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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