I hope you, fellow movie lovers, can see most of my picks in the next year or so as they begin to appear in theatres, or in some cases, as indicated, on streaming services very soon. But what is it really like to be at the festival itself? Here are a few moments from my fangirl seat.
Best off-screen moment: Opening night party…of two, at the Library Bar at the Royal York—where security detail stands in front of a hotel elevator and tells you, with a straight face just shy of a wink, Just another guest, in response to your question, Who is in that elevator?— with my swish TIFF date of decades who has been into movies in the same insane way I am, from way way back in the days we didn’t need to worry about comfortable walking shoes…clinking glasses and knowing this is the only cocktail (delicious!) we can drink for the next ten days if we are to stay awake for the creative behometh to come.
Best TIFF ad: This year, every TIFF screening began with one of a series of short interviews of a few articulate folks who have had positive encounters with TIFF volunteers over the years. These warm fuzzes were greeted with applause every time for the three thousand volunteers who make the festival what it is: a community. Like I said, my peeps know how to show love. Most of the time…Worst off-screen moment (s): Looking at a wall of hunched backs in the lineups, scrolling their phone screens instead of dishing on What have you seen that you liked so far?, standard currency to trade at TIFF. Encountering too many episodes of rudeness on the streets to discount it as anything but a decline in civility—one TIFF-goer gave me the middle finger when I moved away to another seat after overhearing an angry exchange he was having with a stranger next to him. I just wanted to watch the movie. When you live in a big city all your life, you’re not shocked by much. Still, that middle finger told me this world is getting angrier by the minute — Thankfully, there are artists working on how to translate it back to us so we can see ourselves for what we are becoming. Decency is still hip, no?
Best on stage cast moment: Watching lives change as the exuberant Rocks cast, newcomers to show business, who expressed their devotion to one another and to British director Sarah Gavron and the entire creative team, who workshopped this wonderful film for a year with young people in the community to come up with context before coming up with a script.
I was working on a story for my sister (who is up there in the balcony tonight) to say to her, Thank you, for being stronger than you needed to be, for being so full of joy and love like so many young women, who have to be stronger than necessary, but beneath that is joy and laughter. Sometimes we don’t get to see all of that. These girls are magical and you can’t be in a room with them for five minutes without laughing so hard that you cry. These were the rights ones to contribute their own stories about sisterhood and womanhood because we’re all best friends now, so, for my sister up there and my sisters here in this cast, it was perfect.
British playwright Theresa Ikoko, co-writer of Rocks screenplay
Best proof Torontonians don’t recognize greatness: The French screen legend Isabelle Huppert strolling on Richmond unnoticed by the downtown crowd. I’d know her anywhere but caught only her backside on camera. Never promised to be a paparazzi.
Some directors are arrogant, some humble, others hilarious.
I actually went to Bruce (Springsteen) home studio and set up an edit room right next to this music studio. He would be in the studio recording music and walk in and sit with me while I was editing and we had a constant dialogue, constant collaboration. I think it brought the film to a whole other level. I wouldn’t want to dream this up because the idea of hanging out with Bruce running back between rooms sounds too cool but it happened. It really happened.
Thom Zimny, director, Western Stars
As human beings, we are fucking complex. I hope this movie feels like it has empathy for everyone. What our culture is doing right now is just about good and evil. That’s what our internet culture is: this kid is evil and he’s a monster and so on and so on. We just need to understand complexity and empathy for everyone right now. More than ever.
Trey Edward Shults, director, Waves
I was amazed by how modern the book (David Copperfield) was in terms of the themes of friendship, love, social anxiety, riches and poverty…It instantly opened itself up to me as a film so I hope I’ve managed to capture the spirit of it and that it reaches out to you with contemporary connections today.
Armando Iannucci, director, The Personal History of David Copperfield
Water flows from top to bottom and that’s the tragic and sad element in this film. Water always flows from the rich to the poor. It never flows the other way.
Bong Joon-ho, director, Parasite
I want to thank you guys for showing up. This is the best audience in the world and so I shouldn’t have to say this but this movie is an old school whodunnit and it doesn’t open until Thanksgiving (American, November 27th) so don’t ruin it for your friends.
Rian Johnson, director, Knives Out
I loathe children. They’re the worst. It’s true what they say, “don’t work with children.” I’ve only done it for five films.
Taika Waititi, director, Jojo Rabbit
Movies and art can be complicated, and sometimes they’re meant to be and that’s a good thing. There are some people who watch this movie and think none of it happened, that he (the Joker) imagined the whole movie and that’s interesting thing too and I’m not saying this is our theory. You don’t want to define it for people. I hate as the director to define it for people.
Todd Phillips, director, Joker
Most actors at these audience Q&A sessions know this is part of the job and pirouette as expected. Most are thrilled to be here and are generous with sharing background information on the creative process. For the stars of A Hidden Life, the two talented leads were happy to spill what it was like to work with the famous recluse, filmmaker Terence Malick, who is renowned in the industry for using natural light in his past several films.
We were constantly on. No breaks. It was exhausting. There were no light changes. No shot changes. We were constantly on. This brought us closest to real life. We lived on the farm. I would go on the set and think, I have to change the hay again.…we lived it, we lived that life. I fell asleep once in the meadow and when I woke up the camera was on….that’s what it was like the whole time.
August Diehl, actor, A Hidden Life
What was most striking was the amount of freedom he (Malick) gave us, in every sense. In the sense of time; like we often had thirty minute takes…In the sense of place: those farms in the mountains were a playground for us. We could run about and the camera would just follow us. There were no cables. There was no lighting. There was so much space to be free that I could also contribute to the story. In the end, a lot of scenes you see are scenes we improvised and Terry was very welcoming to that. That was the most unusual thing and the most wonderful!
Valerie Pachner, actor, A Hidden Life
Best TIFF honesty: The always sexy Antonio Banderas kissing his friend of four decades, Pedro Almodovar, on stage as the two reminisced about how Banderas was discovered by Almodovar, and gave him his first film role in the cult film Labyrinths of Passion, a comedy about a nymphomania pop singer who falls in love with a gay Middle Eastern prince.
I got into movies with my balls.
Antonio Banderas, actor, Pain and Glory
That’s it from TIFF for me this year. Go see these movies if you can and see them on the biggest screen possible.
Nothing can replace the experience of sitting in a darkened theater, sharing an intimate film with a group of perfect strangers. In a theater, you’re vulnerable — you’re there, and it’s happening in front of you. It also gives you the opportunity to give things a chance. Some of my favourite movies, maybe you don’t know right away what you think. Then, when you come to it, you love it that much more. Because, in a way, you found it.
Earlier this week, you got my A list. Now the imperfect films (I’m picky) but still fascinating, depending on taste.
Toronto TIFF audiences are notoriously friendly. It is why so many filmmakers are eager to bring their work here; why my TIFF crowds are (usually) my posse: when there is something to love, we’ll shower you with appreciation. Standing ovations are not a certainty elsewhere in Toronto. I’ve been to many spectacular live productions—opera, ballet, musical theatre, etc—where tepid tapping of hands passes as praise. Doing any kind of art and sharing it with strangers takes courage. Come TIFF time, my peeps are out in full force.
I can’t believe how full this theatre is at 2:30 in the afternoon. That is what’s amazing about this festival. It’s just full of movie lovers and that’s not always the case with festivals, not always the case when you show movies. You really feel the enthusiasm from the crowd here. I’ve always wanted to show a movie here.
Todd Philips, director, Joker
The applause was there for Judy, a blandish film saved by a spectacular star performance. A lengthy standing ovation greeted Renée Zellwegger as she came on stage following the Toronto premiere. Nobody there seemed to mind the script’s problems and nor should they have for Zellwegger’s spin on Judy Garland is fascinating; pure fun to watch, despite the tragic undertones of Garland’s real-life addictions. Directed by Rupert Goold and adapted from a stage musical “End of the Rainbow”, the film focuses on the final days of the troubled Hollywood legend’s life as she is coerced into a series of performances in London to revive her flagging career, and earn enough money to provide a home for her children. Flashbacks of Garland’s early career and punishing schedule—thanks to an abusive studio system— are meant to illustrate where some of her troubles began but they are lacking in any subtlety. (In fact, the pill-popping came earlier as Garland’s own mother gave her daughter amphetamines before Garland had hit puberty). What you’re craving is performance; here is when the film kicks it up to eleven. Anyone who loved Judy Garland will want to see this film, if only to sing along to all those glorious standards, delivered with brilliance by a now fifty-year-old Zellwegger who has endured her own career struggles. The vulnerability is there, as is the charisma, if not a note-perfect mimicry, but then who would want that? There is only one Judy, after all. By the end of the film, I was stunned at just how commanding this performance was as it elevates the film into a rainbow for the ages.
While we’re still on performance, you’d have to be snoozing under a rock not to have heard the deafening chorus of admiration for Joaquin Phoenix’ magnetic performance in Joker. Distributed by Warner Brothers, this controversial film is a launch of what director Todd Phillips is hoping will be a new label called DC Black, providing stand-alone films that offer different takes, character studies (read R-rated ) on comic book characters. Casting Joaquin was certain: he wrote the script with him in mind.
If you know Joaquin, and you know his work, Joaquin is an agent of chaos. He has chaos in him. You can act that probably but if you’t have to, there’s something to that.
Todd Philips, director, Joker, at the Toronto premiere
Me, I found his performance downright creepy. Yes, yes, that is the point, that is the role, that is the text, grim as it is. My unease has nothing to do with Phoenix: the guy has mad skills-add him to the long list of actors willing to do wild physical transformations to win an Oscar inhabit a role. The plot: a failed comic becomes unhinged and wreaks violence, igniting a revolution. This is a film that you aren’t happy to have seen. I’m no prude-I can take dark, I can take violent, I can take it all (see yesterday’s post)… but you need to prove to me it matters. Prove to me it isn’t window dressing, in this case, with black curtains. I cannot recommend it really without a warning, despite admirable production design and operatic sheen, despite the wow! of a tremendously gifted actor. If Phillips was after chaos, he certainly has thrown his hat into the ring forthat is what is strewn, however cinematically, on the screen as a deranged supervillain incites followers… into chaos. This is an allegory for hell pretending to be a film: anything it is trying to say about mental illness is overpowered by some of the darkest scenes offered at TIFF 2019. Todd Phillips, in my mind, is responsible already for questionable cultural influences-the guy created the Hangover trilogy, it’s very own kind of polemic. I know we are meant to think of this film as an arty origin story and perhaps for some viewers, it will land there. For me, this film landed at why? I left the theatre feeling… nervous. And don’t shrug me off: It’s only a movie, Anne. Movies shape culture. Period. I’m with Meryl Streep, who was feted here in Toronto at a TIFF fundraising gala:
When armed with material that’s compelling you have to ask yourself — does this help? Does this need to be in the world?
Here’s a movie with clear intent: highlight the global inequities resulting from the retail fashion industry. British director Michael Winterbottom delivers a script that covers a lot of ground and, like the Joker, has at its core, the same theme: Eat the Rich, except satire is the genre in his wheelhouse. Steve Coogan stars as Sir Richard “Greedy” McCreadie, King of the High Street, who has gathered family and other minions to help him celebrate his 60th birthday in lavish and ridiculous style on the island of Mykonos. Lots to like here including some juicy bits from Coogan, and no short order of fun watching the crazy party prep in disbelief, but the movie is not funny enough or serious enough with its knife-until the closing credits arrive with a series of infographics which appear like After School Special this-is-what-you-need-to-know facts instead of background as intended. But I will see Coogan in anything and he doesn’t disappoint here.
Knives Out =Eat the Rich part? Let’s just consider it the subtext for most if not all the offerings on the TIFF 2019 menu and move on to discuss what was essentially the most fun film of the festival. I choose films for all sorts of reasons and some of them just have this heading: If the Cast Includes Christopher Plummer. There is one delicious little moment among many in this funhouse murder mystery directed by Rian Johnson (yup, the guy doesn’t need TIFF: he directed Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Case closed) when the fabulous Canadian thespian (he alone gets that moniker around here) mocks his own age and it is so perfect it makes the whole film. Still, one may wonder why this film didn’t make the A side for me and that comes down to Daniel Craig. I loved him as Bond. Not so much as Benoit Blanc who is hired to investigate the murder of a wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (played by Plummer) and that was the only real problem for me in an otherwise savvy showbiz splash—this film is basically the famous Hollywood sign in the hills, thanks to a star-studded cast who make up this despicable Thrombey family. The editing could be sharper (the film is too long) but full points for fun and plenty of contemporary sharp dialogue, delivered by a cast you love to hate (Chris Evans is having a riot here and so will you watching him …and Jamie Lee Curtis and so on). Look for it in theatres in Canada November 27th.
This French/Italian historical romance won the Platform prize and I’ve already told you which film I would have picked as the winner. Perhaps the jury was dazzled as I was for the first two-thirds of this film, by its star, the uber-intense Luca Marinelli who is in almost every scene. Italian director Pietro Marcello isn’t the first to adapt Jack London’s 1909 novel but this version, set in the 20th century, is the first to shift the action to Naples. The sprawling story of an uneducated sailor who meets an upper-class woman and decides to become a writer is given gorgeous context by Marcello’s use of archival footage, but a sudden jump in time in the third act of the film woke me from my revery and sunk it for me: I just didn’t buy the radical transformation and all the disappointments in political theory overwhelmed what was until then, a compelling drama.
A modest and dedicated teacher named Ling and her unfaithful husband share a Singapore apartment with his ailing father as the monsoon season delivers a season of malcontent. This is the moody setting for a beautiful forbidden romance drama from Singapore writer/director Anthony Chen. Ling wants a baby desperately and has been trying to conceive for eight years. At work where she teaches Mandarin to teenage boys, she gets little relief until she forms a unique bond with one of her remedial students. This film was such a whisper, you could have missed it easily amongst the other Platform splashes but that’s the restraint this talented director delivers as he pulls together all his narrative threads for a poignant finish. This is a film with great sensitivity towards all his characters but he saves most of his focus on his lead character, a woman weighed down by responsibility, played by the amazing Yann Yann Yeo. A dose of humour in his narrative would move this otherwise excellent film into a brighter light.
Sorry We Missed You
83-year-old British filmmaker Ken Loach has so many awards attached to his name that you’d think he’d rest a little, but the famous social campaigner has yet another story to tell, another righteous fist to shake and so we shall, for nobody does it better than Loach. In Sorry We Missed You, we meet a Newcastle family trying to live productive lives in the gig economy. The entire film is heartbreaking and so bloody authentic your first instinct is to reach out and hug the entire family in collapse. All of them are people to root for in a broken system recognizable to anyone with a pulse. This one almost made the A list too but I slumped in my seat at the ending even if any other finale would not have been classic Loach. Great suspense and wonderfully touching performances will keep this onscreen family in my thoughts for some time to come.
From French actor/writer/ filmmaker Julie Delpy comes a sci-fi flick about a harrowing medical crisis that delivers a shocking second act I cannot tell you anything about without spoiling it all. This is Delpy’s seventh film and the first to jump ahead in an undefined future where laptops can fall and break on the ground and bend back into shape. I liked this film mostly for the powerhouse that is the triple threat Delpy although I’m not sure I agreed with her directorial choice of not using any music in the film as a manipulative tool: the film needed it here and there for air. Delpy directs herself, acting here as a geneticist based in Berlin who shares custody of her beloved only daughter with an increasingly hostile ex-husband. What follows is a creepy build towards the film’s central moral questions about science and ethics. For pure provocation, this film gets an A.
Michael B. Jordan does a lot of pensive glaring in this film based on civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s bestselling memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, but I was bored at the first quarter by what looked like a pedestrian and preachy procedural about racial injustice in the legal system. Things change when the film moves to death row where some very strong performances anchored by Jamie Foxx give this film the fuel it needed. Moving and essential is how it lands and yes, it’s that kind of film where audience members clap at plot turns. Not sure if this will expand Jordan’s career resumé but I loved Brie Larson in this as much as I did in director Destin Daniel Cretton’s earlier work, Short Term 12 (now on Netflix: an excellent film if you haven’t seen yet). Just Mercy will be in Canadian theatres Jan.17, 2020.
Pain and Glory
Antonio Banderas and Pedro Almodóvar appeared on stage as BFFs to introduce this film to us and the crowd of faithfuls cheered before the film even began. (Almodovar has fans. Plenty of them) So too the critical love-in. But wait! As much as I wanted to love the Spanish auteur’s latest, I just couldn’t get past all the self-indulgent self-therapy on hand as Banderas, playing the acclaimed director, explores his physical and spiritual pain. Banderas is as beautiful as ever and I liked him very much in this, even as the vehicle around him falters. Still, there are some tender moments to relish including an encounter with a former lover, and this writer loved the ideas Almodóvar is massaging in this self-portrait of an aging artist who suffers writer’s block. The gorgeous production design is also a reason to cheer: the film recreates the acclaimed director’s own apartment and it is an explosion of rich colour. Pain and Gloryopens here October 18th.
Anne at 13,000 Feet
The only Canadian contender for the Platform prize, this story from indie filmmaker Kazik Radwanski surrounds a Toronto daycare employee in crisis. This is captured by extreme close-ups of Stratford-born writer/actor Deragh Campbell (one of TIFF’s 2015 rising stars) and I found it both exhilarating and irritating at once, even as I loved her nuanced performance as a woman (who isn’t always likeable) with heartbreaking vulnerability. Radwanski spent two years shooting this project about how people fit and don’t fit into modern society which he wrote specifically for the actor and at the film’s premiere, he thanked the Toronto daycare featured in the film which served as authentic inspiration: his mother worked there for forty years and he himself went there as a child. The children in this film are delicious. The film won an Honourable Mention from the Platform jury.
This was a buzzy film throughout my ten-day run around festival theatres, with added screenings fuelling chatter that it would scoop the People’s Choice award (see my earlier post about who won) and Waves has that kind of flashy DNA. Like many contemporary Netflix shows, it is highly sensory with music to every edit; chic camera work; gorgeous cast; young love drenched in tragedy… I wanted to love it. There is no doubt talent on display in this drama of an upper-middle-class family whose son, Tyler, cracks under pressure (no spoilers here) while his sister Emily copes with the fallout. The film is split purposely into two acts with vastly different energies between them. Smack in the middle is a gorgeous scene-—one of the festival’s standouts— between brother and sister (Kelvin Harrison Jr and Taylor Russell), a moment of love, empathy and connection that captures the heart of the film. Still, I found it too long; its message toosnap; complexity is missing despite the appearance of layers. Wavesopens here in Canada, November 1st.
The Personal History of David Copperfield
I came across this linear tablet device recently. It was called a book. If you’re able to binge-watch thirteen hours of something, you can read 900 pages of Dickens.
Armando Iannucci, director, The Personal History of David Copperfield
I felt a little cheated by Armando Iannucci, a director known for creating delicious, biting satires (Veep, The Thick of It, The Death of Stalin) and expected to find another sharp-edged poke here. Instead, I discovered a much more humane offering featuring an excellent multi-ethnic cast performing various characters from Dicken’s famous semi-autobiographical novel. Once I settled in, I began to enjoy the gentler comedic touch and rich performances, led by a very capable Dev Patel as Copperfield. Hugh Laurie (delusional Mr. Dick) and Tilda Swinton (Aunt Betsey) are especially wonderful here in lending buoyancy to a film that struggles at times with balance, if not the compassionate undertone. Hard not to love that. Hard not to love great original source material. Hard not to see Iannucci’s master plan here, as he quipped to us all when introducing the cast to us at the Toronto premiere, “this story was written before Brexit was invented”. This is a colourful film that defies genre and pierces the notion of period piece stuffiness. Amidst a sea of despair, this film was a honey balm. Dickens himself would have approved. Look for the film in theatres here early 2020.
“Whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do well; that whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself to completely …in great aims and in small, I have always been thoroughly in earnest.”
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
Tomorrow in this space: A wrap-my final TIFf notes.
Are we getting better at choosing films or was this just a very good year? Here was the menu to choose from:
11 days. 245 features. 82 shorts. 6 series. 84 countries and regions. 51 first-time feature filmmakers.
We walked out of two films, were bored by four others, and enthralled by so many more stories: this is September and this is my school, after all. In ten days, we caught a whiff of the world’s woes as told by superb storytellers. Capitalism isn’t working, say many of these artists. Suffering is universal and often endured in quiet devastation. So too are family demons. We can clone humans but we still can’t fix marriages. And we are in danger of forgetting our history.
Here were the stand-outs for me this year:
A Hidden Life
If ever a film waved a flag for cinema to resist the death knell brought on by streaming services, surely it is this gorgeous gem by master magician Terence Malick, back in top form after a series of ineffective films. Yes, this one is a long film but so was World War Two. Malick, working here with a true story of a conscientious objector, Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, has created a stunning religious poem — I’ve been going to TIFF for almost thirty years and this is the first time I’ve spotted nuns in the audience. Utterly majestic, with an urgent message for contemporary culture, A Hidden Life will nevertheless challenge some filmgoers. Mostly Malick is working with faith and the struggle to keep it in a time of great evil. This filmgoer fell in love at the start. Top marks for the best looking film of the festival-and surely the entire year—it is all gasp-worthy— a majestic score, and a pair of actors who made me believe in their love story. I am still thinking about what is essentially the most heroic and urgent film I saw after screening forty festival films. It is not the only film dividing audiences at the festival but it is the most worthy. Look for it in theatres mid-December.
We are still in World War Two territory but this time, an abrupt turn in tone, with the zany dark satire of Jojo Rabbit. Despite dividing audiences and critics alike, (I met several in lineups who disliked it intensely), this film still managed to scoop the People’s Choice award on the final day of the festival. After the pedestrian choice of Green Book here last year, that comes as welcome news. New Zealand’s Taika Waititi, acting here as the writer, director as well as onscreen star, plays an idiotic version of Adolph Hitler, who is also an imaginary friend of a lonely German boy, nicknamed Jojo Rabbit by bullies in his Hitler Youth camp. Sam Rockwell is in this film which immediately makes it worth looking at for this fangirl, but he is aided by very strong performances of two youthful actors to watch, Roman Griffth and Thomasin McKenzie (last seen in the excellent 2018 film, Leave No Trace). Jojo Rabbit attempts to balance sweet and silly; horror and comedy. The mocking works, just, if not as sharp as a recent stellar TIFF satire, Death of Stalin (2017) How anxious about the film’s reception are the folks behind this film? Check out the poster above which spells out exactly the film’s intent: anti-hate. Waititi, who received a rapturous ovation at the screening I attended, told us all at the screening he made the film very pointedly, likening our current climate with 1933.
We are in danger, again, of apathy.
Taika Waititi, director, Jojo Rabbit
The Painted Bird
Long and harrowing, this black and white film, another set in World War Two, was written, directed and produced by Czech Václev Marhoul, who adapted it from Jerzy Kosinski’s novel of the same name. Chosen as the Czech Republic’s entry for the 2020 Academy Awards, this was, like many at TIFF, difficult to watch. Indeed, many didn’t, as the film experienced walkouts both here in Toronto and also at the Venice film festival where it premiered. The journey of an unnamed boy in Nazi-occupied Central Europe is mostly one of brutality but I’ve seen far more searing war imagery at TIFF in the past, including the excellent 2015 Hungarian film, Son of Saul .Hell, most of the films made in the last twenty years are far more violent. (Did people walk out at the Joker screenings? Nope. Should they? Check back tomorrow). Indeed, what unfolds here is an absorbing film with a stunning performance by a newcomer, Petr Kotlar, whose face will linger with me for months to come. I will never look at crows again the same way. Also making pivotal appearances in the narrative are two of my favourite actors: Harvey Keitel and Stellan Starsgard.
So Long, My Son
Another long film, another day I cannot drink my usual intake of water… Yet oh so worth it for here is the story of how a married Chinese couple and their friends deal with the death of their only son, a story which also manages to work as a social commentary of the country’s one-child policy during the social and financial upheaval in the decades that followed the Cultural Revolution. Earlier this year, at the Berlin film festival, the film won the two main acting awards, with Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei winning the Silver Bear for Best Actor and Actress, respectively. Both are a reason alone to watch the film. Although the mixed timelines confused me, I fell in love with the group of actors who played out this excellent study of grief and guilt. The film is epic (spanning three decades) and deeply human. Director Wang Xiaoshuai told us at the film’s festival screening that this is the first in his “Homeland Trilogy” and I eagerly await the next installment.
This wins my vote for best of the fest, if not by as large a margin as Roma was for me last year. When you see many films at once, you begin to receive unwanted telegrams when watching, which is less about arrogance as it is purely experiential. Your inner checklist goes off: okay, here we are in a coming-of-age terrain, or perhaps a dry comedy (sadly, very rare at TIFF. The world only weeps in 2019). Tone is frequently telegraphed early on and still, you settle back to enjoy the unfolding of what you hope is a tale well told. When a tone shifts, it rarely does so seamlessly: most filmmakers are clumsy at best when they attempt such leaps. Not so South Korean master Bong Joon Ho. His feat here is so nimble you are stunned at what comes, changing expectations and affections as the master weaves a class war parable about an impoverished Seoul family who becomes entangled with the nouveau riche. Thrilling and unexpected, Parasite is as perfect and dark as they come. Parasite impressed the Cannes jury enough to win the top prize earlier this year. Expect marketers here to push it into Best Pic categories where it belongs rather than the foreign film slot. Parasite opens in Canada, October 25th.
Sometimes a film slips onto my list despite unwieldy bits because of a grander whole. Such is the case with Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, which does not act out its title: here we are entering the end rather than the beginning and the story itself is just that. But let’s not quibble with titles. If the film does not tell the whole story, it certainly dwells on fissures between an avant-garde theatre director and his actor wife, performed with great spirit by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. It’s hard not to feel for these two as they fall into the hole of horrific legal wrangling and that’s the power of Baumbach’s writing and direction: this is an intimate film for adults and no, unlike some TIFF fare, that is not a cue for wild sex on screen: the intimacy is in the shared dissolving. There are some terrific featured turns here by Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta but this film belongs to Driver, whose character appears to lose more, whether that’s intentional or just my read. Driver is more than capable of delivering the big shiny moments which make up for some of the floppy excess that comes midway in the film-it’s not a perfect vehicle. This is a very American drama and the critics are in a collective gush. Expect to see this make a splash come awards season. This is the second Netflix original film directed by Baumbach (first was The Meyrowitz Stories, which I loved ) and will have a limited theatrical release before it begins streaming early December. Baumbach’s current partner is writer/director/ actor Greta Gerwig, whose star-studded upcoming adaptation of Little Women is expected in theatres Christmas Day. Two massive talents sharing one household….hmmm.
Sometimes I feel there is a different festival out there when I read news about TIFF. It’s all parties and stars and sightings and then there’s me sitting in the dark clutching my husband’s hand because there, right there on the big screen, is my life in a moment nobody understood until now. French auteur Alice Winocour’s wonderful, if flawed new film evoked the most tears for me of all the TIFF offerings this year. Eva Green plays an astronaut preparing for space travel while her young daughter stays home. Shot in real places where astronauts are training in Europe, Russian and Kazakhstan, this film was a very good example of how many films are made with multiple international parties. Viewers will geek out at all the phenomenal space stuff as much as the exploration of the universal parental conflict. Eva Green is simply spectacular here and rises above some of the improbable plot turns. Her scenes with her daughter are deeply affecting (don’t watch them if you’re like me, with babies now grown and flown) and in the hands of another director, would be treacle. But this is the director who won a Cesar (the French Oscar) for writing the Turkish film Mustang, one of the best films of 2015 and they are beautifully directed.
I wanted to work with Eva Green because I think she is something like a space person-she’s not really on earth, but I also wanted an actress who could be both a warrior and a mother as I wanted to show a super heroine who is also a mother which is rarely shown on cinema as if those two states were incompatible.
Alice Winocour, director, Proxima
This was our first film screened and did it ever knock it out of the park. Indeed, I worried it might spoil me for the rest of the festival. Directed by British director/producer Sarah Gavron, one of many female filmmakers in this year’s festival, this gem tells the story of a London teen who finds herself alone in caring for her younger brother as her depressive mother abandons them both. The remarkable fact? This cast was unknown: almost all newcomers; non-actors coming together as a year-long volunteer workshop that resulted in a script that sizzles. The diverse and gorgeous cast sparkles: their joy on stage at the film’s premiere was contagious. This film was one of ten (including Proxima) vying for the Platform prize, a juried cash award initiated by TIFF head, Cameron Bailey five years ago. I thought it would win. I’m waiting on news for a Canadian release date. One of my pleasures of the festival was running into a member of TIFF’s Next Wave committee who told me this was their top pick. Smartypants teens. Thank goodness for them all.
The Sound of Metal
British actor Riz Ahmed is the star of this fantastic film, another Platform contender at the festival. This film would have been my pick to win the Platform prize. Ahmed, who spent six months prior to the film’s shoot learning to play the drums and learn sign language, portrays a former addict and musician named Ruben who loses his hearing. He is utterly compelling to watch in this process and delivers a performance that is not as showy as other festival faves like Joaquin Phoenix , Adam Driver or Adam Sandler, but equally as potent. (Ahmed is also a rapper and a graduate of Oxford). Director Darius Marder hired many of the other cast from the deaf community. The film’s true innovation is one of sound design allowing viewers to feel as if they are inside Ruben’s head which sounds gimmicky but never is. I loved it from start to finish. At its heart, this is a film about profound loss and the search for identity and will reach many viewers because of it, and Ahmed’s performance. Amazon bought the film so expect to see it streaming this fall.
Our Lady of the Nile
Based on the French language novel of the same name, this film by Afghan director Atiq Rahimi is set in Rwanda in 1973, twenty years before the genocide. The plot surrounds a group of students at a Belgian-run Catholic boarding school who navigate growing racial tensions and brutal violence. What could have been a mere history lesson is instead a gripping tale thanks to powerful performances from a fantastic ensemble cast of young Rwandan actors, many of whom are acting for the first time. Like Rocks, this is a coming of age story but one with real foreshadowing of the horror of mass slaughter to come. Lush and truly cinematic, this film is the kind of essential world cinema that is the reason I go to TIFF.
Honey Boy debuted at Sundance earlier this year and was written by actor Shia LaBeouf as part of his rehab program. I was surprised by this film and loved it, mostly for its courage. LaBeouf himself plays a character based on his own father, while ever-busy actor-of-the-moment Lucas Hedges shares the role of the tortured son with actor Otis Lort: both are excellent. LaBeouf, however, is the reason to watch—his performance as an ex-rodeo clown and felon is fascinating given what we all know of his real-life challenges. Acclaimed documentarian Alma Har’el directs what could be just another fictionalized therapy session but this one lands with tremendous heart and authenticity. This is one of two films I screened at TIFF about child actors (the other was Judy). Both reaffirm what I’ve always believed about kids and showbiz: rarely does it work out to be anything less than messy.
A friend asked me if seeing a film within the TIFF lineup rather than any time during the year makes a difference in how much I love or hate it: a fair question. A work of art on the floor in a jumble at a flea market looks much different when framed on the wall of a sexy art gallery or in a billionaire’s modern loft. Where and when you see a film matters and where you come from directly affects your ability to absorb what you are about to see. Immersion is not the same as punctuated observations, which is why I prefer cinema to anything on a small screen, no matter how much I love my famjams on the couch (I love live theatre too-the immediacy of it is also fully immersive). At TIFF, I may see four films in a row and perhaps that fourth film suffers if it is a slow burn rather than a fast-paced thriller. Alternatively, a film soars because you’re just so damn grateful for grace notes after all the pain screened, however artful. Western Stars has lots of them. Like A Hidden Life, Bruce Springsteen’s concert film is a deeply personal meditation but unlike Malick, the musings are on aging, time, and the strengths of relationships, including his marriage to fellow musician Patty Scialfa. In the hands of a lesser talent, this would have been a pretentious exercise but we’re talking Springsteen here. Mixed in with the music (recorded with an orchestra in Springsteen’s own barn) is wonderful archival footage including shots Springsteen took himself on his honeymoon thirty years ago. Some of the images are repetitive but Springsteen is never not watchable. Made with his longtime collaborator Thom Zimny, Western Stars was the final act in a trilogy of reflection that Springsteen began with writing his memoir, Born to Run (one of my favourite books of 2016). Then came the Broadway show (and Netflix special) and now this film about his latest album, his 19th. Incredibly, the musician is about to turn 70! I loved the experience this festival afforded me: sitting in the last remaining double-decker theatre in the world, The Elgin/Winter Garden in Toronto, and watching this beautiful film from one of our most enduring artists aging with incredible grace. Not the first time I’ve felt lucky.
This was my final film of the festival. The crowd was rowdy and wound up for something clever. Adam Sandler delivered. Gone was the goofy actor and in his place a brand new antihero for the ages: jewelry dealer and compulsive gambler Howard Ratner, having a panic attack that lasts the entire duration of the film. Next to Parasite, this was the closest edge-of-seat ride of all my screenings. At the helm: acclaimed filmmaking brothers Benny and Josh Safdie who move Sandler around New York City with such a heady mix of energy that I held my breath most of the film; that is, when I wasn’t laughing… or cringing. This is the very definition of gritty and it won’t be everyone’s jam: this is one film you must pick your seat in the theatre carefully. Whatever you do, don’t sit too close. The basic plot: Sandler’s character gets hold of a rare Ethiopian black opal and shows it to NBA superstar Kevin Garnett: yes, the dude plays himself. Garnett becomes obsessed with the stone but Sandler needs to auction it to pay off debts to the Jewish Mafia. That’s all I can spill without spoiler alerts. If you love basketball, there’s a good chance you’ll love this movie. There are some other familiar names onscreen including Idina Menzel playing the disappointed wife, Canadian pop star The Weeknd, also playing himself, and Sorry to Bother You star Lakeith Stanfield in a much better role than he has in another splashy festival film, Knives Out. Uncut Gems will be in theatres this December.
Tomorrow in this space: My thoughts on more worthy TIFF films screened that just missed my list: Joker, Judy, Waves, Anne at 13,000 feet, Knives Out, Martin Eden, Greed, The Personal History of David Copperfield, Sorry to Miss You, Wet Season. And what we went wrong with Just Mercy and Pain & Glory. And maybe the Friendly Greek will weigh in.
Messy times we’re in, messy and uncertain, and I’m not talking about the raccoons who have figured out how to open my green bin, flipping me the finger claw mid-dive. Turns out, Game of Thrones is not over. War is on, baby. Messy political elections to come. Messy climate doubletalk. Messy privacy losses-does anyone know what is going on, really? Me, I find answers in art. Hardly new, say you, readers of this space. Some of us— a lot of us apparently if you were part of the celebrations across the country this past week— find answers in sport too. On Monday, we witnessed a seismic shift in swagger in Toronto.
In 1972, another seismic event touched down in Toronto in the form of monster talent; a cast performing the musical Godspell, a cast including Gilda Radner, Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Victor Garber, and Dave Thomas. All would become household names in the comedic world and beyond. Bringing them together as company manager at the time was Marlene Smith, who first broke into the theatre world as a way to get out of the house in the late 1960’s. Smith, who had four children under the age of six when she began work in show business doing group sales for the musical Hair, would go on to produce countless hit musicals in this city. Godspell, written by Stephen Schwartz, was clearly special and remained so not just for Smith but for millions around the globe since it first appeared off-Broadway in 1971.
So it wasn’t wild imagination that provoked an invitation from me to this theatre powerhouse; an invitation to come and meet another young Toronto Godspell cast (hoping for seismic action in the current theatrical scene) and share some of her memories of her rise to the top of the commercial theatre world in Toronto. It was nostalgia: I, like many ’70’s kids, performed Godspell at camp. It was the closest I got to hippy culture.
I met Marlene downtown where the Wavestage Theatre Company cast was running through final performances of the modern revival version of Godspell: they open June 20th at the George Ignatieff Theatre.
In that strange confluence of events that make up a city of millions, I was listening to these talented performers in a chorus of that beloved Godspell showpiece, Day by Day at exactly the hour someone was pulling out a gun across town.
What follows are some of the excerpts of my chat with Marlene Smith.
Anne: What was it like navigating all that talent?
It was like having fourteen more children! When you sit through a lot of auditions, you can always tell when there’s someone who has a little bit of extra sparkle. The energy was unbelievable.
Marlene Smith, legendary Canadian theatre producer
Anne: As a woman in show business, did you have to ‘muscle” people differently?
I became everyone’s mother only because I had so many of my own, and I also had a niece and nephew living with me so basically I had six kids so it was mostly, do what you’re told or look out! But you can do it nicely!
Anne: Godspell has been called a transformative musical. To what do you attribute the longevity?
It’s fun!. If you don’t do anything else, have fun! Really sock it to you. You can’t do too much of it. It was a joyful piece and every review said that. It’s like Come from Away. You cannot not enjoy it.
Anne: What did Stephen Schwartz think of the Toronto show?
Are you kidding? He made a fortune. He loved it!
Anne: You’ve been around for decades producing musical theatre. What, in your opinion, is the future of this genre? Will it survive?
I think it’s tough. The tickets have become way too expensive. After we finished Godspell, I got Marty Short and Andrea Martin and others and did a show What’s a Nice Country like You Doing in a State like This? The logo was a very pregnant lady in the harbour in NYC. I myself went with them, the cast, handing out one dollar bills with cards to all the cab drivers around… I mean we really worked at selling tickets.
Anne: Is there a song you love most from Godspell?
It’s got to be Day by Day.
My favourite song from the spectacular Godspell soundtrack is All Good Gifts. Saying grace in whatever form you fashion? Nothing messy about that. Thank you, Marlene, for sharing.
Fresh ideas spring everywhere in this fine city. If you’re looking for ways to take a breather from Raptors frenzy (just a moment, okay?), live theatre is always waiting with answers.
Continuing at Toronto’s Monarch Tavern, Danny & The Deep Blue Sea is an inaugural production from the LOVE2 Theatre Company; written by John Patrick Shanley as an early breakout play before the Pulitzer playwright went on to international acclaim for Moonstruck and Doubt. A two-hander set in a bar, the plot is deceptively simple: two dysfunctional characters from the Bronx meet in a rundown bar and thus we have our setting. Literally. Ticket holders to this production are rewarded with full immersion. That kind of site-specific theatre is pure adrenaline.
Toronto actor Jennifer McEwen:
This is the way this play should live. It shouldn’t be removed from the audience.
McEwen is the founder of LOVE2 Theatre Company and says its inception was born out of personal agency after an acting hiatus.
If you want to be an actor, you need to get used to waiting around for auditions to come your way. I have come back to the profession not wanting to wait.
This kind of just-do-it moment deserves to be rewarded. The leap from discovering the text at a routine scene study with a savvy acting partner to mounting a play in Toronto’s dynamic performing arts scene is confidence writ large. You can catch the final weekend of this production this Friday and Saturday at 7 pm. Ticket information can be found here.
Over at Soulpepper, they might as well have blasted fireworks with the mounting of The Brothers Size, a spectacular production which ended an extended run last weekend. Will their current production, August: Osage County be as rewarding? That’s my next show, followed by Godspell at the George Ignatieff. For those of you familiar with Godspell, seeing it over Pride Weekend is your best way to embrace the most exhilarating show in town. If you don’t know the soundtrack, and you’re new to the show, I guarantee you won’t leave without buoyancy in your back pocket. Tickets can be purchased here.
Yes, there is room for Raptors fans at all these productions. This fangirl loves it all. Toronto, I’m coming for you.
We took up most of the row in the cinema. Nine pals who remembered when rock was young, hoping for the biggest kick we ever got…Okay, I’ll stop now with the Bernie Taupin lyrics, exceptlawdy mama, what happened to the second half?
Rocketman is a great ride. It’s a better ride than the current incarnation of Aladdin, now beating Rocketman at the box office, but don’t you dare come at me for going to see it: it has a magic carpet and 🎵 A Whole New World 🎵and that’s enough for me (and my young pals who joined me when I asked, Will you take your Auntie Anne to the movies?)
Rocketman begins with a full list of confessions. Elton John listing all of his addictions and we’re off, watching little Elton Sad Boy become big Elton Star Boy through a trippy set of brilliant musical sequences. At some point, the little Elton (known as Reggie then) and Big Elton meet one another in this musical mirage and little Sad Boy asks big Star Boy for a hug. Right there we are in the zeitgeist proper and nobody can quibble with therapy and all of its attendant hopeful outcomes. Nor can we fault the soft lens on a long friendship: Elton John’s celebrated partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin is the heart of the film— and the most intriguing. These two talents worked separately. How they collaborated is one of the film’s more accurate threads. The star gave his blessing to this film, signing on as executive producer, and his obvious pride in that rare showbiz jewel of a union shines brighter than anything else here. Except for the music. Oh yes, the music. We didn’t break into full out karaoke although tempted I was at points. This was our early tweendom’s soundtrack so B-B-Benny me back, baby.
Parts of the film feels utterly generic. We have seen these rock narratives before and know of their properties. What makes this one beat are dizzying music sequences with their own aesthetic ( and conveniently muddled timelines- songs are presented to fit the film, not the reality) and the guy who punches life into every one of them is Welsh actor Taron Egerton. Here he is showing off his pipes at a recent Aids Foundation auction.
The twenty-nine-year-old joins actor Jamie Bell, who is also a dancer (remember Billy Elliot?), and Richard Madden as a trio of stellar talent; reason enough to go. Madden is hot hot hot these days as rumours continue he is the clear favourite to follow Daniel Craig as James Bond. I loved him in the British Bodyguard series and GOT fans know him as Rob Stark.
If you’re like me, you might wonder at the sudden end of the film. No spoilers but there’s a chunk of life history smushed at the conclusion of the film into a few photos and information graphics; all equal in the redemptive narrative possibility to the wild tale preceding it. This is a musician who has raised $450 million for AIDs research, after all. It’s a minor quibble but this fan wanted to see more of that real life second chapter’s potency. And for all the whiners dissing jukebox musicals, there is this: music as we know it will never be like this again. It will continue to morph and produce wondrous sounds as it has, but we are now in a time of ephemeral shapeshifting: never has it been harder for artists to reach this kind of international success. The best moment in this film is one of gorgeous levitation. I won’t spoil it for you but it is this moment that captures the entire giddiness of hearing magic. I dare you not to smile. Or cry. Eventually, this kind of film will die out, and this well-trodden genre, but the music? It lingers on and we will all sing until we have lost our voices. Look for me this summer, roaring around town, belting out Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters in one never-ending loop.
🎵 And I thank the Lord there’s people out there like you. 🎵
And finding more excuses to wear floppy hats. Wore them then. Still wearing them now, without the spitting gap.
The green is poking out and doing its usual flirtation. Elsewhere in Toronto, theatre is blooming.
Book it today:
Hand to God at the Coal Mine Theatre. Minuscule but mighty is the space on the Danforth run by Ted Dykstra and Diana Bentley. As Dykstra told our audience last weekend, this is bare-bones-budget kind of theatre and yet, what has been on offer since he began five years ago is continued excellence in programming and product. I have yet to see anything there that didn’t provoke and prod at the brainspace: Hand to Godwas another home run. If you like your comedies running dark and demonic, this is for you. I loved it. So did a lot of others: the show is sold out but added matinee info is here.
Godspell at the George Ignatieff Theatre. Coming just in time for the Summer Solstice, Wavestage surely will tune us up for summer and all the vibrancy that season offers with their production of this hit musical. Godspellwas the first major musical theatre offering from three-time Grammy and Academy Award winner, Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin, Children of Eden) and chances are strong if you went to summer camp anytime after it hit off-Broadway in 1971, you sang some of that memorable score as did millions around the world when the show toured. When Godspell went on to open on Broadway in 1977, that music won Schwartz a Tony award for best original score. Toronto has a strong connection with Godspell. When it opened here in 1972, it became an instant hit. Cast included Gilda Radner (making her stage debut), Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas and Victor Garber (who would go on to star in the film adaptation), and of course, Andrea Martin. Ticket info here.
I will never forget it. All those people became my best friends. I remember every moment of that play.
Next to Normal at the CAA theatre. This musical won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama along with three Tony awards and is part of the Off-Mirvish series. Produced by the Musical Stage Company whose mandate is to offer material that “cause conversations on the car ride home”, this is a show that will do more for understanding the impact of mental illness than any flashy health campaign out there. Go see it for the best cast on Toronto stages right now led by Louise Pitre and Ma-Anne Dionisio: both, along with the other cast members, were outstanding on the preview performance I saw. Yes, we stood and cheered. Toronto audiences need to do that more often. These people delivered. Ticket info here
On the horizon: Toronto Fringe Festival will be partnering with Crow’s Theatre this coming July and bringing 16 festival shows to their home in Leslieville. That’s a first. As for Crow’s upcoming season, the hottest ticket next fall is sure to be Ghost Quartet. The Canadian premiere of what Crows are calling a “surreal chamber musical” comes from Dave Malloy, the composer/lyricist of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. If this new production is anything as fresh as that one, I’m in.
The Regent Park Project is a dynamic web series, now set to debut its second season on YouTube next month. This is a must-see for those wanting an authentic glimpse into one of Toronto’s most diverse neighbourhoods, a place less storied than stamped with negative stereotypes. Until now. Have a peek at episode 1.
Sheena Robertson has worked in Toronto’s Regent Park for over 25 years. As a teacher, advocate, and artist-educator, Robertson saw a demand for projects that allowed the creative youth she engaged with daily to not only gain access to the professional film world but also to build strong relationships, and skills to share their own stories. To her, the stories were always there; they just needed a forum. Kick Start Arts, where Robertson is artistic director, jumped in with free acting classes where content began to take shape.
We used a story circle process where we used prompts to generate story ideas, and over time we told stories, and responded to them, pulling out the ones that felt important to us. Using forum theatre approaches, we improvised those stories, honing them, and eventually filmed them, and created scripts by scribing the improvisations. What developed were a series of fictionalized characters, and interactive stories, drawn from the lived experiences of our participants.”
Sheena Robertson, director
Never before have we been exposed to such a flowering of narrative, spinning out of every corner. Consumers are hardly starved for content, even if it is one look-alike series after another. Along comes this unique interactive story with an absolute mandate of authenticity.
Someone said to me that they think our series is ‘like the Degrassi Street series, but real’ – and I understand what they mean, and take that as a compliment. I think we’re super unique in that I don’t see anything out there where the youth participants are so engaged in all elements of the creation; from acting, to writing, to crewing. Our hope is these episodes give people an opportunity to look beyond the negative stereotypes of Regent Park, and see the amazing, smart, articulate, and talented young people I know so well.”
Season One follows an eight-episode arc exploring a community the cast and crew describe as one of “complexity, friendship, love, fear, laughter, and irony.” I encourage you to check it out. Season Two will begin with a launch party Wednesday April 17th in Toronto. See here for details.