I saw a number of major A-listers during the last few days at TIFF. And guys, I absolutely did not keep it together
When Brendan Fraser walked out on stage during the North American premiere of The Whale, I shrieked. Joey Moser was standing next to me, and I became so overcome with emotion that I told him I loved him. And then started to cry. And then, I dropped my phone onto the lap of the person seated in front of me because my hands were shaking so much.
And when Steven Speilberg came out to introduce The Fabelmans, I was so overwhelmed, that I didn’t speak at all; I just clapped like my life depended on it and dropped in my chair in a state of shock. Being in the same room with Michelle Williams, Jessica Chastain and Olivia Colman? I think it’s going to take years for me to process all of this. Who knows if I’ll ever get an opportunity like this again? But if I do, I hope I never get used to the absurdity and magic of it all.
And you know what? I don’t think the “stars” really get used to it either. Speilberg, with his Oscars, and endless cache, was bursting with pride and excitement pointing out his sisters seated in the audience. Jessica Chastain teared up when talking about how inspired she was by her character, and you could just tell that Brendan Fraser appreciated every moment of his minutes-long standing ovation. That premiere was going to be as memorable for him as it was for me.
Here are a few of the dramas I’ve seen at TIFF, the ones that made me cheer, laugh, cry, and served as reminders of why I’m a total movie nerd. And proud of it.
If you’ve read any of my writing, I think it’s fairly obvious that I’m more than a bit sentimental. (Just look at my intro). And that is why I’ve fallen hard for The Fabelmans. Steven Spielberg’s new semi-autobiographical film isn’t afraid to lean into its emotions or nostalgia; it’s Spielberg recounting the seminal moments of his youth, including falling in love with filmmaking. I suppose if there’s any director out there who can get away with celebrating their own talent, it’s Mr. Spielberg, seeing his protagonist Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) pick up a camera for the first time or edit his boy scout adventures, seeing the early roots of his genius, knowing what he becomes later is profoundly moving.
The Fabelmans is part coming-of-age story and part family drama, with Michelle Williams and Paul Dano playing a version of Spielberg’s parents. Williams is one of those ‘I’ll watch them in anything actresses,” and the work she does here is some of her best as a loving but bored suburban housewife—she’s loving,and at times, selfish and frustrating. Her scenes play out like acting clips at the Oscars; there’s a prolonged, quiet moment, I can’t get out of my head, Williams saying so much without uttering a single word. Williams’ performance will grab the headlines, but don’t overlook Dano as the well-intentioned, often subdued Fabelman patriarch. Newcomer Labelle is very good and continues Spielberg’s nearly unmatched streak of finding and nurturing impressive young talent.
Admittedly, it took me a minute to get into The Fabelmans, the first thirty minutes are a bit slow, but once the story picks up, I was completely on board. And by that last shot, one of the best in years, I was grinning, and cheering, and crying—overwhelmed because I had seen something so truly special. One of my favorite films of TIFF and one of Speilberg’s very best.
I love movie star Jennifer Lawrence, but Causeway marks the return of my favorite version of Ms. Lawrence, the stripped-back version, displaying the dramatic chops that first made her one of the most in-demand young actresses in Hollywood. And unlike many of her cohorts, Lawrence, despite her A-List status, still possess the ability to completely disappear into a role.
Such is the case with Causeway; Lawrence plays Lynsey, a soldier returning home to New Orleans to recover from a traumatic brain injury. She strikes up a friendship with a car mechanic played by Brian Tyree Henry, and what unfolds is a quiet, delicate slow-burn of a film—an unfurling exploration of trauma, the physical kind, and the mental torment that haunts each of them like a ghost.
Lawrence is terrific here, her best performance in years, but it’s Henry’s performance that sneaks up on you, tender and vulnerable. Causeway is a small film, a character study rather than a cinematic exercise, but remarkably impactful nonetheless.
Empire of Light:
Empire of Light is a far different film than what I was expecting. I was expecting a charming British film about a movie theater and the eclectic cast of characters that work there. Those elements are there—charm and the endearing comradery that exists between Olivia Colman and her colleagues. As director Sam Mendes said when introducing Empire of Light, “We live in cynical times, and this is a deeply uncynical film.” There’s a sweetness to Empire of Light that I adored, and it treats its characters with immense kindness. There are darker elements that I won’t spoil, but that added layer of complexity made for an interesting and surprising viewing experience.
Micheal Ward wasn’t an actor I was familiar with before Empire of Light, and he’s one of my favorite acting discoveries of the festival, his performance, and chemistry with Colman is so natural and tender. And Colman, for her part, is once again phenomenal in Empire of Light. For an actress that has been showered with awards, it still feels like we haven’t seen everything she can do. She brings a lot of layers to an already complex character. I’m a huge Sam Mendes fan and, as previously established, a very sentimental person, and for me, Empire of Light hit all the right notes.
The Good Nurse:
I might be tempted to be less charitable to The Good Nurse if it weren’t being elevated by two very good performances from Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne. Chastain stars as Amy, a single mother working night shifts at the hospital to support her family and obtain medical insurance to treat her chronic heart condition. Redmayne arrives on the scene as a compassionate colleague eager to help, but soon a series of unexplained deaths draw suspicion and draw the well-meaning nurse into a twisted police investigation.
The Good Nurse is a relatively by-the-book thriller, a well-crafted cousin of sorts to Dr. Death and Dirty John, and it’s juicy enough to keep true crime aficionados engaged and entertained when it arrives on Netflix in October.
Throughout this piece, I’ve mentioned performances from actors able to escape the confines of their fame. It pains me to say that this isn’t the case with Harry Styles’ performance in My Policeman; one of the many problems plaguing this queer love triangle is that, despite his best efforts, you never quite forget that you’re watching the biggest pop star in the world try to act (persistent squeals from young fans in the audience didn’t help). And the magnetism Mr. Styles oozes on stage doesn’t translate to screen.
Director Michael Grandage has made a visually beautiful film; the plot moves back and forth between the 1950s and 1990s with dream-like fluidity, and I appreciate the tenderness and sensuality depicted in the sex scenes; there are moments of genuine romance, even if they are fleeting, The problem is that the forbidden love affair and the long-suffering wife are dynamics I’ve seen too many times before and the very limited character development doesn’t allow for there to be much nuance or strong emotional attachment to anything unfolding in My Policeman. And the film ends rather abruptly, further cutting off any chance of a cathartic experience or satisfying payoff.
The seeds of a very good film are buried in My Policeman, but the film holds its emotions entirely too close to the chest and shortchanges its characters and cast as a result.
Let me start by saying I adore Brendan Fraser. I grew up with George of the Jungle, The Mummy, and (the criminally underrated) Blast From The Past on repeat, and to see Fraser being embraced once again, to see him wipe away tears during his rapturous standing ovation, brings me to much joy. Fraser is remarkable in The Whale. Any praise you’ve heard for his performance is earned and quite possibly underselling what he achieves. This performance is so much more than the much-discussed 600 pounds of prosthetics, it’s raw and tender and daring, and there is much anguish packed away behind Fraser’s eyes that it’s hard not to look away. I don’t think any other actor would have been able to pull off what Fraser has; you needed someone warm and familiar, but not so much so that it’s distracting, and an actor who will shed his vanity and allow himself to disappear. I’ve never seen a performance quite like what Fraser delivers.
I just wish I felt as strongly about the film that surrounds him.
Director Darren Aronofsky does a remarkably good job of fairly quickly establishing the discomfort Fraser’s Charlie feels in his body. We see his size, his sores, and bruises, his sickness. The Whale is capable of tremendous subtlety, showcased in scenes with Samantha Morton and the phenomenal Hong Chau. Why then must we return to repeated scenes of binge-eating, mockery, rejection, cruelty, and suffering? Why is the film so heavy-handed in showing us Charlie’s misery? At a certain point, it stopped being emotionally affecting and veered into territory that was manipulative a cruel.
The film also suffers anytime Fraser isn’t on-screen. Sadie Sink does well with the material she’s given, but her subplot adds little to the film overall, other than continued discomfort. I’ve seen other TIFF-goers call The Whale a masterpiece, and I certainly begrudge anyone who feels that way. It’s impossible to fully dislike a film that features performances this good, but it’s far too punishing a film to easily recommend. Or watch again.