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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