Toronto Diary, Day 3: ‘Mascots,’ ‘Snowden,’ ‘Beauties of the Night,’ ‘Water and Sugar’

Our TIFF coverage continues with new films by Christopher Guest and Oliver Stone, and documentaries about performers on either side of the camera.

TORONTO – Mascots starts off so well, with so much earned goodwill and so much of the Christopher Guest gang’s irreverent sweetness, that it’s a shame it runs out of gas so loudly in the second half. After the semi-scripted feature For Your Consideration and the HBO series Family Tree both failed to engage audiences the way Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind had, this one feels very much like an attempt to recapture the old magic – of Show most particularly, focusing as it does on a collection of peculiar characters assembling for an oddball competition, this time in the form of the 8th annual World Mascot Championship. But he’s missing a couple of vital components this time around: writing partner Eugene Levy, and Levy’s frequent scene partner Catherine O’Hara. Their absence is felt.

Not that there aren’t some laughs along the way. Of the old company, Jane Lynch comes off best, by making the deliberate choice to underplay; as one of the contest’s celebrity judge, she goes dry and straight-faced, square and humorless, and steals pretty much every shot she’s in. But Jennifer Coolidge is barely used, Fred Willard hardly does more, and Guest himself makes the peculiar decision to bring back his Corky St. Clair character from Guffman, though he’s there to coach Parker Posey, who is not playing her character from that film. It’s just bizarre, and speaks less to a burning desire to play Corky again than a disinterest in creating someone new. (Or, alternately, like some kind of fan service, which I guess can exist in this universe too.)

But the main problem is how few laughs come in the competition itself, which takes up most of the third act and ends up relying on how funny you think mascot routines are. Guest and Levy brilliantly got around this set-up/event conundrum in Best In Show by waiting until then to introduce Willard’s empty-headed TV commentator, who re-juiced the entire enterprise; no such luck here.

All of that said, there are plenty of throwaway gags that really work, and the new additions to the company – especially Susan Yeagley’s cheerful hedonist and Zach Woods and Sarah Baker’s feuding marrieds – are very funny. It’s no Guffman or Best of Show, but who’re we kidding; few things are.

*

snowden1

It’s been quite some time since Oliver Stone’s directed a movie that wasn’t some level of appalling, so it is a relief to report that his Snowden is a decent procedural, with a reasonable amount of tension and drama, and more than a little bit to say about the spoils of the War on Terror. (It’s also Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s second fall film in a row that was apparently made for people who like true stories but don’t like documentaries, but I digress.) Gordon-Levitt is a convincing Snowden double, nailing the look and the specific timbre and rhythm of his speech, and his political awakening is a workable narrative arc to hang the story on – he goes from a conservative who doesn’t like “bashing my country” to a quiet liberal, thanks in no small part to his longtime girlfriend Lindsay (Shaliene Woodley, who spends much of the film getting creepily ogled by Stone’s camera). Their romance is mostly a dumb drag, but it’s a long-ish movie, so it’s good to know when to take your bathroom breaks.

Yet the film gives Stone plenty of opportunities to trot out his distinctive visuals and paranoiac immediacy, to say nothing of his righteous indignation. And it’s certainly well-founded; his script (written with Kieran Fitzgerald) thankfully pushes not just against Bush but Obama, and the promises he made. (Trump pops in too, to suggest our hero be executed. Really goin’ with this guy, are ya, GOP?)

Snowden is, in the end, a good old-fashioned political thriller (with shades of not only All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor, but Stone’s own JFK), detailing how “Ed” found out all he found out, and how he got it into the world. It’s not one of Stone’s best films. But it’s not a bad one, and that’ll do for now.

*

beautiesofthenight

The grainy old movie clips and cheesy TV appearances of disco-era Mexican burlesque showgirls that pop up throughout Maria Jose Cuevas’s Beauties of the Night are a cheeseball blast, so fun to watch, so gloriously goofy, that you get why she wanted to catch up with their subjects forty years later. And she has affection for these women, many of whose levels of self-delusion rival those of a Christopher Guest mockumentary, or an underrated Maya Rudolph character. But they are interesting people, and for a time, Beauties is a welcome portrait of a little-known (within our borders, anyway) subculture.

Trouble is, too many of the women have taken the same journey and landed at the same place, so they begin to blur together – and worse, the film never moves beyond its initial impressions of who these women were, and who they have become. There are a couple of surprise twists in their stories, but overall, the monotony of the narrative and the film’s approach to it grow tiresome. And while there are some moments of emotion, all of them are still “performers,” aware of the camera, and playing to it in a way that Cuevas can’t penetrate (or, at least, turn to the movie’s advantage). It’s too bad, since there’s good material here; a few hard choices, and this would’ve been a knockout documentary short.

*

water-and-sugar

The new documentary Water and Sugar: Carlo Di Palma, The Colours of Life concerns, unsurprisingly enough, the great Carlo Di Palma, and if you have to be told who that is, it’s probably not a film for you. Movies about movies are always a bit of niche proposition; a movie about a cinematographer is basically a niche within a niche. But those who fall within said niche will find much to adore here.

It’s framed as a personal journey for his “companion in life,” wife Adriana Chiesa, whose biographical interest in his earliest years is thankfully limited. She wants to get to the work quickly, as Di Palma did – by the time he was 15, he was making movies with Visconti. He came up in the midst of the reinvention of Italian cinema in the postwar period, and while Water and Sugar is his story, it’s also the story of that movement, which chronicled (per one historian) “what had happened, and what was happening, in this country.”

Admirers and collaborators show up to pay tribute and discuss his methodology: Wim Wenders, Bernardo Bertolucci, Ken Loach, Lina Wertmüller, Giancarlo Giannini, Michael Ballhaus, and best of all, Woody Allen. The film underlines how that partnership brought a more explicitly European sensibility to American cinema – and how the cinematographer, in turn, found what he loved of Italy in NYC. Students of film will find much to learn from here – how he shot in black and white, how he made the transition to color, how he painted with light and innovated with fog, and so on. Water and Sugar’s own filmmaking isn’t exactly the height of innovation, but it’s warm and loving and sincere, and the story about how he first met Sven Nyvkist is worth the price of admission alone.

*

Tomorrow, your correspondent will attempt that most difficult of festival feats, the five movie day, with a David Oyelowo double feature (Queen of Katwe and A United Kingdom), Walter Hill’s sure-to-be-controversial (re)ASSIGNMENT, the John McAfee documentary profile Gringo, and one of my most anticipated of the fest, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden.