The Weekend Warrior’s TIFF14 Diary – Days Six to Eight

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Now that interviews are done with and we still have a few more days at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), it’s all about seeing movies and I jampacked my schedule to do some catching up in my last few days here, partially in hopes of catching some of the movies that received distribution. I’ve only managed to do one five-movie day so far, but here’s ten of the movies I saw during the latter half of the festival. What I like about some of the movies I’ve been catching over the last part of TIFF is that few of these had distribution in place before the festival, and some still don’t have distributors.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Ramin Bahrani’s work including his last film with Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron, but 99 Homes is something special and his most accomplished work to date. Set around the 2008 crash of the homes market which put many people out of their homes, particularly in Florida, it stars Andrew Garfield as Dennis Nash, a single father living with his mother (Laura Dern, who is close to earning “mother of the year” for her three roles) and young son who is suddenly and quite forcibly evicted for non-payment on their mortgage. The man responsible is Rick Carver, a cold-hearted and greedy realtor working for the bank, another great role for Michael Shannon. As angry as Dennis is, he decides to work for “the devil” doing odd jobs and working his way up so he can earn enough money to get his family home back. It’s a really tough emotional film since this is something that’s really happening to people and it’s handled in a stark and authentic way. Garfield’s performance is terrific but Shannon is given some of the best lines as someone who is unrepentantly ruthless and undeterred by the lives he’s ruining while trying to scam the most money possible from the government. It’s a film that’s powerful even years after the height of this national tragedy, but it puts a real twist on the story with a fantastic (albeit somewhat foreshadowed) climax and ending.

Another one of the better movies in the latter half of the festival is the new film from Oscar-winning Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, A Second Chance, starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau aka Jamie Lannister from “Game of Thrones,” Ulrich Thomsen and Maria Bonnevie. I can’t really say much about the plot of this crime-drama written by Bier’s regular collaborator, screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, because part of the enjoyment comes from the various twists, many of them quite shocking if you don’t see them coming. (Some of them you will see coming.) Essentially, Coster-Waldau plays Andreas, an undercover detective who is sent after a violent heroin junkie ex-convict living with his girlfriend and their neglected infant. Meanwhile, Andreas and his wife Anne are trying to take care of their own infant son, who is constantly crying and keeping them up at night. Then something happens and something else happens and then Andreas makes a morally-questionable decision that causes his partner (Thomsen) to start worrying about him and putting him into further conflict with that ex-convict… and well, let’s just say that if you’re looking for some cheery escapism, then this is not the movie for you. Bier and Jensen are once again exploring very dark territory into the human psyche, bringing to light how two wrongs not only don’t make a right but almost always lead to even further wrongs, some quite fatal.

Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” was the second album I ever bought and owned so when Roger Waters played the entire album at Yankee Stadium a few years back, I just had to be there (and I was). That production is recaptured in Roger Waters The Wall, directed by Waters with Sean Evans, but it’s more than just a concert film as the cameras also follow Waters on a journey to revisit the burial grounds of his father and grandfather, both who were killed during the war. It’s interesting to get so intimate and personal with the politically-active singer/songwriter, who has never been known to be particularly warm or cuddly and just like the original 1979 album, Waters uses the show and the film to pay tribute and commemorate those who have died due to war and acts of terrorism. Like the album, the show and movie has a couple of lulls after the first half hour or so, but favorites like “Comfortably Numb” (with a guitar solo from the top of the completed wall) and “Run Like Hell” do pick things up. The concert also includes many of the striking animations from the 1982 movie and it wouldn’t be “The Wall” without Pink Floyd’s giant inflatable characters…. And a pig that floats above the audiences. An incredibly satisfying film that absolutely must be seen on the big screen, and having the benefits of seeing it in an IMAX theater (though not enhanced for IMAX) makes me think that this would be a great IMAX-only release.

I went in skeptical but was pleasantly surprised by The Good Lie (Warner Bros. – Oct. 3), a narrative feature that covers a similar topic as the 2003 documentary Lost Boys of Sudan. While it stars Reese Witherspoon and a small role for the growing profile of Corey Stoll, it’s really about the three grown-up Sudanese refugees, played by Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany and Emmanuel Jal, whom I believe are all first-time actors. Caught up in war in Sudan, a group of kids including brothers Mamere and Theo and their sister escape by walking hundreds of miles to Kenya. After an awkward 13-year jump forward in time, we follow their journey to the United States where they try to get jobs while trying to reunite with their sister who has been sent to live with a family in Boston. With a screenplay by Margaret Nagle, it at first feels like this will be another one of those fish-out-of-water movies that gets laughs from the three guys trying to figure out simple things like telephones. Once it gets past that, the characters really grow on you as they face various obstacles and moral issues and the film transforms into a generally heart-warming, crowd-pleasing film. Skillfully directed by Philippe Falardeau, whose previous film Monsieur Lazhar was nominated for an Oscar in the Foreign Language category, The Good Lie shows Falardeau to be another terrific French-Canadian filmmaker like Dennis Villaneuve (Prisoners) and Jean-Marc Vallee, who is likely to have directed Reese Witherspoon to another Oscar nomination with vastly different Wild (although they both involve really long walks, oddly enough).

You may have already heard about the musical The Last 5 Years, which was picked up for release by RADiUS-TWC earlier this week. It’s based on the blatantly off-Broadway musical about the five-year relationship between struggling actress Cathy (Anna Kendrick) and her successful author boyfriend-turned-husband Jamie (Jeremy Jordan). The entire film is sung going back and forth between the two for their musical numbers, but the terrific performance by Anna Kendrick as she belts out her tunes makes it that much more obvious that her male counterpart Jeremy Jordan is not quite her equal. Sure, he looks good and has a decent voice but he just doesn’t have the same on-screen charisma or dramatic skills as Kendrick. Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, the film is going to be somewhat jarring to watch a musical that’s literally all singing all the time and musical lovers used to linear storytelling may be slightly confused by the film’s odd chronology, following his perspective on the story from when they met while telling her story in reverse chronological order from the inevitable separation. Oddly, his songs get infinitely better as they get more serious while hers start becoming more upbeat, creating a schizophrenic last act, but fans of Kendrick from Pitch Perfect and fans of musicals in general will probably get into the many of James Robert Brown’s beautifully-orchestrated tunes.

Mike Binder’s Black and White, which I don’t believe has been picked up for distribution yet, is another solid effort from the filmmaker although it’s not quite as heavy or as serious a drama as some might expect. Yes, it does play the race card from time to time in dealing with a custody battle for a young mixed race girl named Eloise by her grandfather (Kevin Costner) and grandmother (Octavia Spencer), but it does so only in passing. Binder gets one of Coster’s best performances in recent memory and Octavia Spencer is as good as ever with a role that’s far more humorous that one might expect, but the film ends up being somewhat erratic (and sometimes, downright corny) as Binder tries to keep things light while dealing with the very serious feud between Costner, a wealthy man with a serious drinking problem, and his former son-in-law, played by Andre Holland, a crackhead who he blames for his daughter’s death. Holland’s very good in the latter role, as is Anthony Mackie as Spencer’s brother and attorney, although the courtroom scenes are almost as ridiculous as the ones in “The Judge.”

Ethan Hawke reunites with filmmaker Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, which played at TIFF back in 1997) for Good Kill, a drama based in the world of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or Drones) with Hawke playing Air Force pilot Major Thomas Egan, who is involved with the CIA’s use of UAVs to take out potential terror threats using the type of show of force that ends up killing many civilians. The job starts to get to Egan, who starts drinking and getting abusive at home with his wife (January Jones), as well as to the new recruit, played by Zoe Kravitz. Hawke is very good, as is Kravitz and co-star Bruce Greenwood, but the film feels repetitive as it goes back and forth between the Vegas military base where Egan’s ethics are put to the test as he follows his orders to kill people thousands of miles away and how that affects his home life. It’s easy to figure out where things are going to go with very few real surprises, which is also a problem. Either way, I had a nice talk with Hawke about the movie and some of his other projects which I hope will go live very soon.

Oren Moverman’s second feature as a director, Time Out of Mind stars Richard Gere as George, a man who ended up homeless but who is trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Jena Malone). It’s different from Moverman’s previous film Rampart in that it’s far more naturalistic with no accompanying score to speak of and it moves at a fairly slow pace, as we watch Gere travel from one homeless shelter to another. Along the way, he encounters a number of different people that try to help him, such as Ben Vereen as a veteran of the New York shelter system. (To be perfectly honest, I was very tired when I saw this movie late Wednesday night so I think a second viewing may be in order, possibly when the movie plays the New York Film Festival next month.)

Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet was back at TIFF with Learning to Drive, reuniting with Sir Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson from her earlier film Elegy. Based on the 2002 The New Yorker essay by Katha Pollitt, this one was far lighter than some of her other films, as it has Clarkson playing Wendy, a woman whose husband has left her who turns to Kingsley’s Sikh driving instructor to get her mind off the divorce. It’s not exactly groundbreaking in any way because it basically goes exactly where you might expect… although thankfully it doesn’t even hint at a romance between the two main characters. Although it’s rather light with some bonafide laughs (especially for women one expects to be the target audience), it also deals with being Sikh in New York City post-9/11, being incredibly reverential to the Sikh community and playing things fairly even-handed when showing the lives of the two characters when they’re not driving together. Sure, you can say we’ve seen something like this before like in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, but Coixet’s film feels like something that could appeal to a more mainstream audience, and heck, it even convinced me to look into driving lessons. I’ll have interviews with both lead actors and Coixet to share pretty soon.

Sadly, the worst movie I’ve seen at this year’s TIFF (so far) is the new movie from David Gordon Green, whose work I normally enjoy. He directs Al Pacino who plays Manglehorn, an Austin locksmith still pining for the love of a woman named Clara who would never give him the time of day, something we learn through the letters he reads as narration. He ends up flirting with a banker played by Holly Hunter and asks her out on a date, which goes horribly wrong, because he’s still obsessed with Clara. There are some interesting visuals–you won’t forget Pacino sitting in a tree stroking a fluffy white cat anytime soon–but one has to imagine that there must have been some influence from Harmony Korine, who plays a small supporting role, because this movie smacks of his weird non-narrative style of filmmaking. Despite this being an odd and quirky, Pacino is still riveting to watch on the big screen so it’s not a complete waste.

That’s almost it for the last leg of TIFF. We have one more day here to see a few more movies, and we’ll see how many of them we have time to write about, but look for our wrap-up and the usual “Best of the Fest” sometime early next week.