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.
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.
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.
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.