After a string of Oscar contenders have now dropped at both Venice and Telluride, all eyes are on Canada, as the first major World Premiere of an Academy Award hopeful took place Friday night and this morning, and it was Warner Bros which delivered it with a punch.
Just Mercy, the true story of lawyer Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) and his efforts in Alabama to free wrongly convicted prisoners sentenced to death, focusing particularly on one named Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was convicted of murdering a teenage girl, even though the evidence pointed otherwise. The film details Stevenson’s quest for justice, and it is powerful stuff. The Toronto first night audience handed the film unusually strong applause (especially considering there was no Q&A or spotlight on the filmmakers during the end credits) after its first screening at the Roy Thompson Hall, and then multiple standing ovations at the Elgin for its second screening and Q&A. One executive from a rival studio told me earlier Friday, hours before the premiere, that they heard it could be “this year’s Green Book.” Time will tell on that, but in terms of a reception, it certainly seemed to match the enthusiasm for 2018’s Best Picture Oscar winner, and definitely will find a place in the race for this year.
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I am told this morning’s third screening at the mammoth Princess Of Wales Theatre also played “through the roof” to a full house, further fueling early talk (and it is early, since TIFF still has 8 days to go) that this is a contender for the same audience People’s Choice prize won by Green Book. Coming from director Destin Daniel Cretton (The Glass Castle , Short Term 12), Just Mercy packs a real wallop, a film for our times that not only serves a cautionary tale in our all-too-familiar rush to judgement, particularly for people of color, but that also inspires and gives us hope that there are still people like Bryan Stevenson who remind us of the best of humanity.
Jordan joins the ever-growing list of potential Best Actor nominees with a performance that never crosses the line into histrionics and stays true to the real life man he is portraying (the film is based on his book). If ever there was a year to bolster the argument to expand acting nominees from five to ten, this is it. Actors branch members are going to have a Solomon-like choice to make in whittling the final five contenders down from the strongest lineup I can recall in years. Jordan, however, deserves to be in the conversation, as does Oscar-winner Foxx, who, once again, shows his acting chops in a touching turn as McMillian, joining an equally crowded Supporting Actor field. But he’s sure to draw attention for this role from the Academy, which could – and should – deliver him his third nomination after the banner year of 2004, when he was double nominated as Supporting Actor in Collateral and won lead actor for Ray. Also a big shout out to Brie Larson, who has worked with the director twice before , and here delivers a perfectly pitched turn as the southern local advocate, Eva Ansley. She serves as sort of the audience’s advocate as well, in a small but expert supporting turn. In fact, the whole cast is flawless, and attention should be paid to Tim Blake Nelson, Rob Morgan, and O’Shea Jackson Jr., all delivering sterling performances that should all help add up to a SAG Outstanding Cast nomination for this film.
At the packed Fermenting Cellar after-party, which didn’t even get rolling until 11:30 pm, Warner Bros Picture Group Chairman Toby Emmerich told me how proud he was of Just Mercy, and clearly relished the TIFF reception it got. Emmerich is riding a wave of awards contenders this fall, with easily the largest major studio slate of movies on tap. In fact, as marketing chief Blair Rich points out, they have five movies alone here at TIFF, keeping them busy every night. Mercy, The Goldfinch, along with the Bruce Springsteen concert film Western Stars, are World Premieres, while Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn comes straight from its Telluride debut, and the highly acclaimed Joker rolls in Monday night from Venice. That actually puts the studio one shy of holding the distribution premiere record this year after Netflix, which is bringing in a whopping six titles, including tonight’s World Premiere of Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name. This all puts the current streaming vs theatrical debate into direct conflict for a festival that seems to want to embrace all forms of cinema past, present, and future. But as Warners distribution head Jeff Goldstein told me last night, “seeing these movies here on the biggest screens really seems to define what a movie should be.” Knowing the business is changing, that sentiment strikes right at the heart of why a festival like this is so important, to remind us what we love about the experience of watching the movies the way they were designed to be watched. In some cases for the over 300 features here, it may be the only time they get this kind of exposure. You don’t have to worry about Just Mercy, however. It ought to be a hit in theaters, as well as with awards voters.
With reaction at fever pitch for the first of Warners’ quintet here, you can tell it will be a busy Academy season for the studio, which last won Best Picture for 2012’s Argo, and has (along with Joker), at least one surefire contender in Just Mercy, which doesn’t open until Christmas Day in a limited run before going wide MLK weekend, right after Oscar nominations are announced. Clearly, the studio has confidence there will be a few of those. In fact, not wasting any time as a warm-up to last night’s big premiere, the studio held a private screening and Q&A August 22nd at the WGA Theatre in Beverly Hills for an invited audience of Academy and SAG nominating committee members (among others), where the enthusiastic reaction proved to be predictive of what the film is receiving here at its TIFF launch. Jordan is going to be off in Europe filming the new Tom Clancy movie, Without Remorse, for several months, so Warners and the studio’s awards consultants want as much exposure for him as they can get early on, since he will be MIA on the circuit as the season heats up.