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TIFF 2016: 'LBJ', 'Message from the King' and 'Blue Jay'

Woody Harrelson in LBJ (2016)

Of Presidents and high-school lovers: TIFF 2016 ends with misunderstood leaders, missing family, and missing the past.

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.

Clocking in at just over a brisk hour and a half, there’s no time to delve into every detail, which actually works in the film’s favor. Screen time is limited to creating a sense of Johnson as a proud, ambitious man plagued by self-doubt while showing his gradual conversion to the Civil Rights cause. Harrelson does an excellent job, reveling in earthy dialogue and crude humor. LBJ is frequently funny, and although it fades fast at the end and proves almost stiflingly conventional, particularly when set against the likes of Jackie, it’s still a solid watch.

Chadwick Boseman in Message From the King (2016)

We start my second film of the day by arriving in LA. It’s Chadwick Boseman rocking up in town, in a story that begins in South Africa. Message From the King has Boseman’s Jacob receiving a call from his sister who promptly goes missing. He then travels across the world to look for her. Jacob claims to be a cab driver, but when he starts following clues and cracking heads together, it becomes clear he must be something more.

Nothing really develops from the clues and head cracking dynamic, however. Other actors are introduced, most notably Luke Evans as an irritating dentist who treats teeth like a crystal ball, and Alfred Molina hyperventilating as a movie producer, but it doesn’t improve a grey blur of a film. Visually undistinguished and narratively under-written, it’s largely a waste of time.

Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass in Blue Jay (2016)

My last film of TIFF 2016 is not a million miles away from the first. Manchester by the Sea gave me a quiet, intimate and powerful drama. Blue Jay isn’t in the same league, but it is rather good. Written by and starring the prolific Mark Duplass, Alex Lehmann’s debut feature, shot beautifully in black and white, finds Duplass bumping into his old sweetheart in the hometown supermarket when both are back in town, visiting.

Sarah Paulson plays the other half of this teenage love story, putting in a brilliant performance full of tender reconnection, false bonhomie and ultimately raw emotion. The two end up hanging out all day, reliving past memories. As they sink deeper into nostalgia they reveal a general unhappiness at the way life turned out. The ending is also nicely ambiguous, as befits a film that is drama rather than romance. It’s a powerful little punch to go out on.

Just in case you’re wondering, Manchester by the Sea is my favorite film from TIFF 2016, followed in an order yet to be decided by Moonlight, La La Land, Sami Blood and Nocturnal Animals. Make sure you watch all five. Don’t bother with (re)Assignment. Watching it will only encourage Denis Hamill to write more such rubbish. All that’s left to say is goodbye. Until next time.

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