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TIFF 2017: Bigger Isn't—Except Sometimes—Always Better

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The Toronto International Film Festival is similar to Sundance, Cannes and other high-profile festivals in that it includes a strong slate of foreign, documentary and independent films. What sets TIFF apart is how many big-budget, mass-appeal movies it also showcases. Snobs are quick dismiss "big" films, which may have the muscle of major studios or distributors behind them. I personally love a grand film, as long as it's entertaining, smart, original or, as rarely happens, all of the above.

Some of the biggest films at TIFF have been near-misses more than hits; but I'm also happy to report there were more than a few that should attract both healthy box office returns and critical approval.

Gary Oldman stars in Darkest Hour - TIFF
  • TIFF
  • Gary Oldman stars in Darkest Hour
My favorite of the bunch is Darkest Hour. If here's any justice, star Gary Oldman, barely recognizable beneath layers of padding and makeup, should secure a Best Actor nomination for
his portrayal of Winston Churchill. We've seen some superb Churchills already this year—John Lithgow in The Crown and Brian Cox in Churchill—but Oldman takes Churchill to a new level, chronicling the influential statesman's most challenging hours, including his call to evacuate Dunkirk. Speaking of which, Darkest Hour is a perfect companion piece to Dunkirk, released this past July, which will probably secure a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Current War - TIFF
  • TIFF
  • Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Current War
I also have great affection for The Current War, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison and Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse. The film begins in 1880, much of the world was still lit by fire and some homes were lit by oil or gas lamps, but through the genius of—and rivalry between—Edison and Westinghouse, the invention and subsequent transmission of electricity would change the planet forever. In one moment, we see a switch being flipped, illuminating the 1893 Chicago World's Fair while at about the same time, another switch is flipped, executing the first prisoner to die in the electric chair.

This film is smart, its sets are gorgeous and its CGI wizardry is top-level; and along with two fabulous lead performances from Cumberbatch and Shannon, The Current War is a real winner and awards contender.

Also of note is the fact that powerhouse distributor The Weinstein Company is promoting The Current War, and the Weinsteins wrote the book on how to twist enough arms to get an Oscar nod.


Andrew Garfield at the premiere of Breathe - TIFF
  • TIFF
  • Andrew Garfield at the premiere of Breathe
Plenty of tears flowed at the premiere of Breathe, in which Andrew Garfield plays a young man, stricken with polio, which has left him paralyzed from the neck down. He and his wife, portrayed by Claire Foy (The Crown), launch a campaign to de-marginalize those with disabilities, freeing them from assisted living facilities with the development of modern miracles such as portable respirators, custom wheelchairs and hydraulic lifts. Breathe is also the directorial debut of Andy Serkis, whose own acting has included marvelous turns in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Planet of the Apes reboot.

Stronger is still another tear-jerker, this time starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman, the man who lost his legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and became an integral part of the hunt for those responsible for the terrorist attack. After the drama subsides, Bauman's recovery and reemergence are a testament of to what the human body and spirit are capable of.

The Upside, an Americanized remake of the French hit, The Intouchables stars Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart, and that alone is worth the price of admission. This film is a buddy comedy about an unlikely friendship between a rich quadriplegic (Cranston) and a working-class caregiver (Hart). The film has several flaws but none of them cast a shadow on the brilliance of Kevin Hart. Along with Robin Williams, Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy, Hart is a member of an exclusive club of funny people who can readily elevate the most dramatic of stories. We're going be seeing Hart in more serious dramas.

I never thought it would be possible to miscast Denzel Washington (I'm among those who would pay to see Washington in anything). Unfortunately, in Roman Israel Esq., Washington just doesn't ring true as an idealistic lawyer, adrift in a messy legal tangle with a richer, slicker, more ruthless attorney (Colin Farrell).

George Clooney at the premiere of Suburbicon - TIFF
  • TIFF
  • George Clooney at the premiere of Suburbicon
Now, a word on the two most anticipated films at TIFF: Suburbicon and Downsizing.

The bad news first. Suburbicon, directed by George Clooney, written by the Coen Brothers and starring Matt Damon and Julianne Moore was ultimately disappointing. The film features parallel story lines: one a fully fleshed-out, wickedly funny and typical Coen Brothers tale - kind of a mash-up of Fargo and Double Indemnity.

The other story line involves a race riot occurring across from the street from the first story. Unfortunately, this second story line is slight and underdeveloped and, as a result, the entire enterprise is diluted. As I talked to people, exiting the screening of Suburbicon, the recurring comment I heard was, "Yeah, I kinda liked it, but...."

Finally, some good news about Downsizing, again starring Matt Damon but this time along with Kristen Wiig and Christoph Waltz. Written and directed by the amazing Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants, Election, About Schmidt), Downsizing is about people shrinking themselves to live much richer, satisfying lives—or so they think. The press screening I attended left more than a few critics rather nonchalant about Downsizing, but I really, really liked it. After attending a second screening with a paying audience who greeted the film with a standing ovation, my earlier optimism was confirmed.




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