TIFF 2017: Downsizing our expectations

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      This is my third consecutive year at TIFF and the festival seems to shrink into a tighter and tighter surface area upon each of my arrivals. I know the condensed streets around the downtown Scotiabank Cineplex and the TIFF Bell Lightbox like the back of my hand, but where that allegedly Great body of water permanently lies, I couldn’t tell you. It’s the strange paradox of going to a film festival: as we’re supposed to be inside the theatre expanding our consciousness of cultures from around the world, everything outside is blinkered by the event’s inherent tunnel vision. Trump could’ve gone to war with North Korea and I’d still overhear people complaining about the shoddy, multi-story escalator at the press and industry venue.

      The current talk of the ten-block town is Guillermo del Toro’s latest adult fantasy, The Shape of Water, screening on this side of the Atlantic fresh off its Golden Lion win at the Venice Film Festival a few days ago (a quick Google search to confirm this fact already leads to unavoidable headlines involving the word “contender” and its faithful companion “Oscar”). The Pan’s Labyrinth director signals his sincerity at every forced turn, while mostly failing to imbue the film’s more florid flourishes with any poignant meaning.

      Eliza (Sally Hawkins), a mute spinster in '50s Baltimore, happens upon a grunting, amphibian-like beast captured by the U.S. secret service at the secluded compound where she serves as a custodian. The creature is put under the knife in search of potential powers that could help the paranoid Americans defeat the infiltrating Russians. While Dr. Hoffstetler (actual name: Dmitry) implores his colleagues to preserve the creature and respect its dignity, the ruthless Strickland (Michael Shannon) doubles down on his sadistic tactics, using his electrically-charged police baton to weaken the emotionally sentient being.

      Del Toro, like in his fascist Franco-era Pan’s Labyrinth, places his otherworldly story in the subconscious of those marginalized by their violent, prejudiced times. According to Strickland, some humans are made a little more in the image of God than others, and it’s pretty clear the kinds of minorities he’s talking about: Eliza’s bachelor neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an elderly man literally closeted in his cluttered apartment; her compassionate co-worker Delilah (Octavia Spencer), a black woman who is unsurprisingly the target of much bigotry; and the mysterious scientist Dmitry, a man caught between his allegiance to the Russians and his cover inside the compound, neither of which afford him much of a chance to do the right thing without facing grave repercussions.

      Eliza becomes romantically attached to the creature, and their relationship is founded on pantomime as a means of communication. It’s a not-so-subtle metaphor for the image-first classical cinema del Toro is paying soulless homage to (Eliza, after all, lives above a nostalgic old movie house). There’s an old (Twitter) saying—something del Toro is well-versed in if all of the opening narrations of his films are any indication—“less movies about the magic of movies; more magical movies.” The Shape of Water falls into the former camp.

      Aaron Sorkin doesn't so much direct his first feature Molly's Game as he does program it into the film form equivalent of Google Translate; no surprise that his verbose screenplay comes out the other end in an imprecise, garbled visual language. The film is based on a memoir by its real-life lead character, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic skier who, after suffering a career ending fall, became the leader of high class gambling ring that brought together movie stars, Wall Street junkies, and the Russian mob. Most of these details are portrayed through Molly’s unreliable narration to her sternly by-the-book attorney (Idris Elba). It’s a structure that allows a generous amount of random flashbacks for co-star Kevin Costner as Molly’s brutish father.

      One imagines what Sorkin’s script would’ve been like in the hands of the directors he’s trying to emulate; the in-scene cutting superficially resembles the precise rhythms of Social Network director David Fincher and the film’s free-flowing montages are taken right out of Martin Scorsese works like Casino and GoodFellas. Without Fincher’s sense of composition and Scorsese’s deliberate decoupage, Sorkin turns his screenplay into a two-hour-and-twenty-minute expositional montage of a movie, which is exactly what one might’ve feared. Sorkin directs almost exactly the same way he writes: abundantly and exhaustingly.

      The perfect film for the festival bubble, one that claims to elucidate the plight of the working class everywhere while being utterly condescending to their values, Alexander Payne’s new joint, Downsizing, takes place in a world falling apart due to overpopulation. A communally-minded Norwegian Nobel Prize winner has come up with a final solution: not to decrease the population but just make them smaller by way of a painless procedure using a large-scale easy bake oven. Soon, micro communities of inch-tall people provide economic incentives to those struggling to keep up with their mortgage and other loans. Inside these communities, because the expenditure of resources is far more proportional, the cost of living is radically less. This is precisely the thinking of injury therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) who prepares to undergo the surgery and is abandoned by his wife after the last-minute when he’s already been irreversibly shrunk.

      But it’s only a matter of time before the class inequality in the big world is replicated in the small one, and Paul, on the fim’s metaphorical road to Damascus, has a change of heart and takes up the cause of the oppressed economic diaspora hidden away in a literal hole in the wall. It’s an important lesson delivered in the least inspired of ways. While size doesn’t always matter, perspective certainly does.