Linda Holmes is filing dispatches from the Toronto International Film Festival. These movies will see wider release in the coming months.
The war movie — the war atrocity movie, in particular — is a complicated thing to react to. Invoking real historical agony bestows an inherent respectability of intent; simply to tell a story that needs telling represents a higher purpose than that with which many films grapple. But still, a good film has to be a good film; it cannot only be telling a story with stakes based in tragedy.
Set just before World War I, the opening of The Promise follows young medical student Michael (Oscar Isaac) from his village in Turkey to study in Constantinople. He pays for his studies with the dowry he earns by becoming engaged to a young woman he doesn't love. While studying in the city, he meets and falls in love with a young Armenian woman named Anna (Charlotte Le Bon), who is involved with an American war reporter named Chris (Christian Bale). This love triangle plays out against the onset of the war and the Armenian genocide in Turkey, during which (as the words on screen at the end of the movie will tell you) one and a half million Armenians were killed. It's a brutal war film, but it returns over and over to its ultimately unsatisfying romantic plot.
Underlining a piece of history that deserves to be understood is a noble purpose, but The Promise, from director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), never becomes more than a cliched romantic war epic. All three characters in the triangle are nearly perfectly noble themselves, and Isaac — an actor we know from other projects to be capable of so much more — never finds much to do with Michael. Trying to set a sweeping love story against a backdrop of so much killing, trying to keep an audience focused on romantic matters as characters witness the brutal deaths of nearly everyone they've ever loved, may ultimately be an impossible task.
La La Land
By the time director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) winks directly at the audience of his enchanting musical La La Land with a joke about whether people like things that are overtly nostalgic, the audience chuckles knowingly, because the film has already full-throatedly declared its allegiance to the colorful, splashy American musicals of the the '40s and '50s and the French ones of the 1960s.
Set in L.A., it tells the story of an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) and a jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) who meet, and sing, and dance, and gaze at each other in beautiful clothes, and if that sounds too simple, it's not: it's utterly intoxicating. It's a movie for people who love darkened theaters, who love movies, who love movie stars, and who love giving themselves over to other people's art without a pause for cynicism.
Musicals contain an element of fantasy in their very structure; nobody suddenly breaks out in song in the middle of the day, and if they did, other people in the street would not sing and dance with them. Thus, a musical is an ideal vessel for a story like this that's about creativity and dreaming, one that acknowledges that every relationship has a real existence as well as a fantasy incarnation for which the people in it are constantly reaching. Neither Stone nor Gosling is primarily a song-and-dance person (though she's done Cabaret), but they're both game and ridiculously charismatic, and they're both perfectly capable of what the film asks of them.
In order to carry off a film like this, there has to be a total commitment to tonal control, and Chazelle has it nailed. There is an early scene in which Ryan Gosling leans against a lamppost, and it will motivate in even the most cynical of hearts a certain primordial swoon. The people involved in this project know exactly what it is they're making and exactly how they want it to feel. Mary Zophres' costumes are stunning, worth the price of seeing the film on the big screen just for the clothes. Stone spends much of her time in brightly colored solid dresses that are each like the peal of a bell, and Gosling's two-tone shoes are going to help bring back two-tone shoes. (Don't believe me? See the movie.) It's just gorgeous, like a flipbook made of dreamy vintage postcards that are somehow about contemporary life in Los Angeles.
Natalie Portman is very good as Jackie Kennedy in this drama structured around an interview Kennedy gave Theodore White for Life magazine only a week after her husband was assassinated. As we watch Kennedy speak to White (Billy Crudup), she flashes back not primarily to the assassination itself, but to its aftermath. This is really a story about how she handled her grief, the expectations of the public, the expectations of her husband's staff, and the needs of her children. She has to plan a funeral, choose a burial site, answer questions, be photographed incessantly, and wrestle with grieving for her husband in light of some complicated feelings about her marriage.
The Portman performance is the reason to see the film, even though every actor who tries to master the affected manner of any of the Kennedys seems to be consumed by the attempt. She's at her best here in the moments when Jackie is quiet, when the grief, anger and doubt are in her face more than in her words.
Other elements of the film are a little more in the "your mileage may vary" realm. Director Pablo Larrain (No) clearly chose the oppressive score by Mica Levi (Under The Skin) for a reason, but for me, its heavy-handedness grew wearying and undermined what Portman was doing in a number of scenes. It makes every moment feel like it's supposed to be filled with portent, which makes narrative rhythms difficult to moderate. It also means that when that score lets up in favor of really entirely too much on-the-nose quoting of Camelot (of course it's relevant, but still), it seems even more like nobody making the movie trusts what Portman is doing to convey what they're trying to convey.
It's a solid film, though part of me would have welcomed directorial or script involvement (it was written by Noah Oppenheim) from a woman in this story that is so much about the way this woman maneuvered through a sea of powerful men in a moment in which she was perhaps expected to be less defiant than she was.