ENTERTAINMENT
09/12/2018 10:54 am ET Updated Sep 13, 2018

Viola Davis, Ryan Gosling And Natalie Portman Usher In Fall Movie Season

"Widows" is a stormy thriller, "First Man" is an ambitious slog and "Vox Lux" is a provocative barnstormer.
"Widows," "First Man" and "Vox Lux."
Fox/Universal Pictures/NEON
"Widows," "First Man" and "Vox Lux."

The fall movie season is coming into sharp focus here at the Toronto International Film Festival, where many of the year’s most-anticipated movies have premiered over the past week. Some will go on to headline the Oscar race, including “Widows,” “First Man” and “Vox Lux,” though the latter is a far harder sell in both commercial and awards terms. Here are some thoughts on each.

“Widows” 

Fox

“We have a lot of work to do. Crying isn’t on the list.”

When Viola Davis tells you to stifle your tears, you stifle your damn tears ― especially if they’re distracting from the heist you need to pull off in order to settle your late husband’s $2 million debt before the second coming of Anton Chigurh points his Glock in your direction. Got it?

Widows,” the electrifying thriller from “12 Years a Slave” and “Shame” director Steve McQueen, never relents from this message: There is no time to waste, no expense to spare. Reimagining a 1980s British miniseries, the tight plotting brings together four Chicago women of varying economic stature whose lives have been ransacked and threatened after a sting operation results in their husbands’ deaths. (That includes Liam Neeson, the guy every movie fights to keep alive.)

Davis is the tribe’s alpha, steering a mission that recruits Elizabeth Debicki as a naive housewife caught in cycles of abuse, Michelle Rodriguez as a storeowner whose business crumbles because of her spouse’s malfeasance, and Cynthia Erivo as a strapped mother who agrees to join the enterprise after working around the clock to provide for her daughter. Using the men’s step-by-step blueprints, the women will make off with a collective $5 million ― enough to pocket some and repay the Chigurh-type crime lord (Daniel Kaluuya) who’s got them in his crosshairs. 

This synopsis alone confirms what a soaring crowd-pleaser “Widows” is, the kind that yields gasps and cheers as the proceedings grow increasingly twisty across the movie’s two hours. What it doesn’t capture is the film’s nuance, at once a tale of mayhem and a screed about corruption. Having co-written the script with Gillian Flynn, whose “Gone Girl” fingerprints are all over it, McQueen cleverly connects the women’s mission to a wealthy dynasty politician (Colin Farrell) making half-baked attempts to appeal to his underprivileged constituents. As that web is further spun, the quartet must work even harder to move on from the mess the men left behind. How do you carry on when everyone you trusted and everyone you didn’t is embroiled in the capitalistic scourge that lets the greediest rise to the top? You don’t cry, that’s for sure ― you get what’s yours.

“Widows” is a tour de force for its cast, particulary a steely Davis, an ascending Debicki and a menacing Kaluuya. The supporting ensemble, too, comprises an embarrassment of riches: Carrie Coon, Jacki Weaver, Bryan Tyree Henry, Robert Duvall, Michael Harney, Lukas Haas and “Pariah” star Adepero Oduye. But the film’s accent marks come from McQueen’s sleek camera, which slows to a suspenseful linger and zips to a powerful clip at a perfect pace. If the culminating showdown winds up feeling rushed, it’s only because this isn’t “Ocean’s 8.” There’s no overextended rah-rah sisterhood message, even if the women are hyper-aware that no one thinks they have the “balls to pull this off.” It’s about doing what needs to be done because the system doesn’t allow for anything less.

Invoking the politics of Black Lives Matter, inner-city exploitation and inescapable sexism, “Widows” emerges a riveting roller-coaster ― one that loops and reverses and spins in all the right directions without ever losing sight of its destination.

“First Man”

Universal Pictures

The image of Neil Armstrong hopping across the moon’s surface is seared into the American consciousness, as is Hollywood’s infatuation with rocketing into space. Countless directors have shown off their technical savvy via pronounced narratives about human ingenuity, using the stars as a twinkly conduit. There is, always and forever, some element of personal strife at play in the men (or, every now and then, women) who blast past Earth’s limits seeking a greater beyond. Usually that journey is thrilling. Other times, it’s “First Man.”

If any young auteur seems right for the story of Armstrong’s historic 1969 moon landing, it’s Damien Chazelle, already a stylistic ace after the one-two punch of “Whiplash” and “La La Land.” But the craftsmanship in “First Man” feels beamed in from another dimension ― a movie set, perhaps. Chazelle often shoots Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his colleagues in extreme close-ups, letting their helmeted eyes do more work than his camera, which shakes and rattles to simulate movement but doesn’t feel like it truly leaves the ground until the final 20 minutes, when it springs to life as Armstrong first sets his boot onto the moon’s powdered canvas.

This impressionistic approach could be impressive, were the story more compelling. You might wonder, fairly, how Neil Armstrong’s expedition could be anything less, but the script, written by Josh Singer (“Spotlight,” “The Post”), asks its audience to invest in him as a blank slate.

We first meet Armstrong during a 1961 research flight in the Mojave Desert, at which point the United States is sparring with the Soviet Union for space superiority. At home, tragedy strikes when his young daughter dies from a malignant tumor. He bottles up the pain, becoming a vacant vessel who immediately returns to work to proceed toward mankind’s famous leap. The years traipse by with little change in Armstrong’s persona, and in turn, Gosling bottles up his performance. There’s little to cling to in his unexpressive eyes ― an intentional choice that’s only intermittently effective. 

Thankfully, Claire Foy is on hand to offer a more thorough turn as his wife, left to shepherd their two sons as Armstrong pours himself into his crusade. Foy is aided by a sharp supporting cast, but the likes of Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott and Kyle Chandler aren’t given much to do as the movie moves from 1961 to 1969 ― and from one scientific development to the next ― in the course of 133 minutes without totally shedding biopic conventions. There’s a strange sense that “First Man” is at once overstuffed and lethargic. American politics, namely the Vietnam War, loom in the background, but the film prioritizes its story of one man’s profound dedication in the face of internalized turmoil. Chazelle’s knack for immaculate sound design outpaces the actual saga, which still feels cold by the time it hits the celestial body it’s pursuing. There are fits of inspiration, but little here is heavenly.

“Vox Lux”

NEON

Oh boy. Where to begin with “Vox Lux,” the film that seems to have produced the Toronto festival’s most polarizing responses? It opens with a jarring school shooting and ends with a glittering pop concert, along the way invoking 9/11, the horrors of fame, innocence lost, addiction, narcissism and the way one Staten Island native found herself on “the losing side of Reaganomics.” 

This is, in other words, a lot of movie.

Brady Corbet’s provocative drama opens with Willem Dafoe narrating a “Behind the Music”-style documentary. “Celeste was born in America in 1986,” he announces, adopting the slick, judgy tone that often accompanies prying celebrity profiles. Corbet, who also wrote the script, then cuts to a middle-school classroom where a student arrives armed with a rifle, much in the style of Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant.” He kills his classmates, except for Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), whose “special something” not only keeps her alive, but propels her into a wild new chapter.

The year is 1999, so the incident assumes shades of Columbine. America, forever seeking a moral compass, looks to Celeste as a resilient figurehead, a role that no 13-year-old should have to endure. She records a song in the aftermath, at once handing the country a cathartic anthem and launching a massive pop career. 

But as the millennium dawns, the world sinks further into despair. 9/11 hits and a war ensues, right as Celeste is becoming a household name. The film slides through this transition with shocking ease, making a compelling case that we reached an irrevocable nadir after Y2K that has yet to end. It makes at least some sense, then, that the movie’s second half goes crazy along with her.

“Vox Lux” lurches forward to 2017, when Celeste has grown up to become Natalie Portman, first seen stretching her arms with exhaustion in a makeup chair. She’s wearing jet-black eyeliner and a fitted leather getup, her Staten Island cadence having somehow thickened over the years. What happens to the girl who was thrust into fame at the hands of terrorism? Nothing good, according to Corbet. Celeste has gone bonkers, spewing invective at everyone she can, struggling to maintain relationships with her loyal sister (Stacy Martin) and daughter (Cassidy, again), and adopting a callous attitude about a recent murder spree that resembles Celeste’s music-video aesthetics.

For about an hour, we follow Celeste through the bowels of a hotel where she prepares for a concert and descends into a distinct, selfish madness that connects historical bloodshed to her feisty public image. She became so inextricably linked to a recent history’s dark spell that it ate up whatever benevolence she might have developed with adulthood. Instead of shying away from the spotlight, she doubled down within it, losing most of her humanity. (What is the opposite of poptimism? This movie.)

“Vox Lux” can be read at least two (very different) ways. It’s either a biting indictment of the American horror story that is the 21st century, and the way one girl lost herself as the fame machine turned her into a PTSD-stricken hellion. Or else it’s a cruel pop-star missive with no respect for actual pop stars. Is she a victim or a villain? It’s hard to tell, and maybe that’s the point.

After first viewing ― I might need several more to get to the bottom of it all ― I lean toward the former. What’s certain, though, is that Portman remains one of our most fascinating actresses, and this performance is a wall-to-wall exercise in excess that works wonders for her. Her round eyes glare as gaudily as the hateful words that pour from Celeste’s mouth. Alongside “Black Swan” and “Jackie,” it would make for one hell of a trilogy about the steep, seductive divides between performance and reality ― something we’ve certainly never seen attached to a notion as a grave as terrorism. It’s a character study, albeit a damning one with global proportions. Your mileage may vary on the ethos, but I couldn’t look away.

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