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#TIFF17 Reviews: Bodied, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Faces Places, Three Christs and Indian Horse

September 16, 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!

Bodied – ★★★½ (out of 4) Adam (Calum Worthy) is a nerdy white graduate student at Berkeley who is fascinated by battle rap, writing his thesis paper on the use of the N-word in hip hop culture.  But when he accidentally falls into battle with another rapper after a competition, and comes out on top with his mad rhyming skills, he gets taken under the wing of fellow battle rapper Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) and becomes fiercely competitive in the underground world.  But his increasing immersion into battle rap culture, and all of the racially charged and offensive content that comes with it, alienates him from his radical feminist, social justice warrior girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) who views battle rap as sexist, and also threatens his academic career.

Not only is this a wildly entertaining battle rap movie, but it also tackles vital themes of free speech, and if there are any lines you shouldn’t cross.  There are so many things in the film that carry allusions to what is really happening on so many college and university campuses, not only at Berkeley, but also here in Toronto.  The film pokes fun at the hypocrisies of the regressive left, brilliantly satirizing things like trigger warnings and safe spaces, showing how they have actually made people more intolerant to different experiences and ideas.  For example, Maya is a far-left vegan who is trying to square her own self-satisfied wokeness with the fact that she is a white girl criticizing predominantly black culture, and Bodied also cleverly explores ideas of cultural appropriation through the theme of Adam being a white kid obsessed with rap.  The screenplay by Toronto battle rapper Alex Larsen (aka Kid Twist) is filled with clever wordplay, taking a no holds barred approach to its material, and never holding back from even the most offensive and politically incorrect content.  Director Joseph Kahn, who is perhaps best known for his Taylor Swift music videos, imbues the film with cool stylistic touches, especially when visually illustrating Adam’s mental process of developing rhymes in his mind during a battle.  The whole last act of the film is insane, becoming an intensely thrilling rap battle that comes at us from all sides and stuns not just because of the ferocity of the rhymes, but also because of what is really being said underneath it all.  While Bodied works on the surface as a slick and stylish immersion into the battle rap scene, the film also tackles deeper themes underneath, and that’s what makes it so compelling.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women – ★★½ (out of 4) Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) is a psychology professor in the 1920s, working alongside his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) on DISC theory, his study of dominant and submissive behaviour traits and how they influence interactions between the sexes.  When they bring in their young student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) to assist them in their research, William starts to become infatuated with her, as Olive comes to fall for Elizabeth.  The three of them fall into a polygamous relationship and decide to move in together, forming an unconventional family unit around their unique arrangement, and even sharing parenting duties between them.  William is inspired by his sexual relationships with both women to create the fictional character of Wonder Woman, and decides to write a comic book filled with subliminal messages to help break down gender and sexual barriers.  With her costume being inspired by kink attire, and many allusions to bondage culture, right down to her rope that forces bad guys to tell the truth, it’s only so long before his Wonder Woman comics start to clash with the culture at the time.

These unlikely origins behind the character of Wonder Woman, and the unconventional love life of her creator, provides the basis for Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a better than average biopic from writer-director Angela Robinson that does a fine job of tapping into the inherent entertainment value of its material.  A ménage à trois montage set to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” springs to mind as one of the film’s most playful moments.  While the screenplay does touch on some deeper social themes, mainly how different expressions of sexuality are still largely considered taboo, the film itself doesn’t go too deep and is mostly just a good bit of fun.  This is a well paced, slickly assembled and easily enjoyable romp that sheds light on the unlikely origins of a beloved superhero, and it’s carry by solid performances from its three leads.

Face Places – ★★★½ (out of 4) Agnes Varda is one of the most influential filmmakers from the French New Wave, and JR is a young street photographer.  Together, they have teamed up to create Faces Places, an often fun mix of documentary and travelogue that finds the two of them setting out on a road trip through the French countryside in JR’s photo truck, taking pictures of regular people and printing out large scale versions to be plastered on buildings, immortalizing the images of local villagers, farmers, and even the wives of dockworkers through gigantic murals.  Along the way, Agnes Varda reflects on her career and old age, but this is also one of her most playful works, and the friendship that blossoms between her and JR is immensely charming to watch.  She teases him about the fact that he always wears dark shades, an aspect of JR’s character that reminds Agnes Varda of her filmmaking contemporary and old friend Jean-Luc Godard.  The result is a delightful film that provides a wonderful portrait of two artists coming together to create something unique and special.

Three Christs – ★★½ (out of 4) Based on a true story, Three Christs dramatizes psychiatrist Dr. Alan Stone’s (Richard Gere) most famous case of working with three paranoid schizophrenic patients being housed in a Michigan state psychiatric hospital who all believe themselves to be Jesus Christ.  Joseph (Peter Dinklage) speaks in a fake British accent and proclaims himself to be Jesus of Nazareth, Clyde (Bradley Whitford) is an older man who has severe OCD and believes himself to be Jesus “but not of Nazareth,” and Leon (Walton Goggins) is a PTSD-stricken soldier who is a fierce and linguistically gifted debater when it comes to defending his belief that he is the Son of God.  Working with his young female assistant Becky (Charlotte Hope), who brings sexual tension to the group, Dr. Alan Stone’s radical treatment solution is to put the three men in a room together, in hopes that they will help challenge each other’s delusions.

Directed by Jon Avnet, Three Christs offers many things to enjoy, even if the film as a whole feels a bit uneven.  The domestic scenes with Dr. Alan Stone’s wife (Julianna Marguilles) feel underwritten and are entirely needless within the plot, and actually detract from the film as a whole.  The film’s typical biopic structure of being told in flashbacks also seems somewhat clichéd, but the scenes with the titular trio are actually really entertaining.  It’s no surprise that the best part of Three Christs is the time spent with the characters who give the film its title, and the inimitable trio of Peter Dinklage, Bradley Whitford and Walton Goggins all seem to relishing the chance to act unhinged and argue with each other over which one of them is really Jesus.  It’s worth seeing for their eminently watchable performances, with the three actors bringing both great humour and genuine pathos to the film, lighting up the screen both on their own and especially in their scenes together.

Indian Horse – ★★½ (out of 4) Based on the novel by Richard Wagamese, Indian Horse tells the story of Saul Indian Horse, an Ojibwe boy who is taken from his family in Northwestern Ontario in the 1960s, and brought to a Catholic Residential School, where he is abused and forced to give up his culture but finds refuge from it allthrough the game of hockey.  This is one of those decent and well-intentioned films that I really wish was better.  The three actors portraying the lead character at different stages of his life – Sladen Peltier, Forrest Goodluck and Ajuawak Kapashesit – all do solid work, each bringing nuance and a sense of emotion to their portrayals.  But the film’s production values are somewhat limited, and the storytelling feels rushed, making this a somewhat stilted project that would probably be better suited to TV.  Still, the story it tells is an important one, and if it helps open more people’s eyes to the atrocities that have been inflicted upon First Nations in Canada, than that’s a good thing.

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