Live from the Toronto Film Festival: Wednesday, Sept. 14

September 15, 2016

maudie

My favorite thing about the Toronto Film Festival, when I started attending in 1984, was the chance – two or three times a day – to walk into a theater knowing nothing about a movie and discover it with a clean slate.

That’s what it was like when I saw the Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple” here for the first time, and Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me.” And Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” – and so many others.

That opportunity feels as if, for the most part, it’s all but disappeared, in terms of the big movies that come out of Toronto these days. By the time Toronto rolls around, the major Oscar contenders have long since been identified, usually when the films have played at earlier festivals. Attending Toronto then becomes an effort to catch up with everything you’ve been reading about all year but haven’t had a chance to see: “The Birth of a Nation,” “Manchester by the Sea,” “Arrival,” “La La Land.”

In this era of media saturation, it’s hard NOT to be aware of these films and what other critics already think of them, even though I generally don’t read reviews before I see a film. It’s impossible to miss the Facebook postings and Twitter pronouncements; I’m as guilty as the next critic of doing the same thing.

So it’s rare that I walk into a film not knowing anything about it as the lights fade and the opening credits roll. But that was the case when I walked into “Maudie,” a Canadian-Irish co-production that was my final film of the day.

I only saw it because I’d changed my mind about the film I originally meant to see at the same time, a documentary about Amanda Knox. Before I went to the theater, I was having a conversation with a friend about what I was going to see, and when I mentioned that film, he said, “Well, isn’t that going to be on Netflix in a few weeks?”

And I thought – OK, so here’s “Maudie,” about which I know nothing, starting at the same time. I turned left instead of right and went to see it. (And, honestly, if I’d known it was a Canadian film, I probably would have skipped it, which would have been a shame.)

“Maudie” turned out to be a small, understated and winning film starring Sally Hawkins as a noted Canadian folk artist, Maud Lewis, who lived in poverty all her life while selling her paintings at a roadside stand for $5. Her gruff (to the point of hostility) husband, Everett (Ethan Hawke), is a fish peddler who does other odd jobs, which keeps them in a one-room house with a sleeping loft.

Even as she becomes more and more stooped, the effects of rheumatoid arthritis and what looks like scoliosis, her spirit is indomitable, whether she’s standing up to her domineering husband with sly good humor or shyly making sharp bargains for her work. It is a love story about outsiders who learn to fit together, even as Maud takes unsurpassed joy from the simple act of painting a picture of flowers.

If the film is a shade too long – and goes off on an unfulfilling tangent about a secret from her early life – it still rises on the crooked back of the marvelous Sally Hawkins, in her most fulfilling role since Mike Leigh’s “Happy Go Lucky.” The physical disabilities never come across as actorly shtick, as Hawkins finds this woman’s glowing spirit and shines it on the crusty Ethan Hawke, crabbed and hunched against the world.

Otherwise, my day held three other films about which I knew too much, even without reading about them. Luckily, I enjoyed most of them.

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My favorite was Christopher Guest’s “Mascots,” another film that will pop on Netflix before too long. While not as jam-packed with laughs as some of his earlier work, this mockumentary – about a competition for minor-league and college sports mascots – still averages more laughs than almost any comedy you can name from the past six months.

Guest has many of his regulars back for this film, including Parker Posey, Bob Balaban, Jane Lynch, Ed Begley Jr. and Fred Willard, who has the film’s single funniest scene when his character encounters a little person. “Ask me for five dollars,” he says to the small performer. When the little person does as told, Willard comes back with, “Sorry – I’m a little short this week.”

While certain regulars are sorely missed (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara – come home!), Guest makes up for it with newcomers Zach Woods (of “Silicon Valley”) and Sarah Baker, as a pair of married mascots who are having relationship issues, and Christopher Moynihan as a college mascot. For good measure, Guest reprises his character of Corky St. Clair from “Waiting for Guffman,” who comes in as a mentor for one of the contestants.

If only Guest would make these films more often: Be thankful we have this one. Keep an eye out on Netflix.

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I also saw Tom Ford’s “Noctural Animals,” a study in style (in color this time, instead of the luxurious black-and-white of his first film, “A Single Man”). The film operates on two tracks: In one, Amy Adams, as a bored L.A. art gallerist, suspects her husband (Armey Hammer) is cheating, even as he heads off to New York to keep his business alive. She receives a bound galley of a new novel, sent to her by her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), which she reads because she has perpetual insomnia.

The novel provides the other track: a brutal revenge story, in which Gyllenhaal also appears, playing the protagonist. He’s a businessman who, while driving at night across the plains of west Texas with his wife and daughter, is rammed and pulled over by a team of three thugs led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. The husband is separated from his wife and daughter, who wind up raped and murdered. So he joins forces with an about-to-retire cop (Michael Shannon) to find the killers and bring them to justice, one way or the other.

There’s a distance to Ford’s work that often gives the film an arm’s-length quality, which seems to be Ford’s point. Yet he’s not afraid to upset the viewer with in-your-face tension and the traumatic violence at the center of the story-within-a-story.

Despite a character who is written as though she’s wandering around in a fog (it’s really a cloud of self-hatred), Adams gives this woman a painful depth and sense of awareness of the mistakes that litter her path through life. Shannon is brutally funny and scary as the lawman, while Gyllenhaal is alternately chilly and overheated as the husband.

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My other film Wednesday was “Deepwater Horizon,” which will be in theaters in a couple of weeks as well (and which I had to see in order to write a review). Directed by Peter Berg and starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell and John Malkovich, it’s a film about the explosion that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon, a deep-sea oil-drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico rented by British Petroleum. The explosion killed 11 workers in 2010, part of the worst-ever marine oil spill in human history, which BP is still alternately paying for and trying to weasel out of.

There’s not a lot of subtlety to Berg’s film. The first half-hour is littered with overly obvious bad omens, including a BP executive giving rig-boss Russell a safety award just before the whole rig blows sky-high because of improper safety precautions caused by BP cost-cutting.

Indeed, there are arguments pitting Russell and Wahlberg – as the rig operation’s most responsible parties – against the on-site BP executives (including Malkovich), who pooh-pooh the rig operators’ fears that the well they are digging is unstable and could do exactly what it ends up doing.

The film’s second half – the explosion and the surviving crew’s subsequent escape and rescue from the oil rig – is much more solid, a tense and pounding action sequence involving fire, explosions and the sheer terror of self-preservation. It’s exciting film-making, though loud and percussive to the point of being assaultive.

It’s now Wednesday night and I’ve seen 17 movies in four days. I’ll top off the tank with one more in the morning – Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral” – but this will wrap up my coverage of Toronto.

This site now goes back to being dormant until I head for the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017. See you then.

 

 

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Live from the Toronto Film Festival: Tuesday, Sept. 13

September 14, 2016

 

strange-weather

Film festivals as large as the Toronto event currently underway are too big and sprawling to have some kind of over-arching theme.

They may have sections devoted to films from a single country or a particular director or some other category. But aside from festivals that devote themselves to something specific – social-justice documentaries, let’s say – most of the festivals I’ve been to are massive grab-bags of cinematic variety and Toronto is no exception.

Still, by accident, I managed to put together a theme day on Tuesday: Of the five films I saw, four dealt in one way or another with the loss of a child by a parent. And yet it was one of the more fulfilling days I’ve had in a while.

I saw two of the festival’s big guns – Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival.” But I also two smaller films that packed their own kind of power: Alex Lehmann’s “Blue Jay” and Katherine Dieckmann’s “Strange Weather.”

“Strange Weather” offers a wiry, weather-beaten Holly Hunter as a divorced Georgia woman hanging on to her job by her fingernails, even as she tries to sort out the rest of her life. Then a chance encounter with a boyhood pal of her son leads her back into the dark shadows of her son’s suicide a few years earlier. Specifically, she comes across facts about the night he killed himself that leads her to track down the friends of his who saw him last.

This picaresque tale features Carrie Coon as Hunter’s best friend, who goes along for the ride when Hunter decides she needs to find one specific friend in New Orleans. Others pop up along the way – including Kim Coates, an underrated actor if there ever was one. But this is really Hunter’s show, playing a canny woman with an itch she can’t possibly scratch – because that kind of pain simply can’t be explained away.

It’s a sometimes sharply written film that occasionally goes astray, then finds its way back. It rises and falls on the performance of Hunter, whose character may remind some of Grace Hanadarko from her TV series, “Saving Grace.” She’s tough, but with raw wounds that still haven’t healed and Hunter makes you relish even the occasionally overwritten scenes (though there aren’t that many).

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I also liked “Blue Jay,” written by Mark Duplass and starring Duplass and Sarah Paulson. It’s a two-hander about a pair of former high-school sweethearts, Duplass and Paulson, who run into each other one day in their old hometown. Conversation leads to coffee, which leads to an evening of reminiscing at the home of Duplass’ late mother.

In many ways, this film resembles “Before Sunrise” and its sequels. Essentially, it’s roughly 90 minutes of a man and a woman talking: arguing, flirting, telling stories and, in every way, connecting. Inevitably, secrets are bared and the story of their past and why they eventually split comes out.

The secret isn’t earth-shattering; it’s simply human, as is this whole story. Paulson practically gives off sparks as a woman whose defenses are up, but whose regrets work to neutralize them. Duplass is good at conveying the barely suppressed neediness that his character fights to control. It’s sad and funny, a smart, succinct and moving film.

manchester

“Manchester by the Sea” has been building buzz since it exploded out of Sundance in January. The third film by Kenneth Lonergan, it has been touted at this year’s must-see tear-jerker: “a five hanky film,” as my companion in line for the film described it.

And it definitely delivers, yet with a restraint that makes the anguish beneath the surface that much more poignant. Indeed, it is a film built around a character who has spent years trying to block out all the emotions that this film arouses.

His name is Lee Chandler and, as played by the redoubtable Casey Affleck, he’s among the most interior and uncommunicative characters in recent screen memory. Yet Affleck is a strong enough actor to convey the inner turmoil that tears at this man, who lives a solitary life as a janitor in Boston, doing fix-it work around a set of apartment buildings.

But he’s forced to return to Manchester, his hometown, when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) drops dead of a heart attack. Their parents are dead and Joe’s wife is long gone, an alcoholic who has disappeared from his life – and so Lee is named guardian for his nephew, Patrick (newcomer Lucas Hedges), even as he must make the arrangements for Joe’s funeral.

We watch Lee adjust to this new set of responsibilities – while we see flashbacks to his earlier life and how he came to his current circumstances. Gradually, the realization hits that he will probably have to stay in Manchester to take care of the 16-year-old Patrick. But his hometown is full of ghosts of its own, including a tragedy that Lee fled and hoped never to revisit. Suddenly, reminders are all around him, and there’s little he can do about it except suffer through the memories that are being stirred up.

Given the subject matter, Lonergan’s film is deftly funny at times, even as it sucker-punches you with moments of intense emotion. At its heart is Affleck, a most melancholy-looking actor, who brings new levels of inventiveness to moments when his character says nothing. And yet everything is right there on his face. “Manchester by the Sea” is a stunner, the kind of film about intense human emotion that too seldom gets made.

amyadamsarrival

I have a hunch that, critics aside, “Arrival” is a film that may leave viewers puzzled. But, while the film can be cryptic, all of the answers to its mysteries are contained within, if you just pay enough attention.

Amy Adams plays a linguist named Louise, who is drafted by the government, along with a scientist named Ian (Jeremy Renner), to be part of the U.S. team when aliens land on our planet. A dozen crafts have touched down around the globe; international scientific teams at each site are working to communicate with the ships – and Louise, it is hoped, will be able to translate the language of the aliens so we can communicate with them.

But the Chinese and the Russians are antsier about this process, convinced that the aliens mean to attack us, and so they break off cooperation with other countries to prepare an attack on the alien ship.

Villeneuve (“Sicario,” “Prisoners”) is a director with a gift for bringing the other-worldly to life in ways that are both inventive and believable. Still, Eric Heisserer’s script makes several leaps in story and logic that feel far-fetched, even given the willing suspension of disbelief required for the film as a whole.

The global politics seem a trifle simplistic, or perhaps are simply applied with too broad a brush. Still, the emotional wallop this film packs is considerable, as are the simple thrills of visionary movie-making that Villeneuve brings to the scenes in which Louise makes contact with the aliens (known as heptapods). It’s the kind of movie you’ll think about long and hard afterward, both to figure out what you just saw and to process the message it offers about our own human folly.

Finally, I saw one film that did not deal with the death of one’s child: “Their Finest,” a mildly comic tale of propaganda film-making by the British at the start of World War II. Gemma Arterton plays a former secretary who, because all of the men have been drafted, gets a shot at actual writing: first for propaganda shorts, then for a feature film meant to raise British morale at home.

It’s a charmingly familiar film, about the plucky British carrying on and remaining calm in the face of constant Nazi bombardment. The behind-the-scenes tale of show-biz during wartime – when make-believe seems that much less serious – calls to mind films like “Mrs. Henderson Presents” and “Hope and Glory.”

It features a strong cast, including Arterton, Sam Claflin and Danny Huston, as well as the ever-invaluable Bill Nighy. It won’t set the world on fire, but there will be much worse ways of spending two hours before the week is out, I can assure you.

 

 

 

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Live from the Toronto Film Festival: Monday, Sept. 12

September 13, 2016

lalaland

It’s the inevitable trade-off I’m forever making at film festivals: Do I spend the day discovering new films which look interesting but have an uncertain commercial future? Or do I spend it watching highly buzzed-about films that I know will either be released shortly or will be part of the Oscar discussion before the end of the year?

I decided on the latter at the Toronto Film Festival Monday and was rewarded for my effort, seeing a movie which, I’m convinced, will win the best-picture award next February.

That film is “La La Land,” an original movie musical by Damien Chazelle, whose last film was the Oscar-winning “Whiplash.” Miles Teller had to learn to play drums for that film, and Ryan Gosling learned to dance and play piano (or imitate piano-playing impressively) for this one.

“La La Land” is the most original, most gorgeous and most consistently entertaining (and moving) film I’ve seen this year. Chazelle casts Gosling as a would-be jazz pianist and Emma Stone as an aspiring actress, who meet cute (in a traffic jam) in Los Angeles, then proceed to circle each other until they figure out they have an attraction. Then they become cheerleaders for each other’s aspirations, even as both of their careers rise and fall.

And they sing and dance about it in a swirl of primary colors and cinemascopic backdrops. Chazelle attacks this material with an affection and an energy that is nothing short of prodigious. He has great leads in Gosling (is there anything this guy can’t do?) and Stone, both of whom exercise both their comic and dramatic chops to wonderfully restrained effect, even as they’re hoofing like pros.

A few other names to remember from this film: cinematographer Linus Sandgren, production designer David Wasco and composter Justin Hurwitz – they will all be Oscar contenders (along with everyone else associated with this film, if there’s any justice). There isn’t a weak element in this movie; indeed, there isn’t an element that doesn’t seem ready to outshine the others.

It is, in short, a movie that will make you laugh, cry, tap your toes and, in the end, stomp your feet and cheer. It may have made my whole week.

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I was almost as excited about “Denial,” a film about the true story of historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), an American sued for libel in British courts by David Irving (Timothy Spall), a British Holocaust denier who accused her of defamation. Because England has a presumption of guilt (rather than one of innocence), Lipstadt must prove that the Holocaust happened and that Irving was, in fact, lying when he claimed it never occurred.

Written by David Hare, the film soars because of two factors: strong acting and strong writing. The cast – Weisz and Spall are joined by Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott as the leaders of her legal team – bring spark and energy to the material, not an easy task.

But it is made easier by Hare’s script; he takes rather dry, technical material – both historical and legal – and turns it into suspenseful, compelling drama. Hare’s script never skimps on ideas and details, yet finds a way to make a thrilling courtroom drama out of an argument about history. Wilkinson is particularly good, while Weisz captures the brash, impulsive American’s energy and her frustration at not being able to speak for herself in a British court.

jackie

I also quite liked “Jackie,” a film by Pablo Larrain, who also has the intriguing “Neruda” in this same festival. Both films are inventive variations on the bio-pic, with “Jackie” living through the dazzlingly vulnerable yet steely performance by Natalie Portman, in what could easily be an Oscar-nominated role.

Portman plays Jacqueline Kennedy, who is visited by a journalist (Billy Crudup) at her request, a few weeks after the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. She wants to get her story on the record, though she also promises to thoroughly vet the work before it ever reaches the public.

Then she recalls her recent past life: being First Lady, conducting the history-making televised tour of the White House in 1961 – and, of course, her hideously fresh memories of having her fatally wounded husband shot and die in her lap.

In flashbacks, we see just how rigorous and in command Jackie is, despite a public image built around her beauty and a breathy voice that is deceptively quiet but firm. She must fight for the kind of funeral she feels Kennedy deserves, and is strong enough to handle Lyndon Johnson and his staff, who want it low-key.

Portman has that porcelain-like beauty that Kennedy possessed, and imbues the character with a self-awareness that is sharp and clear-eyed. It’s a fully satisfying performance, a look behind the curtain at an American icon exhibiting superhuman grace at her worst moment.

My fourth film of the day was interesting enough to keep me in my seat, but probably not enough so to let the film break out of the festival circuit into wider public awareness. Written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith, “Buster’s Mal Heart” is one of those Moebius strip movies that seems to curve back on itself at times and, ultimately, makes a metaphysical leap that it’s not quite good enough to carry off.

“Mr. Robot” star Rami Malek plays Buster, first seen fleeing from men with guns who are shooting at him. He’s sort of a hermit, who lives off the land during the summer and steals from summer people’s cottages in the winter when tourists are gone.

But, in an earlier life (or so it seems), he was Jonas, a married man with a wife and child who was stuck working as night clerk at a hotel. But we also see him afloat in a boat, lost at sea – and sometimes, we see two different versions of him staring at each other in the same boat.

Smith is most successful when she’s charting Buster’s breakdown and least so when she’s trying to play tricks with the concept of the film. Is Buster one man or two – or two men living in one man’s body? Or vice versa?

Malek has those thyroid eyes that look as they’re about to pop out of his head. It gives him a look that is alternately haunted, shocked and amused. He brings more reality and depth to this character than the script does. It’s one of those puzzle pictures from which you walk out thinking, “Well, that was interesting,” and then never think of it again.

 

 

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Live from the Toronto Film Festival: Sunday, Sept. 11

September 12, 2016

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There’s something refreshing about arriving at a film festival in the middle.

The initial hysteria is passed; so is the “me first” mentality because, by Sunday, you’re already three days deep into the festival and there are simply too many movies to ever think you’re going to be the first to see everything – let alone see everything you want to.

I arrived at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival Sunday morning (the festival began Thursday), having already seen a handful of the films that are on display here – things like “Snowden,” “Sully,” “The Queen of Katwe” (all definitely worth a look) and the vastly overrated “American Honey” and “Toni Erdmann,” both of which run more than 2.5 hours and could have stopped after the first 90 minutes with no loss of effect. Of course, the same is true if the filmmakers had decided not to make these bloated, self-important films.

Still, old habits die hard, so I immediately got to work catching up when I landed in Toronto on Sunday morning, watching all or most of four films my first day.

The best of these was “Moonlight,” a much-touted film by Barry Jenkins that looks at three stages in one young black man’s life. His name is Chiron (which he pronounces sha-RON) and his mother is disappearing from his life into crack addiction. On the verge of adolescence, he is being picked on by fellow students, who sense something is different about him, something his mother also notices.

Specifically, he is gay – though it takes a while for him to figure it out. A target for bullies, he learns a few things about how to be a man from Juan (the touching Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who takes a liking to him (and who also happens to be his mother’s supplier). But he can’t escape his surroundings: poverty, his mother’s addiction – and the homophobia of the black community (in this case in a Miami inner-city neighborhood).

Jenkins uses three different actors to play Chiron at three different ages, though Naomie Harris plays his mother throughout. Mysterious, moving, with an eye for detail and a sense of the drama of the everyday (when you feel like you’ve got a bullseye pinned to your back), “Moonlight” is a touching tale, artistically told from a heart full of pain.

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I also liked “Una,” a film based on the play “Blackbird,” which was on Broadway this past season. In it, Rooney Mara plays the title character, a young woman who turns up at the workplace of Peter (Ben Mendelsohn) and proceeds to turn his life upside down.

As it turns out, Peter and Una were an item when she was a very young adolescent: sex, love, promises of a new start together. He was a friend of her parents – and when their involvement was discovered, he was tried and sent to jail as a pedophile. He’s done his time, changed his name and started over. But Una threatens to bring his new life – which includes a wife and a pre-teen stepdaughter – crashing down around him.

The play is mostly a two-hander, but writer David Harrower and director Benedict Andrews open it up, using a younger actress to play Una as a girl in flashbacks. They also expand upon a workplace crisis for Peter that seems more contrived than organic.

Still, Mendelsohn makes the viewer believe that, while deeply ashamed of what he’s done, he’s someone who made a serious mistake and paid for it, as opposed to a pathological child molester. He captures the sense of shame, as well as the lingering wisps of longing for the girl Una was – and the one she’s become.

Mara is equally good – mostly a furious, badger-like woman out for vengeance, though she’s not sure it’s rightfully hers. She too does well by those moments where a sweet memory infiltrates her bitter consciousness.

On the other hand, I’m surprised I made it all the way through Walter Hill’s plodding, not-too-bright revenge tale, “(Re)Assignment.” Despite a tart performance by Sigourney Weaver (as a defrocked plastic surgeon) and a steely-eyed one by Michelle Rodriguez, this is a one-joke movie that spills lots of blood without ever raising the viewer’s pulse.

The story is told from two angles: Weaver’s and Rodriguez’s. Weaver is a strait-jacketed mental patient being interviewed by a psychiatrist (Tony Shalhoub); Rodriguez is a professional killer, telling her story to a video camera (and, presumably, us). It’s a simplistic tale of someone undergoing unwanted sexual-reassignment surgery and trying to figure out who did this to him/her so he/she can exact a painful price.

But there is no tension or suspense – and the only laughs come from Weaver’s wonderfully haughty performance. Otherwise, it’s just a lot of bang-bang with gunplay substituting for actual action, even as Hill uses questions of gender identity as one extended smirky joke.

I made it all the way through that one, something I can’t say for “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House,” a dreary, pretentious ghost story that wastes the talents of Ruth Wilson and Paula Prentiss (but not Bob Balaban, who manages to be chilling with minimal screen time). Wilson is a hospice nurse hired to care for a dying horror-novel writer (Prentiss, who, at her age, deserves much, much better) and discovers that there might be ghosts in the house. The only thing more shocking is how quickly Perkins’ film dives straight off the rails in a miasma of still-lifes and creaky sounds.

Let’s see how it goes tomorrow.

 

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