Black Films and Artists Abound at 2017 Toronto International Film Festival

The 2017 the Toronto International Film was a big hit this year, attracting nearly 500,000 film lovers who viewed over 255 films.

 

Black films, movies with black artists and other productions from around the world were a key part of the festivities that were enjoyed by all. Check out the best of the best and the most noteworthy.

 

BLACK FILMS & BLACK FILMMAKERS

 

BOOM FOR REAL The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat (***1/2) All-around artist Basquiat died at age 27 in 1988. His legacy as an upstart graffiti artist, clothing designer, painter and musician is on view in this informative and perfectly rendered (director/writer Sara Driver) retelling of his early years. Rapper/entrepreneur Fab 5 Freddy and fellow graffiti artist Lee Quiñones (star of the classic hip-hop movie Wild Style) are just a few friends who recall the New York downtown scene in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that was a breeding ground for those creating a cultural revolution. Basquiat was an innovator who soaked up the art/music scene that surrounded him and adapted his style accordingly. His 1982 painting of a skull recently sold at auction for $110M.

 

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (**1/2) She was a pioneer. A model who became a singer, actress and performance artist all rolled up into one. Uniquely filmmaker Sophie Fiennes does not go the normal documentary route (archival footage, interviews, stats) with this look at the enigmatic androgynous Ms. Jones that was shot over a 10-year stretch. That, unfortunately, is the film’s undoing. The lens captures Grace performing, visiting her family back in Jamaica and ironing out recording details with long time collaborators Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. This footage fails to put Jones’ accomplishments into perspective. (She was rated the 40th most successful dance artist of all time.) The camerawork is intrusive. It’s as if Grace is looking in the mirror, never in a natural, guard-down state. Jones deserves better.

 

Mudbound (***) Writer/director Dee Rees’ feature film debut Pariah was a depressing but touching look at black lesbian life. Her follow-up film is no less weighty as it explores the lives of a white family (Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan, Garret Hedlund) and a black family (Rob Morgan, Mary J Blige and Jason Mitchell) who live in rural Mississippi under the duress of the racist South and during World War II. Members of the families return from the war’s frontlines scarred by their experience. Rees’ direction is topnotch. The imperfect script by Virgil Williams and Rees only paints the black family as victims. Solid performances. Beautiful to look at, but way too much despair.

 

Novitiate (***) The plotline for this religiously themed film seems a bit dated and might have been more controversial if released in the 1960s: A wayward adolescent (Margaret Qualley) turns to the Catholic church for solace, to the chagrin of her agnostic mother (Julianne Nicholson). She joins a convent just as the Vatican II releases “reforms” that will modernize the church with Sunday mass in English and make self-flagellation a thing of the past. The convent’s stern Reverend Mother (venomously played by Melissa Leo) is aghast. Filmmaker Maggie Betts guides the drama with a measured intensity. Her directing talent is sharp as a tack. Her choice of storylines may not be as precise with a film that may struggle to find an audience.

  

Professor Marston & the Wonder Women (***) If the words “ménage a trois” interest you, this biopic about William Marston (Luke Evans), a professor who invented the lie detector polygraph and would create the Wonder Woman comic book, will intrigue you. Marston, his wife (Rebecca Hall) and a student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) meet in the 1920s at Tufts University and are thrown out once their untraditional love triad is discovered. Later they cohabitate, on the down-low, raising kids that are born to both women. In 2017 their lifestyle would be controversial. In the early 20th century it was a scandal. Director/writer Angela Robinson (The L Word), with a very accomplished technical crew, takes viewers into the world of academia, comic books and bondage in the most nonchalant and romantic way. Nice ensemble acting.

 

Roman J. Israel Esq. (***) Denzel Washington may be the most accomplished actor of our generation. Like a chameleon, he’s morphed from the stern father in Fences to a dorky, introverted and mildly autistic attorney in writer/director Dan Gilroy’s (Nightcrawler) second film. Roman (Washington), whose extroverted law partner becomes terminally ill, is forced to deal with the real world and courtrooms. He tries his hand at working at a glitzy law firm run by a slick CEO (Colin Ferrell), to no avail. A budding romance with a teacher/social activist (Carmen Ejogo) brings him to the doorstep of reality. As Gilroy’s script meanders and leads to an unsatisfying conclusion, Washington’s indelible characterization keeps viewers’ eyes glued to the screen.

 

Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me (****) “I’m colored, Jewish and Puerto Rican. When I move into a neighborhood, I wipe it out,” says the funny, self-effacing Sammy Davis, Jr. in this enlightening look at his controversial life (remember the career-killing photo of him hugging Nixon?). Thanks to editor (Mo’ Better Blues) and documentarian (Two Trains Runnin’) Sam Pollard, 27 years after his death, Davis gets the respect that eluded him. There are witnesses to: his artistic genius (Whoopi Goldberg); the indignities he faced breaking barriers in the entertainment industry (Jerry Lewis); and his dead-on comic impressions (Billy Crystal). Davis started his career in vaudeville as a hoofer at age 3, was bullied in the armed forces, faced death threats for dating white women and worked with MLK during the civil rights movement. Davis was a pariah to some, an entertainment hero to others. A very thoughtful and redemptive documentary.

 

Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart (****) Many will know her as the writer who graced the world with the classic play A Raisin in the Sun. Others who were alive in the ‘50s and ‘60s will remember her as an outspoken social activist and intellectual who rubbed shoulders with James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte and others changing the course of race relations in America. All facets of Lorraine Hansberry’s public life, private romances and early death are on view in this beguiling and illuminating documentary, which is perfectly assembled by filmmaker Tracy Heather Strain. Voice-overs by Tony Award–winning actor Anika Noni Rose and interviews with Ruby Dee, Lorraine’s sister Mamie Hansberry and others who loved her evoke her glory.

 

BLACK ARTISTS IN FILMS

 

Hostiles (***) In the late 1800s, a reluctant captain (Christian Bale) is ordered to escort terminally ill Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family (Adam Beach, Q’oriankar Kilcher, Tanaka Beatty) back to Montana so he can die on his tribal lands. Along the way the captain’s troop (Jonathan Majors, Rory Cochrane, Timothée Chalamet) encounters a woman (Rosamund Pike) who is the lone survivor of a massacre that killed her husband and three children. She joins them on a journey that is fraught with ambushes, death and revelations that make the officer and his charge find mutual respect. Gorgeously photographed (Masanobu Takayanagi, Black Mass) and well directed (Scott Cooper, Black Mass). An unpredictable script by Cooper and Donald Stewart. Audiences may wish the story was told from a Native American’s perspective and that some scenes were more tightly edited.

 

Molly’s Game (***) Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network) marks his directing debut with this tense crime/drama/thriller about Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a young woman who turns a job as a personal assistant to an obnoxious young boss into a proprietor role, organizing high-stakes Hollywood poker games that make her wealthy and hounded by the FBI. Her attorney of choice (Idris Elba) has his hands full defending her. Sorkin’s script, which is based on the real-life Molly’s memoir, has way too much dialogue and too many voice-overs for the genre. Stick with it. It builds to a worthy climax regardless, helped along the way by Chastain, Elba and Kevin Costner as the over-bearing dad.

 

Suburbicon (*1/2) An awkward near repulsive blend of dull satire and civil rights abuses is on view in this misguided script originally written by Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo) and poorly doctored by Grant Heslov and writer/director George Clooney. Somewhere in 1950s suburbia, a husband (Matt Damon) has plotted the demise of his wife (Julianne Moore) in cahoots with her sister (also Julianne Moore) for insurance money. Things go awry. Next door a black family (Karimah Westbrook, Leith M Burkem, Tony Espinosa) moves in and is severely harassed by white neighbors. If parody is supposed to include comedy, Clooney did not get the memo. Also, using racism as a subplot, prop or toy in a movie that is a macabre joke is misguided. Casting Moore more in two rolls only compounds the head scratching.

The Mountain Between Us (***) This one is for incorrigible romantics. A photojournalist (Kate Winslet) and a brain surgeon (Idris Elba) hitch a ride on a prop plane to Denver when a commercial airline can’t get them to their destination. They crash into a mountainside and the pilot dies. The two, along with a Labrador retriever fight the snowy sub-freezing elements looking for help. Yes it’s predictable, but the target audience will swoon every time Elba spews that English accent. The exterior shots are beautiful. Interiors look like sets and aren’t that convincing. Winslet’ performance gives the film a solid foundation. Elba has charm to spare. The direction by Hany Abu-Assad (Omar) never gets in the way of the romance.

 

The Shape of the Water (***1/2) It takes a genius writer/director (Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth) who loves monsters and a creative co-writer (Vanessa Taylor) to concoct a love story between a man-like amphibian (Doug Jones) and a mute lady janitor (Sally Hawkins, Maudie). The fruits of their labor is this 1963-based story that takes place in a U.S. government laboratory where a creature is being held as a pawn by American federal agents (Michael Shannon) and coveted by Russian spies. Beautifully and imaginatively crafted with wondrous cinematography (Dan Lausten), production design (Paul D. Austerberry) and art direction (Nigel Churcher). Olivia Spencer, Michael Stuhlberg and Richard Jenkins co-star.

 

The Upside (***) Before Kevin Hart fans accuse him of co-starring in a Driving Miss Daisy rip-off, they should watch him turn in his best performance to date in this disarming American adaption of the Cesar-winning French blockbuster called The Untouchables. Hart plays a man with a criminal past who is behind on his child support and haphazardly gets a job as a caregiver for a millionaire author (Cranston), who is a quadriplegic and grief-stricken widower. (Cue the violins!). Fortunately Jon Hartmere’s screenplay is short on sentimentality and long on the viable bromance. Director Neil Burger (Divergent) knows when to pepper scenes with comic moments and when to season lightly with pathos. Nicole Kidman co-stars but Hart is the snake charmer.

 

OTHER FILMS OF NOTE

 

Battle of the Sexes (***1/2) If you are too young to remember the epic tennis match between Grand Slam champion Billie Jean King and over-the-hill tennis pro Bobby Riggs, it doesn’t matter. Actors Emma Stone and Steve Carell, with the assistance of directors Jonathan Dayton and Valarie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) and writer Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours), make this ultra competitive and socially relevant tennis match as timely today as it was in the ‘70s. Stone brings King’s raw courage to life and the dawning of her new sexual identity is profound. Carell gives Riggs the right dose of bluster. The far reaching consequences of this pivotal sports event transcends the game and in so many historical ways, paved the way for woman’s rights.

 

Call Me by Your Name (***) The setting is summer time on the countryside of Northern Italy. An American professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) opens his home to a doctoral student (Armie Hammer), and that young man winds up having an affair with the prof’s 17 year-old son (Timothée Chalamet, Hostiles), an adolescent who can’t control his sexual impulses. The script by veteran writer James Ivory is based on André Aciman’s 2007 novel. Director Luca Guadagnino captures the whimsy of a budding relationship that is as forbidden as it is romantic. Italy has never looked so inviting.

 

Chappaquiddick (****) This retelling of the death of campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) during a car accident in 1969 while riding with Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) is absolutely perfect. Brilliant, uncompromising script by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, astute direction by John Curran and an ensemble cast that is cohesive and coached to perfection. This infamous event brought the Kennedy family the publicity it didn’t want after the assassinations of JFK and Bobby had left the clan beloved by millions. The drama between Teddy and his daddy (Bruce Dern) is so rich and thick it’s like watching a Greek Tragedy.

 

Downsizing (*1/2) Filmmaker Alexander Payne (Sideways) and writing partner Jim Taylor turn the quirk factor up a notch and forget to add substance and emotion to this one-joke movie about a couple (Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig) that wants to follow the trend of downsizing into 5-inch humans and living in a private utopian community. Turns out happyland is not all it’s cracked up to be. Neither is this shallowly conceived and flat comedy/sci-fi satire that feels like an SNL skit run amuck. All performances are stiff, except for Christoph Waltz who acts like scenery-chewing Christoph Waltz. The cheap-looking visuals are an embarrassment to the special effects profession.

 

I, Tonya (****) It happened in 1994. The knee wallop that was heard around the world, courtesy of a bitter rivalry between U.S figure-skating champion Tonya Harding’s (Margot Robbie) camp and poor innocent Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). Harding didn’t order the mauling, but her violent ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and her idiot bodyguard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) orchestrated the hit with her best interests at heart. Never has a trailer trash athlete been so visible and abused, particularly by her mother (Allison Janney). Never has a horrific incident been so ripe for biting satire. Director Craig Gillespie is helped greatly by an outrageous script by Steven Rogers. Sidesplitting humor.

 

Mother (**) Writer/ Director Darren Aronofsky has two pet genres: Understated realism (The Wrestler) or grotesque psychological thrillers (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan). On this venture he favors the latter as a couple (Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem—who have no chemistry) open the doors to their extravagant Restoration Hardware-looking home to strangers (Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer) who show up at their doorstep and take over their lives. Initially shades of Rosemary’s Baby come to mind. Aronofsky erroneously takes the third act into bombastically surreal imaginary in which everyone abuses the young mom. The film wears out its welcome fast. The only person left unscathed is the ever delightful and naughty Pfeiffer. She plays a meddling, snotty wife with a devilish, Oscar-worthy grin.

 

Sheikh Jackson (**12) This comedy/drama is Egypt’s hope for an Oscar Foreign Language Film nod. If charm is what the Academy is looking for, this ode to an ultra Michael Jackson fan who becomes an imam (Ahmad Alfishawy) living with the regret of not fulfilling his dreams may be a contender. The sudden death of the King of Pop in 2009 causes flashbacks to the imam’s childhood and his abusive father, a misguided youth and teen angst. Alfishawy’s expressive eyes, the winsome premise and dialogue by writer/director Amr Salama are strong. The flashback scenes are not as deft. The vision of the Jackson imitator kneeling among robed Muslims with heads bowed in prayer is unforgettable.

 

Stronger (****) The Boston Marathon bombing was explored last year in Mark Wahlberg’s Patriot Day from the perspective of a cop. This superior rendition covers the same tragedy from the viewpoint of bombing victim Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) who had his legs blown off but lived to tell about it in an autobiography. The love of his girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany) helped him through rehab, bouts of alcoholism and a slow psychological recovery. Easily the most emotionally impactful film at TIFF, thanks to Gyllenhaal’s best performance to date, which is supported by Maslany and Miranda Richardson in the surprising role as his crass mom. Adapted for the screen by John Pollono and sensitively directed by David Gordon Green (George Washington). A soul-cleansing movie.

 

The Current War (***) You’d think an all out competition between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to bring electricity to the masses would yield an exciting film. Not so. The script is stilted and unemotional. The performances stick to the words on the page. Surprisingly Shannon is more magnetic than Cumberbatch. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon rides to the rescue with style to spare. Eye-catching cinematography (Chung-hoon Chung), production design (Jan Roelfs) and art direction (Stephen Bream) make the footage a joy to watch. This is an art film with an unmemorable name. How about “Electric War?

 

Victoria and Abdul (***) In the late 1800s, seventysomething Queen Victoria (Dame Judi Dench), by her own description, is fat, disgruntled and bored. Then she meets a young Indian man, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who came to London to present her with a gift. Their eyes meet and a friendship evolves, to the consternation of her jealous son and her nosy staff. Director Stephen Frears (The Queen) is a master at telling royal tales and apt at keeping this unrequited love story energized and compelling. Dench turns on all the charm and rage befitting Victoria and an Oscar nom. Though a feisty Indian character in the film does constantly berate England for its colonizing ways, there is something very sad about watching Abdul being so passive and mistreated.

 

These movies and artists, fresh from Toronto, will be on a screen near you before you know it.

Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.