Toronto 2022: Mid-Festival Report

Left-field crowd pleasers dominate TIFF 2022

Toronto 2022: Mid-Festival Report

You know what I’ve missed? The sound of a packed theater enjoying – really being picked up and spun around by – a movie. The public screenings at an event like the Toronto International Film Festival are one of the best places to have that experience: The audience is already pumped to see something for the first time, and when the movie actually delivers – which, trust me, much of the time it doesn’t – it’s a communal high like no other.

The film in question doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to have the confidence of its own ideas and its storytelling. “Bros” (opening in theaters September 30, *** stars out of ****), which I caught Friday night at the Princess of Wales Theatre, is something old that has been retrofitted into something new: It’s a good, solid, raunchy mainstream gay romantic comedy, a Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks-style meet-cute with a Judd Apatow pottymouth (he produced), a zingy script by star Billy Eichner and director Nicholas Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and lesser projects), and a big, bustling cast of comic actors LGBTQ+ and otherwise.

“Bros” plays with classic rom-com structure but takes care not to break it; at the end of the day, it’s content to stick to the rules. Eichner (above right) is cast as the smart, intense, self-mocking/loathing hero, happily miserable with his hit podcast and random Grindr pickups – the film’s satire of gay male dating rituals is ruthless and, judging from the audience reaction, pretty much on target – and Luke Macfarlane (above left) is a hunky Midwestern attorney with a shameful secret (he wants to be a chocolatier). The banter is choice (“You’re like a Keebler elf with internalized homophobia”) and the bench of comic support is deep, including “Will and Grace” star Debra Messing as herself and goddamned tired of every gay man in America asking her for relationship advice. If there’s a flaw, it’s how self-conscious and sometimes self-pleased “Bros” is about the ground it’s breaking, and Eichner comes on awfully strong even if his character is meant to. I can see how “Bros” might have less punch if seen at home on VOD, too. For all its relative sexual frankness, this is an old-fashioned popcorn crowd pleaser.

So is “The Woman King” (opening in theaters next Friday, ***1/2 stars out of ****), and with any justice this muscular Classics Illustrated action-adventure epic set in 1820s West Africa will be a major box-office hit. What’s not to like? It has all the elements audiences loved in films like “Gladiator” and “Braveheart” and “The Last of the Mohicans” – movies in whose tradition director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Beyond the Lights”) has said she was consciously working. Indeed, the film’s lineage goes back to the sword-and-sandal classics of Hollywood’s heyday – all the way back to 1925’s “Ben-Hur” and other silent warhorses.

The difference (to the movie and potentially the box office)? “The Woman King” is about a Black woman action hero: General Nanisca (Viola Davis, above center), leader of the fierce all-woman-warrior unit known as the Agojie in the 19th-century kingdom of Dahomey. Davis’s character is fictional, but the Agojie were real, and the script (by Dana Stevens and Maria Bello) and the production design are scrupulously rooted in history. The story has the Agojie, under the auspices of the young King Ghezo (John Boyega of the last round of “Star Wars” movies), fighting off the onslaughts of rival tribes and Portuguese slavers whose coastal barracoons feed a triangular trade of human misery. In a subplot rife with Joseph Campbellian overtones, a young warrior trainee (South African actress Thuso Mbedu) rises through the ranks with the skills and possibly the lineage of a chosen one.

So “The Woman King” is built on archetypal narrative bones but feels fresh – like a familiar dish with fresh ingredients – on the strengths of Prince-Bythewood’s muscular moviemaking, fine supporting performances from Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim as the General’s two lieutenants (Lynch also gets the timeworn drill-sergeant-with-heart-of-steel part), battle scenes that have a brutal clarity, and, above all, the sheer authority of Viola Davis as a martial leader with scars on the inside as well as the outside. On one level, this is just a rousing Saturday-matinee action-adventure; on another, it carries the weight of everything Davis has done up to now and every page of Black history – Black women’s history – that hasn’t been told on this scale and in this medium. If Russell Crowe can win an Oscar for “Gladiator,” there’s no reason Davis shouldn’t win one for what she does here. And if this movie isn’t a hit with all audiences, it’ll be hard to ignore the reason why. Take your daughters, sure – but take the menfolk too, young and old.

Some shorter TIFF 2022 takes (and there will be more to come in the next few days):

“Broker” (release date TBA, *** stars out of ****) – Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda had a sweet, satisfying art house hit with “Shoplifters” in 2018, and his latest movie could almost serve as a remake, so consistent is this filmmaker’s fascination with humans on the fringes of society making their own family units as they go. “Broker” starts out as a crime drama, with two women cops tailing two hapless sellers of abandoned babies, but it gradually becomes a touching story of how all four – plus a young prostitute and a feisty little orphan — are drawn together in a web of mutual caring. I felt like I’d seen it already, but so help me, I cried all over again.

“Corsage” (in theaters December, ** stars out of ****) – A disappointment: A historical costume drama about the 19th-century Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who rebelled scandalously against propriety and her royal duties, that never works up much of a pulse, despite such modish trimmings as 21st-century pop songs on the soundtrack. My admiration for star Vicky Krieps knows no bounds (in “Phantom Thread” and in the current “Hold Me Tight” – review to come later), but her performance here feels curiously defeated.

“Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” (Streaming on Apple TV+ October 28, ***1/2 stars out of ****) — An exemplary documentary about an essential American hero, and why has it taken so long? Critic-turned-filmmaker Sacha Jenkins treats Armstrong’s life as a kind of sociocultural mix tape — using many of the musician’s homemade tape recordings, which allow Louis to seem to comment on the proceedings himself — and the director’s spelunking of the film archives is amazing. Along the way, the lingering 1960s smear of Armstrong as an Uncle Tom is firmly laid to rest. If there’s anything missing, it’s a deep dive into the music itself, with the crucial Hot Five and Hot Seven years over before we’ve had a chance to understand their impact on jazz and on America.

“Mariupolis 2” (release date TBA, ***1/2 stars out of ****) — A devastating and devastatingly simple documentary of life in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol during March of this year, when constant Russian bombardment had reduced everything to rubble. Director Mantas Kvedaravičius embedded himself with a group of civilians living in the basement of a church, following their lives amidst the pounding and the death with an uninflected camera gaze that captures the banality pf carrying on under unimaginable extremes. Kvedaravičius wasn’t in Toronto to present his film: He was murdered by Russian soldiers as he tried to leave Mariupol in April. The film was rescued by his wife and completed by his longtime editor.

“The Swimmers” (Streaming on Netflix November 23, **1/2 stars out of ****) – The 2022 TIFF opening night film is the inspirational true story of Yusra and Sara Mardini, sisters who fled the disastrous war in their home country of Syria and made it all the way to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where Yusra swam for the Refugee Olympic Team. Sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa are dynamic in the leads – one anxious and determined, the other reckless and pissed off – and Sally El Hosaini’s film is at its strongest in the details of the refugees’ road, familiar to Americans from news footage but brought to life here in all its gnawing suspense. The rest of the movie is familiar underdog sports-movie stuff, but you’ll probably be so invested in the characters that you’ll still get a lift.

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