Day 5 of TIFF brings the anticipated world premiere of the new Xavier Dolan – and much more

The Toronto International Film Festival runs through to September 16th. Here’s what we saw on day 5:

The Life and Death of John F. Donovan

Even though Xavier Dolan’s newest film represents a quantum leap in terms of ambition (it shot for five months and cost 36 million dollars), it would have been extremely surprising if Dolan didn’t actually turn in a Dolan movie. The Life and Death of John F. Donovan is Dolan exploring all of his favourite themes within a much more mainstream structure. It’s all here: repressed homosexuality, difficult mothers, pop songs, extreme closeups on faces, outlandish costumes, slo-mo… this time wrapped up in a meditation on fame that seems to come from deep within.

The film explores the parallel stories of John F. Donovan (Kit Harrington), a popular teen heartthrob actor who represses his homosexuality in order to further his career and Rupert Turner (Jacob Tremblay), a child actor living in the UK with his mother (Natalie Portman) and entertains a years-long epistolary relationship with the actor. Dolan jumps around in the timeline in a way that isn’t always tidy (the original cut was reportedly four hours long; this one is a more manageable 127 minutes), crouching much of the film’s narrative drive in an interview between a grown-up Rupert (played by Ben Schnetzer) and a haughty journalist (Thandie Newton) that never feels like anything more than a device.

I haven’t necessarily responded positively to all of Dolan’s work in the past; some of his films are too insistent to push the same note and stretch out into stylistic flourishes for my taste. For all of his sensuous and rapturous sense of style, Dolan’s films sometimes strike me as airless. The Life and Death of John F. Donovan is perhaps the opposite, an unwieldy narrative that I nevertheless found myself enjoying in spite of its many flaws. It’s a movie that comes from the heart but also comes across as difficult to express, and there’s something compelling about that coming from a director who’s as open a book as Dolan. There’s no mistaking it for anyone else’s work, that’s for sure. (Alex Rose)

The Life and Death of John F. Donovan does not yet have a Montreal release date.

The Hate U Give

George Tillman Jr. has had a rather inconsistent directorial career. Though his 1997 breakthrough, Soul Food, was a box office and critical success, everything that followed felt phoned-in. Though clearly a skillful director, Tillman spent nearly two decades making work that lacked creative ambitions, even if he knew better.

His latest, The Hate U Give marks a long-awaited return to form. The film is a hands-on approach of representing the Black Lives Matter movement on screen. It follows Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a young woman torn between the her preppy Caucasian private school, and lower class, Afrocentric hometown. One night, she witnesses the shooting of an unarmed childhood friend by a police officer and is torn with the ethical dilemma on how to handle the situation while pleasing both sides of her life.

Having a teenage character at the film’s forefront allowed for solid pacing. Despite being at the forefront of a traumatic occurrence, Starr is still going through the motions that any girl her age must face: love life, flakey friendships, staying afloat in school, so on and so forth. The film knows how to sprinkle in humor to reflect Starr’s situation without the its overall tone getting derailed.

The Hate U Give takes an empathetic approach to the BLM movement. Though the film is framed through the eyes of a teenage Carter, we find a multitude of perspectives to this often-difficult subject matter. Everyone has their own ideas of what is right and wrong, this picture explores the hardships of standing by your own truth.

The original novel for which The Hate U Give finds its source material came out in 2017. It is clear that this is an important story to tell. Though pictures like Get Out and Sorry to Bother You have been met with recent praise for their surrealist approach to the African-American experience, telling a story closer to the realities that many communities face is where the film finds its strength. (Mr. Wavvy)

The Hate U Give is set for release in Montreal on October 19th.

Climax

Most of Gaspar Noé’s films have been the equivalent of the director banging on a pot with a ladle and yodeling atonally for as long as it takes to break the audience. While I have to commend his mastery of the ladle, I have a real fight-or-flight reaction to his work that also applies to his latest, Climax. Noé’s latest provocation focuses on the members of a dance troupe who have been working tirelessly on a new piece, secluded during a snow storm in a decommissioned school. On their last day, they decide to throw a party and unwind – only to discover that someone has spiked the punch with LSD. Instead of a “tune in, drop out” experience, the whole thing turns into a total fucking nightmare, with the majority of the participants having a very bad trip.

Set to constant pulsating dance music and cast mostly with real-life dancers making their acting debuts (Sofia Boutella, The Mummy herself, is the only name in the cast unless you’re deep into the Parisian dance or voguing scene), Climax opens with eye-popping choreography and ends in a blood-spattered neon nightmare bacchanal in the purest Noé vein. It’s basically the Rectum sequence from Irréversible turned into a screeching horror movie, Noé’s crane-mounted camera snaking in and out of rooms and turning upside down constantly.

I can’t deny that Noé is a gifted visual filmmaker with a style that’s all his own, but here (and elsewhere) he puts it to the service of repetitive and juvenile provocation. Climax starts with its credits and “ends” twice before the real ending, empty narrative gestures that serve practically no purpose. In a way, Climax is reminiscent of mother!, another primal-color-tinted nightmare by a provocateur bro; Noé at least has the decency of not pretending that his movie is about anything other than sensory overload, but it’s still just banging on a pot – even if you do it rhythmically. (Alex Rose)

Climax does not yet have a Montreal release date.

Widows

Steve McQueen’s last trek to TIFF was with 12 Years a Slave. Of course, the film went on to be an award season darling, earning the Grolsch People’s Choice Award at the festival, along the Best Picture Academy Award a few months later. After making what feels like his most masterful film, what would be his next step?

Widows is a move no one could have quite seen coming. This high-intensity heist flick finds a group of widows finishing the final job of their husbands following their recent passings on the job. Think Ocean’s 8, only with characters who have more on the line and are more believable.

For a crime film, Widows is actually very dialogue-heavy. Viola Davis is one of those rare actresses who always delivers a stellar performance no matter the quality of the screenplay, though the script here also happens to shine. However, for those who are familiar with co-writer Gillian Flynn’s style, there is a certain amount of revisited techniques here that may feel redundant to her fans. Other acting highlights include newfound A-Lister Daniel Kaluuya, who delivers in a vicious villain role, for a change.

Viewers will also be treated to a new original song by the ever-reclusive Sade titled “The Big Unknown”, which plays as the credits roll. The soul singer made her return to music earlier this year with “Flower of the Universe” a soundtrack cut for Ava DuVernay’s recent A Wrinkle in Time, marking her first release in nearly a decade. The continuing trend seems to indicate that she must either be a secret cinephile, or gunning for a Best Original Song Oscar. This track may just do the trick for the latter theory, a haunting ballad that finds Sade in her natural form.

12 Years a Slave is a film that comes around once in a career. There is no need to attempt in replicating such a level of excellence. In Widows, Steve McQueen pulls somewhat of a 180°, delivering a film that is at once more fun yet still undeniably gripping. (Mr. Wavvy)

Widows is set for release in Montreal on November 16.

 

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