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.
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.
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.
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.
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.