Toronto Diary, Day 7: ‘Free Fire,’ ‘Their Finest,’ ‘The Secret Scripture,’ ‘ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail’

Our TIFF coverage concludes with two new period dramas, a shoot-em-up from Ben Wheatley, and the latest from the director of 'Hoop Dreams.'

TORONTO – Earlier in the week, I resisted the style-over-substance exercises of (re)ASSIGNMENT and The Bad Batch, so it may seem hypocritical to embrace Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire solely as an exercise in form, but what can I tell you, sometimes these things work for you and sometimes they don’t. This ‘70s-era crime picture is the story of a gun buy gone awry, told with the claustrophobia and real-time clock of Reservoir Dogs, but the story is ultimately secondary; it’s basically an excuse for director Wheatley to execute an hour-long shoot-out.

He seems to take it as a personal challenge: to stay in that abandoned warehouse, without even cutaways or flashbacks, riding this confrontation out to its bitter end, without boring his audience. So he must drill down into the techniques of action set pieces: staging, geography, sound, tempo, actor blocking, camera movement.

It’s not that there aren’t characters we’re interested in; Sharlto Copley plays a horse’s ass (and does it well), Armie Hammer is dry and funny as a true bullshit artist, and Brie Larson puts across the hair trigger of a woman who spends most of her time humoring dumb dudes. And it’s not all action; Wheatley has a good rhythm for tossing in throwaway jokes and character beats between gunshots, in a way that feels natural rather than ‘80s movie “quippy.”

But he’s there to see if he can pull this thing off, and he mostly does. You’ll have to decide for yourself if that’s something you want to spend 90 minutes watching.

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Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest is the kind of movie that seems genetically engineered to play at Toronto: it’s a fall prestige period piece, based on a true story, and (bonus) all about movies and the people who make them. You know what it is and where it’s going, in other words, but it gets there gracefully, and there’s never any doubt you’re in the hands of professionals – particularly director Scherfig (An Education) and stars Gemma Arterton (who has both the look and temperament of a WWII-era ingénue) and Bill Nighy, who can be sneering, vainglorious, touching, and hilarious, frequently in the same scene.

They’re telling the story of British filmmakers employed to make “informationals,” propaganda shorts that ran in between the double features during The Great War, as well as features that told stories of bravery and lifted morale, often while not sticking precisely to the facts. “Don’t confuse facts with truth,” one character is warned, “and for God’s sake, don’t let either of ‘em get in the way of the story.” We can presume the makers of Their Finest followed the same advice.

That’s all well and good until the third act, when the story takes a turn that would’ve been deemed too sappy for even the movies it’s about. Until then, though, Their Finest hums along nicely. It’s quite reminiscent, in fact, of The Imitation Game, which will be a recommendation to some audiences and a warning to others. You know who you are.

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The Secret Scripture is another one that seems very much drawn from the fall festival playbook: an acclaimed director (Jim Sheridan, of My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father), actors of note (Rooney Mara, Vanessa Redgrave, Eric Bana, Jack Raynor), a period literary adaptation dealing in serious subject matter, all covered in a sheen of respectability. But people who like this kind of thing are really going to like this.

It tells its story, of a woman committed to the madhouse for the murder of her newborn, in two timeframes: the events leading up to that event, and many decades later, when a psychiatrist (Bana) is doing a routine reevaluation. In lesser hands, this might’ve been some very clunky business, but Sheridan directs with the confident touch of an old pro, and he couldn’t have asked for a better cast. Redgrave plays protagonist Rose as an old woman, prone to visions and flashbacks, still maintaining her innocence, and she does so without falling into the familiar tics and indicators. And Mara is a marvel as her younger iteration, able to play her whispering weakness or shrieking madness, and all the notes in between.

Like Their Finest, Secret Scripture takes a big turn in its last half-hour, and if anything, this one is even more contrived. And yet it somehow works; it’s a moving conclusion, done with skill and emotion. There are worse things in this world than a well-executed literary adaptation.

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Pop quiz: without looking, name the only U.S. bank indicted for mortgage fraud in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown. The answer is Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a small, family-owned bank catering to the Chinese immigrant community in New York’s Chinatown – in other words, an easy and safe target that the powers-that-be could prosecute without risking high dollar donations. The story of their investigation, prosecution, and trial is told in Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, the latest from director Steve James.

The bank’s owners were charged in 2012, complete with a chain-gang photo op that’s so horrifyingly tone-deaf you sorta have to see it to believe it, and went to trial three years later. James walks us through that trial, methodically; his cameras weren’t allowed in the courtroom, but they were with the family that owned and ran the bank every night – a family of tough, smart fighters (many of them lawyers). And he finds a wonderful structural through-line by comparing their plight to the hero of the patriarch’s favorite movie, It’s a Wonderful Life’s George Bailey, right down to a run on the bank that defined his relationships with his customers.

Mr. James’s previous works, particularly Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, are rooted in a sense of community taking care of itself, so this is a snug fit. But he’s rarely tackled a subject as explicitly issue-based. There’s not much question who’s side he’s on, but he refuses to reduce the complexities of this case. It’s not an open-and-shut matter of unjust persecution: fraud was committed at this bank, on more than one occasion. The questions are: who knew, how high did it go, and (most importantly) why was this the only bank where New York prosecutors wanted to ask those questions?

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And thus concludes our coverage of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. You can find all of our previous daily reports here – and the 26 other reviews contained in them – if you missed any. Special thanks to the folks at TIFF for having us; see you next year.