TIFF18 BRIEFS: ‘Roma’, ‘Widows’, ‘Non-FIction’, ‘Vox Lux’, ‘Outlaw/King’

By Ray Bennett in Toronto


Oscar-winning director Alfonso Caron (‘Gravity’) offers a warm, moving and engrossing portrait of the neighbourhood in Mexico City, Roma, that he recalls from the turbulent 1970s. He’s also producer, writer and cinematographer and he excels in all three roles to create a memorable film so good that it would be no surprise to see him earn more Academy Awards including best picture. School teacher Yalitza Aparicio, in her first movie role, is unforgettable as a maid who keeps a middle-class family from imploding as she deals with a personal crisis and social upheaval on the streets. It will screen at the London Film Festival on Oct. 13 and open in the U.S. on Dec. 14 before it is streamed on Netflix.


British filmmaker Steve McQueen (’12 Years a Slave’) brings his serious view of the world to a female caper movie and it puts previous attempts in the shade. Viola Davis stars as the wife of a professional criminal played by Liam Neeson whose latest heist ends in a violent explosion that leaves four widows. When the money from the heist goes missing, other villains come calling to demand recompense from the four women. Rather than roll over, they decide to attempt another robbery. Steeped in social reality but polished and exciting, it’s very entertaining with a cast that includes Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Jon Bernthal and Robert Duvall. Hans Zimmer is in excellent form with the score. Due for release in the U.K. on Nov. 6 and in the U.S. on Nov. 16.


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)

‘Vox Lux’

Following ‘Jackie’, Natalie Portman (pictured above) gives another scintillating performance in a not very successful picture. Direct0r and screenwriter Brady Corbet’s tale of a pop superstar named Celeste whose childhood survival of a school shooting scars her for life is a bit of a mess but both Portman and Raffey Cassidy as the young Celeste make the film worth seeing. The grown-up Celeste is a full-on diva and Portman goes to town both on- and off-stage in sequences that are really gripping in-between scenes that barely make sense.


Chris Pine keeps his Scots burr soft and believable in the saga of Robert the Bruce, the 14th century leader who succeeded where William (Braveheart) Wallace failed and united Scottish clans to fight the English. It’s a rousing adventure with several battles, a warm love story, and glorious settings filmed across Scotland. 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 the outlaw king’s beloved. It is fairly predictable, however, and Billy Howle overplays the psychotic future Edward II. To be screened at the London Film Festival on Oct. 17 and streamed by Netflix starting Nov. 9.

Full reviews to follow.


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TIFF18 BRIEFS: ‘American Woman’, ‘The Front Runner’, ‘Red Joan’, ‘Vita & Virginia’, ‘Destroyer’

By Ray Bennett

‘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 as much of the time is spent in the newsrooms of the Miami Herald, the Washington Post and the New York Times. It’s solid story-telling with fine performances by Hugh Jackman as Hart (pictured above), Vera Farmiga as his wife and a large cast. 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.

‘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.

Full reviews to come.

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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.

Full review to come.

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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 Leigh’s dialogue, heavy with regional accents, with relish.

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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FILM REVIEW: Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Passionate and provocative but also at times great fun, Spike Lee’s new film ‘BlacKkKlansman’, which opens today in the United Kingdom, tells an only slightly exaggerated true story about a black cop who infiltrated the white supremacist group in the 1970s. Continue reading

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Make stars accept awards for action-film crafts winners

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The American Motion Picture Academy has made a foolish error by introducing a condescending award for popular films. The thinking appears to be that fans of blockbuster action, super-hero and animated films will flock to watch if their favourites get a mention. It’s the wrong move. Continue reading

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TIFF 2018: Toronto film fest sets first 2018 galas

By Ray Bennett

The Toronto International Film Festival today announced a list of 17 galas and 30 special presentations for the 2018 event in September. They include 21 world premieres and seven international bows with films from around the world. Continue reading

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KFMF18: From video games to James Bond

By Ray Bennett

KRAKÓW – David Arnold and his music for the James Bond film “Casino Royale” made sure the 11th Kraków Film Music Festival ended on a high note Sunday night as he played the iconic 007 guitar theme over the end credits at a screening of the film with live orchestra. Continue reading

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