Female directors and performers rule at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival (from Buffalo Spree)

Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone at TIFF.

With this, my TIFF17 feature from the November issue of Buffalo Spree, my festival coverage comes to a close …

While movies screened, celebs walked red carpets, and attendees waited in epic lines at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, another incredible thing was happening. One-third of the films selected for TIFF17 were directed by women, and that is nothing short of remarkable. Consider the recent track record of festivals like Cannes and Venice. Look at Hollywood’s awful track record of funding and producing films by female filmmakers. And look also at the quality of the films by women at TIFF this year.

At the top of the list was Lady Bird, a warm, riotous, relentlessly entertaining coming-of-age drama written and directed by Frances Ha star Greta Gerwig. The story of a whip-smart Sacramento high schooler’s final year before college is simply glorious. Saoirse Ronan gives the best performance of an already impressive young career, and Gerwig nails what might be the finest film of its type since The Graduate. Another female director making a splash at TIFF was Barbara Albert, the Austrian filmmaker behind the exquisite period drama Mademoiselle Paradis. The true story of blind pianist Maria Theresia von Paradis was one of the boldest and strongest selections in TIFF’s Platform program.

Other noteworthy efforts from female directors were Mudbound, Dee Rees’s 1940s-set story of racial tension in the South; the Emma Stone-starring Battle of the Sexes, from Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton; and Novitiate, Meggie Betts’s somber drama about aspiring nuns in the 1960s. And three of cinema’s most exciting actresses—Angelina Jolie, Brie Larson, and Melanie Laurent—brought unique new directorial efforts to TIFF17. (First They Killed My FatherUnicorn Store, and Plonger, respectively.)

Of course, not every effort from a female filmmaker earned raves. The response was very mixed for Lisa Langseth’s Euphoria, a dreary end-of-life drama starring (a very good) Alicia Vikander and Eva Green. Death row love story My Days of Mercy felt rote and unmemorable, but featured winning performances from Ellen Page and Kata Mara. And Mary Shelley, director Haifaa Al Mansour’s follow-up to Wadjda, was mostly a miss. It featured Elle Fanning as the Frankenstein author. Yet, whatever the quality of audience response to the films mentioned here, the diversity of subject matter is admirable.

Astounding performances from women, too, were plentiful at TIFF this year. In addition to the actors already mentioned, there was Frances McDormand as a grieving mother out for justice in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; impressive teenage actress Fantine Harduin in Michael Haneke’s darkly hilarious Happy End; a world-conquering Jessica Chastain in Aaron Sorkin’s slick Molly’s Game; Jennifer Lawrence in Darren Aronofsky’s WTF horror thriller, Mother!; and Sally Hawkins as a woman in love with an amphibious creature in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water.

Along with Lady Bird, the greatest film at TIFF17 was The Florida Project, Sean Baker’s exhilarating follow-up to Tangerine. The story of a mother and daughter living at a rundown motel outside of Walt Disney World in Orlando is joyous, sad, and utterly insightful. Young star Brooklynn Prince gives one of the most natural performances I’ve seen from a child, and the great Willem Dafoe has never been better. It’s a rare kind-hearted role for the Last Temptation of Christ actor.

There were nice supporting performances from the likes of Carmen Ejogo (in the offbeat, Denzel Washington-starring legal drama Roman J. Israel, Esq.); Nicole Kidman (the terrifying Killing of a Sacred Deer, from The Lobster’s Yorgos Lanthimos); Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James (in the so-so, Gary Oldman-dominated Winston Churchill drama Darkest Hour); Amira Casar and Esther Garrel (two standouts in the gloriously entertaining, Oscar-caliber drama Call Me By Your Name, starring Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, and Michael Stuhlbarg); and, most notably, Hong Chau, as an activist-turned-house cleaner in the strange Matt Damon sci-fi satire, Downsizing.

It was undeniably a great year for TIFF, one of the best in my eleven years of attendance. There were the usual difficulties, specifically a seeming inability to get people into their seats at the proper time. Crowds were bigger than ever before, so you may want to book a hotel for next year right now. (Check the Tourism Toronto’s website, seetorontonow.com, for helpful tips.) There were high-profile disappointments, like George Clooney’s awful Suburbicon. But any year that includes two films as unique, as memorable, and as soul-enhancing as Lady Bird and The Florida Project must be considered a very good one.

Each screening, whether press and industry or public, included a brief remembrance of TIFF founder Bill Marshall, who passed away in January. I think the man who helped make Toronto a can’t-miss destination on the autumn cinephile calendar would have been thrilled to see the smiles as audiences left Lady Bird. That film, more than any other, was a reminder that female directors and actors are changing cinema. Bravo to the Toronto International Film Festival for recognizing this. Let’s hope for even more at TIFF18.


Review: Marvel’s ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ is a riotously entertaining romp

I reviewed “Thor: Ragnarok” for the Buffalo News. Goldblum!

The presence of Jeff Goldblum in “Thor: Ragnarok” is a statement. It tells us that this, the third feature centered around Asgard’s God of Lightning, will not be Marvel-by-numbers. How could it, when the iconic, oddball-ish, delightfully sputtering star of “The Fly” and “Jurassic Park” is one of your main villains?

Casting Goldblum says, “We’re not taking ourselves too seriously. We understand that this is a film about a Norse god wielding a mighty hammer. So let’s enjoy it.”

That’s a wise move. More “Fifth Element” than “Avengers,” more John Carpenter than Jon Favreau, “Thor: Ragnarok” is an often riotously entertaining interplanetary romp.

Yet, like nearly every Marvel effort to date, it is riddled with flaws. It is way overlong, and features a meandering, difficult-to-follow storyline. (I’m still not sure what Ragnarok actually is.) Audiences will be having so much fun, however, that they are unlikely to care.

Much of the credit for the film’s successes goes to filmmaker Taika Waititi, the New Zealander chosen as the director of the follow-up to “Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World.” His last two directorial efforts, cult classic vampire comedy “What We Do in the Shadows” and 2016 adventure “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” were offbeat treats. Neither would have made Waititi an obvious choice for “Ragnarok,” but he was an inspired choice. He nails the film’s devil-may-care tone.

Waititi also brought together a wonderful cast. Chris Hemsworth returns as the mighty Thor, and the reliably charming actor is having a blast. Also back are Tom Hiddleston as Thor’s sneering brother, Loki; Anthony Hopkins as their father, King Odin; and an underused Idris Elba as their Asgardian ally, Heimdall.

It’s the new names that enchant: the aforementioned Goldblum; Cate Blanchett as the “goddess of death,” Hela; Tessa Thompson as “Scrapper 142,” a booze-guzzling Asgardian in hiding; and Mark Ruffalo as Thor’s fellow Avenger, Hulk (a.k.a., Bruce Banner).

The less time spent discussing the plot, the better. But here goes: A couple of years after the events of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Thor returns home to Asgard. He finds his thought-to-be-deceased brother alive and well, but their father has left the planet.

Odin is, in fact, ready to pass on. Doing so ushers in the arrival of his firstborn child, the evil, all-conquering Hela. She quickly forces Thor and Loki to the planet Sakar, and arrives in Asgard to claim her throne.

Sakar is ruled by the powerful Grandmaster (Goldblum), who cannot wait to put Thor into gladiatorial battle against … an old friend who is green, large and angry. Thor, Loki, Hulk, and a new ally, “Scrapper 142,” must find a way off the planet, return to Asgard, and discover a way to defeat Hela.

There are ample joys along the way, many of them occurring on Sakar. Hemsworth displays the comic timing he used to great effect in 2016’s “Ghostbusters,” as well as noteworthy chemistry with Hiddleston, Thompson, and Ruffalo. Meanwhile, Blanchett chews scenery with ease.

As “Thor: Ragnarok” progresses, the sense of urgency severely wanes. The entire affair begins to feel like a long, rather random diversion. But Waititi saves the day, repeatedly, with great humor and eye-popping action sequences, including two set to Led Zeppelin’s wildly appropriate “Immigrant Song.”

How does “Ragnarok” fit into the extended Marvel universe? Who cares? After all, “Thor: Ragnarok” is the first Marvel film that seems designed to be fun, above all else. It doesn’t always work, but bravo to all involved for going full-Goldblum, and never looking back.