Original-Cin TIFF Picks, Tuesday, Sept. 12

By Kim Hughes, Liam Lacey, and Jim Slotek

A FANTASTIC WOMAN (Special Presentation)

Tuesday, Sept 12 (6:30 pm), Elgin Theatre; Wednesday, Sept. 13, (12:15 pm), TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

A kind of a thriller, an unusual love story, and nuanced character study of resilience, Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s new film has echoes of his 2013 entry, Gloria, about a middle-aged woman finding her freedom, but with an interesting twist. About 20 minutes into this film about Marina (a terrific Daniela Vega) — a waitress and part-time singer whose middle-aged lover, Orlando, dies of a sudden stroke — we realize Marina is a transgender woman. The consequences of that mean complications with his family, law enforcement and simply having a place to live, spin out, in a quietly affirming story of everyday heroism that suggests a more subtle version of mid-career Pedro Almodovar. - LL

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THE ESCAPE (Special Presentation)

Tuesday, Sept. 12 (7 pm), TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Thursday, Sept. 14 (9:15 am), TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Sunday, Sept. 17 (8:30 pm), ScotiaBank 4

As a genre, the tragically bored housewife was a “thing” about 30 years ago, peaking with Dusan Makavejev’s Montenegro. This Brit contribution, directed by Dominic Savage, is not subtle. The heroine, Tara (Gemma Arterton) has unsatisfying sex with her husband (Dominic Cooper) three times in the first 25 minutes, so we know how this is going to be (there are also many tears between kids’ play-dates). There looms, however, a soul-cleansing trip to Paris and encounters with random French people who act as deus ex machina for her spirit and the plot. - JS 

THERE IS A HOUSE HERE (TIFF Docs)

Tuesday, Sept. 12 (6 pm), TIFF Belll Lightbox 2; Thursday, Sept. 14 (5:15 pm), Jackman Hall; Saturday, Sept. 16 (9 am), Jackman Hall

A documentarian with a unique and personal approach, Alan Zweig has a tendency to prod his subjects on camera, usually provoking some kind of soul-baring outburst (as with his terrific doc on the downfall of Steve Fonyo). In this one, the object of his probing is Lucie, a former band singer in Toronto, who returned to her problematic home in Nunavut. Zweig awkwardly investigates her surroundings, the drinking and lawlessness, as well as the traditional hunting outings, almost overcoming the suspicion of the locals en route. The object, though, is Lucie, a long-time close acquaintance, whose breakthrough comes in the last act of the film. - JS 

TULIPANI, LOVE, HONOUR AND A BICYCLE (Contemporary World Cinema)

Tuesday, Sept. 12 (6:15 pm), ScotiaBank 11

 A scene from Tulipani, Love, Honour And A Bicycle

A scene from Tulipani, Love, Honour And A Bicycle

What do you get when you have a Dutch director (Mike van Diem) helming an Italian movie, co-produced by Canadians (hence an opening scene in “Montreal” which is really Hamilton)? You get a bit of a mess of a romantic comedy, actually. Story involves a Dutchman (Gijs Naber) introducing tulips to post-War Umbria and running afoul of the Mafia, and a search decades later by his Canadian daughter (Ksenia Solo) to discover his fate. The whole thing is played for broad, genial laughs — the movie is punctuated by possibly the most explosive fart joke ever put to film. No less a legend than Giancarlo Giannini puts in a day’s work as a murder investigator prodding the story along. – JS

FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL (Gala Presentation)

Tuesday, Sept. 12 (9:30 pm), Roy Thomson Hall; Wednesday, Sept. 13 (9:30 am), TIFF Bell Lightbox 

This bittersweet drama about a crazy unlikely (but totally true) romance files easily under “stranger than fiction.” In her 50s and long after her Hollywood fame had faded, American actress Gloria Grahame began an affair with Peter Turner, a 20-something Briton she met while doing a theatre production. But May/December sex is the least of it. Gloria falls ill, and is taken in by Peter’s fabulously unchic but fiercely caring Liverpool-based family. Grab the Kleenex. Director Paul McGuigan’s lovely film is a dais for actorly performances: Annette Bening as Grahame, Jamie Bell as Turner (whose 1987 memoir provides the source material), and Julie Walters as Peter’s no-nonsense Mom and Gloria’s staunchest champion. Sure, it’s niche as hell. But it also kind of sparkles. - KH

LOVING PABLO (Special Presentation)

Tuesday, Sept. 12 (9:30 pm), Princess of Wales; Wednesday Sept. 13 (9 pm) and Sunday, Sept. 17 (3 pm), Ryerson Theatre

Nothing fans the flame of pop culture infamy quite like violent death. The late Pablo Escobar seems to be having his moment thanks to Netflix hit Narcos and now, Loving Pablo, the docu-drama about the Colombian cocaine kingpin based on the bestselling 2007 memoir of his mistress, former TV presenter Virginia Vallejo. Conceptually, the film has promise — an insider, possibly humanizing look at the notoriously savage Escobar as played by a physically transformed Javier Bardem opposite real-life spouse Penélope Cruz as Vallejo. Yet for all the story’s gravitas, Loving Pablo is strangely flat, told in ho-hum chronological fashion with flashes of ghastly violence (against people and animals, sigh) but scant insight into what made the man tick… apart from billions of tax-free dollars and unlimited sex with young girls. That a Spanish-speaking cast playing Spanish-speaking people delivers virtually every line in staccato English signals a hope that Loving Pablo will resonate with (presumably subtitle-averse) American audiences. But the tactic is more distracting than helpful. -KH

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NOVITIATE (Special Presentation)

Tuesday, Sept. 12 (4 pm) ScotiaBank 12 

Can anyone imagine a modern Hollywood executive saying, “What we need now is a good nun movie!"? The serious religious subject matter is the most boldly original aspect of documentarian Maggie Betts’ dramatic feature debut, which follows a beautiful 17-year-old, Cathleen (Margaret Qualley, from TV's The Leftovers) in 1960s’ Tennessee, and her initiation into the Catholic Church in the wake of the radical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.  Cathleen’s perspective is that of a naive, unbaptized outsider from a troubled family, who is lured by the Church’s promise of peace and the romance of being a “bride of Christ.” The script tends to emphasize extremes — sadistic rules, sexual sublimation, and a performance by Melissa Leo as the angry mother superior. But Novitiate is intelligently sympathetic to both the Christian message of love and the plight of the nuns, who lost status with the Vatican’s reforms. The light and shadow in the cinematography is deliberately Old Masterly, while ecclesiastical music, both traditional and contemporary, adds to the exalted mood. - LL

A WORTHY COMPANION (Discovery)

Tuesday, Sept. 12 (3:30 pm), ScotiaBank 3

The debut feature from acclaimed Montreal fine-art photographers/sibs Carlos Sanchez and Jason Sanchez is about 12 kinds of unsettling. Emotionally unbalanced housecleaner Laura (Evan Rachel Wood) lures disenfranchised teen Eva (Julia Sarah Stone who, very uncomfortably, scans much younger) away from her family and into her own home. There, Laura emotionally blackmails Eva into covertly staying, despite Eva’s growing alarm at the life she has impetuously chosen. Things go south from there. While it’s impossible to recommend this blisteringly dark film across the board, it does haunt, rendering it a psychological thriller that lives up to its billing. - KH

DOWNSIZING (Special Presentation)

Tuesday, Sept. 12 (11:30 am), Elgin; Wednesday, Sept. 13 (6 pm), Princess of Wales; Saturday, Sept. 16 (12 pm) Roy Thomson Hall

On paper, the latest from Alexander Payne (Nebraska, Sideways, The Descendants) has everything: marquee cast, clever premise, timely message. But while Downsizing has some very funny moments, it never gels. This so-called “sci-fi social satire” about people who elect to have themselves physically shrunken to lessen their environmental footprint (and stretch their money) follows Matt Damon’s beleaguered everyman, whose decision to ‘downsize’ kicks off a series of ever-broader personal problems. Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, and Jason Sudeikis (among others) add star power but the whole thing collapses under the weight of a dog-eared doomsday premise. - KH