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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

 

Toronto delivers mixed bag of dramatic highlights

Gerald Schmitz

10/11/2017

 

As intense as was my Toronto Film Festival schedule, notable titles I missed included The Other Side of Hope (Silver Bear winner Berlin), The Square (Palme d’Or winner Cannes), The Shape of Water (Golden Lion winner Venice), as well as the runners up for TIFF’s People’s Choice, I, Tonya and Call Me By Your Name.

Before moving to the best of what I did see let me note the fine animated feature The Breadwinner which played to enthusiastic audiences of all ages at the Ottawa International Animation Festival, North America’s largest, following its TIFF premiere to which Angelina Jolie, an executive producer, brought her children causing paparazzi/fan madness, stopping traffic. (Jolie had another film in the fest about which more below.)

A Canada/Ireland/Luxembourg co-production directed by Nora Twomey and adapted from Canadian Deborah Ellis’ eponymous award-winning novel, The Breadwinner is about an 11-year-old Afghan girl, Parvana, living under the harsh conditions of Taliban rule in Kabul prior to the 2001 invasion. Restrictions were especially severe for women and girls, so when her father, a teacher, was imprisoned, Parvana cut her hair and dressed as a boy so she could go out on the streets to help her family survive and to seek her father’s release. Using an exquisite mix of animation techniques, incorporating elements of Afghan mythology, Afghan voices and music, this inspiring story really comes alive on screen.

Here are other titles that made a strong impression:

Loveless (Russia/France/Belgium/Germany)

Andrey Zvyagintsev, Oscar-nominated for Leviathan in 2015, helms this unsparing wintry drama of family and societal dysfunction awarded the jury prize at Cannes. In a loveless broken marriage, 12-year-old Alyosha lives with a mother who never wanted him and has a closer relationship with her smartphone. While both she and the estranged hapless father have new partners, Russian life exists in a larger state of loveless malaise, punctuated by radio and TV broadcasts of passing crises. When the boy disappears, it is, despite the efforts of volunteer searchers, as if into a heartless void.

The Death of Stalin (France/U.K./Belgium)

Russia in darkest Soviet times is the setting for this savagely entertaining political satire directed by Armando Iannucci. When the great dictator suddenly expires in 1953 it sets off a furious round of scheming and backstabbing among the Politburo. The antics, also involving Stalin’s daughter and wastrel son, are brilliantly portrayed by a top-notch cast that includes Jeffrey Tambor as the weak successor, Malenkov, Simon Russell Beale as the ruthless KGB chief Beria, and Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev. What better timing than when Stalin admiration has returned in Putin’s Russia, and the follies of Trump’s strongman approach are upon us. In January Iannucci penned an open letter to the Donald, calling him “an avalanche of contradictions: real and unreal, scary yet amusing, fact and fiction rolled into . . . We want to laugh at your stumbles, but are petrified by what those stumbles may lead to.”

Lady Bird (U.S.)

Greta Gerwig, best known for her acting roles in quirky comedies, makes a most impressive debut as the writer-director of this poignant semi-autobiographical dramedy about a high school senior in a Sacramento, California, Catholic school dealing with adolescent preoccupations while looking to the future. Christine McPherson, who goes by Lady Bird, is convincingly played by Saoirse Ronan (who has a much bleaker role as a spurned newlywed young woman in another TIFF premiere, On Chesil Beach, a grim adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel). The movie sparkles with Lady Bird’s complicated relationships, familial, academic and social, that feel completely authentic. The school priest and nun characters are also refreshingly human types, not caricatures. If I have a quibble it’s that situation involving an awkward first boyfriend, Danny (Lucas Hedges), disappears when he comes out to her as gay and she drops him like a hot potato. His distress is left unexplored while she moves on to the much hipper Kyle (Timothée Chalamet).

Foxtrot (Israel/Germany/France/Switzerland)

Writer-director Samuel Maoz’s second feature, winner of the Silver Lion at Venice among other awards, is a scathing look at both Israel’s bureaucracy of military death and a militarized society in the grip of fear and anxiety. Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) and Dafna (Sarah Adler) become distraught when informed of the death of their soldier son Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray). Except it’s a case of mistaken identity. He’s actually killing time with bored buddies manning a remote outpost, occasionally letting a camel pass, until he makes a horrendous mistake that kills four young Palestinians. While a coverup buries the evidence in the sand, Michael’s raging demands to have his son brought home produce a further fatal tragedy of lacerating irony.

Sweet Country (Australia)

Indigenous director Warwick Thornton’s Aussie “western” won TIFF’s innovative Platform Prize as well as a special jury award at Venice. In the rough Northern Territory outback of 1929 racism pervades relations between the white settler master class and the Aboriginals who answer “yes boss.” The exception is devout Christian Fred Smith (Sam Neill) whose faith in the country will be tested when his stockman Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) fires a fatal shot to ward off the violent advances of bitter drunken war veteran Harry March (Ewen Leslie), who regards Aboriginals as inferior “blackstock.” A manhunt led by a Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) takes place across a landscape captured by stunning cinematography until an outdoor trial delivers a just result, only to be negated by the malice that prevails.

Dark River (U.K.)

Writer-director Clio Barnard received a special mention from the Platform jury for this story of an emotionally fraught sibling relationship as long-absent daughter Alice (Ruth Wilson) returns to take charge of a failing rat-infested Yorkshire sheep farm following the death of an abusive father from whom she fled. Her brother Joe (Mark Stanley) stayed behind, becoming a bitter wreck of a man who now resents her interference. As she struggles with traumatic memories he wants out, and when he cuts a deal behind her back the consequences turn deadly. The result is raw and uncompromising, forcing them to become each other’s keeper as a dark river swallows their secret.

Custody (France)

Xavier Legrand was awarded best director at Venice for this debut feature, another excellent Platform selection that revolves around an escalating battle by divorced parents Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine Besson (Denis Ménochet) over arrangements for their young son Julien (Thomas Gioria). The narcissistic Antoine makes enough moves to persuade a female family court judge to grant him limited visitation rights. But as Julien reacts to his plays for affection with a protective passive aggression, Antoine becomes increasingly assertive and demanding, leading to a harrowing heart-stopping climax. Seldom has the reality of family breakdown and domestic violence been depicted more realistically on screen.

Mudbound (U.S.)

With America’s racist history more pertinent than ever, director Dee Rees has adapted the eponymous Hillary Jordan novel to great effect in this Netflix production. During the 1940s Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) accompanies her taciturn husband, Henry (Jason Clarke, who also plays Ted Kennedy in the lesser TIFF drama Chappaquiddick), to a muddy cotton farm in the Mississippi delta, accompanied by Henry’s virulently racist father. When her brother-in-law Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) returns from the Second World War he comes to the defence of Ronsel, the son of a nearby black family, who has also served with distinction, but is subject to violent racist abuse, especially when it’s discovered he has fathered a child with a white woman overseas. Jamie and Laura are drawn to each other as he wrestles with his demons and confronts terrible choices. Strong performances add to the emotionally devastating impact.

If You Saw His Heart (France) and BPM (France)

The first, a Platform selection, is an impressive debut by director Joan Chemla featuring Gael Garcia Bernal as Daniel, a smalltime grifter on the margins of a nomadic Roma community near Marseille. Blaming himself for the death of best friend Costel (Argentine actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), Daniel is a lost soul until finding solace in reaching out to an equally emotionally wounded young woman, Francine (Marine Vacth). The film artfully blends gritty circumstances with dreamlike effects.

Biscayart has a lead role in Robin Campillo’s BPM (120 Battements Par Minute), awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes, as fearless activist HIV-positive activist Sean during the AIDS crisis of the 1990s. With a title alluding to the beats per minute of the human heart rate, the film shows tremendous heart in recreating the highly charged atmosphere — personal, public and political — of this seminal period, focusing on the Paris-based protest movement ACT UP and its leading figures.

Lean on Pete (U.K./U.S.)

From writer-director Andrew Haigh, the title actually refers to a quarter horse to which 15-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer) becomes attached after leaving home and finding work in the stables of cranky owner Del (Steve Buscemi), who runs the horse on racetrack circuits in the Pacific Northwest. When “Pete,” ridden by jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), fails to deliver and is disposable, Charley takes off with his equine friend in the direction of Wyoming where a beloved aunt lives. Plummer certainly deserves the best young actor award he received at Venice.

Woman Walks Ahead (U.S.)

Director Susanna White brings attention to the little-known story of how a strong-willed New York painter, Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain, also in Aaron Sorkin’s forthcoming Molly’s Game), travelled to the Lakota Sioux territory of Standing Rock in 1890 determined to meet the great chief Sitting Bull (played by Saskatchewan-born Cree actor and educator Michael Greyeyes) and paint his portrait. The intrepid Weldon was caught up in a racist clash of cultures as the U.S. government and its soldiers drove terms of submission. (Mention should also be made of another 19th-century story of Native Americans, Scott Cooper’s Hostiles, in which a veteran of the Indian wars, Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), is ordered to escort an imprisoned Cheyenne chief and his family from New Mexico to Montana. Accompanied by a white woman who has lost her family in a renegade raid, Blocker’s racist attitudes, hardened by violence, will be violently challenged to life-changing effect.)

First They Killed My Father (Cambodia)

Based on the memoir by Loung Ung, Angelina Jolie directs this remarkable story of horror and resilience as a well-to-do family in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh is driven into the countryside during the communist Khmer Rouge’s fanatical takeover in the mid-1970s. Sareum Srey Moch is remarkable portraying Loung as the little girl who is a witness to and survivor of genocide. Jolie, who has visited countries from Cambodia to Afghanistan as a UN humanitarian ambassador, brings a deep empathy for people, especially children, caught up in conflict zones. Nor does the movie neglect the context that the U.S. had secretly dropped 2.7 million tons of bombs on neutral Cambodia prior to the Khmer offensive.

Insyriated (Belgium/France/Lebanon)

Winner of several awards at the Berlin film festival, writer-director Philippe Van Leeuw (The Life of Jesus) imagines the daily terror faced by a multi-generational family and a young couple with a baby trapped in a near-empty Damascus apartment building as violent men rule what’s outside. The great Hiam Abbass plays the matriarch Oum Yazan holding the frightened household together as death stalks the streets. A metaphor for the emotional trauma of a besieged Syrian society, the film was shot in Beirut with Syrian refugees in the cast.

***

For later review I should also mention some excellent TIFF films set during the last century’s world wars: Xavier Beauvois’ The Guardians, about women on the home front in rural France from 1915 on; Saul Dibb’s Journey’s End, set in British trenches on the French front in March 1918; Robert Schwentke’s The Captain, a harrowing true story of a German deserter turned homicidal imposter as the Reich collapses in 1945; Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, depicting the British political and military crisis in the spring of 1940 with Gary Oldman delivering a career-topping performance as Winston Churchill.

Others I can recommend with standout roles include: Diane Kruger (best actress at Cannes) in Fatih Akin’s In the Fade as an avenger of the deaths of her husband and son in a German neo-Nazi anti-immigrant terrorist bombing; Tahar Rahim as a conflicted Paris-based North African immigrant comedian in The Price of Success; Zaharaa Ghandour as a would-be female Iraqi suicide bomber in The Journey; Andrew Garfield as a paralyzed polio victim who pioneered mobile respirator wheelchairs in Andy Serkis’ directorial debut Breathe (Oscar loves tears-to-cheers medical tragedies turned triumphs of the spirit, see also Jake Gyllenhaal as the double-amputee victim of the Boston Marathon terrorist bombing in Stronger); James Franco as the worst-movie-ever impresario Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist, with brother Dave in the role of sidekick; and not least, Louis Garrel as the cinematic provocateur Jean-Luc Godard in Michel Hazanavicius’ Redoubtable which, although it will never have the popular success of Hazanavicius’ The Artist that took the 2012 Best Picture Oscar, says more about the contested politics and human struggles that have marked the story of film.