By John H. Foote
Have they made a conscious decision at TIFF to make the festival less top heavy? I have always maintained the first five days are the busiest as the major offerings from Hollywood are screened. Not this year. The big films do not start until Monday which gives some smaller films a chance to shine.
Remember the first time audiences and critics saw Meryl Streep on film? It was a very small part in Julia (1977) with Jane Fonda and Fonda made clear Streep was going to be huge. The same thing happened with Mickey Rourke in Body Heat (1981) as the soft spoken arsonist teaching William Hurt’s murderous lawyer how to make a bomb. From the first moment we saw Rourke intensely singing to Bob Seeger, we could not shake him.
I feel this way about Danielle Brooks, so fine as convict Tasty on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. She has a single scene in this film, as a young mother visiting the father of her child on Death Row, having had no contact with him until she writes him requesting a visit years after his arrest. Miss Brooks is, I believe the real thing, she has what Pauline Kael called “bite you on the nose talent.” In just a few minutes of screen time she injects a fierce humanity into this film, and steals the film. She is unforgettable.
Alfred Woodard has earned some Oscar talk as Bernadine, the tough warden of a maximum security prison who has seen twelve executions on her watch. She does not just sign the papers, she is in the room, right beside the condemned prisoner as they gasp their dying breath. Gently before the toxic cocktail runs into their veins she asks the prisoner if they need anything, and gives them their dignity, quickly closing the curtains when something goes wrong during the execution.
The job has worn her down, her husband telling “I need a pulse” as she goes through the motions of marriage with him, disconnected because of the staggering weight of her job. One would think such a job is something to which you might become desensitized, but for Bernadine it is getting worse. She cannot sleep, she barely functions away from the prison, and another execution date is fast approaching.
Woodard is terrific in the film, the director often shooting her in close up, but it was Brooks I will not forget. The anguish she feels about doing the right thing and distancing herself from her child’s father is real because she does love him, but she could not have his world in the life of her child.
Alfred Woodard has been a major actress for the last 30 years, an immense talent who to the shame of the Academy has been nominated just once. She might be nominated for this but truly I think it is too small a film to break into the race. Despite the fine performances of the two women, it felt forever like a TV film.
Rosamund Pike continues to astonish on screen, this time as the confident, prickly scientist Madame Curie, who with her husband discover radium which became radiation and atomic power. Fearlessly portraying Curie as a brilliant independent woman in a man’s world, her arrogance often makes her out to be unlikable, but Pike infuses her with a sly humour that keeps the audience on her side. While elements of the film make it a typical biopic, there are some daring moments that set it apart from others. After her husband dies in a tragic street accident, she mourns him for the rest of her days, knowing finally he understood her better than any other man ever could. Now racked with cough, spitting up blood, her hands twisted and gnarled she too has become a victim of radium, an element which can be used for much good as she demonstrates but also a lethal weapon capable of monstrous horror and destruction. One of the bravest sequences in the film has Curie moving through history after her death, seeing radiation being used for cancer treatments but also the horrors of Hiroshima and Chernobyl. It is a striking sequence that ends the film. Spoiler? How can it be when history tells us Curie died in 1934 of radiation poisoning.
The strength of the film is Pike, who fearlessly throws herself into the role of a brilliant, demanding and thoroughly difficult human being who dedicated her life to science. Twice she won the Nobel Peace Prize for science related work, though her husband Pierre (Sam Riley) had to fight for her to share the prize.
I will let Nick cover the film more thoroughly, suffice to say Pike should land in the Oscar race.
HUMAN CAPITAL (*)
What a mess is this film. Despite a great cast which includes Marisa Tomei, Liev Schrieber, Peter Sarsgaard, and the exciting Maya Hawke, the movie never comes together as a whole and remains disjointed. Events are played over and over again from different points of view, but I kept asking to what end? Did we learn anything different with each replay? Certainly not enough to warrant it.
Schrieber plays a failing real estate salesman, who borrows three hundred thousand dollars to invest in a dubious hedge fund operated by the insidious Sarsgaard, who we know from the moment we see him is a sleazy fraudster and indeed Schrieber loses his money. That is just part of what brings about the unravelling of the characters, the more serious being a hit and run accident.
Nothing works. Tomei has so little to do, Hawke portrays the stereotypical angry young teen, and she has already shown she is capable of so much more. Both Schrieber and Sarsgaard are wasted in cardboard cut out roles far beneath their gifts.
Hugely disappointing in every way.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.