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creative class

TIFF 2019: the B side

By September 19, 2019 Film, Performance

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

Judy

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.

Joker

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 for that 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?

Meryl Streep

Greed

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

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.

Martin Eden

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.

Wet Season

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.

My Zoe

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.

Just Mercy

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 Glory opens 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.

Waves

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 too snap; complexity is missing despite the appearance of layers. Waves opens 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.

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