42nd Toronto International Film Festival Coverage: Day Two

Friday, September 8th, 2017 by Ian Evans

The second day of the Festival arrives and the TIFF machine really revs up. I had a couple of screenings today, but first let’s look at some of the other highlights.

Two galas hit the carpet at Roy Thomson Hall. First up was David Gordon Green’s Stronger. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany, the film follows the true-life story of Jeff Bauman as he adapts to losing his legs after the Boston Marathon bombing. Gyllenhaal and Bauman walked the carpet together and the pair were part of a mutual admiration society. Gyllenhaal told reporters that one of the best parts of filmmaking was the ability to learn about places, people and experience and he was honored to get to know Bauman during the making of the film. For his part, Bauman said that he and his wife were crying together when they first saw the film and relived what they went through on that fateful day.

The Stronger gala was followed by Neil Burger’s The Upside, which stars Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston and Nicole Kidman. Cranston is Phil, a rich quadriplegic author, who hires working class parolee Dell (Hart) to be his caregiver over the objections of his assistant Yvonne (Kidman). Despite coming from opposite worlds, the two men develop a friendship and teach each other a thing or two about life along the way. The film is a remake of the 2011 French film The Intouchables and marks a dramatic turn for Hart. I think comedians are naturals at drama, as a lot of comedy comes from a place of pain.

The Princess of Wales played host to a small music performer you might have heard of, Lady Gaga. She was there to present her Netflix documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two, which looks at the whirlwind time between the mixed reviews of her Artpop album and the production of her 2016 follow-up, Joanne. At a press conference earlier in the day, Gaga could have commanded the stage but she deferred many of the questions to director Chris Moukarbel, saying that “This film is not my vision. I’m just a party to this because it’s my life.” Moukarbel called Gaga a reluctant participant but understood, as documentary subjects are allowing you into their life. He was given access even to the emotional and painful moments as Gaga dealt with chronic hip pain that had caused her to cancel several dates on her tour. Talking about the pain, Lady Gaga said that, “There is an element and a very strong piece of me that believes that pain is a microphone. My pain really does me no good unless I transform it into something that is.”

The PoW also played host to the biopic about disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding. I, Tonya stars Margot Robbie as Harding and Allison Janney as her overbearing and critical mother. The pair have already been garnering buzz for their performances.

During the post-screening Q&A with the audience, director Craig Gillespie was asked what drew him to the project and he said it was definitely Steven Rogers’ script, saying that “it was such a dance between obviously the humor and the emotion. To take these characters we know so well in the public eye and really get a deeper sense of who they are as people and what motivated them, and the choices and the mistakes they made along the way, just made for a really compelling story.”

Speaking of scripts, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin was making his directorial debut over at the Elgin, with the premiere for Molly’s Game, which stars Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba. The thriller tracks the true-life story of Molly Bloom, whose high-stakes poker games hosted Hollywood A-listers until an FBI investigation threatens to take her down.

On the carpet, Idris Elba told reporters that Sorkin’s storytelling genius is the ability to take complex threads and make them feel realistic despite the complex dialogue that he’s known for.

Why is Molly’s Game Sorkin’s directorial debut? Sorkin said that for all of his other scripts he was always his second choice to direct and he was always able to get his first choice. This time, the producers suggested that he should direct it. He still went searching but realized that he had a specific idea of what the film should feel like, so he decided to take the reins.

Jessica Chastain said her process started with reading the script, then reading Molly Bloom’s book and finally reaching out to meet and talk with Molly herself. She added that Sorkin surprised her as a director, because even though she knew he’d be a great director, she didn’t realize how exciting the finished product would be.

Speaking of directorial debuts, Greta Gerwig makes her solo debut with Lady Bird, having previously co-directed 2008’s Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg. The film stars Saoirse Ronan as a rebellious young woman navigating the strict constraints of a Catholic school. Gerwig was moved by the standing ovation the film was given at the Ryerson Theatre and Lady Bird is now getting a lot of awards season buzz as it was also well-received at Telluride.

I also screened two films today. George Clooney Suburbicon and Stephen Frear’s Victoria & Abdul.

Suburbicon takes a great ensemble cast (featuring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac) and wraps them in a muddled mess of a movie. Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov took a 1980’s Coen Brothers script about insurance fraud and mashed it together with the racial tensions in a previously segregated white suburb. The latter story connects with today, as we see what the white citizens are getting away with while the black citizens are being persecuted for just being in the community. The tensions of 1950’s America and their echoes today are worthy of a whole film. A goofy, dark Coen Brothers story about fraud gone awfully wrong is worthy of its own attention. By combining the two, Clooney does both stories a disservice. Though there are some great performances, you’re left with wondering what the two separate films could have been like.

Frears’ Victoria & Abdul stars Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and Ali Fazal as a young Indian man is brought to London during her Golden Jubilee and gains the Queen’s trust and ear much to the chagrin of her courtiers and son, Bertie (the future King Edward VII, played by Eddie Izzard). It’s based on the true story of Abdul Karim (who was also known as the Munshi). The script by Lee Hall balances comedy and humour while showing the classist and racist traits of the British aristocracy. Dench, who has played Victoria before, manages to capture the strength, sadness and, at times, playfulness of the long-serving monarch.