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#TIFF17 Reviews: Suburbicon, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Florida Project and The Disaster Artist

September 7, 2017

By John Corrado

The Toronto International Film Festival is running from September 7th to 17th.  To kick things off, below are my thoughts on four films that will be playing over the next ten days.  More information on tickets and showtimes can be found through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

Suburbicon – ★★ (out of 4) Based on a decades old screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, that has since been touched up by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, Suburbicon is the sort of uneven work that feels like it has had too many hands on it over the years.  After being stranded in various stages of development for quite some time, the film has finally come to fruition with George Clooney taking over the directing reigns, and while the results are fitfully entertaining, watching it also gives us the feeling that maybe there was a reason why the Coen Brothers themselves never made it a priority to get it to the screen.  The film takes place in the 1950s and is set in the town of Suburbicon, a place of perfect cookie cutter houses where the only diversity is white people from different states.  Little Nicky (Noah Jupe) is living in this seemingly idyllic world, but his life is turned upside down when his mother is killed in a brutal home invasion, and his father Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) takes up with his aunt Margaret (Julianne Moore), leading the boy to suspect that something fishy is going on.

While Suburbicon does have some timely themes of racial tensions, with a subplot involving the townsfolk being rattled by the arrival of the first black family, and a street riot in the last act that holds some eery similarities to terrifying recent protests in Charlottesville, the film lacks the depth or weight to really confront these issues.  The idea of exposing racial biases and prejudice beneath the shiny surface of 1950s American suburbia is also one that has been done before and better, and the fact that the black characters are largely relegated to being supporting players within the story kind of ironically defeats its purpose.  The film collides its story of white nationalism and racism with a tale of murder and insurance claims that has heavy echoes of Blood Simple and Fargo, and these two halves never quite fit together as smoothly as they should.  It often feels heavy handed in its approach and is surprisingly predictable in terms of plot, offering satire without the focus or precision to really work.  What we are left with is a fitfully entertaining film that is neither as clever or deep as it seems to think it is, and the whole thing ends up feeling like overcooked leftovers.  It has some moments, and Oscar Isaac does have fun with his small role as an insurance agent, but the film just doesn’t quite come together in the end.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer – ★★★ (out of 4) Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a celebrated cardiac surgeon who strikes up a strange and unlikely friendship with an offbeat teenager named Martin (Barry Keoghan) in The Killing of a Sacred Deer.  When Steven brings the troubled teen home to meet his wife (Nicole Kidman), as well as his teenaged daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and his young son Bob (Sunny Suljic), Martin tries to position himself as part of the family, which causes things to start going horribly wrong for them.

The latest from director Yorgos Lanthimos, following up his offbeat relationship dramedy The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a slow burn psychological thriller that does a great job of keeping us on edge.  The film only reveals the true nature of Steven and Martin’s strangely paternal friendship about halfway through, and I wouldn’t think of spoiling it here, but it takes things into the level of a Greek tragedy.  The film moves at a deliberate pace that maintains a steady sense of suspense, playing with a chilly and unnerving atmosphere that keeps us constantly intrigued, while punctuating the unease with ample moments of dark humour.  The cinematography gives it an appropriately cold and chilly feel, as the camera slowly pans in and out between scenes, allowing many moments to feel like inverses of each other, and adding to the unnerving effect of it all.  The performances are all perfectly mannered, with every actor delivering the unique rhythms of the often bizarre dialogue with a certain calmness.  Barry Keoghan is a particular standout, delivering a quietly unsettling and absurdly funny performance that brilliantly gets under our skin.  These characters exist in an entirely unique world, but they treat it as if it is mundane and ordinary, which just makes the film all the more unsettling to watch.

The Florida Project – ★★★★ (out of 4) Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a rundown Orlando motel, right in the shadow of Disney World.  The motel is decrepit, and largely ignored by the tourists who bring the only real revenue to their small part of the world, as the endlessly patient manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) tries to hold it all together.  But it provides a gigantic backyard for the six year old Moonee to mess around in, generally raising hell with her best friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and their newfound playmate Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who lives in the neighbouring motel.  The kids run around being kids, exploring their surroundings, getting into mischief and sharing ice cream cones bought with coins from strangers, but they are also navigating a harsh and unforgiving world.  As her mother struggles to find new ways to pay the rent, Moonee’s childhood is threatened to be torn apart.

Directed by Sean Baker, who broke onto the scene in a memorable way with the iPhone-shot Tangerine, The Florida Project is a highly empathetic and often breathtaking cinematic work.  The film beautifully balances the joyous, carefree nature of being a child with the heartbreak and pain of living in poverty.  It shows the fringes that exist in the shadow of Disney’s “happiest place on earth,” a world of struggle and wasted opportunity where being a child is the only reprieve you can get from the cruelties of the world, and even that sanctity is threatened.  This juxtaposition between the joy offered by Disney World, a place that exists in fantasy, and the pain of the real world, manifested in the playful nature of being a kid and the responsibilities and hardships that come with being an adult, is something that the film handles brilliantly.  Newcomer Brooklynn Prince carries the film with a breakout performance, proving herself to be an absolute natural onscreen, the camera smoothly following her and taking her lead.  Willem Dafoe delivers a quietly moving performance as the manager caught in the middle of these people’s lives, watching over them from his office, and providing the closest thing to a stern but kind paternal figure that these kids seem to have.  This all leads to the powerful climactic moments, culminating in the best final minute of any film this year.  I still get choked up just thinking about it.

The Disaster Artist – ★★★½ (out of 4) Amassing an incredible cult audience since its single-theatre release in 2003, Tommy Wisseau’s The Room holds the honour of being one of the best-worst movies of all time.  James Franco pays tribute to the making of this accidental cult classic in The Disaster Artist, serving as both director and star to offer a loving ode to the film’s troubled production, and the mysterious figure behind it.  The film tells the story of struggling actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), who meets the accented and flamboyantly over the top Tommy Wisseau (James Franco) at a local theatre event, and ends up moving with him to Los Angeles.  But when their careers fail to take off, Tommy decides to write and direct his own film, with starring roles for himself and Greg, funding the amateur production out of his own seemingly endless cash flow.

The biggest reason why The Disaster Artist works so well is because it never descends into a mean spirited mockery of its larger than life central character, instead paying tribute to the cult classic that he inadvertently created.  The film presents Tommy Wisseau as an eccentric dreamer who has faced the pain of rejection one too many times and just wants some recognition for once in his life, and James Franco is flat-out incredible in the role, having reportedly also directed the film in character.  It’s mesmerizing to watch the always singular actor transform himself into Tommy Wisseau, and he delivers a fearless, force of nature performance here.  He is almost unrecognizable behind the long black hair and makeup to make his face look more weathered, and as Tommy grows more erratic and unhinged as the film goes on, James Franco disappears even deeper into the role, to the point where the similarities between the two actors become almost uncanny.  Dave Franco does career best work alongside his brother, in a stroke of ingenious casting, with the real life siblings playing perfectly off each other.  They are backed up by a phenomenal supporting cast, with memorable roles for Seth Rogen, Jacki Weaver and Zac Efron among others.  It’s a wildly good time, and stay through the end credits for a final surprise.

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