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#TIFF16 Reviews: La La Land, I, Daniel Blake, Arrival, Two Lovers and a Bear, Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids

September 14, 2016

By John Corrado

la-la-land-posterWe are now past the halfway point of the Toronto International Film Festival, and below are my thoughts on five of the films that I got to see over the last few days.  Please come back throughout the final few days of the festival for more capsule reviews, and you can find information on tickets and showtimes through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

La La Land (Special Presentations): Mia (Emma Stone) is a struggling actress who works as a barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot, going in for countless auditions but rarely getting callbacks.  Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is an old school jazz musician, who dreams of opening his own club to keep the musical art form alive.  After several chance encounters in Los Angeles, Mia and Sebastian start to fall in love, and we follow the ups and downs of their romance and artistic careers over four seasons.

Right from the opening scene, a high energy and somewhat corny song and dance number staged in a traffic jam, La La Land sets itself up as a modern day throwback to classic musicals, and that’s exactly what we get.  Directed by Damian Chazelle, crafting a glitzy followup to his stunning Whiplash, the film features several show stopping musical numbers that harken back to the type of productions that used to be commonplace in Hollywood, but sadly don’t really get made anymore.  Now before we go any further, I do have to admit that La La Land is at risk of being overhyped.  Although there is a lot to enjoy here, I think it almost would have played better as a period piece, and I wish the film had ended on a different note.  I have no problems with a somber ending, but the outcome here rings false, because it isn’t established in a way that makes it believable to the characters and doesn’t really match the tone of everything that comes before.  But Damian Chazelle still stages many great moments throughout, and at its best, La La Land will make you swoon with its gorgeous production design, lovely tunes and heart melting chemistry between the two leads, who both shine in excellent performances.  Ryan Gosling’s quiet piano song “City of Stars” is gorgeous and will get stuck in your head in the best possible way, and a solo number that Emma Stone has near the end is heartbreakingly pulled off.

I, Daniel Blake (Special Presentations): After suffering a major heart attack on a constriction site, Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a widowed 59-year-old carpenter who has been a hard worker and proud taxpayer all his years, is trying to go after government support in order to pay his bills.  But he ends up stuck in the revolving doors of a welfare system that makes benefits almost impossible to access, as he keeps getting denied and told to wait for appeals that seemingly never come.  When he meets Kattie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother who is also being given a hard time at the welfare centre and is struggling to support her two kids (Briana Shann and Dylan McKiernan), Daniel becomes an unlikely friend to the young family and starts helping them out.

Directed by Ken Loach, and winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes, I, Daniel Blake is a deeply moving work that carries with it a timely social message.  As Daniel meets every bureaucratic curveball thrown at him with resilience and quiet protest, despite growing more and more tired with the whole process, the film becomes a powerful indictment of how state welfare systems are made to not only fail their citizens, but also grind them away in the process until they lose their dignity.  Featuring raw and naturalistic performances from Dave Johns and Hayley Squires, who make their characters both sympathetic and deeply relatable, I, Daniel Blake is an absolutely gutting human drama.  The film keeps building with quietly devastating little moments that depict the realities of poverty, until the final few scenes hit us with a profound emotional impact.

Arrival (Gala Presentations): After twelve egg-shaped alien spaceships land around the world, linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the military to try and communicate with the otherworldly visitors in Montana.  Teaming up with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise takes a methodical approach to attempting communication, trying to teach the squid-like creatures simple phrases so they can start asking them questions about their intentions on earth.  But the other nations are getting restless and want to hit the ships with military force, threatening to start a global war, as Louise and Ian race against time to decode the inky, cryptic symbols the aliens keep writing in response on the wall of glass that separates them.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, and featuring moody cinematography by Bradford Young, Arrival offers a fresh and unique approach to the usual aliens have landed premise.  With the story unfolding mostly at the research base and inside the sparse interior of the spaceship, this is a fascinatingly minimalistic approach to science fiction, which is precisely why it works.  The film often has a quiet and reflective tone, more grounded by human emotion than big budget set pieces, with a moving backstory involving Louise’s young daughter that provides the heart of the film, in an emotional arc that Amy Adams portrays beautifully.  Although there are a few convenient twists at the end that I didn’t entirely buy into, they in some ways just add to the depth of the conversations audiences are sure to have after the film.  Filled with heady and cerebral ideas about communication and the passage of time, Arrival is a piece of smart and ambitious science fiction, that has a beating heart and keeps us engaged by making us think.

Two Lovers and a Bear (Special Presentations): Lucy (Tatiana Maslaney) and Roman (Dane DeHaan) are a young couple living in the far reaches of the Canadian Arctic, both trying to run from traumas in their past and the demons inside their own heads.  Directed by Kim Nguyen, and featuring breathtaking cinematography shot on location, Two Lovers and a Bear is a hypnotic and transportive character drama.  The film is anchored by a pair of nuanced performances from Tatiana Maslaney and Dane DeHaan, who ground the story throughout even its most magical realist touches, including the titular polar bear (Gordon Pinsent) who has philosophical conversations with Roman.  Emotionally affecting and undeniably unique, Two Lovers and a Bear is a gripping portrait of mental illness in one of the harshest climates on earth, that builds towards a suspenseful and haunting last act.

Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (Gala Presentations): Directed by Jonathan Demme, Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids is a riveting concert film that captures the final two shows of his 20/20 Experience tour in Las Vegas.  After a few establishing scenes introducing us to his band and backstage crew, for the rest of the glorious running time we get to watch Justin Timberlake sing and dance his way through high octane renditions of songs like “Let the Groove Get In,” “Suit & Tie” and “SexyBack.”  Looking suave in his Tom Ford suits and carefully trimmed facial hair, the pop star commands the stage, and here the screen, with impressive energy and boundless sex appeal, keeping us gripped to every beat and dance move, backed up by a band that delivers impressive instrumentations behind him.  This is a must see concert film that offers a thrilling reminder why Justin Timberlake is one of the best entertainers of our time, a song and dance man in the classic tradition who knows how to deliver an incredible spectacle.  That’s something his legions of fans already know, and they will be in seventh heaven watching Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids.

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