TORONTO – After three years of attendance, here’s the thing I’ve learned about the Toronto International Film Festival: you just have to accept that you’re not going to see everything you want to see. This is a gigantic, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink kind of festival, in which star-driven studio Oscar hopefuls and undistributed foreign indies are vying for the same eyeballs, and there are all kinds of joys to be found there – from discovering an unknown talent to soaking in the much-anticipated latest releases from one of your faves. I tried to do both this year, though I ended up doing much more of the latter; I’ll catch up with some of the most-buzzed about titles when they hit the New York Film Festival next month, and you can read my full reviews of more from TIFF here. But these are some quick thoughts on a few films worth seeking out (and a couple to dodge).
Nicole Kidman first appears in Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer clunking down the road to a crime scene, winded and dragging; she’s bruised and battered, and sports a low, quiet voice with a hard, brittle edge. She is at the center, if memory serves, of every single scene of the movie, and up to the task; this is a taut, muscular performance, playing a cop who, perhaps unwisely, goes rooting through the skeletons in her closet. Kusama moves her star, and her camera, through these silky L.A. nightscapes in a style reminiscent of Michael Mann; between the visual aesthetics and the dazzling bank robberies and shoot-outs, Kusama basically remade Heat, but with Kidman in both roles. If that doesn’t sell you, I don’t know what will.
Bowling for Columbine was, in retrospect, both the best and worst thing to happen to Michael Moore. It won him the Oscar, and boosted his public image; it also departed from the editorial discipline of his earlier features to adopt a shambling, shotgun-blast approach, in which several topics are held together primarily by the bond of Moore’s interest in them. He essentially made that his primary filmmaking modus operandi, and the major films that have followed – Sicko, Capitalism: A Love Story, Where to Invade Next, Fahrenheit 9/11, and now its pseudo-sequel Fahrenheit 11/9– have scenes of tremendous visual and rhetorical power, surrounded by flimsy sidebars and anecdotal divergences that soften the overall impact. See it for the devastating and infuriating material about the Flint water crisis, which finds Moore at his angriest (and, thus, best); had he stuck with that material, this could’ve been one of the year’s best documentaries.
“The hand that holds the pen writes history,” it is said (more than once) in Colette, Wash Westmoreland’s dramatization of the life of the most popular author of turn-of-the-century France – more accurately, his wife, who wrote the wildly popular “Claudine” novels and, in the process, began to live the kind of bawdy adventures she wrote. It’s a frisky piece of work, asking challenging questions about monogamy and art (there’s a wonderful scene where its protagonists air their grievances by discussing the actions of their on-page avatars), while reveling in the considerable charm of stars Keira Knightley and Dominic West. Sure, “European literary biopic” has the potential to be a slog. This cheerfully ribald picture is anything but.
Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki, based on the short story “Jambula Tree” by Monica Arac de Nyeko, is a vibrant, pulsing piece of work, keying off the joy of young love and unexpected discovery. It’s set in Kenya, in the neighborhood of Slopes, and concerns the budding romance between Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), daughters of local politicians. They’re a study in contrasts, the tomboy and the wild child, but tenderness and tentativeness between them is undeniable – and dangerous. For this is a country where homosexuality is forbidden, and the speed with which things get scary could’ve toppled a lesser filmmaker. But Kahiu pulls off that shift with ease and grace, and manages to find a conclusion that does right by both the characters and the reality they must face.
The scene comes about a half-hour into Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born, after a patient opening section in which country/blues/rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper) stumbles into a neighborhood watering hole after a gig, sees Ally (Lady Gaga) perform “La Vie En Rose,” is taken by her voice and her beauty, and takes her out for a drink and some soul-baring afterwards. That whole opening stretch plays like a really great short film – but it’s just the warm-up for their next night together, when he flies her out to the gig and pulls her onstage to perform a song she’s written, and sang for him the night before, which he’s apparently taken the trouble to arrange and teach to his band.
That part’s not exactly credible, but we’re in movie musical territory here, where magic can happen. And it does. “All you gotta do is trust me,” he tells her, and when he brings her out on stage, and then brings her up to the front microphone, it raises the same kind of gooseflesh as the “When Your Mind’s Made Up” scene in Once. The music builds, the spotlight shines between them, her voice swells, and that’s the ballgame; tears were streaming down my face. (I’ve got a soft spot for movies about creative people, I don’t know what else to tell you.)
The rest of the movie can’t top that scene. But Jesus, what could?
The scheduling of Teen Spirit on the same day was one of those happy accidents of festival-going – they make for a fine double-feature, the big studio movie and its scrappy little sister, exploring some of the same well-trod ground: a talented nobody is plucked from obscurity and given a shot at pop stardom, a process that puts her loyalty and idealism to the test. The big break here is the title show, a Pop Idol-style singing competition; the talent is Violet (Elle Fanning), an awkward teen from the Isle of Wright. Fanning is engaging – I’m low-key annoyed that on top of everything else, she can also sing – but the scene stealer here is Zlatko Buric, as the drunken fan who becomes her (surprisingly effective) manager.
Screenwriter/director Joel Edgerton (adapting Garrard Conley’s memoir) deliberately frames the opening minutes of Boy Erased to look like its subject (Lucas Hedges, very good) is going into rehab. But he’s not; his strict Evangelical parents (his dad is a minister, even) are sending him into a 12-day pray-away-the-gay program, and his brief stay is intercut with flashbacks to how he got there. Edgerton’s central visual metaphor is a middlebrow clunker, and the look of his movie too often confuses darkness with depth. But he’s got a good eye for details – the creaking of the springs on a dorm room bunk bed leaps to mind – and a sure hand with actors. Nicole Kidman, as the mother who realizes she has to open her heart, is particularly good – especially coming off Destroyer, further underscoring the breadth of her range.
Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows dresses his usual social drama in the costume of a kidnapping thriller, which raises the stakes a bit, and puts a ticking clock on the resurfacing of long-buried resentments and long-hidden secrets. But he’s not in a hurry, at least not at the beginning, using the arrival of wedding guests, and the subsequent ceremony and reception, to gradually introduce who everyone is and what they are to each other. (It’s not unlike that opening stretch of The Deer Hunter.) Once the teenage daughter of Laura (Penélope Cruz) and Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) is stolen from her bedroom, the tension mounts, and the film becomes a blur of fear, suspicion, and second-guessing. I’ve heard, since Cannes, that this is one of Farhadi’s lesser efforts, but I was held rapt through its entirety. Maybe it’s just that Farhadi at his worst still tops most of his contemporaries at their best.
The Front Runner, Jason Reitman’s dramatization of the three-week rise and fall of Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign, works best in its first half, as fleet-footed, wisecracking campaign/newsroom comedy/drama. If you’re old enough, the names and details will all roll right back – Hart, Donna Rise, the “Monkey Business” – and as Senator Hart, Hugh Jackman manages to replicate both his righteousness and his charisma (and the trouble the latter would cause).
The back half, in which big questions are asked about Who We Are and What We’ve Become, is less successful; Reitman overstates and oversimplifies his themes, and his attempts to connect to the present don’t hold water (this was the beginning of the end of the separation of news and tabloid, we’re told, but Trump was the quintessential tabloid candidate, and he was elected anyway). But it offers some complexities with regard to gender; Donna Rice (played, sharply, by Sara Paxton) is given real dimension, and when Post reporter Ann Devroy (Ari Graynor) explains that her real problem with Hart is that “I just don’t think he respects women,” well, that is a connection to current events worth drawing.
“I had a book on the New York Times bestseller list,” Lee Israel insists. “This has to count for something!” Turns out it doesn’t; Lee is going through a rough patch, in which she can’t keep a job, can’t pay her rent, and can’t get an advance (“I don’t think the world is waiting on another Fanny Brice biography,” her agent informs her). So she finds herself, as she puts it, “embellishing documents.”
Lee’s is a true story, told in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, adapted from Israel’s memoir for the new film by Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl). It’s a wicked, witty treat, with Melissa McCarthy playing Israel as an unapologetically unlikable protagonist, and batting around some truly delicious dialogue with Richard E. Grant, as pretty much her only friend. Some of the exposition is clumsy, and this may just be a movie for writers (and their nightmares). But I didn’t want it to end.
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land follow-up First Man opens with an assault of sight and sound – no title cards, no geography, no real explanation of what we’re looking at, aside from the terror of nearly crashing. That sequence is like a code key to the movie, which is by definition a biopic of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. But this isn’t a traditional biopic; it’s all about perspective, all seen from his point of view, less concerned with history of that mission’s impact than with what it was like to be him. And he doesn’t exactly let you in – this guy was the very definition of the strong, silent type, and star Ryan Gosling leans into that squareness, daring us to peer in to his up-tight close-ups and find the guy inside.
Because of that, the climactic dramatization of the moon landing proper is not what we’ve come to expect from a movie like this. There are none of the standbys: no coverage of mission control, no shots of the crying spouses, no archival footage of Walter Cronkite. It’s just there with him, in the moment, an iconic snapshot of history rendered newly immediate by this approach. And that approach to the event is why the nonsensical controversy surrounding the film is so absurd; the kind of Michael Bay/Peter Berg, plant-the-flag-as-the-music-swells imagery these people seem to long for would stick out like a sore thumb. Why, it’s almost as though people who haven’t seen a film shouldn’t criticize it.
The Old Man & the Gun – David Lowery’s “mostly true” story of an aged gentleman outlaw who robbed banks around the Midwest and Southwest, both solo and with his crew, dubbed “The Over the Hill Gang” – is set in 1981, and feels like it could’ve come out then, too. That year found filmmaking wobbling on the precipice between the auteur ‘70s and the movie star ‘80s, in which a personality-driven comedy/drama for grown-ups could find an audience. And this one probably will too, albeit a smaller one; it’s a gentle, funny crowd-pleaser with a melancholy streak, reportedly the final film Robert Redford will make before his retirement from the screen, according to Rolling Stone.
So it’s a showcase for his presence: his voice, his grin, and his eyes, those eyes, eyes that have seen some things. He spends a fair amount of the film playing opposite Sissy Spacek, sipping iced tea on her porch or eating pie at the diner, contemplating dashed dreams and looming mortality. There’s such ease and joy of performance in his scenes with her (and Danny Glover, and Tom Waits); these old pros have been on camera for so long, it’s like second nature. It’s a lovely picture, and an appropriate send-off for a true legend.
One of my favorite things about The Sisters Brothers, the latest from director Jacques Audiard, is that although it maintains the high quality of earlier efforts like A Prophet and Rust and Bone, you’d absolutely never guess it was made by the same guy. He seems to shed the style and subject of each picture like a skin; this time, he’s telling a story of mid-19th century America, a Western with splashes of a road movie and a Horace Greeley-style adventure tale thrown in.
Audiard meanders through the frontier, engagingly, with a pair of double acts (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed), and each of them gets a chance to shine. But the best moments belong to Reilly, funny and touching as a sensitive man of the gun who wants to be better, smarter, and more understanding, if he could just get his damn fool brother to settle down. Darkly funny and often deeply disorienting, with a marvel of an ending.
“I am a German,” Werner Herzog informs Mikhail Gorbachev at the beginning of their first interview. “And the first German you ever met probably wanted to kill you.” And thus, we’re off and running with Meeting Gorbachev, Herzog and André Singer’s documentary profile of the last leader of the USSR, combining footage from their three conversations with archival footage and commentary by observers on the political scene. For those of us with terrible public school world history educations, it’s a detailed and informative recap of the dismantling of the Soviet Union – not, as so many documentaries would tell you, the result of a couple of events and sound bytes, but a collection of intersecting independence movements. And it’s a compelling piece of portraiture, clearly done from a place of admiration and respect.
But as with so much of Herzog’s recent non-fiction work, the most engaging passages are those in which the filmmaker simply can’t resist sniffing around in the footnotes and margins at something peculiar that catches his fancy: the darkly funny story of the parade of dying leaders that preceded Gorbachev (he uses the funeral dirge as a semi-comic refrain); the footage of a senile Breshnev trying and failing to present Gorbachev with a medal; and a very funny clip from Hungarian television of the fall of the Iron Curtain getting buried in the evening newscast. “Their lead story was about slugs,” Herzog notes, bemused.
Errol Morris opens his new documentary American Dharma by placing Steve Bannon in a series of what amount to hero shots, aping images from Twelve O’Clock High, one of his favorite films. Morris and his subject talk about movies quite a bit in the course of the film – it’s about their only common language – but he’s not just being cute here. He’s allowing us to see Bannon as he sees himself, as the field general, the happy warrior, the mastermind. And then slowly but surely, over the course of the film, he chips away at that iconography to reveal what he really is: a small-minded, racist, buzzword-spouting arsonist.
American Dhama is, in many ways, the third part of a trilogy of Morris’ conversations with divisive political influencers, following his 2003 The Fog of War (with Robert McNamara) and the 2013 The Unknown Known (with Donald Rumsfeld). He occasionally pushes back against Bannon, in a way he didn’t in the earlier films, and sort of has to – if Dharma suffers in comparison, it’s because it’s telling a story that’s still in progress. This would be a very different movie in a few years, one presumes, and perhaps a better one. But then again, with any luck, Steve Bannon will be totally irrelevant by then anyway.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs through September 16.