NPR logo Toronto, Day 3: Reitman, Costner, Kendrick, Race, Gender And Euthanasia

TIFF 2014

Toronto, Day 3: Reitman, Costner, Kendrick, Race, Gender And Euthanasia

Men, Women & Children: If you can't get enough alarmist local news segments about how all the kids are sexting and everyone is giving up their families for free online pornography that's infected with malware, you'll love Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children, a cautionary tale about fighting the real enemies: the internet and terrible mothers.

It's a movie in which mommies are irresponsible, daddies put families back together again, boys take an interest in sex because they're teenagers and it feels good, and girls take an interest in sex because they're emotionally broken or desperate. It's also a movie in which no one except a couple of very unhappy kids feels any healthy kind of love for anyone else (because of, apparently, Facebook and texting), making Reitman a surprising late-breaking nihilist. It's a big and largely wasted ensemble cast (feel free to speak up if you were, in fact, dying to watch Adam Sandler engage in desultory masturbation), and valiant efforts from Dean Norris and Ansel Elgort, in particular, are not enough to make it anywhere near the masterwork of social commentary it is straining so exhaustingly to be.

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Romain Duris in The New Girlfriend. B. Calmeau/TIFF hide caption

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Romain Duris in The New Girlfriend.

B. Calmeau/TIFF

The New Girlfriend: Francois Ozon's The New Girlfriend opens with the death of Laura, whose best friend Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) has promised to look after her husband David (Romain Duris) and baby daughter after she's gone. In that capacity, Claire – still very much in the grip of her own grief – goes to visit David one day and discovers him dressed as a woman. This is how David explains it: he does not say he identifies as a woman, but that he has always enjoyed, for pleasure and comfort, dressing as a woman, although he also says that when Laura was alive, he didn't feel the need. As he's cared for the baby by himself, he's begun to do it again, but only sometimes, and only at home. Claire, though she's initially shocked, eventually christens David's female identity "Virginia" and begins, slowly, to get to know her.

There's a fair amount in the story that follows that doesn't entirely work, particularly as Ozon, who also wrote the screenplay, strains to wrap up the story in the third act. But there's a welcome tolerance for fuzzy lines in the piece: David's gender identity is fluid and complex, as are Claire's reactions to it. Buried in the dynamic between them are the love they both had for Laura, the loss they share, and the ways in which their relationship to each other is confoundingly gendered for both of them.

Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman in Ruth And Alex. TIFF hide caption

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Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman in Ruth And Alex.

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Ruth And Alex: The pleasures of seeing Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman, as the titular couple, strolling around Manhattan and Brooklyn arm in arm are almost – almost! – enough to disguise just how thin this film actually is. It follows Ruth and Alex (and her greedy real-estate broker niece, played by Cynthia Nixon) through a couple of days spent considering whether to sell their million-dollar Brooklyn apartment and buy a perhaps $1.1 or $1.2 million Manhattan apartment.

Yes, there are efforts to make this about More Than Real Estate: perhaps it's about aging, perhaps it's about change, perhaps it's about appreciating what you have, and your basic Morgan Freeman Philosophical Voiceover is there to remind you of those things in case you forget. (Yes, really.) But in the end, this is, in fact, a movie that asks you to get all wrapped up in the story of two well-off people deciding how much energy they want to put into becoming slightly more well-off. Efforts to shoehorn in a bizarre connection to the sensationalized manhunt for an accused terrorist that's going on in the background of the apartment hunt don't hold water, and putting the couple's dog in the hospital to raise the stakes is just playing dirty.

Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick in The Last Five Years. Thomas Concordia/TIFF hide caption

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Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick in The Last Five Years.

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The Last 5 Years: Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan star in this adaptation of Jason Robert Brown's musical about the story of the five-year relationship of Cathy and Jamie. The musical's neatly arranged structure, in which Cathy tells the story backwards from their breakup and Jamie tells it forward from their meeting, doesn't quite come across, because the film doesn't segregate their separate narratives the way the show does. But what emerges instead feels like a sort of jumble of memories, mostly sung, that remains very moving and that's very well handled by the leads.

Kendrick has overachieved in some underpowered roles in the past, and here, she gets a really good one – she opens the film with a dynamite, very simple read on "I'm Still Hurting" that demonstrates early that director Richard LaGravenese has a handle on one very important thing about a musical: if the music is good, get out of the way.

Jordan, though, may have the harder job, because Cathy gets to begin heartbroken, and Jamie has to begin as the cause. And throughout the story, Jamie is often harder to like and harder to sympathize with. But ultimately, they're able to get to a balanced place that carries the heft that the breakup is supposed to have: it doesn't work unless you feel for both of them, and unless you sense that the stakes are high, because this could work. Or perhaps could have worked.

It's always hard to predict how theater people will react to an adaptation, but for those who want to hear the music, done well and with emotion, the film should be satisfying. And for those who haven't seen it, it's a fine chance to see some terrific work from really appealing actors performing really good music. No guarantees, however, that it won't break your heart.

Ze'ev Revach (center) plays a man asked to create a suicide machine in The Farewell Party. TIFF hide caption

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Ze'ev Revach (center) plays a man asked to create a suicide machine in The Farewell Party.

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The Farewell Party: Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon wrote and directed this dark comedy about friends in a retirement community in Jerusalem who begin to explore the very difficult question of how to die with some peace and dignity. Yehzekel (Ze'ev Revach) is an inventor who is called upon to create what amounts to an assisted suicide machine, much to the horror of his wife Levana (Levana Finkelstein), who believes what he and a couple of friends are doing is murder.

There's a very delicate balance here, because obviously, there's sadness inherent in this story, both as Yehzekel initially becomes involved in it and as it inches closer to home. But at the same time, it's a film that understands that all of these people have lived a long time, and they have in many cases learned to take an awful lot in stride. While it shares some themes with Amour, it's entirely different in tone, and much more focused on the web of friendships and interdependence that develops and remains when people share their lives, no matter what their age.

Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner in Black And White. Tracy Bennett/TIFF hide caption

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Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner in Black And White.

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Black And White: It's remarkable to encounter a day at TIFF that both begins and ends with a true and thorough stinker, but Black And White, from writer and director Mike Binder, is not only a really bad, really boring movie, but an offensive one as well.

It concerns Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner), an attorney who's raising his granddaughter, Eloise, with his wife (but not playing the kind of role where he would, for instance, know the location of her school) following the death of their daughter. When his wife, who was doing most of the raising, dies in a car accident, Eloise's grandmother (Octavia Spencer) wants to share custody, but since Elliot blows her off, she winds up suing, with the assistance of her brother, an attorney (Anthony Mackie, woefully underutilized again) who argues that Elliot is resisting sharing custody because Eloise's biological father and his family are black.

The racial politics in this movie are as condescending as they are intended to be enlightening, but just for example: it's the position of the screenplay (and its adoring treatment of Elliot) that Elliot can be pretty easily forgiven for angrily referring to his granddaughter's father as a "street nigger" during an argument (go ahead and gasp; the audience did) since, after all, he referred to himself that way sometimes in text messages to Costner's daughter. Thus, the story tells you through the mouth of its protagonist (who is pretty much always right about everything in this particular story), to suggest that this makes Elliot prejudiced is just making everything about race, which is really black people's fault.

The movie actually puts Kevin Costner and Anthony Mackie right up on the screen so that Costner can give Mackie a good long lecture about it, meaning the whole movie builds to a speech in which Kevin Costner explains what is and isn't racism so that they'll stop trying to take custody of his granddaughter just because they have the same connection to her that he does (contrary to the way he tries to position himself, he has not been raising her; only living with her) and he's by the way an alcoholic and a jerk and, given an additional reference to her father's "broken-down black ass" that comes at the end of his "don't call me a racist" speech, kind of a racist.

Need more of the film's insights on race? Costner hires a tutor for Eloise, who turns out to be Duvon (Mpho Koaho), a multilingual refugee from an unspecified African country (he just refers to all the people killed in "my village") Duvon speaks nine languages and does advanced math. When he's not teaching, Elliot uses him as a (paid) designated driver. And in his generic African "village," according to a story he breathlessly tells Eloise, there was this one time when he was chased by gazelles.

Chased. By. Gazelles.

Black And White is painfully misguided, an attempted rumination on racial politics that makes one white guy right all the time and an entire black family wrong all the time. It is not good.