Soderbergh, Kore-eda and more on day 5 of TIFF

PLUS new movies from Rian Johnson, Sophie Deraspe and Marielle Heller’s Mister Rogers movie.

Knives Out

Popular mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his study, his throat neatly sliced. The police rule it a suicide, but world-famous private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), brought in to assist local police (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan), suspects foul play is afoot. Could it be one of his children (Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon), one of his children-in-law (Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Riki Lindhome) or one of his spoiled grandchildren (Chris Evans, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell)? Or perhaps the blame lays on his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), his only companion? 

Knives Out is noted genre jester Rian Johnson’s take on the classic whodunit and, to his credit, it’s very much an old-fashioned whodunit rather than an edgy, po-mo take on the genre. It’s admirably straightforward and honest in its desire to borrow tropes without necessarily subverting them, and with reason: this type of frothy Agatha Christie thing is pretty hard to fuck up, especially with a cast of this caliber. Johnson delivers a fun if surprisingly conventional take on the genre, with his major attempt to update the material taking the form of seriously anemic political commentary. (I guess Agatha Christie would’ve put people yelling about globalist snowflakes and Proud Boys in her books had they been around at the time.)

It’s certainly not enough to sink the pure Rube Goldbergian pleasures of Johnson’s careful crafting, but I do wish that the film put more emphasis on his characters and less on their hot-button, Twitter-friendly talking points. (Johnson has spent the last year or so attracting the ire of pickle-dick fanboys for his take on Star Wars, so I get the motivation, but that doesn’t mean that dropping some oblique Trump references immediately pushes you into being this year’s Get Out.)  Knives Out wants to be more than just an elaborate pop confection, but sometimes that’s more than enough. (Alex Rose)

Knives Out is set for release on Nov. 27.

The Truth

Fresh off his Palme d’Or for Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda makes his foreign-language (well, foreign to him in any case) debut. Kore-eda excels at capturing the facade of etiquette and good behaviour at the expense of honest communication. The Truth is no different. For the most part, Kore-eda successfully modulates the Japanese “keep calm, carry on” attitude to suit a more vocal and histrionic French family. 

Set in Paris in a French villa imperfectly positioned behind a prison, Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) is an actress, much of the same stature as Deneuve herself. Bitter and ungrateful towards everyone, she’s Norma Desmond reincarnate. Her screenwriter daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) and her family come to visit and to celebrate the publication of her memoir. What is left out of it, however, stirs up old feelings of anger on the part of not just Lumir, but a whole host of Fabienne’s entourage. Her assistant is so hurt by the absence of even a single line mentioning him that he quits suddenly. Her ex-husband, alive and kicking, is killed off. Truth is neither fact nor contract to Fabienne. Lumir’s visit coincides with the shooting of a sci-fi film entitled Memories of My Mother in which Fabienne plays the aging daughter of a mother who, to cheat an illness, doesn’t age after spending years in space. The film-within-the-film mirrors Lumir and Fabienne’s strained yet ultimately loving relationship and brings out the worst in Fabienne.

Despite compelling performances from Binoche and Deneuve, The Truth can feel slight in its depiction of the mother-daughter relationship. The bickering starts almost immediately and only gets more ammunition as the film progresses, and yet a lot of these dialogue-heavy scenes feel like distractions from getting at the heart of their relationship. I craved more scenes of the two of them simply existing alongside each other silently speaking their truths to one another through glances and gestures, not just searing words. (Sarah Foulkes)

The Truth does not yet have a release date.

The Laundromat

Steven Soderbergh takes on the Panama Papers story in full agitprop mode in The Laundromat, which plays like The Big Short if that film was directed by someone in actual fuck-the-world mode. The Laundromat plays like a series of interconnected vignettes — Kentucky Fraud Movie, if you will — that serve as an explainer of the very concept of tax havens. The film is narrated by Jurgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramon Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), the heads of a shady Panamanian law firm who operate hundreds of thousands of shell companies across the world. She doesn’t know it yet, but they’re who recently-widowed Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) is looking for when she starts seeking answers after the settlement of her husband’s accidental death suddenly disappears. 

The Laundromat begins like a traditional fiction storyline, a queasy comedy full of familiar faces à la Soderbergh’s own The Informant! but its structure quickly erodes as Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns start wildly spinning their wheels. Actors miss their cues, cameos become blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em affairs, the segments become increasingly disconnected from each other and the film’s fictional elements soon make way for a rougher, more abstract form of anger from Soderbergh.

It’s certainly entertaining — if, inevitably, a little smug — but unevenly so, with entire sequences predicated on rough forms of dark humour and overdone cartoonish performances. All of this is clearly by design — an attempt to shake the core of this type of well-meaning, would-be-edgy liberal propaganda — but I have yet to see someone truly pull off the rage-filled explainer in this mode. This is the closest anyone has gotten. (AR)

The Laundromat hits Netflix on Sept. 27.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Last year’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbour? was hailed as a tonic for our hard times, but A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood comes with an even heavier dose of solace. The film is a critique of the biopic genre, by showing it through the eyes of a Mister Rogers denier. A reputable magazine writer known to be merciless with his subjects, Lloyd Vogel (the always excellent Matthew Rhys), is given an assignment to write a short puff piece on Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). Convinced that there must be some dark secret lurking behind Mister Rogers’ soft smile and comforting voice, Lloyd travels to Pittsburgh to uncover it. 

No one can be that nice, right? I found myself thinking that while watching last year’s documentary, and wished that that pessimistic thought was addressed by the film. Thankfully, It’s a Beautiful Day hears those doubts and hugs them so tight until they all but disappear. We learn early on that Lloyd had a troubled childhood and a virtually non-existent relationship with his father (Chris Cooper). His fear and pain have calcified him and rendered him emotionally impotent. In comes Mister Rogers, the man who believes that everyone deserves love, on a mission to unburden Lloyd of his anger.

A lesser director with a heavier hand might force the film into a saccharine tear-jerker, but Marielle Heller finds nuance through emotional specificity in every scene. Framed as an episode of Mister Rogers’ show in which Lloyd is one of his friends in need of help, the film delves into the world of Mister Rogers, with miniature set pieces running throughout.

Thanks to an excellent script and a career-high performance from Hanks, Mister Rogers feels like a real person, albeit a peculiar one, rather than a cloying performer. I imagine it’ll be hard to find a die-hard cynic who won’t shed even a small tear for this one. (SF)

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is set for release on Nov. 22.

Antigone

Even the writing credits say that Sophie Deraspe’s Antigone is a loose adaptation of the Greek tragedy. it’s set in the current day, for one, and it veers off into its own thing not too long after borrowing the set-up from a play that was written nearly two millennia ago, but the roots of tragedy with a capital T are still felt in a sometimes powerful, sometimes melodramatic meditation on the modern immigrant experience. Antigone (Nahéma Ricci) moved to Canada as a child from an unnamed, war-torn Middle Eastern country where she saw the bodies of her parents dumped on her doorstep on the eve of their departure. It’s been rough for her and her siblings: her sister Ismène (Nour Belkhira) just wants a normal life, while her brothers Polynice (Rawad El-Zein) and Étéocle (Hakim Brahimi) hang around the Habibi street gang. Her world comes crashing down when Étéocle is killed by police and Polynice is subsequently arrested for assault, forcing her to make some tough decisions for the sake of her family.

As powerful as it can be, Antigone suffers somewhat from clumsy translation of 2,000-year-old narrative tropes. Though it’s not a straight adaptation, it does follow a throughline and some of its attempts at updating for a modern audience are a little corny. (Hip hop scored montages covered in graffiti feature prominently.) Camping the story in present-day Quebec allows Deraspe to touch on real-life parallels (including the death of Fredy Villanueva at the hands of police and the Printemps Érable) in much the same way that Jean Anouilh’s adaptation updated the setting to match the political climate of the 1940s, but the film’s depictions of gang life are only a notch above your average téléroman in terms of grittiness or immediacy. Its margins are considerably more interesting than its skeleton, but Antigone is propulsed by a strong performance from first-timer Ricci and Deraspe’s palpable desire to draw parallels between societies thousands of years apart. (AR)

Antigone is set for release on Nov. 8.