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#TIFF15 Reviews: The Lady in the Van, Brooklyn, The Meddler, Hyena Road

September 14, 2015

By John Corrado

#TIFF15The 40th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival is happening now, and will be going strong in the city until September 20th.

My previous batch of reviews from yesterday are right here, and below are my thoughts on four more films.  Please come back on Wednesday and throughout the rest of the festival for my thoughts on many more.

More information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here, or through the links in the film titles, which are arranged in order of when they first screen.  Enjoy!

The Lady in the Van: Bringing Alan Bennet’s largely autobiographical stage play of the same name to the screen, The Lady in the Van recounts the “mostly true” story of Miss Shephard (Maggie Smith), an eccentric senior who lives in the back of a beat up old van, which ended parked in the driveway of the struggling writer (Alex Jennings).  A sort of mutual respect formed between the playwright and transient old woman over the fifteen years they knew each other, as more details of her mysterious backstory slowly came to be revealed.  Maggie Smith carries the film with a brilliant performance, transforming into her role through a feeble walk and tattered wardrobe, and commanding the screen with her portrayal of both the outwardly quirky qualities of her character, as well as her underlying emotional pain and mental illness.  This is among the veteran actress’s finest work, and the film itself is both darkly funny and quietly moving, with some beautifully worded passages and a tone that is successful in its ambitions to both entertain us and break our hearts.

Saturday, September 12th – 2:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema 1
Monday, September 14th – 8:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 12

Brooklyn: Like so many other young adults in the 1950s, Eilis Lacey (Saorise Ronan) has left behind her beloved family and friends in Ireland, to seek a better life and find work in America.  At first, she is overwhelmed with the changes in her life, and left feeling profoundly homesick for the country and family she left behind.  But when she falls deeply in love with Tony (Emory Cohen), a charming young Italian guy who sweeps her off her feet, Eilis starts to set down roots in her new hometown of Brooklyn, which makes a heartbreaking trip back to her old country that much more conflicting.  Directed by John Crowley, working from a sensitive and beautifully written screenplay by Nick Hornby, Brooklyn is classic filmmaking in every sense of the term.

Adapting Colm Toibon’s bestselling novel for the screen, the production is top notch across the board, from the authentic period costumes, to the luminous cinematography.  Saoirse Ronan never hits a wrong note in her touching and deeply felt portrayal of a young immigrant, drawing us in with her eyes and capturing our own emotions through small changes in facial expressions, in a nuanced performance that is perhaps her best work yet.  Emory Cohen brings immense charm to the role of her love interest, with the two young actors displaying a wonderful sense of chemistry between them.  This is one of the loveliest and most beautifully crafted films of the year, a luscious and deeply moving period romance and story of finding home, built around a radiant performance from Saoirse Ronan.

Sunday, September 13th – 6:00 PM at Winter Garden Theatre
Monday, September 14th – 11:00 AM at Winter Garden Theatre

The Meddler: Marnie (Susan Sarandon) is a constant do-gooder who has just moved to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), whom she is in frequent contact with through countless and charmingly mundane phone messages, many of which go unanswered.  This is Marnie’s way of grieving the death of her husband, but Lori is grieving in a different way, stressing herself out over the television pilot she is working on, which leaves her mother to become overly involved in other people’s lives, using the wealth she inherited.  But a chance encounter with a charming retired police officer (J.K. Simmons), might just allow Marnie to finally allow herself to start working through the repressed emotional pain of her husband’s death.

A master of finding the intersecting lines between comedy and drama, writer-director Lorene Scafaria has crafted a touching yet still often laugh out loud funny film, that sensitively explores the different ways people grieve, through a highly perceptive and very personal screenplay based on her own mother.  Like in her equally excellent but severely underrated 2011 film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, she stages some wildly funny situations here that feel completely grounded because of the tremendous amount of heart behind them, with a uniformly excellent cast that does memorable work bringing their characters to life.  Providing a sparkling showcase for Susan Sarandon, who shines in a captivating and fully realized performance, The Meddler is a truly special film, that manages to be genuinely hilarious one moment, and honestly moving the next.

Monday, September 14th – 3:00 PM at Princess of Wales
Tuesday, September 15th – 4:45 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre
Saturday, September 19th – 8:00 PM at Winter Garden Theatre

Hyena Road: After taking us to the battlefields of World War II in Passchendaele, writer-director Paul Gross returns to the combat zone in his modern war film Hyena Road, which focuses on a group of Canadian soldiers stationed in Kandahar, the “birthplace of the Taliban.”  The film follows the closely intersecting stories of an idealistic young sniper (Rossif Sutherland), who is involved with his female colleague (Christine Horne), and the tough intelligence officer (Paul Gross), who sometimes clashes with him in their differing ideas of what decisions to make on the ground in Afghanistan.

The sequences of combat are all reasonably well done, and Paul Gross does stage some tense and authentically brutal firefights, which are admittedly ambitious for a homegrown film.  The film is equally interested in the politicking behind every decision and the day to day lives of the soldiers, and it’s all solidly performed by the cast.  But Hyena Road is also weighed down by stock characters, and the moral dilemmas are sometimes painted in broad strokes, with predictable moments of melodrama that aren’t really aided by the clichéd voiceover.  Although feeling largely middle of the road, especially compared to other modern war films, Hyena Road is still a well-intentioned and modestly engaging action drama that channels themes of combat through a Canadian lens, and is pretty serviceable in its ambitions.

Monday, September 14th – 9:30 PM at Roy Thomson Hall
Tuesday, September 15th – 1:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema 2

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