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.

 

Posted in Film, Reviews, TIFF Toronto International Film Festival | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Film, Reviews, TIFF Toronto International Film Festival | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Film, Reviews, TIFF Toronto International Film Festival | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Film, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Film, Reviews, TIFF Toronto International Film Festival | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Film, Reviews, TIFF Toronto International Film Festival | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TIFF FILM REVIEW: George Clooney’s ‘Suburbicon’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Joyless, witless and pointless, “Suburbicon” is a would-be black comedy that is simply murky and not in the least comic. It boasts some big names – director George Clooney, stars Matt Damon and Julianne Moore (pictured), and co-writers Joel and Ethan Coen – but were it not for Alexandre Desplat’s entertaining score, it would be a complete waste of time.

Set in the 1950s, the film begins with a commercial for a Stepford-style housing community called Suburbicon with lookalike homes intended for comfortable, middle-class white families. Condescension in place, the story follows two families who face very different fates but the storytelling is ponderous and predictable, the violence needless, and any sign of comic timing entirely absent.

Gardner Lodge (Damon) is a colourless executive who lives with twin sisters (both Moore), Rose, his invalid wife and Margaret, his secret mistress. One night, Gardner wakes up his sleeping son  Nicky (Noah Jupe) because their home has been invaded by two thugs who proceed to tie up and drug everyone. Gardner, oddly, is not particularly alarmed and when after Rose fails to wake up, he proceeds with his recently enhanced insurance claim.

Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Mayer (Karimah Westbrook and Leith M. Burke) have moved in next door with their son Andy (Tony Espinosa) and caused outrage amongst the whiter-than-white folks of Suburbicon. The Mayers are black.

Reportedly scripted separately with the Lodge strand written by the Coen brothers and the Mayer strand written by Clooney and his production partner Grant Hesov, the two elements have nothing whatever to do with each other. As the film plays out, they do not connect, inform or illuminate one another in any way. The Lodges spiral off into a lazily contrived noir scenario involving fraud and murder with messily bloody violence while the Blairs, about whom we learn virtually nothing, become victims of racial prejudice that escalates to an all-out riot. Whatever point, satirical or otherwise,that might have been made to suggest the seeds of today’s alienated American society were planted long ago is entirely missed.

The performers wisely play it straight and emerge unscathed. For the Coen brothers, it’s just another silly idea that they tossed away for somebody else to make a fool of himself. That would be Clooney, whose earlier work as director has been clever and entertaining. Oscar-winning French composer Desplat appears to have conjured up his own notion of what the film might have been and, as usual, he emerges with his reputation enhanced.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released: U.S. Oct. 27 (Paramount Pictures); U.K. Nov. 24 (Entertainment One); Cast: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke, Tony Espinosa; Director: George Clooney; Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney, Grant Heslov; Director of photography: Robert Elswit; Production designer: James D. Bissell; Music: Alexandre Desplat; Editor: Stephen Mirrione; Costumes: Jenny Eagan; Producers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Teddy Schwarzman; Executive producers: Ethan Erwin, Barbara A. Hall, Hal Sadoff, Joel Silver, Daniel Steinman; Production: Black Bear Pictures, Dark Castle Entertainment, Huahua Media, Silver Pictures, Smokehouse Pictures; Rated: TBA; running time 104 minutes.

Posted in Film, Reviews, TIFF Toronto International Film Festival | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TIFF FILM REVIEW: Dee Rees’s ‘Mudbound’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO: “Mudbound” is set in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s but with torrential rain, deeply ingrained racial hostility and changes wrought by World War II, it’s no treat to beat your feet. Two poor families – one white, one black – strive to find a little joy amidst chronic misery but simmering tensions lead to a violent conflict.

Slow-moving but involving, the film details the painful existence that besets both families as they struggle to make a living on a pitiless farming landscape. The central drama, true of many places when men came home from that war, is how to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree.

Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) took his carefree view of life into the skies as a bomber pilot while Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) discovered that while he and his fellow black soldiers were segregated in barracks, the white Europeans saw only military saviours. Coming home to the hardscrabble lives of their families, divided cruelly due to the unaccountable racial hatred of the white community, is bound to test their liberated values.

Director Dee Rees, who has adapted Hillary Jordan’s novel with Virgil Williams, takes a deliberate pace throughout. Naive but determined Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) works hard to run his small-holding with his tenant and employee Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), who has a stalwart and resourceful wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) and several children including Ronsel.

Henry has a wife too, Laura (Carey Mulligan) from Memphis, young and new to the harshness of Delta life. They have two daughters and must make room in their dilapidated shack for Pappy McAllan (Jonathan Banks), an irredeemably offensive boor.

Several of the central characters contribute voice-overs to help tell the story but Rachel Morrison’s keenly observant cinematography, the verisimilitude of David Bomba’s production design and an evocative score by Tamar-kali combine to make the narration almost unnecessary.

The acting is uniformly fine even if the accents, supposedly from the Mississippi Delta, are all over the place from Alabama to Virginia. Rob Morgan (pictured above with Blige) is thoroughly convincing as the patriarch of the black family, Garrett Hedlund lends a touch of Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday (from “Tombstone”) to the charming airman, and Jason Mitchell conveys subtly the young soldier’s transition to manhood. Clarke makes Henry bluff, open and unaware of his own ignorance while Mulligan and Blige complement each other nicely and Banks leaves at least some of the scenery unchewed.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released on Netflix Nov, 17: London Film Festival: Oct, 5; Cast: Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Jonathan Banks; Director: Dee Rees; Writers: Dee Rees, Virgil Williams; Director of photography: Rachel Morrison; Production Designer: David Bomba; Music: Tamar-kali; Costumes: Michael T. Boyd; Editor: Mako Kamitsuna; Producers: Sally Jo Effenson, Cassian Elwes, Carl Effenson, Charles D. King, Kim Roth, Chris Lemole, Tim Zajaros; Executive Producers: Dee Rees, Teddy Schwarzman, Virgil Williams, Jennifer Roth, Poppy Hanks, Kyle Tekiela, Dan Steinman, David Gendron, Ali Jazayeri, Robert Teitel, George Tillman Jr.; Production: Macro Elevated; Armory Films; Joule Films; Black Bear Pictures; International Sales: Good Universe; Rated: TBA; running time: 134 minutes

Posted in Film, Reviews, TIFF Toronto International Film Festival | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Drinking wine in the sunshine with Patrick Swayze

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Patrick Swayze jumped menacingly from the corral fence to the dusty ground of his ranch in the flats next to the Angeles Forest in La Canada. “Steve McQueen said what?” he said. “There’s nothing tough about making movies,” I repeated. Swayze shook his head. “God, I loved that man but that sounds like bullshit to me.”

That was a long time ago before Swayze had hits like “Dirty Dancing”, “Ghost” and “Point Break”. He would have turned 65 today but Swayze died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 57 in 2009. When I spent a day with him in 1985, when he was 33, he was full of life, feisty and combative. Continue reading

Posted in Film, Interviews, Memory Lane, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

FILM REVIEW: Taylor Sheridan’s ‘Wind River’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The bleak but beautiful frozen wilds of Utah substitute readily for Montana in Taylor Sheridan’s taut, violent and gripping crime drama “Wind River” in which Jeremy Renner is both cool and moving as a troubled hunter who helps Elizabeth Olsen’s plausible FBI agent on the trail of a murderer and rapist. Continue reading

Posted in Film, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment