I would love to say that Days 3 through 5 of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) were a breeze. Even just seeing seven movies over the course of two days ended up being so tiring that I had to take a day off from seeing movies to allow my brain to rest. Not that I didn’t do anything, though, and Saturday began a series of interviews with a number of different actors and filmmakers including Simon Pegg, Antoine Fuqua, Noomi Rapace, Benedict Cumberbatch and more.
Of the movies I saw over the weekend and on Monday, the best (or at least my favorite) was James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything (Focus Features), essentially telling the story of Professor Stephen Hawking through the eyes of Jane, his wife from his days in school in 1963, through getting his PhD and coming up with the Big Bang theory through the early stages of ALS that left him unable to move or speak. Although the doctors gave Hawking two years to live, he’s still alive nearly 50 years later, which is absolutely astounding. The film is very much of a showcase for the talented Eddie Redmayne, who some may remember from My Week with Marilyn or Les Miserables, although he’s not quite as recognizable as he transformers into Hawking, both as a young man and through 1988 with the publication of the best-selling “A Brief History of Time.” All along the way, he has Felicity Jones’ Jane by his side, as she sticks with him through thick and thin and through the worst aspects of what is commonly called Lou Gehrig’s Disease that leaves him with a super-genius brain in a body that can barely speak. This is a terrific step up for Marsh after last year’s terrific Northern Ireland drama Shadow Dancer, but it’s even more impressive since here he’s telling the story of someone who is very well known amongst the general populace (as well as still being alive), which puts added pressures on everyone involved. It’s also important to know that the film is based on novel written by Jane Hawking herself, so it does approach the material from a different perspective than previous films about Hawking.
One of the similarities between Eddie Redmayne as Hawking and Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (The Weinstein Company – Nov. 21) is that they’re both films about brilliant minds dealing with debilitating obstacles while changing the world. This one looks at mathematician Alan Turing’s secret mission to crack the seemingly unbreakable Nazis Enigma machine during World War II. While this is also about a genius and there’s lots of numbers and theories bandied about, it’s also a fun movie full of humorous bits that keep it entertaining. There’s also an underlying pathos to the fact that Turing was a closeted homosexual in danger of being arrested for his sexual preference, which is what eventually happened once the authorities learned the truth, despite his huge contribution to ending the war and saving millions of lives. This may be one of Cumberbatch’s best film roles to date, because Turing is a character with very little social skills in terms of always being very honest in everything he says and does even if it sometimes leaves hurt feelings. As much as the focus is put on Turing, he’s surrounded by a great ensemble cast that includes Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode and Mark Strong, all working from an incredibly clever and well-crafted script. Possibly the biggest surprise for me was that this is also the English language debut by Scandinavian filmmaker Morten Tyldum, who brought his adaptation of Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters to TIFF a few years back. That was a very different film, a dark thriller full of violence and it’s amazing to see him doing something more subdued and very British like this and delivering something quite impeccable and memorable. Since this doesn’t come out for another few months, I won’t say too much more except that you’ll be hearing a lot about the film in the months to come, mainly for Cumberbatch’s performance.
It wouldn’t be a TIFF without Jason Reitman, and this year, the filmmaker returned to semi-familiar territory while paving new ground with the ensemble drama Men, Women & Children (Paramount), adapted from Chad Kultgen’s novel. There are so many layers to this film about how sex and relationships have been changed by the internet and social media, and it possibly could be considered Reitman’s “Babel” if the various storylines were more divided. But what makes this so interesting is that it focuses on a specific community, both on the adults and their teenage kids. That’s partially why it feels like a culmination of some of the themes Reitman explored in Juno, Up in the Air and even Young Adult, but like those movies, it really feels “of its time” where it really captures the zeitgeist in the air. Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt play parents of a teen son who has inherited his father’s obsession with internet porn, while other stories involve teenagers with various image issues, that aren’t helped by their parents. Jennifer Garner plays the over-protective mother of one teen girl who constantly goes through her Email and Facebook account deleting inappropriate friends. That girl Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) has started seeing the troubled Tim (Ansel Elgort) who escapes into a “World of Warcraft” type game, and she’s far more level-headed than Olivia Crocicchia’s Hannah, whose mother (Judy Greer) supports her daughter’s desire for unwanted attention by putting semi-clad pictures of herself online. The last significant piece of the puzzle is Tim’s father (Dean Norris from “Breaking Bad”), who has started to date Greer’s character. There’s definitely a lot going on and Reitman does a solid job maintaining interest in all the stories by focusing on the teens for the first act–all of them played by really solid young actors–then jumping to the parents when that starts to lose some of its luster. The screenplay is up there with Reitman’s best and it’s clear how far he’s come as a director since Thank You for Smoking, but it’s especially nice to see how in touch he is with the voice of younger people, which one can probably assume rubbed off on him from working with Diablo Cody. There’s a lot to think about while and after watching the film which I hope to discuss in more detail in a full review sometime in the next week or so.
Wild (Fox Searchlight – Dec. 5), directed by Jean-Marc Vallée whose Dallas Buyers Club scored first-time Oscar statues for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, is looking to give Reese Witherspoon her second Oscar. She’s likely to get that playing the role of Cheryl Strayed, a woman with a tumultuous past who decides to hike by herself across the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches for 150 miles. Sure, there’s many recent reference points for this from Into the Wild to Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours as well as this great film coming out later this month starring Mia Wasikowska called Tracks. This film is similar in that it mainly focuses on one character throughout other than the odd characters Strayed meets on her long journey, but also due to the artistry of the filmmaker in this case, Vallee creating a haunting dream-like tone particularly in the flashbacks to Strayed’s dark past. The film deals a lot with her fears of being alone out in the wilderness, sometimes encountering strange men who we expect the worst from, but also shows how Strayed got to that point after the death of her mother, played by Laura Dern. It’s beautifully adapted by Nick Hornby from Strayed’s own memoir and that screenplay is likely to be nominated as well.
Bennett Miller, the Oscar-nominated director of 2006’s Capote (who also directed Moneyball) is returning to similar territory of the former Foxcatcher (Sony Pictures Classics – Nov. 14), a slow-building, subdued character portrait of millionaire John du Pont, played by a nearly unrecognizable Steve Carell as he joins the likes of Julianne Moore in being an Oscar contender just by changing his speech and putting on a funny nose. I’m probably not being fair since there’s a lot more to the character than that. The story really focuses on Olympic gold-medalist Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum, who becomes drawn into du Pont’s world when the wealthy man calls him to his mansion to convince him to coach his wrestling team and taking them to the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Du Pont is an incredibly strange cat, who seems to be putting the team together to back up his desire to reunite the country’s patriotism, but he’s also incredibly delusional as he seems himself as a wrestling coach who is a necessary piece to the puzzle. Du Pont’s relationship with Mark is a difficult one to explain fully, but cracks start to appear when he insists that Mark’s older brother David (Mark Ruffalo), a world-class wrestling coach himself joins them on the du Pont estate to help train the team to victory. If you don’t know the true story on which this is based, you might not want to read about it before seeing the movie, but let’s just say that there are a lot of shocking twists to the story, but at all times, it is driven by the performances by Carell–who has some moments that are funny due to how awkwardly he acts–and Tatum. This one will also be receiving a lot of award nominations although there will be much debate about whether Carell should be placed in the lead–he’s really co-lead with Tatum–or supporting categories. This is a movie that will probably be discussed and debated quite a lot over the coming months.
One of the rare movies without distribution that I’ve seen (at least so far) is Ross Katz’s directorial debut Adult Beginners, a showcase for comedian Nick Kroll (“The League”) who came up with the story and produced the comedy about a failed businessman named Jake who returns to his family home–uh oh, this is sounding very familiar–to live with his sister (Rose Byrne), her husband (Bobby Cannavale) and their three year old. In fact, in order to stay there, Jake has to watch Teddy every day while they’re working and that leads to all sorts of complications. This is a very funny and even heartwarming movies – somewhat reminiscent of Tom McCarthy’s better work in terms of exploring human relations through humor. It has a lot of great appearances by some of Kroll’s friends like Joel McHale and Jason Mantzoukas (also from “The League”), and it’s produced by Mark and Jay Duplas as well, although Katz gives the film a much more polished look than the Duplas Brothers’ DIY usual style of filmmaking.
Only my second disappointment at this year’s festival was Noah Baumbach’s seventh film While We’re Young (A24), which reunited him with Ben Stiller following 2010’s Greenberg. Without spending too much time on this one, it essentially has Stiller playing uptight New York documentary filmmaker Josh Srebnick, who is joined by his wife Naomi Watts, start to act out their respective mid-life crises by hanging out with significantly younger Brooklyn hipsters, played by Adam Driver (yes, him again) and Amanda Seyfried. Don’t get me wrong. There’s definitely more than a few funny moments in the movie like watching Watts hip hop dancing, but it’s a premise that only goes so far and by the time Driver (also a filmmaker) has started to usurp Stiller’s connections for his own filmmaking ventures, it’s obvious where it’s going. The film’s messy and confusing third act just doesn’t deliver anything remotely satisfying on the general premise, and it also seems like somewhat of a slap in the face to Greta Gerwig who co-wrote and starred in Frances Ha (which premiered at TIFF two years ago), essentially discounting the younger generation who seem to be more absorbed in themselves than the world around them. (It’s actually funny to see how Driver and Seyfried try to live a life without amenities like cable television and such, but it’s not very realistic.) As someone who regularly hangs out with people 20 years my junior, I was pretty insulted by how inane all of the characters acted – frankly I wouldn’t be friends with anyone like that. At least, Baumbach may be starting to develop a script for Madagascar 4, so we can expect something funny for the next generation from him.
That’s all for now, but we still have four and a half more days of TIFF and lots more movies to see and share before we leave the Great White North, so stay tuned to ComingSoon.net for reviews and interviews as they slowly dribble out.