FILM REVIEW: Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Blade Runner 2049’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – ‘What if?” movies provide some of the most entertaining and thought provoking moments in cinema and there’s a good deal to enjoy in the sci-fi sequel “Blade Runner 2049” but its key “what if?” question gives it a hollow core.

Like Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, based on Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, it’s set in a grim, dystopian future where human beings interact with hybrid robots called replicants. In the first, the job of grizzled detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is to hunt down androids who threaten to outlive their designated use-by date as they tend to become dangerous.

He strikes a chord with one of them, the poetic warrior Batty, played by Rutger Hauer, and he reflects that “All he’d wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got?”

Another replicant in the first film comes in the form of a beautiful and vulnerable woman named Rachel (Sean Young) and Deckard falls in love with her. Robert Altman said he had no happy endings in his films because, as we know, our lives do not end happily. He said there could be only a stopping point. The original “Blade Runner” ends with Deckard and Rachel heading off to an unsure future. In a voice-over cut from later editions, Deckard says, “It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?”

The sequel asks, “what if she does?” and follows a narrative that appears at first to be logical but crumbles under closer examination. Thirty years later, another grizzled detective named only K, played by an unsmiling Ryan Gosling, has a similar mission to Deckard’s. The difference, and it’s an important one, is that we know that K is a replicant. In the original, Deckard might be too but we can’t be sure. The lack of ambiguity in the sequel makes all the difference. Anthropomorphism is popular not only in movies so that we can shed a tear for Wall-E as easily as for Bambi but outside of cartoons, it’s a stretch.

Gosling plays K as a blank-eyed android whereas Ford, who makes a welcome return as Deckard late in the new picture, always shows the human side of his ambiguous character. Robin Wright is wasted as K’s boss and the villains – Jared Leto as the chief replicant creator and Sylvia Hoeks as his killer personal assistant – lack the sparks that Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah and Brion James brought to the original.

The film drags here and there as K flies in a traffic-free sky to assorted desolate landscapes and the film would benefit from losing about 40 minutes. Director Denis Villeneuve and writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green do have several very good ideas including the virtual reality character of Joi, K’s live-in girlfriend, an expansion of Spike Jones’s “Her”. Ana de Armas (pictured above with Gosling) is so vibrant in the role that the film diminishes when she’s not onscreen. A fight scene in an abandoned Las Vegas nightclub features holograms of past entertainers that flash and whirl. A sequence in which a replicant plunges fully formed, dripping and writhing, from a translucent sac is terrific although it’s a direct steal from Danny Boyle’s stage production of “Frankenstein” at the National Theatre.

Composers Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer provide a blazing and enveloping score that alludes cleverly to the great Vangelis themes in the original and there are striking visuals in the new one from production designer Dennis Gassner and cinematographer Roger Deakins. They lack the impact, however, of the brilliant images created in the first one by production designer Lawrence G. Paull and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth.

Released: Oct. 6 (US: Warner Bros./ U.K.: Sony); Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, Jared Leto, Sylvia Hoeks, Mackenzie Davis; Director: Denis Villeneuve; Writers: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green; Director of photograhy: Roger Deakins; Production designer: Dennis Gassner; Music: Benjamin Wallfisch, Hans Zimmer; Editor: Joe Walker; Costumes: Renée April; Producers: Broderick Johnson, Andrew A. Kosove, Cynthia Sykes; Executive producers: Yale Badik, Bill Carraro, Tim Gamble, Frank Giustra, Val Hill, Ridley Scott; Production: 16:14 Entertainment, Alcon Entertainment, Columbia Pictures, Scott Free Productions, Thunderbird Entertainment (as Thunderbird Films), Torridon Films, Warner Bros.; Rating: U.S. R / U.K.: 15; running time: 164 minutes.

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FIMUCITÉ concert: ‘Stephen King’s Night Gallery’

By Ray Bennett

TENERIFE – A celebration of music from screen versions of stories by the world’s most popular horror writer, which  closed Fimucitê on Saturday night, featured world premieres of cues from the much-loved 1990 TV adaptation of “It” by Richard Bellis and the current hit feature film by Benjamin Wallfisch.

Charismatic Spanish maestro Diego Navarro conducted the Orquesta Sinfónica de Tenerife and the Children’s Choir of the Professional Conservatory of Music of Santa Cruz de Tenerife with choirmaster Juan Ramón Vinagre in the wide-ranging Gala Concert at the Auditorio de Tenerife Adán Martín in Santa Cruz. Co-hosts were Fimucité’s Ana Molowny and Polish Radio RFM Classic star Magdalena Miska-Jackowska (pictured below)

Bellis (pictured above with co-host Ana Molowny) whose Emmy Award-winning score for “It” is one of a long list of Hollywood credits, said that writing music for a Stephen King tale was simple: “You just follow the characters because he always has such great characters.” A senior representative of the ASCAP performing rights organisation, the composer conducted master classes during the festival as he does regularly. After Tenerife, he was headed to Ireland, Norway and the United Kingdom to do more. Waxworks Records will issue a three-disc vinyl release of Bellis’s “It’ score with all 42 cues in November.

Many other world premieres were included in “Stephen King Night Gallery” as video clips of typed words from the writer’s works teased the coming terror in each selection. Prolific American horror story composer Daniel Licht (“Dexter”), who had been expected to attend the event before his death in August at the age of 60, was remembered with high praise during the concert. A video showed Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer turned film composer Cliff Martinez present to Licht’s widow, Hilary Kimblin Licht, Fimuticé’s Antón García Abril Award, which honours significant contributions to film music. Cues from Licht’s scores for “Children of the Corn: The Final Sacrifice” (1992) and “Children of the Corn: Urban Harvest” (1995) plus “Thinner” (1996) were heard for the first time in a concert hall.

Other first-time presentations included suites from Christopher Young’s “The Dark Half” (1993), Pino Donaggio’s “Carrie” (1976), Harry Sukman’s “Salem’s Lot” (1979), Charles Bernstein’s “Cujo” (1983), Jeff Beal’s “Battleground” from “Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King” (2006), Michael Kamen’s “The Dead Zone” (1983), Philip Glass’s “Secret Window” (2004), Marc Shaiman’s “Misery” (1990), Elliot Goldenthal’s “Pet Semetary” (1989), Mychael Danna’s “Hearts in Atlantis” (2001), and Thomas Newman’s “The Green Mile” (1999) and “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994). Visuals from the productions added to the power of the pieces and, as might be expected, one of the standouts was a suite by Wendy Carlos and Krysztof Penderecki from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (which Park Circus will re-release in more than 100 cinemas in the United Kingdom for one night only on Hallowe’en, Oct. 31).

Tenerife-born singer Fran León gave a powerful rendition of the title song from “Stand By Me” (1986) written by Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Vivacious Spanish vocalist Cristina Ramos (pictured above with Diego Navarro), winner of the 2016 “Spain’s Got Talent” show, displayed her operatic talent on “Dead Can Dance”, written by Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry for the 2007 film “The Mist” and showed her rock and roll chops (pictured below) in the show’s encore with a dynamic performance of AC/DC’s “Who Made Who” from “Maximum Overdrive” (1986), the only film that Stephen King directed. Nikiforos Chrysoloras did the arrangements of the three songs.

The concert brought Fimucitê to a close after eight days of screenings and concerts that included “The Beyond” (Composer’s Cut”), “Tarantino Unchained”, “All About Almodovar”, “Soundtracks of Spain”, “Warriors From the Silver Screen” and “Sword & Sorcery: Symphonic Chronicles of a Legendary Era”.

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FIMUCITÉ concert: ‘Sword & Sorcery’

By Ray Bennett

TENERIFE – Movie composer Trevor Jones (below left), whose credits over an almost 40-year career include “Labyrinth”, “Angel Heart”, “Mississippi Burning”, “The Last of the Mohicans”, “Brassed Off!” and “Notting Hill”, was celebrated for his scores for fantasy films in a Fimucité concert titled “Sword & Sorcery: Symphonic Chronicles of a Legendary Era” at the Auditorio de Tenerife Adán Martín in Santa Cruz on Friday night.

The South Africa-born, British-based composer’s themes for John Boorman’s “Excalibur” (1981), which had their world premiere in a concert hall, Jim Henson’s “The Dark Crystal” (1982) and Steve Barron’s two-part television show “Merlin” (1998) were highlights of the evening during which he was presented with the festival’s Antón García Abril Award, which honours significant contributions to film music.

Fimucité lauded Jones along with composers such as the late Basil Poledouris and Michael Kamen plus Lee Holdridge and Ennio Morricone for helping to establish “the creative personality of the Sword and Sorcery genre”.

Poledouris’s “Main Theme” from “Conan the Destroyer” (1984) was among the cues featured in the concert along with a suite from Kamen’s “Highlander” (1986) with a medley of Queen songs from that picture performed hauntingly by “Spain’s Got Talent” winner Cristina Ramos.  A Morricone suite from “Red Sonja” (1985) also had its world premiere and Holdridge was represented by a suite from “The Beastmaster” (1972).

Ireland’s Eímear Noone (pictured top) conducted the Orquesta Sinfónica de Tenerife and the Tenerife Film Choir with choirmaster Javier Jonás Díaz. Soloists included Fernando Fragoso, violin; Héctor González, lute and baroque guitar; Anatael Herrera, mandolin; and Francisco José Hernández, medieval flute and recorder.

The evening began with the world premiere of suites from “The Lighthouse of the Whales” and “The Olive Tree” by Pascal Gaigne, who was named Best Spanish Composer in 2016 and won the award for Best Spanish Film Score.

Composers on hand for concert-hall world premieres of their film music included Iceland’s Atli Örvarsson (“Chicago Fire”) with “Season of the Witch” (2011) and the U.K.’s Daniel Pemberton (“Peep Show”) with “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” (2017).

Eímear Noone also conducted some of her own music from the “World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor” video game and a suite by her American husband Craig Stuart Garfinkle from the video game “Baldur’s Gate – Dark Alliance”. Suites from David Whitaker’s “The Sword and the Sorcerer” (1982), in a world premiere, and James Horner’s “Willow” (1988) rounded out the evening plus Alan Silvestri’s “Main Title” from “Beowulf” (2017), which also made for a rousing encore.

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FIMUCITÉ Concert: Warriors From the Silver Screen

By Ray Bennett

TENERIFE – “Exceptional!” That’s the word used by maestro Diego Navarro – the superstar of the Fimucité Film Music Festival, who knows a thing or two about great orchestras – to describe the performance of the festival’s Youth Symphony Orchestra at a concert of famous scores from action movies Thursday night.

The internationally acclaimed Spanish conductor noted that the young musicians were especially impressive as they are non-professional. The packed audience at Teatro Guimerá in Santa Cruz demonstrated their agreement with prolonged standing ovations. Professionals in the audience beamed and one nodded with approval as members of the orchestra smiled and hugged one another at the end: “You never see that!”

Conductor José A. Cubas led the 85-piece ensemble through a wide-ranging number of cues by mostly Academy Award-winning Hollywood composers in an evening titled “Warriors From the Silver Screen”. The musicians performed with evident enjoyment and there were fine contributions by soloists including vocalist Antonella Vega Gutiérrez, violinist Eugenia Jaubert, flautists Elisa Bartolomé Gómez and Ana Ayala and horn player Susana Rodríguez Fariña.

The concert began with music from ‘The Witcher 3’ video game by Polis composer Marcin Przybylowicz, who was on hand along with Agata Grabowiecka (pictured above with host Vanesa Bocanegra) from the Krakow Film Music Festival, which helped produce the concert.

Epic themes from “El Cid” (1961) and “Ben-Hur” (1959) by three-time Oscar-winner Miklós Rózsa then topped and tailed the show, which also featured two suites by Oscar-winner Hans Zimmer from “Gladiator” (2000) and “King Arthur” (2004).

A plangent suite from “The Last Valley” (1971) by four-time Oscar-winner John Barry began the second half followed by the thunderous “Ride to Diablo” cue from “Taras Bulba” by double-Oscar-winner Franz Wazman. The Celtic-influence “For the Love of a Princess” cue from James Horner’s Academy Award-winning score for “Braveheart” (1995) led to Jerome Moross’s powerful main title theme for “The War Lord” (1959) and the pure adventure of Oscar-winner Elmer Bernstein’s “River Crossing’ cue for “Zulu Dawn” (1979).

During the evening, British record producer and music publisher James Fitzpatrick (Silva Screen Records, Tadlow Music, pictured above with Diego Navarro and me) was presented with Fimucité’s Antón García Abril Award, which honours contributions to film music. Accepting the award, he said, “I’ve spent 30 years trying to prevent the extinction of film music. The reason for saving our film music heritage is so that these incredible musicians can play such incredible music and we can all listen to it.”

As if in celebration of that notion, in an encore played with tremendous enthusiasm, the Youth Orchestra reprised Waxman’s call to action from “Taras Bulba” and you could see the horses running free.

Fimucité XI at Santa Cruz de Tenerife began on Sept. 22 and runs to Sept. 30.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Armando Iannucci’s ‘The Death of Stalin’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Having savaged British and American politics on television with “The Thick of It” and “VEEP”, Armando Iannucci turns his wickedly satirical eye on Russia with a perceptive and hilarious depiction of what might have happened when the Soviet Union leader had a stroke that led to his death in 1953.

Drawn from a graphic novel written by Fabien Nury, the film mines the truly grim realities of life in a wantonly brutal dictatorship for comic gems that reveal the craven ruthlessness of the ruling cabal. A cast of fine comedic actors use a range of mostly British accents to convey the essential drabness of the characters and the banality of their evil.

As in the book, the monstrous power of Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is illustrated in the opening scenes when the dictator demands to have sent to him immediately a recording of a live radio broadcast of a Mozart concerto that was not recorded. The reaction of terrified radio boss Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) speaks volumes.

That terror is shared by not only the cowed and vulnerable Soviet citizenry but also the secretariat that enforces the whims of their unpredictably vindictive leader. These include his cowardly deputy Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), ambitious Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), subservient Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), and hangers-on Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse) and Nikolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi).

All of them are even more terrified of the creepily unctuous and unsparingly pitiless head of the NKVD secret police, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale, pictured top right with Tambor, left, and Buscemi). Beria likes to make lists and the people on those lists in vast numbers end up dead. Everyone around Stalin lives with the horror of ending up on one of Beria’s lists. When Stalin has a stroke and becomes comatose with death imminent, Beria starts immediately to issue new lists. With a change of leadership possible suddenly, the race for power begins and the film’s dark comedy goes into high gear.

Given blithely incisive dialogue with deft asides of humour, the entire cast provide a masterclass in comic timing with Buscemi, Tambor and Palin leading the way. Best of all is Simon Russell Beale as the obnoxiously toxic Beria. Beale ranks with Mark Rylance as the finest British stage actors of their generation and at last he has a movie role that shows him at his best.

Jason Isaacs bursts onto the screen with a thick northern English accent as Zhukov, head of the Red Army; Olga Kurylenko embodies the better side of Russian nature as a beautiful and obstinate pianist; and Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend have fun as Stalin’s bemused daughter and drunken son.

Zac Nicholson’s cinematography and Cristina Casali’s production design give the film a handsome look while Christopher Willis’s score embellishes the satire and underscores the venality. While it is very funny, the comedy in the film is not as broad as it is in the director’s TV work and that is a good thing given the terrible people and events involved. Bouts of extremely nasty violence punctuate the bumbling political machinations as a reminder that while these men demand derision, at the time they were nothing to laugh about.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released: U.K. Oct. 20 (Entertainment One) U.S. TBA (IFC Films); Cast: Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Simon Russell Beale, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Adrian McLoughlin, Paul Whitehouse; Director: Armando Iannucci; Writers: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows, based on a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin and an original screenplay by Fabien Nury; Director of photography: Zac Nicholson; Production designer: Cristina Casali; Music: Christopher Willis; Editor: Peter Lambert; Costumes: Suzie Harman; Producers: Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Kevin Loader, Laurent Zeiton, Yann Zenou; Executive producers: Jean-Christophe Colson, Giles Daoust, Catherine Dumonceaux; Production: Main Journey, Free Range Films, Quad Productions, Title Media; Rated: U.K. 15; running time: 107 minutes.


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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” is pure hokum but it is very enjoyable hokum, a tub-thumping thriller with a gorgeous young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) spiralling into all kinds of fiendish and inexplicable horror. It’s completely pointless but, boy, is it a good time.

Lawrence plays the young wife of a once-revered poet (Javier Bardem) who has writer’s block and so they bump into each other negligently in a bizarre mansion set in the middle of a meadow in the centre of a forest. Once burned to the ground, it is in bad need of repairs, which the young bride is pleased to take on as the poet stumbles in search of his muse.

Into their ragged existence comes a strange and vaguely sinister man (Ed Harris) who says he is a doctor and has come to worship at the feet of the once great poet. Flattered, the writer welcomes him over the objections of his young wife even when he then brings in a calculatingly provocative wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and later their two recalcitrant sons (Brian and Domnall Gleeson).

Strange rumblings in the walls and a floor that bleeds add to the aura of dread as an argument within the unwelcome family leads to a death. Mourners descend on the house in droves and the poet’s wife is driven to distraction.

Calm ensues when the stories told by the intruders spark not only a renewed power to write in the poet but a new life in his wife. Joyful over finally becoming pregnant, the expectant mother is dismayed when her husband lets others read his finished masterwork before he shows it to her. Soon, fans gather at the mansion and scores become hordes who invade every room and begin a pattern of mad destruction borne of their wish to own something that belongs to the poet.

Harris and Pfeiffer appear briefly but register with considerable menace while Bardem is resolutely oblique in his parallel concern and indifference to the fate of his wife. Lawrence bears the brunt of everything and she does wonders, really going beyond the call of duty. It’s a role that requires her to register every emotion but especially outrage and mortifying fear in the face of a torrent of abuse from nameless strangers, and she is both persuasive and sympathetic.

Aronofsky pours on the torment, which becomes darker and bleaker with the building smashed and bodies rent to pieces. Staged masterfully and shot colourfully by DP Matthew Libatique, it also benefits from Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eldritch score. Much of it is total mayhem: noisy and bloody and foul.

Great fun, in other words.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released: U.K., U.S. Sept. 15 (Paramount Pictures); Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian Gleeson, Dombnall Gleeson; Director, writer: Darren Aronofsky; Director of photography: Matthew Libatique; Production designer: Philip Messina; Music: Jóhann Jóhannsson; Editor: Andrew Weisblum; Costumes: Danny Glicker; Producers: Scott Franklin, Ari Handel; Executive producer: Mark Heyman, Josh Stern, Jeff G. Waxman; Production: Protozoa Pictures; Rated: U.S.R / U.K. 18; running time 121 minutes.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Saul Dibb’s ‘Journey’s End’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Saul Dibb’s film version of R.C. Sherriff’s “Journey’s End”, a drama about soldiers at the front line of trench warfare, is a valiant attempt but possibly simply because it is a film, it lacks the power and profundity of the play as it is presented onstage.

When all we can see are a handful of officers in a dug-out adjacent to the hell-hole of British Army trenches just yards away from the enemy during World War I, the claustrophobia makes the horror outside all the greater. Dibb gives in to the temptation that film offers to show a wider perspective but with that goes the intimate desperation of a handful of men. It’s hard to sympathise with officers, who have servants, dry cots, hot meals and whiskey, when we can see the men outside in their rat-infested, mucky misery vulnerable to enemy snipers.

Sherriff wrote the play in 1929 based on his own experiences at the front line and while it has had many theatrical rivals, there have been only a couple of screen treatments. Dibb is faithful to the play as a new battalion moves into a section of the front line for a six-day stint ahead of an expected bombardment. The man in charge is Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), a three-year combat veteran who is revered for his leadership and reviled for his alcoholic excess. Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany), an older officer everyone calls Uncle, keeps a loyal eye on Stanhope while Second Lieutenant Trotter (Stephen Graham) does his job and Second Lieutenant Hibbert (Tom Sturridge) begins to cave under the constant fear.

Into the small group comes a fresh-faced kid named Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a second lieutenant who not only idolised the older Stanhope at school but also is brother to the man’s fiancée. He is the last man Stanhope wants to see. Stress increases as the expected assault grows closer and it’s made worse when orders come down that a raid must be made across no man’s land in order to capture an enemy soldier for interrogation. Stanhope has no choice but to assign Uncle and young Raleigh for the dangerous raid.

All of this takes place as the officers go about their routine assignments, complain about the food provided by a servant, Private Mason (Toby Jones), send to headquarters for extra pepper, and reminisce about life and women at home. Stanhope drinks steadily even as he worries that Raleigh will write home to tell his fiancée what bad shape he’s in.

On stage, the various kinds of desperation and the sheer horror of what awaits outside the dug-out become palpable. Stanhope’s confusion becomes manifest. Intolerant of shirking and cowardice, he fears he’s guilty of both. Alarmed by his own deterioration, he’s even torn between trying to protect Raleigh and sending him out into harm’s way. That doesn’t come across in the film. Even with the best efforts of a sterling cast, the film fails to register as does the play.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released: U.K. London Film Festival Oct. 6, general Feb. 2 (Lionsgate); Cast: Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Asa Butterfield, Toby Jones, Stephen Graham, Tom Sturridge, Robert Glenister, Miles Jupp; Director: Saul Dibb; Writer: Simon Reade, based on the play by R.C. Sherriff; Director of photography: Laurie Rose; Production designer: Kristian Milsted; Music: Natalie Holt; Editor: Tania Reddin; Costumes: Anushia Nieradzik; Producers: Guy de Beaujeu, Simon Reade; Executive producers: Mary Burke, Christian Eisenbeiss, Steve Milne, Adrian Politowski, Bastien Sirodot; Production: Fluidity Films; Rated: TBA; running time 107 minutes.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Guillermo del Toro’s ‘The Shape of Water’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is a dazzling piece of cinema, a fairy tale for grownups that celebrates the joys of life amid every day banality with the occasional touch of horror. It demands to be seen more than once.

With co-writer Vanessa Taylor, the director takes a classically simple theme, beauty and the beast, and re-imagines it in sumptuous style with many small miracles of cinematic magic, nuanced storytelling and fine wit. All the actors get into the delightful spirit of the thing but Sally Hawkins (pictured above), a splendid actor with a beauty all her own, does marvels as a mute but brilliantly imaginative woman named Eliza who not only falls in love with a creature from a black lagoon but makes love to him.

Doug Jones (Del Toro’s go-to contortionist in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy”) plays the spiky, spiny, scaly creature who is strangely man-like with broad shoulders and Rudolph Valentino eyes. He is called the Asset by the U.S. government agency that has captured him and secured him in a secret facility for investigation.

As it’s 1963 and the Cold War is at full tilt, the authorities think they might have an asset on their hands that could put them one step ahead of the Soviets in the space race. That’s because while he needs to be in water most of the time, he also can breath on land and that could prove vital in a space venture. The man who found him in a South American river is a fiercely determined agent named Strickland (Michael Shannon), who uses an electrified baton to tame the beast and advocates vivisection as the best way to learn it’s secrets.

Eliza is a cleaning woman at the secret facility along with her protective friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Besides Zelda, the only person in Eliza’s life is her next-door neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), with whom she shares a love of black-and-white movies, tap dancing and boiled eggs. It’s no accident that Eliza’s last name is Esposito as she was rescued after being abandoned by her parents and she bears the scars on her neck from the time she lost the power of speech as a child. Those afflictions further her empathy for the  tortured creature who is kept in chains and threatened with death. Sneaking into his enclave, she discovers that he responds to sign language and music and, not only that, he loves boiled eggs.

The cruel Agent Stickland keeps a close eye on the Asset unaware that one of the scientists at the facility, Dr. Hoftstetler (Michael Stuhlberg), is a Soviet spy whose handlers intend to help him kill and dispose of the creature before the Yanks can learn anything. Eliza has other plans, however, and with the help of Zelda and Giles, she steals the Asset away and creates her own watery haven in which their affection for one another might flourish in splashy but surprisingly sexy ways. This creature, she learns, has hidden gifts.

Del Toro paces the story expertly through to a very suspenseful climax and he takes time to allow all of the characters a moment or two to make their presence vital. The film is a constant delight visually and with deft touches, the director delineates the time and place with its paranoia, lack of social grace and casual racism. Although the casting is a bit obvious – Spencer as the sassy buddy, Stuhlberg as the diffident scientist and Shannon as the almost deranged villain of the piece – they all bring their A-game. Jenkins is terrific as an out-of-work commercial artist not entirely sure of himself while Jones and Hawkins – who is surely bound for awards – radiate the love story at the heart of the film.

Dan Laustsen’s beautifully calibrated cinematography, Paul D. Austerberry’s inspired production design, Lula Sequeira’s apposite costumes and the hugely gifted special and visual effects teams all contribute mightily to the film’s pleasures. Composer Alexandre Desplat drapes it all with a jaunty, faintly Gallic score that soon takes flight from the dark tones he uses when Del Toro gives in to his admirable taste for a bit of quite shocking horror.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released: U.K. London Film Festival Oct. 10, general Feb. 16 (20th Century Fox) U.S. Dec. 8 (Fox Searchlight); Cast: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlberg, Lauren Lee Smith; Director: Guillermo del Toro; Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor; Director of photography: Dan Laustsen; Production designer: Paul D. Austerberry; Music: Alexandre Desplat; Editor: Sidney Wolinsky; Costumes: Lula Sequeira; Producers: J. Miles Dale, Guillermo del Toro; Executive producer: Liz Sayre; Production: Bull Productions, Fox Searchlight Pictures; Rated: TBA; running time 119 minutes.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Alexander Payne’s ‘Downsizing’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” is a science-fiction tale that mixes whimsy with social commentary in constantly surprising ways but with ideas so scattershot that they never adhere as a satisfying drama. His filmmaking is so imaginative, however, that it’s a movie well worth seeing.

Matt Damon stars as a dull individual named Paul whose horizons are expanded when he elects to become miniaturised. A prologue explains in entertaining fashion how scientists have mastered a technique that shrinks living creatures to a fraction of their normal size with custom-made environments where they can lead virtually normal lives. The ecological footprint of these little people is thus reduced and by selling everything and investing their savings, they become rich in the process.

Director Payne establishes the concept with typical flair and Stefania Cella’s production design of a Truman Show-like world without observers is plausible and witty. With co-writer Jim Taylor, Payne infuses the scientific tosh with good humour and just as Paul gets used to his new circumstances, they take the story in unlikely directions. His new neighbour Dusan, turns out to be a flamboyant character, played with typical flourish by Christoph Waltz, who likes to throw noisy parties with beautiful people and runs a profitable import/export business.

That thread changes abruptly when Paul encounters a young woman named Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau, pictured above with Waltz), who works as a cleaner. A Vietnamese political protestor who lost her left foot in an explosion and was reduced in size against her will, Ngoc Lan is such a vibrantly original character that it’s a pity Payne didn’t make her story the whole picture. As it is, she takes Paul into a world he had no idea existed in another part of the contrived construct in which he lives. Payne makes it clear that while humankind is under dire threat from climate change and other factors, the notion that we can flee from our fate by running away is a joke.

Dusan dismisses the likelihood that humans will escape their own nature and Payne shows that greed will sabotage delusions of safe haven: the plight of the planet must be faced head-on. Kristen Wiig (pictured top with Damon) and Jason Sudeikas have lively cameos and Rolfe Kent’s score is sprightly and fitting. Hong Chau is outstanding as the colourful Ngoc Lan, who embodies the film’s view. Damon is perfectly fine as Paul but it’s her indomitable character that stays in the mind.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released: U.K. London Film Festival Oct. 13, U.S. Dec. 22 (Paramount Pictures); Cast: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Rolf Lassgård, Ingjerd Egeberg, Udo Kier, Jason Sudeikas, Kristen Wiig; Director: Alexander Payne; Writers: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor; Director of photography: Phedon Papamichael; Production designer: Stefania Cella; Music: Rolfe Kent; Editor: Kevin Tent; Costumes: Wendy Chuck; Producers: Jim Burke, Megan Ellison, Mark Johnson, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor; Production: Paramount Pictures, Ad Hominem Enterprises, Annapurna Pictures; Rating: TBA; running time 135 minutes.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Stephen Frears’s ‘Victoria and Abdul’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – That Judy Dench stars as the venerable English queen in “Victoria and Albert” tells you all you need to know about what to expect from another tale of one of the widowed monarch’s odd friendships.

The Abdul of the title is a young Hindu legal clerk who is ordered to Buckingham Palace from India in order to present the queen with a rare coin. Played by Ali Fazal, he is a handsome and awestruck fish-out-of-water who promptly violates palace protocol and charms the old lady in the process.

In the eyes of director Stephen Frears and writer Lee Hall, the ageing Victoria is as indifferent to the rules imposed by her courtiers as she is to the Indian coin. She is struck by the young man’s smile and bearing, not to mention that upon meeting his empress, he falls to the floor to kiss her feet. She insists that he remain to be a footman and then companion. It cannot end well.

A cast of familiar faces such as Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Eddie Izzard, Simon Callow and the late Tim Pigott-Smith can play stultified politicians and palace types in their sleep but Hall gives them little to do but raise eyebrows and try to hide their innate prejudices. Conflict grows in a predictable manner.

The scenery, including Arundel Abbey in West Sussex, is delightful, the luxurious production design observant and Thomas Newman’s lyrical score is a pleasure. Dench displays with typical subtlety her established range of facial expressions to convey everything from anger to delight to sadness.

That the queen ever held liberal views on the subjugation of a sub-continent is a dubious construct in the extreme but no doubt the illusion of nostalgia will appeal to those willing to overlook the film’s overweening subservience.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released: U.K. Sept. 17 (Universal Pictures), U.S. Sept. 22 (Focus Features); Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal; Olivia Williams, Michael Gambon, Simon Callow, Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott-Smith, Fenella Woolgar, Adeel Akhtar; Director: Stephen Frears; Writer: Lee Hall, based on the book by Shrabani Basu; Director of photography: Danny Cohen; Production designer: Alan MacDonald; Music: Thomas Newman; Editor: Melanie Oliver; Costumes: Consolata Boyle; Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Beeban Kidron, Tracey Seaward; Production: BBC Films; Cross Street Films; Perfect World Pictures; Working Title Films; Rated: U.K. PG; running time 112 minutes.

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