn’t have that extra imagination or daring that could have made it more than a disposable genre piece.

THE WATER MAN (no distrib):  David Oyelowo’s feature directing debut (from a script by Emma Needell) is a sweet family story that evokes the era before movies suitable for all ages were built around CG spectacle.  Oyelowo plays the father of Gunner (Lonnie Chavis), who’s trying to come to terms with his mother’s (Rosario Dawson) leukemia and his uneasy relationship with his dad, who’s been serving overseas in the Navy and has come home due to his wife’s illness.  Gunner escapes into a world of graphic novel fantasy and is transfixed when he hears the local legend of The Water Man, who cheated death with a magic stone.  Soon enough, Gunner has teamed up with blue-haired tough girl Jo (Amiah Miller) for an expedition into the woods to find the Water Man and learn his secret in order to save Gunner’s mom.  The adventure is very small-scale, although the fact that the climax involves a forest fire is a bit close to home at this particular moment in California.  A more serious issue is that the script doesn’t really have a satisfying third act, a problem somewhat remedied by the good feelings fostered by the cast.  The Water Man, which boasts Oprah Winfrey among its producers, seems like a natural for a streaming service, rather than one that should duke it out with giant family franchises.

LIKE A HOUSE ON FIRE (no distrib – Market Title):  A familiar post-rehab indie, although in this case Dara (Veep‘s Sarah Sutherland) went away because of emotional issues rather than addiction.  Jesse Noah Klein’s film centers on mother-daughter relationships, as Dara tries to rejoin the life of her young daughter , while still coming to terms with the circumstances of her own childhood.  Sutherland gives a rooted, emotional performance as a woman whose every step toward a normal life feels like it’s on cracking ice, and Jared Abrahamson is effectively muted as her ex, who feels justified concern both for Dara and his daughter.  In the end, however, there’s little here to set Like A House On Fire apart from all the other stories we’ve seen about troubled young adults trying to find their place.

SUMMER OF 85 (no distrib):  Film festival favorite Francois Ozon returns with one of his most straightforward pieces of work  (His previous genre-bending films include Potiche, Sitcom, 8 Women and See the Sea.)  Working from a novel by Aidan Chambers, Ozon tells the teen romance of Alexis (Felix Lefebvre) and David (Benjamin Voisin) in the titular summer on the sun-dappled Normandy coast.  We’re told at the top that things will end tragically, and while for 16-year old Alexis this is an all-encompassing first love, David is less committed and more bi, the latter becoming evident when British girl Kate (Philippine Velge) comes onto the scene.  It’s a fairly touching story, and the acting is good enough, but nothing that happens is as dramatic as the set-up suggests or as it would need to be for Summer to have an impact.  While Ozon’s filmmaking is smooth and assured, the overall feel is of a well-made TV movie rather than an artistic step forward.



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."