It’s a Scarlett Johansson special at TIFF this year with the actor featuring in two of the most rewarding films of the festival so far: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story and Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. She is the luminous soul who personifies the spirit of resistance and humanity deeply embedded in Waititi’s sharp and funny takedown of totalitarianism. In contrast, in Baumbach’s Marriage Story, she is the vulnerable but decisive woman who wants to move on in life, away from a “happy” marriage to find herself again.
Baumbach puts a collapsing marriage under the microscope, something that has often been attempted in cinema before, from Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage to Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. Baumbach’s gaze is distinguished by its warmth, tenderness and sympathy. Even the ugliest and dissonant of confrontations — especially over the custody of the son — are captured with immense grace and dignity.
While Charlie (Adam Driver) is a theatre director, Nicole (Johansson) is an actor. The demands of their respective jobs and the necessity to relocate, the urgency to plumb the depths of one’s own self and the need to follow one’s calling pulls them apart and puts their seemingly perfect relationship under strain.
With theatre in the backdrop, Baumbach stages the disintegration of the relationship itself like a play but with the cinematic fluidity in tact. One long talkie scene follows another as he takes us back and forth in time to draw out a graph of how people come together and move apart. He imbues throwaway moments with rare eloquence, gives little gestures a deeper meaning.
Driver and Johansson are deeply invested in their characters as much as they are in each other. There is not one false note in their give and take and in the world they mount together on screen. One ends up feeling for each of them in equal measure which makes the sense of loss that much more profound. Two good people may not always a great partnership make.
Good performances and deeply satisfying cinema are conversation starters at TIFF about who will win the Grolsch People’s Choice award. The audience vote on the over 300 films at TIFF has been an early indicator of the eventual best film Oscar. An uncannily accurate foretelling, be it Green Book last year or 12 Years A Slave, La La Land or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Many of the biggies at TIFF are propelled by great performances than compelling writing itself. Joaquin Phoenix’s intensely absorbed and singularly-centred performance as Arthur Fleck ignites Todd Phillips’ Joker. The film itself, however, stops short of scratching the surface in its portrayal of how an uncaring and thoughtless society and the world, may have triggered the inexplicable malevolence that define Fleck and the violence that lurks behind his standup comic act and the Joker mask. Phoenix goes inwards and transforms himself in an astounding manner, both physically and mentally. You can read menace in his laughter as much as on his rib cage. He acts with both his mind and the body. And how!
A similar transformation into “becoming” the character is evident in Christian Bale’s Ken Miles in James Mangold’s Ford versus Ferrari. The stooping shoulders, the typical oddball way of talking: Bale owns the role of the garage owner-turned-underdog racer and one of the members of the team of engineers who to take on the Ferrari racing car monopoly. Matt Damon matches Bale’s acting chops as Carroll Shelby, a friend, partner and the force behind the mission. About boys, one of their favourite toys and an adrenaline thumping sports, Ford versus Ferrari is a solid, well-made, well-acted, emotional, enjoyable but highly predictable big ticket cinema.
The surprise of the festival has been the hugely enjoyable Jennifer Lopez-starrer, Lorene Scafaria’s The Hustlers. Based on a New York magazine article, the film is about a team of strippers who get the better of their Wall Street clients in the face of the economic collapse of 2008. Scafaria subverts the essential power play in the world driven by money and sex, that objectifies women and panders to the male desire. In The Hustlers, the game is all about the women owning their lives, bodies and financial independence. Lopez is delightfully effortless in inhabiting the role of Ramona, the leader of the pack. Towards the end of the film she also makes a political statement on hustling: the whole country is a strip club where some are paying and others are getting paid to dance. The TIFF audience laughed and clapped. Now to whether an Oscar nomination will follow?
(The writer is in Toronto at the invitation of TIFF.)