‘Chappaquiddick’ Review: Jason Clarke Plays Ted Kennedy in an Absorbing, Maddening Drama [TIFF]

Chappaquiddick review

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” declared then-candidate Donald Trump in the middle of the 2016 Republican primaries. Perhaps he was well acquainted with the chapter in the life of Ted Kennedy, the legendary “lion of the Senate,” chronicled in John Curran’s Chappaquiddick – and how it ultimately failed to move the needle among his constituents. Despite lies, misrepresentations and cover-ups, Kennedy’s involvement in the death of a political aide now serves as little more than a footnote on his Wikipedia page.

Curran, with stone-faced intent and brutal focus, makes the case that such an incident cannot help but illuminate the true character of a man. People may not need to reconcile Kennedy’s deficient response to a tragedy of his own creation with his legacy of championing liberal causes. But Chappaquiddick provides a sobering, non-ideological reminder that if such deeds do not become a part of a public figure’s narrative, then a frightening impunity for elected officials can reign.

Ted Kennedy, embodied here by Jason Clarke, may not consider himself above the law, although he certainly assumes he can act outside it and face fewer consequences. In a decade where his family staked an almost dynastic claim on the American government, he fancies himself an heir apparent to the presidency like a monarch eyes their future throne. (Of course, the Kennedys unabashedly fashioned themselves as something akin to a royal family.) For a brief, shining moment, the family business was not politics. It was public service, a trade that placed them in the powerful position of bestowing their presence like a gift to others.

If Jackie and John F. Kennedy’s “Camelot” myth, so brilliantly evoked in last year’s Jackie, captured the pinnacle of American optimism in the early 1960s, Chappaquiddick captures the decade’s dissolution in the bitter discontent of the 1970s. Early in the film, Ted remarks in an interview that he’s always walking in the shadow of his late brother, unable to free himself from the burden of his older sibling’s legacy. Ted’s incident takes place quite literally against the backdrop of the weekend in which the greatest aspiration of President Kennedy – putting a man on the moon –  came to fruition.

The assassinations of both John and Robert Kennedy scarred the American psyche in profound ways, but they had a more direct impact for Ted. As the last remaining male descendant of his demanding father Joe (Bruce Dern), Ted gets thrust into a leadership role in the family enterprise for which he is ill-prepared and remarkably unsuited. He lacks the charisma and skill which came so naturally for his brothers, yet he needs copious amounts of both to escape the mess of Chappaquiddick.

While blowing off frustration and steam, Ted drives his car off a dock, killing passenger Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), a former staffer for his brother, Bobby. His immediate physical response remains a mystery lost to time, though his first verbal reaction sums up the overarching concern in the fallout: “I’m not going to be president.” Rather than expressing any remorse or respect for the deceased, Ted filters everything through the lens of his own political future. Chappaquiddick takes place primarily in back rooms of resplendent Massachusetts waterfront homes where rich old white men plot a public relations campaign to protect a criminal from receiving justice.

Curran’s filmmaking tends to freight the proceedings with tragic overtones. Practically everywhere, there’s a symbol carrying an overloaded weight – the moon, the water. And yet through it all, Jason Clarke’s performance runs counter to the strained elements of Chappaquiddick. Despite the monumental, life-altering events that occur in the film, Clarke maintains an even keel by committing to a pervasive numbness. Scenery chewing is nowhere to be found, despite the consequential events taking place. Once Ted’s assumed birthright disappears from his grasp, he simply floats through his own life like a disbelieving observer. Clarke, a perennial scene-stealer in films from Zero Dark Thirty to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as well as this year’s upcoming Mudbound, seizes the spotlight and quickly establishes his typical measured tone.

Biographical films typically do not choose to dwell on the worst period of a public figure’s life, and seldom do they linger in the unsavoriness of their subject to the extent Chappaquiddick does. Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan’s script portrays Ted Kennedy as an impulsive figure who often ignores the sage advice of his closest counsel, even nearing an abusive level with his relative Joe Gargan (a touchingly earnest Ed Helms). The film catches Kennedy in a vicious cycle. He’s perpetually disappointed in others, which leads him to perpetually disappoint everyone around him. The result is a disgusting miasma of spin and deception that evinces the Kennedy instinct to favor their created myths over the truth. By divorcing Ted Kennedy from his accomplishments, Chappaqudick forces a reckoning over the divide between his rhetoric and his actions.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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‘These Girls Were Disposable’: 3 Lessons from ‘Alias Grace’ Director Mary Harron’s TIFF Master Class

The maverick director of American Psycho delves into why her provocative stories work so well.

Canadian director Mary Harron has brought her distinctive, indie sensibilities to five feature films. With the premiere of the first two episodes of Alias Grace, Harron’s new miniseries for CBC and Netflix, adapted from the novel by Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale), the director sat down at TIFF on Wednesday for a master class, in which she discussed everything from punk rock to feminism and her approach to casting and directing.

Here are three highlights from the hour-long conversation with this fiercely intelligent, maverick filmmaker.

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‘The Florida Project’ Might Be The Best Movie of the Year [TIFF]

The Florida Project Review

The Magic Kingdom colors almost every scene of The Florida Project. Sean Baker’s achingly beautiful and heartbreaking new film is set in Florida (obviously), very close to Disney, and nearly everything in the background advertises the The Most Magical Place On Earth. Tourist trap stores with huge painted signs advertising Disney merch constantly lurk in the periphery.

But the characters in The Florida Project occupy their own kingdom, one comprised of rundown motels and abandoned buildings. These might seem like squalid conditions, but Baker finds a way to make them seem warm and welcoming without ever trying to glamorize them. The sunsets are fierce and gorgeous, lush pinks and reds and golds, vast and seeming to stretch on for infinity. They feel like home.

Read on for The Florida Project review.

At the center of The Florida Project is Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, astoundingly good here), an adventurous child who rules over the kingdom that is the motel she lives in with her struggling mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). By day, Moonee frolics wildly through the motel courtyard and beyond with her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Whenever films deal with children as the primary characters they run the risk of treating the kids too precociously, or worse, portraying the children as mini-adults. The Florida Project never makes this mistake — the kids here always seem like kids. They’re occasionally bratty, occasionally cruel, but altogether good. They find adventure and fun wherever they can, and it’s often a joy to sit back and watch them act out.

Brooklyn Prince’s performance as Moonee is the glue that holds all of this together. The Florida Project plays coy with just who its main character is at first — at the start of the film, all of the kids seem to be receiving equal time. Yet as the film progresses, it becomes more and more about Moonee, and about how her world is in danger of falling apart while she remains cheerfully oblivious. I’m not sure how much of Prince’s performance as ad libbed, but all of it feels 100% genuine; the type of raw, lightning-in-a-bottle performance that actors twice her age can only dream of. An outsider might look at Moonee’s living conditions and worry, but to Moonee, every day is a wonderful adventure. There’s so much to do, and there are so many waffles to eat.

Baker keeps the camera low to the ground often, putting us firmly into the visual field of a child — we’re down there with them, and the whole adult world is looming above. That adult world includes Bobby, the kindly motel manager played by Willem Dafoe. Dafoe is an acclaimed actor with an impressive career, yet it cannot be overstated how phenomenal he is in this movie. There’s an unmitigated goodness to Bobby, a weary but kind soul who wants to do the right thing. A character like this would be easy to cheapen and turn maudlin, but Baker’s script and Dafoe’s performance never performs this disservice. It’s a quiet performance, and much of the power comes from the somewhat sad, knowing glances Dafoe gives to the world around him. But just as often there’s kindness — Bobby can grow frustrated with the kid’s shenanigans, yet he’s always willing to give them a second chance.

Moonee’s mother Halley will never be a candidate for parent of the year. She sells knock-off perfume and stolen goods to make ends meet, and when that isn’t enough, she turns to even less desirable methods. It would be easy to portray this characters as a monster; a terrible person doing terrible things. But that’s not how The Florida Project works. Halley is flawed, yes – at times almost devastatingly so. But Baker doesn’t judge her, and Vinaite’s performance – blunt and at times even abrasive – is pitch-perfect. Halley is flawed, yes, but she’s trying.

Everyone here is trying. Trying hard to get through their day to day lives; trying to find magic in a frequently unmagical kingdom. Late in the film, Moonee and Jancey are sitting on a tree having lunch. Baker keeps the camera in close on the two girls, not really giving us a good look at the tree they’re perched on. “Do you know why this is my favorite tree?” Moonee asks her friend. “Because it tipped over and it’s still growing.” At this point, Baker cuts to a wide shot, showing a huge, sprawling, toppled willow. It’s a breathtaking moment, and the line lingers, perfectly summing up the characters in the film. They may have all fallen at one point, but they’re still growing.

The final moments of The Florida Project unfold breathlessly — tension is mounting, and there’s the queasy sense that something terrible is about to happen, like a destructive storm about to break. And then Baker does something magnificent — he follows Moonee and Jancey on one last adventure before the credits roll. Is it real or is it fantasy? It doesn’t matter. It’s magic. We can all do with a bit more magic in our kingdoms.

/Film Rating: 10 out of 10

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9 Most Anticipated Films in TIFF 2017’s Edgy Lineup

Here are the films we’re most excited to see at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

The 10-day Toronto International Film Festival, fondly known as TIFF, has grown from a subcultural gathering for Canadian cinephiles to one of the largest and most internationally renowned film festivals on the circuit. With a projected 500,000 attendees and over 300 films being screened this year, TIFF is a reliable pit stop for Oscar hopefuls and buzz-generator for international indie gems. This year, TIFF programmers cut the lineup by 20%; as a result, the lineup is more refined—and edgier—than ever. The selected films represent a world embroiled in complex issues, from the migration crisis to the definition of modern masculinity to the geopolitical and interpersonal conflicts in which all of us are implicated in some way or another.

Below, we’ve selected nine movies we can’t wait to see.

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First Teaser Trailer for ‘Five Fingers for Marseilles’ Premiering at TIFF

Five Fingers for Marseilles Trailer

“You’ve been sent to judge me.” This looks like it could be a big breakout at the Toronto Film Festival this year. A teaser trailer has debuted for the film Five Fingers for Marseilles, a “neo-western” set in South Africa. The story follows a young boy whose life is changed forever when he kills two corrupt policemen in a South African shanty town. Two decades later, he finally heads home but his return brings out his enemies who go after him and all of his friends. Starring Vuyo Dabula, Hamilton Dhlamini, Zethu Dlomo, Kenneth Nkosi, Mduduzi Mabaso, Aubrey Poolo, Lizwi Vilakazi, Warren Masemola, Anthony Oseyemi, Brendon Daniels, and Jerry Mofokeng. The two filmmakers spent 7 years researching and developing this, “including 5,000 miles of cross-country travel, development, and filming amidst the erratic winter weather of the Eastern Cape.” From the looks of it, this film might just be as awesome as it sounds. ›››

Continue reading First Teaser Trailer for ‘Five Fingers for Marseilles’ Premiering at TIFF