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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Gerald SchmitzToronto festival at 41, a critic in La La Land

The 41st Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Sept. 8 - 18 unspooled under unseasonable tropical heat that lasted through its packed 10 days, testing the stamina of attendees. There were some very hot titles on screen as well, and of course the heat generated by the presence of A-list stars brought in for the gala premieres of major Hollywood movies like Deepwater Horizon. Of course most are basically marketing launch pads in keeping with TIFF’s celebrity-conscious corporate side. As usual, several — notably the over-hyped Snowden — went into wide release before the festival ended. I always avoid those. The real value for the serious filmgoer are the gems to be discovered among the festival’s huge selection of nearly 300 features from over 80 countries. (Tiny Belgium is listed for no less than 24 film titles.)

With 89 films claiming some Canadian provenance, one might have thought that TIFF could showcase one for its opening night. But no, instead it boasted the world premiere of Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven remake, not even an original film. This version does have some striking New Mexico landscapes though mostly shot (and there’s an orgy of shooting) in Louisiana. Fuqua piles on the western tropes and caricatures as a motley crew of seven violent men — led by an African-American man in black (Denzel Washington) and including a knife-throwing Asian and Comanche warrior archer — are the hired avengers of good farm folk up against a murdering, church-burning, California capitalist robber baron. Evil will be vanquished at a steep cost. Fuqua includes a few nods, without acknowledgement, to Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterwork Seven Samurai, which inspired the 1960 original American-Mexican Magnificent Seven. If quality matters, after six decades of reviews Seven Samurai still rates a 100 per cent fresh score on; the 1960 classic 90 per cent; the new knock-off just 61 per cent. Thanks to the Turner Classic Movies channel I’ve enjoyed revisiting the 1960 movie. And despite being a political junkie, on Sept. 26 I skipped the first U.S. presidential debate in order to view Seven Samurai on the big screen at my neighbourhood arthouse cinema in Ottawa, the Bytowne. (It was certainly better than listening to Trump’s idiocies!) Those 207 minutes, in black and white with a boxy square aspect ratio, are a testament to the enduring power of great moviemaking.

The reason I mention this is in the hope that a future TIFF will open with a movie that is more than a conventional commercial product and has the potential to become a classic.

That said, TIFF did showcase some impressive movies that were a hit with both critics and audiences. The most prominent among these was La La Land which to no one’s surprise took the “People’s Choice” award. Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s semi-autobiographical followup to his first feature, the Sundance prize-winning and Oscar-nominated Whiplash (2014), is a musical crowd pleaser in the best sense of the word. It imagines an alluring L.A. and Hollywood of yesteryear in which a romance unfolds between two dreamers, a jazz pianist played by Canadian-born Ryan Gosling and an aspiring actress played by Emma Stone. Scheduled for a pre-holiday December wide release, this song and dance story is an early favourite for Oscar best picture consideration.

Another of TIFF’s hottest tickets was Moonlight by writer-director Barry Jenkins which merits its stellar reviews. Also a sophomore feature, it follows the difficult journey from childhood to adulthood of Chiron, an African American living in a rough Miami neighbourhood as he copes with challenging circumstances and wrestles with his sexuality. Moonlight, which is slated for a late October release, was a strong contender among the 12 entries in TIFF’s juried “Platform” program that was dedicated to the great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami who died in July. In the end the jury gave their award to Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, a moving re-imagining of the 1963 JFK assassination and its aftermath through the eyes of Jacqueline Kennedy as portrayed by Natalie Portman. Somehow this British production by a Chilean director powerfully recreates one of the most traumatic moments in American history. Portman’s performance in particular has drawn raves. (Her debut directorial effort, A Tale of Love and Darkness, based on the eponymous autobiographical novel by the renowned Israeli writer and intellectual Amos Oz, has been less well received.)

Larraín had another dramatized biographical film in the festival, Neruda, based on the life of Pablo Neruda, Chile’s most famous literary figure (his poetry earned him the 1971 Nobel Prize) who was also an icon of the communist left. The film concentrates on the period in the late 1940s when communism was outlawed in Chile forcing Neruda and his wife to go underground, continuing to pursue their artistic engagement while evading police detection.

Another film in the Platform section, the first I saw at TIFF, was writer-director and composer Bertrand Bonello’s controversial Nocturama, a France/Belgium/Germany co-production that was reportedly rejected by the Cannes festival nervous about its content in the wake of terrorist attacks. The disturbing scenario has a multiracial group of alienated young people, one of whom has high political connections, plan and carry out a day of mayhem in Paris involving a series of murders and explosions. Communicating by social media the surviving members hole up for the night in the swank surroundings of a multi-level department store where they indulge the consumerist fantasies of a society for which they supposedly have contempt. Such meaningless nihilism — as one says “It’s crazy . . . we know nothing!” — cannot but end badly. Yet in the context of the times, of indiscriminate acts of terror and hard to explain radicalization, there’s a palpably expressed sense of a violent venting that had to happen. Nocturama’s sleepless night cuts uncomfortably close to a real-world malaise manifest in many western democracies.

There were two Canadian entries in the Platform program. I didn’t see the Quebec three-plus hour docudrama Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves directed by Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie which has a parallel to Nocturama in that it posits a cell of young people in Montreal with terrorist intent, though linked to a radical political agenda growing out of Quebec’s 2012 mass student protests. Although it received the best Canadian feature award, the only reaction I heard in the lines was negative. I was very taken with the other Canadian Platform feature, Zacharias Kunuk’s Maliglutit (Searchers), an all-Inuit historical saga shot in Nunavut. That is also the modern-day setting for Quebec-based Kim Nguyen’s excellent surrealist drama Two Lovers and a Bear. More about both in a future column.

The highest profile Canadian movie, a co-production with France accorded multiple screenings, was 27-year-old Québécois wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s Juste la fin du monde (It’s Only the End of the World). That Dolan remains the darling of Cannes officialdom was confirmed when he was awarded both that festival’s Grand Prix and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury despite a critical savaging (a dismal 43 per cent score on Dolan has recruited some of France’s biggest stars to tell this story of an ailing playwright, Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), who returns to his hometown and dysfunctional family after a 12-year absence to break the news of his impending death (spoiler alert, he doesn’t). This screen adaptation of a 1990 play by Jean-Luc Lagarce who died of AIDS quickly descends into a marathon of close-up histrionics. Apart from a few typical Dolan visual and musical flourishes it’s a dreadful tiresome affair.

Several other Canadian movies, both Canada-Ireland co-productions, deserve mention. Alan Gilsenan’s Unless is a faithful adaptation of the eponymous Carol Shields novel in which the protagonist, the young Norah (Hannah Gross), bears silent witness to a traumatic event not revealed till the end. It’s also an exploration of the complex emotional terrain of mother-daughter relationships. Catherine Keener is excellent as the mother, a successful writer struggling to connect with Norah. The premiere took place appropriately at the Bloor St. HotDocs theatre across the street from the “Honest Ed’s” storefront, the wintry setting of much of the film. Aisling Walsh’s Maudie is the story of Maud Lewis who suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and who, despite a hard existence of little comfort in rural Nova Scotia, persevered to produce paintings of folk art that became internationally famous. She became housekeeper to and then married a gruff fish seller, Everett Lewis, in a union of social outcasts redeemed by the spirit of her art. Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke do fine work as the oddly matched couple. (Hawke adds to his impressively wide range of current roles. One of the better things in Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven is his performance as the Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux.)

Finally, one of the revelations of the festival was writer-director Mahmoud Sabbagh’s Barakah Meets Barakah, an upbeat romantic comedy from Saudi Arabia, if such seems possible. Cinema is hard to do or to find in the repressed Islamist kingdom and this is only the second film — after Wajda (2012) — that the country has submitted for consideration in the Oscar foreign-language category. That film, by a female director, was about an 11-year-old girl living in the capital Riyadh. This feature, set in more liberal Jeddah, a port city on the Red Sea, depicts an amorous relationship that develops between adults, both named Barakah. The smitten male Barakah (played by Hisham Fageeh, a comedian who is a YouTube star in Saudi Arabia) is a shy municipal official with bigger dreams. The female Barakah (Fatima AlBanawi), who goes by “Bibi,” is a free-spirited rich girl, a fashionista and Instagram star looking for bigger things too. How they get together in spite of the forbidding strictures of Saudi society provides for a compelling youthful and gently humorous push against those constraining boundaries. That a film like this can get made and be seen in Saudi Arabia is a positive sign and speaks to a generation yearning for change. Kudos to TIFF for giving it an international spotlight.

Coming next, several columns highlighting more of the best dramas and notable documentaries from the festival’s diverse offerings.