From Toronto to Aspen: Fall Film Preview (Part Two)
Special to The Aspen Times
Following last week’s Part One, we wrap our 2019 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) coverage with another handful of films that will be making their way to theaters, streaming sites, and/or festivals later this fall or sometime next year.
Like a proverbial ocean, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) cannot be swallowed in one gulp.
The best approach is sip by sip. Watching four or five screenings a day (one die-hard colleague managed seven), a brisk walk and/or meal between screenings is one way to sustain momentum and enjoy the marathon. Another is: stay curious and vary the screen menu. Amidst TIFF’s feast of features and documentaries, “Knives Out” and “The Personal History of David Copperfield” stood out as high-caliber palate cleansers, entertainments as light and zesty as lemon sorbet.
Teeming with unexpected twists and sharp-witted observations, “Knives Out” is massively fun entertainment smartly updated for today’s audiences. Best-selling mystery writer Harlan Thrombrey (Christopher Plumber) takes his wakeup beverage in a mug emblazoned: “My house. My rules. My coffee.” And so it is, until the morning following his 85th birthday party, when the autocratic paterfamilias turns up, quite dead. Apparent suicide. Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a genteel “Suth’ner” summoned to the scene, suspects otherwise. From Thrombrey’s bickering clan (Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, and Chris Evans) to his kindly day nurse (Ana de Armas), everyone has secrets. Writer-director Rian Johnson (“Looper,” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) whips up a deliciously plotted whodunit that pays tongue-in-cheek homage to Agatha Christie, “Murder, She Wrote,” and “Masterpiece Mystery.”
Writer-director Armando Iannucci shakes the coal soot off 19th century England in “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” his nimble adaptation of Charles Dickens’s autofiction classic. Dev Patel leads a dream cast (including Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie and Ben Whishaw) in this rollicking coming-of-age adventure. Iannucci, the creator of “Veep” and “The Death of Stalin,” tempers his signature satirical bent here. He infuses this new work with a sunny playfulness that buoys every aspect — production design, sleight-of-hand narrative flourishes, crackling dialogue — as Copperfield (a charming Patel) rides life’s ups and downs (love, loss, fortune, penury and back again) with intrepid optimism. This exuberantly crammed Victorian road movie about goodness and greed gives more than a passing tip of the top hat to our times.
TIFF’s documentaries provided some of the most consistently engaging, if bracing, viewing. Like the documentary “Collective” (mentioned last week), veteran photographer-documentarian Lauren Greenfield’s “The Kingmaker” offers a chilling examination of power and its abuse. A deft chronicler of extreme wealth, Greenfield (“The Queen of Versailles,” “Generation Wealth”) paints a fascinating portrait of Imelda Marcos, the notoriously extravagant doyenne of the Philippines. Granted extensive interviews with Marcos and remarkable access to her daily life, the filmmaker initially gives a rather sympathetic view of the now 90-year old dowager. But this impression gradually curdles as Greenfield lays out a brutal and larcenous legacy — among other misdeeds, President Ferdinand and First Lady Imelda allegedly siphoned off billions of dollars during their regime. More alarmingly, “The Kingmaker” reveals the current machinations of Imelda and her family to reclaim power.
A story centered around a set of imagined conversations between Pope Benedict and soon-to-be-Pope Francis about the Catholic Church’s condition and future direction would reasonably seem unlikely entertainment fare. But, in the hugely popular TIFF hit “The Two Popes,” those roles are inhabited by the incomparable Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Price, who brilliantly enliven a sprightly, nuanced script from Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything,” “Bohemian Rhapsody”). Under the insightful guidance of director Fernando Meirelles (“City of God,” “The Constant Gardener”), this confluence of talent delivers a moving, surprisingly light-hearted reflection on the frailties and failings of all humans, no matter how august, and the institutions that they build, no matter how venerated.
Alongside the buzzy slate of main stage attractions — and its celebrity parade keeping limo drivers and selfie fans occupied — TIFF offers plenty to satisfy avid cinephiles. Indeed, while starry headliners may be this audience-focused festival’s bread and butter, its heart and soul are “smaller” stories steeped in the vernacular of their culture.
Thanks to TIFF’s curatorial mandate to glean new works from every corner of the globe, moviegoers have a rare chance to discover filmmakers just finding their voice, as well as directors previously unrecognized outside their native region. Works like Rubaiyat Hossain’s “Made in Bangladesh” (Bangladesh), Sharipa Urazbayeva’s “Mariam” (Kazakhstan), Abba Makama’s “The Lost Okoroshi” (Nigeria), and Mati Diop’s “Atlantics” (Senegal), to name a very few.
Raymund Ribay Gutierrez’s impactful debut, “Verdict,” provides a street-level view of the Philippines and serves as a “high-low” contrast to Greenfield’s “The Kingmaker.” His drama revolves around Joy, a young mother living in Manila’s impoverished outskirts. After suffering a violent act of domestic abuse, Joy determinedly pursues justice through a Kafkaesque legal system. Documentary-like techniques — handheld camerawork, naturalistic acting, warren-like locations — lend authenticity and urgency to Gutierrez’s bracingly frank treatment of a tragically universal issue. Based on his short film “Judgement,” “Verdict” won Venice’s Special Jury prize before traveling to Toronto. It has been selected as the Philippines’ Oscar entry for Best International Feature Film.
TIFF also champions filmmakers who take risks to push or reinvent the form. Take Berlinale Golden Bear winner, Nadav Lapid’s cinematically bold “Synonyms,” a lashing tragicomic examination of origin and identity. Yoav, a young former soldier (phenomenal newcomer Tom Mercier) moves to Paris, intent on exorcising his Israeli identity. Without a strategy (save a French dictionary and a refusal to speak Hebrew), this modern-day Candide charges fearlessly, if haphazardly, into the City of Lights to forge new roots. Inevitably, as the scales fall from his eyes, Yoav discovers troubling chinks in his newly adopted home. A dinghy adrift in a squall, his peripatetic quest becomes ever more erratic and resonantly anguished.
Italian writer-director Pietro Marcello’s audacious adaptation of Jack London’s “Martin Eden” manages to be maddening and enthralling in equal measure. Anchored by another performance of riveting intensity (Luca Marinelli, awarded Best Actor at Venice only days before), this panoramic drama, transposed to early 1900s Naples, serves up a roiling stew of literary ambition, amour fou, philosophy, politics and culture. Interjecting archival footage (to sublime effect) while eschewing narrative convention, Marcello’s inventive “period piece” can confuse and frustrate. But it also dazzles with written and visual choices that make this daring hybrid linger. Presented in TIFF’s juried section “spotlight(ing) the next generation of masters,” it deservedly won the Platform Prize.
Roy Andersson’s sly reflection on humanness, “About Endlessness,” was among the most beguiling — 76 minutes of succinct cinema: questioning, elegant, evocative. Deploying his signature arsenal — dispassionate observation, deliberate pace, meticulous mise-en-scene — the Swedish master s-l-o-w-l-y unfurls a series of muted quotidian interactions played out across mundane public and private spaces, among them, a park, a bus, the subway, a psychiatrist’s and dentist’s offices, an apartment. An unidentified narrator occasionally comments on seemingly random vignettes, a range of absurd, tender, tragic, petty and sweet. Every so often, a Chagall-like couple floats silently across the frame like a timeless refrain. Andersson’s odd little jewel, rife with haunting stillness and rigorous compassion, quietly insinuates itself with wry effect.
Meeting new work by a filmmaker one admires is an occasion tinged with anticipation and trepidation. When the film not only succeeds, but engages in surprisingly galvanizing ways, there is only one word for the experience: joy. We close our TIFF coverage with two such encounters. Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”) has always had a knack for disrupting disparaging stereotypes, instead shining empathetic light on largely forgotten people. “Just Mercy” signals a new level of mastery. Inspired by real-life Bryan Stevenson, the Harvard-educated lawyer who relocated to Alabama and made defending death row inmates his life’s work, this involving drama tackles a racially rigged justice system and its devastating impact on prisoners, their families, and communities. Michael B. Jordan (Stevenson) and Jamie Foxx (Walter McMillian, a beaten-down client who maintains his innocence) stand out in a uniformly superb cast also featuring Brie Larson and a memorable Tim Nelson Blake. Cretin’s pull-no-punches direction shows the hostile face — and stakes — of justice for people without means, notably African-Americans, while his actors step up and reach deep, creating characters grounded in dimension and dignity. An urgent, affecting corrective to what we think we know, “Just Mercy” raises questions about institutions, and our faith in their ability to mete out justice with a blind eye and a fair hand.
Spanish maestro Pedro Almodóvar casts a gossamer veil of fiction over “Pain and Glory,” his latest, most obviously autobiographical work, a gently nostalgic reflection on life’s bittersweet nature. The story begins with Salvador, an aging filmmaker (a wonderful Antonio Banderas, who won Best Actor at Cannes) left physically, emotionally and creatively depleted by a barrage of ailments. He has retreated to the beautifully appointed cocoon of his apartment, where, awash in nostalgia and regrets, he is visited by vivid memories of a childhood basked in bright color, nascent stirrings of attraction, dazzling sunlight, and the unstinting love of a feisty mother (Penélope Cruz, for whom the word “luminous” was coined). Almodóvar interlaces Salvador’s faltering efforts to reconnect with his zest for life and artistic inspiration with his characteristic playful humor, visual imagination, and intense — if here subdued — feeling. Despite missteps and setbacks — some comic, some not — by tale’s end, Salvador perceives glimmers of hope that all passion is not spent, that life, though changed by time’s passing, still offers rich rewards. The cinema icon at his quintessential best.
Film critics George Eldred and Laura Thielen, based in Carbondale, are the former directors of Aspen Film.