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From James Franco to Alexander Payne: Directors who surprised, and disappointed, at the Toronto Film Festival

Dave Franco and James Franco in the movie "The Disaster Artist." (SXSW) None
Dave Franco and James Franco in the movie "The Disaster Artist." (SXSW)

Perhaps the most useful and instructive function of film festivals, especially in light of the “Star Wars” affair, is that they offer an arena where filmmakers are allowed to fail — and, just as importantly, where filmmakers who have failed before are given a second, third or fourth chance.

One of the most thunderously applauded entries in Toronto this year was itself a fascinating film about failure: “The Disaster Artist,” which revisits the making of that 2003 bad-movie classic, “The Room,” is a triumph for its prolific director and star, James Franco, best known of late for clogging the festival circuit with wan adaptations of “In Dubious Battle” and “The Sound and the Fury.” Who knew that Faulkner would prove a less fruitful source of inspiration than Tommy Wiseau?

Not every director operating outside his or her usual parameters did grade-A work. I wasn’t taken with “Downsizing,” an incredible-shrinking-man comedy that allows the writer-director Alexander Payne to look down on his characters in a more literal sense than usual. “The Third Murder,” a rare foray into police-procedural territory from the great Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, struck me as an equally rare disappointment, measured and meditative to a fault.

And I’m decisively in the critical minority on “The Death of Stalin,” Armando Iannucci’s audacious but airless attempt to transfer the madcap style of his great political comedies (“Veep,” “In the Loop”) to the moment of the Soviet dictator’s sudden demise. It’s an ingenious premise that Iannucci and his fine cast (including Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor and the great Simon Russell Beale) seek to render in shades both hilarious and disturbing, to increasingly strained effect.

By contrast, Dan Gilroy’s “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” which many dismissed as a failure across the board, struck me as one of the festival’s most compelling oddities — a moody, intoxicating vision of Los Angeles that I ultimately preferred to Gilroy’s previous one, “Nightcrawler.” Denzel Washington burrows deep into the title role of a brilliant activist lawyer with savant-like tendencies who winds up skittering down a legal and moral rabbit-hole of his own making. The result is a bit of a narrative muddle, but the kind that makes tidier movies look overly timid by comparison.

Watch: Word-association games with the TIFF 2017 celebs, from 'binge-watch' to 'Trump'

Inside the L.A. Times' photo suite, we asked filmmakers and celebrities at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival to play a little word-association game, and the results were delightful. 

The rapid-fire responses from George Clooney, Ellen Page and Tommy Wiseau were hilarious. See the true faces of anxiety when the phrase "awards season" was thrown out, find out what Julianne Moore binge-watches from the tub and don't miss Rachel Weisz's tanning advice for the president.

Jessica Chastain hits TIFF with a one-two punch of feminism in 'Woman Walks Ahead' and 'Molly's Game'

Jessica Chastain stars in the historical drama "Woman Walks Ahead" as Catherine Weldon, an artist who left Brooklyn behind and journeyed to the Dakotas to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull (played by Michael Greyeyes) — only to become involved in the Lakota people's fight for their land.

Weldon is one of two fiery feminist lead roles Chastain brought to this year's festival, also starring in Aaron Sorkin's biopic "Molly's Game" as underground poker madam Molly Bloom. She underscored her commitment to social activism and a push for inclusion and representation in Hollywood, onscreen and off.

"I think we’re living in a time where everyone is so desperate to be heard, to be seen, to be understood," offered Chastain. "But we don’t understand that actually in order to be heard, you have to listen…. So for me, it’s important to make sure I’m doing whatever I can to listen to those who are telling me stories of what their experiences are, how they’re different from my experiences, how I can grow and evolve as a human being.

"And the more that we all do that, I think, the more we come together in a healthier society,” Chastain said.

Jessica Chastain, right, and Michael Greyeyes in "Woman Walks Ahead." None
Jessica Chastain, right, and Michael Greyeyes in "Woman Walks Ahead."

Alexander Payne stretches himself with 'Downsizing,' but the execution proves puny

The issue of climate change figures prominently in Alexander Payne’s wry science-fiction comedy “Downsizing,” though only at the end of a long and convoluted story that seems to be making itself up as it goes along. For a while, that’s not such a bad thing.

The movie has an enjoyable opening hour in which it lays out the basics of its rigorous, ludicrous premise: In a not-so-distant future, an unprepossessing nice guy named Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) opts to shrink himself to just a few inches tall, availing himself of a dynamic new procedure devised by Norwegian scientists that promises stability and even prosperity in an unforgiving economy.

If Paul is shrinking himself, it’s nice for a while to see Payne stretching himself. He’s still working in the barbed humanist vein of films like “Sideways,” “The Descendants” and “Nebraska,” but this time with an out-there twist that raises far broader implications beyond Paul’s quality of life. “Downsizing” begins as a high-concept farce, morphs into a satire of class, consumerism and globalization, and ends with a sincere lament for Third World suffering and the sustainability of the planet.

But the reach of the movie’s topical ambitions far exceeds its tonal grasp. More often than not, Payne’s preferred method of trying to squeeze laughs and tears from the same moment — or rather, following a lump-in-the-throat moment with a carefully timed comic jab — simply cancels itself out. There’s an emotional flatness to this movie, which doesn’t feel like it’s bursting with ideas so much as meandering noncommittally from one to the next.

Dan Gilroy on bringing 'Roman J. Israel, Esq.' to life with Denzel Washington

Among the final films announced for this year's Toronto International Film Festival lineup was the world premiere of "Roman J. Israel, Esq."

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, the film stars Denzel Washington as a political activist who has spent years working in the backroom of a small law firm. In a fast-moving series of events, his finds his beliefs, ideals and personal commitment tested as never before.

Gilroy came into the L.A. Times photo studio the morning after the film's premiere screening. He spoke about writing the title role with Washington in mind and what it was like directing the two-time Oscar winner.

"He was light years ahead of me with the character by the time we started shooting," Gilroy said. "It was his character, he was authoring the character, he was bringing the character to life.”

Denzel Washington in the title role in Dan Gilroy's 'Roman J. Israel, Esq.' (courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)
Denzel Washington in the title role in Dan Gilroy's 'Roman J. Israel, Esq.' (courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

Dee Rees and the cast of 'Mudbound' create a vibrant, intertwined history

Ever since "Mudbound," directed by Dee Rees, first premiered at Sundance in January it has been one of the most talked-about films of the year.

Now the film is looking to take the fall season by storm as well, screening at the Toronto International Film Festival on the way to its release in November.

The film is a vibrant, complex study of race and class set in the 1940s Deep South. Rees and her cast, with Garrett Hedlund, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan and Jason Mitchell, all stopped by the Los Angeles Times photo studio in Toronto.

"I think the thing that it shows is that all our histories are connected. It’s not like your history and my history," said Rees."This story and the way the story is structured shows these intertwining narratives that make up a singular, collective history."

Garrett Hedlund, from left, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, director Dee Rees, actor Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan and Jason Mitchell from the film "Mudbound." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Garrett Hedlund, from left, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, director Dee Rees, actor Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan and Jason Mitchell from the film "Mudbound." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

'Kings' is an unexpected sophomore outing from 'Mustang' director Deniz Gamze Erguven

“Kings” takes place against the ambitious backdrop of the 1992 Los Angeles riots and opens with a dramatization of the 1991 shooting of Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old African American girl killed by a Korean convenience store owner that set the city on edge.

In a warm, graceful performance, Halle Berry plays Millie, a single woman raising foster children, tending to them all as if they were her own. There are squabbles over noise and nuisances with her neighbor Obie (Daniel Craig), a British writer who is one of the rare white faces in their South Central neighborhood.

As events seem to inevitability hurtle toward violence, the riots erupt in a surreal haze. Millie and Obie go out into the chaos in hopes of bringing the children safely back home.

The film has taken about 11 years to get made. The Turkish-born, Paris-based writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven spent time in South Central neighborhoods, with the LAPD and with emergency services workers as well as doing extensive research in an attempt to create a broad view of the events, a portrait at once sweeping and specific of the tremors that led up to the seismic hit of the riots. Some of the film’s most fantastical elements — the manager of a fast-food restaurant bargaining with rioters, police handcuffing people to streetlights — are stories she was told as urban folktales.

The movie has its world premiere as part of the Toronto International Film Festival on Wednesday night, with distributor the Orchard planning to release the film in the spring. 

Guillermo del Toro on finally letting the monster get the girl in 'The Shape of Water'

Monster movie maker Guillermo del Toro has been cheering on his favorite creatures since he was a little boy.

“When I was about 6 I watched ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon,'" the director said. "I saw Julie Adams and the Gill-man swimming underneath her. At that age all I thought is, 'I hope they end up together'... they didn’t."

Determined to reset the scales in favor of the freaks, Del Toro made "The Shape of Water." Set during the Cold War, the love story actively roots for the star-crossed lovers separated by species, water and the American government. 

The film is already making big waves on the festival circuit, landing the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and plenty of critical acclaim. Times critic Justin Chang described it as an  "exquisite return to form" for Del Toro. 

The cast (including Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins) paused to talk a bit deeper about being a part of the director's notable, blue-hued imagination at the LA Times studio suite at the Toronto International Film Festival. 

“I’ve been in the reality of 1960 three times now," Spencer said [alluding to her past work in "Hidden Figures," "The Help" and "Get On Up"]. "I love that Guillermo painted a very different world for us to exist in. Even though it’s set in the same era and the societal constraints are the same, my character gets to blossom in a way that I haven’t in period movies. So it was fun for me." 

As for Del Toro, it appears he's hit a new high-water mark, which the director credits simply to trying something new, “At age 52 I say, if you don’t risk it, then you are effectively too old. 

Martin McDonagh and Sam Rockwell on prize-winning 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'

Writer-director Martin McDonagh's newest film, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," won best screenplay at the Venice Film Festival before arriving this week to play at the Toronto International Film Festival as well.

In the film, Frances McDormand plays a small-town woman who becomes frustrated when no one is brought to justice after the rape and murder of her daughter. So she sets up three billboards outside of town criticizing the local sheriff.

McDonagh and Sam Rockwell, who plays a police officer, sat down to talk about the film at the Los Angeles Times studio at TIFF.

"I wanted to make an American film with American characters," the Anglo-Irish McDonagh said, "that wasn’t an outsider’s comment on America as much as jumping in there and being with the characters and being with the story."

Rachel Weisz explains how 'Disobedience' tackles big existential questions about life and freedom

In Sebastian Lelio's "Disobedience," which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival Sunday, Rachel Weisz plays Ronit, a woman who returns home to the Orthodox Jewish community she fled after her father's death. 

The film also features Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola as Esti and Dovid, Ronit's childhood friends whom she discovers are married upon her return. During the course of the movie, it is revealed that Ronit and Esti share a passionate, unresolved romantic past. 

But "Disobedience" is about more than these characters' romantic relationships. 

“It’s about disobedience,” explained Weisz at The Times' TIFF video studio. “It’s about obedience. It’s about how far we rebel from the place that we grew up in. Choosing your own path through that and not just doing what you’ve been conditioned to do by your family.” 

Watch Weisz, McAdams, Nivola and Lelio discuss "Disobedience" and their experiences learning from real Orthodox Jewish families in the video above. 

A look behind the scenes at The Times' TIFF photo studio

Margot Robbie, Octavia Spencer, Tatiana Maslany, Jessica Chastain, André Leon Talley, Joseph Kahn and more stars of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival have stopped by the Los Angeles Times studio to pose for photos and discuss their projects in video interviews. Take a tour behind the scenes with Times photographer Jay L. Clendenin.

Check out our gallery of portraits here and instant print photos here.

Angela Robinson, Bella Heathcote and Luke Evans on 'Professor Marston and the Wonder Women'

"Professor Marston and the Wonder Women" tells the story of William Moulton Marston, his wife Elizabeth Marston and the woman they both fell in love with, Olive Byrne. Their relationship would be deeply influential to William Marston creating the character of Wonder Woman.

Written and directed by Angela Robinson, the movie stars Luke Evans as Marston, Rebecca Hall as Elizabeth and Bella Heathcote as Byrne.

"I came at this from the starting point of being a Wonder Woman fan," said Robinson. "It was really important for me to tell the story of the Marstons and also honor and respect the character that they actually created."

Robinson dropped by the L.A. Times photo studio this week with Heathcote and Evans to talk about the project, the unconventional romance at its center and the now-legendary character that came out of it.

"To me it was always a love story," said Robinson. "I did a ton of research and I thought about the Marstons so much. And at the end I just tried to make a film about three people falling in love and I wanted you to feel like you feel when you fall in love."

For more on Robinson, the Marstons and the film, see our recent story.

 

Louis C.K.'s 'I Love You, Daddy' will remind audiences of Woody Allen, in more ways than one

Louis C.K. in new movie "I Love You, Daddy." (TIFF)
Louis C.K. in new movie "I Love You, Daddy." (TIFF)

“When I was growing up, a lot of dudes of that [older] generation had teenage girlfriends,” Louis C.K., 49, said in an interview with several of his actors Sunday, a day after the premiere of his new film, 'I Love You, Daddy,' at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“You’d see pictures of them at Studio 54, and they would have a girl on their lap who was obviously a teenager. And people would say” — he waves aside his hand — “'Oh, that guy just likes that.’”

Such taboos are at the center of C.K.’s film. The comedian has made a movie that will at once delight some fans with its audacity and embolden his fair share of critics, what with its talk of sexual politics and parenting in ways that are rarely put on the table.

Shot on the sly earlier this year in C.K.’s home city of New York, the film — which was acquired by specialty distributor The Orchard following the Toronto premiere — is independent in more than just thinking.

The “Louie” creator, famous for overseeing many aspects of the production and even distribution process, funded the entire project himself. As a result, he was able to make noncommercial choices — including presenting the film in black-and-white and using orchestrations from the 1940s. The film feels, early and often, like an homage to vintage Woody Allen.

Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz continue a terrific TIFF for women's stories with 'Disobedience'

Sebastián Lelio’s somber and passionate new drama, “Disobedience,” begins with the death of a celebrated Orthodox rabbi in North London — a loss that brings his only child, Ronit (Rachel Weisz), back home from New York to settle her father’s estate.

Received with frosty politeness by the community she fled years ago for a life of secular freedom, Ronit gradually rekindles her friendship with Esti (Rachel McAdams), whom she is surprised to learn is now the wife of Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), a spiritual disciple of Ronit’s father.

As will soon come to light, in a series of erotic encounters that are at once tasteful and unusually candid for a prestige drama, Ronit and Esti carry a torch for one another that years apart has failed to extinguish. That more or less explains why Ronit left, but the film, adapted from Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel, is equally curious about why Esti stayed.

Both Rachels are superb here, and if Weisz is ultimately the story’s anchor, the grieving outsider whose perspective we share at every moment, then McAdams is its secret weapon: She’s piercing to watch as she reveals the cracks in her character’s quietly contented facade, in a story that takes the full measure of her tragedy as well.

Guillermo del Toro's 'The Shape of Water' pretty much guaranteed the TIFF audience award

Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer star in Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water." (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer star in Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water." (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Guillermo Del Toro's beauty-and-the-beast love story "The Shape of Water" had its Toronto premiere Monday at the city's historic Elgin Theater -- the same venue featured in a couple key scenes in the film.

Here are five takeaways from the evening:

  1. Toronto's top prize -- the People's Choice Award -- isn't given by a jury but by audience members dropping their tickets in boxes held by volunteers at the exits. I've never seen the bins as stuffed as they were Monday night. Of course, Del Toro's strong presence in the city -- he has lived here off and on for the last few years -- might have a little something to do with that.
    "I identify with Canada," Del Toro said, introducing the movie. "I identify with Canadian bacon."
     
  2. "The Shape of Water" -- a lush romantic fantasy about the relationship between a mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins) and creature straight out of a B-movie -- won the Golden Lion for best film at the Venice Film Festival.
    Its Toronto reception proved equally rapturous. Ticket holders began lining up hours before the movie's late-evening screening time.
     
  3. When asked about the film's modern-day resonance, Del Toro pointed to its Cold War setting and elaborated: "When people say 'Let's make America great again,' they're dreaming of that era. Everything was great if you were white Anglo Saxon and Protestant. If you were anything else, you were [screwed]. So it's a false memory of that time."
     
  4. Del Toro trumpeted the film's Canadian credentials, noting that nearly every production head hailed from the country.
    "We're not just here for the rebate," he said. He added "Shape" was a $60-million movie made for $19.5 million.
    "It's as close to an indie movie as you could get with a Mexican in the middle," Del Toro said.
     
  5. The festival's ultimate souvenir, a signed "Shape of Water" poster, went to two lucky audience members sitting in the exact seats in the Elgin where major moments in the movie occurred.

"The Shape of Water" opens in theaters Dec. 8.

Tommy Wiseau reviews 'The Disaster Artist': The movie about the making of 'The Room'

When James Franco set out to make "The Disaster Artist" -- the behind the scenes story of the making of cult classic "The Room" -- he knew he'd have a tough critic in "The Room" director Tommy Wiseau.

When the pair stopped by the L.A. Times studio at the Toronto International Film Festival, Wiseau revealed what he really thinks about the movie and about Franco's performance as Tommy Wiseau.

He also revealed the unexpected role Nicolas Cage played in making the project happen.

Franco's brother Dave and "The Room" co-star Greg Sestero also sat in. "The Disaster Artist," which plays in the Midnight Madness section of TIFF after an enthusiastic world premiere earlier this year at the SXSW Film Festival, opens Dec. 1.

André Leon Talley bequeaths 'The Gospel According to André'

It's not everyday that one — especially as young, black and fabulous as myself — is able to look in the proverbial mirror and see what life could look like if racism, femme-phobia and other ills of the world fail to win. But that's exactly what took place Saturday as I interviewed fashion icon André Leon Talley (and director Kate Novack and producer Andrew Rossi) a day after his film, "The Gospel According to André," premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

I first encountered Talley through the modeling competition reality show "America's Next Top Model." As a judge for four seasons, he commanded attention. With a deep yet feminine tremble in his voice paired with a towering 6-foot-6 frame cloaked in the finest custom capes and caftans, he was undeniable. But while Talley was, and is, legendary in his own right for breaking glass ceilings during his multi-decade stint at Vogue magazine, I was swept up in his presentation of self. The bombast, the grandeur, the unbridled audacity had my inner gender-bender clamoring for liberation from the traditional conceptions of black masculinity I grew up with. 

 

Los Angeles Times writer Tre'vell Anderson, left, speaks with fashion icon André Leon Talley. (Jen Yamato / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times writer Tre'vell Anderson, left, speaks with fashion icon André Leon Talley. (Jen Yamato / Los Angeles Times)

So, as he masterfully took over our festival photo studio, draped in a golden yellow caftan, I was in awe. My hands moist with excitement, I teetered on my 3-inch heels trying to grab a quick Snapchat video to document the moment. And then it hit me: This, at 67 years old, is what possibility looks like. 

Tennis on trend at Toronto International Film Festival

There are three tennis movies screening at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, an almost Federer-like show of strength given the usual bagel. Premiering Sunday was Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ “Battle of the Sexes,” the tale of the run-up to King’s titular 1973 match with Bobby Riggs, starring Emma Stone as the feminist and LGBTQ trailblazer and Steve Carell as the has-been showman.

Opening the festival just a few days earlier was Janus Metz’s brooding Scandinavian production “Borg/McEnroe,” chronicling the personalities and events around the famous 1980 Wimbledon final. (Shia LaBeouf stars as the hotheaded American and Sverrir Gudnason plays the cool-as-Stockholm legend.)

And also debuting over the weekend weekend was Jason Kohn’s psychology-rich Showtime documentary “Love Means Zero,” about the influential and controversial coach Nick Bollettieri, who fractiously mentored Andre Agassi and scores of other champions.

Making them an even more complete set, each film covers a different period in the evolution of the sport: the early days of professionalization and the Open Era in the King-Riggs story of the early 1970s; the dawn of an international golden age in the McEnroe and Borg moment of the early 1980s; and the waning pre-corporate days of characters and bad behavior in the Agassi-Boris Becker chapter of the early 1990s.

“They really are like three chapters in the history of tennis, each with something new to say about tennis,” Kohn said. (The release dates will be spread out: “Battle” opens Sept. 22 and “Borg/McEnroe” and “Love Means Zero” will likely debut next year.)

Brie Larson's directorial debut 'Unicorn Store' was made from a proudly feminine point of view

At a time when her acting career had reached a new height, Oscar winner Brie Larson could have simply enjoyed her newly minted status of movie star rather than taking on the added responsibilities of directing, in particular to make a movie as boldly earnest and willfully eccentric as “Unicorn Store.”

“I’m really not good at being comfy,” Larson said. “I really want to keep being in this state of being a little bit off-balance and a little bit scared and ready to be surprised.

“There’s this kid in me that doesn’t have a voice, there’s this innocence inside of me, and this dreamer and this hope and this optimism that reside inside of me that was dying,” she said. “Kind of everything I was doing was about digging into the darkness and revealing the darker parts of our world. Which we need to see. But I also think, at least for myself, that I need to remember the other side of it too and that they work together. And to not feel repulsed by innocence or by happiness.”

“Unicorn Store” premieres today at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Guillermo del Toro's 'The Shape of Water' is the season's official festival darling

Building on the raves it earned in its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, "The Shape of Water" — a fable of improbable love in the face of fear and intolerance — drew cheers at its first North American screening at the Telluride Film Festival. It went on to win the Venice fest's top prize, becoming the first English-language film to do so since Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere" in 2010, and plays the Toronto International Film Festival tonight, before opening Dec. 8 in the thick of awards season.

The morning after the Telluride bow, The Times sat down with Del Toro to talk about what inspired his surreal adult fairy tale and why its fantastical, period-set, beauty-and-the-beast story is all too relevant in today’s real world.

Your friend and fellow director Alejandro Iñárritu has said that he thinks “The Shape of Water” is your most personal movie. Do you agree?

Guillermo del Toro: It’s the movie that I like the most. It’s this one, then “The Devil’s Backbone,” then “Pan’s Labyrinth,” then “Crimson Peak,” and so on and so forth. That’s the order for me — it doesn’t mean people have to agree. It’s sort of the aim-and-target quotient for a filmmaker — did it land where I wanted it? This landed exactly where I wanted it.

But “most personal” also suggests that, of all the films you’ve done, there’s the most of you in this one.

Del Toro: There is the most of me. Most of the time — in “Pan’s Labyrinth” or “Devil’s Backbone” — I’m talking about my childhood. Here, I’m talking about me with adult concerns. Cinema. Love. The idea of otherness being seen as the enemy. What I feel as an immigrant. What I feel is an ugly undercurrent not in the past — not in the origins of fascism — but now.

It is a movie that talks about the present for me. Even if it’s set in 1962, it talks about me now.

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