The New Boy TIFF review reviews

TIFF Reviews: The New Boy, Perfect Days, Dumb Money, Riddle of Fire

Cate Blanchett plays an awkward nun, Paul Dano and Pete Davidson star in the GameStop stock story, Wim Wenders makes a comeback and more.

The 2023 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival began on Sept. 7 and runs through Sept. 17.

Perfect Days

Perfect Days TIFF review reviews
Perfect Days

Wim Wenders’ wonderfully understated Perfect Days is a portrait of a toilet cleaner (Hirayama, played by Kôji Yakusho) and a city (Tokyo) somehow told through beautifully designed public toilets. The toilets themselves are part of a project called The Toyko Toilet, led by the Nippon Foundation, which advertises its incredible attention to cleanliness with a website focusing not only on the architects behind the toilets but also on the maintenance team, all dressed in the same navy one-piece uniform Yakusho wears in the film.

In anyone else’s hands, this project could feel like an ad for Tokyo instead of a poem about the city, but of course, Wenders is Wenders, and Perfect Days possesses a rare slow-burning heartache. The script, written by Wenders with Takuma Takasak, is spare, and Hirayama barely speaks, but the routines that make up his days and around which the film is structured paint a precise image of one chapter in a man’s life. Music looms large, and the old cassette tapes he listens to on his commute punctuate Hirayama’s days. Tracks by Patti Smith, Nina Simone and Lou Reed act as a portal to an emotionality he seems no longer to allow himself with the people in his life, many of which exist on the periphery.

Yakusho’s face hovers between joy and sadness at all times, but this is not a maudlin film, nor does it make grand totalizing statements about the themes it courts: loneliness, age, memory. Hirayama remains a stranger to us. The significance of his dreams and memories — as portrayed in step-printed black and white — is never laboriously dragged out, and for the better. (Nora Rosenthal)

Perfect Days will open in Montreal theatres in Winter 2023/24. 

Dumb Money 

Dumb Money TIFF review reviews
Dumb Money

In the darkest days of the pandemic, as the goodwill and sense of community of the pandemic’s early days faded, the GameStop stock’s improbable story felt strangely inspiring. For those who might have forgotten, beginning in January 2021, a short squeeze of the stock for brick-and-mortar videogame store GameStop began to rise. Driven at first by subreddit r/wallstreetbets, the rise in the stock price was fuelled by individual investors, which Hedge Funds often call “dumb money.” In a David vs. Goliath narrative that pitted hedge funds against the average investor, the rise in the stock was not just an opportunity for the little guy to get rich but a statement against an industry with little oversight and considerable contempt for the average worker. The events were portrayed in the book The Antisocial Network by Ben Mezrich and adapted for the screen by writers Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo in a film directed by Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya). 

Much like The Big ShortDumb Money faces a formidable hurdle; it has to explain to a mostly layman audience the complexities of the finance system. As far as filmmaking goes, Dumb Money does a better job than I did in my early review, relying (much like The Big Short) on humour to deliver otherwise dry material. Centred on Twitch streamer Keith Gill (Paul Dano), the film shows the stock’s rise and how a movement built around it. Part biopic and part document of a unique cultural moment, the film feels consistently entertaining, if not politically impotent. Though critical of an unequal playing field driven by the hyper-wealthy, the film fails to be critical of the system itself. Though it’s clear that the filmmakers have done a great job at bringing to the screen events in recent memory, this also means the film feels incomplete, cut short before it even begins. The events in the movie are presented as primarily a feel-good story; the celebratory “little guy winning” tone fails to impress upon the audience how this exceptional story proves that the system is rigged. While surface-level charming, the movie has nothing to say. (Justine Smith)

Dumb Money opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Sept. 15. 

Riddle of Fire

Riddle of Fire TIFF review reviews
Riddle of Fire

Weston Razooli’s debut feature Riddle of Fire sends three kids on an imaginative woodland quest to uncover the password to the parental lock on a TV so they can play their newly stolen video game. These kids wear fuzzy balaclavas on a sunny day, shoot paint guns and ride dirt bikes. At its best, Riddle of Fire is a playful allegory about parental neglect not being so bad, loosely structured as a role-playing game: Prankster kids causing trouble with the wind rippling through their cool outfits.

Somehow, however, the incredible attention to graphic and product design is this film’s peculiar downfall. In a way, kudos are in order, this being the first time I’ve ever watched as the graphics literally stole the show, from decals on cars, screen printed T-shirts, the digital interface of a smartphone app, even the packaging on a frozen bag of king crab legs. Large swaths of dialogue are also captioned in a brightly coloured gothic font, which inadvertently nestles the film into the language of advertising. A very pretty ad, shot on 16mm, but an ad nevertheless. 

Riddle of Fire plays heavily into ’70s nostalgia, but the meticulous design, down to one mom’s witchy taxidermy business, risks feeling like a giant marketing exercise for a nouveau-pagan Etsy store moonlighting in children’s fashion. There being no such shop, this felt subversively anti-Mattel and anti-Marvel: a big ad for something you can’t actually purchase. Yet, while there’s some charm to the kids stumbling over dialogue that’s always a bit too verbose, their lines — too peppered with stilted profanity — come to feel like an affectation of this overly crafted world. (Nora Rosenthal)

Riddle of Fire does not currently have a Canadian release date. 

The New Boy

The New Boy TIFF review
The New Boy

The New Boy opens with a young aboriginal boy fighting off settlers in the desert. Operatic and dramatic, the young orphan child, clearly adept at survival, holds his own before he’s finally captured. In a sequence evoking the soft-focused romanticism of a mid-20th-century period drama, he’s dragged onto a steam engine in a burlap sack. No one pays attention to the rustling bag; a smiling couple kisses, passengers chat and a train inspector checks people’s tickets. After being dropped off like an unwanted package, the boy is accepted by Sister Eileen. Cate Blanchett steps into the role, offering an against-type performance that emphasizes awkwardness and humility, as she plays Sister Eileen as a heavy-footed, chapped-lipped nun who dreams of reforming the Church. The presence of the “new boy” (Aswan Reid) slowly unveils a small culture of progressive ideals mixed in with intense spiritual reverence in an unexpected examination of Australian colonialism that both draws on and subverts many typical period tropes. 

Conversely to many films dealing with assimilating Indigenous peoples, The New Boy takes a rather unconventional approach. Once he arrives at his new “home,” the orphan is not mistreated in any obvious way. The adults are understanding, and his new “brothers” are initially apprehensive but soon open their hearts to him. Intertwining spiritual and mythical elements, the New Boy can summon fire in his hands and has a deep relationship with the land. His presence becomes increasingly disruptive and unnerves complex ideas about otherness that covet and disparage in equal measure. Fire and light represent a knowledge about the natural world and, well-intentioned or not, the invasive and parasitic colonialists in their smoky dark interiors can’t help but destroy. Though it suffers from some conventional filmmaking modes, the performances and ideas outshine most of the film’s weaker elements. (Justine Smith)

The New Boy does not currently have a Canadian release date. 

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