Oscar Hopefuls at Fall's Film Festivals: What Hit and What Fizzled at Venice and Telluride?

Wild, The Imitation GameBirdman and others are starting to get their first reviews.

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We just passed Labor Day weekend, but you really know it's fall when film festival season kicks into high gear. In the last week, we've had the premieres of Oscar wannabes like Wild and The Imitation Game at Telluride and Birdman and The Humbling at Venice, and with the Toronto and New York film festivals on the horizon, soon we'll have a good grasp on most of the major contenders looking to capture critical attention as we exit summer blockbuster season. So what's the buzz so far?


Jean-Marc Vallee's (Dallas Buyers Club) adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir starring Reese Witherspoon has unsurprisingly attracted strong praise for its performers, particularly Witherspoon and Laura Dern and general thumbs-ups, with caveats, for the movie itself. Following Strayed as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail alone following a divorce and the death of her mother, Wild could repeat Dallas Buyers Club's double-Oscar win for acting, says the Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Farber. "Witherspoon transforms herself both physically and emotionally into this hardened yet needy young woman seeking to reinvent herself" and is "matched by Dern," he adds.

Justin Chang of Variety said the film "should be admiringly received by critics and arthouse audiences" upon its December release, although he criticized the more nakedly emotional material, particularly the death of Strayed's mother, for being portrayed in a "calculated," somewhat manipulative manner. Still, he called Witherspoon's work "intensely committed," saying it "represents easily her most affecting and substantial work in the nine years since Walk the Line," for which she won an Oscar. Eric Kohn of IndieWire said Wild was "two solid movies at odds with each other: a gentle ode to the wonders of the natural world and a more traditional account of a nervous breakdown," but noted that Witherspoon excels despite the tonal mismatch.

The Imitation Game

This Alan Turing biopic, which focuses on the tortured mathematician's work breaking Nazi codes in World War II and his closeted homosexuality, is mostly getting attention for Benedict Cumberbatch's lead performance. Scott Foundas at Variety criticized director Morten Tyldum's straightforward approach to Turing's life story, saying it's "rendered in such unerringly tasteful, Masterpiece Theatre-ish fashion that every one of Turing’s professional triumphs and personal tragedies arrives right on schedule," while allowing that Cumberbatch's "masterful" work and Turing's "compelling" story keep things interesting. Todd McCarthy at the Hollywood Reporter called it "cogently streamlined and simplified" and dominated by Cumberbatch, " whose charisma, tellingly modulated and naturalistic array of eccentricities, Sherlockian talent at indicating a mind never at rest and knack for simultaneously portraying physical oddness and attractiveness combine to create an entirely credible portrait of genius at work."


Since the trailer dropped for Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu's whacked-out meta-dramedy about a waning movie star (Michael Keaton) who was most famous for playing a superhero, the hype has been building, and the critical reaction to its debut at the Venice Film Festival will only stoke those fires. Peter Debruge of Variety called it the best work of Inarritu's career, predicting it would "electrify the industry, captivate arthouse and megaplex crowds alike, send awards pundits into orbit and give fresh wings to Keaton’s career" and slathering praise onto Keaton and Edward Norton's performances in particular. McCarthy called it a visual marvel that presents itself (through camera trickery) as unbroken by cuts and saying it "will excite discerning viewers but will likely electrify professionals in the popular arts, primarily because it's a work that seeks to go beyond the normal destinations for mainstream films — and manages to make it to quite an exciting place."


Al Pacino has two films at Venice attracting notice. Manglehorn, from the eclectic, fast-working indie doyenne David Gordon Green, is a shaggy, winning portrayal of a small-town locksmith who is still hung up on a girl who got away decades ago. Debruge called it "as scruffy and disheveled as its subject," praising some of its lifelike details but calling Pacino's dominating acting style wrong for the part. David Rooney at the Hollywood Reporter called it "cloying" and "ham-fisted," although he focused his ire on the script while praising the visuals and Pacino's commitment, which he said largely avoided bluster.

The Humbling

This Philip Roth adaptation (of one of his worst books) by Barry Levinson is, surprisingly, doing much better with critics. Deborah Young at the Hollywood Reporter, saying its preposterous story (Pacino plays a stage actor who falls for a younger lesbian played by Greta Gerwig) was trumped by a strong ensemble and entertaining, "thick and fast" comedy. Foundas said that Pacino's "rejuvenation" was most evident here, praising his and Gerwig's performances while calling the script hampered by Roth's kinda-pervy, largely-dismissed novel. Pacino, he said, seems to be referencing his own career arc with his work. "It’s a brave performance, not entirely lacking in its own vanity, but marked by moments in which Pacino lets go of the tics and mannerisms — the gravelly-voiced mumblings and hoo-wah! crescendos — that have been the crutches of his late career, and the great actor stands once more revealed."

Madame Bovary

With every year, it seems, comes another adaptation of a classic novel starring Mia Wasikowska, and in 2014 it's Madame Bovary, directed by Sophie Barthes, who's best known for the 2009 Paul Giamatti meta-comedy Cold Souls. Opinion seemed more split on this one, with McCarthy saying it fell very short, failing to get an interesting handle on the difficult-to-adapt Flaubert novel, while Chang called it "a strong effort to capture the stiflingly provincial world that Flaubert was able to describe in such precise, painstaking detail on the page."

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