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#TIFF16 Reviews: Planetarium, Sing and Denial

September 12, 2016

By John Corrado

denial-posterThe first weekend may have come to a close, but the Toronto International Film Festival is still going strong for another week, and here are my thoughts on three more films that just premiered here.  Please come back throughout the rest of the festival for more capsule reviews, and you can find information on tickets and showtimes through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

Planetarium (Gala Presentations): Laura Barlow (Natalie Portman) and her younger sister Kate (Lily-Rose Depp) are a pair of spiritual mediums in the 1930s, making money in Paris doing live shows and performing seances to contact the dead.  When they capture the attention of French film producer André Korben (Emmanuel Salinger), who has fallen under their spell and wants to put them in the movies, he starts to become obsessed with the supernatural powers he believes they possess.  Although Planetarium is beautifully filmed and often gorgeous to look at on a purely visual level, it’s ultimately a narrative mess that never really coalesces into a meaningful or even overly interesting whole.  Natalie Portman is expectedly strong in the leading role, and there are a few nicely done scenes, but the film itself feels overly pretentious and much too ambitious for its own good.  It had potential, but just doesn’t really work in the end, which is a damn shame.  What a disappointment.

Sing (Special Presentations): Following their mega hit The Secret Life of Pets, Illumination has delivered another animated winner with Sing, a joyful musical that is enlivened by its colourful visuals and likeable characters.  Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is a theatre-loving koala who is struggling to pay the rent on his failing theatre, so he stages a singing competition to try and bring in more guests.  But when the flyers accidentally go out promising a one hundred thousand dollar prize when he can barely scrape together a single grand, the turnout is enormous with numerous animals who all have their own reasons for needing the money and wanting to win.  There’s an overworked mother pig (Reese Witherspoon), a sensitive gorilla (Taron Egerton) wanting to break free from his father’s gang, a very shy elephant (Tori Kelly) who dreams of being a singer, a porcupine (Scarlett Johansson) from a punk rock duo who wants to prove herself on her own, and a conceded busker mouse (Seth MacFarlane) who sings jazz standards and plays the saxophone.

Although it feels a bit long in the midsection of its 110 minute running time, Sing is a film that aims to please audiences of all ages, and ultimately does just that.  Juggling several narrative strands, the film does a great job of setting up its various characters and storylines right from the start, with the virtual camera swooping around to different locations, sometimes employing a striking single take effect.  The animation is vibrant and colourful, packing in many clever little touches and sight gags, including a delightful group of red foxes performing J-Pop.  The countless musical numbers are as rousing and toe-tapping as you would expect, impressively mixing in a ton of tunes both old and new.  With a sweet message about never giving up on your dreams, Sing is a lot of fun, and a total crowdpleaser in every sense of the word.  I was won over by its energy and charm.  The audience clapped after every musical number in the finale, and Tori Kelly and Jennifer Hudson performed a couple of songs live after the premiere, duetting for a powerful rendition of “Hallelujah,” which was an added bonus.

Denial (Special Presentations): Deborah Lipstadt (Racehl Weisz) is a Jewish professor and historian teaching in London, who comes under fire from David Irving (Timothy Spall), a Holocaust deniar who has devoted his life to discrediting proof that Aushwitz was used as a killing machine.  When he takes her publisher to court over the way he is described in her book, Deborah gets the assistance of a crack legal team led by Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), the same lawyer behind Princess Diana’s divorce, and esteemed lawyer Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), who pours over every detail of the case.  The fact that David Irving chooses to represent himself in court adds to the David and Goliath narrative that he is using to gain publicity for his cause, but the landmark hearing ultimately comes down to the simple truth that you can’t discredit history just because you choose not to believe it.

Although Denial takes a bit of time to get going, with its approach sometimes feeling a bit by the numbers, the film takes an emotional turn with a visit to the death chambers at Auschwitz, and reaches its best and most interesting moments during the courtroom scenes.  These tense legal arguments are performed with steely resolve on the part of the ensemble cast, making them gripping to watch.  Rachel Weisz portrays her character as tough and determined, defending her own cultural history, and bringing voice to the Holocaust survivors who are threatened to have their stories silenced by this case.  Timothy Spall does an excellent job of portraying the weasly David Irving, an intensely untrustworthy figure who confidently spouts defamatory lies to perpetuate his own ideas and keep himself in the public spotlight, in a performance that we nevertheless can’t take our eyes off of.  This is an engaging and well acted drama that presents a lot of interesting ideas about the dangers of revisionist history, and its dramatization of a case that saw a man trying to defend his use of blatant lies under the guise of free speech should have added resonance in the era of Donald Trump.

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