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Toronto: Anna Kendrick’s Woman of the Hour and Grant Singer’s Reptile Both Gripping — Except for Their Titles

Anna Kendrick‘s Woman of the Hour is the best movie I’ve seen to this point at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is such an assured and confident film that you’d never guess it was her first feature. Meanwhile, Grant Singer‘s debut Reptile is also the work of a bold new filmmaker, though it isn’t quite as successful as Kendrick’s movie. However, both films are gripping in their own right and should delight fans of serial killer thrillers and other such gnarly crime films.

Woman of the Hour tells the rancid true story of Rodney Alcala, a budding photographer from Los Angeles who often raped and murdered his pretty young subjects. He became known as the Dating Game Killer because he appeared as a contestant on an episode of The Dating Game in 1978. Kendrick and screenwriter Ian MacAllister-Mcdonald spend half the film dramatizing that episode, in which the director herself plays the bachelorette, Cheryl Bradshaw, interspersing it with scenes in which Alcala preys on isolated women.

Alcala is played by Daniel Zovatto, who delivers one of the very best performances of TIFF, and one of the best serial killer depictions in recent memory, recalling a young Vincent D’Onofrio. This is a game-changing turn from the actor, who starred in genre hits such as It Follows and Don’t Breathe before playing The Prophet on Station Eleven. He’s absolutely bone-chilling as Alcala, never more so than when he performs CPR on one of his strangulation victims in order to briefly revive her, only to climb on top of her and begin choking her again, just as we begin to think him capable of restraint and regret. You simply can’t take your eyes off Zovatto, lest you risk missing that moment when the light drains from his eyes and you all but see him decide to commit murder. “I always get the girl,” he tells a fellow contestant on The Dating Game who asks him why he’s so confident that he’ll win.

Kendrick, by turns, is excellent as Cheryl, who tires of asking the show’s scripted questions and instead decides to toy with the three bachelors vying for her affection, turning the tables on both the boys and the show’s misogynistic host (Tony Hale). Smart and strong, Cheryl knows full well that The Dating Game is a one-time gig, not a sitcom where she’ll have to come back next week, and on the advice of the show’s makeup artists, she decides to have some fun up on that stage.

However, there’s an audience member who isn’t having fun — Laura (Nicolette Robinson), and that’s because she recognizes Rodney and believes he raped and murdered her friend following a chance encounter on a beach. She tries to tell the show’s producer, and later the police, but no one believes her, something that sadly happened all too often back then and continues to happen to this day.

Woman of the Hour
Woman of the Hour image via Toronto International Film Festival

Elsewhere, Autumn Best is a major discovery as a young runaway who hops in the wrong car, McDonald deserves credit for injecting some humor into the dark and deadly proceedings, and cinematographer Zach Kuperstein does a typically fantastic job, having previously shot both The Eyes of My Mother and Barbarian.

Woman of the Hour has the potential to be a hit and should fetch one of the festival’s top acquisition deals… there’s just one problem — that terrible title!

If I asked every man I know, “Wanna go see a movie called Woman of the Hour?” half of them would probably say, “Maybe. What’s it about?” and the other half would probably say “No. It sounds like a ‘chick flick.'” If that offends your delicate sensibilities, it’s only because deep down, you know it’s the sad truth, however sexist it may sound.

And that is why Woman of the Hour needs a new title. Because this has commercial potential. Of course, it could still be a hit with the current title, too, but it won’t be as big. Call it Bachelor #3 or Contestant #3 or Ladies Man or Gentleman Caller or Shutterbug or something — anything! — else, but Woman of the Hour is bland and generic and nearly as bad as the not-at-all all bland or generic but nonetheless terrible title Landscape With Invisible Hand. Whoever allowed that movie to be released with that title should be fired.

Reptile movie
Justin Timberlake in Reptile/Netflix

Reptile, on the other hand, is actually a pretty cool-sounding title… it’s just a poor fit for this particular Netflix movie. Why is it called Reptile? I have no idea. At one point early in the film, someone finds a coil of dead skin that has been shed by a snake, and sure, there are some characters in the film who would qualify as snake-like and slippery, but frankly, the metaphor feels forced. It’s too late to change the title — unlike Kendrick’s film, which has yet to be acquired, let alone slated for release — I’m just saying, it left me scratching my head.

A lot of critics felt the same way about the movie as a whole, though I don’t necessarily agree with them. Some of the flack this movie caught from the trades was deserved and some of it was not. There’s no question that in an effort to preserve the mystery, Reptile gets a little convoluted and threatens to lose its way altogether, but the reason it doesn’t is that it has a fantastic anchor in Benicio Del Toro., who is mesmerizing as a New England detective with a shady reputation of his own. When he’s sent to investigate the murder of a prominent real estate agent’s wife, he uncovers much more than he bargained for and realizes that he can’t trust anyone around him, including — possibly — his own wife (Alicia Silverstone, who it’s nice to have back).

Justin Timberlake co-stars as the real estate agent under suspicion, and the supporting cast is stacked with top-tier character actors, from Eric Bogosian, Domenick Lombardozzi, and Ato Essandoh as Del Toro’s fellow officers, and Karl Glusman (go watch God Is a Bullet right now!) and Michael Pitt among the suspects.

Singer does a good job setting up a suspenseful atmosphere, even if he runs out of tricks and starts to repeat himself as he tries to maintain that atmosphere, which of course becomes harder to avoid when your movie is 135 minutes. Se7en — to which this film will be unfavorably compared for some strange reason — did it in 127. So yes, this is very much a first film, and a flawed one at that, but also a gripping one that showcases major potential from its director, who gets an assist from cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (Us), and music supervisor Jonathan Watkins, who keeps us — and the film’s tone — a little off-balanced with a string of golden oldies.

This one is absolutely worth watching on Netflix next month, if only to catch Del Toro’s dogged detective. The Oscar winner is a singular performer, and it’s fitting that he actually co-wrote this script with Singer and Benjamin Brewer, because this role fits him to a tee.

Grades

Woman of the Hour: A

Reptile: B+

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