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Movies Are Also About Business At The Toronto International Film Festival

Howie Movshovitz

Many of the films at Telluride come to Toronto a couple of days later, but in atmosphere two wonderful festivals are opposites. Telluride is the exquisite appreciation of cinema in a grand setting. Toronto is about doing the work to make films known.

When Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete gets over its boy and his horse clichés, it turns into a portrait of desperation. Charlie, played by a fine young actor Charlie Plummer, has no mother and a crude, irresponsible father. The father’s sexual escapades finally get him in real trouble, which leaves Charlie alone in Portland, Oregon. 

Credit Courtesy of the Telluride Film Festival
A scene from the film Lean On Pete.

He runs away with a race horse he’s helped tend, and when that sentimental adventure ends – and it’s a violent, unpleasant shock -- there are devastating scenes of Charlie wandering the streets homeless and hungry. The expression on Charlie’s face slowly loses its shine until there’s nothing but suspicion, need and isolation.

Director Andrew Haigh is English; his 2015 film 45 Years, with Tom Courtney and Charlotte Rampling, is all English decorum and containment. Lean on Pete is full of rough edges and disruption. It’s like an un-western. Charlie travels east through the not picturesque sagebrush country of eastern Oregon needing the human comfort that westerns often reject.

But most Toronto films did not play at Telluride. Actress Gloria Grahame was a star in the 1940s and 50s. She played floozies like the character Violet who’s perpetually sweet on James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. Grahame’s life did not end well, and that part is the subject of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Grahame had many husbands along with other alliances, and the last was a young actor from Liverpool named Peter Turner, who wrote the memoir on which the film is based. In the movie, Grahame returns to Liverpool near the end of her life in 1981, and moves in with Turner’s family so they can care for her. 

Credit Courtesy of the Telluride Film Festival
A scene from the movie Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool.

She’s dying and she’s demanding, which is nothing new for a movie star biopic. But the treat here is a masterful, complex performance by Annette Bening. Grahame fears losing her stardom as well as her life. Bening gives her an overwhelming sense of need along with an equal dose of entitlement, enough to break your heart.

Victoria and Abdul by British filmmaker Stephen Frears, begins as a comedy about the unlikely raising of an Indian from minor clerk in a prison to a pretentiously honored servant condescendingly allowed to present a tiny medallion to Queen Victoria. Abdul and a pudgy friend are whisked out of Agra in India to London. The action and English location are cozy and smug; the British officials look arrogant and obtuse, while Abdul and his friend are dislocated and confused. The picture doesn’t lose the comic tone, but it’s not funny for the most part.

A genuine connection develops between Abdul and the Queen. To Victoria’s attendants, Abdul is a sub-human, but she recognizes that he is a person of substance. Whatever his official status, Abdul brings wisdom and comfort to the aging Victoria. It’s based on a true story; Abdul’s diaries were discovered a couple of years ago.

Paul Schrader’s First Reformed played at both festivals, and it’s one of those films that gets deeper and richer as you think about it afterward. It’s about a crisis of faith in the minister of a small church (Ethan Hawke). Paul Schrader knows this world and he doesn’t flinch at the sight of how spiritual pain manifests itself in the realm of the physical.

And a note that serious filmmaking is no joke, Ziad Doueiri, the Lebanese director of The Insult, which played at both festivals, was arrested and interrogated for some hours in Lebanon just after his film was nominated as best picture at the Venice Film Festival. His crime was that he shot some of his 2012 film The Attack in Israel.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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