Still from "The Death of Stalin" -- Image Courtesy of TIFF

TIFF17: Day Three

Sep 10, 2017 By Jason Wilson
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Closing out Day 2 with a midnight screening of The Ritual was a great choice in every way other than what it did to me the following morning. I had a 9 a.m. screening, and I was a zombie. It’s an avoidable problem that is entirely my own design because the Midnight Madness films do have other timeslots throughout the festival, but nothing beats the atmosphere or the energy of that crowd. Every other kind of screening experience pales by comparison.

So, I sucked it up, chugged coffee and went into the theatre. Good thing, too, because all three screenings I attended on Saturday were, at worst, very good and, at best, a potential festival favorite.

Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin perked me up pretty quickly. Iannucci’s last feature, In the Loop, is my favorite film from 2009. It’s a caustic, vulgar, classic piece of political comedy that has yet to be matched. The Death of Stalin doesn’t quite measure up, but it’s also has much loftier ambitions in terms of scope. A bunch of American and British actors from Steve Buscemi to Michael Palin take on the roles of Josef Stalin’s inner circle around the time the Soviet dictator suffered a stroke and eventually died in 1953. His death sparks a series of schemes and plans to name his successor, backstab political opponents, and pay homage to their deceased leader out of a seeming continuing fear that he can monitor their every move from beyond the grave, or so it seems.

This notion of the all-seeing eye that was Stalin is established in a wonderful opening with a radio producer (Paddy Considine) getting a call from the dictator himself requesting a recording of that night’s symphony…that they didn’t record. As the audience and musicians start to filter away, he frantically brings them back to get them to do the entire Mozart symphony a second time. It’s absurd – both the act and the request preceding it – but there is a palpable sense of danger. This is the balance The Death of Stalin strives for and, mostly, achieves. This is as black a comedy as you’ll find. The stakes are real in the way that it’s based on true events, but Iannucci and company portray the parties involved as conniving, black-hearted imbeciles with faulty, or absent, moral compasses. It may veer too far into cruelty for some, but Iannucci doesn’t hold back. The entire cast is pitch perfect with Simon Russell Beale’s viciously pragmatic Beria and Jason Isaacs’ gleeful sociopath Zhukov as two of the highlights. My hope is this becomes enough of a hit that Iannucci makes more features (or more anything) very soon.

As soon as The Death of Stalin ended, it was off to Joachim Trier’s Thelma. His previous film, Louder Than Bombs was one of the best films of TIFF 2015, and has been woefully underseen (it was in my top 20 of 2016). Where that was a family drama about damaging secrets rearing their ugly heads after a family member dies, Thelma keeps familial themes of deceit and trauma while mixing it with a science fiction/horror hue. A young woman (Thelma) goes off to university. An introvert, she keeps mostly to herself while longing for belonging and friendship. Slowly, through a series of seizures, it’s revealed that she has powers vaguely connected to her emotional state.

Impossible to avoid comparisons to Stephen King’s novel Carrie or Brian De Palma’s film, it’s too reductive to suggest it’s simply a variation of that story with a new setting. Thelma may be a coming-of-age film, but the college setting opens it up for a wider set of circumstances. Thelma, the young woman, struggles with the power she possesses and the crippling self-doubt that either accompanies it or was already there to begin with. She also comes from a devout Christian family, though that carries an unexpected – and very satisfying – revelation in the later scenes. Maybe the reality of her powers is muddied or unclear, but that’s not entirely problematic. They’re not exactly crystal to her, either. Thelma is a strong vision of a woman coming to grips with her own desires, how they conflict with her beliefs, and how she’s sometimes powerless to stop…or she chooses to acquiesce. There is plenty to consider, and it’s definitely one worthy of revisiting.

I saved the best for last.

TIFF announced a second press screening of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project after many (myself included) were turned away from the first. I made it this time. And it’s everything it is cracked up to be despite initial misgivings with the way the movie opens. We’re treated to a group of rambunctious (see: aggravating) six-year-olds who decide to start spitting on a car in the parking lot of the motel next to the one they live in. It’s shrill and off-putting, and a fantastic entry point into their lives in retrospect.

Moonee is the central figure. An energetic kid whose mother is more than a little rough around the edges, Moonee seems both old beyond her years and so woefully naïve of her situation in the same breath. She loves her mother and her mother, in her way, loves her. Halley never abuses Moonee, never even really raises her voice at her. While others try to step in and tell her she needs to discipline her progeny more, Moonee is always well-fed despite their financial situation. That’s not to say Halley is responsible, just that she’s provided a chance on screen to be more than the typical unfit parent that would only get a few minutes of patronizing screentime in another, lesser film.

Echoing what many around me – and what the Twitterverse has been saying since Cannes – Willem Dafoe is golden as the (mostly) even-tempered motel manager who puts up with all the crazy shenanigans. He's almost universally underpraised (and plenty of people love his work), but he just blends in so effortlessly here that if he doesn’t get award recognition (I know…not needed) it will seem like a waste. This isn’t to say he shines above the rest of the cast, mind you, just that his presence is very welcome. The Florida Project may very well be my top film of 2017 at this writing, though the first day of TIFF featured another contender for that title in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. In other words, it’s been a pretty good festival so far.

Tomorrow, the plan is to check out Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley and Frances McDormand spew Martin McDonagh’s venomous vulgarity in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.


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