Festivals: Toronto 2017
I Love You, Daddy
This year, the Toronto International Film Festival undertook a “slim-down” in its slate and sections (to quote a recent “exposé” tucked away behind the Toronto Globe and Mail paywall), and reportedly dipped in attendance numbers by around 2,800—if you’re keeping count. That’s all for the good amid its glutted market conditions, but you wouldn’t know it from the snarls or delays of up to half-an-hour that accompanied many screenings in the Scotiabank multiplex. TIFF can be a rat race on a good day, but its uncomfortably vast legions of unpaid volunteers dealt with crowds as if these problems did not arise every year. I ended up further afield quite a bit, primarily at the brutalist, fan-mobbed Ryerson Theater, where a number of high-profile titles bowed to crowds of varying enthusiasm.
Those crowds are precisely why I like to watch horror and comedy in the venue, which throws together public, press, and entourages in an especially punchy mix, with talent present to boot. The biggest laugh for Louis CK’s I Love You, Daddy arrived at an appropriately inappropriate moment in the film: Charlie Day asks John Malkovich—playing an evasive Woody Allen filmmaker figure named Leslie Godwin (say it three times fast)—about the rumors that he’s had sex with an underage girl. Day is the jackass sidekick to Louis’s successful director, father to an adoring teenager (Chloë Grace Moretz) who has him wrapped around her finger. Even by the standards of this comedy auteur’s TV alter ego Louie, his black-and-white movie reaches baroque new extremes of beset-upon self-regard—a positively skin-crawling level of prickly reflexiveness that culminates in Louis’s sarcastic apology to his producer (note-perfect Edie Falco): “I’m sorry, women.” I don’t actually mean all that as a put-down; CK’s brash, savvy humor still kills and here be some Hard Truths about entitlement of all sorts. But he’s managed in a single feature (and a show or two) to attain Allen-esque levels of highly evolved self-conscious shtick that seems to consume itself instantly. Kudos, by the way, to CK for dropping a cinephile-friendly reference to Michael Roemer in answering an audience question.
The Disaster Artist
Lady Bird was another somewhat reflexive Ryerson premiere, a Catholic school coming-of-age picture that writer-director Greta Gerwig proclaimed her “Sacramento opus” with a similar kind of self-aware joking grandiosity as her lead character, Christine, played by Saoirse Ronan. Like CK, Gerwig slips in and out and around her story’s (more identifiable) beats through sharp and fresh writing, and an all-star cast: Laurie Metcalf as mom, Tracy Letts as dad, Lois Smith as a nun at school, theater old hands all. Ronan finally takes a part that isn’t vaguely otherworldly, and shines; It-Kid Timothée Chalamet plays a too-cool arty crush to perfection. Lady Bird won’t set the world on fire, but it does leave it a warmer place.
The same cannot be said of The Disaster Artist, which is about as much of an exercise as a movie can be. Star James Franco ploddingly directs the story (such as it is) of mushmouthed Tommy Wiseau, the DIY director of The Room, in all its so-bad-it’s-good fame. The film is one extended reenactment riff that feels exactly like a ready-made marketing and distribution stunt, primed to be booked in the same places The Room has held court. If this is your sort of thing, you’re better off watching The Room again (though if this is really your sort of thing, The Disaster Artist is probably your sort of thing). For my money, it could have sufficed as a two-minutes-and-done skit, and its adoring reception left me as baffled as the plaudits for Warwick Thornton’s assiduously bland Sweet Country (one of a couple of excessively championed Venice holdovers).
Roman J. Israel Esq.
Another Ryerson premiere, Roman J. Israel Esq., was enough of an oddity to make one feel present at something unlikely to occur again. Denzel Washington plays an activist lawyer, whose crossbar glasses and ill-fitting suit condemn him as an outsider throwback from the first shot, and in him, director Dan Gilroy shows a continued attraction to the paradigm-busting single-mindedness of Nightcrawler. It is downright fascinating watching Washington’s demonstrative style of acting turned inward as he dons schlub drag to play a principled nerd who, for no persuasive reason in the script, abruptly drops those principles in rather cruel fashion. After the film (which is slated to open later this fall), Washington displayed a strange humility before bombastic onstage questioning, with Gilroy gung-ho while emphasizing the star’s role in postproduction.
Lest it seem that my TIFF was solely a matter of gala screenings in giant, sweaty auditoriums, allow me to conclude with a special mention for Cai Shangjun’s The Conformist. Shot in gorgeous widescreen, this saturnine film luxuriates in the tale of an ornery informant set along the snowy outback of the Sino-Russian border. Don’t let the title (or its presumptuous echo of Bertolucci’s triumph) fool you—there’s a bracing confidence and individuality to every other shot, and this kind of discovery alone made up for all the mad dashes and fool’s errands.