The Toronto International Film Festival is well underway, the streets around TIFF Bell Lightbox are cheek to jowl with delighted film fans taking their pick from 333 films from around the world. Energy is high, curiosity and hope are the order of the day – not only is there a phenomenal sense of film community afoot, but there’s always the chance of glimpsing a star! Toronto’s audiences are known for their sophistication and knowledge of film, as well as their respectful, appreciative nature. As has been its habit since the early days TIFF provides a launch pad for films that dominate awards season. I’m keen for The Laundromat with Meryl Streep as a flinty widow investigating an insurance fraud leading to a pair of international financial hustlers played by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas.
Banderas puts in a stunning Oscar-worthy performance as a faded movie director who becomes a late-life heroin addict in Pain and Glory. Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s light touch helps Banderas tell a complex tale of a man beset by emotional and significant physical pain trying to get it together for the 30th anniversary re-release of his masterwork. It stirs uncomfortable memories from his childhood, complicates his ability to navigate the here and now so he looks for grace. The film is beautiful to look at, emotionally and intellectually engaging and extraordinarily soulful.
Jennifer Lopez launches her Oscar bid in Hustlers, a gritty ensemble drama based on an article in New York Magazine about strippers who took back their autonomy by drugging and robbing clients. I know, weird heroines. The girls are Constance Wu, Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart with side hustles from Cardi B (who helped the develop the story as a former stripper) and the awesome Lizzo. Produced by Lopez, Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. And yes, Lopez is THAT good. In theatres next week.
The nutty, get under your skin quasi-horror bromance The Lighthouse starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe is a trip, black and white and shot in a square. An old salt and a young ne’er do are well trapped on an isolated rock off Nova Scotia in storm season. Their duty is to keep the lighthouse functioning but in time with drink, no food, murderous seagulls, bad dreams and roiling tensions, while cursing each other in archaic English, things begin to deteriorate fast. Robert Eggers, whose magnificent period horror The Witch is a jewel continues his remarkable legacy here. Again, Oscar-worthy perfs by Dafoe, Pattinson and Eggers.
And the only film in the Midnight Madness programme written and directed by a woman, Saint Maud, by Britain’s Rose Glass is a horror about faith, obsession and alienation. Morfydd Clark is a live-in nurse caring for a dying patient Jennifer Ehle; Maud feels responsible for the woman’s soul and will go to any lengths to save her from perdition. Maude’s HMaud’sMaud’s zeal to save her turns morbid and dangerous. The film makes its world premiere at TIFF. tiff.net/events/saint-maud
Here is the complete list of #TIFF19 offerings: tiff.net/films
A little subtlety might have helped It Chapter Two opening commercially, but no. Are we not beyond the point at which repetitive scary clown faces, hurling, dark rooms, jump scares and screeching violins actually work? This megabore, legacy aside, runs 2 hours and 45 minutes and doesn’t do a thing to help itself. Director Andy Muschietti’s simplistic, formulaic work is rooted in something unenlightened but frightening its not. Horror successes like The Witch, Hereditary and A Ghost Story respect audiences’ intelligence, counting on their cinematic and psychological sophistication. It 2 may be an insult to film buffs and It fans but that doesn’t matter a bit – it will kill at the box office. Stars James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader and cameo guy Xavier Dolan who obviously had greater hopes for the project, so harsh lessons. The young Derry, Maine citizens (Jaeden Martell, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer and Sophia Lillis) involved in the original (remake) horror thirty years earlier are grown and reassembled, against their better judgement to eliminate the grinning clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) once and for all. Seems he terrorises on a strict 27-year cycle, not a one and done thing so at least another won’t be out next year. Honestly, stay home. Stay away from Derry. Yikes.
Becoming Nobody, a documentary biography of spiritual teacher Ram Dass by Jamie Catto looks at the hippie LSD guru 100% subjectively, not a good look for a doc. Catto is a fan and follower and appears kneeling before him in a number of sequences as they discuss enlightenment and stuff. A doc this hagiographic must work hard to retain some sense of objectivity or it’s all hash. So who is Ram Dass? He was a Harvard professor and proponent along with Tim Leary, of LSD which he said would free us from the ties of attachment and self. In 1967 as Dr. Richard Alpert, he says he was transformed into Ram Dass by a Hindu guru in the foothills of the Himalayas. He wanted to share his newfound lessons East and the West lessons back home in the US and had considerable success within the hippie ranks. Oddly despite his dream of “nobody-ness” he became a celebrity and got rich. He’s 88 now and says he feels he’s loosed the ties that bind. The hippie spiritual philosophy movement often felt like something much darker thanks to charlatans so I cast a cynical eye on the whole thing. But I did find Ram Dass, confined in his body to a wheelchair but as brilliant in his mind, to be magnetic, funny, multi-faceted and brutally honest. Worth a look. It’s like stepping right into the ’70s on acid. Or hash.
We’ve all heard of war between the Hatfields and the McCoys, those trigger happy hillbillies so beautifully rendered decades later in the Bugs Bunny cartoons. They were real families living in central Appalachia, isolated, proud, jealous and gun-crazy, right? PBS’ American Experience The Feud by Randall MacLowry rips the veil off that myth and gets to the truth behind the bad rap. The families were neighbours living an agrarian life in Tug Fork Valley, in what was later named West Virginia, settlers at the edge of the American frontier in the early 1800s. The Civil War divided the families and after the war, the Eastern moneymen arrived, as they do when vast natural resources are available and stripped the pristine, vast forests and the settlers’ way of life dating back 200 years, impoverishing and starving them. The railroad and the coal mines came next. Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield joined them and got rich in timber while Randolph McCoy and his sixteen children went begging. A fight broke out on election day in 1882 an the McCoys killed a Hatfield. Devil Anse had three McCoys murdered. Big City reporters got hold of the story, dubbed Appalachia Murderland and had a heyday. Hence the gun totin’ clichés, and prejudice. It’s a hell of a story made clear and concise in this doc airing Tuesday night on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS App.
The live-action remake of the beloved Disney classic Aladdin, starring Markham’s own Mena Massoud and Will Smith is out on DVD Tuesday. More than a generation ago, Disney’s animated Aladdin was a major, pop culture landmark. Jasmine was a new kind of Disney Princess! It spawned a series of film and tv sequels. Markham Ontario’s Mena Massoud plays the titular role. And trust me, he is talented, has a magnetic onscreen personality and plenty of gusto. He sings and dances, as orphaned street kid Aladdin does, from rooftop to rooftop. Sure, he’s a thief, but he has to eat. One day he meets a handmaiden from the palace and takes her on a journey through the market and so begins an iconic pairing. Through extraordinary circumstances, Aladdin finds himself inside a cave of treasures where he picks up a brass lamp, rubs it and – presto – Will Smith! A genie, released from a thousand years in the lamp and ready to grant three wishes. Smith’s infectious humour and sparkle are matched by his singing and dancing- in fact, he’s shockingly good! Forget rappin’ Fresh Prince, he’s Broadway-ready. A joy to behold. English actress Naomi Scott is Jasmine, a plum role she handles with verve. You know the story, just think of it bigger, better and somehow old school adorable. The film’s brilliant acid colour palette and exotic Arabic art design only add to its delicious escapism.
Tomorrow night, the “brilliant, final and unreleased” Paul Bartel film Shelf Life debuts at the Royal Theatre and what a wait it’s been. It’s 1993 and three siblings have grown up undiscovered in a bomb shelter, life isn’t normal, how could it be? In, fact it’s downright weird, dark, funny and absurd, per usual. Bartel favourite O-Lan Jones, Andrea Stein and Jim Turner star the film, which was ordered from Bartel’s personal 35mm print residing at the Motion Picture Academy in Los Angeles, specifically for this debut tour. Nice way to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary with its own premiere.
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