Movies I saw at 2017 TIFF

I went to the Toronto International Film Festival for fun this year. Of the big three festivals, the other two being Sundance and Cannes, Toronto generally has the strongest lineup. It leverages its advantage of being the latest of those in the calendar year and thus gets its pick of movies that played festivals earlier in the year in addition to the late year prestige releases looking to debut to film buffs and industry insiders to kick off their Oscar campaigns.

It's the most comfortable of the festivals I've attended in terms of logistics. The weather is generally pleasant that time of year in the city, and Toronto is a real city, with the surplus of restaurants and public transportation throughput that a ski town like Park City can't match. You'll still find yourself, on occasion, sprinting across town to make the next screening, and the lines can be blocks long, meaning you'll often enter a theater faced with a scrum for open seats, but unlike Sundance you won't have to wade through a snowstorm or flat out miss a screening because the next shuttle has been swallowed by traffic.

For me, TIFF is a meditation, a retreat. In years past, I've had minimal international data plans, so I've mostly left my phone off. This year, I had unlimited data in Canada, but because my schedule was so packed with movies I spent most of my days in the dark, with my phone off, in the company of hundreds of strangers, gazing at massive screens of light. The time change and a mix of films that skews heavier in tone than your typical cineplex lineup meant I found myself, on occasion, drifting off, but the cumulative effect is a sort of trance in which movies, which already work in part at a subconscious level, seem to speak to me in some primal manner that bypasses logic and language.

In the age of long serialized narratives on television, movies retain a deep hold over my heart, more so now for the contrast in how they approach storytelling. The structural constraints of television impose a more rigid framework, and the sheer volume of plot mechanics required to navigate those demands often distract. No one would green light a television series that didn't play that plot-heavy game, however (perhaps with the exception of Twin Peaks, the Return, from what I've heard, as I don't have Showtime and haven't seen it yet).

Movies, at maybe 90 to 120 minutes long, on average, can wear its act structure more loosely by focusing on a shorter narrative, giving itself more room within its architecture to wander in Escher-like loops. A television series has to not only assemble a super structure of a season or multiple seasons but most construct sub structures—episodes—that can stand alone. The job is further complicated if there are commercial breaks, which force scenes of very specific durations and which require a series of cliffhangers that reinforce television's plot heavy rhythm.

[I'll always wonder what Mad Men, one of my favorite shows ever, would've been like on premium cable, without commercial breaks. As it was, Matthew Weiner often pushed against the constraints of the commercial breaks, and the previews for the next episode were famously opaque and almost nonsensical, so little regard did Weiner have for the usual plot teaser tactics of serial television.]

Having gone to enough festivals, however, I also recognize the psychological illusions of the festival structure. In this age of abundance when it comes to entertainment, film festivals are a rare island of enforced scarcity. The number of films on offer is short, each movie usually screens just twice, at fixed times, and the number of tickets is almost always insufficient to meet the demand, especially if big movie stars are involved and might show up in person.

Furthermore, most of the movies haven't played publicly, so information is scant, a few whispers here and there, maybe a stray tweet from someone invited to a private screening during post-production. This artificial scarcity creates the very real phenomenon of festival inflation. Again and again, a movie I was dying to see at a festival but missed will come out at the local cineplex a few months later to a collective yawn from the public, myself included.

Some of the movies below have already released in theaters, to little buzz. This is a general problem in the age of abundance. We no longer have natural scarcity to generate momentum for programs, and for services like Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, not to mention any media company, it's no longer sufficient to just finance and produce content. The question is how to get anyone in the world to care. That's a topic for another day, but seeing movies at a festival is a sort of life hack for me, like seeing art in a beautiful gallery, or sculptures in an outdoor garden like Storm King. It's why a meal plated beautifully, served on an outdoor balcony under the stars on the Amalfi Coast, tastes better than the same food served out of the microwave and eaten in sweats on your sofa.

Much ink is spilled on the quality of the content produced in the world, not enough on the actual user experience around the content. The fundamental attribution error of content ascribes most of the success or failure of any work to its intrinsic quality. In fact, things like presentation, marketing, and distribution have a huge effect, something which tech companies which aspire to be the new studios still overlook, even if their predecessors in Hollywood may not have been as efficient on those fronts as they could have been given the fat on the bone in less competitive times. When all the pomp and circumstance the traditional studios marshal in favor of a single theatrical release can't tip the scales, I wonder if any single film is a good investment for one of these streaming services given their more limited surface area for framing the movie as a cultural event and the high cost per minute of films in general.

Here are my notes on the films I saw at TIFF, with spoilers called out.

Ana, mon amour

This Romanian film, like any which deals with the long-term challenges (impossibility?) of marriage, will be compared to Bergman's masterpiece Scenes from a Marriage. The film begins with one of the first encounters between the couple, a scene that hints at every dynamic to come in their relationship, then proceeds to bounce back and forth in time across the entire span of their life together. The chronological hops, however, do little to temper the deep realism characteristic of much of modern Romanian cinema. In contrast to American film depictions of marriage, Ana, mon amour is almost uncomfortably graphic about the challenges of sustaining a relationship.

I don't know that sequencing of scenes across time always makes sense, I was occasionally confused, but the overall effect of this layering of moments is a deep sense of the immense miracle that is a marriage, how many contortions two people make to intertwine their lives like two trees growing on top of each other. Film generally treats marriage is a finite game, and romantic comedies generally focus on the early game, the courtship, ending with the making of the match.

Real marriage, however, is more of an infinite game, or at least a very long finite game, and movies that confront that reality are a refreshing change, even if most audiences prefer a trip to the movies to be a more reassuring closed end fantasy. Movies like this don't make for strong commercial fare.

Call Me By Your Name

My favorite film from TIFF, I had no idea what it was about going in except that it had gotten raves at Sundance. I didn't even watch the trailer. I won't say much about the film, either, as I hope that most of you are able to discover it as I did, free of any preconception. Don't even read a plot synopsis, if you can help yourself. The pleasure as the movie unfurls its secrets is all the greater if it sneaks up on you, just as certain realizations dawn upon the characters on screen during a languorous Italian summer.

A few thoughts which can either tease the film for you, or which you can revisit after watching the movie:

  • It's a wonder that Armie Hammer didn't get funneled into cape and cowl, but we're richer for it. He has a versatile physical build that has been used in interesting ways in previous films like The Social Network and The Man from UNCLE, and it's used to good effect again here. 
  • A pivotal moment in the movie is beautifully choreographed, a walk around a fountain that conveys, visually, what is being said, or not said, as it may be. The path two characters trace in this scene are both literal and metaphoric. I wish more of television tried interesting blocking, but with directors flying in to knock out one episode at a time it's often an afterthought.
  • Michael Stuhlbarg gives a speech near the end that will give you all the feels, as the kids say. The director said it comes straight from the book, which Casey Newton told me is one of his favorites.
  • One of the comforts of life is learning that someone knows you almost better than you know yourself, and Amira Casar's mother is just one of many who, in a few wordless scenes, shows just how well mothers know their children.
  • Sufjan Stevens contributes two tracks which are perfect for the movie but which I can't locate online yet.

My one reservation about the film is the casting of Armie Hammer as a 24 year old. Though bigots like James Woods see it as morally objectionable (just Google it if you're curious, but it's not worth your time), my objection with the age difference is that it strains the credibility of some elements of the core relationship. That the movie works despite that speaks to how emotionally precise it is.


The film was originally titled Borg, and you see why. McEnroe is a supporting character, even if Shia Laboeuf is the most interesting presence on screen channeling Johnny Mac's very distinctive rage, which expresses itself as a series of explosive tantrums towards line judges but which has always seemed to come from a frustration that he can't achieve the perfection he can so clearly visualize.

Borg is the main subject, however, and his genius remains inscrutable despite a series of the usual film tropes about obsessive craftsmen. From a psychological point of view, tennis should be a strong subject for film as players are largely on their own on the court, forced to grapple with their own minds and a single foe for hours on end. It's one of the truly individual sports that exists. And yet each point in a match takes place so quickly that it is difficult to graft a slow moving dramatic arc on top of it. This may explain why I've yet to see a great tennis film, though this was just one of two I saw at TIFF. 

The Other Side of Hope

I missed the end of this film because TIFF's screening started nearly a half hour late and I had to rush across time for the next movie. If I had one complaint about TIFF this year it's that many films started late, and some of the line management was a bit shoddy.

So many movies I saw at this fest were the strongest possible expression of what one would expect from a director. This is the most Aki Kaurismaki film I could imagine, which is a good thing, though it had been so long since I'd seen one of his films that it took me some time to re-acclimate to the deadpan humor, acting, and pacing. If you haven't see his work before, you'll likely be familiar with his style from the film's of Wes Anderson, who wears Kaurismaki's influence in the wry, deadpan acting, straight on framing, and technicolor production design.

Though the movie deals with the Syrian refugee crisis, its tone is so gentle that it reminded me of a time when compassion seemed to come easier. On the flip side, it also exemplifies a sort of good-humored stoicism we'll continue to need to survive these grim times.

Lady Bird

If The Other Side of Hope was as Kaurismaki as could be, then Greta Gerwig's directorial debut is about as Gerwig-y a film as one can imagine if one were to try to conjure a film based on the persona of characters she's played on screen.

Semi-autobiographical, Lady Bird hearkens to Gerwig's childhood in Sacramento, when she yearned for more than her surroundings. The Gerwig stand-in is played by Saoirse Ronan; her name is Christine but she dubs herself Lady Bird, so restless is she with her middle class station in life and in the high school pecking order.

I'm generally wary of coming-of-age stories at film festivals, but having enjoyed both this and The Edge of Seventeen, I've realized that I'm okay with ones which feature active, almost manic leads. The type of coming-of-age story I dislike usually features a somewhat mute male lead who usually has to go back to his hometown or college for some reason, usually a funeral, and who achieves an emotional breakthrough after skinny dipping with a manic pixie dream girl. The whole time, things just happen to him until he finally takes some single action near the end to claim a heroic mantle that seems to have dropped in his lap.

Gerwig's twenty-something roles in the past have leaned into self absorption, but when it comes to teenage life it's to be expected. The volume and pace of jokes is high, almost like an episode of 30 Rock, but the specificity of each kept pulling me along.

That this film might be seen as a prequel to some of the other movies Gerwig has starred in is a strength; another reason I'm wary of coming-of-age stories is the false closure. While Christine comes to that realization by movie's end, we have a sense she'll continue to stumble and grasp through her college years. After all, we're all still coming-of-age; life is more of an infinite game than movies typically let on, as I noted above in discussing Ana, Mon Amour. I'm biased towards open-ended films which expand in the mind over time. Closed movies appeal to those who like highly crafted, one-time experiences, but they generally age poorly.

When Gerwig came out for the Q&A afterwards, to rapturous applause from the Ryerson audience, she started to cry, and I couldn't help but think of the character I'd just on screen, the artist as a young woman, who'd finally turned her childhood into art. 

Molly's Game

Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut, Molly's Game is adapted from the book of the same name. I had never heard of this story before, which seems odd because it's a juicy one. Molly Bloom, sister of World Champion and Olympic skier Jeremy Bloom, was a world class skier in her own right until an injury forced her to find a new outlet for her competitive nature. That comes in the form of a high stakes poker game in Los Angeles and later New York that hosts some of the world's most famous actors, athletes, musicians, and executives, including Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ben Affleck. Eventually, it also hosts some Russian mobsters, landing her in trouble with the government.

I had no idea Sorkin had never directed a film before. He's so prolific I just assumed he had. When he's good Sorkin, as with early West Wing or the screenplay for A Few Good Men, the polished walk and talk has the pacing of an classic black and white film, and dialogue becomes a symptom of our better natures. Bad Sorkin, as in The Newsroom, sounds like Aaron Sorkin is talking to himself, and every character comes off as smug, as if they believe they're smarter than the audience knows they really are.

Sorkin dialogue is so stylistically particular that it takes a special type of actor to retain their individuality. Mamet is the same way, and his directorial style further encourages actors to all sound the same. A notable exception was Gene Hackman in Mamet's Heist, who managed to still bring out that sly Hackman swagger.

The good news here is that this, while still a talkie, is more good Sorkin than bad, and actors like Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba are strong enough to be distinctive as they tap dance the Sorkin rat-a-tat patter. Yes, Sorkin repeats himself, a lot, but his love of the rhythm of language has a musical quality, and as Derek Thompson writes in Hit Makers, repetition is the god particle of music. Given our current President ends every ill-formed tweet with an exclamation point like some hack car salesman, it's refreshing to hear some more thoughtful word choices.

I don't understand libel laws, but Bloom named many more people in the book than are named in the film. Still, Michael Cera elicits a chuckle playing himself, even though he's standing in for Tobey Maguire, who, by all accounts, is an ass.

One of the issues with the film is a late speech by Kevin Costner, who plays Molly Bloom's father, that puts a psychological button on all of her actions. Western film seems obsessed with finding some piece of backstory to explain why every character ended up the way they are, and the older I get, the more it makes my eyes roll. We are not all what happened in our childhoods, but Hollywood remains obsessed with the tidiness of the backstory correlation-causation model of character development.

Let's just call it conservation of personality causality in Hollywood plots. Character actors, or bit parts, are those which film scripts don't bother to give back story to, but I often find those more convincing.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Two data points make a straight line, and it only took watching two of Yorgos Lanthimos' first films, Dogtooth and The Lobster, to infer something of his filmmaking style. He observes the odd man-made rituals all about him and formalizes them in some literal representation that reveals just how fragile or absurd so much of culture and society are. Thin are the threads that bind it all together, and Lanthimos loves to snip them.

It's a style that is intellectually novel, though it can also feel like some parlor trick, and a self-serious one at that. All of his films contain moments of dark humor that leaven the proceedings; The Killing of a Sacred Deer could use more of them.

Heavy on homage to Kubrick, the film begins with a whole series of actors acting like first generation replicants with the humanity meter dialed down to zero. Then something happens, and slowly the characters begin to warm over, showing signs of recognizable emotion.

It is an uncomfortable ride, to be sure, and I'm a huge fan of horror films that can make me sweat, but only in service of some meaningful journey. Everything else is just a carnival ride, and at times borderline sadistic.

If you haven't seen a Lanthimos film before, start with Dogtooth.

[SPOILER ALERT] This film isn't as directly allegorical, or conceptually neat, as his other films. That could be a virtue, but I'm still not sure what the point of the whole ordeal is. So Farrell let Barry Keoghan's (the boy who dies in Dunkirk from the head trauma on Mark Rylance's boat in Dunkirk) father die on the operating table. Was it negligence? An honest mistake? What is the point of the suffering of Farrell's children, is this just a simple "sins of the father" parable? Is Farrell being punished for not acknowledging his responsibility? I don't need all the answers, just enough of a sense that I wasn't a victim of a drive-by shooting.

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers

Angelina Jolie's film adaptation of Loung Ung's memoir about the horrors growing up under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia grapples with the protagonist's youth throughout, as this is not a film for children and yet Ung (played by poised young actress Sareum Srey Moch) was too young to comprehend all the forces at work at the time. It oscillates between shots from Ung's perspective, low to the ground, gazing about at the wonders of nature even as she was confined to a series of labor camps, and omniscient, reportorial shots like overhead drone footage which show soldiers and prisoners walking through the countryside like subjects in a nature documentary.

The film would benefit from choosing one perspective or the other and hewing to it throughout. Sticking to Ung's limited comprehension of the horrors about her precludes something as subjective and fantastical as Beasts of the Southern Wild. But shot choices that come from outside Ung's POV, like overhead drone shots, confuse things. The audience doesn't need them because our sympathies are clear here. The film works best when we see through Ung's eyes, as when she gazes with longing at the colorful toys and items of clothing her mother must surrender when entering the labor camps.

Another option would've been to oscillate between modern day Ung, looking back on that experience with that of young Ung living through it. Ung is, as the title notes, a daughter of Cambodia, and while I'm wary of the back story explanation of personality, it's impossible to dispute that one's childhood home can be destiny. How does this daughter regard her Motherland now?

Professor Marston & the Wonder Women

Based on a remarkable true story about the couple, or actually trio, behind Wonder Woman. But first let's acknowledge the real wonder woman on screen here, and that's Rebecca Hall. She is one of those life forces whose mere presence in a film gets me halfway to watching it regardless of what it's about, and she's the most vivid presence in this and most every movie.

I had no idea, going in, who had directed the film, but as with the other Wonder Woman movie this year, it's clear that a woman directed each film. The absence of the male gaze is especially noticeable in the love scenes here given how much of Hollywood fare usually comes from white male directors. Such scenes need be no less erotically charged.

The sexiest scene, in fact, doesn't involve any shedding of clothes at all. It's a lie detector scene that sparks the core relationship between Harvard educators and married couple William and Elizabeth Marston and their graduate assistant Olive Byrne. It's a reminder of how forbidden forms of love have concealed their existence and communications in code through the generations (in this case polyamorous, though gay love is a more common example in the past), and how much of what we consider romantic flirtation is rooted in information asymmetry.

That director Angela Robinson makes polyamory seem so normal and rewarding is no small feat. One imagines, however, a film about the same subject made many years in the future, one that doesn't feel the need to dance gently around the kink I had no idea was embedded in Wonder Woman's origins.

The villains in the film, the comic book authority, the conventions of heteronormative society, as played by Olive's fiance, are of the more conventional film variety, and somewhere in this movie, as in most Hollywood true story adaptations, is a stranger truth waiting to break out. It's also tantalizing to ponder what a film centered around Rebecca Hall's Elizabeth Marston might have been like given.

Battle of the Sexes

Despite my love of genre, the conventional Hollywood biopic feels like a Sears kit home, a prison that everyone, from the director to the actors, are fighting from the start. This screenplay by Simon Beaufoy does this cast and crew no credits, so strict is its adherence to the biopic template.

Some signs of life glimmer through. Emma Stone captures not just the mannerisms and physical movements of Billy Jean King but something of her nature which I've come to know through watching hours of her work as a tennis broadcaster and commentator.

I learned striking pieces of the story I hadn't heard before. That Riggs first defeated Margaret Court, who was and continues to be an unabashed homophobe. That Riggs was in financial distress while King was carrying on an affair with her hairdresser on tour while her husband stayed back home. Not shown in the film, though noted in a post-film text crawl, was the fact that Riggs and King ended up friends, and that King said "I love you" to him before he died.

In this age of infinite content, a conventional drama like this will struggle to break through the noise. Any number of more distinctive stories lurk around the peripheries of this film. For example, how is it that King and Riggs came to be friends later in life (I always wonder the same of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia were friends, going to the opera together, despite such radically divergent views)? In this polarized age, such a story might have something to say about how we avoid throttling each other.

As with many movies at TIFF this year, this one couldn't avoid being read as commentary on the 2016 election and the large child now occupying the Oval Office, but as every filmmaker noted, these movies were put into production long before that election. Trump is so outsized a monster that he maps to all stories wrestling with evil in any of its forms.

Lastly, as it pertains to tennis, Battle of the Sexes has little to offer. Someday we may get a film that captures the essence of the sport, its peculiar loneliness, the geometric pleasures to be found in what are hundreds of repetitive strokes, the distinctive violence players do to each other through a near weightless sphere of fabric and rubber, but it probably won't come out of Hollywood.

The Square

Ruben Ostlund said before this TIFF screening of The Square that the movie was about the breakdown of the social contract. As a test of this, before the film started he handed his wallet and phone to someone in the audience and asked them to keep it for him until he came back out for Q&A.

This isn't new ground for Ostlund. His Force Majeure was about how a father's momentary flash of cowardice strains the fabric of his marriage. It's high concept social satire, and when it loses me, it feels like a stunt, as with the flashy pre-show gesture. What was that person, who hundreds of people in the audience had seen, going to do? Walk out with Ostlund's wallet and phone?

When his satire works, it is pleasingly acerbic, like sour candy. The protagonist, or the main protein on skewered here, is Christian (Claes Bang), a director of a modern art museum in Sweden. The titular square refers to a modern art piece, a square marked on the ground, where visitors are invited to treat each other with civility and kindness. An edgy agency is hired to come up with an ad campaign to promote this exhibit, and the video they come up with indeed goes viral, though in unintended ways. Given how some of today's largest virtual town squares, Facebook and Twitter, are grappling with some of the same problems their real world equivalents have had to combat through the centuries, the naïveté on display by almost everyone here is timely.

The most memorable sequence, lodged halfway through the movie, occurs at a dinner for the museum's old and well-heeled donors. Motion capture actor Terry Notary plays a performance artist who walks out, shirtless, and proceeds to imitate a gorilla. He elicits a few appreciative chuckles, but as the act progresses, and the gorilla's aggression builds, the laughs turn to nervous downward glances. It's harrowing and visceral, and in light of the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein's, has new disturbing cultural resonance.

The always delightful Elizabeth Moss plays a journalist who is doing a story on Christian and the museum, and in my favorite sequence, the two of them have a tug of war over a freshly used condom.

Force Majeure was more cohesive. The Square has stronger individual scenes but feels, in the end, like an assemblage of sketches, all of which are just cracking quips at the expense of human folly everywhere. Hey, isn't that just Twitter? In these dark times, work like this can feel cathartic, until the bitterness causes your face to wrinkle in disgust.

In The Fade

Diane Kruger plays a German woman pressing out against the walls of grief and rage pressing in on her after her Turkish husband and child are killed by neo-Nazis. It's a raw performance that won her a best actress prize at Cannes, and I'm all for more Kruger.

In an age when real neo-Nazis have poked their heads out in public, this film which walks through familiar beats of the the revenge genre film offers little new. A final shot which flips the world upside down ocean floats over the empty sky hints at some inversion and insight the rest of the film doesn't deliver.


A horror film about a woman's husband listing their house, which she's renovating, on Airbnb without consulting her, bringing a world of boorish, inconsiderate house guests to their doorstep. If you blanche and lose your breath when a guest forgets to use a coaster on your coffee table, consider this a trigger warning.

Okay, that's not what the movie is about, but any film codified so specifically begs to be interpreted, and Aronofsky has encouraged that armchair interpretation by explaining publicly that the film is about mother Earth and includes, intentionally, properly sequential references to stories from Genesis. Here come Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer as middle-aged Adam and Eve, then their sons as Cain and Abel, then the flood, and so on.

Jennifer Lawrence as a beatific mother Earth figure is a natural; she has the sort of classical, oval face which could drop effortlessly into a Renaissance triptych. Matthew Libatique's cinematography has the classical golden hues of a painting from that era. The level of technical craft is high, something easy to lose in the bonkers plot which escalates to the point where Kristen Wiig runs around with a pistol executing several unknown people lying bound and prone on the floor with sacks over their heads. By execute I mean she shoots them in the head. Whether you might cackle or walk out of the theater at that point is a good litmus test of whether you might enjoy this movie.

The film was marketed incorrectly, as a sort of horror film (the opening weekend Cinemascore F rating usually hints at a mismatch of audience expectations), but it's more enjoyable as a farce about how terrible it is to be married to a male artist. The worst case scenario is you are being chased by Jack Nicholson through the halls of the Overlook Hotel, and the best case scenario is you escape him and leave him to freeze to death in the snow in a botanical maze.


Alexander Payne's latest sounds like some high concept sci-fi film: Norwegian scientists, in response to the environmental impact of humans, discover a way to shrink people down to 5 inches tall. Not only is their environmental footprint smaller, money goes a lot further in the new miniature world, so anyone can live like a rap mogul in a marble gilded mansion. Matt Damon and his wife (Kristen Wiig), struggling to break out of their middle class financial toil, decide it sounds like a great deal.

As you might predict of such social satire, the deal is too good to be true, and miniaturizing people doesn't diminish the worst aspects of human nature in the least. Me, I need my coffee black and my social satire stronger. The film tries again and again to break skin and draw blood, but with a knife so dull it doesn't even leave a mark. Imagine Matt Damon as a white male Twitter account trying to get woke; if the film were more accurate Damon would be dragged by any number of people of color for his obliviousness long past the end credits. Instead, he finds the usual third act moral redemption.

Those who hope to analyze the film's economic or scientific bonafides will also be disappointed. After initially seeming as if it might delve into the details—people must have fillings removed before the miniaturization process because, we're told, fillings don't shrink for some reason—the film doesn't bother with the conceptual details with any rigor. The movie could provoke any number of interesting thought exercise (What happens to the GDP if everyone opts in? Should the government or large people subsidize small people? Should some people be forced into miniaturization? And so on...) but doesn't try. 

It's as if the film's ambitions, like its protagonists, were shrunk only a short way into the first act.

The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro's latest is a fairy tale about the romance between a mute janitor (Sally Hawkins) and the aquatic creature being tortured and researched by government officials at the facility she works at in 1960's America. Using almost entirely practical effects in an age of weightless CGI, the film has a refreshing if artificial solidity, almost like a classic Technicolor era Hollywood set, or a Disneyland ride. The lighting scheme is sumptuous and precise, from the deep aquamarine in Sally Hawkins apartment to the golden hues of the room across the hall, where her neighbor and friend (Richard Jenkins) lives.

Whether you enjoy the film may depend on what variety of fairy tale you enjoy. Those who enjoy the sweetened variety on which Disney built its empire will find this film enchanting. I myself am partial to the Brothers Grimm originals that Disney borrowed and cleaned up for mass consumption. Not that we don't have some dark villains here, they're just of the curly mustache variety, and played in the main by Michael Shannon, no less. [MILD PLOT SPOILERS HERE TO END OF MY NOTES ON THIS FILM] If anything, Shannon is more of a fascist cartoon than the fascist general in Pan's Labyrinth; he jabs the aquatic creature with an electric cattle prod and holds a hand over his wife's mouth when they have sex.

At times, the film hints at something more subversive. Jenkins character is gay, and Hawkins co-worker Zelda is black (Octavia Spencer), though del Toro's script doesn't unleash them so much as recruit them into a diverse anti-fascist superteam. Early in the film, Hawkins character draws a bath for herself, and with a peaceful smile, begins to masturbate. Later, when Zelda discovers Jenkins is having sex with the aquatic creature and asks how it works, Hawkins responds with a bit of suggestive sign language. Zelda responds with raised eyebrows and a sly smirk. These and several other moments tease at queer love and interracial love stories from a more transgressive and provocative movie buried within, just as a darker but more complex Grimm tale lies behind every Disney animated classic. [END MILD PLOT SPOILERS]

Brad's Status

If Larry David is the patron saint of the white privilege of the extremely well-off, Ben Stiller is the muse of directors probing the self-absorbed discontent of the middle class white guy. In Brad's Status, Stiller's character Brad Sloan is taking his son Taylor on college interviews and visits, but the real journey is that of his mid-life crisis. Long envious of what he imagines to be the debaucherous lifestyles of his more financially successful classmates, a series of events has unleashed the full fury of his envy, sparing no one, not even his son, a musical talent who is interviewing at prestigious Ivy League schools.

This is an entire film about FOMO, and Brad's neurotic obsessions run over the film in a voice over. At times we also see, in fantasy sequences, what Brad imagines his classmates' lives are like, like a friend's gorgeous Instagram photos come to life. In one, Jermaine Clement plays a tech mogul jogging down the beach in slow motion, two nubile young women in bikinis laughing and caressing him. The absurd humor of these scenes represents the gentle approach White takes to this subject; one can imagine a French film about the jealousies of the middle class being a gruff, sour affair.

Listening to Stiller's inner thoughts spoken throughout, the audience feels like a shrink. Amidst a week of wall to wall films on all manner of heavy subjects, from racism to sexism to terrorism, White's generous empathy was a refreshing palate cleanser. Outside the TIFF context, I wish the film probed a bit harder. The cliche of the shrink which just repeats everything you say back to you, but phrased as a question, applies here. After hearing Brad talk himself in circles for an hour and a half, I can't tell if he's any better off than he was when he began.


Dee Rees' film about the intertwined fortunes, or misfortunes, of two families, one black, one white, in 1940's America. This perhaps should have been a four to six episode miniseries, but Rees packs in a lot in the just over two hour run time.

The title is apt. The Mississippi farm where most of the film takes place is an endless plane of damp soil, and the characters seem to spend most of their film trudging through it, lightly dusted in it, or rolling about in it. Like the racism which the film examines, no one can fully extricate themselves or clean themselves of it. America's original sin is embedded in its dirt, and it's appropriate that the most fantastic, loving gift in the film is an outdoor shower one character builds for another. 

Mudbound shows how a tightening economy is fertile ground in which white working class racism erupts. That's relevant in these times, but also in all times. Jason Clarke, as the patriarch of the white family, grapples with the virulent racism of his father Pappy (Jonathan Banks of Breaking Bad fame), but his shame over the struggle to support his family provokes all his worst instincts. The movie also shows how a larger frame, that of WWII and the integrating institution of the military, transcends and diminishes racism, as seen in the friendship between the black son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Jason Clarke's brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), both returning WWII veterans grappling with PTSD.

We also see the mutual bonds of motherhood, as the respective matriarchs, played by Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige, find common ground along the racial fissure in the shared struggles of raising children in the economically depressed countryside. The film situates racism in the context of that time, so the choice to hear voiceover from multiple characters feels right rather than confusing

One sign the film may have worked better as a miniseries is the disappearance of Pappy for a long stretch after his early introduction. When he returns late in the film only for a climactic eruption of violence, it feels wedged in where most of the film has a looser, more poetic feel. But for most of the running time, Mudbound has the scope to look at the architecture of racism and the broadness of heart to observe how everyone navigates its designs.

I Love You, Daddy

Who would've thought that the one 35mm black and white film with multiple split diopter shots and a sweeping orchestral score from TIFF would be this late addition to the lineup from Louis C.K.?

Louis C.K. plays successful TV showrunner Glen Topher who struggles with how to parent entitled daughter China, played by Chloe Grace Moretz as a modern day Lolita. Topher is a bit of a wealthy mope. When his daughter falls under the spell of his idol, the now middle-aged film director Leslie Goodwin (John effing Malkovich), rumored to have had a scandalous affair with an underage actress in his past, Topher talks himself into knots while she runs circles around him before she just plain runs off with Goodwin to Europe.

As with his standup, Louis leans into the uncomfortable here. Goodwin clearly hearkens to Roman Polanski and, more specifically, Woody Allen. Recently, Louis C.K.'s past itself has been put to question, but it didn't seem to deter him here. C.K. worked with Woody Allen in the past, as have so many of Hollywood's elites, and when this film screened at TIFF, Harvey Weinstein's scandal hadn't broke. If it felt a bit uncomfortable in the screening at TIFF, the Weinstein bombshell has only added more static electricity. To try to explore the gray zone of this topic now feels like wandering in the fog near a cliff.

Perhaps that's why, even though this is Louis C.K., the film shrinks away from itself after ratcheting up the controversy. The film meanders a bit, a common problem with works edited by the director; there's a reason most director's cuts don't make it to the big screen. Chekhov's first act gun doesn't quite go off here; by film's end it has been removed from the premises for safety.

C.K.'s humor tends to work because he presents himself as exhibit A of any human foibles he ridicules, and there's a lot of that here. Charlie Day, as his vulgar, wisecracking sidekick, gets no shortage of barbs in at Topher's expense, acting almost as C.K.'s id, saying the things C.K. the comedian would never hold back.

One of Louis C.K.'s great jokes is "of course...but maybe..." The fun is that he finishes his thought after saying "maybe." This movie feels like "of course" without anything after the "maybe," just a shrug. 

[No maybe on this though: we need more Malkovich. He is great here. He is missed.]

The Disaster Artist

I have never seen cult film The Room, but now I've seen The Disaster Artist, about the making of The Room, with a theater full of people who have seen The Room, and it feels as if I have.

James Franco plays director Tommy Wiseau, the director of The Room. Very few people are purely bizarre, but Wiseau is a genuine weirdo. An accent that can't be placed, bizarre diction, long rocker hair, a personal fortune from an undetermined source, a pale and unplaceable (Eastern European?) sort of face, and a way of interacting with other humans that feels as if the gulf can't be bridged. One can see why Franco gravitated to this role; in his own work he is also an outsider artist, whose work seems to resonate most strongly for an audience of one, himself.

I've never been much of a "so bad it's good" person. I'm not sure I want to actually sit through The Room, especially as the end credits of The Disaster Artists side by side shots of the making of The Room with the original clips from the film, making it clear the accuracy of the loving recreations. The Room looks to be so bad it's awful. And The Disaster Artist doesn't have much to say about art beyond the usual fortune cookie aphorisms about believing in yourself, how few are actually good, and so on.

What helps the film, and Wiseau, remain endearing is the revelation that as odd as Wiseau is, he has one in common with us all: he deeply wants to be loved and appreciated. It's an amiability which Franco, for all his artistic self-indulgence, also shares.

While the film itself might not be anything memorable, and in fact it's likely to be less enduring than The Room, watching this midnight screening, the most packed house of the festival for me, surrounded on all sides by devotees of The Room, all of whom took turns initiating me into the phenomenon (we were handed props like plastic spoons and mini footballs on the way in, all of which my neighbors explained to me) was a blast. It reminded me of the joys of the age pre-abundance, when all we had were a few common stories, so we made do and bonded over them. When Wiseau walked on stage after the screening, having seen the film for the first time himself with all of us, he received a thunderous standing ovation, and I couldn't help grinning.

The Room isn't a movie you'd enjoy at home by yourself. It has to be seen in a theater, in the company of other fans, tossing footballs and spoons in the air, reciting lines word for word, so that we can remind ourselves that what makes "so bad it's good" work is that sometimes, all that brings us together is something we all agree is terrible.


Joachim Trier tries his hand at the horror genre. His Oslo, August 31 and Reprise were both deft at turning the inner life inside out, so it's strange that Thelma struggles to do the same with the titular character's repressed sexual desires for her college classmate Anja despite more overt use of psychological visuals. Not that the imagery isn't gorgeous, the Biblical images of crows flying into windows and snakes writhing tightly around naked female bodies are as sleek as Scandinavian furniture. It's just that true horror has a slippery, familiar mystery to it, a sense that we could rid ourselves of our dread if we could just grasp it, yet not knowing why we can't.

Trier is one of the more empathetic filmmakers going, especially to the existential turmoil of youth, and it always feels as if the less he pushes and the more he trusts his instincts, the more alluring his work. Something in Thelma feels overly schematic.

I'll never forget the scene in Oslo, August 31, where the lead character is out in public, seated at a table, just listening to the sounds of all the people around him. Anyone who has ever felt that no one understands their alienation from the world can watch that scene and see that someone, in fact, does.