By John H. Foote
Eighteen years ago today I was commuting into TIFF. Having been critically injured in a near fatal car accident, my wife did not want me staying in the city alone, so I decided I would see just two films a day and come home each night. I was listening to Howard Stern when they mentioned rather casually the first plane hit the first of the Two Towers. A few moments later a second plane hit and Stern announced, “We’re under attack.”
He was right of course. A few hours later those two towers crumbled to the ground, forever altering the New York skyline. But so much more, the world had changed.
Arriving at the festival press office, people were gathered around CNN playing on the TV’s, many weeping openly. President Bush grounded all flights in and out of the United States, so many Americans were stranded here.
This is where the grace and cool under pressure of Piers Handling, CEO of TIFF at the time came into play. Hotels were called, finding rooms for stranded actors, directors and industry folks. All red carpet screenings were cancelled out of respect for the lives lost, but the festival continued and as always movies provided an escape from the madness of the world.
Driving home that night I knew I could explain to my kids what had happened but I was not sure what to say when they asked why? And they would, and they did. How do you explain a degree of hate like that?
Eight years later we four stood at the base of what was once the World Trade Center, now a gaping whole in the earth. New York must have been madness that day, but what a city, they pulled together and got through it. I hope they know we were right there with them. Not just New York was attacked that day, the entire free world was hit.
Have we, or will we, ever recover?
I wanted to love this film because I so admire the woman it is about. Harriet Tubman was a real life hero, a force of nature who escaped slavery in Maryland in 1849, only to arrive in Philadelphia, create a new life as a free woman, and go back South to free more slaves. She became known as Moses to the slaves she sought to free and was both hated and hunted by the whites. It is an extraordinary story, this woman who became a driving force in the Underground Railroad and would live to be recognized as one of the greatest abolitionists of that time.
I wanted to love it, but I could not.
As a film, that story is wounded by a heavy handed score from Terence Blanchard that does most of the thinking for the audience and a villain who might as well twirl his Simon Legree mustache as he hunts her down. One of the most annoying, intrusive scores I have heard since The Color Purple (1985) I cringed as it swelled at every big moment, letting us know that what was happening on screen was indeed, “a big dramatic moment” just in case we did not know.
Cynthia Erivo is splendid as Tubman, capturing that fierce sense of spirit that must have existed in such a woman, and is clearly devoted to God. It was said she was blessed with visions of the immediate future, which helped her immeasurably with her leading the slaves out of the south. We never see what changes Tubman, other than the desire to get her family out, and to free fellow human beings. The actress is excellent in the role, and seems destin for Oscar consideration. She brings a ferocious sense of pride to her character, which is matched only by her fearlessness. The actress never overplays a single emotional moment, she is quietly spectacular.
The film, once thought to be an Oscar player, I doubt will be. It lacks so much and the villain of the piece is so one note, lacking any dimension. He is angry Tubman left, angry she has ruined him financially by helping others escape, and when face to face with her realizes that she has no fear. Any fear she has, by this time, was long gone, replaced by a galvanizing courage.
Janelle Monae is lovely as her friend in Philadelphia, born a free woman, she guides Tubman through her new freedom in this growing city. Monae is a natural, and has a bright career in film ahead of her.
Kasi Lemmons directed the film, and I wonder if she loved her subject a little too much? When that happens, the film is altered, becoming too reverential, telling the story of a saint, which is precisely what happened with Gandhi (1982).
Bear in mind, the Academy adored Gandhi (1982) honouring that bloated reverential film with eight Academy Awards. Two of the films it bested, unfairly were E. T. : The Extraterrestrial (1982), and Tootsie (1982), both among the greatest American films ever made. It was described by a long standing Academy member as their way of honouring the man, in awarding the film. Just one year after the film won those eight, Academy members were sheepishly admitting “we blew it.” I believe they have learned their lesson and Harriet will not be in the mix.
What could have been a great film, falters, and instead, elevated by Erivo is a very good one, with a couple of flaws. Man, that dreadful score. Ugh.
That score … sheesh!
MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (***)
Before this film is released later in the year I suspect it will go through a bit of pruning in the editing room. Overlong, with a couple of shots I thought were completely unnecessary, and a dance sequence in a jazz bar that goes on for too long, it needs an edit. Edward Norton, who also directed and wrote the screenplay, stars as Lionel, part of a private investigation business run by Frank Minno (Bruce Willis). Lionel suffers from a Tourette’s like condition that causes him to say outlandish things and gives him severe tics and movements. Yet Frank sees he has a mind, he never forgets anything and can repeat back what you said to him two weeks ago…verbatim. When Frank is brutally murdered, Lionel cannot let it go and begins piecing together the events that led to the killing of his friend and mentor. His search takes him into the upper echelon of New York government, where corruption reigns supreme.
On his journey Lionel helps a confused young black woman, Laura (Gigi Mbatha-Raw) who is unwittingly connected to the corruption and they want her gone. Lionel saves her, more than once, and discovers she does not see his condition, only his decency. As Lionel searches deeper, he will uncover some painful truths for some very dangerous men at the very top of the food chain.
Alec Baldwin radiates pure danger and menace as Moses, a city planner with greater power than the puppet of a Mayor. Baldwin needs only walk into a room with a scowl to project nastiness; the actor is very good in the film. Equally fine is Willem Dafoe as his mysterious brother who has the power to make things very difficult for his brother.
Bruce Willis is terrific as Minno, though killed off way too soon. I wanted more of this guy, he was fascinating.
Mbatha-Raw has such soulful eyes, when she is hurt so are we, when she feels pain, so does the audience. You find yourself asking who could hurt this lovely girl? And when she proves to have real humanity, well, you might swoon.
One of the greatest actors of the last 20 years he has more than proven himself with Primal Fear (1996), his searing performance in American History X (1998), Fight Club 1999), The 25th Hour (2002), Death to Smoochy (2002), Bird Man (2014) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Here he is exceptional as Lionel, ever watchful, taking everything he sees and hears into his broken brain to be processed. It is a wonderfully inventive performance, great even, when one considers he directed the film.
New York of the fifties is recreated lovingly, with gleaming cars lining the streets of the grand old city. Despite some strange shots, choices of shots and some meandering through the middle, I quite enjoyed this film and Norton.
THE LAUNDROMAT (**)
Steven Soderbergh brings to The Laundromat the same bouncy, near jaunty tone he brought to The Informant! (2009) which contains a superior Matt Damon performance. After a tragic ferry accident leaves her husband dead, Ellen (Meryl Streep) is denied financial compensation and wants some answers. Furious that she feels her husbands death is not being considered important, she investigates why, and how this could happen. Following the proverbial paper trail, her search leads her to some pretty far flung places around the globe, which only mystifies the widow more.
Nicely framed with Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas literally telling us everything we need to know about money laundering and cheating decent hard working folks out of their money, Soderbergh keeps the film breezing along, a tight, taut ninety minutes.
By the time we realize we are seeing how the Panama Papers scandal broke, we have been overloaded with information. While it is presented in an interesting manner, it becomes rather overwhelming. I cannot see the average mainstream audience being into the film, but you never know.
Streep is, as always very good as a coarse woman trying to get answers to questions she feels justified in asking. Why is she being jerked around? Why is she being cheated? She struggles to come to terms as to why the death of the man she loved means so little to everyone she comes in contact with. They might offer condolences, but they simply do not care.
It takes her all over the globe to realize no one but her, gives a damn.
Truly, her experience is heartbreaking, and shameful.
To some, money is a God, and they will go through great lengths to make it, then even greater lengths to keep it. How they sleep at night I will never understand.
At the end of the day, the film felt redundant largely due to The Informant! which is not a bad thing, it just did not work for me.
Not one of Soderbergh’s better efforts. After such a promising start with Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), an Oscar for Best Director for Traffic (2000) the same year he was nominated for Erin Brockovich (2000), he has always been a fascinating director. I loved The Limey (1999) with that towering Terence Stamp performance, but then to go off to make the Oceans 11 films? Why? Such a waste of talent. His film Contagion (2010) was astounding, leaving me hopeful, but after this my confidence is shattered.
UNCUT GEMS (***)
Adam Sandler is the real deal as an actor but only when he chooses to be. He has made hundreds of millions of dollars playing a moron, doing stupid voices, working in comedy that is vulgar and frankly, easy humour. However, there is real dramatic talent there when he chooses to step outside the comfort zone. He was excellent in Punch Drunk Love (2002) for Director Paul Thomas Anderson, forever silencing film critics who savaged each film he made. In Spanglish (2004) he was superb as a famous chef falling in love with his housekeeper when his demonic harpy of a wife cheats on him. As the most normal character in the film, there was real dramatic heft in his work.
His finest work (until now) remains one of his least seen films Reign Over Me (2007) where Sandler was brilliant as a dentist who has detached from life after the deaths of his wife and children, aboard one of the 9/11 planes. Quietly powerful, Sandler captures the rage of a man who truly has lost everything that mattered to him and does not know how to find his way back. Truly a remarkable piece of acting.
Funny People (2010) saw him play a variation of himself. As a major movie star, formerly a stand up comic, his doctor tells him he is dying, which sends him into a tailspin. Snarky, nasty, narcissistic, his character is not always a likeable guy, but he is always real.
In Uncut Gems, Sandler is simply sensational. Period, end of discussion, the guy is brilliant and a real actor. If anyone doubts his skills going forward they are an idiot….plain and simple. Brash, vulgar, frantic, hyper active, loud and obnoxious, Sandler is brilliant as a jeweler who foolishly loans an expensive gem to a sports star, and is facing ruin when it is not returned. A compulsive gambler he is facing deep trouble if he cannot pay his debts, and knows it.
Julia Fox does fine work as his girlfriend while Idina Mendel shines, but at the centre of this hurricane of a film is Sandler, who has never been better. What a pleasure to see an actor evolve right before our eyes.
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.