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Film Critic Harlan Jacobson at TIFF 2018

Harlan Jacobson

The serious fun season of movies kicks off just after Labor Day with the Toronto International Film Festival that closes this weekend.

Now in its 43rd year, Toronto, or TIFF, as it’s known has become increasingly one of the most important sales and marketing conventions in the film industry.

With nearly 260 films, that’s pared down from as recently as two years ago when there were some 350—Toronto is the dominant festival in North America and quite possibly the world.

I’ve seen my share, but getting a handle on the zeitgeist of what’s important and what’s on filmmakers’ minds is like the blind man touching the elephant. It really depends on where you touch.

My TIFF started out rocky. Five films the first day, six if you count the opening night film the night before, Outlaw King, about the rise of Robert the Bruce, played by Chris Pine, in Scotland in 1304 to defeat the English Crown.

The best of the lot by far was the fourth remake of A Star Is Born. I went dragging my heels to it. The classic version was the second, George Cukor’s 1954 rendition with James Mason and Judy Garland, remade against all advice 40 years ago with Barbra Streisand leaving Kris Kristofferson behind as a kind of celebrity mosquito splat on the windshield of the soul. Imagine then that this version directed by and starring Bradley Cooper opposite Lady Gaga was not only the best thing I saw that first day, but was actually… good.

Gaga has been busted out of the burrito wrap and wig costume and returned to the girl she was as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta on New York’s Upper West Side, in the Patricia Arquette mold of a lovable, brown French–Italian mouse who looks like the girl next door—until she eats your, or rather Cooper’s lunch, because he drinks his.

Set on the edge of Pop and Country & Western, it’s a marketing juggernaut by Warner Brothers that begins Oct. 5, but TIFF is the start of the yellow brick road that our own outlaw king, Harvey Weinstein, taught the industry to march upon like Sherman toward the Oscars.

Beale Street
Credit TIFF
Scene from "If Beale Street Could Talk"

Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, adapted and directed from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, is an elegantly crafted story of the racial miscarriage of justice circa the 20th Century, when a 22-year-old black man, played by Stephan James, in Harlem is railroaded on charges of a rape he didn’t commit, tearing him away from his 19-year-old pregnant fiancée, Kiki Layne.

Jenkins won the infamous Best Picture Oscar two years ago for his category-busting Moonlight, given for 10 seconds to Damien Chazelle for LALA Land. When this novel was written, Baldwin still rode the social cutting edge, from Go Tell It on the Mountain in 1953 to Another Country nine years later, and Beale Street in 1974. It all feels so stately now in Jenkin’s classic adaptation. Especially compared to another film here, George Tillman Jr’s The Hate U Give, based on the Angie Thomas novel, which speeds the whole process of racial railroading forward to mirror the very present moment behind Black Lives Matter.

The Fremont CA cop who stops the young black man in THUG, the acronym for The Hate U Give, for failing to signal a lane change becomes prosecutor, witness, jury, judge and executioner right there on the street. Great cast, including Algee Smith and Amandla Stenberg, Common and Anthony Mackie. Out Oct 19. And Beale Street from Annapurna arrives in theatres Nov. 30.

Green Book
Credit TIFF
"Green Book" starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali is showing at TIFF

Both films leave in the dust Green Book, in which Italian waiter and club bouncer Tony Lip Vallelonga, played by Viggo Mortensen, is hired to drive jazz and classical pianist Don Shirley, played by an almost unrecognizable Mahershala Ali, from New York on a concert tour for Plantation-bred whites in the Deep South in 1962. The film is a reverse Driving Miss Daisy, in which the White Bronx is driving the Black Upper East Side, but forgive me for thinking that there’s a lot more asked of the black musician to understand the white Italian in Green Book, which takes its name from the black motorists guide to the South, than the other way around. Based on a true story, however, and Tony Lip and the gay Don became lifelong friends—as attested to in Toronto by his son, who hawked the story.

There's so much to see at Toronto this year, the crime caper Widows by Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years A Slave, Can You Ever Forgive Me with Melissa McCarthy, Damien Chazelle’s First Man, about NASA and the decline of the American male on his ascent to the moon in 1969, two films that exploit and sift our era of mass shootings, Paul Greengrass’ 22 July about the Norwegian teen camp slaughter, and Hotel Mumbai with Dev Patel as a waiter in the 2008 terrorist assault on the Taj Palace Hotel.

Credit TIFF
Scene from "Roma"

So many films so little time, but above them all is Roma, the latest from Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, of Y Tu Mama Tambien, Gravity, Harry Potter and Children of Men reputation. Set in the 1970’s, Roma is almost a holograph of Mexican life, the tangle between a house maid and a doctor and his upper middle-class wife as their marriage comes unglued. Shot in the widescreen format of 65mm in black and white, Roma won Venice’s Golden Lion top prize. It is a throwback to a level of excellence we rarely see, almost as if it were a lost film by Roberto Rossellini or Vittorio De Sica that fell out of a closet and joins the rare group of film masterpieces. It was produced by Netflix, which famously pulled five films from Cannes this year in a dispute over the issue of theatrical release.

Speaking of Neflix, I don’t know why the finally completed Orson Welles film, The Other Side of Midnight after some 35 years, paid for by Netflix, was in Telluride and Venice but not here. Roma certainly was, and it’s a film lover’s siren call.

Finally, every film in Toronto starts with one of the programmers all the way up to the head of festival, Piers Handling, who’s leaving after some 36 years, acknowledging the various Native American Tribes for hosting this powerhouse event. Piers is my friend. I admire Piers.  I’ve traveled with him from Sundance to Cannes and Berlin, and no one has done a better job of helping to create new architecture for the film business than Piers at TIFF. But we Americans can’t stop ourselves from a little eye-rolling that the Mississauga of the New Credit Nation and the other tribes have much say about the festival, or the skyscraper that sit on their land hosting it, and a whole lot of other business. But it’s the thought that counts. They’re thoughtful up here. Given everything back home, a guy can get used to that.

Click above to hear Harlan's entire review.

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.