TIFF Film Thoughts: Part I

This year I went to Canada for a holiday, specifically with the intention of going to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). I managed to see 6 films and my thoughts on them will be summarised in two articles. Part 2 will come next week.

  1. Honey Boy:

Honey Boy was written as a therapeutic experiment by Shia LaBeouf, an actor who went from Disney star (Even Stevens) to blockbuster lead (Transformers) to performance artist to internet meme and then to more obscure art house fare. Despite being based on LaBeouf’s own upbringing, life and career, it is a fictional story. I used to be a big fan of his when I was a child and whilst that’s not the case anymore I do respect him for being honest about his personal troubles publicly and through the medium of cinema in this case, although the film that comes from this is merely good rather than great. 

Honey Boy does have several strengths, mostly relating to the central narrative and the performances. The semi-autobiographical nature, the focus on therapy as a means of dealing with the past and the non-linear structure are all inherently compelling and first-time director Alma Har’el does a decent job at making them interesting through strong editing and story structure. The three central performances are all fantastic as well: Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges both excel as the younger and older versions of Otis respectively, but Shia LaBeouf as James, the father to Otis, is tremendous. He’s almost unrecognisable to begin with and brings so much ferocity and emotion to the part that it is mesmerising to watch. Whilst I’d like Shia to play a full bad guy one day, I appreciated how sympathetic James was, despite also not being the best father. He’s my personal pick for Best Supporting Actor this Awards season.

The thing that prevents Honey Boy from being a great film is ultimately the story’s focus. The story itself chooses to focus on a part of Shia’s own life that whilst certainly hard was not nearly as harsh as one would expect and that unfortunately dulls the potential emotional impact. Otis’s situation resulted in childhood trauma and PTSD, yet we don’t feel it as much as the story would like us to. I’m not saying that the content needed to be nastier, but it would have been better if either a) James had been more openly verbally and physically abusive, or b) we had seen the impact that had on Otis’s life. Otis’s adult life outside of the therapy session is shown in a single montage at the beginning and that is not enough to get across the total wreck that he is supposed to be as a result. Finally, the ending is very abrupt, underwhelming and corny.

Overall, Honey Boy works, especially because of Shia LaBeouf’s performance, but it could have been stronger with a more developed narrative. I would recommend it but don’t go in expecting a masterpiece.

3/5

  1. Uncut Gems:

If you’re familiar with The Safdie Brothers then you will know that they burst onto the mainstream circuit with Good Time, a rough gritty thriller that was entertaining and intense at the same time. This movie was written before that one but made after it due to the script spending a lot of time in development hell before the brothers finally decided to make it. And trust me, I couldn’t tell because Good Time almost feels like a breather for Uncut Gems. This movie rocks (excuse the pun).

This film rests in the hands of Adam Sandler as Jewish New York Diamond Dealer Howard Ratner and he knocks it out of the park, delivering a career-best performance. He has an electrifying screen presence and so much charisma, managing to both incorporate his trademark mannerisms as a comedian yet also disappear into the role seamlessly. His character is also brilliantly written. If you thought Sandler’s previous characters were jerks, Howard makes them look like Superman. He’s obnoxious, selfish, greedy and entitled. He has no redeeming qualities and whilst that could have been a problem, it works because the film is totally aware of it. He is constantly humiliated and every other character either tolerates him or hates him. You love to hate him and there’s a sense of enjoyment in seeing him annoy people, occasionally get the better of them and yet be screwed over all the same. The story also 

As for the script, it manages to be both well-structured and unpredictable at the same time. This isn’t a high-octane thriller so much as it is a high-octane dramatic character study drama, so as a result much of the film is simply about showing Howard’s daily life. Whilst maybe one or two moments seem a little inconsequential and the ending leaves a couple of loose threads, for the most part the story holds together expertly. When it starts going into more of a thriller territory, it also works, with a final third that is intense, unexpected and immensely satisfying. 

The style of this movie is so unique and realistic, but it can also be off-putting. Basically, almost every scene is dialogue and almost all the dialogue overlaps. There is rarely a moment of silence and although I did lose track of the story a couple of times due to this approach, it also engaged me more into the narrative itself. This is a chaotic film, so aspects like the wonderful synth score and Darius Khonji’s blue-hued cinematography help to keep it controlled. The opening sequence is especially mesmerising and in general the Safdies have made a big leap from their early days of low budget grimy looking films.

Uncut Gems might not be for everyone, but in my opinion, it shows that the Safdie Brothers are new masters in the film industry. It is easily some of the most fun I’ve had at the cinema recently and one of the very best of the year so far. Shame it’s going to Netflix in the UK, but watch it as soon as it comes out.

5/5

  1. Lucy in the Sky:

Before the screening, TV show-runner and now director Noah Hawley came out and gave a speech that had the sentence “We work just as hard on the good ones as we do on the bad ones”. This caught me off guard, but I still was willing to give this movie a chance given how much I’ve liked his TV shows Fargo and Legion. Whilst I’d like to say that the transition from TV to movie was smooth, it unfortunately is not. 

Noah Hawley’s TV shows are known for being both visually engaging and excellently written, but only the former stays consistent. The visual look is rather pleasing, yet the script is dreadfully bland and boring. Despite a fascinating central concept of an astronaut dealing with an existential crisis, the film waters it down to be an uninteresting relationship drama. The story itself is already lacking, but the pacing is so slow that it sucks away all that could still be potentially compelling. The third act does pick up and go in an interesting direction, but the payoff is so weak that it isn’t worth it. Hawley also shows a lot of inexperience in editing, as he will often crosscut scenes into a montage randomly, even when doing so results in a sequence either being incoherent or losing the potential tension it could have created. Finally, his attempts at trying to be philosophically complex and stylistic come across as annoying and unsubtle, either through heavy handed symbolism or the aspect ratio constantly changing.

What does not help is that whilst Hawley’s TV shows have great characters to back up their stories, here none of the characters are remotely interesting. The supporting cast are thinly sketched archetypes and Lucy, the central character, is flat and one-dimensional. Hawley never manages to get inside her head, so we do not understand her emotional breakdown, nor do we sympathise with her. The only one who entertains is Ellen Burstyn as Lucy’s mother, but that’s just because she has all the funniest lines. Every actor is on autopilot, except for Natalie Portman, yet she has done far better playing similar roles in films like Black Swan and Annihilation. 

Overall, Lucy in the Sky is a total dud that is not worth your time. This is a boring and pretentious movie that feels like a pure case of “style over substance”, something that I thought Hawley was above delivering, but I think this proves that he should stick to TV.

1/5

 

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