You plan and the movie gods laugh.
That should be the motto of film festivals everywhere (or, at least, for the poor sappy critics who think they can prepare the perfect roadmap through these uncharted events). For the past nine years, I have spent the two weeks prior to each TIFF journey laying out a detailed course, with a few carefully chosen alternative routes mixed in as back-ups. And every single year, I encounter an unexpected hiccups, a technical glitch, a snafu, or sometimes, an uprising in my own fickle nature that reroutes a day, which, in turn throws the whole shebang into an unimaginable state of flux.
I have come to appreciate the ability to adjust, overcome, and move on; the circumstances here are not dire. But it does remind me that, for all the coolness I exude on the outside, I can bubble and boil over on the inside with the best/worst of the old engines out there.
And there is a reason why. You see, for me, the schedule is a meticulously crafted playlist, curated to chart the narrative rhythm of the festival. I long to ride the groove as the days flow into one another. I need the adrenalized charge of the major releases first thing in the morning, followed by the familiar mid-day treats with nostalgic reminders on cue, ending with a surprise, generated usually via a public screening in a large venue, and rock star appearances by directors and actors, eager to take their bows and give us a Q&A encore.
My Sunday morning screening of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! supplied all of the passion and fury advertised and then some. My Dayton CityPaper feature review explores the god engine and the Big Bang triggered by the narrative. It’s the kind of film that can generate enough excess power to sustain a week’s worth of viewings all by itself. I’ve always been a fan of The Fountain, but mother! just might be tapping into the true source of his bottomless talent.
Ruben Östlund might be a worthy challenger to Aronofsky on the international front, if only because he brings that level of cataclysmic energy to the ideas of his social satires. Three years ago when I caught his Force Majeure at TIFF, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Rarely does a film take your sensibilities and crush them, so completely, into a little ball and toss them aside like that film did. It was an impossible film to follow-up, and The Square, which won the Pal d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival a few months ago, proves me right. It is a high-wire act about a museum curator (Claes Bang), a good and devoted father with social consciousness and creative freedom hard-wired into his DNA, who finds out just how easy it is for all of those intentions to veer off-path. It is an intensely funny film, at times; an uncomfortable system shock in other moments. Does it come together to create a seamless whole? Of course not. But, damn and bless Östlund for making the grand effort – which I suppose is exactly what Cannes did.
By day’s end, I was back to where I started, in a way, with Joachim Trier’s Thelma. The director behind such TIFF favorites like Oslo, August 31st and Louder Than Bombs, returned to present his new romantic drama, which incorporates a fanboy worthy sci-fi element into the routine coming-of-age genre moves. He’s intrigued by the sometimes caustic collision of children into adult-like worlds, and with Thelma he injects unfathomable power into the messy proceedings, but never lets it spill over and contaminate the intimate human struggles of his characters. Erroneously compared to Carrie, Thelma is far more complex in its presentation of all of its characters and the corruption they all face. The film makes for a fascinating and highly unlikely companion to mother!, which helped to ease me out of the day.
Monday morning posed a question few, if any, have recently considered. Do we need a definitive take on Edward Kennedy? Apparently, John Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore) thought so, and has commissioned Jason Clarke to become the blankly earnest face of the lone Kennedy brother to survive into the winter stages of life. Chappaquiddick is a wart-filled study of what power and money can do to the best and worst of us. Without a doubt, it could be said that Teddy was truly both of those ideas at once and Clarke embodies that unhappy union like no one else could.
Last year at TIFF, I screened both Pablo Larrain’s brilliant, but little seen Jackie and Rob Reiner’s LBJ (missing in action for audiences outside the festival circuit), and sense that Chappaquiddick will suffer the same indignities that its subject did, but Clarke will be remembered, down the road, for sinking into the deep liquid skin of this sad man.
Let me join the hallelujah choir, singing the praises of Guillermo del Toro, who won the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival, seemingly hours before arriving at TIFF with The Shape of Water. Those of us unable to festival hop, got to bask in the glow of this imaginative gem. What other filmmaker would dare to blend a hokey sci-fi creature (Doug Jones), a mute cleaner (Sally Hawkins), Cold War espionage, a monstrous black hole at the center (Michael Shannon) into a downright sexy love story. I love that this world includes the likes of Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Stuhlbarg, alongside the heavenly Hawkins. Del Toro lives in his dreams and we should all be thankful.
I loved Louis CK’s under the radar I Love You, Daddy because for all the talk about its focus on the scandalous lives of creatives and his own discussed foibles on that front, the film really serves to remind us that the best part of CK is watching him stumble through, like many of us, the tough job of being a parent. Notice I didn’t apply any judgment on that. Good or bad. Being a parent cannot be reduced that easily and I Love You, Daddy is another of his attempts to show us that.
Day five ended with Denzel Washington being Denzel Washington, in Dan Gilroy’s Roman J. Israel, Esq. There is a refreshing conventionality to the premise that surely aims to confuse those looking for the dark heartedness of Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. We should remember that Roman J. Israel, Esq. is only his second time at the helm. It is easy to overlook that fact because the film has an assuredness that feels hard-won, and much of the praise for that belongs to Washington and the supporting work of Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo. They ground the story, and Washington finds what it is that makes Israel such a special character, beyond the savant-like tics.
But the real magic, the sleight-of-hand that we fail to notice comes from Gilroy. You see, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is not so simple at all. It hides its less pure nature, debating it in the cinematic court. This is a slowed-down version of Aaron Sorkin’s machine-gun blasting away in Molly’s Game (a film with much to love – including a marvelous Jessica Chastain doing what we should recognize as being Jessica Chastain). It’s not always about jamming in the most beats per minute. The best know that the groove is a steady and potentially unending current.