Jojo Rabbit – TIFF Review

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TIFF Film #8 of 8

What a perfect way to end another fantastic year at TIFF. This film is a delight! A near-perfect mixture of absurd, silly humour, and genuine, heartfelt drama. For a film to be able to take me from deep belly laughs one moment, to welling up with tears the next is no easy task, it’s a tightrope walk, and Jojo Rabbit absolutely nails it. Written and directed by Taiki Waititi (based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens), Jojo Rabbit tells the story of a young boy living in Nazi Germany during World War II, who must confront his blind loyalty to the Nazi Party’s ethnic nationalism when he discovers that his mother is hiding a young Jewish girl in their attic. Oh, and young Jojo’s indoctrination runs so deep that his imaginary friend manifests itself as Adolf Hitler, played with hysterical buffoonery by Taiki Waititi himself. None of this may sound like it makes for particularly good comedy, or comedy at all for that matter, and I could even understand thinking that it just sounds tasteless, but I don’t know what to tell you. It just works. The film deservedly and mercilessly takes the piss out of Nazis, and all of the difficult subject matter is handled with surprising tenderness. Newcomer Roman Griffon Davis plays Jojo and does an excellent job, particularly so when you consider that this is his first film role and the emotional journey he’s required to guide his character through. The standout star though, is Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa, the young Jewish girl being hidden by Jojo’s mother. You may have seen her in last year’s Leave No Trace, a criminally overlooked and under-seen film with an astonishingly good performance from McKenzie. I’m not sure that she’s quite on that level here, but she’s amazing regardless, and definitely an actress we should be on the lookout for in the near future. Scarlett Johansson also stars as Jojo’s mother, and there was some early speculation that she may be a supporting actress contender, but I’m not sure I see that happening. Not because she isn’t good in this, she absolutely is, but I figure she is a lock for her leading role in Marriage Story, and it is incredibly rare for an actress to be nominated in both categories in the same year. Jojo Rabbit was announced as the TIFF People’s Choice Award winner during my screening, which is the festival’s highest honour. None of us in the audience knew it until we left the theatre and looked at out phones, but given the sheer enthusiasm of the applause that broke out when the credits rolled, it didn’t surprise me at all when I found out. I tend to find applause after a film screening when none of the actors or filmmakers are present kind of just bizarre and tacky, but this just seemed so genuine, a packed house of people showing their appreciation for having just had themselves a damn good time at the movies.

9.5/10

Honey Boy – TIFF Review

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TIFF Film #4 of 8

This is one of the most personal and cathartic films you’re likely to see this year. Written by Shia LaBeouf while he was in a court-ordered rehab facility, Honey Boy tells the story of his own childhood, growing up as a child-star in Hollywood with an abusive father. He doesn’t direct here, those responsibilities are handed off to Alma Har’el, making her feature-length narrative film debut after a small handful of well-received documentaries, music videos, and a short. He does, however, play his own father, in what must have been a terribly difficult role for him to inhabit. The story begins in 2005, where the Shia Labeouf stand-in, who is called Otis within the narrative and played by Lucas Hedges, is already deep into his acting career. We see him on expensive film sets, doing elaborate scenes involving explosions and harnesses, but much more importantly than that, we see him drinking, and drinking to excess. All of this partying comes to a head when he is in a drunk-driving accident, and in lieu of jail-time he is sent to a rehabilitation centre. It is here that we begin to flashback to his childhood, when he was just beginning his career, and the story of him and his relationship to his father starts to unfold. The young Otis is played by Noah Jupe, who you may recognize from last year’s A Quiet Place, or 2017’s Wonder. He does an excellent job, playing the part with a such a precise form of vulnerability and sadness pulled directly from the real life of his co-star and screenwriter. He and Shia LaBeouf are the only two on screen for most of the film’s most important moments, and while I can’t really go in to specifics without feeling like I’m spoiling the magic, I can say every single scene they share together is nothing short of remarkable. Shia LaBeouf as his own father is a lot more than just a career-best performance, it is that, but I also don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. This story is so deeply personal and private, to the point that you feel like you shouldn’t even be allowed to watch it, but it’s also very universal about so many things. I wouldn’t call Honey Boy a coming-of-age tale necessarily, but it is certainly adjacent to that type of storytelling. But much more than that it is a story about trauma and abuse and addiction, and eventually perseverance and forgiveness.

9/10

Uncut Gems – TIFF Review

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TIFF film #3 of 8

Uncut Gems is one of the most chaotic, anxiety-inducing, and downright nauseating films I’ve ever seen. And I mean that in the best way possible. It is a complete and utter sensory overload. It is relentless. Much of the dialogue is shouted, yet it still manages to compete for the foreground with the cacophonous score. It sounds like it could be insufferable. But it isn’t. It is exhilarating. Adam Sandler stars as Howard Ratner, a jewelry store owner in New York City’s Diamond District, who is so deep in debt, that he’s perpetually treading water to keep out of trouble with collectors. He scams, he pawns other people’s property, and he makes exorbitant wagers on basketball games. None of his scheming seems to work out in his favour, but his luck might be about to change when a rare opal from a mine in Ethiopia arrives at his shop stuffed inside a dead fish. The opal, in his mind, is set to net him upwards of one million dollars when it sells it auction the following week, and all of his problems will be solved. Things go awry, however, when NBA star Kevin Garnett visits the shop and insists on borrowing the gem for luck in that evenings playoff game against the 76ers. What follows is one of the most entertaining and batshit crazy two hours of film you’re likely to see all year. Josh and Benny Safdie were at my screening and introduced the film. Apparently they’ve been trying to get this film made for ten years, and they talked about how everything they’ve made leading up to this, including 2017’s spectacular Good Time, served as a training ground for Uncut Gems. And it really shows. As excellent as Good Time is, I feel like this is a step even further for them. The screenplay and the direction are both pitch-perfect, with chaotic handheld camerawork complimented beautifully by Darius Khondji’s gorgeous cinematography. Adam Sandler gives what I think will go down as the greatest performance of his career, finally unseating his turn in Punch Drunk Love. When Sandler gets teamed up with a true auteur like Paul Thomas Anderson, Noah Baumbach, or in this case, the Safdie brothers, he really is a remarkably good actor. The supporting cast are all great too, including Kevin Garnett, but the two standouts for me are Lakeith Stanfield as a business partner of sorts of Sandler’s character, responsible for bringing celebrity business into the shop, and Julia Fox as his secret girlfriend for whom he rents an apartment in the city. I mentioned it earlier, but one of the true stars of this film is the score from composer Daniel Lopatin. It sets the mood early on and doesn’t let up throughout the entire two hour and ten minute runtime. I feel like Adam Sandler for best actor and Lopatin for best original score are all we can really hope for this film come awards season, but it will certainly make my personal list for a hell of a lot more. Seek this one out when it goes wide, I’m quite sure you won’t be disappointed.

10/10

Marriage Story – TIFF Review

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TIFF Film #2 of 8

I’ve been a fan of Noah Baumbach’s work for a long time. When I was younger and just starting to get into film, The Squid and the Whale was one of the first ones I can remember seeing that absolutely wowed me. Frances Ha is one of my all-time favourites. So to say that I had high expectations going into Marriage Story might be a bit of an understatement, but I am delighted to say that it exceeded them in every way. Starting with an impeccable screenplay written by Baumbach himself, all the way up to powerhouse performances from its lead and supporting actors, Marriage Story is a damn near perfect film. Chronicling the tail end of a once happy marriage now spiralling out of control into an increasingly contentious divorce, Marriage Story is nonetheless a love story. Charlie (Adam Driver) is a prominent stage director in New York, and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is his soon-to-be ex-wife and the former leading lady of his theatre group, now attempting to further her acting career with a TV pilot in Los Angeles. What this will mean for the future of their family, and more importantly, for their young son Henry, remains to be seen. We see them desperately trying to hang on to the bits of the life they built together that are still important, while at the same time trying to revert back to the lives they had before they met. And it is… heartbreaking. Noah Baumbach has written these characters in a way that they feel so fully fleshed out and three-dimensional and flawed, that it’s not hard at all to believe that these are two real people who were once so in love with each other, who now, if not for their son, would likely never speak to each other ever again. But it’s in the absence of that love that we find this truly unique kind of love story. All of this isn’t to say that this is a doom and gloom divorce film in the vein of Blue Valentine, for example. There’s certainly elements like that, and there’s one scene in particular near the end that is just viscerally upsetting, but this film is also hilarious! The audience I was sat with was laughing hysterically throughout. So, bring tissues, but just know that there’s enough comedy in here as well to balance it out beautifully. Before I wrap up, I absolutely need to talk about these performances. This is the best performance Adam Driver has even given, and he has been on fire lately. Seriously, he is nothing short of incredible here. Scarlett Johansson is the best she’s been, certainly since Lost In Translation, but this may also be her best work ever. Alan Alda and Laura Dern play Charlie and Nicole’s lawyers respectively, and let’s just say we could be looking at the first time one film has received nominations in all four acting categories at the Academy Awards since 2013 (American Hustle). Two other aspects that I think warrant a mention here are Robbie Ryan’s beautiful cinematography and Randy Newman’s delightful score. Expect this one to be a huge player this awards season. Like I said, a damn near perfect film.

10/10

Just Mercy – TIFF Review

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TIFF Film #1 of 8

Just Mercy is written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, who previously made one of my all-time favourites films, 2013’s Short Term 12, which gave us a breakthrough and star-making performance from Brie Larson, and remarkable early work from future stars Kaitlyn Dever and Lakeith Stanfield. I still haven’t had the chance to see his follow-up film, The Glass Castle, but Short Term 12 garnered him enough good favour in my book that this was a high priority for me when I was selecting my films for the festival. Set in Alabama in the 1980’s and 90’s, Just Mercy tells the true story of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death, and a young defence attorney, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), who works to overturn his conviction and free him from death row. It some respects it may be considered a formulaic and predictable court room drama, but if we accept that premise, we also have to acknowledge that it is a tremendously well told and performed formulaic court room drama. Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx both give, in my opinion, career best performances here. I see Oscar nominations in lead and supporting actor for each of them respectively. There is a scene around the mid-point of the film lead by Rob Morgan playing real life death row inmate Herbert Jackson that is an absolutely stunning piece of filmmaking, and let me tell you, bring tissues. I don’t think there was a single dry eye in the house. O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Brie Larson also both have supporting roles here, with Jackson Jr. playing another real life death row inmate, Anthony Ray Hinton, and Brie Larson playing Eva Ansley, one of Bryan Stevenson’s colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative. All things considered, and although they cover vastly different subject matter, Just Mercy and Short Term 12 have a lot in common. Short Term 12 is a story of at-risk children and the people who dedicate their lives to helping them, while Just Mercy is a story of racial injustice and bigotry in a broken criminal justice system, but both films are ultimately about human compassion and empathy, something that there seems to far too little of in the world right now. This story puts us in the shoes of people who need help the most, but aren’t receiving any because of the way they are perceived, and allows us to see them as human beings. “Each of us is more than the worst thing that we’ve ever done”. The real Bryan Stevenson was at my screening and introduced the film along with Destin Daniel Cretton. He spoke about how he hopes his story and this film will inspire change, and after seeing it, I know I won’t be alone in hoping that too.

7.5/10

TIFF 2019 Preview

Fall film festival season is upon us! As I write this, we are 5 days way from the start of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, and reviews from Venice and Telluride are beginning to pour in. It is a very, very exciting time to be a film fan, and being a film fan who currently resides in southern Ontario, I have had the privilege of actually attending TIFF every year. This year I made the commitment to see more films than I ever have before, so I currently have twelve confirmed tickets, which may sound like amateur hour to festival veterans, but I usually only do six! I’ve also left myself a little bit of room for potentially waiting in rush lines for some sold out screenings, but we’ll see how it goes. I’m going to be tweeting and posting on Instagram throughout the festival, so if you’re interested in seeing what attending TIFF is like, feel free to follow both of those (linked above). But for now, I wanted to write up little previews of the 12 films I’ll be seeing and maybe a little bit about why I chose them. Each and every one of these will be getting a full review on this site after I’ve seen them (and immediately after on Letterboxd). Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that How To Build A Girl, Knives Out, The Lighthouse, and Parasite are all films that I was very much hoping to catch at the festival, but unfortunately all of them were already sold out when I made my picks. Here is my schedule for the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival:

Friday, September 6th, 2019

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire
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Writen by: Céline Sciamma
Directed by: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino, Adèle Haenel, and Noémie Merlant

On an isolated island in Brittany at the end of the 18th century, an artist is commissioned to paint a young woman’s wedding portrait.

This one came out of Cannes with a lot of a buzz and the Best Screenplay award. I have heard nothing but good things from those whose opinions I trust so I had this pretty high on my list of things I wanted to see. It ended up being a pretty late edition to my lineup, but now that it’s on there, I am very excited to see it.

Saturday, September 7th, 2019 

Just Mercy
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Written by: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham, and Bryan Stevenson
Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Michael B. Jordon, Brie Larson, and O’Shea Jackson Jr.

The powerful true story of Harvard-educated lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who goes to Alabama to defend the disenfranchised and wrongly condemned — including Walter McMillian, a man sentenced to death despite evidence proving his innocence. Bryan fights tirelessly for Walter with the system stacked against them.

This film won’t have it’s world premiere until the evening before I’m seeing it, but it has such an insane recipe for success that I am more than willing to roll the dice on this one. Destin Daniel Cretton absolutely knocked my socks off with Short Term 12. It’s one of my favourite films of all time. It introduced me to Brie Larson, who became one of my all-time favourite actresses. She has a supporting role here. Michael B Jordan has been unstoppable pretty much since he arrived on the scene, between huge blockbusters like the Creed franchise and Black Panther, to impressive and devestating indies like Fruitvale Station, and all the way back to his role in Friday Night Lights. Jamie Foxx is Jamie Foxx. The man is a superstar. I have every reason to expect this will be excellent.

Monday, September 9th, 2019

Marriage Story
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Written by: Noah Baumbach
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Alan Alda, and Laura Dern

A stage director and his actor wife struggle through a grueling, coast-to-coast divorce that pushes them to their personal and creative extremes. 

Noah Baumbach is one of my favourite filmmakers. The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha, The Meyerowitz Stories, Greenberg. And now he’s hitting us with a divorce film starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson? I mean, COME ON. I feel like this was made in a lab especially for me. Behind The Lighthouse, this was my highest priority for the entire festival. It’s also getting incredible reviews after screening at Venice and Telluride. I can’t fucking wait.

Tuesday, September 9th, 2019

Uncut Gems
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Written by: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie, and Ronald Bronstein
Directed by: Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie
Starring: Adam Sandler

Set in the diamond district of New York City, Howard Ratner, a jewelry store owner and dealer to the rich and famous, must find a way to pay his debts when his merchandise is taken from one of his top sellers and girlfriend.

I use the Safdie brothers’ most recent film, Good Time, as an example for why people are stupid when they say Robert Pattinson is a bad actor so often that I forget that it’s also an excellent and meticulously crafted film. They are very good filmmakers. And honestly, just about every example of Adam Sandler acting in a serious role is good. Punch Drunk Love in particular. And if early reviews for this one out of Telluride are any indication, this may be tonally similar to Punch Drunk Love. I’ve been hearing that it’s chaotic and anxiety inducing and a little bit deranged, which is exactly up my alley.

Joker
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Written by: Todd Phillips & Scott Silver
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, and Frances Conroy

During the 1980s, a failed stand-up comedian is driven insane and turns to a life of crime and chaos in Gotham City while becoming an infamous psychopathic crime figure.

I have to be honest, this one worries me a little bit, but that’s not because of any aspect of the film in particular. In fact, every indication so far is that it’s actually excellent. Early reviews are nearly unanimously positive. Joaquin Phoenix is a brilliant actor, and the film itself is drawing comparisons to The King Of Comedy and Taxi Driver. What I worry about is how unbearable the discourse around this film will be like. Make no mistake, online discussions about this one are going to be absolutely insufferable. But that’s not the film’s fault, so I guess I just need to mute a bunch of words on Twitter and enjoy this for what it is. It was in my top 10 of choices for the festival, and not all that long ago a slightly younger me would’ve had this as the undisputed #1 choice, so I’m really glad I’m going to be seeing it.

Wednesday, September 11th, 2019

Waves
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Written by: Trey Edward Schults
Directed by: Trey Edward Schults
Starring: Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell, and Kelvin Harrison Jr.

Two young couples navigate the emotional minefield of growing up and falling in love.

I’m pretty sure that plot description is outdated, as not a whole lot was known about this film at all until it had it’s world premiere at Telluride a few nights ago. This one was on my radar when I was selecting my films, but definitely wasn’t a priority. After the world premiere, when the overwhelmingly positive reviews started to get posted online, I decided I had mad a mistake not having this one on my schedule, and went ahead and bought a ticket right away. I honestly still don’t know a whole lot about it, just that folks who’s reviews I look to as a reflection of my own taste love it, and by the sounds of it, I will to.

Friday, September 13th, 2019

Honey Boy
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Written by: Shia LaBeouf
Directed by: Alma Har’el
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, and Noah Jupe

The story of a child star attempting to mend his relationship with his law-breaking, alcohol-abusing father over the course of a decade, loosely based on Shia LaBeouf’s life.

I’ve been looking forward to this one since January when I first starting reading reviews for it after it premiered at Sundance. I just absolutely adore films like this, and it looks like Noah Jupe is going to be someone to keep an eye on going forward. Adding this to the list was a no-brainer for me even sight unseen, but the recently released trailer really sealed the deal.

Lucy In The Sky 
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Written by: Brian C. Brown & Elliott DiGuiseppi
Directed by: Noah Hawley
Starring: Natalie Portman & John Hamm

Astronaut Lucy Cola returns to Earth after a transcendent experience during a mission to space — and begins to lose touch with reality in a world that now seems too small. 

Much like with Just Mercy, the world premiere of this one is the night before I see it, so other than what we can get from the trailers, no one really knows much about this one yet. I know it used to be called Pale Blue Dot, which is an infinitely better title, and that Fox Searchlight (now owned by Disney) seem confident enough in this film to give it a fall festival run and an October release date, setting it up for possible awards contention. The trailers helped sell me a little bit, but honestly, I mostly bought the ticket because of Natalie Portman.

Saturday, September 14th, 2019

A Hidden Life
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Written by: Terrence Malick
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Starring: August Diehl & Valerie Pachner

The Austrian Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector, refuses to fight for the Nazis in World War II. 

The only other Terrence Malick film I’ve seen is The Tree of Life. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be embarrassed about that or not, people seem really split on his filmography as a whole. Regardless, this film looks absolutely stunning and so far it has the reviews to back it up, so I’m all in.

Ford v. Ferrari
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Written by: Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth
Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Jon Bernthal, And Tracy Letts

American car designer Carroll Shelby and the British-born driver Ken Miles work together to battle corporate interference, the laws of physics, and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford Motor Company and take on the dominating race cars of Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France in 1966. 

James Mangold has won some favour in my book between Walk The Line and Logan. While the plot of this film doesn’t particularly excited me, it’s always a nice treat to be excited by something that you weren’t expecting to excite you. It looks like this film might accomplish that feat with ease. Matt Damon and Christian Bale are both powerhouses and it looks like they’re at the top of their game here. This was an easy choice.

The Report
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Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Directed by: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, and Jon Hamm

The story of Daniel Jones, lead investigator for the US Senate’s sweeping study into the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, which was found to be brutal, immoral, and ineffective. With the truth at stake, Jones battled tirelessly to make public what many in power sought to keep hidden. 

Adam Driver is having himself one hell of a year! Between this and Marriage Story and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker coming in December, this will probably end up being a memorable year in his young career. This is a film that got added to my list when other things I wanted to see were sold out, but having said that, it was one of the very first backups! I’m still looking forward to it. Hard to go wrong with Adam Driver and Annette Bening, and the story does look very interesting.

Sunday, September 15th, 2019

Jojo Rabbit
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Written by: Taika Waititi & Christine Leunens
Directed by: Taika Waititi
Starring: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, and Scarlett Johansson

Jojo Rabbit is about a young boy living during World War II. His only escapism is through his imaginary friend, an ethnically inaccurate version of Adolph Hitler, who pushes the young boy’s naive patriotic beliefs. However, this all changes when a young girl challenges those views and causes Jojo to face his own issues. 

The only Taika Waititi film I’ve ever seen is Thor: Ragnarok, so other than knowing that he’s responsible for one of the very best entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I really don’t know what to except from him as a filmmaker. This looks absolutely batshit crazy and hilarious, two of my very favourite film descriptors, and Scarlett Johansson is basically always excellent. The film also stars Thomasin McKenzie, who turned in an Oscar-worthy performance in last year’s Leave No Trace. I don’t know much about the young actor playing Jojo but I suspect that after this film comes out everyone will know Roman Griffin Davis. This is my last film of the festival so it’s sure to be bittersweet, but I am very much looking forward to it nonetheless!

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That will wrap up this little preview! Stay tuned for my full reviews of each and every one of these films after my screenings, and after that we get to dive right in to the most fun thing about every year: OSCAR PREDICTIONS! Thanks for reading!