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#TIFF17 Reviews: Unicorn Store, Downsizing, The Shape of Water and A Fantastic Woman

September 13, 2017

By John Corrado

The Toronto International Film Festival is on until September 17th, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

Unicorn Store – ★½ (out of 4) Kit (Brie Larson) is a young millennial who still lives with her overbearing New Age parents (Bradley Whitford and Joan Cusack), and is struggling to find her place in the world after having her art dreams dashed by bad grades.  She gets herself a temp job at an ad agency, but finds her inner child calling when she gets an invitation to a mysterious store run by a gregarious salesman (Samuel L. Jackson), who promises her a real live unicorn if she can prove that she has both a proper enclosure and enough love in her house to care for it.

Directed by Brie Larson, delivering both her filmmaking debut and her first major role since winning a much deserved Oscar for Room, Unicorn Store feels like a missed opportunity.  Poking fun at overly coddled millennials and the feelings-focused baby boomers who raised them should be easy, but the film misses almost every one of its targets.  Kit’s parents are health food junkies who run a touchy feely emotions camp for troubled youth, which all seems ripe for parody, but Unicorn Store is itself so focused on delivering a follow your dreams romp that it becomes the exact sort of phony, feel good pablum that it is trying to send up.  The film tries to tackle some serious subject matter like the epidemic of temporary work and problems with sexual harassment in the workplace, through a subplot involving Kit’s slimy creep of a boss (Hamish Linklater), but again it seems too focused on whimsy to really address these themes.  The result is a story of arrested development and letting yourself grow up that itself feels stuck somewhere in development, failing to really pull off its tricky tonal balance and just coming off as almost unbearably twee when it’s trying to say something deep.  Millennials are ripe for satire, but Unicorn Store is far too millennial a film to properly satirize them, never really moving beyond its glittery, candy-coloured veneer.  I have a tremendous amount of goodwill towards Brie Larson, and I don’t doubt that she could craft a fine film as director, but this unfortunately isn’t it.

Downsizing – ★★★ (out of 4) Seeking to solve problems of overpopulation and the rapid consumption and depletion of natural resources, a team of Norwegian scientists have discovered a process that allows people to shrink themselves down to the size of action figures, to reduce their carbon footprint.  Paul Safraneck (Matt Damon) is a working class man from Omaha who decides to undergo the procedure, allowing him to live a grand life at a fraction of the cost in one of the swanky small communities, but at the same time discovering a whole new host of problems in his life.  The trouble with “downsizing” is that it’s an attempt to solve the environmental crisis through a solution that his inherently unnatural, and the small communities have basically become microcosms of the world as it is now, with the same social problems just on a smaller scale.

The latest from director Alexander Payne, who has a knack for crafting nuanced character studies and also co-wrote the script with his frequent collaborator Jim Taylor, Downsizing is a high concept satirical comedy that represents somewhat of a change for him with its science fiction overtones.  This is the sort of ambitious film that aims for the stars and doesn’t always land, but it’s also a creatively risky work from a filmmaker who is trying something new, and is easily enjoyable as such.  The film tackles some interesting themes of where the world is headed both on an environmental and social scale, and how every seismic change in society brings about a whole new host of problems and inequalities, many of which are rooted entirely on preexisting determinations of class, race and financial status.  Matt Damon carries the film with an easily appealing everyman performance, and he is backed up by an all-star ensemble.  The cast is rounded out by fun work from Kristen Wiig as Paul’s wife, an amusing turn by Christoph Waltz as a slick playboy who has figured out how to turn a profit in this tiny world, as well as standout supporting work from Hong Chau, who hilariously steals every scene as a Vietnamese refugee who also provides much of the film’s heart.  Reactions to Downsizing are sure to vary wildly, and it’s not as good as Alexander Payne’s previous films, but it’s still a solid effort from a filmmaker with something to say.  If you are a fan of his work like I am, then I think you’ll at least enjoy this one as well, and it’s every bit worth seeing to decide for yourself.

The Shape of Water – ★★★★ (out of 4) Set in 1962, at the height of Cold War paranoia, Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a magical fantasy romance that tells of the unique love between Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaner who works at a secretive government laboratory, and a mysterious sea monster (Doug Jones) who is being held at the facility.  Eliza lives above an old movie theatre, bonding with her kind older neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) over their shared love of old musicals, and speaking through sign language.  She is lonely and sees a kindred spirit in the creature, finding ways to silently communicate with each other through music.  But when she discovers that the fierce Agent Strickland (Michael Shannon), who is in charge of the facility, intends to have the creature destroyed, she hatches a plan to rescue her newfound love, with help from her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who does the talking for her, and an understanding researcher (Michael Stuhlbarg) who also wants to see the creature’s life spared.

Shot in Toronto, with the Elgin standing in for the old theatre below Eliza’s apartment, the production design is just as gorgeous as we have come to expect from a Guillermo Del Toro film, further enhanced by the entrancing cinematography and ingenious uses of colour to add deeper meaning to the story.  The entire cast does great work, led by a mesmerizing near-silent performance from Sally Hawkins, as well as great work from Doug Jones as the creature, who is brought to life almost entirely through makeup and practical effects.  The supporting roles are all equally memorable, with Richard Jenkins doing lovely and sympathetic work here, and Michael Shannon crafting another terrifyingly villainous role.  Alexandre Desplat’s score provides a lovely accompaniment to the visuals, backed up by a selection of old standards on the soundtrack.  Providing a loving ode to both old monster movies and classic musicals, The Shape of Water is a moving, beautifully made and brilliantly acted love letter to cinema itself.  It’s magical, and the experience of seeing it at the Elgin just made it all the more special, with the audience bursting into applause when the same theatre we were in came onscreen.

A Fantastic Woman – ★★½ (out of 4) Marina (Daniela Varga) is a transwoman in Chile, who is dating the much older man Orlando (Francisco Reyes).  When Orlando suddenly falls ill and dies while they are together, his family starts to place the blame on Marina, barring her from coming to the funeral service, driven by both jealousy of everything that he left to her as well as a lack of acceptance towards her gender identity.  The latest from Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, A Fantastic Woman not only offers a character study of someone who is in the process of grieving a loved one but isn’t being allowed to say goodbye, as well as an exploration of the challenges faced by many transwomen, including having to undergo an unjust police investigation.  The film does have some tonal shifts that don’t always work, playing mostly as drama but sometimes segueing into comedic, melodramatic and even fantastical territory, and I didn’t find myself overly invested in the story all the way through.  But A Fantastic Woman is still well acted and well shot, with some interesting visual uses of mirrors to symbolize the surfaces we present to the world in order to find acceptance.

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