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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.

by Michael Barrett

14 Sep 2016


How do you make a movie called Cat People? That was the question faced by producer Val Lewton when put in charge of his own RKO unit with a mission to make B horrors from titles provided by the studio. He had the freedom to crank out a movie attached to whatever cheesy moniker was handed to him, as long as he stayed under budget.

He rose to the challenge with a series of atmospheric wonders that saved his effects budget in favor of suggestions and shadows. The first of these, Cat People, became a surprise hit, cannily (or uncannily) exploiting the nation’s wartime jitters.

by Stephen Mayne

13 Sep 2016


Tom Wilkinson in Denial (2016)

Part of the challenge of festivals is attempting to work out which films will pack in pass holders and which ones can be breezed into with a minute to spare. Day 5 at the Toronto International Film Festival had a bit of everything on that front, and a very high standard across three films that all dipped back into the 20th century.

First up was Denial, playing in the morning in the biggest screen. It was hardly a packed house, but those that did show got very solid entertainment. It’s the story of the trial that finally broke any remaining credibility disgraced British historian and Holocaust denier David Irving had. He brought the action, as well. After calling him out in her book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1994), American historian Deborah Lipstadt found herself taken to court in London for libel. If she were to lose, the claims of Irving and those like him could have gained acceptability.

by Michael Barrett

13 Sep 2016


Remy Marko (Broderick Crawford) was a successful businessman: he sold bootleg hooch during the Prohibition. The legalization of alcohol was catastrophic to his affairs, but his wife (Claire Trevor) convinces Marko to go legit despite the fact that his beer is basically undrinkable and no longer sought after. Sliding into debt and repossession by the bank, Marko finds that good honest work is not for the faint of heart.

Winking and nodding somewhere in the background of Stop, You’re Killing Me is a satire of capitalism and the cut-throat world of debt and consumption. It all comes to a head one weekend at Marko’s Saratoga mansion when he throws a big party just as his barely reformed goombahs (Charles Cantor, Sheldon Leonard, Joe Vitale) discover the bodies of four murdered robbers in an upstairs bedroom.

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