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TIFF 2014: Big Movies, Bigger Hearts

At this year's film fest, it's still all about the story

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There's a name for the type of storm that soaked Canada's largest city on opening weekend of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival: It's called September. Right on cue, as the curtain went up on North America's largest film festival, a severe downpour cracked the late summer humidity. Some entertainment journalists--there are plenty at TIFF--were stunned by the storm. The Hollywood Reporter, for example, told its readers the fest was disrupted by "monsoon rains and Mumbai-style gridlock," which is code for "my limousine was caught in heavy traffic." But citizen filmgoers (about 400,000 will walk through the doors of Toronto's movie houses over the course of the 10-day festival) grabbed their umbrellas, shrugged off the bluster and welcomed the gale-force winds which, quite poetically, blew in a new wave of entertainment.

As quickly as the Toronto storm gave way to a perfect September breeze, TIFF revealed a lovely forecast: Some great--and some not-so great--films are on the horizon. Below, we shed light on a few.

Boychoir

I was swept away by the sentimentality and all-around good-natured aura of Boychoir, a beautiful film that, if distributors have any sense at all, will be released during the holiday season. It's smart and sweet, an all-too-rare combination lately. Boychoir is the latest film from Canadian director Francois Girard (The Red Violin), and local audiences at TIFF were all-too-eager to cheer their native son. When Dustin Hoffman stepped onto the stage prior to the screening, there was also a deep appreciation for the 77-year-old two-time Oscar winner, who was referred to as "young at heart."

"I hope not just 'at heart,'" Hoffman responded.

Hoffman is indeed at the top of his game as Master Carvelle, the demanding head of the nation's most prestigious boy choir, but his equal in the film is 11-year old Garrett Wareing, a prolific young actor and singer who plays Stet, an alley-cat of a kid with the voice of an angel. All of the singing in the film makes up an important paradox for audiences to consider: The boys will only have those voices for a brief time in their lives before puberty nudges them and their vocal chords into adulthood.

"Many of these kids I worked with on this film are actual members of the real American Boychoir School," Hoffman told BW, prior to the screening. "And these boys have this gift from God. And what I learned is that each of these boys knows better than anyone that the gift is only his for maybe three years."

Boychoir also includes solid supporting work from Eddie Izzard, Kevin McHale (Glee), Kathy Bates and a great cameo from Debra Winger.

Force Majeure

It's not uncommon to be the only English-speaking person in your row at an industry screening at TIFF. Since more than 60 nations sent hundreds of films to this year's festival, an international wave of industry and press from Africa, Asia, Europe and South America have a strong presence. So, it's no surprise that Toronto is the biggest showcase of foreign films on the planet.

Sweden's Force Majeure is my favorite thus far, and I can't imagine it getting pushed off my list of favorite foreign flicks this year. It has a highly original script and tells the story of a family on an idyllic ski vacation in the French Alps. Then suddenly, one day, while the family is dining outside, there appears to be an avalanche cascading down the mountain. The father is certain that the avalanche won't hit the hotel, but then... there's no way I will spoil the fun for you on this.

Haemoo

Haemoo hails from South Korea and is as thrilling as any of this year's action films from the United States. Based on actual events, Haemoo (Korean for "sea fog") tells the story of a financially strapped fishing trawler crew that takes some controversial cargo aboard: escaping Chinese refugees, which requires a breathtaking rescue at sea. The story is from screenwriter Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer) and is a stunning debut from first-time director Shim Sung-bo.

The Judge

Some critics were particularly harsh the morning after the world premiere of this big-budget production starring Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton and Vera Farmiga. There are formulaic moments of The Judge, and the script is more entertaining than it is believable, but my sense is audiences are hungry to see Downey in a role other than Iron Man or Sherlock Holmes. The Judge is way above average, but Downey is such a fine actor that even in an average movie, he shines bright.

"This is the kind of movie we grew up loving," Downey told Boise Weekly on opening night. "It's certainly not just a courtroom drama. It's a great piece of entertainment."

He's spot on. This is a good movie with some excellent elements and audiences will be Downey's ultimate jury when The Judge hits screens nationwide Friday, Oct. 10.

Merchants of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt is infuriating, provocative and hilarious. More importantly, it's one of the best documentaries since 2013s Blackfish. Documentarian Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.) takes on high-priced "skeptics," who give skepticism a bad name. In fact, they're the worst kind of shill possible: They're hired guns who cast doubt in order to prolong well-financed pushback on tobacco, climate change or vaccines.

"It offends me when someone takes the skills of my honest living and uses them to twist and distort and manipulate people and their sense of reality and how the world works," said Jamy Ian Swiss.

The twisted irony is that Swiss is a close-up magician, who comes across as one of the most honest people in Merchants of Doubt's tightly-paced 96 minutes. Swiss knows a bullshit artist when he sees one, and there are plenty on display in Merchants of Doubt, as the film takes its audience on an illuminating ride through the Washington, D.C., funhouse that also doubles as the U.S. Congress.




Pride

British import Pride, starring Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton and Dominic West, takes us back to the 1980s, when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wielded her special brand of cruelty by crippling the National Union of Mineworkers, closing off the financial oxygen to countless mining villages. Pride tells the little known tale of how a group of LGBT activists became advocates for the striking miners whose only commonality was they were equally oppressed by Thatcher's government.

There are outrageously funny moments, like when the LGBT activists make camp in a tiny Welsh mining town and bring more than a little flair to the scene. The soundtrack is full of Phil Collins, Boy George and the early wave of '80s vinyl.

Pride is an example of what the Brits do so well: effectively integrate social consequence with comedy and season it nicely with a fine musical score. Pride will do exceptionally well when and if it gets a United States distributor.

Whiplash

If you've heard any advanced notice of this film, it was probably a rave for how Whiplash turns the musical-prodigy movie genre on its ear. If you haven't yet heard about Whiplash, you will. It's unrelenting.

In the opening seconds of the film, the agonizingly slow snap of a snare drum demands your full attention. The drumming builds in speed until it becomes a breathless, high-pitched rattle but the drummer, 17-year-old Andrew (Miles Teller), freezes in silent fear when Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) walks into the room. In that instant, we're introduced to the most terrifying film villain of the year.

"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job,'" says Simmons' Fletcher. The line elicited a nervous laugh from the audience; they knew Fletcher wasn't cracking wise. He's a cruel and, quite often, menacing human being. And there will be blood.

Fletcher is played to Oscar-caliber perfection by Simmons. You may not recognize his name, but you probably know his face from his years on Law and Order, Oz, The Closer and those snappy State Farm commercials. After this performance, however, Simmons will be the hottest actor in the business and you'll want to be among the first in line when Whiplash hits Boise.

X+Y

Another British import, X+Y is the first feature-length fiction film from director Morgan Matthews, but it's bound to find success, particularly in art houses. In X+Y, we meet Nathan, played by Asa Butterfield (Ender's Game), a teenage math prodigy who is diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

"Because I don't talk much, people think I don't have much to say, or that I'm stupid," Nathan says, narrating his early years. "I have loads of things to say. I'm just afraid to say them."

Then, Nathan meets a unique tutor, Mr. Humphreys, played brilliantly by Rafe Spall, who lumbers with a pronounced limp.

"Why don't you walk properly?" asks Nathan.

"I have multiple sclerosis. Why are you weird?" responds Humphreys.

"I've got special powers," says a matter-of-fact Nathan.

It's those powers that take Nathan half-way across the planet to compete in the International Mathematics Olympiad. It's great stuff.

TIFF's second week promises some big Oscar-bait films, including Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything and Jon Stewart's Rosewater. And we'll be blogging from all of the premieres at boiseweekly.com/cobweb.