'Darkest Hour' and 'Mark Felt' profile men of consequence at the Toronto Fest


The frustration of spending only five days at the Toronto International Film Festival is all the titles that get away. I arrived too late for the screenings of the much-adored Call Me by Your Name, I couldn’t get into Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water despite the fact it was playing on two screens simultaneously, and then there are all the other buzzy films I managed to miss: Lady Bird, The Disaster Artist, Loveless, Sweet Country, The Current War and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri among them. At least I could take consolation in knowing that I had screened some great Toronto entries prior to the fest, including Mudbound, Novitiate, Stronger, The Square and The Florida Project.

I’ve already reported on the many Toronto movies focusing on women. Now it’s time to talk about some consequential men. First among them is Winston Churchill, as embodied by the remarkable Gary Oldman in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. The talk of Oldman being an instant Oscar frontrunner is confirmed by his very lively, mischievous and soulful performance as the newly appointed prime minister of England just before the Dunkirk rescue mission that is so powerfully dramatized in Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster of the same name. Oldman, who let’s remember once played Sid Vicious, is nearly unrecognizable under his tons of makeup and appliances, but the artifice never hinders his spirited portrayal. The Focus Features release is mostly talk as it depicts the political infighting around Churchill and his grave strategic decisions as he deals with a potentially disastrous turning point in Britain’s war with Germany, but Wright’s brisk, energetic filmmaking style maintains high interest throughout. It’s been quite a year for both Dunkirk (also referenced in the delightful Their Finest) and Churchill (who’s also been played by John Lithgow and Brian Cox), and both Finest Hour and Dunkirk seem primed to take home Oscars next March.

Another key figure in history is Mark Felt, or as the Sony Pictures Classics film’s subtitle dubs him, “The Man Who Brought Down the White House.” Yes, Felt is the mysterious “Deep Throat” immortalized by journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their book All the President’s Men and the great film of the same name. (His true identity wasn’t revealed until 2005.) Felt was a 30-year veteran of the FBI passed by for the job of top cop when J. Edgar Hoover died. Despite being ordered to shut down his investigation of the break-in at Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate building, Felt persisted and, outraged by the corruption he witnessed, fed valuable inside information to the Post reporters.

Once again erasing his Irish accent, Liam Neeson is perfect casting as the upright and formidable Felt. But where All the President’s Men managed to generate suspense out of an investigation all America knew the outcome of, Mark Felt feels oddly logy for a film about such high-stakes political intrigue. Director Peter Landesman is himself a former high-profile journalist who has transitioned to directing films like Parkland and Concussion. The film certainly lays out the facts and the players clearly, but it could have used a shot of adrenaline that a natural-born filmmaker might have supplied.

The Toronto Fest programmed a number of show-biz documentaries, including films on Eric Clapton, Lady Gaga, Sammy Davis Jr. and the scandalous Hollywood pimp to the stars, Scotty Bowers. A fascinating one is Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond—With a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton. Chris Smith’s film is a dual portrait of two great, idiosyncratic comedians, the late Andy Kaufman and Jim Carrey, who played Andy in the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon. Kaufman was notorious for his conceptual comedy that often baffled his audiences: reading The Great Gatsby aloud, rudely challenging women to wrestling matches, and—his most popular routine—playing an addled “foreign man” who suddenly breaks into a killer Elvis impression. He also often posed as an alter ego named Tony Clifton, a brash, abrasive, confrontational lounge singer sporting sunglasses and jet-black hair and moustache. Jim & Andy is filled with behind-the-scenes footage during the making of Man on the Moon that shows Carrey going all Method-y, never breaking character as Andy and replicating Tony Clifton’s rude behavior on and off the set. Carrey, a huge star at the time, turned out to be more like Andy Kaufman than anyone would have predicted.

The film tracks both Kaufman’s and Carrey’s careers, with a bearded Carrey on-camera reflecting on his own profound struggles and current sense of liberation. (He hasn’t had a major hit in nearly a decade.) A key to both men’s alchemy was immersing themselves in other personas. As Carrey reflects, “Who do you know—even when they’re right in front of you?” I admired Man on the Moon when it debuted; this doc makes me eager to watch it again with a new appreciation of Carrey’s psychic connection to one of his comic idols.

Finally, a mention of a few smaller films caught in Toronto. Cocaine Prison is an inside look at the notorious San Sebastian prison in Cochabamba, Bolivia, a compound so overcrowded inmates must pay over two thousand dollars to secure their own cell; otherwise, they sleep in the hallways. Indigenous filmmaker Violeta Ayala follows two prisoners: Mario, a father arrested on his first day at a cocaine processing plant, and Hernan, a teenager caught smuggling two kilos of cocaine (a gig he took to raise money for his band), plus Hernan’s sister Daisy, who fights for Hernan while trying to further her education. Ayala and her producer husband Dan Fallshaw achieved remarkable access to the prison environment (they also gave tiny digital cameras to the inmates), considering the shocking details they expose. And the film continually emphasizes how outrageously unjust the legal system is in Bolivia, punishing the lowliest people in the drug chain and never touching their wealthy bosses. In an impassioned post-film Q&A, Ayala urged that Latin America will never achieve true democracy until it defeats the inequities of the war on drugs. Making the film, she said, “I’ve seen the worst and best of humanity… And I learned that we are humans in spite of our mistakes.”

Ending my coverage on a much lighter and innocent note, TIFF screened The Big Bad Fox & Other Tales, a charming animated feature from Ernest & Celestine helmer Benjamin Renner, co-directing with the creator of the Fox graphic novel, Patrick Imbert. It’s a collection of three stories with the framing device of a group of barnyard animals putting on a show. (Thus, all three tales use the same “stock company” of players.) Along with the titular story, about a fox who accidentally becomes a mother surrogate to three little chicks, there’s “Baby Delivery,” a hilarious tale of a pig, rabbit and duck who must fill in for a wily stork and deliver a human infant to its parents, and “Saving Christmas,” in which the animals are forced to take the place of Santa Claus. Reminiscent of the “Winnie the Pooh” stories in its bucolic, gentle but antic humor, with an engagingly rough but pretty hand-drawn style, The Big Bad Fox has been picked up for North America by the estimable GKIDS and seems destined for a holiday release—probably with English-language voices to replace the French soundtrack heard in Toronto.