Acting performances overtake the films at Toronto Film Festival

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The Toronto International Film Festival is the final part in the triumvirate of late-summer festivals — Venice and Telluride being the others — that attempt to identify next year’s awards movies. Toronto is where the audience gets to decide, and the public here, who would happily clap a coffee being poured, remain the best and most neutral guide to awards season potential.

This time last year, Green Book won the Audience Award in Canada before taking the long and winding road to Oscar glory. Peter Farrelly’s race drama eventually passed the Venice-winning frontrunner Roma in the final straight, to the bemusement of many.

The story this year is that the acting performances are better than the movies, while directors are enamoured of supervillains. Joker came to town already carrying Venice’s top prize and Toronto audiences were looking for their own hero to challenge him. Where was the film that could slay Todd Phillips’s ode to Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy in the race for the Oscars?

There were high hopes that director Taika Waititi would pull the bunny out of the hat. After all, he was directing and starring in a movie called Jojo Rabbit. The New Zealander has superhero pedigree, having helmed the adored comedic interpretation of the Marvel movie, Thor: Ragnarok, and Waititi himself plays a supervillain greater even than the Joker: Adolf Hitler.

Loosely based on the novel by Christine Leunens, the opening scene promises a subversive and riotous comedy: a 10-year-old German boy in the 1930s, Johannes aka Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), is taught how to heil with joyous gusto by his imaginary friend, Adolf. Next comes Hitler Youth training, with Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen providing hilarious instruction.

But then Waititi stops with the offensive comedy, and so comes the downfall. The film veers towards the tale of a saccharine friendship between Jojo and a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) whom his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding in a cupboard. By now, Hitler has become a one-dimensional clown rather than a world-threatening menace in this misjudged feelgood movie. The biggest crime here is that Waititi has borrowed liberally from Charlie Chaplin, Quentin Tarantino and Anne Frank, and still failed to comment on our own troubled times.

Steve Coogan, Isla Fisher, and Asa Butterfield in Greed (2019)
Steve Coogan, Isla Fisher, and Asa Butterfield in Greed (2019)

Pulling no punches was Michael Winterbottom, who also placed a malign figure at the centre of his business satire Greed. The British director’s regular muse Steve Coogan plays a knighted retail billionaire who bears a close resemblance to Philip Green and Mike Ashley.

Few actors are better than Coogan when it comes to playing larger than life shysters, and he is hilarious as nefarious tycoon Sir Richard McCreadie, aka “Greedy McCreadie”, who is celebrating his 60th birthday on the Greek island of Mykonos with people on his payroll. It’s the actor’s best performance since playing Tony Wilson in Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People.

Using a flashback structure, the film shows how McCreadie played the system and stepped on his employees on the road to wealth. Winterbottom clearly wants this to be a British Big Short as he connects retail billionaires to sweatshops in Bangladesh and points fingers at celebrity endorsers along the way. EM Forster’s overused Howards End epigraph “Only Connect” bookends the film, to reinforce the point, in case you somehow missed it.

Winterbottom has tackled capitalism through comedy before, but fortunately the new film is a far cry from the nauseating sight of Russell Brand trying to set the world to rights in 2015’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. Greed shows Winterbottom and Coogan on top form, though it’s way too ramshackle and unwieldy to threaten the Oscars.

Daniel Craig, Noah Segan, and LaKeith Stanfield in Knives Out (2019)
Daniel Craig, Noah Segan, and LaKeith Stanfield in Knives Out (2019)

Having a broad appeal will not be an issue for the dastardly Knives Out, a whodunnit that plays like a Coen Brothers noir and boasts a fabulous ensemble cast containing Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis and Toni Collette. Ana de Armas, playing an immigrant maid, delivers a performance that will probably push her towards A-list status. Craig excels as a southern US detective trying to work out who killed Plummer’s patriarch, and his investigations reveal that all the characters are motivated by self-interest, with the family members revealing their foibles to him in a delicious, malicious fashion.

It’s a return to form for director Rian Johnson after Star Wars: The Last Jedi, his desultory addition to the Skywalker saga. Knives Out unfolds at a breakneck speed that might mask some narrative flaws, but it’s a movie all about the actors and audiences having as much fun as possible. And on those terms, it’s a success.

Dev Patel in The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)
Dev Patel in ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

Armando Iannucci is known for a no-holds-barred approach to storytelling, especially in the sphere of amoral, corrupt politics. His eye for wickedness has worked on both sides of the Atlantic, with The Thick of It and Veep providing some of the best moments in TV’s golden age. So it’s ironic that in a year when many filmmakers are aping Iannucci’s approach, he has made his most family-orientated and endearing film, The Personal History of David Copperfield.

Dev Patel plays the central character in this film, which exhibits its politics through action rather than commentary. It’s a wacky adaptation of Charles Dickens that emphasises the surreal humour of the novel, told through self-aware narration that recalls Winter­bottom’s adaptation of Tristram Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story. The political thrust of the film emphasises the plight of the homeless and refugees, but the main focus is on the performances, with colour-blind casting and much quirkiness.

Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sterling K. Brown, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Taylor Russell in Waves (2019)
Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sterling K. Brown, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Taylor Russell in Waves (2019)

Trey Edward Shults’s third film Waves come to Canada after premiering at Telluride. It is the story of how a family disintegrates after a promising sports star runs into trouble with the police and in his personal life. Visually, it’s reminiscent of Hype Williams’s Belly (1998), the strong primary and neon colours making every location look like a nightclub. And though it has the narrative poetry of Barry Jenkins, the movie is a gut-punch that leaves audiences to decide whether the central protagonist is evil or not.

Waves emerged from nowhere, but of all the titles to play at Toronto, it looks like an awards contender, this year’s potential Green Book or Moonlight.

To September 15, tiff.net

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