Toronto Report III: Batting Clean-up

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Toronto Report III: Batting Clean-up

Note to subscribers: The Watch List will be on hiatus for the next two weeks while the author finally takes the overseas vacation that COVID scrubbed in 2020.

I returned from the Toronto International Film Festival Thursday night, wishing I’d seen more documentaries and movies from other countries but grateful for the 24 movies I did manage to see in six days of being there. (At a groaning-board fest like TIFF, one’s schedule is hostage to what’s screening when, word of mouth, and whim.) Did I catch anything that’s set to dominate the end-of-year awards derby? Not this time — and believe me it does happen, as memories of festival screenings for “Spotlight,” “Nomadland,” and “Shape of Water” confirm. But I keep returning in my mind to two movies from this year’s batch, the way you recall a heady dining experience: Azazel Jacob’s piercing “His Three Daughters” and Richard Linklater’s exuberant “Hit Man” (see below). I hope you get to enjoy them soon. Following are eight final TIFF mini-reviews.

“La Chimera” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐) – Italy’s Alice (pronounced A-lee-chay) Rohrwacher won hearts and mystified minds with “Happy As Lazzaro” in 2018 and her Oscar-nominated 2022 short “The Pupils” (streaming on Disney+) is a whimsical delight; over the course of 14 films and without much fuss she has become one of the more notable heirs to her countrymen Fellini and Rossellini. Rohrwacher’s latest is an offhanded drama about a motley gang of tombaroli – grave robbers – selling Etruscan artifacts on the black market and the moody British tomb whisperer (Josh O’Connor, Prince Charles on TV’s “The Crown”) who’s their nominal leader. Zephyrs of metaphor waft through the film, along with discreet laughter at the human comedy and mourning for a people willing to sell their cultural patrimony for cash. Isabella Rossellini appears in a small but crucial role as though she were giving her bloodline’s blessing. (Theatrical release TBA.)

“Evil Does Not Exist” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐) – “Drive My Car” (2021) elevated Japan’s Ryūsuke Hamaguchi to the top tier of international filmmakers, and his first film since conquering the critics and winning an Oscar is this muted, enigmatic drama that tiptoes along the edge of ecological fear and human uncertainty. Created as an accompaniment to composer Eiko Ishibashi’s gorgeous score, it concerns a rural community wooed by a corporation that wants to build a glamping site, one that might have catastrophic effects on the local watershed. The relationship between the underprepared duo representing the corporation (Ayaka Shibutani and Ryuji Kosaka) and the village’s taciturn handyman (Hitoshi Omika), has echoes of “Local Hero” and other comic fables, but Hamaguchi’s vision of man’s estrangement from nature has a darker undertow that eventually surfaces in a powerfully ambiguous final scene that divided TIFF audiences (Theatrical release TBA.)

“Fingernails” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐) – In a retro-future present, couples take a test to see whether they’re truly meant for each other. Unfortunately, that test involves removing a fingernail from each party for data analysis. Jessie Buckley starts doubting her relationship with sweet, dull Jeremy Allen White (“The Bear”) when she gets a new job working alongside Riz Ahmed at a company offering exercises designed to help lovers improve their chances of a match. The second film from director/co-writer Christos Nikou is lo-fi sci-fi with a smidgen of body horror and a big, lovelorn heart. Buckley and Ahmed are quite touching as two people not sure whether they’re soul mates, let alone what to do about it, but the film’s moral – love can never be quantified – just sort of lies there. It feels a little like Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Lobster” without the craziness, and that hurts. (In theaters and on Apple TV+ November 3.)

“Hit Man” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐) Probably the best time I had at TIFF 2023. As with Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers,” also playing in Toronto, this showcases writer-director Richard Linklater at his most confident, if not his most challenging. “Hit Man” also allows Glen Powell to uncork the full measure of his charisma and be the movie star a lot of us knew he was when we saw Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” The story of Gary Johnson, a bookish New Orleans college professor who became a fake hired killer for an undercover sting operation, becomes a witty, relaxed, and cheerfully fictionalized comedy-caper-romance; in the bargain there’s some light philosophical meditations on the impermanence of personality. Powell tacks with charm between Gary’s two personas, nebbishy and ice-cold, and his teaming with Adria Arjona (TV’s “Andor”), playing a woman who could really use some help getting rid of her husband, is a blast of honest to God screen chemistry. A most entertaining film. (Theatrical release TBA.)

“Les Indésirables” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐) – Ladj Ly, the son of Malian immigrants, grew up in the banlieues of Paris and has set his dramas in their poverty-ridden high-rise tenements; “Les Miserables” (2019), which Ly wrote and directed, and “Athena” (2022), which he wrote, are both cinematic Molotov cocktails, lucid and furious. “Les Indésirables,” his second as writer-director, lowers the temperature slightly. A neighborhood mayor dies and his interim replacement (Alexis Manenti) is an officious doctor who thinks deploying the police for minor infractions will bring him respect from the immigrant community of whose lives he knows nothing. It does not. As in his earlier films, Ly draws on a large and varied cast to show the many forces at work in a single social maelstrom and the racist policies that pit one group against another; the downside is that you can feel the director moving some of those characters around like pieces on a chessboard. Still, a scene of a tenement being forcibly evacuated – on Christmas Eve, no less – is a brilliantly directed epic of displacement, bristling with empathy and rage. (Seeking US distribution.)

“The Royal Hotel” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐) – Kitty Green’s ambitious follow-up to “The Assistant” (2019) brings that movie’s star, Julia Garner, and Jessica Henwick over to the director’s native Australia and plonks them down in the Outback, where they play two American backpackers who sign on as bartenders in an isolated mining town inhabited almost entirely by men. The tension builds, but if you’re expecting a “Straw Dogs”-style bloodbath, you’re out of luck, since Green is more interested in subverting revenge-drama cliches and showing how thin men’s veneers of civilization can be. Well-acted and extremely suspenseful, but it never quite builds to the boiling point it seems headed toward. (In theaters October 6.)

“Wicked Little Letters” (⭐ ⭐ 1/2) – You’d watch Olivia Colman or Jessie Buckley in anything, right? This should test your commitment. The two stars are by far the best things in this true story of anonymous poison-pen letters that roiled a sleepy English village in the 1920s. Colman plays the primly devout recipient of many of the missives and Buckley is her neighbor and prime suspect, a bawdy single mother living in sin with her lover. Director Thea Sharrock establishes a tone somewhere between cutesy tea-cosy realism and slapstick farce, and the mixture never gels. You’ll probably guess the letter writer’s identity early and this is one of those cases where color-blind casting works against an audience’s suspension of disbelief, despite Anjana Vasan’s deft performance as a lady police detective bent on solving the mystery. “Letters” may turn out be popular with an older Sunday matinee crowd, but it’s a wobbly, unconvincing movie. (Seeking US distribution.)

“Woman of the Hour” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2) – I went into this expecting something comedic because it’s directed by Anna Kendrick and has a “Dating Show” plotline, and, honestly, that’s on me. There are some laughs to be had when Kendrick’s character, Cheryl, a struggling L.A. actress who agrees to appear on the game show, tosses the silly scripted questions she’s supposed to ask the three bachelor contestants and in the process exposes the whole rotten nudge-nudge edifice of the game’s and the larger culture’s idea of gender roles. But the rest of “Woman of the Hour,” an upcoming Netflix movie that’s based on a true story, is a taut, creepy suspense drama that follows Rodney Alcala (Daniel Zovatto), who appeared on “The Dating Game” as a contestant in the middle of a decades-long killing spree. The star has the smarts and the stuff of a born filmmaker, and her performance is nervy and astute; there’s a moment in a dive bar when Cheryl suddenly realizes what she’s dealing with and you can read every thought crossing Kendrick’s face as her character slides from charmed to alarmed to frightened in the space of a few seconds. “Woman of the Hour” isn’t a horror movie but a drama about what it’s like for women to go through life knowing the horror is out there, with no idea of where or who it may be. The theme surfaces in the comment of a mother-hen make-up lady on the game show set, who reminds Cheryl of the question beneath all the other questions the bachelorettes ask: Which one of you will hurt me? (No theatrical or on-demand release date set.)

Being out of town, I’ve missed local screenings for new-release movie and on-demand titles this week, but I can point you to “Cassandro” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2), in theaters today and on Amazon Prime next Friday. It’s a treat for fans of Gael Garcia Bernal (which would cover most of us, I think) who plays Saúl Armendaríz, maybe not the first gay Mexican wrestler but the first “exótico” to become a popular star, one expected to (and allowed to) win his bouts. As I wrote when I reviewed the movie at this year’s Sundance, “[Armendaríz] was a consciousness-raising groundbreaker but also a prankster of the luchador circuit, and Bernal has great fun playing both sides of the character: Cassandro, the outrageous camp figure of the ring, and Saúl, a mocked outsider who refuses to be marginalized.” Directed by the tireless Roger Ross Williams, whose other 2023 film, the Ibram X. Kendi documentary adaptation “Stamped From the Beginning” was at TIFF, “Cassandro” is a heartfelt joy.

And if you feel like shelling out premium VOD bucks, Barbie(⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2) is now available on multiple services for $24.99, the fluky, enjoyable Ben Kingsley-meets-an-alien comedy Jules (⭐ ⭐ ⭐) can be rented for $14.99, and theater-kid mockumentary Theater Camp,” which I have yet to see but that many people like, is streaming on Hulu and renting for $14.99 on Amazon and elsewhere. See you in October.

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