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by Michael Barrett

20 Sep 2016

Rudolf Klein-Rogge in Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922)

Fans of silent cinema should be alerted to two new Blu-rays of mid-September. One title upgrades a previous DVD release, and the other unveils a once-lost title on video for the first time. Both are directed by masters of silent and sound cinema in close collaboration with women writers with whom they had professional and intimate relationships.

The upgrade is Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, a two-part epic about a ruthless king of crime and master of disguise (played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge having a field day) who manipulates the stock market, blackmails and hypnotizes spineless scions, gambles with money and lives, and commits endless skullduggeries. Proclaiming itself “a picture of the time” and “a play of the men of our time”, this extravagant, big-budget criminal melodrama purports to capture the zeitgeist of Weimar Germany, coincidentally before a similarly self-proclaimed Übermensch, as mad and criminal as Mabuse, would publish Mein Kampf (1925) as part of his bid for political power. The script is credited to Norbert Jacques, the novelist who created Mabuse, and Thea von Harbou, Lang’s most important creative collaborator during the silent era and for several years his wife.

by Stephen Mayne

16 Sep 2016

Woody Harrelson in LBJ (2016)

All good things must come to an end. After 26 films over the past week, my time in Toronto is over. Generally, thunderstorm apart, the weather has been lovely, the films good, and the TIFF volunteers spectacularly helpful and efficient. On the plus side, it will be nice to get back to a diet that doesn’t consist of grabbing junk food in-between screenings, and I should probably see a bit more of the outdoors again.

Before we close, there are three final films to discuss. First up, in a quiet screen, we have LBJ. Rob Reiner’s biopic puts an initially unrecognizable Woody Harrelson into the shoes of Lyndon Baines Johnson, America’s 36th President, the man sandwiched between JFK and Nixon. Using a certain day in Dallas in 1963 ,and a certain motorcade as a base, LBJ ranges back and forth in time to show Johnson the Senator, Johnson the Vice President, and eventually Johnson the Commander-in-Chief.

by Michael Barrett

16 Sep 2016

The Horrible Dr. Hichcock belongs to a strain of Italian horror in the late ‘50s and ‘60s that evoked Gothic Victorian melodrama, or more specifically the gaudy productions of Hammer Studios and Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films. Despite its variant spelling, the title tells you that the film also owes debts to Alfred Hitchcock, particularly a plot that’s a kinky variant of Rebecca.

In that famous story, a young bride arrives at her husband’s mansion only to be disturbed by whispers about his dead first wife, not to mention the hostility of a loyal housekeeper. In the Italian update scripted by Ernesto Gastaldi (as “Julyan Perry” to sound British) and directed ripely and zoomily by Riccardo Freda (as “Robert Hampton”), the first reel shows us exactly what happened to the first wife.

by Stephen Mayne

15 Sep 2016

Mark Wahlberg in Deepwater Horizon (2016)

There’s a feeling of deflation that sets in towards the end of festivals. Schedules are front loaded with premiere screenings and delegates tend to leave from the mid-point on. The only way to fight it is to keep watching. Today, the penultimate one I’ll spend at TIFF 2016 belonged to America with four films, all set south of the Canadian Border.

We started big with Deepwater Horizon. A Mark Wahlberg disaster feature sounds like something that might fall prey to a bit of stupidity. Given it’s the story of a real life event that happened only a few years ago, it’s thankfully handled with only a little unneeded Hollywood melodrama. The disaster that destroyed the drilling rig off the Louisiana coast killed 11 people and decimated the environment of the local area. Peter Berg’s film focuses on the immediate event rather than the long and destructive aftermath.

Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, one of the workers on the rig. He has a wife and child (the most unnecessary scenes feature them together, or worrying after him) and seems to be having premonitions that something might go wrong. With BP bigwigs led by John Malkovich eager to push ahead despite safety concerns, something has to give. Who cares about safety when money’s at stake?

Over the concerns of Kurt Russell’s rig boss Jimmy Harrell, they force the issue by ordering drilling. The build-up and immediate blowout scenes are incredibly tense, the highlight of Deepwater Horizon. Berg wisely keeps most of the story on the rig, turning it into a terrifying inferno with everyone trying desperately to escape, except Wahlberg, who strolls around heroically for a while. Berg can’t help a few of these diversions, but on the whole attention remains on the disaster.

Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight (2016)

Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight (2016)

That marked the first of three trips to the Imax screen today, which might sound like a good thing, but boy do they crank up the AC in there. I decided it looked hot outside again so I’d worn shorts. Cold as it was in the theater, there was no way I was missing Moonlight. Barry Jenkins’ second feature played at Venice to rave reviews, and had a similar response earlier in the week when it came to Toronto. I finally caught it and wasn’t disappointed, as Jenkins deals with identity over three periods in a young black man’s life.

Moonlight starts with Chiron as a kid before moving to teenage and then young adult segments. A quiet, sensitive boy, he has a drug addict mother who prostitutes herself to get a fix. He’s also regular prey for bullies, is grappling with his sexuality, and eventually leans towards a life dealing on the streets. It’s understated and thought-provoking, asking what we see when we glance at Chiron and showing there’s always more than immediate stereotypes might suggest. I found that the longer the day went on the more I couldn’t shake it this film from my mind.

Bel Powley in Carrie Pilby (2016)

Bel Powley in Carrie Pilby (2016)

Finally, a reprieve on the Imax front for the third film as I moved to a screen down the corridor for Carrie Pilby. Adapted from Caren Lissner’s novel, Susan Johnson’s film provided a pleasant enough distraction after the intensity of Moonlight. Carrie (Bel Powley) is a precociously talented 19-year-old, already a year out of Harvard. Lacking direction, she mooches around New York alone, occasionally visiting a therapist who tries to help her find happiness with a mini-bucket list. Thus, she gets to buy a pet, go on a date, and make friends. It’s a classic coming-of-age territory.

There’s nothing special about Carrie Pilby. As a comedy it comes with almost zero laughs, and as a drama Carrie never feels real nor do any of those around her, not least William Moseley’s implausibly perfect love interest. It’s pleasant enough viewing though, and adds a few nice touches that subvert gender expectations. The end message, although straying a little close to love is all you need, just about manages to teach that happiness is a gradual process that comes from within.

Denzel Washington in The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Denzel Washington in The Magnificent Seven (2016)

With the sensitive and emotional cinema done for the day, it was time to finish with The Magnificent Seven. The opening night film received a bit of a panning, as is traditional with the Toronto Film Festival. That didn’t stop people from queuing to get in for the repeat screening, of course, and with expectations duly lowered, it proved to be perfectly acceptable escapism.

The plot, given the amount of times this story has been told, not least in the original, comes as no surprise. A town under threat in the Old West hires a ragtag collection of mercenaries to protect it. Cue a fortification construction, team building, and training montage. Then it ends on a giant shootout.

No one, not even Denzel Washington or Chris Pratt, proves overly memorable. The seven misfits actually seem to spend more time telling incomprehensible jokes before collapsing into laughter. Then they shoot everyone it all works out OK. Except for the ones who die, but who cares about that? After so many thought-provoking films, it’s rather nice to watch the opposite.

by Stephen Mayne

14 Sep 2016

Paul Hamy in The Orinthologist (2016)

Today finally brought the kind of weather I’d hoped for at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Stepping outside first thing it was warm and sunny, but not too hot. Previously we’ve veered from excruciating heat (at least for someone who neglected to pack summer wear) to torrential rain. Day 6 at the fest had neither. What it did have was a light two film schedule, both decent films in very different ways from one another.

The morning screening took me off to Portugal for The Ornithologist. As befits a João Pedro Rodrigues film, it’s far from ordinary. Fernando (Paul Hamy), a ruggedly handsome ornithologist is off in nature going about his bird watching business. Absorbed in his kayak watching a bird circle above, his boat goes over rapids, he’s injured and passes out. This throws him into a crazy world of castration obsessed Chinese pilgrims, goat suckling deaf and dumb shepherds, urinating gangs and topless horse-riding women.

It’s not any less odd than it sounds as Fernando is forced through a surreal version of the stations of the cross. Events escalated a little beyond me by the very end (the topless rifle slinging women broke the camel’s back), but it is something of a marvel to look at. Rodrigues’ shot composition is varied and inventive while the cinematography manages to be lush without adding artificial gloss. If it came to it, I’d have been quite happy watching Fernando lie in the reeds spying on birds for two hours.

Alex Russell and Aaron Pedersen in Goldstone (2016)

Alex Russell and Aaron Pedersen in Goldstone (2016)

Goldstone is a much more straightforward watch than The Ornithologist, but it’s not without its own complexity. In 2013 director/ writer/ editor/ cinematographer/ composer (yes some people really are too talented) Ivan Sen brought us Detective Jay Swan in Mystery Road. Played by Aaron Pedersen, Swan is on the outside of all communities in his small town as an Aboriginal working for the police.

A drunken mess following the death of his daughter, he’s packed off to a mining town to investigate a missing Asian prostitute whom no one really wants found, least of all local officials in cahoots with mining company executives. The plot is a continuation of the story in Mystery Road, touching on the same themes only doing it bigger and better. As with Swan’s previous outing, social commentary is layered in, as if it’s going out of fashion. Alcohol abuse and the chronic mistreatment of aboriginals, women, and anyone not a tough white fella willing to go along with the status quo, lie simmering beneath the surface.

We also get a collection of stunning shots and carefully paced action that has all the more impact for refusing to rush. Mystery Road ended on a quite brilliant shootout. Goldstone proves no slouch, either. It’s a cynical world Jay Swan inhabits, albeit not without a sliver of hope. The best he, or anyone else gets, is a glimpse of something better.

At that I was forced to conclude my daily viewing for other engagements, not to mention the vast pile of work mounting from earlier in the festival. It’s a tough life but someone has to live it.

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