September 10, 2016

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL Day 3 Capsule Reviews: A Monster Calls, Lion, The Bleeder, Colossal & Elle


COLOSSAL (no distrib):  Well, you haven’t seen this take on sci-fi spectacles before.  In Nacho Vigalondo’s whatzit, party girl Gloria (Anne Hathaway) and her hometown friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) discover that they can cause their actions to be mirrored by a giant sea monster and robot terrorizing Seoul.  In other words, if one of them stomps his or her foot, a car or building might be crushed in South Korea.  Originality counts for a lot in this trope-ridden genre, and for a while the sheer looniness of the concept keeps Colossal afloat, along with the very good performances by Hathaway and Sudeikis (the latter, particularly, gets to go a lot darker than his previous roles have allowed).  But Colossal is hampered by its meager budget, which makes it look like a VOD movie mixed with a cheap spoof, and although exceptional writing might have made this low-fi version of the story work, Vigalondo’s screenwriting isn’t up to the task.  The film ends up never getting beyond “intriguing,” although it’s likely to be a favorite of certain brands of film geeks.

A MONSTER CALLS (Focus/Universal – December 23):  The link formed between two unrelated movies seen in close proximity to each other is a film festival phenomenon, and I saw Colossal back-to-back with A Monster Calls, another story about a human psychologically coupled with a supernatural being.  J.A. Bayona’s film, though (with a screenplay by Peter Ness based on his own novel), is a much neater piece of work.  One could think of it as a more effective version of last summer’s Spielberg flop The BFG.  This time it’s a little boy, Conor (Lewis MacDougall), who finds himself enthralled by a giant (a massive walking tree voiced by Liam Neeson), and the monster again heals the child’s soul, but the tone is much sadder, because the reason the giant is needed is to help Conor cope with the oncoming tragic death of his mother (Felicity Jones).  A Monster Calls is being released at Christmas to rake in family holiday tears, and it’s both imaginative (with some marvelous animated sequences) and sensitive, with heart-tugging performances by MacDougall, Jones, and Sigourney Weaver as Conor’s forbidding grandmother (not long ago, it would have been the Judi Dench part).  It’s also a bit pat, with the giant’s lessons writ large, and Conor’s climactic revelation less earthshaking (literally) than the movie makes it.  Bayona, whose last film was The Impossible, is becoming an expert at life-and-death family stress, and for those who want to go on that journey, A Monster Calls sends out all the right signals.

LION (Weinstein Company – November 25):  Another call for family Kleenex, although this one, based on a true story, is aimed more at the art-house audience, with its first 45 minutes mostly subtitled.  Garth Davis’s film, from a Luke Davies script, is based on the true story of Saroo Brierley (played in the film as an adult by Dev Patel), who as a child in India accidentally went on a long train ride that left him hopelessly lost from his family, more than 1000 miles away.  Saroo was adopted by loving parents in Australia (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), but felt incomplete, and 25 years after leaving India, he reconstructed his journey using Google Maps.  That compelling sequence doesn’t occur until the last section of Lion, which is more concerned with Saroo’s adventures in Calcutta before the adoption and his gradual realization as an adult that he needs to go on his quest.  The opening sequences are more interesting than the middle, although that part of the film is marked by excellent work from Patel as well as Rooney Mara, who imbues even a rote “girlfriend” role with psychological complexity, and Kidman, who does some of most substantial performing in recent memory despite her supporting role.  Davis, making his feature film debut after directing several episodes of the acclaimed Australian TV series Top of the Lake, is an assured storyteller, and the cinematography, production design and music are all worthy of note.  The standing ovation at Toronto suggests this is a title that may try to build up a head of awards steam.

THE BLEEDER (no distrib):  A much jauntier “based on a true story” movie, where even the hero’s arrest for drug possession with intent to distribute is treated as a mere bump in the road.  The Bleeder tells the story of Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber), whose failed heavyweight title bout against Muhammad Ali became one of the inspirations for Rocky.  This was clearly a labor of love for Schreiber, who not only stars but co-wrote the script (with Jeff Feuerzeig and Jerry Stahl) and co-produced, with his real-life wife Naomi Watts appearing as the love of Wepner’s life, and Ray Donovan co-star Pooch Hall as Ali.  Schreiber seems delighted to cast off the eternal moodiness of Ray Donovan for a persona that’s far more cheerful and optimistic as a rule, even as he discovers the downsides of fame and self-indulgence.  He naturally has fine chemistry on screen with Watts, and there are also strong contributions by Elisabeth Moss as Chuck’s disapproving wife, Ron Perlman as his trainer, and a surprisingly foul-mouthed Jim Gaffigan as his best friend.  The surprise here is that the director of The Bleeder is Philippe Falardeau, whose previous work has included the far heavier Monsieur Lazhar and The Good Lie, and who shows a surprising affinity for dese & dose New Jersey comedy.  Wepner (who appeared at The Bleeder‘s Q&A and was everything the film suggests and more) seems to have worked out just fine, and The Bleeder, in its own modest way, manages the same.

ELLE (Sony Classics – November 11):  Back in the 1980s-90s, Paul Verhoeven was one of the hottest directors in Hollywood, turning out a streak of hits that also received serious praise like RoboCop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct.  After Showgirls, things got tougher, and he’s only directed 2 features in the past 15 years.  His latest, the French-language Elle, will certainly get people talking about him again.  Verhoeven has never been an enemy of shock value, and Elle starts mid-rape, and proceeds even more startlingly to follow that sequence with the victim, video game company head Michele (a magisterial Isabelle Huppert) calmly cleaning herself off and ordering a sushi dinner for herself and her son, who’s expected to arrive soon.  It turns out that Michele has her own very dramatic reasons for avoiding the police, and the twists don’t stop there, including plot turns concerning the rapist that will appall some viewers.  It’s sometimes hard to tell whether Elle is intended as a melodrama or a comedy of the deepest black, but it’s gripping all the same and superbly put together, and the fascinatingly enigmatic Huppert owns every frame.


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."