Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Movie Reviews Archive

Wednesday

22

September 2021

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Film Retrospective: Birdman

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Few film narratives operate quite so symbiotically with their stars as Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It’s pretty impossible to imagine Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s black comedy working at all without Michael Keaton in the lead role. Crafted in the early days of the modern box office takeover by the superhero genre, the film manages to examine the effect of capes and tights on its stars’ sense of ego without looking down on those who fuel their popularity.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is not a particularly good man, forever haunted by an internal voice that manifests itself in the form of his most famous character. The entirety of Riggan’s public legacy can be summarized in that one single word. Birdman. A life defined by three blockbuster popcorn flicks.

Riggan seeks to seize control of his own narrative through a stage production of a Raymon Carver short story, financing the project in addition to starring and directing. The theatre world has its own collection of neurotic egos, none more tedious than famed method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), the boyfriend of lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) brought in as a replacement after an accident incapacitated the original actor.

Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki both won Academy Awards for their efforts in shaping Birdman’s unique aesthetic, which gives the appearance that the entire 119-minute feature was recorded in a single take. Iñárritu has a keen sense for the claustrophobia and loneliness of theatre life, small crews sequestered from the madness of downtown Manhattan all around them. While most of the narrative takes place indoors, the film uses the city wisely to capture its gravitational pull on the stars in its orbit.

While the film’s technical prowess gives the audience much to digest from scene to scene, Birdman largely succeeds on the strength of its cast. Keaton gives the best performance of his career, eliciting ample sympathy for the fairly odious Riggan. On the surface level, the two have a bit in common, both known by the public at large for their superhero franchise work. Keaton isn’t keen to coast off his well-deserved reputation, instead transporting the audience into the mind of a man grappling with his own crumbling ego.

Riggan is not Michael Keaton, but the character can’t exist outside the aura of a man who Hollywood never truly trusted as a lead talent, writing him off as a comedic actor when directors such as Tim Burton and John Hughes first saw the genius of his abilities. To some extent, it can be tedious to listen to a big name talent whine about their conflicted sense of perception, with 99% of actors never even coming near that level of fame. It is hard to listen to Riggan speak about being forgotten without feeling compassion for the man. No one wants to be forgotten.

Iñárritu does not spend much time talking about what the superhero genre has done to the industry, but his few bits of wisdom hold up in the years since 2014 even as the environment has evolved. Films like Birdman have a harder time breaking through well before the pandemic changed the way we engage with the medium. Riggan’s inner-Birdman voice isn’t inherently misguided in lobbying for him to return to the cape. The public wants the cape.

Keaton himself has returned to the superhero genre twice since Birdman’s release, first in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and next in 2022’s upcoming The Flash, where he’s set to reprise his role as Batman for the first time in thirty years. While Riggan resisted the allure to return to the role that put him on the map, Keaton demonstrates no such inhibitions.

The superhero genre has permeated into more of the public consciousness than even Birdman could have predicted in 2014. Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards just four years after the former took home the top prize. Joaquin Phoenix won Best Actor at the following year’s ceremonies for The Joker, further solidifying the comic book villain’s status as an awards show kingmaker. The 2021 Emmy Awards saw Wandavision competing for Best Drama, a far cry from the days when so-called prestige dramas ruled the world.

This reality has fundamentally changed the way we look at Birdman, particularly the relationship between Keaton and Norton. Within the film, Riggan envies Shiner’s ability to generate publicity, revered for his outlandish behavior operating under the guise of “method acting.” Shiner is everything Riggan wants to be, above all else, respected.

Like Keaton, Norton has a history in the superhero genre, starring in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. Norton’s Bruce Banner remains the most high-profile recasting case in the history of the MCU. Even putting Keaton’s subsequent superhero work aside, it’s hard to line up their post-Birdman filmographies and not give him the upper hand over Norton in terms of career success. Just as audiences initially went into Birdman thinking of Keaton’s past with Batman, it’s hard to revisit the film without thinking of Norton and Keaton’s inverted fortunes as of late.

If there’s one primary flaw of Birdman, it’s that the film didn’t heed its own advice with regard to its ending. An early scene between Riggan and Shiner showed the latter urging some script revisions, arguing redundancies in the former’s prose. The same does hold true for Iñárritu, who crafts a climax that repeats itself multiple times through a few unnecessary closing scenes.

Iñárritu’s work is a rich film to revisit. Keaton’s scenes don’t carry the same sense of melancholy as they once possessed, a reality manifested to existence by the film itself. Birdman isn’t just a case of art imitating life, but art changing the realities of the industry. Hollywood’s obsession with sequels and nostalgia make it likely that we would have seen Keaton as Batman again, even without Birdman, but Iñárritu’s film makes the prospect all the more satisfying. Doctor Manhattan’s seminal lines in the closing pages of Watchmen come to mind. Nothing ever ends. 

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Saturday

18

September 2021

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TIFF Review: Cadejo Blanco

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Many of us can relate to the sensation of wanting to do anything for family. Few are ever really put in the position of needing to take a bullet or fire one on behalf of the people we love. Set in Guatemala City, the film Cadejo Blanco explores what happens when a young girl who finds herself under unthinkable pressure to find her sister.

Sarita (Karen Martínez) is a quiet girl who listens to her grandma and doesn’t really like going out. Her sister, Bea (Pamela Martínez), is quite the opposite, enjoying loud clubs and troublesome boys. When Bea goes missing, Sarita presses her sister’s ex, Andrés (Rudy Rodríguez), for help, quickly finding herself caught in an intricate web of drug trafficking among other crimes.

Director/writer Justin Lerner has a keen sense for the natural tension in his quiet narrative. Organized crime is not generally known for letting people walk away peacefully, a notion that’s never far from Sarita’s mind. For a film with drug lords and nightclubs, Cadejo Blanco possesses a deep sense of intimacy in its cinematography, making it easy to see how this world can feel like the only world to those trapped within its confines.

Martínez does a fabulous job in the lead role, balancing Sarita’s reserved nature with the need to let the audience in as to her character’s emotions. Rodríguez brings great depth to Andrés, constantly fighting to preserve his own humanity while working in a profession that has little space for anything other than callous cruelty. Both lead characters are strong-willed, pushing back against the rigid power structures designed to keep the youth feeling hopeless and in line.

Lerner’s world feels lived in. Sarita’s journey contains plenty of character growth, but you also get the sense that her story is meant to represent the many real-life girls unable to break from these horrific circumstances. The narrative is grounded, never feeling like it needs to arbitrarily create conflict to move the story along.

Cadejo Blanco’s primary flaw lies with its 125-minute runtime. The third act feels a bit aimless as Sarita heads toward a fairly predictable outcome. A few scenes feel either redundant or unnecessary for the purposes of the narrative.

There are far too many parts of the world where women still lack agency over their own lives. Cadejo Blanco hones in on this struggle. Sarita is an empowering figure, unafraid to walk straight into the lion’s den. While hardly the kind of story that leaves you warm and fuzzy inside, Lerner’s world serves as a strong testament to the lengths that too many in this world have to go to protect their families.

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Wednesday

15

September 2021

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TIFF Review: Zalava

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Some horror films captivate their audiences with gruesome cinematography that inspires genuine terror. Others get by on a far subtler current, like the realization that paranoia is a living breathing entity, capable of evolution and decimation. An idea doesn’t need to be tangible or rational to flex its might, a concept that director Arsalan Amiri wrestles with in his gripping film Zalava.

Set in Kurdistan amidst the 1978 Iranian Revolution, the film follows Masoud (Navid Pourfaraj), a Gendarmerie sergeant with a low tolerance for the superstitions of the village where he’s stationed, ostensibly to keep the peace. The locals are angry with Masoud for confiscating their firearms, believing that his actions caused the death of a local woman at the hands of a supernatural plague. The town puts its faith in Amardan (Pouria Rahimi Sam), a local shaman, to capture the demon in a glass jar, an act that brings about mixed emotions in Masoud, pleased to appease the villagers but frustrated by their baffling hysteria.

Masoud is an unusual choice for a lead character. Pourfaraj possesses a commanding stage presence, a devil-may-care attitude that endears his fairly unlikeable character to the audience. As the film goes on, Amiri reveals the genius of this dynamic, a non-believer slowly giving in to the possibility that his reality has in fact succumbed to madness.

Amiri has such fun with ambiguity, a delectably subtle treatise on the power of paranoia that relies on a glass jar as its foremost antagonist. The real villain of the narrative is fear, unseen hysteria that radiates through the screen. Disinterested in showing his cards, Amiri crafts his narrative in a way that doesn’t press the need for answers. One can quite comfortably let the mystery be.

You don’t really to see a giant demon eating people to feel the horror of a bunch of villagers resorting to shooting perceived victims in the legs as a form of crude bloodletting. Too many people possess a natural inclination toward conspiracy theories, wreaking great havoc even in spite of their breathtaking absurdity. The villagers aren’t even necessarily wrong to be fearful, Amiri leaves that question up in the air, but their decision-making process remains deeply unhinged from any rational thought.

Amiri’s feature debut is a very impressive effort. There are plenty of films that deploy unseen antagonists or narratives that grapple with the idea that humanity is its own worst enemy. The film’s crowning achievement is the way a remote village in 1978 Kurdistan completely captured the zeitgeist of our paranoia-riddled world.

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Wednesday

15

September 2021

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TIFF Review: Farha

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There’s a natural point in many young people’s lives when we first feel the pain of being away from home. Sleepaway camp, college, or a new job in a faraway land brings natural anxiety. Leaving the nest is certainly far more challenging when your home is quite literally under siege from hostile forces, surfacing unthinkably tragic emotions. Based on a true story, the film Fahra centers its narrative on a young girl who defied all natural inclinations to run, and clung to her childhood home as her world crumbled around her.

Fahra (Karam Taher) is a fourteen-year old girl with much the same ambitions as any of her peers across the world. She wants an education and a bit of relief from the persistent boys of her village, constantly pounding at her door with intentions of marriage. 1948 Palestine doesn’t have the same opportunities for Muslim girls as boys, but Fahra’s father (Ashraf Barhom), the head of their village, begrudgingly approves of her plans to further her studies in a big city.

With British rule of Palestine reaching its end, local villages around Fahra’s are being increasingly displaced. As Israeli forces move on Fahra’s home, she defies her father’s wishes to evacuate with a family friend. Fahra’s father locks her in their basement, promising to return once he got a handle of the burgeoning warzone around them. Of course, war has little regard for promises, leaving Fahra to fend for herself under the worst possible circumstances.

Director Darin J. Sallam’s delivers a powerful debut brimming with confidence and compassion. Perhaps most impressive is the way she completely entrusts the film to Taher, who gives an absolutely superb performance. Fahra is almost always the only performer on screen, her house serving as the primary setting, yet Sallam takes such an effective approach to worldbuilding that you feel the entire tension of the region. The 92-minute runtime flies by in the blink of an eye.

Sallam beautifully captures the conflicting emotions between a girl with quite literally nothing left to stay for, a bright future elsewhere firmly in her grasp, yet still clinging to the remnants of home. There are points where you naturally want to yell at the screen for Fahra to be sensible, but there’s nothing sensible about invaders coming to take wreck your village and take your home. Taher has such a firm grasp on the human heart in conflict with reality.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Fahra is Sallam’s quiet approach to the narrative. The narrative does contain some gruesome displays of violence, but Sallam declines to show the brutality on screen. The result is no less traumatic, but fundamentally centered on its subject’s reaction. It’s one thing to show the audience the horrors of war, but the reaction of a young girl to such carnage all around hits so much harder.

Farha is the kind of film that leaves you emotionally exhausted. Sallam’s debut is well-worth the effort. There is such beauty in the way she makes her small-scale production come to life, a powerful tour de force of indie filmmaking.

 

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Tuesday

14

September 2021

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TIFF Review: I’m Your Man

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Humanity is still a ways away from crafting artificial intelligence suited for our complex emotional needs. It’s hard enough to get a Spotify algorithm to play something good, or for Siri to understand directions on the first try. We’re close enough to that reality that the thought becomes more tantalizing than narratives about Pinocchio-style objects yearning to be human. The pitfalls of online dating can make drinks with Pinocchio sound pretty appealing.

The film I’m Your Man (original title Ich bin dein Mensch) follows Alma Felser (Maren Eggert), a scientist taking part in a unique experiment. A local company has designed seemingly sentient cyborgs capable of flirting, dancing, and the ability to modify their behavior to the specific needs of an individual. Alma is paired with Tom (Dan Stevens) for a three-week trial aimed at testing the cyborg’s effectiveness. Sworn to secrecy, Alma brings Tom out into the world, society at large blissfully unaware that the charming English-accented individual lacks an actual soul.

Director Maria Schrader’s work is brimming with heart, a touching meditation on loneliness. Alma lives a fairly restrained, borderline nihilistic existence, unhappy with both her home life and her professional trajectory. Eggert’s reserved demeanor is a perfect foil to Stevens’ unrelenting optimism, charming chemistry that buoys the narrative through predictable waters. Underneath the surface, Stevens looks like he’s having the time of his life in this entirely German-language role, though Tom maintains a blissfully unaware sense of awe and wonder toward the world.

While Tom is up and away the film’s most interesting character, Schrader wisely avoids letting the narrative fall into Pinocchio territory, never really posing the question of what it would mean if Tom felt human. Cyborgs are here to help ease our suffering, not add to it by taking over the world. Schrader is firmly focused on the humanity of the actual human in the narrative.

There isn’t a lot to the world-building, a dynamic that works quite well without constantly making you wonder if the cyborgs need to use the toilet or might malfunction if someone poured a glass of wine in their face. The one area where Schrader stumbles a bit is a subplot involving Alma’s academic work. While studying a cuneiform tablet, Tom reveals that his internal supercomputer uncovered similar findings in Buenos Aires, rendering Alma’s years of research worthless.

Schrader could reasonably expect a suspension of disbelief to apply to basic questions of Tom’s functionality, but it’s a much greater stretch to bestow a genius-caliber analytical intellect upon the Siri-enhanced sex doll without ever addressing why these cyborgs weren’t being deployed in scientific capacities rather than romantic ones. It’s a question the audience is bound to wonder, a door that Schrader opened up herself. Those kinds of situations are pretty rare throughout the narrative, but the dynamic leaves a nagging sensation that really didn’t need to be there.

The first act stumbles a bit out of the gate, Alma being pigeonholed into a predictable rom-com trope. It’s one thing for her to be skeptical of Tom or his ability to make her happy, but Schrader piles on top of that an unnecessary level of reluctance by the scientist to even take part in the study. It’s a crutch that the narrative doesn’t need, the story improving greatly once Alma ditches her baseline apprehension. The film is hardly well-served by having such a fascinating experiment centered around a participant who wants nothing to do with it, countless audience members undoubtedly eager to take her place.

Schrader thoroughly wrestles with the film’s themes, finding fresh perspectives in a well-trodden genre. Stevens has never been better. Most impressive about I’m Your Man is the way that Schrader defends Alma’s outlook on life while leaving the audience room to arrive at a different destination.

A world where we go to bed at night comforted by a machine like Tom is likely not that far off in the horizon. At its core, that reality is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, another tool for humanity to find some peace in life, or a crutch to shield one from the potential pain of the outside world. Schrader gives both perspectives some breathing room while still making her own stance known. I’m Your Man is well worth the effort, crafted with such obvious love.

 

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Tuesday

14

September 2021

1

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TIFF Review: Jagged

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

It barely takes a second into any of Alanis Morissette’s songs to understand her abounding success. As a musician, Morissette wields this acute ability to speak universal truths to audiences who may know nothing about rainy wedding days or movie theatre hookups. When she tells you that you ought to know, you believe her.

Alison Klayman’s documentary Jagged unpacks the layers of Morissette’s smash hit Jagged Little Pill, the twelfth best-selling album of all time and second-best by a female artist. Powered by iconic anthems such as “You Ought to Know,” “Hand in My Pocket” and “Ironic,” the album grew to become one of the 90s defining pieces of popular culture, inspiring a musical that debuted on Broadway in 2019. While the album’s success seems like destiny in hindsight given Morissette’s commanding talent, the documentary presents a more sobering look at the challenges she faced in her early career.

Breaking into the music industry while barely a teenager, Morissette ran into no shortage of powerful men who viewed her as little more than a commodity. Klayman reveals Morissette’s struggles with sexual harassment just after puberty, developing an eating disorder as at the urging of those in the business ostensibly there to safeguard her interests. Morissette is open and generous with her testimonies, a damning and deeply moving indictment on the industry as a whole.

The choice to confront the heavy stuff early on gives Klayman the runway to achieve Jagged’s primary objective as an unadulterated celebration of Morissette and all her glory. Most of the documentary’s 97-minute runtime is upbeat in nature, a narrative full of anecdotes from the making of the album and its subsequent 18-month tour. By keeping the narrative mostly confined to the Jagged Little Pill era, Klayman manages to present what feels like a pretty complete perspective on the definitive period of her subject’s career, a pretty gargantuan task for any single film.

While most of the interview footage comes from Morissette, Klayman does include testimony from music journalists and 90s icons like director Kevin Smith, speaking to Alanis’ star power and the impact it had on music as a whole. Interviews with two former members of her touring band, bassist Chris Chaney and drummer Taylor Hawkins, supply some of the film’s meatiest material. A broader theme in Jagged is the rampant sexism throughout the industry, decades before events like the #MeToo movement started to shine a spotlight on the need for reform.

The Jagged Little Pill tour presented a unique situation for Morissette’s all-male backing band, musicians with close proximity to one of the biggest stars on the planet, able to reap the benefits of “being in the band,” swarms of groupies in all. That kind of chauvinistic mindset runs countercurrent to the underlying feminism powering her whole career. A few interviews hint at some strife between Morissette and her employees over their behavior, but Klayman is a bit too conflict-adverse to pursue this narrative strand very far.

Jagged is essentially a victory lap for one of the most talented female musicians of all time. It’s hard to go more than a few minutes without some music putting a smile on your face, the kind of film that begs you to sing along. Klayman understands the magic of Morissette, leaving the audience with the kind of feel-good feature that’s perfect for a pandemic-plagued nation in need of some comfort.

 

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Tuesday

14

September 2021

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TIFF Review: The Power of the Dog

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The past twenty years have seen the rise of the antihero, protagonists who are easy to love in spite of their moral ambiguity. With that narrative trope firmly played out, Jane Campion ups the ante with The Power of the Dog, a film that largely operates without any specific character for the audience to identify with. The picturesque queer Western is a remarkable return to feature films for the director after a twelve-year absence.

Based on the 1967 novel of the same name, the film follows Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a colorful yet highly unpleasant rancher, working with his brother, George (Jesse Plemons), raising cattle and horses 1925 Montana. George is the opposite of Phil, polite and soft-spoken, determined to not let his brother’s rude demeanor soil their family name. It is during one of these image rehabilitation tours that George makes the acquaintance of Rose (Kirsten Dunst), quickly falling in love. The two marry, bringing Rose and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), permanently into Phil’s orbit.

Structured with numbered chapter markers breaking up the film, Campion untethers her narrative from any set anchor point. Cumberbatch is the closest thing the film has to a true lead, but much of the first half is spent focusing on Rose, before setting up the eventual pairing of Peter of Phil, the latter of whom spends much of the narrative mocking the former’s awkwardness and fragrant homosexuality. Phil is pretty gay too, a reality that clearly rips him apart.

Campion’s slow-burn refuses to conform to any conventions of narrative, backed by a career-best performance from Benedict Cumberbatch. Phil is not a protagonist, giving the audience nothing to root for, existing for nothing other than cruelty. There is also a sweet side to Phil, with Cumberbatch finding easy chemistry with Smit-McPhee. Campion assigns no ulterior motive to Phil’s softer demeanor for story purposes, instead of giving Cumberbatch the floor to use his ample acting talents.

The Power of the Dog is reluctant to fully commit to any single narrative strand. Much of Rose’s arc follows her gradual decline into alcoholism, but Campion seems to lose interest in exploring this story, sidelining George for most of the second half. Filmed in her native New Zealand, its breathtaking beauty constantly on display through the luscious cinematography, the ranch essentially functions as a character in its own right.

The loneliness of rural living is well-documented. Adding a layer of repressed homosexuality in 1925 into the equation, it’s easy to see how isolation can warp one’s entire existence until there’s nothing left but bitter resentment. As Phil, Cumberbatch so beautifully embodies that angst. He’s easy to hate because he’s a pretty bad person, but neither Campion nor Cumberbatch are super invested in making you feel otherwise.

Many may find Campion’s approach to storytelling off-putting, a singular approach to pacing that’s never in a hurry to get anyway in particular. The story leaves a bit to be desired by the time the credits roll, but with the top-notch acting and beautiful cinematography, it’s hard to care. Few films so abundantly translate the message of a director who takes such joy in her craft.

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Tuesday

14

September 2021

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TIFF Review: Benediction

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There are future generations of LGBTQ coming that will grow up never knowing life in the closet. A once universal sensation for gay people will fade from our collective consciousness, the passing of time blunting the pain of old wounds. The English poet Siegfried Sassoon carried with him not only the burden of the closet, but also the scars of service in World War I, later becoming a vocal dissenter of the prolonged conflict.

Terence Davies’ film Benediction captures the complicated, tragic life of Sassoon. Played predominantly by Jack Lowden, with a brief appearance by Peter Capaldi covering the last chapter of the poet’s life, the narrative delicately explores the emotional turmoil that came to define Sassoon’s career. For a man who experienced such sadness so early on in his life, Davies narrows in on the metastasized trauma and the way its evolution became his subject’s defining characteristic.

Lowden’s Sassoon is deliberately stoic, a man in constant conflict between his repressed emotions and the natural desire of the artist for free expression. The pressure valve has long seen its bursting people, with the poet often carrying himself more like a ghost than a functioning member of society. Sassoon is a very sad man, a notion reaffirmed by Davies at every turn. Lowden keeps the audience at a distance, demonstrating almost no range in his character’s demeanor until late in the third act. It’s unwelcoming but not necessarily off-putting, a strong performance hindered by the narrative’s brutal confines.

Davies is his own worst enemy, dragging out Benediction for so long that the payoff loses all its muster. The narrative has no idea what to do with its untenable runtime, a 137-minute slog. As a biopic, Benediction covers decades-worth of its subject’s life, but Davies is not really concerned with showing history or biography. He’s almost entirely preoccupied with Sassoon’s inner sense of turmoil, an exercise that would have been better suited by a more intimate scope.

The production appears to have been impacted by the pandemic, with a few scenes looking like their audiences were green-screened into the background. The actors almost always keep their distance, much of the narrative confined to conversations between two or three people in isolated spaces. Without much variety in its settings, the scenes often feel repetitive, hindered by Lowden’s reserved performance.

Gay people of faith will undoubtedly find much to contemplate. A convert to Catholicism late in his life, Davies finds much beauty in Sassoon’s sense of spirituality without trying to speak for him. The screenplay does an excellent job blending poetry into the narrative’s progression.

Davies’ cause is not exactly helped by the broader abundance of closet narratives. The director doesn’t really have anything interesting to say about being gay in a time when homosexuality was illegal, though he does have some fun with Sassoon’s voyeuristic male companions. For a film with so many gay characters, it feels oddly prudish, like Davies is holding out on the audience.

Benediction is a frustrating experience, strands of brilliance that never manage to come together. Davies doesn’t give his audience enough reason to sit through his overstuffed, meandering work. There’s so much talent on display here that seldom operates in sync.

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Sunday

12

September 2021

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TIFF Review: The Electric Life of Louis Wain

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Cat pictures are one of life’s great simple pleasures. The artist Louis Wain helped popularize portraits of adorable felines in the 1800s, a time when they were regarded as nuisances, good for little other than mice control. The film The Electric Life of Louis Wain presents a colorful yet deeply sad perspective of his troubled career.

Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a solid yet abundantly predictable take on the eccentric artist, institutionalized late in his life with schizophrenia, a widely disputed diagnosis. The death of their father left Wain as the reluctant patriarch of his family, using his ability to draw at breakneck speed to find employment at The Illustrated London News working under Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), a kind man with a heavy tolerance for Wain’s often outlandish behavior. Wain is under great pressure to provide for his mother and overbearing sisters.

The only person in the world who seems to appreciate Wain for all his eccentricities is Emily (Claire Foy), who works as a governess to his sisters. Wain quickly falls in love, despite the scandalous nature of a romance between lovers of differing social statuses, earning the scorn of his whole family. Louis and Emily have a happy, albeit brief marriage, tragically cut short by Emily’s terminal breast cancer diagnosis. It is in the wake of tragedy that Wain finds his greatest successes drawing pictures of cats, inspired by his wife’s love of felines.

Director Will Sharpe bites off more than he can chew with an overstuffed narrative that struggles to build off its whimsical first act. The film does an excellent job capturing the melancholic aura of Wain’s life, fleeting feel-good moments amidst an ocean of tragedies. The biographical nature of the story presents numerous pacing challenges that Sharpe manages to navigate with relative grace.

Sharpe deploys a narration by Olivia Colman that aims to give the narrative the feeling of a fairy tale, a device that feels a bit like a liability as time goes on. Wain’s life is not a good fit for a 111-minute runtime, a series of highs and lows that doesn’t flow well within a three-act structure. By the midway point, the narration feels almost obligatory, a weird reminder that this is all a performance.

Cumberbatch feels almost too comfortable playing yet another eccentric genius, bringing nothing new to the table. It doesn’t help that Cumberbatch’s best scenes are all opposite Foy, whose character dies halfway through the film. 111 minutes is a long time for a narrative that achieves most of it what it set out to achieve before the third act.

Sharpe can be forgiven for not necessarily knowing how to fit Wain’s whole life into a feature film. His biggest fault is in his failure to craft three-dimensional characters out of Wain’s sisters, who essentially function as the film’s antagonists. Wain is distant from his family in a way that feels more like an impediment for the narrative than an organic part of the story.

The Electric Life of Louis Wain is probably not more fun than spending two hours looking at cat pictures on Instagram, but it’s a competent biopic. Sharpe and Cumberbatch don’t exactly impress with their handling of the material, but the two make an admirable effort. Wain lived a tragic life, but there’s much inspiration to be found in the way he channeled his grief into a medium that brought so much joy to many.

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Sunday

12

September 2021

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TIFF Review: Murina

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There is a great abundance of film narratives centered on extraordinary people or individuals who achieved great feats in unthinkable circumstances. The same cannot really be said of ordinary people wishing to lead ordinary lives. As children, we’re often told that we’re special, even as the vast majority of us grow up to lead fairly mundane existences.

Antoneta Alaman Kusijanović’s film Murina explores the life of a girl who never received any kind of positive affirmation from her parents. Julija (Gracija Filipović) is a 16-year-old girl living on an isolated Croatian island. Julija is not particularly special, her most noteworthy talent being that she can hold her breath for a long period of time, a skill she puts to good use while spear-fishing with her father, Ante (Leon Lućev), an insufferably mean man who makes life miserable for her and her mother, Nela (Danica Čurčić). Isolated from anyone her own age, Julija spends her time being objectified by the men around her, almost always sporting a one-piece bathing suit.

A visit from Ante’s old friend Javier (Cliff Curtis) reopens old jealousies, Ante nearly driven mad by Javier’s much more successful career. Ante takes out his anger on Julija, getting even more frustrated by the kindness that Javier shows toward his daughter. While quiet and soft-spoken, Julija sees in Javier new possibilities for life beyond her father’s constant abuse.

Kusijanović presents an illuminating portrait of the long-term effects of living under the male gaze, a slow-burn narrative completely in sync with Filipović’s lead performance. Julija begins the narrative seemingly at ease with her underwhelming life prospects, gradually awakened by the possibilities of a world her picturesque purgatory. Filipović captures that moment so beautifully.

An a-ha moment is not a roadmap for life. The real world is a much bumpier ride, a notion that Kusijanović never loses sight of in the narrative. Murina’s narrative takes place over the course of a few days, hardly enough time for a young girl to break a long-standing pattern of abuse and live a happily ever after. Such a payoff wouldn’t hit home as hard.

The 95-minute runtime gives the audience plenty to chew on, a good amount of time to spend within Kusijanović’s world. At its core, Murina is a film about agency, and the difficulties that one has to face in wielding it. Kusijanović makes a strong argument for the power of telling kids that they’re special. It’s a lot harder to reach one’s potential If you’ve never been told there’s any point in trying at all.

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