By: Daniel Reynolds
As has become Same Page tradition, we’ve made it through the first weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival (and feel dead). That can only mean one thing: our first batch of reviews!
Join me now as I recount my experiences of the first six films I saw at TIFF16. Sing it with me now.
As a description of tiny moments, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann has been seen before. There’s a father and daughter jousting over the terms of their life, work and evolving relationship. There are stabs into corporate culture, riffs on the absurdity of various social expectations, and ruminations on death itself. And let’s not forget the gags — there are plenty of those too. Taken on their own, these are familiar beats; but any comparison to other films is imperfect. In Ade’s hands, the delirious and moving sum of the total explodes into something far more brilliant.
Winfried (a delightfully lumpen Peter Simonischek) is old and bored. He lives alone in Germany with his dog, while his daughter Ines (a compelling Sandra Huller) works too much in Romania. (She works so much in fact that she’s on the phone for most of her birthday party.) Since Winfried is a bit of a prankster (it helps with the boredom), he decides later to spontaneously show up at Ines’ place in Bucharest and then, much to her dismay, opts not to leave. Actually, he does leave in part: after donning some fake teeth and a bad wig he becomes the titular Toni Erdmann, consultant and coach (or ambassador, or anything else that pops into his head). Undercover as Toni, Winfried works to inject a dose of anarchy into his buttoned-down daughter’s life as she navigates her way up the cutthroat corporate ladder. In another film, this setup could become something cruel, and to be fair there are moments of (hilarious) humiliation here. But through a brisk near-three hours, Ade miraculously maintains a balance between these two characters (and a mix of emotional tones) as they contend with and meet each other as adults. The result — through sequences of absurd moments I won’t spoil here — arrives at a startlingly simple and moving conclusion. No, we’ve never experienced anything quite like Toni Erdmann before.
It’s telling that in Tizza Covi’s ode to the circus, Mr. Universo, there are no shots of any large crowds. I counted one where we could actually see the backs of a couple of heads. In Italy, on the road, the circus isn’t quite the draw it once was. Of course, you wouldn’t be able to tell that from this film’s cast of characters, all real-life circus workers and performers going about their business. In their faces are just the facts of everyday life, for better or worse.
One such performer is Tairo, a stumpy (yet graceful) lion tamer in charge of a five vaguely ferocious beasts (it was six, but we learn early on that one has died). I use the term “vaguely” here because, like most of the rest of the circus, the animals mostly look to be on their last legs. Mr. Universo‘s plot, such as it is, involves the disappearance of Tairo’s lucky iron amulet (a bar bent by titular “Mr. Universe” Arthur Robin), and the small journey he goes on to get it back. Again, I come with qualifiers here (e.g. “small”) because Mr. Universo is not overly concerned with Tairo’s mission so much as it is with showing the lives of these fascinating circus people. To that end, Covi’s camera moves like that of a documentary capturing the lives of Tairo, his gymnast friend Wendy, the boss, his co-workers and eventually others in the broader big top family. Throughout, whether it be a trip down a musical memory lane with an uncle, or a funny sequence involving a hill with strange gravitational powers, there’s the theme of going backwards. Tairo must venture back through his childhood memories to find and connect with Mr. Universo, his various family members tell stories of different olden times, and we are drawn into the flow of inescapable, effortless nostalgia. There’s not much to Mr. Universo, but what’s there feels real and lived in, even as it disappears before our very eyes.
If you can look past the idea of hundreds, if not thousands, of South Koreans dying so a couple of shitty white people could work out their personal issues on the other side of the globe, then Colossal might work for you. Of course, if you disregard that element of Nacho Vigalondo’s latest film, there’s really not much left.
Colossal centres on Gloria (Anne Hathaway with messy hair, so you know she’s slumming it), a drunk unemployed former magazine writer who, at the start of the film, gets kicked out of the NYC apartment she shares with her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens). From there, it’s a hop, skip and a jump back to her vacant family home in small town nowhere, and into the orbit of old elementary school friend Oscar (played with righteous insouciance by Jason Sudeikis). Oscar owns a local bar and basically slumps around town, staying up most nights to drink with his buddies (Tim Blake Nelson and Austin Stowell). As the film pushes to make clear in the beginning, Gloria and Oscar belong together — even if both are such shitheels we could care less if it happens. This would all be a rather boring premise if not for Vigalondo’s real hook: as it turns out, when either of these two wander into the neighbourhood playground, a giant monster or robot emerges from the sea near Seoul, South Korea. Admittedly, that’s new. Unfortunately though, Vigalondo struggles giving his characters, or his movie, much else to do. We’re left mostly with uneven emotional scenes, and motivations dictated more by the screenplay than by something recognizably human. There are kernels of ideas here regarding alcoholism as raging monster, and the dangers of male entitlement/jealousy taken way too far, but the film has no idea what to do with them. Then it ends with a physical confrontation and a bunch of screaming prop Koreans. You won’t be rooting for anyone to actually win.
After the screening of Uduak-Obong Patrick’s debut feature, he revealed that despite four months of planning, and six months in post-production, he and his crew shot the film in six days. An amazed murmur spread through the crowd; to shoot a film in six days is no small thing. Still, I suppose we shouldn’t have been so shocked — the filmmaking is, uh, rough.
Just Not Married rests on an ingenious idea. Duke (Stan Nze), like his friends Lati (Rotimi Salami) and Keji (Judith Audu), is broke and looking for ways to make money. His mother is sick and needs expensive medicine, he has school bills to pay, his car is broken down, and his brother Victor is fresh out of prison and trying to go legit (so, he’s broke too). Duke’s solution? Steal a car, dress it up as a honeymooner’s vehicle, put on a suit and you’re golden. This is a rough part of Lagos, one in which the police are a bit more entrepreneurial, and the car buyers don’t ask a lot of questions. (In fact, the crew’s first buyer barely says anything between bites of his lunch.) As premises go, this is a great one and Patrick punches his film up with as much energy as he can muster to match it; so much so, you can feel the film’s ideas straining against the limits of their execution. There’s the inherent family drama of two brothers travelling in opposite directions (with both a dying mother and a love triangle with Keji thrown in for good measure). Eventually, a shady gangster gets involved and there are a couple of (poorly staged) fist fights. We even get a protracted car chase. Sure, the sound design is choppy, the blocking sloppy, the plot and pacing uneven. (Even the subtitles are all over the place at times.) But that energy! Part of the appeal of Just Not Married is its authenticity; the setup and setting feel just as real as the framework in which the movie was made, six day shooting schedule and all. Everyone here is trying to make it.
As hero stories go, the tale of Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne Bleeder, translates so easily to the screen because, well, it’s clear Chuck himself thinks it belongs there. He’d be the first to tell you he’s already made it into theatres, you just didn’t know it. Wepner is the inspiration for Rocky Balboa, one of greatest cinematic characters of all time after all. And The Bleeder, the true story of Chuck, hinges on this distinction before asking: What happens when a fictitious life outruns the real one?
The other thing The Bleeder hinges on is Liev Schreiber, who is building his own Wepner-esque career as a leading man-adjacent actor giving one compelling performance after another. This is Schreiber’s movie through-and-through and he wears it all — the boxer’s hamburger face, the New Jersey accent, the 70s wardrobe — as easily as the film slides into its rise-and-fall narrative. (A scene where Chuck discovers cocaine for the first time is a special treat.) For director Philippe Falardeau the temptation to use Schreiber as much as possible must have been overwhelming. There’s almost not a second without him (or his voiceover, which crowds some of the film’s moments) on screen. This is a shame because it means Elisabeth Moss gets stranded as the angry wife, Jim Gaffigan plays a mere stooge, and Naomi Watts gets airlifted in for a couple of scenes as a bartender with a heart of gold. (Michael Rappaport as Chuck’s brother is a standout though; boy, he has mastered the role of aggrieved white guy.) The film does make time for Muhammed Ali and Sylvester Stallone stand-ins, and we even see real footage of the time Wepner fought Andre the Giant. It’s all fun stuff, and Falardeau keeps it all humming along in true crowd-pleasing fashion so we only sporadically notice the easy beats of the narrative (even if they are true). For me though, the film is most effective when it looks to a different cinematic inspiration: Anthony Quinn in Requiem for a Heavyweight. Here The Bleeder plays off decades of broader cinematic boxing ideas to pierce through some of Wepner’s own mythology. It’s not often you see a boxing film where the climactic moment comes not in the ring but when the hero decides he no longer wants to be the star.
You have to wonder how director Hirokazu Kore-eda manages to enliven films that are — almost as a matter of routine — small, pensive and free of anything related to raw passion. He primarily makes family dramas with the lowest of lower case d’s, and yet even here in After the Storm, where a lot of the “action” takes place in a closet-sized apartment, we are filled with life.
After the Storm settles on Ryota (a rumpled Hiroshi Abe), a former award-winning writer now deflated into a bit of a deadbeat. His career as a detective isn’t so hot, he’s divorced from his ex-wife, his restless father has recently died, and he feels like his son Shingo is drifting out of his life. Under the guise of helping his widowed mother Yoshiko (an absolutely radiant Kirin Kiki), Ryota heads back to his childhood home to find ways to mooch money (and food), spend more time with his son, and maybe, just maybe, reunite with his ex-wife. As with all of Kore-eda’s films, the camera never moves from its various fixed points, there’s never the threat of any violence, and while there is the oblique mention of sex (Ryota’s ex-wife has a new boyfriend and he wants details), the film is entirely chaste. Even the typhoon of the film’s title is generally safe. In the confines of the housing project he grew up in, Kore-eda works through something far more personal here, gently wrestling with the form a family takes over time. It’s clear Ryota may not get back to where he was, and he may never seize on his dream life (represented here by lottery tickets; a passion and idea he shared with his father), but the sweet struggle is worth watching. And really, I can’t say enough about Kiki’s performance in the film. As the family matriarch, she steals the movie with well-placed jokes and emotion. Like the film itself, her Yoshiko finds a casual profundity in her dotage. Kore-eda makes this all look rather easy, but then you reflect: no, it’s really not.
Keep an eye open later in the week for more TIFF reviews, including Yourself and Yours, Rage and 76. Keep enjoying the fest, everyone.