Shiva Baby Review TIFF 2020

The Plot

While attending a Jewish funeral service with her overbearing parents a college student runs unexpectedly into her secret sugar daddy with increasingly awkward consequences.

The Good

Shiva Baby bursts with neurotic energy and a raw nervous wit. The film’s simple premise unfolds gradually with the irresistibly captivating appeal of a surprisingly well catered car crash. It’s a cringe worthy delight to be vicariously thrust into small intimate rooms with a constant array of shamelessly pushy parents, overachieving friends and judgmental relatives

Rachel Sennott is by turns alluring and deeply awkward as Danielle, the young woman struggling to hold it together while being slowly crushed under the constant weight of well-intentioned meddling criticism. She manages to maintain audience’s sympathy for her character, despite her own painfully obvious flaws. It quickly becomes clear that her seemingly listless selfishness is largely a response to the neurotic pressure cooker she inhabits. Giving her bad decisions and their painfully amusing consequences a little more of a sympathetic edge. It’s easier to tolerate anyone’s vices and immature behaviour when you’ve spent time in the company of their persistently overbearing family.

There have been many films that explore the uniquely painful uncertainty of people struggling to find their place in the world as college draws to a close and the daunting prospect of the real world and inescapable adulthood beckons. Perhaps The Graduate is the best known example of this and most clearly established just how much sexual identity and misadventure forms a part of this experience. Shiva Baby continues that tradition but with a uniquely Jewish twist.

In a very literal sense Sennott’s character Danielle is being confronted by her past, in the provocative form of her flirty former best friend Maya, and the embarrassing uncertainty of her own future. Watching her flail helplessly between the two and reach misguidedly for validation and affection is compelling viewing.

Molly Gordon is a an excellent fit for Maya, providing both the perfect confident overachieving counterpoint to Danielle and inject fresh dimension of awkwardness with the pairs simmering sexual history. It adds even more nervous tension to scenes already crammed with it by the unexpected and inescapable encounter with her shameless sugar daddy, played Danny Deferrari.

Likewise Polly Draper and Fred Melamed are sensationally effective as Danielle’s parents, embodying the very best and worst clichés Polly Draper perhaps deserves most praise for treading a fine line to make Danielle’s fast talking and relentless mother by turns both shamelessly demanding and genuinely caring. That careful balance between tactless outspokenness and actual best intentions is perhaps the most easily identifiable spirit of quintessentially Jewish comedy.

The Bad

For some people Rachel Sennott’s character might be just a little too much the architect of her own misfortune. The more unsavoury and inescapably selfish aspects of her character might push more squeamish audiences away. Likewise the film’s constant barrage of social anxiety and awkward situations might not appeal as much to those with less of a natural appetite for witnessing the misfortunes of others. There’s a rich vein of comedy to be mined from such situations but it’s also genuinely uncomfortable viewing.

The Ugly Truth

Shiva Baby is a rampantly sensuous and anxious slice of filmmaking that throws audiences into a rollercoaster of social awkwardness and uniquely Jewish culture. Provocative performances and tight scripting make it a compelling ride.

Review by Russell Nelson

One Night In Miami Review TIFF 2020

The Plot

A fictional account of one incredible night where icons Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and NFL superstar Jim Brown gathered to discuss their roles in the civil rights movement and the monumental cultural upheaval of the 1960s.

The Good

Capturing the rare magic of this instantly recognisable collection of the most important cultural figures in African American history is a weighty responsibility. In 2020 under a climate of rising global tensions and growing uncertainty there is a particular sense of urgent significance to collectively examining and celebrating these figures.

One Night In Miami instantly succeeds in not just providing cliché impersonations of these famous men, but in giving them each a nuanced and fully human portrayal. Weaving together the lives of four men each remarkable in their own right but each speaking from very different places.

Eli Gorre is devastatingly charismatic as Cassius Clay, capturing the physical prowess and uniquely flamboyant wit of a young 22 year old Muhammad Ali. Kinglsey Ben-Adir likewise offers a variously soft spoken and fiery sincerity to his portrayal Malcolm X. Leslie Odom Jr and Aldis Hodge round out the astonishing quartet of performances as musical master Sam Cooke and Jim Brown. They each add a different flavour of passion and combine to create a genuine warm friendship full of wry charm and earnest affection.

There’s an innate fascination to seeing these landmark historical figures sharing even imagined intimate moments. These invented exchanges casually explore profound and complex subject matter in exactly the way the best late night conversations among close friends often seems uniquely capable of.

The film delves into the complex spectrum of attitudes and ideals existing in the African American community during a time of immense struggle and turmoil. Each of these figures reflect a different perspective on the struggle to change the lived experiences of a community, at times flaring into genuine angry tension and conflict. It’s perhaps more important today than ever to see four different men locked in earnest debate and exchange of deeply passionate ideas.

The Bad

One of the few criticisms you can make of One Night in Miami is that it’s perhaps a little reckless to invent so many private moments for people whose lives have been so extensively publicly documented. You could make the same criticism of almost any other historical biopic though and the film is very clear in its intention to capture the spirit of these men and what they represent rather than to speak explicitly on their behalf.

It’s may also be a little too tempting for audiences to immediately treat the period of history being explored on screen as completely interchangeable with the present day. Obviously much of the subject matter and themes explored seems deeply pertinent to an increasingly traumatic current climate, but our world today is not without its own unique myriad complexities. The voices of history speak to us vividly today but they cannot answer all our questions for us.

The Ugly Truth

One Night In Miami is well-crafted, poignant and powerful. Four sensational leading performances capture a nuanced snapshot of historical icons and a turning point in modern American history. It’s a celebration of that legacy of change packed with valuable wisdom and heart.

Review by Russell Nelson

Ford v Ferrari Review TIFF 2019

The Plot

The true story of how iconic car designer Carroll Shelby and racing legend Ken Miles helped the Ford motor company tackle the seemingly impossible task of challenging Ferrari for racing dominance at the Le Mans 1966 24hr race.

The Good

This film is an astonishing piece of work that eloquently captures the exhilarating pain, passion and glory of motorsport. For the uninitiated it represents a perfect introduction to the sport via one of its most iconic moments, for seasoned fans it is an intricately crafted celebration that brings glorious memories vividly back to life.

Director James Mangold has a polished track record at delivering films that balance flawless production design with sincere storytelling. Ford v Ferrari does a sensational job at recreating the look and feel of one of the most astonishing periods in motorsport history. The classic vehicles of that golden era roar back to life, lending the film both instantly iconic personality and unquestionable authenticity.

Matt Damon and Christian Bale are both on truly sensational form as the passionate partnership tasked with making unprecedented racing history. Damon plays visionary designer Carroll Shelby with a compelling mix of straight talking southern charm and obvious inner turmoil. Likewise Christian Bale delivers yet another amazing turn as Ken Miles, giving the flamboyant driver depth and heart. Bale expertly explores the nuanced contradictions of a man capable of being both a fiery tempered racing obsessed perfectionist but equally a tenderly devoted husband and father.

The dynamic friendship between these two motorsport icons is the true heart of this film. Bale and Damon work magic in capturing the frayed tempers and compassionate loyalty that helped these two friends ultimately archive iconic feats. It’s a relationship that enthrals and inspires in equal measure.

An outstanding supporting cast helps the film to further achieve unparalleled greatness. Caitriona Balfe and Noah Jupe are compelling as Ken Miles’ wife and young son. This authentic portrayal of a family that truly loves and understands one another crucially gives the film an additional emotional dimension.  At the same time Jon Bernthal, Josh Lucas and Stacy Letts each play their roles to perfection as the various Ford company bigwigs struggling to fully comprehend the true nature of the history they’re making. The film’s cast is a well-oiled machine with everyone and everything in its perfect place.

Of course beyond the human element the film’s biggest character is undoubtedly the astonishing depiction of racing drama. Once again the film is an engine roaring success as it vividly brings to life the break neck speeds and exhilarating rush of drivers pushing unbelievable vehicles past the point of technical and human limitations. It’s hard to do justice in words to just how expertly crafted these portions of the film are. Packed with suspense, wry humour and buckets of raw adrenalin.

The Bad

It’s a rare delight to find so few flaws in a film. Obviously those with an existing distain for watching ‘fast cars drive around in circles’ will be prepared to dislike this film. But I defy them to watch it anyway. If it can’t persuade you to change your mind about the entire sport, you will at least find the underlying human story of a passionate friendship among those who push life to its absolute limits a compelling tale.

The Ugly Truth

Ford v Ferrari is high octane storytelling of the highest calibre that demands to be seen. It is a beautifully crafted and fitting testament to the ingenuity, sacrifice and friendship of iconic men who made breath-taking history in the face of abundant dangers and doubt. Whether you share a passion for cars or not, do not miss this film.

Review by Russell Nelson

Uncut Gems Review TIFF 2019

The Plot

Howard Ratner is a flamboyant New York jeweller desperately pursing a big score while his messy life teeters on the brink of total chaos and collapse. His increasing desperation to hold his family together and his mounting enemies at bay leads him to take a series of high stakes risks that will either save or doom him.

The Good

The Safdie brothers have rapidly established a reputation for unconventional storytelling with a rich flare for combining charismatic visuals and dark subject matter. Those that have seen their previous work will no doubt welcome another dose of their distinctive efforts.

In leading man Adam Sandler they have a much maligned actor who is evidently always capable of being much more than just the unashamedly moronic lowbrow comedy star he is best known as. Sandler occasionally takes welcomed breaks from the safe money of lazy studio comedies to partner with credible storytellers like Paul Thomas Anderson or Noah Baumbach on projects that make the most of the full range of his talents. Paired with the Safdie brothers, Sandler rediscovers a gritty tragic quality long absent in his recent performances.

Those that enjoyed Sandler’s turns in films like Punch Drunk Love or Funny People will welcome this return to a more hard edged and cynical performance that pushes Sandler’s most raw and vulnerable emotional side to the forefront. Restraining his flamboyant overacting just enough to expose his more sombre and subtle skills.

A competent supporting cast helps ground Sandler’s occasionally manic performance into a more grimly realistic world. Newcomer Julia Fox in particular will undoubtedly grab attention and inevitable praise for her smouldering turn as Howard’s young mistress, while Idina Menzel makes the most of her modest role as his long suffering wife.

The Bad

Adam Sandler is an actor who lurches wildly between increasingly silly comedic efforts and occasional dramatic turns. While this arguably makes him a versatile performer, it unfortunately also saddles audiences with firm expectations about his work. After churning out a recent string of disappointingly lacklustre and sometimes outright unwatchable Netflix comedies, it may be especially  jarring to some audiences to see Sandler try to once again switch seamlessly back into a credible dramatic role.

It doesn’t help that his character Howard is a flamboyant caricature complete with an absurdly comical voice, indescribably style and a chronic propensity for slapstick failure. It’s easy to see how this project could so easily have quickly devolved into another farcical Sandler comedy. Only the film’s generally bleak and cynical tone helps redefine Sandler’s character as a more sincerely tragic and restrained presence.

In particular those expecting the usual lazy parade of Sandler’s familiar comedic buddies will obviously be left instantly disappointed not to see Rob Schneider, David Spade or Kevin James pop up for friendly pay check cameos. This is NOT one of those Adam Sandler movies.

The Ugly Truth

Uncut Gems is likely destined to become a much debated cult classic thanks to memorable visuals, a pulsing soundtrack and an intriguing turn from the perpetually enigmatic Adam Sandler. Some people will undoubtedly love the film’s visual style and unconventional narrative, while others may be far less enthusiastic about falling down a dark psychedelic downward spiral. Much like Sandler himself the film will fiercely split opinions, but at least either way is guaranteed to produce strong reactions

 Review by Russell Nelson

Motherless Brooklyn Review TIFF 2019

The Plot

A lonely detective suffering from Tourette’s syndrome sets out to unravel the mystery behind his mentor’s murder, setting his sharp wits and determination against powerful men and the rampant criminal corruption of 1950s New York.

The Good

Edward Norton is on typically accomplished form playing the reluctantly heroic Lionel, a complex figure far more layered and nuanced than the usual cliché gumshoe. Norton’s method acting acumen allows him to authentically portray the character’s Tourette’s syndrome in a way that avoided either sensationalising of trivialising the affliction. Although there is certainly a very familiar trope of detectives being gifted/cursed with unique mental faculties, Norton manage to carve out something unique with his performance.

Norton as a director has managed to leverage his own acting pedigree to help assemble a supporting cast packed full of noteworthy character actors and familiar stars. Willem Dafoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bruce Willis, Bobby Cannavale and Alec Baldwin being some of the instantly recognisable talents breathing life into the murky cesspool of 1950s New York.

Alec Baldwin in particular spars very well with Norton whenever the pair square off on screen. Baldwin exudes a genuinely menacing aura as a bullish and unrepentant tycoon of extreme means and power. The contrast between his unapologetic bullying ways and the current day climate of endless recriminations against so called ‘toxic masculinity’ is fascinating.

The look and sound of the film is another massively attractive attribute. The forlorn beauty of Daniel Pemberton’s score combined with a sepia tinted vision of a vintage era of New York gives the film an extra emotional dimension and pleasing personality.

Edward Norton deserves special praise for not only delivering yet another credible leading man performance but for also directing such a well-polished technical production.

The Bad

Motherless Brooklyn for all its pleasing soundtrack, competent performances and polished production value doesn’t quite succeed in doing anything truly original with a persistently popular genre. Scratching beneath the veneer of the ensemble acting talents on show reveals a fairly straightforward plot.

For all the films undeniably appealing qualities it can’t quite secure its status alongside some of true genre classics like The Big Sleep The Third Man or LA Confidential. Although Motherless Brooklyn is an enjoyable and rewarding watch, it isn’t perhaps as memorable or endlessly re-watchable as the finest detective dramas can be.

The Ugly Truth

Motherless Brooklyn is a sincerely crafted love letter to both detective dramas and an iconic era in New York history. Edward Norton juggles method acting and directing with evident skill, achieving much success on screen. A hauntingly melodic soundtrack, stellar supporting cast and Norton’s star turn will all reward audience.

Review by Russell Nelson