TIFF FILM REVIEW: David Mackenzie’s ‘Outlaw/King’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Chris Pine keeps his Scots burr soft and believable in ‘Outlaw/King’, the saga of Robert the Bruce, the 14th century leader who succeeded where William (Braveheart) Wallace failed in uniting the Scottish clans to fight the English.

It’s a rousing adventure with several battles, a warm love story, and glorious settings filmed across Scotland. The title onscreen is ‘Outlaw/King’ although it’s not shown on posters or promotional material. The distinction is subtle but important as it conveys the point that Robert is not an outlaw king but a man seen by different people in different ways. He is a king and he is an outlaw. 

Scottish director David Mackenzie (‘Hell or High Water’) keeps things relatively plausible with fine contributions from Stephen Dillane as Edward I, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the mad-as-hell Scottish rebel Douglas, and Florence Pugh as Robert’s at first unwanted but then beloved bride. It’s a big picture that deserves to be seen at cinemas so it’s a very good thing that Netflix has released it to theatres, at least in the U.K., via Curzon Artificial Eye, otherwise it would just be an expensive TV movie.

Wallace makes a brief appearance looking very scruffy compared to Mel Gibson’s depiction and events follow his demise with the Scottish clans typically fighting over patches of land and adherence to various faiths and myths. Pine is every bit the movie star laird of the land and both his vocal delivery and movement allow him to carry the picture with ease. Dillane makes Edward a more subtle and devious character than Patrick McGoohan’s straight-forwardly powerful king in ‘Braveheart’. 

Aaron Taylor-Johnson marauds and rages as Robert’s extremely angry and violent ally James Douglas and Florence Pugh adds another intelligent performance to her growing list of impressive roles (‘Lady Macbeth’, ‘The Little Drummer Girl’). The conflict is let down somewhat by Billy Howle, who makes the future Edward II a bit too weaselly and psychotic; the pace, which takes its time (Update: the film was cut by 20 minutes for release); and some typical historical fudging. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd captures the glorious Scottish scenery lavishly, though, and several composers contribute traditional music that sounds authentic.

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival; Released: UK: Nov. 9 (Curzon Artificial Eye); Streamed on Netflix from Nov. 9; Cast: Chris Pine, Florence Pugh, Stephen Dillane, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Billy Howle; Director: David Mackenzie; Writers: Bathsheba Doran, David Mackenzie, James Macinnes; Director of photography: Barry Ackroyd; Production designer: Donald Graham Burt; Editor: Jake Roberts; Costume designer: Jane Petrie; Producer: Gillian Berrie; Executive producers: Richard Brown, Steve Golin, Stan Wlodkowski; Production: Sigma Films, Anonymous Content, Clockwork Sessions; Rating: UK: 18 / US: R; running time: 137 minutes at TIFF; 121 minutes on release.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Steve McQueen’s ‘Widows’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Forget the shallow glitz of ‘Ocean’s 8’, the women in Steve McQueen’s full-of-surprises caper movie ‘Widow’ really mean business. The British filmmaker (‘Hunger’, ‘2 Years a Slave’) brings his serious view of the world to an escapist drama and it is all the more entertaining for that.

Oscar-winner Viola Davis (facing in the picture above) steps up to a leading role and she carries the film with aplomb in the role of Veronica, a woman whose life is turned upside down when a heist goes wrong and her husband, a professional thief, is killed along with his henchmen. Also gone is the money they were trying to steal and Veronica becomes the target of attempts by assorted villains to recover it with her life on the line. When she discovers detailed plans made by her late husband for another robbery, she rounds up the other gangster widows to pull it off.

Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki (pictured left) and Cynthia Erivo (with Davis below) play the other women and the foursome become a formidable outfit in the face of obstacles not only from criminals but also crooked cops and politicians. Drawn from a 1983 British miniseries written by Lynda La Plante (‘Prime Suspect’), with a script by Gillian Flynn (‘Gone Girl’) and McQueen, the film is a taut, suspenseful and polished drama steeped in reality with many unexpected twists and turns.

Rodriguez is somewhat underused but Debicki (‘The Night Manager’) adds steel to her seemingly flighty character and Erivo (left), as a very tough cookie, makes another strong impression following her terrific showing in ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’. McQueen has cast some interesting men for them to play against including Liam Neeson as Veronica’s husband, Colin Farrell as a political chancer and Robert Duvall as his bombastic father. With the setting moved to Chicago, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and production designer Adam Stockhausen make full use of the gritty locations and composer Hans Zimmer’s score is lean and sinewy to match. 

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival; Released: UK: Nov. 6 (Fox) / US: Nov. 16 (Fox). Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coom, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson; Director: Steve McQueen: Writers: Gillian Flynn, Steve McQueen based on characters created by Lynda La Plante; Director of photography: Sean Bobbit; Production designer: Adam Stockhausen; Music: Hans Zimmer; Editor: Joe Walker; Costume designer: Jenny Eagan; Producers: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan; Executive producers: Daniel Battsek, Rodrigo Cortés, Rose Garnett, Matthew Senreich, Bergen Swanson; Production: Regency Enterprises, See-Saw Films, Film4, New Regency Pictures; Rating: UK: 15 / US: R; running time: 128 minutes.

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TIFF18 BRIEFS: ‘Colette’, ‘Non-Fiction’, ‘American Woman’, ‘The Front Runner’, ‘Red Joan’, ‘The Old Man and the Gun’, ‘Vita & Virginia’, ‘Destroyer’

From the Toronto International Film Festival


Keira Knightley gives her most assured performance yet in the title role of Wash Westmoreland’s intelligent and engaging costume tale ‘Colette’. Set in fin de siècle Paris, it follows a young writer named Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette as she marries an older man, Henri Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West) whose publishing company churns out banal but popular books under his pseudonym ‘Willy’. When she displays genuine talent, Henri blithely publishes her writing under his own nom-de-plume. Fresh and sexy, her stories become a huge success but the true author remains a secret. Broad and vulgar, Henri encourages his young wife in frolics with men and women in Parisienne society so she can write more provocative yarns. When Colette embraces her new life she also grows into a flamboyant, witty and independent person portrayed most winningly by Knightley.


Juliette Binoche is a delight among a very pleasing cast of smooth and nuanced French players in Olivier Assayas’s comedy ‘Non-Fiction’, a shrewd and witty roundelay involving a handful of Parisian literary types. She plays a TV actress married to a sophisticated publisher (Guillaume Canet) whose immediate circle includes writers, publicists and entrepreneurs as they grapple with the incursion of the digital world on traditional publishing and their assorted liaisons. (Titled ‘Double Lives’ on IMDb)

‘American Woman’

Sienna Miller (pictured above) is outstanding in Jake Scott’s portrait of a beautiful and reckless but determined working-class woman who must overcome not only her lousy taste in men but the sudden disappearance of her teenaged daughter. Great work, too, by Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Amy Madigan, Will Sasso and the boys who play her grandson. Brad Ingelsby’s script is insightful and agile and Adam Wiltzie’s score helps nail the place and time.

‘The Front Runner’

Jason Reitman’s account of how Senator Gary Hart managed to blow his presidential chances in 1988 by his inability to keep his pants on is really a newspaper story but it’s remarkably naive. Much of the time is spent in the newsrooms of the Miami Herald, the Washington Post and the New York Times but the editors and reporters are depicted as if they’d never covered a sanctimonious, hypocritical politician before. There’s much missing from the real story, not least the way Hart’s libido and arrogance allowed him to be hoodwinked into partying on a boat called Monkey Business. Hugh Jackman (above) plays Hart as smug and intense but charming when he wants to be and Vera Farmiga makes more of her thankless role as his long-suffering wife than the script allows. Rob Simonsen’s music helps set the scene.

‘Red Joan’

Sophie Cookson (pictured above) is very impressive as idealistic young physicist Joan Stanley who gets involved with a group of intellectual communists at Cambridge just before World War II and ends up in a plot to share the secrets of the atom bomb with the Soviet Union. The story is told in flashbacks with Judi Dench as the older Joan. Theatre legend Trevor Nunn shows he knows about film too. George Fenton’s score is typically evocative.

‘The Old Man and the Gun’

Robert Redford has said that David Lowery’s ‘The Old Man and the Gun’ is his final appearance as an actor and as a farewell it’s a likeable if forgettable picture. He plays a real-life professional thief named Forrest Tucker who so charmed employees at the banks he robbed that they appeared not to mind too much. Whenever he’s caught and sent to prison, he manages to soon escape and elude capture until he makes his next mistake. It rolls along harmlessly with Casey Affleck as a cop on his trail and cameos from Tom Waits and Danny Glover as fellow thieves and a scene in which Elizabeth Moss plays Tucker’s estranged daughter. Aged but still charismatic, Redford charms easily but the delight is to see the ageless Sissy Spacek in top form as a shrewd, wry and tolerant rancher he runs into while fleeing a crime. Their chemistry makes the film worth seeing.

‘Vita & Virginia’

The best way to watch Chanya Button’s ‘Vita & Virginia’ would be on a big screen at home with a glass of wine and the sound turned off. Actress Eileen Atkins has adapted her play based on the letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, part of the early 20th-century Bloomsbury set, who had a volatile but long-lasting relationship. The Times critic said of the play, “If two orchids were to communicate across a perfumed hothouse, they would surely sound a bit like this.” The film suffers from poor lighting, clumsy editing, pretentious prattle and incongruous music. The players and costumes, however, are gorgeous. Gemma Arterton (pictured above right), as Vita, and Elizabeth Debicki, as Virginia, change outfits for every scene and they are equal to every ravishing close-up. 


Grim, dull and clichéd, Karyn Kusama’s crime yarn ‘Destroyer’ smacks of a vanity project for Nicole Kidman (pictured above) who appears first in a state of utter dissipation as a bitter cop who reflects on a violent incident in her past when she was young and vibrant.  It’s all under-belly Los Angeles, drugs and guns, the usual stuff, with an overbearing score.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Peter Farrelly’s ‘Green Book’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – You don’t expect gentleness and warmth from one of the Farrelly Brothers but that’s exactly what you get in Peter Farrelly’s crowd-pleasing fact-based film ‘Green Book’. Viggo Mortensen and Mahersaha Ali complement each other as fish out of water not just in each other’s company but in the places they visit.

Ali plays the real-life jazz great Don Shirley, a refined, cultured and closeted pianist of the highest rank; so high that his elegant, memento-filled New York apartment is above Carnegie Hall. When he is invited to go on tour in the Deep South, since he is black and it is the 1960s, he wisely decides to take a minder with him. The title refers to a book published at the time that listed places in southern states where African-Americans were welcome. Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga, known as Tony Lip, a garrulous bouncer at the Copacabana night club who comes well-recommended for being tough, resourceful and honest. He also is a rough-at-the-edges Italian-American with all the attitudes and prejudices you might expect.

Tony is not interested at first but when the Copa closes for a lengthy period of renovation, he decides that Shirley’s offer is too generous to decline so off they set with Tony chattering away, stuffing himself full of food and smoking cigarettes at the wheel while Shirley tries to bite his lip in the rear. There’s nothing too surprising in what they encounter as the South becomes Deeper and the racism more overt but the dynamic between the two men is constantly engaging with smart incidents and clever dialogue. If there’s an element of ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ and a few clichés they don’t detract from a throughly enjoyable time. (No wonder the film picked up the public vote at the end of TIFF18).

Much different from his Oscar-winning turn in ‘Moonlight’, Ali is lean, smooth and endearing while Mortensen is overweight, uncouth and endearing; they make a fine odd couple and both should be in the running for awards along with the picture. One of the producers and screenwriters (along with Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie) is Tony Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga and apparently both Tony and Shirley became lifelong friends, so their conflict is treated with great affection, but that’s all right. Tony’s family fit the stereotype but Linda Cardellini impresses as his wife. All the crafts are fine and Kris Bowers’s score hits the mark while music supervisor Tom Wolfe has assembled a sumptuous soundtrack of jazz and classical pieces.

Screened at Toronto International Film Festival; Release dates: US: Nov. 21 (Universal) / UK: Feb.1 (eOne); Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Don Stark, P.J. Byrne, Sebastian Maniscalco, Brian Stepanek, Nick Vallelonga; Director: Peter Farrelly; Writers: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly; Director of photography: Sean Porter; Production designer: Tim Galvin; Music: Kris Bowers; Editor: Patrick J. Don Vito; Costume designer: Betsy Heimann; Producers: Jim Burke, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, Charles B. Wessler; Executive producers: Steven Farneth, Jonathan King, Kwame Parker, John Sloss, Octavia Spencer; Production: Participant Media, DreamWorks, Amblin Partners, Innisfree Pictures, Wessler Entertainment; Rating: US: PG-13 / UK: 12A; running time: 130 minutes

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Brady Corbet’s ‘Vox Lux’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Just as in ‘Jackie’ two years ago, Natalie Portman gives a scintillating performance of a driven and complicated woman in a not very successful picture. Director and screenwriter Brady Corbet’s ‘Vox Lux’, which tells of a pop superstar named Celeste who survived a mass murder as a teenager, is a bit of a mess but even though she enters the picture late, Portman is mesmerising.

Corbet takes aim at fame in the picture and ties it to the kind of shattering events that change lives forever. With a patronising voice over by Willem Dafoe, the story unfolds in labeled chapters starting with a harrowing school shooting in 2001 that, while badly wounded, the teenaged Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives. To aid with her recovery, she and her older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) write a song that Celeste performs in a church service. A recording of it is posted on the internet and results in instant fame as she becomes a pop sensation.

Cut to 2017 and Celeste is a full-blown pop diva, a tough and brassy superstar with a broad New York accent plus a drink and drugs habit that has contributed to a scandal over her response to a driving incident and visual links to an act of terrorism. With her career in jeopardy, she sets out to launch a new album with a concert back where the  school shooting took place. The potential for disaster is made worse due to her difficult relationship with her teenaged daughter (also played by Raffey Cassidy, pictured with Portman left), the sister she bullies and her demanding manager (Jude Law).

Portman does for Celeste what she did for Jackie Kennedy and turns her into a dynamic confusion of brilliant talent, outrage, arrogance and fragile vulnerability. Whether it’s family, management, the press or fans, she faces every challenge with ferocity. In a better film, she would be a shoo-in for awards and Raffey Cassidy, with two similar roles to play, would be right there with her. As it is, between some riveting scenes, the film lags with sequences that barely make sense. A bizarre score by Scott Walker adds to the dislocation and the original songs provided by Sia are merely generic pop. Cinematographer Lol Crawley, production designer Sam Lisenco and costume designer Keri Langerman, though, make it all look good. The production numbers are staged vividly and Portman delivers magnificently.

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Released: US Dec. 7 (Neon) / UK: TBA 2019; Cast: Natalie Portman; Jude Law; Raffey Cassidy; Stacy Martin; Jennifer Ehle; Natasha Romanova; Writer, director: Brady Corbet; Director of photography: Lol Crawley; Production designer: Sam Lisenco; Music: Scott Walker; Editor: Matthew Hannam; Costume designer: Keri Langerman; Producers: D.J. Gugenheim, Andrew Lauren, David Litvak, Michel Litvak, Robert Salerno, Gary Michael Walters, Brian Young; Executive producers: Mark Gillespie, Jude Law, Svetlana Metkina, Natalie Portman; Production: Killer Films, Andrew Lauren Productions, Bold Films; Rating: US: R; Running time: 110 minutes

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Damien Chazelle’s ‘First Man’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – From the very first image of a man in a narrow tin bucket rattling horribly and bouncing at furiously high speed off the atmosphere, Damien Chazelle’s terrific ‘First Man’ focuses on the terrifyingly claustrophobic nature of the planes and rockets that ended up with a man walking on the moon. It’s that old war film trope about fighter planes shot up badly made larger: “You can’t send those kids up in crates like that!”

If the story of Apollo 11 and the 1969 moon landings sounds all too familiar, this film offers an impressively fresh and memorable new depiction. The flight sequences are agonising and the home-base scenes are profound and moving. Ryan Gosling gives his best performance so far as the complex, withdrawn and taciturn Neil Armstrong, using his acclaimed talent for silence to suggest a deep well of unspoken and perhaps unacknowledged emotions. The man is written as almost unknowable and Gosling conveys that without making him unsympathetic, which is a major achievement. 

Claire Foy is equally good as his long-suffering but devoted wife Janet. Josh Singer’s accomplished screenplay is based on James R. Hansen’s book, ‘First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong’, and so the emphasis is more on the astronaut than on his wife but Foy makes Janet a vivid presence as she reveals an inner strength of will to match her husband’s and a determination for her and their children not to be excluded from the danger and meaningfulness of his achievements. 

The film follows Armstrong as he proves his mettle as a test pilot who escapes death narrowly when the X-15 rocket plane he’s flying in order to win a spot on the NASA’s team of astronauts pushes the envelope of high speed and atmospheric pressure to exceedingly dangerous levels. Meanwhile, at home he and his wife must deal with the life-threatening illness of their infant daughter. Her fate has a dramatic impact on both their lives and plays a significant role in why Armstrong was willing to test his own fate on the moon shot.

As Tom Wolfe suggested in ‘The Right Stuff’, the colourful jet plane test pilots who tried to break the sound barrier were like the Cavaliers of flight while the self-contained, almost bland astronauts were the Roundheads. Each man is tested to extremes in a series of psychological and physical challenges as they grapple with home lives that are mundane Fifties-like suburban normalcy. Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stall, Pablo Schreiber. Patrick Fugit and Lukas Haas are among the fine cast of astronauts and Olivia Hamilton impresses as the wife of one those who is killed before Apollo 11.

Throughout, there are reminders of the fearfully tiny space into which the moon-bound explorers were crammed. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren gets inside production designer Nathan Crowley’s cramped structures while composer Justin Hurwitz and the sound-mix team provide the harrowing sounds that suggest imminent metal fatigue and instant death. The climactic sequence is a masterclass in cinematic terror and the epilogue scenes suggest how enormously difficult it must have been for mere humans to adjust to what they had experienced.

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival; Released: Oct. 12 (UK/US: Universal Pictures); Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas; Director: Damien Chazelle; Writer: Josh Singer, based on the book by James R. Hansen; Director of photography: Linus Sandgren; Production designer: Nathan Crowley; Music: Justin Hurwitz; Editor: Tom Cross; Costume designer: Mary Zophres; Producers: Marty Bowen, Damien Chazelle, Wyck Godfrey, Isaac Klausner; Executive producers: Adam Merims, Josh Singer, Steven Spielberg; Production: Temple Hill Entertainment; Universal Pictures; Dreamworks Pictures; Rating: UK: 12 / US: PG-13; running time: 141 minutes

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Pawel Pawlikowski’s ‘Cold War’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Pawel Pawlikowski’s ‘Cold War’ is a masterpiece. It’s the story of two lovers whose struggle to be together evokes the complexities of life in Poland following World War II as the richness, beauty and contradictions of Polish culture clash with the cold, harsh and unforgiving force of Soviet rule.

Filmed in shimmering black-and-white on the boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio and running just 88 minutes, the film is filled with music and dancing as the story unfolds over several years with economical sequences that plumb the depths of emotion between a laconic pianist, Wiktor played by Tomasz Kot, and a wilful, joyously gifted young singer and dancer, Zula, played by Joanna Kulig. Together, they are unforgettable.

Already on release in the U.K., the film will be released in the U.S. on Dec. 21.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Bradley Cooper’s ‘A Star Is Born’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Enjoyment of Bradley Cooper’s reimagined ‘A Star is Born’ depends almost entirely on having a taste for the singing of Lady Gaga. Her many fans will surely love it. For those less enamoured, probably not. She sings a lot in the film, which is a retelling of a yarn that has always had difficulty drumming up sympathy for its protagonists, one star on the way up, the other on the way down.

Fredric March, in the 1937 original with Janet Gaynor , and James Mason, in the 1954 remake with Judy Garland, were both great actors who could make any role plausible. Kris Kristofferson in the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Cooper now with Lady Gaga, not so much. The director and co-star makes it a love story with both characters a motherless child in need of love and protection. He plays a bluesy country-rock superstar named Jackson Maine who manages to play intricate guitar riffs while being five sheets to the wind on gin and pills.

Drunk after a gig, he stumbles into a bar in a nowhere part of town which happens to have the most interesting characters in the film, a group of very polished drag queens, who are soon left behind. One performer in the bar is an actual woman, Lady Gaga as Ally, whose ambitions to be a singer-songwriter, she later explains, have been stymied by a prominent proboscis. When she sings ‘La Vie En Rose’ she captivates the suddenly sober Jackson Maine and he is instantly smitten. The problem is that while the performance should be magical, Lady Gaga powers it out sounding less like Edith Piaf than Ethel Merman.

Nevertheless, it sets Maine and Ally on a course that will lead to her becoming a huge success even as his drinking and drug taking start to take him down. The transitions are abrupt and the romance adolescent as jealousy soon arises with complaints of “Why aren’t I enough for you?” Money is never mentioned and there’s no sign of Maine still having a recording contract, which is odd as he continues to pack stadiums for his gigs. As a result, a glutinous British talent manager and producer named Rex (Ravi Gavin) steps in and immediately begins to style our budding Carole King as a super-styled pop singer along the lines of, say, Lady Gaga. Her veteran lover takes umbrage at this and given his wayward habits, it won’t be long before he does something to ruin things. His ultimate humiliating transgression, however, is laughably lame given the atrocious things that rock stars have gotten away with over the years.

Cooper can be a pretty good actor when Jennifer Lawrence is around but for a dissolute drunk his character looks pretty damned good despite his careless beard, lank hair and growly voice that adds up to a poor imitation of Jeff Bridges. Lady Gaga is pleasant when she’s not singing but when she does it’s as if she were auditioning for Simon Cowell as she cranks her voice up past the X factor to XI. Maine’s numbers are generic country rock and her songs, obviously, are a matter of taste. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique keeps everything nice and shiny and editor Jay Cassidy makes sure the camera never captures Maine’s guitar fretwork. It’s not a terrible film; it’s just not very good.

Released: UK: Oct. 3 / US: Oct. 5 (Warner Bros.); Cast: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper. Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Anthony Ramos, Dave Chappelle, Ron Rifkin; Director: Bradley Cooper; Director of photography: Matthew Libatique; Production designer: Karen Murphy; Editor: Jay Cassidy; Costumes: Erin Benach; Producers: Bradley Cooper, Bill Gerber, Lynette Howell Taylor, Jon Peters, Todd Phillips; Executive producers: Basil Iwanyk, Sue Kroll, Ninja Kuykendall, Ravi Mehta, Heather Parry, Michael Rapino; Production: Live Nation Productions; Rated: UK: 15 / US: R; running time, 135 minutes


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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Mike Leigh’s ‘Peterloo’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – British director Mike Leigh’s latest, ‘Peterloo’, is a handsome period piece about a terrible incident in British history following victory over Napoleon at Waterloo when working class protestors in a 19th century English town were cut down by armed soldiers with many killed and more wounded.

The film’s attention to historical detail is to be admired greatly but the storytelling is so laboured that it will serve better as a tool for history teachers than entertainment for movie audiences. Cinematographer Dick Pope’s images are like paintings with first-class production design, sets and costumes. The performers, including Rory Kinnear and Maxine Peake, deliver with relish Leigh’s dialogue, which is heavy with regional accents.

The divide between the haves and have-nots in British society, however, is made obvious from the start as parliament rewards the Duke of Wellington with £750,000 while in the slums of Manchester a woman spends all day, every day, making pies that she lugs on a tray to market for one penny a pie.

There’s a lot of speechifying on both sides.The poor are mostly honest, industrious and accepting of their fate. The dishonest ones, who steal a bite to eat or a coat against the cold, are dispatched to prison, Australia or the gallows. The wealthy are all Southern nobs and the local big-wigs, keen to keep their nests feathered, smirk and sneer and impose the law with an iron rod. As organisers work towards a peaceful demonstration in support of democracy, the outcome appears inevitable and the film remains pedestrian.

‘Peterloo’ screened at the Venice International Film Festival and it will be shown at the London Film Festival on Oct. 17. It is due for release in the U.K. on Nov. 2.


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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Bardem, Cruz in ‘Everybody Knows’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Married Spanish Oscar-winners Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem have become a reliable partnership onscreen and their latest feature together, ‘Everybody Knows’, is a bright addition to their canon.

Written and directed by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (‘The Salesman’, ‘The Past’), it’s a handsome, almost old-fashioned romantic drama that turns into a mystery with the kidnaping of a young woman from a large and colourful wedding reception.

Cruz and Bardem play former lovers now married to other people and their relationship is central to the plot, which changes the mood of the film from joyous celebration to sobering fear and consequential examination of family secrets and resentments.

The two stars are matched by a fine cast and the film is shot beautifully by José Luis Alcaine (‘Volver’) with an evocative score by Javier Limón.

Screened at Cannes and Karlovy Vary, the film will open in the United Kingdom on March 8, 2019.

Full review to come.

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