It was a big day Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival, with World Premieres from Tom Hanks, Daniel Craig and Chris Evans, Eddie Murphy , Jennifer Lopez, and Dreamworks Animation. How’s that for a full plate? Of course, at TIFF it just wouldn’t be a normal day without at least six or seven big premieres, would it?
The much-anticipated Mister Rogers movie, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, with Hanks as the iconic children’s TV host Fred Rogers, was a big hit for Sony’s TriStar at its Roy Thomson Hall debut early Saturday evening. You might expect Hanks would fit this role like a glove, and he didn’t disappoint. He eased into those slippers like he had been playing this character forever, and seemingly just as effortlessly as he inhabited Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks. Hanks is chameleon-like in his ability to inhabit these icons and not miss a beat.
Though top-billed, strategists for the film tell me Hanks will be campaigned for Best Supporting Actor in a category that already promises such leading stars as Brad Pitt, Christian Bale or Matt Damon, Anthony Hopkins, Jamie Foxx, Al Pacino, and many more. How does a real supporting actor even stand a chance? Nevertheless, the Hanks decision actually makes sense, since, in essence, the story revolves around Matthew Rhys’ character of a magazine writer on a personal downward spiral assigned to write a simple profile for Esquire of Mister Rogers, the only celebrity who would agree to be interviewed by the frustrated and very depressed writer at this point. Rhys plays it morosely throughout and is a good foil for the pitch-perfect performance of Hanks, who embodies Rogers with grace and believability. It is an impression of sorts, but the actor goes much deeper and delivers a three-dimensional turn as this man who seems too good to be true, but is absolutely true to his TV persona. The life lessons he teaches the man who is interviewing him are priceless, and lives are changed in the process. I promise you that Hanks, a two-time Best Actor winner but sadly overlooked for some top notch performances in recent years, is once again going to the Oscars.
For whatever reason, it all reminded me of the Christmas classic, It’s A Wonderful Life. Rhys is Jimmy Stewart, suicidal and going to very dark places when Clarence the Angel, in this case Mister Rogers, comes to his rescue and teaches this grown man lessons he will never forget. One of several films directed by a woman that debuted yesterday at TIFF, helmer Marielle Heller put it very simply in her introduction. “I know we come here to be recognized for awards and reviews , but it is important to remember something else,” she told the packed crowd, reminding them that it is more important in terms of what we do in our lives that really matters in the end. What she has done is much-needed now, more than ever in dark times, and like The Two Popes, reminding us of our better selves. Heller, director of the wonderful Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which was one of my top three films last year, has another lovely winner this year.
At the exact same time at the Princess Of Wales theater, a gem of a murder mystery was being solved in writer/director Rian Johnson’s hilarious and dead-on homage to Agatha Christie-style thrillers, Knives Out, to be released by Lionsgate for the holidays, and a better present I couldn’t imagine for moviegoers or fans of this sort of thing. With an all-star cast, including Daniel Craig as the inspector trying to solve the death of patriarch Christopher Plummer, all the prime family suspects are interrogated in the ancient but impressive mansion where it all takes place. Among them are Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, and Ana de Armas, along with another detective played by LaKeith Stanfield. It is splendid stuff, as Johnson knows exactly how to break this genre wide out and deliver a movie that is true to form, but full of contemporary twists on the concept. I cannot imagine a world that, with this cast, this movie would not be a hit. It played like gangbusters in its World Premiere.
At the Patria after-party, I caught up with Johnson, who told me he was extremely pleased with the reaction, although worried that, in some places, the laughs were so big that the next lines were not heard. Plummer got the only standing ovation in the cast when he was introduced for the Q&A, and it was well-deserved for this Canadian native in his home country. He had high praise for his director, telling me he really knew what he was doing. He also loved working with the cast, which also included actress K Callan, who, at several years younger, believe it or not, plays 89-year-old Plummer’s mother in the movie. I caught up with the veteran actress, who modestly credited the makeup and costumes for making the Great Nana Thrombey work as well as she does. Actually, her reactions in the movie are priceless.
With a key role, Cuban-born actress Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049) also wins our attention as kind of a voice of sensibility as Plummer’s nurse. She told me she had never worked with so many stars in one movie before, and that it was a bit daunting, but that they all bonded working for several weeks, and doing everything together in a big mansion in the Boston area where it was all shot. de Armas also went on to work with Craig in the latest James Bond film, No Time To Die, but her time on that set was cut short when Craig got injured. So, instead, during the unexpected hiatus, she came back to L.A. and started work on Blonde, in which she plays none other than Marilyn Monroe. After this weekend’s TIFF activities, she goes back to finish that movie, and then in three weeks, will return to complete No Time To Die, now that Craig has healed from his injuries. He looked great at the premiere, so she is happy to go from Bond to Blonde and back to Bond. Whew!
And there’s more at a festival where there is no rest for the weary.
Eddie Murphy had a smash TIFF debut with Netflix’s Dolemite Is My Name, which drew huge crowds lined up across the street from the Princess Of Wales theater (right after Knives Out vacated the spot) to catch a glimpse of Murphy and his cast gathered for the World Premiere of the comedy about iconic blaxploitation star and standup comic and pioneer rapper Rudy Ray Moore. I don’t know about the Oscars, but I can guarantee Murphy is definitely headed to the Golden Globes (which has a comedy category) for this one. It is a grand return to form for the superstar, who never before has portrayed a real-life person.
“This is one of the best roles I have ever played,” Murphy told me about the project he has been trying to bring to the screen for 15 years. “It never would have gotten made without Netflix, that I can tell you.” It is a ton of fun, no question. Murphy also said he was so happy to be bringing back a sequel to one of his biggest hits, Coming To America, with the entire cast, including Arsenio Hall. Hall, by the way, has an interesting cameo of sorts in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood via an interview he once did on his talk show with Fred Rogers, except in this segment, Hanks as Rogers sits on the couch with Hall instead of the real Rogers. It was flawlessly executed.
Earlier Saturday at Roy Thomson Hall was the World Premiere of Universal/DreamWorks Animation/Pearl Studios animated effort, the charming, kid-pleasing Abominable. Opening September 27th, it should have the family audience locked up, as it features an Abominable young snowman searching for a way back home to his parents and family. It is the second ‘toon this year about a Yeti accompanied by humans in an effort to get back to the Himalayas. The other one was Laika’s The Missing Link, but this one had by far the more lovable lead character. Consultants working on the movie are hoping it will have a place in the Best Animated Feature race. Kids at the screening clearly were eating it up, so it just could land a slot as one of the few original animated features in the mix this year.
On the opposite end of the scale, and at the very same – and very busy – Roy Thomson Hall, Jennifer Lopez led her squad of strippers for the World Premiere late Saturday night of STX’s Hustlers, which looks to become a sizable hit for the upstart distributor, which can use one right about now. Reviews so far are upbeat for the September 13th release, particularly for Lopez, who has livened up TIFF without question. I will catch that one in L.A. before it opens Friday.
And even though it already premiered in Venice to a seven-minute standing ovation, the North American debut Saturday night of Seberg drew an enthusiastic response at TIFF, particularly for star Kristen Stewart, who plays the troubled star who became the subject of an investigation by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI because of her personal and political connection to civil rights activist Hakim Jamal (played by Anthony Mackie). She’s impressive in this role, to the point I forgot I was watching Stewart, and instead thought it was Seberg herself, who as an actress was always underrated, if you ask me. I am hearing Amazon Studios may be planning a late 2019 Oscar qualifying run for the film, which also stars an excellent Jack O’Connell.
After all this activity on what is always the busiest day of TIFF, almost all these stars headed over to the Four Seasons for the very crowded and very lively annual bash thrown by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association that went well into the wee hours of the morning. The impressive turnout there, which included several who popped over from the nearby annual Sony Pictures Classics dinner hosted by Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, proves, if it is the start of Oscar season, it is also very much the start of Golden Globes season, too.
A beautiful day in the TIFF neighborhood, indeed.