By Anne Brodie
TIFF – Benediction, Terence Davies’ biography of World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon, played by Jack Lowden as a young man and soldier and Peter Capaldi as the embittered old man weaves the story of his life in classically style, elegantly and philosophically. Beginning with archival war footage, underlining Sassoon’s severe PTSD, his poetry, expressing and defining his awful experiences and lifelong effects, it takes him through radical personal choices he made right up to the end. Gay but married to a woman he barely knows, atheist but converted to Roman Catholicism in old age, he was a man whose later life bore no resemblance to his bright start, a pacifist defeated by memories and participation in the war. Davies tells the tale at his leisure, providing space for thought and Sassoon’s poems, in what is ultimately a dour and tragic portrait of his life.
The TIFF golden ticket, set to open on Oct 22, is Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “unfilmable” 1965 sci-fi novel Dune. It is hyper imaginative – s massive galaxies and impassable spice deserts (today oil), unthinkably futuristic innovation and tech against which is set a world of humans at war for territory – and spice. Wars capable of shutting down kingdoms and building new ones, against endless catastrophes and obstacles, that bring a young man to rule in chaos. The esthetics are out of this world so to speak, gorgeous and outlandish. There’s a suggestion that a design for human flight was hammered into reality – 10k years into the future. There’s so much to see, you’ll look hard and long and want more. Oscar Isaac’s Duke Leto Atreides has power over this universe but it runs out, transferring to his young and fragile son Paul. Paul’s widowed mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) pushes him forward, like Lady Macbeth, to claim his legacy, to rule the spice deserts and lead their people to a bright future as jealous rival tribes come in for the kill. Emotional elements are a tad overwhelmed by the spectacle and stoic characters remain at arm’s length, but it’s a beautiful spectacle. Stars Zendaya, Jason Momoa, Dave Bautista, Javier Bardem, Charlotte Rampling. Dune Part 2 is on its way plus a TV series.
TIFF – Benedict Cumberbatch goes against his image as Phil, a psychotic rancher in the Wild West circa 1925 in The Power of the Dog. He’s a Yale classics graduate who has chosen to live the cowboy life, unwashed, mean and toxic as a junkyard dog, boss of a bunch of admiring cowhands who like to watch him neuter bulls and humiliate people with his poison tongue. His sensitive and canny brother George (Jesse Plemons) unintentionally turns the screws on him when he brings home a wife and her devoted son (Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Phil comes for her, verbal guns -blazin’. She’s catatonic with fright so she drinks to get through the days. Her son is frail-looking so Phil to lay into him; he doesn’t know looks are deceiving. Jane Campion’s beautifully shot (in New Zealand) parable goes to extreme places and builds insurmountable tension in lifelike ways, and is deeply haunting. Cumberbatch reaches for the skies and touches them as, as this powerful, violent elegy continues to haunt me. A version of Psalm 22.20 reads “Deliver my soul from the sword, My darling from the power of the dog”.
TIFF – Scarborough from directors Shasha Nakhai, Rich Williamson and writer Catherine Hernandez is set in a low-income enclave in eastern Toronto. Its diverse population is well represented in three families whose children attend the same breakfast and literacy programme run by a nurturing leader Ms. Hina (Aliya Kanani.) She sees up close that each child has his or her own set of difficulties and gifts. Little Laura is neglected and starving and can’t read, talented Bing is bullied and Johnny’s autism is disrupting the programme. His sister is well adjusted and has a close protective bond with Bing. Each family’s story is told – drug addiction, extreme poverty, rebuilding after escaping a domestic abuse situation and systemic racism, in a remarkably lyrical, cinematic way. Each character contributes to the fabric of the community, for good or ill. There’s the kindly prostitute, the old man who babysits kids when necessary, the gifted street artist. White characters are unsympathetic, the ones who demand Christmas carols in the class, the deeply racist father who can’t keep his daughter fed, the abusive mother, the unyielding boss of the programme who tells Ms. Hina not to care so much. It’s not all doom, but it is an engrossing, mature, well-made and rich tapestry of a community in crisis, told with compassion. Stars Liam Diaz, Essence Fox and Anna Claire Beitel.
TIFF – Former actor Justine Bateman, writer and director of Violet brings a surprisingly intimate experience of anxiety and “fear-based decisions”. Olivia Munn as Violet is head of production in a Hollywood film company, working under a sadistic boss. Justin Theroux narrates the toxic, angry inner voices in Violet’s head, competing to be heard and obeyed versus her need to quash them. It’s a devilish voice that taunts her – she’s always wrong, no one cares for her, they think she’s less-than and unattractive. Her staff verbally abuses and mocks her and the script she championed and dropped because of them, and she takes it. For most of her life, she’s agreed with the voices, but despite all, she’s managed to forge a successful career and maintain a loyal male friend who listens and comforts. She runs into an ex who broke with her when she caused a serious fire in his apartment. The voices become louder and unbearable, the “committee” that confuses and angers her makes her act rashly, as the screen turns red. Violet often reflects on carefree childhood moments when she was in charge of her feelings; since then she’s become estranged from her family. It’s an extremely tough journey she’s taken but one day she decides to do the opposite, to do things differently and change her thinking. Bateman’s sensitive piece is a hard-earned triumph.
TIFF – Director Tea Lindeburg’s As in Heaven is set in the late 1800s on a remote farm in Denmark. A woman with eight children is expected to deliver a ninth baby any day now. Fourteen-year-old Lise (Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl ) walks in the wheatfields when she has a vision of blood pouring down from a black cloud, thicker than rain. Stunned she returns home where her father tells her she shouldn’t waste her time going away for school at the end of summer. She’s in charge of the children who worry that she won’t come home as she leaves, and she reassures them. Lise can’t get any answers about her mother’s condition but hears her screaming in agony. She prays for her mother, admitting she’s been bad and realising if her mother dies, she must forego a better future to stay home and raise the children. Lise’ adolescent self is in a state of upheaval and her visions continue, forecasting bloody doom. An element of the supernatural brings a strange counterpoint to a desperate situation.
TIFF – Snakehead – wow. Since when do we get two female protagonists with iron will, brute force and smarts. It just so happens, Dai Mah (Jade Wu) is the elderly and bulletproof matriarch of a human trafficking cartel based out of New York’s Chinatown. The other Sister Tse (Shuya Chang )is an immigrant just released from eight long years in the slammer, where she picked up a lot of survival tricks and wicked a capacity for violence. Sounds rough, right? It is, but it’s also an outstanding fable about women with muscle doing anything to survive in a male universe. Writer-director Evan Jackson Leong has created a milestone in action films; giving women the power and will to make it. Human smugglers (Snakeheads) slip illegal immigrants from South East Asia into the US at $50K a head, ultra-dangerous and often unsurvivable. Sister Tse endures life-threatening conditions making her way to New York, but she’s there for one reason, to find the daughter she gave up years earlier. She will work off the $50K for Dai Mah cooking and helping with the trafficking business. the two become close, trusted associates and the debt is quickly whittling down; she soon learns Dai Mah runs Chinatown with the help of her psychotic sons. Sister Tse is a threat to the, and the heat builds, just as the FBI looms. if your heart can take it, this is an incredibly raw and full experience.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye stars Jessica Chastain in a tour-de-force performance as the wife of disgraced TV evangelical Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). Together the couple from International Falls, MN, at the border with Canada, built a small TV following that grew through pledges and financial “partnerships” with adoring followers to a 24/7 satellite network with 20M viewers a day, phenomenal numbers now – and then – back in the 80s. The Bakkers were a different kind of TV evangelical, espousing love, acceptance and prosperity when AIDS, conservativism and Republican values were the rule, all the while dripping in diamonds and furs. Tammy didn’t bother herself with how the money kept on coming, and Jim began building a wall to make sure she wouldn’t. He was driving his devoted viewers; he had to create the lifestyle she needed and the Christian theme parks and hotels he envisioned. They were soon laid low due to corruption and sex scandals and the enduring images of Tammy Faye dabbing her tears, careful not to smear that clown’s face of makeup and Jim dishevelled and wailing off to prison for 120 years. What an ugly story! A true story that producer Chastain and director Michael Showalter felt needed telling.
TIFF – The Starling in Theaters now and on Netflix Sept 24. Director Theodore Melfi’s piece on loss and fallout stars Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Kevin Kline and Daveed Diggs. McCarthy’s Lilly’s dealing with an empty house, an overgrown garden and an aggressive starling that constantly attacks her. Lilly’s husband Jack (O’Dowd) is in a mental health facility; he attempted suicide when their infant daughter Katie died. Both of them are suffering and stuck, he spits out medications, she’s angry and acts impulsively, giving away all their furniture, making occasional forays into the garden when she has no idea what she’s doing and pondering ways to get rid of the starling. A therapist at the facility gives her the name of a doctor (Kevin Kine) now a local vet after some humiliation at Johns Hopkins and even though he’s a VET, he treats her. The characters’ misery is the meat of the film and it’s a hard hole to escape. Kline, who’s been absent from the screen for a while, is transcendent in the small role of the confused vet/shrink.
TIFF – Julia is a true feel-good documentary from Julie Cohen and Betsy West, the story of one of the most beloved TV personalities in history – Julia Child! Child changed the cuisine landscape in North America via a low-budget TV cooking show on the Boston PBS station and a cookbook that took Child and two co-authors twelve years to write. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a deep dive into the science and technique of making delicious food and inspired by her passion for French culture and cuisine remains one of the best sellers in the cooking genre. Child’s vibrant personality and fearlessness – and a considerable amount of quirk – made her a TV sensation, and celebrity when there were no celebrity foodies. Follow her story from a wealthy Republican background in tony Pasadena to living in a garret in Paris, working in intelligence during WWII, finding the perfect man for her temperament and passions in Paul Child and getting on with the job. She’s a total inspiration to women everywhere, breaking the glass ceiling when most housewives silenced their ambitions and served frozen TV dinners. What a woman!
In general release is Lina Roessler’s Best Sellers, a story about a New York publishing house on the decline that made its reputation fifty years earlier with the release of J.D.Salinger-esque Harris Shaw’s landmark novel. Aubrey Plaza’s Lucy runs the firm, left to her by her father but it’s in bad shape. She has an idea that could save it- find the reclusive Shaw – Michael Caine- and get a book he owes the firm according to the terms of his decades-old contract. Knowing his truculent reputation, she carries through- it’s the only way to save the firm from financial collapse. She and her entertaining assistant (Ellen Wong) are working on an impossible mission. They break into his home and demand the book. He’s drunk and taken aback but agrees to do his old friend’s daughter a good deed and write it, and he agrees to go on a reading tour, which because of his eccentric behaviour, becomes an internet sensation. But he’s holding back, something from the past is haunting him. That’s the gist of Best Sellers but the heart is the growing relationship between Lucy and Harris and the truths that emerge with trust and love. So Caine and Plaza? It worked. In Theaters and TVOD.
Are you as excited as we are for Season Two of The Morning Show on AppleTV+? Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, who also co-executive produce are back as Alex and Bradley, navigating rough waters stirred up last season when Mitch was fired for sexual harassment and one of his accusers killed herself. He’s run away to Italy where he sits alone in his grand hotel suite, miserable and bitter. Alex has moved to rural Maine and wants nothing to do with TV after her inglorious end, Bradley’s still scheming (and screaming) to get off the morning show on onto the evening news, oblivious to the fact that it’s a new day and she is not entitled. Other young talents are emerging. Dan (Desean Terry ) is on a story no one has time for, about a deadly virus in Wuhan, China. And big shot journalist Laura Peterson (Julianna Margulies) who has an edgy rivalry with Alex focuses on Bradley. Everything is about to change but the people with power are dragging their feet and the on-air types are doing what they always do – demanding more and staging internecine wars. Newsroom shock and awe! The writing retains its high level of excellence, the series remains on the best in American TV.
An important documentary on efforts to protect an endangered animal species is available now on TVOD and Blu-Ray/DVD on Sept. 21st. The Center: Gibbons and Guardians paints a picture of optimism and can-do spirited staff and carers who shelter nine gibbons in Santa Clarita, California. The animals – lesser apes – are extraordinary; together they greet the dawn with a wailing chorus every day, have complicated relationships with one another and with their humans. They make things and use them, and filmmaker Alex M. Azmi has it all – including one male’s jealous rage when another fella approaches his beloved, and various scraps between the younger ones and the birth of baby Anastasia. And then there are the human interactions. Director Gabriella Skollar and a staffer marry and have a child who becomes the Center’s mascot, the devoted volunteers who work their way into jobs, the death of the Center founder and his legacy. The gibbons are kept in high spacious cages that suit them. Gibbons never touch the ground in their native forests and the cages recreate the experience. You’ll learn much about our wild animal cousins and think about the current sixth extinction and where we are, shoulder to shoulder with these wonderful beings. Jane Goodall, a friend of The Center speaks with authority and wonder about their high intelligence. A must-see doc. Did I mention gibbons mate 5 – 8 times a day?
London’s annual Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show dedicated this year to frontline health workers will air live on BritBox from September 19 – 24. Witness the glorious sights of the Royal Hospital Chelsea grounds transformed into a breathtaking floral universe with displays that have graced the event there since 1913. World-renowned florists, designers, growers and gardeners will present their visions for the first time in the event’s history – in September – not the spring, so its array of seasonal wonders will look different but reliably wonderful. There’s a competition element – awards such as Best Show Garden, Best Construction Award, and Best Exhibit in the Great Pavilion and emphasis on cutting-edge design and innovation. Members of The Royal Family often drop by.