Fox Searchlight Pictures/AP
Nate Parker (l.) and Aja Naomi King star in ‘The Birth of a Nation.’

At Toronto International Film Festival, romance is the highlight

'The Birth of a Nation' underwhelms, but 'La La Land,' starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, is a swoon of a musical that is comparable in achievement to 'The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,' while the movie 'Tramps' is a charmer about two teenagers (Callum Turner and Grace Van Patten).

The 11-day Toronto International Film Festival is many things to many people but, for Hollywood, it’s the movie equivalent of the Paris fall fashion shows, with films instead of models in designer dresses parading down the runway. Movie stars, more than a few of whom appear in multiple movies here, walk the red carpet, handlers at the ready, while Oscar handicappers work themselves into a froth. This is a star-struck city, and you can easily cause a stampede in the streets by casually mentioning that you just spotted Matthew McConaughey. 

The Hollywood madness usually dissipates after the festival’s first weekend, when the moguls and the glitterati clear out, their work done, and the festival settles into a more manageable mode. Cineastes feel freer to seek out that new movie from Luxembourg or Lebanon. There’s certainly no shortage of options: 397 films are in this year’s lineup, from 83 countries, 138 of them world premières.

This year all eyes were on Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” which is about the antebellum slave revolt led by Nat Turner and opens in October. After being purchased in January at Sundance by Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million, it came out that Parker had been charged with the rape of a fellow college student in 1999, along with the film’s co-writer, Jean Celestin. Although Parker was acquitted and Celestin’s conviction was later overturned, the publicity has heavily tainted what was supposed to be a slam-dunk for multiple Oscars at a time when the Academy is under fire for neglecting black artists in their annual awards derby.

Parker attended the festival and made several appearances. In the one I attended, a public screening of the film, he and his collaborators showed up onstage to lavish praise on each other while only two softball questions were taken from the audience, neither of them about the rape charges. The elephant in the room filled to bursting in the cavernous auditorium.

Things heated up considerably during a one-hour press conference two days later when Parker, flanked by several of his cast members, attempted to step out of the spotlight: “I would just encourage everyone to remember, personal life aside, I’m just one person.”

And what of the movie itself? The dilemma of how one separates the creator from his creation is not a new one – it arises every time Roman Polanski, for example, comes out with a movie – and perhaps it is best to keep the two apart. I don’t think “The Birth of a Nation” – which takes its title from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 pro-Ku Klux Klan Civil War epic – is a great film, or even a very good one. It has its undeniable moments of power, but its importance, if it has any, is that it keys into a historical moment at a time when race and racial abuse are startlingly in the forefront of public discourse. In a more mundane vein, word is out that Fox Searchlight’s new marketing strategy is to score as much business as possible for the film in October and play down the Oscar hype.

Racial themes of a less incendiary nature were certainly in evidence in Toronto, too. Mira Nair’s lively, heart-tuggy “Queen of Katwe,” which is based on the true story of a poor Ugandan teenage female chess prodigy, has a standout performance from Lupita Nyongo’o and another from David Oyelowo, who also appears as the heir to the kingdom of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) in the dutifully conventional “A United Kingdom,” which chronicles the prince’s marriage to a white Englishwoman, played by Rosamund Pike. 

The interracial couple movie with the most emotional heft in Toronto was indubitably Jeff Nichols’s “Loving,” about Richard and Mildred Loving (well played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), the husband and wife who fought for nine years for the right to live as a family in their Virginia hometown and whose marriage led to the 1967 Supreme Court decision affirming the foundation of the right to marry. Nichols tends to understate to a fault the story’s dramatic high points, which means the film is sometimes more admirable for what it doesn’t do than for what it does. He may be saving his big guns for his next movie, a remake of the 1988 sci-fi shocker “Alien Nation,” which looks to be about as far removed from “Loving” as you can get – unless of course he’s planning to feature a fraught alien romance.

Perhaps my two favorite films in Toronto – of the 30-plus I have seen – were romances. “Tramps,” the second feature from the gifted young writer-director Adam Leon – whose first film was 2012’s “Gimme the Loot” – is a micro-budget charmer about two teenagers, played with real delicacy by Callum Turner and Grace Van Patten, who are thrown together as accomplices in a scam gone awry. It’s one of the few movies I’ve seen in a while in which the burgeoning attraction between its characters doesn’t look as if it emanated from screenwriting software.

But the big romantic movie here, and one that has been praised virtually unanimously – a rarity at any festival, where spoilsports are always rampant – is Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” a swoon of a musical that is comparable, in tone and achievement, to Jacques Demy’s transcendent “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone costar in this Cinemascope fantasia about a jazz pianist and a struggling actress who meet cute on the traffic-jammed Los Angeles freeways and move through a relationship that is so airy and spirited that it takes a while to realize the film is more than just fun froth. It captures, by the end, a melancholy that is wrenchingly poignant. 

I also liked, though not as unequivocally, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” starring Casey Affleck as a Boston janitor who, after his brother’s demise, is unexpectedly appointed sole guardian of his teenage nephew (played by Lucas Hedges). Lonergan writes some of the best dialogue around, and he plays out family entanglements, sometimes too calculatedly, with the full range of emotional highs and lows. The audience was laughing, perhaps out of self-preservation, far more than it was crying. Lonergan is a prime advocate for laughing through tears. 

As usual, good performances got me through many a middling movie, foremost among them being the work of Tom Wilkinson and Timothy Spall in “Denial,” about the lawsuit brought against Holocaust-denying British historian David Irving. Also Sally Hawkins as a disabled outsider in “Maudie”; Michael Shannon as an ailing lawman in the arty, scabrous “Nocturnal Animals”; and Dakota Fanning as the Weather Underground-style bomber in Ewan McGregor’s bland adaptation of Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral.”

Of the socially conscious documentaries, the most high-profile is “Before the Flood,” featuring Leonardo DiCaprio trooping around the world bearing the bad news about climate change. He interviews President Obama and even has an audience with Pope Francis, who looks somewhat flummoxed by the encounter. (Did he see “Titanic?”)

No Toronto festival would be complete without a Terrence Malick movie, now that he’s making them more regularly. But Malick has gone from being a personal filmmaker to a private one and “Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey” would perhaps be best understood by those in an – how should I put it? – altered state. It’s his meditation on time, but all I could see was bursting nebulae, squiggly protoplasms, roiling cloud formations, and the occasional CGI dinosaur, with a deep-think voice-over intoned by Cate Blanchett. (The shorter IMAX version had Brad Pitt doing the honors. Go figure.)

With all the celebrities thronging Toronto, the person I found the most endearing was Aisholpan Nurgaiv, a teenager who is the subject of the fascinating documentary “The Eagle Huntress.” The first female in 12 generations of her family to become an eagle hunter, she showed up, all smiles in the heat, in full, heavy folk costume. When I asked her what her biggest thrill in touring with the film was, she answered, through an interpreter, “Meeting Clint Eastwood!” I guess there’s no escaping Hollywood – even in the farthest reaches of Mongolia.

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