September 12, 2016

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL Day 4 Capsule Reviews: “Sing,” “Denial,” “Nocturnal Animals,” “Moonlight” & “Queen of Katwe”


For this audience member, it was the day Toronto moved into high gear.

MOONLIGHT (A24 – October 21):  Barry Jenkins’s second film, after his little-seen but much-praised Medicine For Melancholy, is a validation of film festival culture and a reminder of the power of film as personal expression.  (Although the source material is a pre-existing play, Jenkins wrote the film script and has said he regards the current version as semi-autobiographical.)  It’s a lyrical and sometimes harsh triptych that tells the story of a young African-American from the unglamorous part of Miami and the formation of his identity, not only in terms of his sexuality but more generally his place in a violent culture.  Even though the characters include familiar figures like crack dealers and addicts, they’ve rarely been seen this side of The Wire with the shading and emotional gravity evident here.  Jenkins keeps the narrative flowing and holds a grip on the audience, aside from some ponderousness in the third act.  All three actors who play the lead role at various ages are exceptional, and so are Naomie Harris as the boy’s addicted mother, Mahershala Ali as a dealer and the singer Janelle Monae as the dealer’s girlfriend.  The cinematography by James Laxton, music by Nicholas Britell and production design by Hannah Beachler create a poetic yet entirely believable world.

SING (Illumination/Universal – December 21):  Talking animals have dominated the year’s box office, with 4 of 2016’s top 6 titles (Zootopia, The Jungle Book, Finding Dory and The Secret Life of Pets), and that trend is likely to continue this holiday season when the practically irresistible Sing reaches theaters.  It has the same auspices as Pets, although the writer/director is Garth Jennings, who made the hugely likeable (but commercially disappointing) indie Son of Rambow.  Like Zootopia–although not as ingeniously–Sing takes place in an animal-only world where all species interact.  There isn’t much to the plot, something about a never-say-die koala bear (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) determined to keep his music hall in business by staging a singing competition.  But Jennings and the animators unleash a tidal wave of tuneful cuteness onto the concept (not to mention what must have been a nearly unlimited budget for music licensing, since the non-stop score features only one original song), and the delightful vocal cast includes Reese Witherspoon (as a harried pig housewife with 25 children), Seth MacFarlane (an obnoxious mouse), Taron Egerton (a gorilla who doesn’t want to join his dad’s criminal gang), Scarlett Johansson (a punky lovelorn porcupine), and Tori Kelly (a shy elephant).  Sing isn’t high art, and one can reasonably wonder what it was doing occupying prime real estate at a film festival, but it succeeds roundly at its goal of giving its audiences two hours of happiness.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (Focus/Universal – November 18):  Tom Ford’s follow-up to his directing debut A Single Man is, like that film, a meticulously assembled box of beautifully engineered elements.  Those pieces, however, add up to less than their luster and precision would suggest.  Ford, adapting a novel by Austin Wright, intercuts between three storylines.  In a present-day reality, the privileged Los Angeles art gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams) reflects on the unhappiness of her life and marriage.  Flashbacks from twenty years earlier show us Susan’s first marriage to Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) and how it crumbled.  Meanwhile, we see, even as Susan reads it, the story of the novel Tony has written, a lurid crime tale that reshapes and makes use of their shared past.  These components are carefully and thoughtfully combined, but each of them is familiar to the point of cliche, from the satire at the expense of the LA-cultured to the sad soapy backstory.  The “novel” provides the most powerful material, because of its dark violence, but it’s an understatement to say that pulp isn’t Ford’s strong suit as a filmmaker.  Even though Nocturnal Animals is ambitiously original in design, its overall feel is second-hand, although in a way that may appeal to arthouse audiences and awards-season voters.

DENIAL (Bleecker Street – September 30):  The title has two meanings.  Mick Jackson’s film (from a cracklingly intelligent script by David Hare) tells the real-life story of the libel case that placed the concept of Holocaust denial on trial, when British “historian” David Irving (Timothy Spall) sued the American writer Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) for identifying him as an anti-Semitic liar.  It also refers to the strategy devised by Lipstadt’s lawyers, led by solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), which denied Lipstadt the chance to speak out for herself or confront Irving (who represented himself) directly during the trial, insisting instead on a more measured and deliberate defense.  The acting, as one would expect of a cast like this, is flawless, with Scott deserving special mention for a performance that conveys the way an attorney actually sounds and acts.  Jackson and Hare turn the true-life material into a thriller that alternately provokes, horrifies and cheers, and the concept of dealing with public figures who blatantly lie about critical facts of public interest has more current-events relevance than the filmmakers could have imagined.

QUEEN OF KATWE (Disney – September 23):  In chess, signalling one’s strategic intentions in advance is a fatal mistake, and that’s what befalls Queen of Katwe, a painfully earnest feel-good true story about the Ugandan Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) who became a hero in her country thanks to her precocious genius at chess, aided by her coach (David Oyelowo) and mother (Lupita Nyong’o).  Nira Nair’s film and William Wheeler’s script have their hearts in the right place, but every moment is telegraphed and predictable, from the first act successes to the second act challenges and setbacks to the third act triumphs.  Nair has loaded on plenty of local color (the vibrant cinematography is by Sean Bobbitt), and it’s always nice to see good things happen to heroic people.  The screenplay, though, insists on underlining and repeating every sentiment and statement of principle, and doesn’t even do much of a job at explaining Phiona’s strategies or what makes her great as a player.  Instead, Nair tries to film the matches in sports movie style (the film is co-produced by ESPN Films), which just seems ludicrous when the “action” is pieces being moved across a board.  Despite its abundant warmth, Queen of Katwe puts itself in check too much of the time.

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."