TIFF Journal: Day Seven and Eight

As I wait to hear the winner of TIFF’s coveted People’s Choice Award, an honour that has prepared the victorious film for a Best Picture nomination in eight of the past nine years, I pray it goes to Lady Bird (Grade: A-). That comedy is not just the solo writing and directing debut of actor Greta Gerwig, but one of the most assured high-school movies in years. Saoirse Ronan could receive a third Oscar nomination for her turn as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, an equally lovable and maddening high-school senior on chilly terms with her mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and hoping to boost her grades so that she can move away from Sacramento for college. It all hits a snag when father Larry (Tracy Letts) loses his job.

The film, which has been receiving rapturous acclaim since its Telluride premiere, initially seemed under-whelming due to its familiar territory within the teenage coming-of-age genre. But Gerwig is a perceptive scribe, and the fact that she was roughly the same age as the protagonist is within the story’s 2002 setting helps a lot of the period touches feel authentic rather than cute. The film’s narrative goals may be modest, but Lady Bird’s accumulation of senior-year memories (weekend inhibition, mugging for the school musical, going to prom) provides more than just a breadth to the protagonist’s experience, but a depth to her personal development. Those who found Diablo Cody’s script to Juno cloying could have similar complaints about the witty rapport between Christine and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges). Nevertheless, the 93-minute comedy doesn’t waste a moment: it is remarkable how many incidents, situations, and turning points Gerwig can cover with just a minute’s worth of dialogue. The result is rich, moving, and deeply funny, a film you truly miss when it ends.

sheikh-jackson

Lady Bird’s most pleasurable charms come from its specificity of the characters’ teenage ennui. In sharp contrast, making an overly broad attempt to palate festival audiences is Sheikh Jackson (Grade: C), the closing night selection in the Special Presentations programme. The synopsis for Amr Salama’s drama is appealing: a devout imam in Egypt is at a career impasse when the death of Michael Jackson spurs him to revisit his teenage years, when he learned to dance to the King of Pop to please his crush. (Ahmad Alfishawy plays the sheikh, and Ahmed Malek is his teenage counterpart.) The blend of religious obedience with cultural temptation is an appealing idea, but screenwriters Salama and Omar Khaled rely on a cacophony of clichés, from the strict father to the dead mother. Meanwhile, the chapter I was anticipating, which would have explored the protagonist’s climb from cultural to spiritual observance, is oddly absent. Worst of all, the independently budgeted production couldn’t afford any of Jackson’s songs. We’re left with audio cues that sort of resemble his mega-hits of the late 1980s. With the exception of a hallucinatory montage where the protagonist’s everyday life mixes with the music-video iconography of that pop star, the film lacks the sound and the spirit of the figure its protagonist idolizes.

ava_05

That schism between music and social norms in the Middle East is also inherent to AVA (Grade: B+), the first narrative feature by Iranian-Canadian director Sadaf Foroughi. Set in Tehran, the film focuses on the titular schoolgirl (Mahour Jabbari), a young Muslim who has little interest in adhering to her parents’ expectations. Marriage isn’t on her mind; instead, she wants to pursue music in college. She also has a crush on a young pianist, Nima (Houman Hoursan), a budding friendship to which Ava’s mother (Bahar Noohian) disapproves. When mom takes Ava to a gynecologist, worried that her daughter has been sexually active, the normally talkative schoolgirl quickly silences, and then begins to act out in startling ways. Foroughi is a confident filmmaker who knows exactly where to place the camera to capture the mood of an argument or heated discussion, or to help reflect the protagonist’s circumscribed activity. Unlike in Sheikh Jackson, the worries and concerns of the overbeating parent are recognizable, stemming from cultural and class-based repression. The confrontations here are an apt view of the strain between generations, with authority figures expecting instant obedience and young women curious to challenge the status quo. Its thoughtful characterization and blistering performances make one deeply anticipate Foroughi’s next film.

Meditation-Park,-Cheng-Pei-Pei--Sandra-Oh

As for the work of another Canadian director, Mina Shum’s Meditation Park (Grade: C+) is too slight and dramatically inert to stand alongside her superb drama Double Happiness or recent documentary Ninth Floor, both of which premiered in Toronto. The film rests on a leading performance from Cheng Pei Pei that jumps between nuanced and overwrought, sometimes within the same scene. Pei Pei plays Maria, an aging housewife who discovers a woman’s underwear in the suit of her husband (Tzi Ma), and suspects he is having an affair. This is the impetus for Maria to not just figure out her husband’s whereabouts, but to find an inner strength to work and thrive on her own. It’s an admirably original premise, and one that formidably recounts the strain of the immigrant experience in Canada (a motif of Shum’s work). But too few of the peripheral players in Maria’s life ever feel pertinent to the narrative. Sandra Oh stars as Maria’s overworked daughter and Don McKellar portrays a neighbour who befriends the senior citizen, but there is too little on the page to make the mother-daughter relationship and platonic friendship, respectively, resonate. Consequently, one wishes the rest of Shum’s attempt to illuminate the struggle of Asian immigrants and senior citizens could transcend familiar culture-clash tropes.

downsizing

After hearing some dismal things about one Matt Damon flick at TIFF (the George Clooney-directed Suburbicon), I decided to skip that and check out another Matt Damon vehicle. Unfortunately, Alexander Payne’s Downsizing (Grade: C-) begins with an opening third of invention and promise, before curdling into an exasperating, excessively unfunny lull, filled with enormous missed potential. Damon plays Paul Safranek, a character’s whose distinctive surname results in little more than a tired running gag. At the film’s start, Paul and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) become fascinated with a new scientific innovation, where humans can reduce their size and mass volume by around 2,700 times. (The reason given for this radical shrinking is to help reduce overpopulation and curb climate change.) The cash-strapped couple believes a decision to downsize will allow them to live the rest of their lives in a luxury community for exponentially more value.

The first 45 minutes of the two-hour-plus film behave like a TV pilot, briskly filling out the emotional stakes and the appeal of this scientific discovery. (Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern, and Jason Sudeikis are among the guest stars in this early section.) However, as soon as Paul has moved into miniature mode, the film sputters and stiffens, as if that small-screen series had fast-forwarded into a future episode from a deeply lacklustre season that couldn’t afford the cast and production qualities of the pilot. The intriguing science and pocket-sized living of this early section is mostly forgotten, and we’re left with an irksome relationship between Damon’s affable (if dull) everyman and a Vietnamese refugee, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). Ngoc is one of the most enervating characters to reach the screen this year – and this is not so much Chau’s fault but the caricaturing of Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor – and not a moment of the dynamic between her and Paul is convincing. Beyond that, a confusing timeline, an inadequate explanation for the socioeconomic disparities within the miniature space, and a torpid narrative drive provide TIFF with one of its biggest disappointments.

DFvGs7sXUAAoLLz

It is possible that if I had seen Downsizing earlier in the festival, I may have given it a kinder review. However, I saw Payne’s Oscar hopeful a mere 12 hours after Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot (Grade: A), a vital and complex Israeli drama that singlehandedly reinvigorated my festival. The director of 2010’s Lebanon follows that film, which was set almost entirely within a confined tank, with another powerful drama about the lingering effects of war and trauma. Since the entire film relies on surprising plot developments, I will tiptoe around the details of the story. I will share that this film shifts between two settings. The first is the spacious city apartment of Michael and Dafna Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler), after they learn that their son, Jonathan, was killed in the line of duty. The second is a checkpoint by a sparsely travelled road in northern Israel, where four bored Israeli soldiers sit and wait for vehicles (and even a couple of camels) to pass. The connections between these realms will be self-evident for the viewer, but will not be spoiled here. Regardless, Foxtrot does as good a job of any film in recent memory to explore Israel’s systems of militaristic and social control, as well as the connections between life and death, water and fire, sex and violence, comedy and tragedy. It’s explosively good.

Coming soon: Some final reactions, plus my list of the best (and worst) films I saw at this year’s festival.

Advertisements

TIFF Journal: Day Six

When you cover a film festival, you’re always searching for a performance that, through its sheer power and magnetism, enshrines a new talent. The close to 1,000 in attendance at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre on Tuesday night can confirm that Daniela Vega, a Chilean actor and singer, may just be one of the year’s biggest discoveries. Vega anchors A Fantastic Woman (Grade: A-), one of two TIFF premieres for director Sebastián Lelio (the other being the English-language Disobedience). The trans actor brings enormous command and compassion to the role of Marina Vidal, a trans woman grappling with the loss of her older lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), and his family’s disdain for her sexuality. His family members do not want Marina anywhere close to Orlando’s funeral, but are also too close-minded to confront the truth of the late fifty-something’s immense adoration for a woman about half his age.

It takes mere seconds for one to recognize why a jury in Berlin crowned Vega as Best Actress at that city’s festival earlier this year. Left to react to withering homophobia for much of A Fantastic Woman, Vega’s Marina carries every ounce of defiance and vulnerability in her eyes. (Lelio places an emphasis on her charged, changing mood, letting many scenes unfold in front of a mirror or directly facing the camera.) The screenplay, adeptly and quite painfully, examines the intolerant assumptions of the Santiago citizens that consider Marina’s presence an affront. Yet, in Vega’s capable hands, the heroine never feels like a victim; instead, Marina is a fighter, comfortable in her own skin and unwilling to let prejudice alter or delay her plans. It’s a stunning performance, the linchpin in Lelio’s poignant drama about womanhood.

seasoninfrance_01

Another wrenching character-study playing in the Special Presentations programme, although slightly less successful, is A Season in France (Grade: B). Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s new drama focuses on Abbas (Eriq Ebouaney), who fled the Central African Republic with his two young children due to war. His wife, murdered in that conflict, sometimes appears to him in a vision or nightmare. A year into his family’s stay in Paris, Abbas is working as a market vendor while hoping to attain asylum. The good news is that he can teach French; however, without the proper papers, the future is elusive for Abbas and his family. And, unfortunately, fleeing the horrors of war has only damaged his psyche, which affects his relationship with a lovely French woman, Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire).

Haroun’s realist drama is utterly timely, and even timeless, although the film is most effective as a study of psychological trauma. In the opening moments, both Abbas and daughter Asma are singing a lullaby to help quell their pain from missing Madeleine, his wife and her mother. But there are significant ellipses in the storytelling that cause the film to lose some of its impact. Abbas loses his job at the end of the first third, but the protagonist spends almost no screen time trying to find replacement work, despite Carole’s pleading and the impending deadlines of paying apartment rent. Abbas’s brother, Étienne (Bibi Tanga), has a more interesting arc, as a man who feels impotent (his words) due to his lack of autonomy in a new country. A Season in France poignantly, and sometimes hauntingly, captures a mood of exile and displacement, although its desultory protagonist ensures stilted pacing. Meanwhile, a heartfelt monologue that ends the film, written to Carole but also aimed at the audience, pleads the refugees’ case forcefully, although redundantly.

the-disaster-artist-james-franco-dave-franco

As for my most anticipated film of the festival – and not just mine, as the man sitting in front of me at the press screening told me he hadn’t been so excited for a movie since The Empire Strikes Back – I’m just thankful that The Disaster Artist (Grade: B) isn’t a huge, ahem, disaster. There are many ways that a film that chronicles the making of the “so bad it’s good” cult movie phenomenon The Room, and one that even clocks in a couple minutes shorter than the 2003 attempted melodrama, could go astray. Could James Franco provide more than just a broad accent of its often-indecipherable creator, Tommy Wiseau? Could James Franco, as director, set aside the dullness that has permeated several of his earlier films? Could the film work on a narrative level and not just as fan service by Hollywood comic royalty?

Thanks in part to a brisk script from Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter ((500) Days of Summer), The Disaster Artist both fulfills and betrays that last question. A streamlined version of actor Greg Sestero’s book of the same name, the film follows the friendship between two incompetent wannabe actors: the baby-faced Sestero (Dave Franco, not doing much of an impersonation) and the opposite of baby-faced Wiseau (James Franco, going all in on a gonzo impersonation). They met in San Francisco in an acting class, moved to Los Angeles to make it in the industry, and ended up working together on the sublimely terrible midnight movie, The Room. (For the uninitiated: Wiseau served as that film’s writer, producer, director, main star, and financier. Sestero played the second male lead.) That film’s beleaguered, baffling production takes up most of The Disaster Artist’s second half, which allows a stacked ensemble – Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron, Ari Greynor, and Josh Hutcherson, to name a few – to make potent if brief impressions. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the resulting document of cinematic ineptitude, you’ll be laughing, often and exuberantly.

Due to The Disaster Artist’s commitment to bring that fascinating behind-the-scenes story to life, some of the film’s initial dramatic arcs get short-changed. Sestero’s book largely examined his journey as a struggling actor, but this aspect matters much less in Franco’s film, which prioritizes the relationship between Sestero and Wiseau. Room fans will appreciate how several of the plot points from Wiseau’s infamous film are mirrored in the off-kilter friendship between the budding actors. One unfortunate parallel: the misogyny in Wiseau’s screenplay sometimes carries over here, with none of the women in the ensemble getting much to do or say. Still, there is something tickled and amusing about having many of the funniest screen actors working today dedicated to replicating a comedy classic of a very specific kind. You never get the feeling that they want to mock The Room, but rather embrace its oddities with affection. That is probably why Franco is so glorious in the role of the brazen, temperamental Wiseau: he nails the slurred Eastern European whine, for the most part, but also finds pockets of unexpected emotional resonance.

Coming this weekend: reviews of new films by Alexander Payne, Armando Iannucci, Mina Shum, and Greta Gerwig, plus a few words on the best film of this festival (and one of the best films I have ever seen).

TIFF Journal: Day Five

Note: I realize Tuesday was the sixth day of the Toronto International Film Festival. The reviews of those screenings will appear tomorrow.

It’s been a good year for Israeli actor Shai Avivi. In one of my favourite films of 2017, One Week and a Day, Avivi plays a father trying to return to relative normalcy a week after his son’s sudden death, and enlists the stoner next door to help him out. That film’s graceful balance of sly comedy and weighty subject matter was disarming, and so was Longing (Grade: B), where Avivi stars, again, as a father mourning the death of his son. The twist in this drama is that Avivi’s Ariel, a successful middle-aged Israeli, didn’t know that his son even existed until grieving mother (and his old lover) Ronit comes to Tel Aviv to report that when she left him, she was pregnant with a boy she later named Adam.

Even if Savi Gabizon’s drama does not quite reach the emotional heights of One Week and a Day, it is often funny and engaging. The film consists of Ariel’s trip to Acre, where he hopes to discover more about his son by talking with Adam’s ex-girlfriend, school principal, and others. Gabizon expertly uses silence and long shots to clue us into the lack in Ariel’s life, and his propulsive need to make up for lost time. And, Longing contains a variety of wry moments, including a dream scene that has to be an homage to a key sequence from Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her. The drama’s episodic structure can be frustrating, with a couple of interesting side characters (such as Adam’s boyhood friend and his crush, a schoolteacher) left hanging with unsatisfying conclusions. But there is something lovely and sensitive about Avivi’s performance; as Ariel romanticizes his own romantic son, we can see the ties that connect these two men who never got a chance to meet.

One of Us

Continuing with the Jewish subject matter, I caught an early Monday morning screening of One of Us (Grade: B+), set to premiere on Netflix this fall and be the service’s documentary contender for the Oscars. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who have examined religion, intolerance, and religious intolerance in the past (Jesus Camp, 12th and Delaware), turn their eyes on three people that abandoned the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, and the devastating aftermath that resulted from those decisions. Young mother Etty recalls her husband’s violence and harassment, and is later greatly disadvantaged in a court case, where she hoped to keep custody of her children. Luzer, who secretly watched movies in the back of a car for recreation, says he was curious about the secular world and decided to pursue acting. (He was cast as the male lead in Félix and Meira, a film about a man falling in love with a Hasidic woman, which was a TIFF hit in 2014.) 19-year-old Ari recounts the effects of child abuse, and how his inability to cope outside of an ultra-Orthodox setting eventually spurred a drug addiction.

The film is undeniably powerful and often galvanizing, although I am curious to see whether a backlash brews. Grady and Ewing do not portray the brutality and power of the Hasidic community as a blanket that covers all 300,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews in the New York area, but some may be bothered by the sinister tone of certain sequences. In one scene, foreboding music accompanies the onscreen text from a circulated letter, which detailed how religious leaders demanded local Jews donate money for lawyers that would dismantle Etty’s case: one could view this suggestive music as damning stereotype. But the filmmakers are incisive enough to examine how their three subjects remain spiritual, despite their struggle and continued ostracism by family and friends. Observing the Jewish community from a distance, outside of homes and behind gates, Grady and Ewing acclimate the audience to the subjects’ (and the filmmakers’) isolation. It would be a shame if potential controversy ends up diminishing such a disquieting, fascinating look at religious freedom and hypocrisy.

the-shape-of-water-sally-hawkins

Another major Oscar player finding some ardent admirers on the festival circuit is The Shape of Water (Grade: B), a romance-monster movie hybrid that works gloriously when writer/director Guillermo Del Toro gets to show off his flourishes and production design, a bit less so when it has to deal with perfunctory story developments. (With significant sections filmed at the Elgin Theatre, one of TIFF’s screening venues, how could it not play at the festival?) Still, this should be more than a modest hit. Set in Baltimore during the Cold War, it follows the mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a janitor at a large scientific laboratory who becomes smitten with an amphibious creature (Doug Jones) held there in captivity. He is trapped by the physical tank, while she is shunned due to her incapacity to speak. They make for a cute couple.

Throughout his career, Del Toro has confidently blended childlike innocence with bloody violence rather seamlessly, and this magical realism has resulted in his two best films, Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. The Shape of Water is a slightly different beast; although it’s a technical marvel, the film’s dreamy emotional beats are too brief. For the first time in cinematic history, a movie may have actually needed less of Michael Shannon. As the vicious Strickland, who wants to use the creature for inhumane purposes, the actor does fine work, but the resources given to fleshing out this antagonist’s story end up stifling the minutes that should belong to Elisa and the creature. Hawkins, as expected, is a force of nature, and Richard Jenkins is terrific as Elisa’s neighbour, Giles, who also faces bigotry and exclusion. Individual sequences, including one that transforms an apartment into an aquarium, contain the magic one expects from the filmmaker. But like Del Toro’s previous film, the ravishing Crimson Peak, The Shape of Water works swimmingly when concentrated on its atmosphere and themes, but becomes clunkier when the plotting takes precedence.

dhrqpkvvoaihst3

The Shape of Water was probably my most anticipated film of the festival, and that B grade might go up on a second viewing. (The buzz for it may have bolstered my expectations too much.) Another film whose grade could shift, albeit in the other direction, is I Love You, Daddy (Grade: C), Louis C.K.’s sort-of secret comedy, which was shot earlier this spring and completed in time for TIFF. It’s a film both brave and baffling, as well as awkward and self-aware, and although it aims to make its audience deeply uncomfortable, it doesn’t entirely work as a comedy or drama. It focuses on Glen Topher (C.K.), a TV showrunner and producer trying to manage some unexpected professional and personal drama. The former is a new series he is trying to prepare, complicated by the pregnant actor (Rose Byrne) with whom he falls in love. The latter revolves around 17-year-old daughter China (Chloe Grace Moretz), who has grown up in a lap of luxury and expresses little interest in going to college. The two entwine when China begins hanging out with Glen’s personal hero, Leslie (John Malkovich), who is rumoured to be a child molester.

I Love You, Daddy’s flow from vulgarity to deadpan humour, from cinematic homage to contemporary ennui, seems like a natural complement to C.K.’s FX series, Louie. But despite the daring storyline and an exceptional supporting cast – Pamela Adlon and Edie Falco are excellent in small parts – the film seems empty. The director casts himself, unconvincingly, as the rich, entitled protagonist, and his relationship with Byrne’s glamorous movie star is just as contrived. Meanwhile, despite the texture of the black-and-white cinematography, much of the scripted banter is only a step above a single-camera sitcom. (This is a far cry from the bruised humanism of C.K.’s staggeringly good Horace and Pete, from 2016.) The films has much to contemplate, given its themes of harassment and abuse in show business and the art vs. artist dilemma, as well as allegations of the filmmaker’s own erotic proclivities. C.K. undercuts some of the audacious material by giving the women in the story too little to do: Moretz rarely transcends her stereotyped 1 per cent-er, while Byrne is neglected by the screenplay, which manages to entirely forget about her character’s pregnancy. I can only imagine how much more interesting, and funnier, the comedy would have been had Adlon been its scribe.

Coming soon: Reviews of a timely French drama, a hilarious Hollywood comedy, and a masterful Chilean film that ranks as one of the festival’s finest.

TIFF Journal: Day Three and Four

Covering press-and-industry screenings for TIFF is a joy and pleasure, with a few exceptions. It may surprise you how many people that cover cinema for a living, and/or whose careers are beholden to the power and resonance of the moving image, keep their phones on and check them routinely throughout the film. It may also surprise you how many of them cut the line ahead of fellow film critics to chat with a colleague or friend but then don’t return to their proper spot in the line. (One of my favourite people working in the industry, an engaging presence with a website that is among the most influential in the film business, cut right behind me in line for a packed press screening this morning. I didn’t want to squeal; that’s the power of celebrity.)

Furthermore, many of them are easily persuaded to walk out of festival screenings. One can gauge the reaction of how well a film plays by the number of departures critics make in the middle. Sweet Country, which I saw on Friday, lost about 10 or 15 per cent of the accredited folks who were seated for the beginning. The next day, the French drama Custody (Grade: B-) kept the crowd more capably in their seats. It begins and ends with 15-minute sequences that outshine the rest of the drama. The opening section is a long, talky discussion between a divorced couple, Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet), their lawyers and a judge. Antoine wants joint custody of 11-year-old Julien (Thomas Gioria). Miriam has submitted into evidence a letter Julien wrote, citing how scared he is of his father. “I’m glad they’re divorcing,” the letter reads. The ‘he said, she said’ banter lays out, efficiently, the stakes of Xavier Legrand’s feature début.

The core problem with Custody is that the dynamics introduced in the first piercing scene – that Antoine is dangerous and Miriam is doing her best to keep him at bay – do not alter much throughout the rest of the film. One wonders how a dramatist like Asghar Farhadi (who made the masterful A Separation, also about a divorce) would have deepened the characters, humanizing the supposed antagonist Antoine and giving further dimension to Miriam’s household. However, the drama sticks with much of what we already know: when Julien enters Antoine’s van, you feel like the boy could be kidnapped. (The pre-teen resists dialogue with the father for much of the film, but we comprehend his anxiety; Gioria is a superb young actor.) While Custody’s performers absorb your attention, one is left waiting for something to alter the relationships within the story. The film only accomplishes that in its 15-minute finale, a bravura piece of agonizing suspense that may be the main reason why Legrand was awarded the directing prize at Venice Saturday afternoon. (Custody is up for the Toronto Platform Prize, although it has stiff competition.)

1261433_Scaffolding

The relationship between a father and son was also the focus of my evening selection, the Israeli coming-of-age drama Scaffolding (Grade: B+). The film focuses on teenager Asher Lax (played by… Asher Lax), who works for his father’s scaffolding business and pays little attention to his classes. But the boy sees something in the upbeat, gentle Rami (Ami Smolarchik), who teaches Asher’s special-needs literature class. The two form an unlikely bond, propelling Asher to think more contemplatively about his coming exams and what he wants from life – one where his father (Yaacov Cohen) automatically expects his boy will inherit the family business.

Almost everything in Scaffolding’s synopsis above flirts with conventions and characters we have seen in countless other stories, of an inspirational teacher and the unlikely pupil he arouses from his intellectual slumber and saves from the authoritarian at home. Writer/director Yair, a literature teacher himself, is savvy enough to dismantle these stereotypes. A mid-film plot development throws the protagonist for a loop, managing to deepen the attachment between Rami and Asher in unexpected ways. The young Israeli actor, who looks about a half-decade too grown up for the part, is nevertheless exceptional in a role that has to balance an overbearing persona with private introspection. Lax, a non-professional, has sharp instincts and fills out his character with sensitivity and soulfulness. The final scene takes the film to emotional heights one would never imagine from a story so familiar.

Three_Billboards_01

As for movies searching for that valuable awards season buzz, TIFF is unsurprisingly full of them. Some seem to be gaining momentum – The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, Darkest Hour – and others are either languishing or failing to ignite (The Current War). Although I doubt Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Grade: B-) will be a big Oscar contender, I would be thrilled to see Frances McDormand return to the Best Actress category. In a role virtually impossible to imagine any other actor portraying, McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a divorced mother who decides to put pressure on her town’s police force, which has failed to make any arrests in the case of her daughter’s murder. Her plan: paint messages on three billboards outside of town directed at the local sheriff (Woody Harrelson), who will then prompt a deeper investigation.

Three Billboards is the latest dark comedy from writer/director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges). While McDormand gets to whip out some savagely funny monologues (one of which prompted my press screening to applaud), many of the jokes here, as in McDonagh’s other screen ventures, rely on low-hanging fruit. This includes making fun of the fat, the short (Peter Dinklage does his best to muster out sympathy in what’s essentially a punchline part), and the dim-witted. (There is gratuitous use of the word ‘retard.’) Some of these jokes are nasty enough to prompt laughs, but too many feel crass, especially when the film veers toward softening and humanizing its caricatures. Sam Rockwell is delightfully obtuse as an abusive and racist police officer (who, one suspects, would have voted for Trump), but the film’s efforts to redeem his behaviour aren’t entirely organic, given what we know about the character. There are also too many nagging plot-related questions, especially when it comes to the town’s police department and why the investigation into Hayes’ daughter’s murder subsided.

Now, I’m still giving the film a marginal recommendation. But the widespread critical acclaim (as well as the Best Screenplay award McDonagh nabbed in Venice) leaves me somewhat perplexed. When the comedy lays into its basest impulses, and the laughs get stuck in your throat before they’re finally expelled, it works masterfully. The mean-spirited banter around the Hays household is a welcome touch, but the abrupt shifts in tone tilts the film’s anarchic, retribution-laden sensibility off balance. The decision to end the comedy a couple of scenes before the expected conclusion smells of a screenwriter unwilling to push his audience to pitch-black places. It’s left to the strong ensemble (save the too seldom-used Lucas Hedges and John Hawkes, as well as the aforementioned Dinklage) to elevate this wildly hit-and-miss comedy.

Coming soon: Reviews of two more Oscar contenders, one premiering this fall on Netflix and one from director Guillermo Del Toro.

TIFF Journal: Day 1 + 2

As I ascended from the Toronto subway and turned onto King St. Thursday morning, the city seemed suspiciously quiet. It may have had something to do with the streetcars and traffic that have vanished from the radius surrounding the festival headquarters. (The traffic jam a block north on Adelaide got a forlorn stare from yours truly.) It may also be due to the oddness of my presence in the heart of the Entertainment district: I’m rushing to a film screening at 8:00 in the morning. (The lineup of those already waiting for Rush tickets – no, not the Canadian prog-rock band – outside the Scotiabank Theatre, already a few dozen deep in the early morning, got an awed stare from yours truly.)

But, then again, it’s nice to have a lanyard around your neck that can show off a face, name, and publication. Accreditation these days doesn’t come easy.

HTFile.ashx

My first watch of “TIFF actual” (as opposed to the various pre-festival screenings held for Toronto critics) is a leftover of Cannes, that festival’s Grand Prix winner BPM (Beats Per Minute) (Grade: A-). The drama, which follows the Parisian contingent of AIDS activist group ACT UP for more than a year, is endearing and devastating. (It’s also thorough: I overheard a fellow critic saying as I exited the Scotiabank that Robin Campillo’s film felt like a mini-series. That’s not at all a slight at the 143-minute film, but proof of its emotional depths.) The opening scene, centered on the group’s weekly meeting, introduces us to its rhythms, routines, and frequent interruptions. The first debate regards a previous evening’s initiative: to interrupt a chairman of a pharmaceutical company’s speech with signs, whistles and balloons packed with icky fake blood. Organizer Sophie (Adèle Haenel) is worried that the hoopla undermined the point of the protest; many others, including the jokey but radical Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), disagree.

For the first reel, it seems like BPM will be an ensemble-based film, focused on various episodes and personal digressions within the activist collective. (One prolonged sequence, of ACT UP protestors creating fury at another pharma company to spur the release of antiviral drugs, is controlled chaos, similar to an early hijacking of a posh space from Campillo’s previous film, Eastern Boys.) However, the attention soon gravitates to the relationship between HIV-positive Sean and the muscular, introspective, HIV-negative Nathan (Arnaud Valois). BPM is both a searing and festive document of a volatile, homophobic period in French history. Even when the film goes down the expected dreariness and the pacing slows, when the virus takes hold on one of the main characters, the melancholy feels palpable and lived-in. On a wholly different note, the gay sex scenes are about as steamy and intimate as anything I’ve seen in some time, but credit the exceptional performances (especially Pérez Biscayart) for making these moments feel more vital than titillating.

borg-mcenroe-social

Of course, one expects the Grand Prix winner from Cannes to be excellent. As for the TIFF opening night selection – a category that includes forgotten footnotes like The Fifth Estate, The Judge, and Demolition – expectations were more reserved. Alas, continuing with the mediocrity of openers past is Borg/McEnroe (Grade: C+), about the two world-famous tennis stars that clashed at the 1980 Wimbledon finals. I may have enjoyed this title even less if I knew the result of that dramatic match, since Janus Metz’s sports drama takes its precious time getting to that climactic sequence. The film also, being a Swedish production, puts a much larger emphasis on the graceful Swedish icon than the brash American, leading to an imbalance when it comes to characterization.

John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf, perfectly cast) believes his time has come to dethrone the classy Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason), a four-time Wimbledon champion. Each one is terrified and intimidated by their opponent, and some welcome excursions help to fill out why. It turns out that Borg (played as a younger tennis player by Borg’s actual son, Leo) used to throw McEnroe-like tantrums on the court. Meanwhile, McEnroe grew up a quiet kid in a noisy household and, although preternaturally smart, always felt pressure to be the best. The flashbacks illuminate some of the titular characters’ inner turmoil, but the later sequences with the twenty-something athletes provide precious little insight. The film becomes repetitive as it waits (far too long, in this critic’s estimation) for the climactic duel. When that sequence comes, Metz and some sharp editors do an efficient job staging some of the big moments. Unfortunately, a barrage of commentators sound bites distract (perhaps purposefully, as neither LaBeouf nor Gudnason is a tennis pro) from the visual dazzle.

After a year of watching theatrical releases in auditoriums that were often partially full or close to empty, there is an adjustment when returning to watching films in sold-out capacities, among hundreds of other people. At TIFF, as long as you show up to major screenings at least an hour early, you’re assured a good seat. Still, spectators can be unpredictable – even at the press-and-industry screenings, where one accredited attendee sitting near the front of a packed theatre 1 at the Scotiabank took out their iPad three times during Borg/McEnroe, causing many within that proximity to alter their posture to block out the emanating light.

img.jpg

Audiences play a big part in determining the enjoyment of one’s festival. The contagious enthusiasm of the crowd at the opening night public screening of Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (Grade: B) helped to quell some of my indignation at the organizers, who started the 9:30pm screening more than a half-hour late. As someone unfamiliar with the Jones but also with a soft spot for the music documentary, I had a good time. The diverse (in age and race) audience surrounding me had even more fun. My worries that Sophie Fiennes’ doc, shot over a decade, would be a slick piece of fan service, soon abated. The film eschews the customary talking-head formula and biographical chronology for something more immediate. Fiennes captures the musician in many habitants, from her native Jamaica (filtered with fog and mist) to Paris dressing rooms, where she applies layers of makeup and occasionally takes a break to slurp oysters.

The “Bloodlight and Bami” subtitle, explained by doc programmer before the show, is never explained in the film. But, the binary, referring to a studio light and Jamaican bread, respectively, defines the film’s two-sided approach. Fiennes capture Jones and her electrifying aura onstage, and attempts to demystify her persona by journeying home with the singer, when Jones reconciles with family members and goes to church. This organizing principle, albeit loose, is effective: Jones looks and sounds like an entirely different person under concert lights than in the paleness of the digitally shot reunions. The audience responded heartily (and sometimes cheered) when the subject stands her ground, refusing to back down to managers and collaborators, or when she makes a naughty one-liner. “I can hold the audience in the dark without any trimmings,” the now 69-year-old artist says at the doc’s end. That’s true, and the 1,000 or so in attendance at the Elgin confirmed that when they leaped to their feet when Jones came out with Fiennes for a Q&A after the film.

8061650-3x2-940x627

As for a less-impressed crowd, my surprisingly full press-and-industry showing of Sweet Country (Grade: C+) this afternoon emptied quite a bit. The commotion of critics and industry professionals walking in during the middle or abandoning the picture after a harsh sequence, possibly hoping to see a selection in a different auditorium, may have bothered me less if the film was more absorbing. I was surprised to discover that Warwick Thornton’s stark Australia-set Western wasn’t adapted from a novel, due to the surfeit of supporting characters. Unfortunately, the quantity of the (mostly) immoral residents of the outback often trumped the quality of characterization. Nevertheless, even with the clutter of David Tranter and Steven McGregor’s screenplay, Thornton is a director I will keep watching intently.

Set in the late 1920s near a nondescript town, with a giant saloon and no church, we meet a man of faith named Fred Smith (Sam Neill) and the family tending his land, which includes an Aboriginal man, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris). After racial tensions burst due to a new arrival in town, war veteran Harry March (a nasty Ewen Leslie), Kelly shoots the newcomer in self-defense and flees with his wife. The broader cast of characters includes a boozy sheriff, a child with white and Aboriginal heritage, and a noble, moral judge. The gripping turns of the ensemble do much to lessen our resistance to some of these clichés, yet the immense silence of the few women – often reduced to objects of affection or lust for the predominantly male cast – is rather ugly. Yet, in the second half, one that blends a stark, gory nightmare with a dreamier subjectivity (tied in with the varying climates and temperatures of the country the characters walk through), the film becomes more engaging. Thornton, with the exception of a couple of out-of-place pans during a tense showdown, can create palpable suspense with lingering silences. Alas, it’s a shame that Sweet Country only works in spurts.

Sweet Country is the second film I’ve seen for TIFF so far to play in the Platform programme. (The first was an evocative Indonesian drama entitled The Seen and Unseen that I watched at a press screening.) For those not in the know, the 12 films chosen for this series are those by directors with a small yet growing public profile. Instead of being eligible for the People’s Choice Award, a jury of three filmmakers selects the winner, akin to the juries at other festivals. I am hoping to see at least half of the eligible Platform titles during the festival.

Up next: another (supposedly) intense Platform pick tomorrow afternoon, and an Israeli drama that earned good reviews at Cannes in the evening.