A Guide To The Films We Watched At TIFF : Pop Culture Happy Hour The Toronto International Film Festival traditionally helps launch awards season. This year has been a little different, with pandemic restrictions leading to a hybrid remote and in-person festival. After watching a batch of entries from home, we've seen some things you'll want to know about — some of which you might be hearing about for the first time.

A Guide To The Films We Watched At TIFF

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

The Toronto International Film Festival traditionally helps launch award season. This year has been a little different. Continuing pandemic restrictions have led to a hybrid remote and in-person festival. And we've been able to take it in from home.

GLEN WELDON, HOST:

And we've seen some things you'll want to know about that are coming to theaters or even to your living room. I'm Glen Weldon.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today, we're checking in with the Toronto International Film Festival on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Here with me and Glen from her home studio in California is Aisha Harris. Hey, Aisha.

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

Hey, Linda.

HOLMES: It would have been so much fun for all of us to get to hang out in Toronto. Hopefully, we will do that someday. We did not get to do it this year. Instead, we were all remote. Here is what you need to know. A lot of the biggest movies of this festival in terms of anticipation, right - your "Dune," let's say, for example - were not made available for people who were attending the festival remotely, right? There can be a lot of reasons that happens. They want people to wait and review it when it comes out. They fear piracy. But we did discover as we talked about what we'd seen that we had seen some things we wanted to tell you about, some of which you might be hearing about for the first time. Aisha, you and I both saw a documentary about the bestselling instrumental musician of all time. Tell the people what it's called.

HARRIS: (Laughter) "Kenny G."

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Well, actually, the documentary is called "Listening To Kenny G." And, whew, if you don't like Kenny G, you maybe don't want to watch this doc...

WELDON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: ...Or at least you'd think that, because I have very strong feelings about Kenny G that tend toward the not-my-bag category. But the interesting thing about this film, which was directed by Penny Lane, is that she's more interested in not just, you know, his life. We don't get too much about his background. We hear a bit about how he became a musician. But it's more about interrogating why some people love him and why some people despise him and think he is the worst thing to ever happen to jazz music. And to me, that central question is what makes it worth watching even if you had to endure hearing those terrible Kenny G songs...

WELDON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: ...That we all had to listen to in the '90s (laughter).

HOLMES: The thing that's amazing is, like, I was watching this, then I was thinking, like, I don't even know how much Kenny G I know. And all of a sudden, they start playing, like, (mimicking horn).

HARRIS: (Laughter).

HOLMES: And I'm like, oh, my gosh (laughter). OK. I remember this. And, like, I agree with you. I think it's fascinating. They've got a bunch of, like, jazz critics. And the jazz critics, I think, do not all always come off well either.

HARRIS: (Laughter).

HOLMES: Like, it's just a very strange - there's a good discussion of the appropriation elements of his music. I just think it's fascinating.

HARRIS: Yeah. He's - (laughter) if anything, he seems very affable and totally cool with the fact that people don't like him. So that at least makes him, you know, OK in my book (laughter).

HOLMES: He is a character of a very particular kind, that is for sure. And you actually saw another, much more directly jazz-related music documentary.

HARRIS: Yes. So while "Listening To Kenny G" was asking the question, is this subject actually jazz? There was also another documentary called "Oscar Peterson: Black + White," directed by Barry Avrich, that didn't even have to ask that question. It was like, yes. Oscar Peterson, world-renowned pianist who pretty much every jazz great, legend, who was able to work with him or who looked up to him would call him one of the best of all time. You've got people like Branford Marsalis, Jon Batiste in this film talking about him. And I didn't really know that much about Oscar Peterson outside of knowing some of his music. But it did make me want to really dive into his music more and enjoy it because I love that era of jazz.

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARRIS: Just give me the Oscar Peterson, the Duke Ellingtons, the, you know, Nat King Coles. And I think it's definitely worth checking out if you are even a casual jazz fan.

HOLMES: Yeah. And you'll walk away from that thinking, would Kenny G recognize a picture of Oscar Peterson?

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: There's a little gag along those lines. And we should say, the Kenny G documentary is coming to HBO. And the Oscar Peterson, we don't know exactly where you're going to be able to see that yet, but stay tuned. Glen, you have not been spending your time watching jazz and jazz-adjacent documentaries.

WELDON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: What kind of stuff have you been watching?

WELDON: Well, I mean, the first one I'm going to talk about is a film called "I'm Your Man," directed by Maria Schrader. It's a German film in which Dan Stevens - the great and good Dan Stevens - plays a robot who has been designed to please one woman, a scientist played by Maren Eggert, because it's a test, right, because Eggert's character is on this committee to determine whether robots like him should be granted civil rights in society. So there's plenty of, you know, sci-fi - what does it mean to be human? - kind of things in the film. But it's really lightly handled because at the heart, this is a romcom.

And Stevens is really good as this robot who sincerely cannot understand why his being and doing everything this woman says she wants a man to be and do only leaves her frustrated and angry. There's some really fun physical comedy as he kind of adopts these human mannerisms and body language. And it resolves in a really ambiguous but satisfying way. And our friend Bob Mondello's hot take is that this thing is going to get remade as an American film, like, yesterday. But if you can find it - and it is coming to theaters eventually. Distribution is a little up in the air right now. But check it out because you'll get to see Dan Stevens quoting Rilke in the original German. What's wrong with that?

HOLMES: You know, I think if you were going to have a guy play a magical, romantic robot (laughter)...

WELDON: German sex robot? Yeah. Sure.

HOLMES: German sex robot. You know, Dave Stevens maybe makes some sense.

HARRIS: Yeah. No shade, but yeah (laughter).

HOLMES: No shade. No shade, Dan Stevens. It's interesting that you mentioned, you know, that Bob anticipated an American remake because the next one that I want to talk about is an American remake of, in this case, a Danish thriller called "The Guilty." And the American one that was at TIFF is directed by Antoine Fuqua, who you might know from "Training Day" and a bunch of other thrillers. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal. It's a very - to me, it's a very, like, pandemic-y kind of movie because it's, like, all one guy.

He plays - Gyllenhaal - Jake Gyllenhaal plays this 911 dispatcher who is a police officer who's currently suspended while they investigate a shooting. He had shot somebody. And they're investigating it. So while they're investigating it, he's been pushed over to being a dispatcher. He gets a call from a woman who originally seems like she is just kind of - it's hard to understand why she's calling 911. He eventually figures out why she's calling. He stays on the phone with her and kind of pursuing her case for the entire run of the film. It's basically in real-time. You spend a great, vast majority of your time looking at Jake Gyllenhaal's face as he stares at a computer screen, which is a real - that's a real test...

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: ...In terms of - right? - how do you make a thriller like that? It's coming to Netflix. And it's one of those things that I think will make a good, like, afternoon watch on Netflix. But I think if you were trying to get people to theaters for it, I would find it challenging to necessarily recommend it. I will just caution you, this is an upsetting movie. This is an upsetting movie. It is a very sad story. And so - and I saw several things this year at TIFF that are, like, very focused on, like, one person.

HARRIS: Yeah. A lot of bottle, episode-type movie stuff happening.

WELDON: Yeah.

HOLMES: Exactly. Absolutely. But - so what's the next one that you wanted to talk about, Aisha? I think it's called "The Middle Man."

HARRIS: Yes. It's called "The Middle Man." It is by the director Bent Hamer. And it's a kind of mysterious film. I think the less you know about it got going into it, the better. I literally just kind of went through my queue and saw the brief tagline and thought, oh, this looks interesting, didn't read the whole summary, which I'm glad I didn't because, also, TIFF sometimes likes to give away certain things in their plot descriptions (laughter)...

WELDON: It really does.

HARRIS: ...Just like, what? Anyway, it's set in this small town. And it's a film that was actually filmed in a couple of different places. And it's a Canadian, Danish, German, Norway co-production. So it's got big, international cast. And it stars Pal Sverre Hagen, who plays Frank. He's been unemployed for a while. But he suddenly gets this job with the city. He's the middle man. He has to go and tell people when their loved ones have passed. And so it's a story that deals with grief. And also, the weird thing about it is like, why does this small town have so many people who are dying (laughter)? That's a question that's never really answered. But I thought it was very interesting. And it has some absurdist tones to it. It's got a little bit of Coen brothers going on there. I saw some shades of Janicza Bravo's movies, like "Zola" - a little off-kilter. And I think it's just worth a gander. I wouldn't say it's amazing. But I found it intriguing. And by the end of it, I was like, OK, that was an experience (laughter).

HOLMES: You know, I've always valued that about film festivals in general and TIFF in particular is those movies where you're like, hm...

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: ...Sort of like I - that's not what I thought they were doing. Or that's not what I would have anticipated. But, you know, it's one of the reasons why we do festivals. And even though, as I said, you know, some of the biggest and most prominent things that come out of festivals are - were not available to us remotely, I saw some stuff I thought was pretty interesting. Glen, you and I are going to talk about mothers for a couple of minutes. You have one. Tell me about your next pick.

WELDON: It's called "You Are Not My Mother," directed by Kate Dolan. It's an Irish film. I don't know if it's going to get distribution, but I really hope it does. And I went into it because I saw, you know, dark Irish folklore in the tag. And I was like, sure, I'm in. It's a slow burn horror film. Again, it's set in modern Ireland. But it is based on some pretty dark Irish folk tales. And it's - what this does really effectively is it does what the best horror does, which it maps itself neatly, but not too neatly, on certain uncomfortable truths of daily life.

So in this case, it's a teenager whose mother is in the depths of depression. Suddenly, overnight, her entire personality changes. And that leaves the daughter to suspect that something is up - really effective. It's really well-acted. And when it sticks to psychological horror, you know, the sense of capturing a kid's fear that something's going on that they are just at the edge of understanding, it's really compelling - right up until the end, where it goes a little bit conventional. But, man, the journey to that is really fun.

HOLMES: Yeah. It's interesting that that sounds like it's got to do with kind of, like - who is your mother? - like, the identity of mothers and kids because the last one that I want to talk about is called "Petite Maman," which is - I don't know if - I apologize for my French.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: "Little Mother," I think.

WELDON: Sure, "Little Mother."

HOLMES: Anyway - so this is from Celine Sciamma. And she is the director who did "Portrait Of A Lady On Fire"...

HARRIS: Yes.

HOLMES: ...Which, I think, you know, many of us loved very much and thought was very moving. And this is completely different. This is a very - it's much more contemporary. I don't know if I would say it's fully contemporary. But it's contemporary-ish. And it involves a woman and her daughter who go because the woman's mother, the girl's grandmother, has died. And they go to the home where she was living and, you know, they clean out her things. And then you kind of go into this story where this young girl is becoming very curious about her grandmother and her own mother. And they go back to the house where the mother grew up. This is all I'm going to say about it. The daughter is out in the backyard. And she finds a young girl who is building a fort. In the subtitles, they call it a hut. And she goes out there and meets this girl and begins to talk to her. And there is some sort of sense of something curious happening in the woods as she goes out there.

And it's very sweet. It's very touching and interesting. And I kept being surprised by it. But I think if you loved kind of the emotion of "Portrait Of A Lady On Fire" - even though this is a family story and a mother-daughter story rather than being kind of an erotic story, I think you see a lot of the kind of deep-feelingsy (ph) kind of filmmaking in this as well. I enjoyed it very much. I think it's very sweet. And it's one of the few things I saw at TIFF that didn't make me feel terrible. Even though it opens with a death, it's one of the few things that just was not completely bleak because that is - you know, in fairness, that is one of the things that happens at festivals. You see a lot of really bleak movies.

WELDON: Yep.

HARRIS: Death and...

WELDON: Yep.

HOLMES: Death and terrible - like even - and that's before you even get to the documentaries, which are...

WELDON: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...You know, just brutal, climate documentaries and politics documentaries. And...

HARRIS: And Kenny G.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Reasonable. Reasonable. Well - so Celine Sciamma is getting distribution from Neon. And they do a lot of kind of good indie movies. So hopefully, you'll get a chance to see that one. Keep an eye out for that. Tell us what you think about this year's slate of films from the Toronto International Film Festival. Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh. Or tweet us at @PCHH. When we come back, it's going to be time to talk about what's making us happy this week.

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HOLMES: Now it's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week, what's making us happy this week. Glen Weldon, what is making you happy this week?

WELDON: Have either of you played a game called Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza?

WELDON: I cannot say I have.

WELDON: No. OK. So we're on vacation - right? - and we really tried to play Wingspan. We got Wingspan. Everybody's talking about Wingspan. We sat down with it. And it's one of those European games where it's six actions and - you can combine two of your actions to substitute for one. I was like, nope, can't do it after a long day of sun and surf, Just can't do that.

So Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza is made for this. It's a card game with very charming drawings of different cards of a taco, a cat, a goat, a cheese and some pizza. You go around in turns, and you say the words taco cat goat cheese pizza repeatedly. And as you do, you slap down the cards. And if the word you say matches what's on the card, you slap it. The idea is to get rid of the cards in your hand. So the last person to slap has to take those cards. Now, it's very simple, and you have to kind of keep in rhythm, which is, you know, hard for me. But it's a hell of a lot of fun.

And then I would recommend doing it with just the simple deck. And then you add to the deck - once maybe you've had a cocktail or two - the gorilla card, the groundhog card and the narwhal card. The gorilla card, you pound your chest and then slap. And the groundhog, you pound the table, then you slap. And the narwhal card, you put a little horn - your hand up to your head like a horn, and then you slap. It is so compelling, so simple and so much fun. And everybody looks like a jerk playing it. So that's Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza.

HARRIS: Wow.

WELDON: Yeah.

HOLMES: You know what's amazing is that you went into that, and you were like, it's a European game, like, this, this, five this and this has six this. And I'm sitting there thinking like, so is this less complicated to you?

WELDON: It's so simple. It's primal, in fact.

HOLMES: Amazeballs (ph). Seriously, amazeballs. Thank you very much, Glen Weldon. Aisha Harris, what is making you happy this week?

HARRIS: "Run The World" on Starz is a half-hour comedy drama series that kind of ran under the radar over the summer. But I recently went on a binge and watched all of the first season, and I really enjoyed it. It's a show about four Black women living in Harlem in their 30s. So as a 30-something Black woman, even though I don't live in Harlem, it was kind of right up my alley. I was curious about it.

And it's definitely drawing from many of its TV forebears like "Sex And The City," of course, "Girlfriends," even to some extent "Insecure." And all four women have, of course, the typical TV living in a urban environment jobs like blogger, writer. One of them is a academic at Columbia. Like, these women are not poor, or at least they're not struggling in the way that a lot of millennials might be right now. It's got an element of fantasy to it, but I really enjoy the chemistry between them.

I want to shout out especially Andrea Bordeaux, who plays Ella McFair, who is sort of the central point of the show even though it's an ensemble show. She gives her character, who we've seen many times the struggling writer, even - this even has like a little bit of element of "Girls" in it with the Hannah Horvath character where she's like trying to find her voice as a writer. But I really think she delves into some interesting things there.

And the last thing I will say is that the most fantastical thing about this show is the fact that all four of the women go to the same therapist, who is played by Rosie O'Donnell of all people. So it's fun to see Rosie O'Donnell pop up for a little bit.

HOLMES: Absolutely.

HARRIS: So yeah, I recommend if you're looking for something a little light but also engrossing and compelling and dramatic. And if you love things "Like Sex And The City" and "Girlfriends," you should check out "Run The World" on Starz.

HOLMES: Excellent. Thank you very much, Aisha Harris. My what is making me happy this week is predictable as anything because I am a sucker for coverage of Theranos.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: So if you're not familiar, we did an entire episode on Theranos at some point on the various documentaries about Theranos. Theranos is not the MCU villain who snapped his fingers and ended half the world. Theranos is the Elizabeth Holmes - no relation - company that was going to revolutionize blood testing by just little finger stick blood tests, then they could test you for everything. She's currently on trial for fraud and other things. And the reporter John Carreyrou, who wrote the book "Bad Blood" about her and was kind of the key reporter in originally reporting on Theranos, Carreyrou now has a podcast where he's kind of following up and doing some new reporting and also kind of following the progress of her trial.

Her trial is already, like, very wacky. There's a great story on NPR from Bobby Allyn about a guy who was showing up at her trial. They didn't realize he was related to her. And then it turned out he was related to her. And it's - there's already a bunch of crazy stuff about her trial. But Carreyrou is, you know, like I said, kind of my go-to if you like Theranos reporting. And I've just been delighted to just sink my teeth back into these. I love, like, these fraud stories. I don't know why I love this one. I love Fyre Festival.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: I love this podcast. It's called "Bad Blood: The Final Chapter." You can find it wherever you get your podcasts. And look. I love to listen to John Carreyrou get upset about Elizabeth Holmes all over again. Love it. And that is what's making me happy this week.

If you want links for what we recommended, plus some more recommendations, you can subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. That brings us to the end of our show. You can find all of us on Twitter. You can find me - @lindaholmes. You can find Glen - @ghweldon. And you can find Aisha - @craftingmystyle. You can find our editor Jessica Reedy - @jessica_reedy. Our producer Jared Gair is @jaredmgair. And producer Candice Lim - @thecandicelim. You can find our producer Mike Katzif - @mikekatzif - K-A-T-Z-I-F. Mike's band, Hello Come In, provides the music you are bobbing your head to right now.

So thanks to both of you for being here to chat about TIFF.

WELDON: Thank you.

HARRIS: Thank you

HOLMES: And thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see all of you next week.

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