By Dwight Brown
NNPA Film Critic
TORONTO (NNPA) – Black films and artists were an integral part of the lineup at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival along with other world-premieres. Dramas, genre movies, comedies, romantic films and documentaries positioned themselves early for this year’s annual Oscar race. Audiences previewed big budget films and indie movies that will be released this fall and on into next year in theaters and VOD.
Before the Lights (***) Quick Rihanna, check and see if someone stole your diary. This ode to chanteuses with personal demons feels like the story of her life. But in fact, it’s the brainchild of writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood who knows her way around a romantic drama (Love & Basketball). Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle), a singer, has been drive to superstardom by her overbearing stage mother (Minnie Driver). She is knee deep into a nervous breakdown when a stoic cop (Nate Parker) saves the day. A sweet romance builds in the middle of the soul-eating, kinetic world of contemporary hip-hop world. This film should be released on Valentine’s Day; it’s that sweet.
Murder in Pacot (**) Raoul Peck made a name for himself with his superb direction of the classic historic political drama Lumumba. This endeavor stands in its shadow. A middle class couple (Alex Descas and Joy Olasunmibo Ogunmakin), whose villa is almost totaled by the 2010 earthquake, takes in borders to get money to pay for mandatory repairs. Their tenants, a white relief worker and his black girlfriend who have awfully loud sex, test their limits of convention. Peck captures the worn out malaise that shrouded the aftermath of that natural disaster. But the incessant brooding is off-putting, and the script gives the actors little to do except pout. Peck’s filmmaking never raises the stakes.
National Diploma (***) We take our right to an education for granted until we see how kids in other countries struggle for theirs. Such is the case in this inspiring documentary by director Dieudo Hamadi, who follows a group of teenagers in his hometown of Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His chief muse is Joël an orphan who works as a market porter. He and other students in a ramshackle school have trouble paying the teachers’ fees. The instructors refuse to teach and prepare them for state exams, which the kids know is the key to their future. They form a study collective to reach their goals. This film should be required viewing for every truant kid in the U.S.
Second Coming (***) Idris Elba and Nadine Marshall portray a couple in Britain in this very authentic drama about a surprise pregnancy. Their performance seems so natural and real, it’s almost as if director/writer Debbi Tucker Green only had to put the camera in front of them and stand out of the way. That’s the mark of strong understated direction, and her writing is solid, too. Cast and director apply their magic to a very romantic story that is beautiful because it is so ordinary in so many ways.
Top Five (**) Chris Rock, whose pay cable standup comedy performances are legendary for their wit and intelligence, leaves the smarts at home in this pandering comedy that feels more like a stretched-out TV skit turned into a vanity project, than a well-thought out movie. Rock plays a been-there-done-that comedian who’s tied up in a fake romance with a fiancée (Gabrielle Union) on a reality show. His attention drifts to a very svelte journalist (Rosario Dawson). There’s not much more to the dialogue-laden script. A string of cameos by Rock’s buds (Adam Sandler, Kevin Hart, Cedric the Entertainer) cause a nice diversion. There is one really funny bedroom scene involving a ménage-a-quatre, a pillow fight and makeshift sex toys – it’s hysterical. The film is so poorly edited you can see one of the women is wearing a skin tone body stocking when she’s suppose to be nude.
Timbuktu (****) We read or hear how Islamic fundamentalists are encroaching on the basic liberties of people in Africa and the Arab world. Leave it to veteran filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako (Bamako) to boil complicated social phenomena down to a simple allegorical tale that is as educational and spiritual as a biblical passage. A sheepherder confronts a fisherman who has killed one of his cows. An Islamic tribunal decides his fate, after they have already stripped his village of the right to play music, participate in soccer games or associate freely with others. The scourge of developing countries comes into view in this modern, pastoral fable. Brilliant. It’s a masterwork from one of the world’s most perceptive artist. Sissako is a prophet.
Black Artists in Films
Big Game (**1/2) Sam Jackson plays the U.S. president on a trip to a NATO conference when Air Force One is shot down. He escapes into the hinterlands of Finland, pursued by terrorists. A 13-year-old boy (Onni Tommila) on a solo, rites-of-passage survival expedition tries to save him from Mother Nature and terrorists. The images of the president’s plane getting hit by a missile are very eerie. Jackson’s performance is on the same automatic control as the ill-fated plane. The production quality is just a step above a B-movie. Still, former commercial director turned writer/filmmaker Jalmari Helander makes the action sequences fun.
The Equalizer (**1/2) Last time they teamed up Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua conjured Training Day. In this film adaptation and update of the TV series The Equalizer, Washington plays Robert McCall, a man with a secret past who works in a hardware store (think Home Depot). When he sees people being wronged, he secretly fixes their problems, often brutally. Even his power is tested when he goes up against the Russian mob. A one-note character, predictable script and a lack of originality make this a standard issue crime thriller. Training Day left you emotionally paralyzed. This formulaic film, though powerful when you watch it, has no after affect.
Men, Women & Children (**) Jason Reitman got so much right in his feature film Juno, but he can only bring flashes of that brilliance to this ode to online behavior run amuck. The ensemble cast seems gratuitous except for Kaitlin Dever (The Spectacular Now) and Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) who play lost-soul teenagers in love; a surprisingly restrained Adam Sandler whose glum husband character is tormented; and Dennis Haysbert who has a fling with the glum husband’s wife. Not the smart social observance (Up in the Air) Reitman does so well – and it goes on far too long.
The Sound and The Fury (*1/2) Turning William Faulkner novels into viable films is a tough assignment and a dubious achievement at best. For an ADD artist like James Franco who, vacillates between acting, stage acting, PHD work, poetry and performance art like a pinball, it was too ambitious a task. Franco stars as Benjy, a developmentally challenged 30-something man in a White Southern clan that is losing its grip on power and reality. Told in bits and pieces, with more flashbacks than a Timothy Leary acid trip, it’s hard to find one strong element in this racist movie except Loretta Devine’s performance. Her acting is indestructible. Can’t say the same for Franco’s writing, direction or performance or the clunky cinematography.
St. Vincent (***1/2) Yes he can act, but when you hire Bill Murray to star in your comedy you always get Bill Murray the eccentric curmudgeon. Vincent (Murray) is an alcoholic who is down on his luck, with a wife who resides in a costly nursing home and has Alzheimer’s. He bets on horses, loses and owes a lot of money to greedy men (Terence Howard). He isn’t the obvious choice for a babysitter, but that’s a much-needed job when his desperate single mom neighbor (Melisa McCarthy) entrusts her weakling kid (Jaeden Lieberher) to his care. Think Silver Linings Playbook and add a couple of extra chuckles and heartwarming moments. Based on the experiences of the director Theodore Melfi. Perfect ensemble acting. Murray is disarming. The rest of the cast is charming.
Other Films of Note
The Drop (****) A laconic bartender (English actor Thomas Hardy) works in his cousin’s (James Gandolfini) Brooklyn pub, which had been taken over by Chechen mobsters and become a money drop, a place where money is laundered. The bar is robbed and the menacing Eastern European owners suspect the brothers. The excellent script, with perfect dialogue, character development and plotting, doesn’t put all its cards on the table at one time. Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) co-stars along with an adorable pit bull puppy that may just give that breed a good name. Tense crime/drama/thriller of the highest order (Michaël R. Roskam director) and Hardy’s laconic performance is genius.
Escobar Paradise Lost (***) Writer/director Andrea Di Stafano shines a light on the psychopathic behavior of Columbia drug lord Pablo Escobar (Benicio del Toro) in this fairly dramatic and tense accounting of a U.S. young man (Josh Hutcherson, The Hunger Games) who falls in love with Escobar’s favorite niece and plays into the demon’s hands. Yes the film reveals some of the evil eccentricities of Escobar’s personality, but the real reason to watch is to witness del Toro’s cold-blooded performance. He’s one of America’s finest actors and this role, spoken in English and Spanish, plays to all his strong suits.
Foxcatcher (**1/2) John du Pont (Steve Carell), an uber-wealthy du Pont heir, makes his reputation, infamous that it is, building a wrestling center on his vast estate for athletes preparing for the 1988 Olympics. He is particularly interested in championing Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a 1984 Gold Medal wrestler who is being trained by his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). Du Pont’s control issues and violent tendencies give the plotting an ominous edge. You know it’s building to either an ill-fated bromance or something deadly. Tatum gets under the skin of the wayward athlete on a downward spiral. The footage doesn’t make wrestling look exciting. That’s a surprise because director Bennett Miller made baseball look like magic with his sports epic Moneyball.
The Judge (**) A corporate lawyer (Robert Downey Jr.) with no conscience (is that redundant?) heads home to small town Indiana for his mom’s funeral straight into the home of his estranged father (Robert Duvall) and dysfunctional brothers. Dad, a judge, gets accused of a hit and run murder and the wayward smug son defends him in court. Duvall mines the gold in his character. Downey, an actor who rarely digs deep, does not. A decently paced courtroom drama and the plotting has its intriguing moments, just disregard the silly subplots (an old high school romance is rekindled). Director David Dobkin’s (Wedding Crashers) sensibilities aren’t the perfect fit.
Nightcrawler (***1/2) Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal) a psychopath sells sewage caps and wire fence to junkyards until he discovers that photographers who cover crime scenes. He buys a camera and police monitor, hires an intern (Riz Ahmed, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and starts a business as a “nightcrawler” selling scuzzy footage to a TV producer (Rene Russo) with no conscience. Because he lacks morals, Lou is more than willing to step over the line to get what he wants. Screenwriter turned director Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy) gets inside the creepy mind of the paparazzi and it’s not a pretty picture. Ahmed is perfect as the gullible victim/employee. Gyllenhaal is decent, but other actors could have been more convincing.
The prestigious Groslch People’s Choice Awards went to The Imitation Game, which is about a British cryptologist/computer scientist who led the charge to crack the German Enigma Code that helped the Allies win WWII. The first runner up is Learning to Drive and the second runner up is St. Vincent.
The films and artists on display at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival were of the highest quality and/or noteworthy. Artists and films of African descent were an integral part of that mix.
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