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Film critic Harlan Jacobson gets us ready for the 48th TIFF

Rustin by George C Wolfe, brings Bayard Rustin’s story to life with Colman Domingo as the power behind the 1963 March on Washington, sidelined by worries over his homosexuality.
Rustin by George C Wolfe, brings Bayard Rustin’s story to life with Colman Domingo as the power behind the 1963 March on Washington, sidelined by worries over his homosexuality.

DD: After a decades long run at being the dominant fall film launchpad in North America, Toronto or TIFF as it’s known, has been increasingly challenged by a reinvigorated Venice, the world’s oldest film festival – it was started by Benito Mussolini in 1936 – to launch new work around the world and most especially into the US. Just after Labor Day, the 48th TIFF begins up north.

Our film Critic Harlan Jacobson is spending Labor Day getting ready to return to TIFF, to see what’s up.

As all festivals have this year have expanded their operations into something that looks like the pre-Covid days, what they didn’t need was the Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild strike to blunt their film selection. The absence of glam appearances, that normally pull the publicity train, has persuaded some films to push back their release dates. If there’s a silver lining in terms of TIFF, it’s that the films become the stars, judged on what they deliver, albeit a little like the steak without the sizzle. That’s okay by me.

TIFF is opening with The Boy and the Heron, by 82 year-old Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke), the first animation film to open TIFF in 48 editions. Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s head, saw the film in Tokyo in June, says it’s a best picture contender for the year. It also skirts the need for talent at the opening during the WGA/SAG strike.

The festival is closing Sept. 16 at Roy Thomson Hall with Sly, a career doc about the Rocky guy, Sylvester Stallone, directed by Thom Zimny, who has made a career of filming Springsteen docs and videos. Stallone will do a live conversation about how his life, not just career, hung by a thread when he pitched Rocky in 1976.

I’m looking forward to:

Rustin by George C Wolfe, the Tony Award–winning playwright and director of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (‘17) Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (’20)who brings Bayard Rustin’s story to life with Colman Domingo as the power behind the 1963 March on Washington, sidelined by worries over his homosexuality.

Rustin’s great cast includes Colman Domingo/ Rustin, Chris Rock/ Roy Wilkins. Glynn Turman, Bill Irwin, Jeffrey Wright/ Adam Clayton Powell and Audra McDonald.

Films I’m interested in across the various TIFF programs include

Two about Hit Men with problems:

Michael Keaton’s Knox Goes Away starring Al Pacino and James Marsden in a story about a hit man’s race against dementia.

Hit Manby Austin-based indie director, Richard Linklater, will be fresh out of Venice, with Glen Powell as a philosophy professor who moonlights for police surveillance units and is impressed into duty as a decoy hit man.

Some Bad Business Films:

Maggie Betts’ legal drama The Burial, with Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones, is another big business/little guy story, this one about a black owned funeral home fending off a big box store, if you will.

Craig Gillespie’s Dumb Money is about the GameStop short squeeze with Paul Dano and Pete Davidson.

Add a feminist filter for David Yates’ Netflix drama. Pain Hustlers, with Emily Blunt and Chris Evans in yet another Sackler/Purdue oxycontin story.

The Teachers’ Lounge by Ilker Çatak debuted at Berlin in February and won the German Film Awards’ top prize of the Golden Lola for best film in 2023, about a Polish teacher in a German high school, balancing petty crime and grand ethnic stereotyping.

And a Pair of Sports Films:

Nyad tells the story of Diana Nyad, who at the age of 64 became the first person to swim the Florida Straits from Cuba to the US without a shark cage. With Annette Bening as Nyad and Jodie Foster

Annette Bening (Diana Nyad) and Jodie Foster star in Nyad
Annette Bening (Diana Nyad) and Jodie Foster star in Nyad

In Taiki Waititi’s Next Goal Wins, we go into Ted Lasso territory with the fictionalized story of a fired soccer coach played by Michael Fassbender who gets booted out to American Samoa to coach the worst soccer team in history — a team that once lost a game 31-0. That was previously noted in a nifty documentary in 2014. The title here tells the tale.

There are 22 documentaries from 12 countries pared down from 800 submissions (documentary filmmakers got busy during Covid). The docs may get extra emphasis this year, since talent on the fiction side aren’t make appearances due to the strike

Rachel Ramsay and James Erskine’s Copa 71 is about the 1971 Women’s Soccer World Cup in Mexico City, which was the ground zero for women’s soccer erased by Women’s FIFA in favor if its own 1991 start in China. Latter day U.S. soccer stars Brandi Chastain and Alice Morgan are onhand to be surprised, and athletes Venus and Serena Williams are among the film’s executive producers

Oscar-winner Alex Gibney’s Paul Simon doc In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon deals with the singer/songwriter’s hearing loss.

Sorry/Not Sorry drops in on the women who accused Louis C.K. of sexual harassment, and what happened to them.

Raoul Peck’s  Silver Dollar Road (Amazon) -- seven years after Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro about James Baldwin – is an anti- gentrification story about a black family’s battle to keep their North Carolina stake from real estate developers.

Errol Morris’ The Pigeon Tunnel (Apple TV+), focuses on former British spy David John Moore Cornwell, aka John le Carré, who recalls the era when the bad guys were the uhh …Russians, and the personal cost of spycraft was too high. Morris caught the last interview before Le Carré died in December, 2020.

And finally…

Widow Clicquot is set in France during the Napoleonic Wars, the latest from director Thomas Napper about Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, who lived from 1777–1866, the “Grande Dame of Champagne,” otherwise known as Veuve Clicquot.

I’ll drink to that.

WEB EXTRA: Harlan Jacobson reflects on Labor Day.

Film Critic Harlan Jacobson reflects on Labor Day

HJ: During the pre-internet days of peace and love of my hippie youth, it seemed like we had reached the end of days: social upheaval, anti-war rebellion, race riots, Richard Nixon’s stealth attacks on the election of 1972 and the constitution, on values, on race, and his perversion of law that collectively manifested in Watergate. There was a perhaps apocryphal Chinese curse back then that summarized the general tenor of the times : May you live in interesting times.

Any question that we are living in interest times again?

This is the summer in which Men stare at a bankrupt vision of themselves and the tick tock of nuclear extinction they set in motion. In Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, Man becomes speechless.

And last weekend Barbie, Greta Gerwig’s candy-colored, pink declaration of 21st Century feminist independence, passed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with $1.34 billion dollars in worldwide hard ticket box office sales. Couple that with Taylor Swift’s Eras tour being written about in better business sections everywhere as a boost to local economies, and you can feel a cultural hot wind is also blowing over the planet: that it’s time for Women to take over

The Barbie movie is a big hit
The Barbie movie is a big hit

I don't go to the movies over Labor Day weekend. For me, a film critic, going to movies is work -- that's a little strange but it's labor, it's what I do. I happen to like what I do, because I believe in the power of cinema to tap unerringly into the collective unconscious to reflect the undercurrent of the state of things.

Normally, I take time on Labor Day to stop work and reflect. It's a day for family and friends. My parents, who had only just met in Schroon Lake, NY, eloped to Elkton, MD on Labor Day, 1938. My brother was born in Wilkes Barre, PA a year later on Sept. 1, 1939, Labor Day weekend. Compressing irony and tragedy perhaps like no one before her, the nurse said to my mother, “Congratulations, Mrs. Jacobson, you have a beautiful baby boy, and Hitler invaded Poland.”

It’s also the anniversary of my second chance, married at a house by the sea on Cape Cod on Labor Day, 1992.

Now, like many of you I savor the last licks of summer on this Labor Day, my children having flown the coop for careers, as all three keep that appointment with the open road they so desperately wanted to take them across the light curtain to the future. Tomorrow is the past we try so hard to remember and can never forget. Again this year, that sounds like a Christopher Nolan movie.

Labor Day is the one holiday that does not force you to swear fealty to a religion, the nation, or a man—that last, never more important than now. It is about you, what you do, and with whom and for whom you do it. Labor Day is about work. Let us hope that Labor returns to the writers and actors who blow us out of our seats or tickle us pink into considering the way forward. It is so very American. And it is a rest in the rolling of the drums.

The Chinese are having their way: there is no end in sight to the interesting times we live in. You better find somebody to love.

Have a great Labor Day!

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.