CALLERI: Benedict Cumberbatch gives life to cats, and more from TIFF

In “The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain,” Benedict Cumberbatch plays the celebrated British artist. (Studio Canal)

 

For two straight years, film festivals around the world have had to rethink the meaning and method of showing movies to people eager to discover what’s new in the world of cinema.

As with 2020, the recently completed 46th annual Toronto International Film Festival was a mix of in-person showings, including at drive-in theaters, as well as virtual cinema screenings through Digital Cinema Pro, which is quite a good way to watch a movie.

During the weeks before attending TIFF, I was re-watching season 6 – the final season – of “The Sopranos” in preparation for its motion picture prequel, “The Many Saints Of Newark.” Nothing changed my long-held opinion about “The Sopranos” representing creative greatness.

As its cable network carrier states in its publicity, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” “The Sopranos” is definitely not television. It’s something more, something infinitely better.

I also watched the initial four episodes of “Only Murders In The Building,” a frothy mystery comedy streaming on Hulu. There will be nine episodes, each running about a half-hour, which comes to 270-minutes of programming. From what I’ve seen, the show’s storyline is hit and miss, with actor Steve Martin doing excellent understated work and Martin Short and his silly character being too annoying. A lighthearted program like this could be lovely antic fun, but there’s already too much padding and repetition just from what I’ve seen. It probably could have been a fine two-hour movie.

“Only Murders In The Building” is nowhere near as good as the film it shamelessly imitates, which is director Woody Allen’s masterful 1993 “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” which is co-written by him and Marshall Brickman. Allen also stars, along with Diane Keaton, Alan Alda, Joy Behar, and Anjelica Huston.

Attending the Toronto festival interrupted my “Sopranos” reverie, but that was alright because I saw two fantastic films, and a number of other good entries. I wrote last week about the so-so “The Eyes Of Tammy Faye” and the unpalatable dud “Dear Evan Hansen” already jumping into local movie theaters from TIFF.

Two features that I especially enjoyed were “The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain” and “Three Floors.”

I always appreciate learning new things. In Victorian Britain, cats were not as popular as dogs and few people kept them as pets. Cats were also considered mystical creatures. They ran wild in London and other British cities and were considered good mousers, especially on the farm.

Enter Louis Wain, a quirky English gentleman who was a talented illustrator. “The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain” tells the real-life story of this unassuming fellow, wonderfully played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who eventually became the man who made cats acceptable to humans. Who knew? His anthropomorphic drawings and paintings of cats literally humanized them. Wain became immensely popular.

His private life – he lived with his many sisters – may have been a mess, and a bit sad, but his artistry made him world famous. Alas, Wain was a failure at earning a lot of money from his art work.

The often richly comic, sometimes dreamily romantic story flows from the experiences and goodness of Wain, a polite and pleasant fellow, who is, as folks often say, “a bit odd.”

Equally good is “Three Floors” (“Tre Piani”), a drama from Italy’s great Nanni Moretti, who hadn’t directed a feature in six years. That was the superb “Mia Madre,” which I saw at TIFF in 2015.

I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with Moretti, not in a professional capacity, but casually at the wonderful little cinema he owns in Rome. It’s called Nuovo Sacher and Moretti named it after the Austrian chocolate cake known as Sachertorte, which he loves.

Moretti shows international art house films at Nuovo Sacher, which was built in the 1930s. It’s on Largo Ascianghi in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, a few steps from the Tiber River. He’s often there. I’ve been three times. Moretti was thrilled that a couple of Americans were visiting. He greets ticket-buyers. He wanted to know everything about us. We talked movies, and when we left, he was there to give us a cheery ciao.

Moretti’s “Three Floors” is an outstanding drama about three families who reside on separate floors of a middle-class apartment building in Rome. All of them are strongly affected in different and meaningful ways by significant occurrences that create conflict and camaraderie.

Other movies I saw that I liked include director Barry Levinson’s “The Survivor,” which stars Ben Foster as a holocaust survivor who gets to fight the up-and-coming boxer, Rocky Marciano.

The documentary “Julia,” directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, delivers fresh information about PBS television’s beloved cooking legend, Julia Child.

“Benediction” is an epic and controversial drama from inventive moviemaker Terence Davies about England’s renown World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon.

Memorable was “Silent Land,” which is about a good-looking, bourgeois Polish couple whose vacation in Italy becomes problematic. It marks the feature film debut of Poland’s Aga Woszczynska.

I also appreciated “Petite Mamam” from France’s Celine Sciamma. There’s a meaningful encounter between two female strangers in a forest, one of whom is seeking some solace from the cleaning-out of her grandmother’s house. Sciamma’s “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire” was an international sensation.

I will keep you advised of my favorite TIFF entries becoming available to watch as we participate in the soon-to-arrive awards season.

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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