“This is the fun line,” I’m told by a festival volunteer as I join a group of fellow stragglers filing into the spacious Princess Of Wales Theatre. The people in front of me have white (possibly industry) badges and I have a green press one, but we’re all here for the same film, Johnny Depp’s new one, Black Mass. “Why is this the fun line?” I ask the volunteer, one of the several dozen invariably cheerful, orange-shirted twentysomethings stationed outside of every venue. “They’re going to enjoy the movie,” she replies. “You’re working.”
And don’t I know it. For critics, film festivals are exciting, a real perk of the profession. But they are not vacations. No one gets enough sleep. Everyone eats like crap, wolfing down slices of pizza between back-to-back screenings. And of course there’s the danger of overdosing on cinema, of packing so many movies into one 24-hour stretch that you lose your ability to see them straight. Four days into TIFF, and already the press corps is looking bedraggled. We need stiff drinks and fresh vegetables and something spectacular—some revelation, the reason we all come here—to get us through the rest of the fest.
Black Mass (Grade: B-) is no revelation, but I did end up enjoying it, even if I was—as the volunteer helpfully reminded—on the clock. Scott Cooper, who made Crazy Heart and Out Of The Furnace, traces the rise and fall of James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), the notoriously vicious Boston kingpin and supposed FBI informant. Comparisons to The Departed, which cast Jack Nicholson as a lightly fictionalized proxy for Bulger, are inevitable. But Black Mass is a less stylish, more Wiki-inspired crime flick: It charges across the decades, hitting the major bullet points on Bulger’s rap sheet, with a central focus on how the FBI essentially sanctioned his reign of terror in the interest of taking down the Italian mob.
His hair thinned and slicked back, his teeth browned, and his skin a sickly shade of pallid, Depp plays Bulger as a force of pure, black-hearted malevolence—a sociopathic gangland ghoul. By all accounts, the real man was/is beyond monstrous, so it’s no problem that the star shows little interest in humanizing him. But Black Mass could have benefited from some dramatic center; the motivations of the other main character—Bulger’s FBI handler John Connolly, embodied with a kind of amiable amorality by Joel Edgerton—never entirely solidify. Still, the film is handsome and unfussy in its 1970s period detail, and Cooper remains excellent with actors, here casting nearly every significant role with a recognizable face and coaxing fine performances out of all of them. Do yourself a favor and skip the trailer, which abbreviates and spoils the movie’s best scene.
But why settle for one hotheaded Johnny Depp when you can have two hotheaded Tom Hardys? The festival’s other slick, overlong Hollywood period piece about famous gangsters, Legend (Grade: B-) is a much more blatant Scorsese imitation, from its wall-to-wall retro pop soundtrack to an early steadicam shot of handsome lowlife Reggie Kray (Hardy) leading his new girlfriend (Emily Browning) through the nightclub he owns. But Marty’s streets are meaner than the excessively color-corrected, artificially sheening mid-century London director Brian Helgeland (A Knight’s Tale, 42) constructs here. The film looks more like Gangster Squad than Goodfellas.
Dramatically speaking, Legend basically suffers from the opposite problem as Black Mass: Instead of struggling to find shape in its ripped-from-the-headlines history, the film conforms it to the contrived framework of a doomed romance, viewing most of the key events—another rise and fall arc—from the perspective of Browning’s character, who narrates. There’s just not much fire in that love story. The real passion is between Hardy and Hardy, and seeing the star play both the short-tempered, business-savvy Reggie and his mumbling, certifiably insane twin brother, Ronald, is enough to get one through Legend. Two magnetic Tom Hardy performances for the price of one is hard to turn down, even in the context of a shamelessly derivative mobster epic.
The Toronto programmers may have overestimated the dwindling fandom of Atom Egoyan, even on this side of North America. As just about anyone reviewing a new Egoyan movie feels obligated to restate, the Canadian director hasn’t made anything great since 1997’s The Sweet Hereafter, which may be why there are more than a few empty seats at the big gala premiere of his latest. Starting close to an hour late, Remember (Grade: C+) turns out to be more of a misguided curiosity than an outright fiasco. Christopher Plummer capably stars as Zev, an elderly, dementia-afflicted German expat living in an American nursing home. After his wife dies, a fellow resident (Martin Landau) sends Zev on some sort of mysterious revenge mission, with instructions scrawled on a handwritten letter that he can consult when he forgets where he’s going and what he’s doing.
Since Egoyan’s films tend to operate best before all the pieces come together, I’ll refrain from saying much more about the plot, except to reveal—as the movie does very early on—that it involves the Holocaust. Remember gets more and more ludicrous as it goes, but it’s never boring. The film’s failings unfortunately feel mostly directorial: This pulpy material needed a master of suspense, someone who could wring more tension from its fraught encounters. Under Egoyan’s stewardship, scenes of Plummer wandering around in a confused haze, before getting down to dirty business, flirt with unintentional comedy, and it doesn’t help that all the bit roles seem to have been inexplicably filled by awful actors. The ending, by the way, is so tastelessly crazy that you have to almost admire it, though I couldn’t blame anyone who might take issue with using history’s darkest chapter as the backdrop for a thriller.
To some extent, one could say that Son Of Saul (Grade: A-) does the same thing, albeit in a much more respectful and nightmarishly authentic manner. Set over a single day at Auschwitz, the film has the relentless forward momentum of an action movie: The title character, played by Géza Röhrig, is a Sonderkommando, one of the Jewish prisoners charged with the disposal of bodies, and he never really stops moving over the course of the film. László Nemes, in his feature-length debut, is astonishingly assured behind the camera, shooting his main character in close-up and extreme shallow focus—a choice that not only blessedly obscures the unspeakable atrocities happening all around him, but also evokes his state of mind, a total emotional numbness. But then something happens that rips Saul out of his protective cocoon of detachment: He becomes convinced that a young boy who dies in the gas chambers is his illegitimate son, and suddenly feels an intense obligation to secure him a proper Jewish burial.
All that probably sounds intolerably bleak, and it’s true that there are moments in Son Of Saul that are difficult to bear. What makes the film gripping and not merely harrowing is the sense of purpose it affords its protagonist: Saul may be living on borrowed time, but he’s found a source of meaning for his final hours, something he may be able to accomplish at the camp. What’s more, Nemes grants him something of a moral dilemma, a tough choice to make between one use of his limited time and another; even as a man marked for death, he has honest-to-God agency. With its lengthy following shots and powerful spiritual element, Son Of Saul sometimes plays like the most formally and conceptually ambitious drama the Dardenne brothers never made. I’ll have more thoughts on the film when it hits U.S. theaters this December, but it feels, on first glimpse, like something monumental.
There’s actually a little bit of aesthetic overlap between Son Of Saul and another festival favorite, Josh Mond’s Sundance winner James White (Grade: B+), which similarly fills the frame with the face of its hero, a man also grappling, under much different circumstances, with life and death. Christopher Abbott, from Girls, is the title character, a young Brooklyn man coping with the passing of his estranged father and the return of his mother’s cancer. James is something of a deadbeat prick, and if there’s a question hanging over the movie, it may concern just how much destructive (and self-destructive) behavior should be tolerated from a person going through so much turmoil. But Mond, who’s part of the same New York filmmaking collective that made Afterschool and Martha Marcy May Marlene, seems chiefly concerned with capturing, in startlingly vivid detail, the day-to-day experience of losing one or more of your parents. The film’s second half, in which James’ mother (beautifully played by Cynthia Nixon) goes through the hell of stage four, aches with raw feeling. Abbott’s boldly off-putting performance keeps the sentimentality at bay.
Intimately scaled slice-of-life dramas about estranged fathers were a common occurrence at the midway mark of TIFF, though none of the others I saw over these past couple days packed the wallop of James White. Vaguely positive buzz, the word of mouth that travels across auditoriums like wildfire, steered me in the direction of a Toronto original from hometown hero Kazik Radwanski (Tower). I wish I could see the low-key pleasures others are gleaning from How Heavy This Hammer (Grade: C), about a surly, rotund family man who begins to drift apart from his wife and kids, finding solace only in online gaming. (He thinks he was a Viking in another lifetime.) The film doesn’t resort to mean-spirited humor, but nor does it do much to make us care about this fundamentally unlikable schlub, filmed in shaky perpetual close-ups even tighter than the ones employed in James White and Son Of Saul. Much sweeter but nearly as mundane was Hirokazu Koreeda’s Cannes-approved Our Little Sister (Grade: C+), in which three adult sisters who live together take in the younger sibling fathered by—you guessed it—their estranged (and now dead) dad. Like a lot of the Japanese director’s recent work, it’s endearingly humane and rich with details of environment, but also so minor it threatens to evaporate on sight.
About Ray (Grade: B) was better, spinning a gentle New York story about a transgender teen (Elle Fanning) looking to start gender-reassignment hormone therapy, for which she’ll need not just the approval of her understanding mother (Naomi Watts), but also that of—one more time with feeling!—her estranged father. There’s a certain sitcomish snap to the dialogue, but About Ray deserves kudos for handling its subject with sensitivity, while also not lapsing into public-service-announcement territory. Look for a full review later this week, assuming I haven’t died from lack of sleep or nutrition.