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David Ansen Surveys Toronto 2015, from Blocked ‘Amazing Grace’ to Glossily Mainstream ‘The Danish Girl’

David Ansen Surveys Toronto 2015, from Blocked 'Amazing Grace' to Glossily Mainstream 'The Danish Girl'

Toronto audiences are famously friendly. It’s one of the reasons studios and indies love to premiere their films in this star-crazed town, where standing ovations are the rule, not the exception. It would have been nice to hear the thunder that might have accompanied the premiere of “Amazing Grace,” the Aretha Franklin documentary that was yanked from the lineup—just as it had been in Telluride—just days before the 40th Toronto International Film Festival began. This, and the mid festival cancellation of the Martin Amis adaptation “London Fields,” which was embroiled in a dispute between its director and its producer over the final cut, were the rare hiccups in a festival that ran remarkably smoothly this year, though the excitement level seemed to be turned down a notch. There was, of course, much to admire among the nearly 400 movies, but the knock-your-socks-off entries were few and far between.

I was lucky to see “Amazing Grace” at a private screening in June and can report that Franklin is doing herself, and her fans, no favor by blocking the showing of this extraordinary document. Back in January 1972, Sydney Pollack (who had never made a documentary before) brought his cameras to witness the two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles where Aretha recorded what would become her greatest gospel album. Collaborating with James Cleveland and The Southern California Community Choir, performing before a live-wire audience of churchgoers, other gospel greats and a briefly glimpsed, obviously awed Mick Jagger, Aretha was at the peak of her powers. 

The film has languished in the Warner Bros vaults for decades, due to problems synching the sound and image, not to mention legal issues, but producer Alan Elliott has been working tirelessly to bring the film into the light, and boy does it blaze. Among the highlights – and there are many—is her duet with Cleveland on “Precious Memories” and her long, winding and utterly transcendent version of “Amazing Grace” itself.  If this doesn’t knock your socks off, you mustn’t be wearing any. Fingers crossed the Queen of Soul will come to her senses and the public will finally get to see this roof-raising moment of musical history. 
There were many high-profile titles I skipped in Toronto, figuring I could see them later. But I couldn’t wait to see Charlie Kaufman’s first venture into animation, “Anomalisa,” co-directed by stop-motion maestro Duke Johnson. I had no idea what to expect (you never do from the man who wrote “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunrise of the Spotless Mind”) but my hunch was that the freedom of animation would unleash his most surrealist, non-linear tendencies. Wrong.

“Anomalisa” is his most emotionally direct movie, and in outline its story might even sound banal. Our (puppet) hero, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a customer relations expert on a business trip to Cleveland, where he’s to give a motivational speech. He’s a mild mannered, lonely and world weary Brit with a wife and kids back in L.A. He’s hoping to reconnect with an old girlfriend who dumped him years ago, but their reunion in the hotel bar is a disaster. But then, fortuitously, he meets the timid, self-abnegating Lisa (a brilliant Jennifer Jason Leigh) a customer relations groupie (who knew?) who awakens him from his miasma of alienation. It’s love—or is it?

This may sound mundane, but this is Kaufmanland, and out of the brown murk of the quotidian arises strange, funny and deeply disturbing visions. Not for nothing is the hotel named the Fregosi:  there is a delusion called the Fregosi Syndrome in which the sufferer—and Michael is one—believes that everyone is really the same person in disguise. I don’t want to spoil the thrill of discovery by saying much more about this haunting and complex 90 minute marvel — but there is a very explicit and human puppet sex scene that, once seen, you’ll not forget. Through these animated characters, Kaufman tells us uncomfortable truths about relationships, work, alienation, hotel rooms, solipsism, and the way we live now. This was the only movie I saw in Toronto that I wished were longer: alternately hilarious and deeply sad, it’s a seductive nightmare from which you perversely don’t want to awaken. An anomaly. 

Another country, another nightmare that gets deeply under your skin. “From Afar,” the surprise winner of the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, is the first film of Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas. Minimalist, laconic, it stays tightly focused on two characters whose motivations and desires must be read between the lines. Armondo (Alfredo Castro) is a middle-aged man of considerable means who, when not working making dentures, cruises the streets of Caracas for young boys to buy. He likes them underclass and rough, and he likes to masturbate as he looks, but does not touch them.

He becomes obsessed with the one boy who, instead of complying, beats him up and steals his money. Still, he asks Elder (Luis Silva) back, and offers him more money. Why? What follows is an intense, enigmatic and continually surprising story of their deepening relationship—a relationship in which the power and the affections are constantly shifting. What both the upper middle class man and the poor street kid have in common are fathers they both hate, and one has the sense that they are enacting a fateful familial drama that’s beyond their conscious control. Shot with a spare, shallow focus intensity, “From Afar” is mesmerizing and unnerving. At once searingly intimate and cooly distanced, it forces you to fill in its artfully composed blanks: the mysterious depths of the heart where love and loathing, need and fear messily intermingle.

Literally a planet away in terms of tone, scale and production values is Ridley Scott’s science fiction adventure “The Martian,” in which Matt Damon finds himself stranded alone on Mars, abandoned and assumed dead. Luckily, he’s a botanist with a deep bag of practical skills: if anyone can stay alive long enough for the folks back on Earth to figure out a way to rescue him, he’s the guy.  (“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this” he declares.) Scott is not a director known for his sense of humor or his sanguine disposition; the pleasant surprise of “The Martian,” faithfully adapted from Andy Weir’s novel, is how funny it can be, and how free of any sort of villainy.
Giving the best sort of star turn, Damon is the undeniable MVP here, imbuing this brainy, sardonic survivor with an irresistible regular guy charm. The movie’s a celebration of teamwork—even the Chinese officials are good guys– and Damon’s backup team is an impressive lot: problem-solving at NASA are Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig and Donald Glover and aboard the spaceship that left him behind are, among others, Jessica Chastain and Michael Pena. Unlike “Interstellar,” the movie (mercifully) has no pretentions of depth. It’s all on the surface, but few directors give better surface than Scott, even when his movies have little else going for them. Written with wit, “The Martian” is that increasingly rare specimen: a smart Big Studio epic with a generous, can-do spirit.

There is much to ooohh and aaahh over in Tom Hooper’s lavishly pretty “The Danish Girl,” a movie I wanted to love and didn’t. There is eye-candy aplenty: in the painterly evocation of Copenhagen and Paris the 1920s, in the impeccably stylish costumes worn by every member of the cast, in the production design that can turn even a hospital’s surgery room into a setting fit for a fashion shoot, and most certainly in the androgynous beauty of the two stars, the porcelain-pale Eddie Redmayne and the duskily gorgeous Alicia Vikander. They play the happily married artists Einer and Gerda Wegener, whose world is turned upside down when Einar gradually comes to realizes that he is a woman – a woman named Lili Elbe– trapped inside a foreign male body.   
There is a compelling, important, and lord knows timely story here. Lili Elbe was a real person, one of the first to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Hooper’s movie, written by Lucinda Coxon, is based on the fictionalized version of her story told in David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel. Though it can hardly be considered groundbreaking in the year of “Transparent,” “Tangerine,” and Caitlin, “The Danish Girl” is designed to speak to a broader, more mainstream audience. It’s prettiness seems more strategic than organic— a caramel-coating applied to a tale the filmmaker’s fear might seem too medicinal. The effect, however, masks, rather than enhances, the powerful and messy emotions at the heart of the story.
Separately, Redmayne and Vikander do remarkable work. But this is the story of a marriage; one of the most fascinating aspects is Gerda’s reaction to her husband’s transformation: standing by him even as he becomes lost to her. But the vibrant chemistry that Redmayne had with Felicity Jones in “The Theory of Everything” isn’t there with Vikander, and it needs to be. It’s telling that one of the best scenes features a naked Redmayne by himself before a mirror, transforming himself into herself. Yet there is only the briefest acknowledgment that Lili’s entirely understandable narcissism could be a problem to those who love her. This is just one of the rough edges of the story that Hooper is anxious to smooth over. Its sympathy for its hero/heroine arises from the best of intentions, but in its eagerness to please “The Danish Girl” neuters itself. It’s touching and very watchable, but it should have torn us apart.

Here are some brief shout outs to several very fine foreign films U.S audiences will soon get a chance to see. Sebastian Schipper’s “Victoria” is a phenomenal technical achievement: an edge-of-your-seat thriller, set in Berlin, that was shot in one continuous 2 hour and 18 minute take. Not one cut. The first (overlong) hour takes its sweet time as we follow a club-hopping Spanish girl in Berlin (Bjork look -alike Laia Costa) as she falls in with a gaggle of locals. Suddenly the gears shift and Victoria is caught up in a heart-pounding bank heist scheme. When it’s over, you’ll marvel at the seamless virtuosity of Schipper’s accomplishment, but only when it’s over. While you’re watching, you’re too caught up in the drama to wonder how the hell he did it.

From Turkey comes the marvelous “Mustang.” The tale of five spirited young sisters imprisoned in the family home in a deeply repressive male-dominated Black Sea village, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s seductive and entertaining first feature has been compared to “The Virgin Suicides,” but it has a sparkling spirit and tempo all its own, suspended somewhere between reality and fable. 

Thomas Bidegain, who made his name as the screenwriter of such Jacques Audiard films as “A Prophet” and “Rust and Bone,” turns director in “Les Cowboys.” A young French girl disappears, running off with her Arab boyfriend, and her racist father becomes obsessed with finding her. If this plot rings a bell, it’s intentional. It’s an updated take on “The Searchers,” and just when I thought it was hewing too predictably close to its source, it takes a startling turn and speeds off in new and unexpected directions, leaping continents and decades. While Bidegain may bite off more than he can chew, he’s a talent to watch. His ambitious re-mix holds you from start to finish.

There’s an unusual poker faced charm to Corneliu Porumboiu’s “The Treasure.” Romania has produced some marvelous movies in the last decade, but they are not, it’s safe to say, beloved for their lighthearted optimism. Here, the director of “Police, Adjective” spins a fable that’s rooted in the harsh economic reality of Romanian life, but he tells it with a droll deadpan humor that leaves you smiling. The plot involves an actual treasure hunt, as two Romanian neighbors hire a man with a metal detector to try to find a buried fortune rumored to have been left many years ago in the garden of a country home. Porumboiu unfolds this anecdotal allegory with a gentle, patient touch. Its storybook ending will take you by surprise.

For hard core cineastes, a new film from the Thai master Apitchatpong Weerasethakul is always a treasure. His style is sui generis, and either you are on his wavelength or not. More spellbinder than storyteller, his calm, sensual images, his matter of fact presentation of the supernatural can be utterly transfixing. Like “Uncle Bonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” and “Syndromes and a Century,” “Cemetery of Splendour” should not be approached as a puzzle to be solved, but an immersion into a world where the past and the present, the living and the dead, the mundane and the mystical playfully co-habit. The setting is a country hospital where the nurses attend to soldiers who have plunged into a prolonged and mysterious sleep, which may be connected to the nearby excavation of an ancient temple. If you’ve seen “Syndromes,” you’ll recognize many of the directors favorite tropes: it’s almost a companion piece to that masterpiece.

Simultaneously humorous, moving and meditative,  “Cemetery” takes us to a world every bit as unfamiliar, but far more mysterious, than the barren planet where Matt Damon plants potatoes in “The Martian.”  TIFF has always been open to every kind of filmmaking, and that’s what makes it fun.  If you want cinematic English comfort food, there’s the delicious spectacle of Maggie Smith as a cantankerous homeless woman in Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation of Alan Bennett’s witty play “The Lady in the Van”;  if you want to explore the dark and twisted corners of the soul, there’s Pablo Larrain’s compelling study of defrocked and disgraced Chilean Catholic priests stewing in their own rancid juices in “The Club”;  if you want to see smartly observed lesbian love story with the sizzling Cecile de France, there’s Catherine Corsini’s fine and sensual “Summertime.” And if you want cinema without the safety net of narrative convention, there’s Apitchatpong Weerasethakul.

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