TIFF Opens with an Overhead Smash

Movies: #TIFF17

Festival’s opening movie, Borg/McEnroe captures, an epic battle at Wimbledon and the two contrasting personalities — the emotional American and the cool Swede — who fought it out

By Jay Stone

TORONTO — A magazine called Screen has a special edition at the Toronto film festival, and it runs capsule reviews of some of the movies showing that day. Wednesday’s edition included a review of Miracle, a Lithuania/Bulgaria/Poland co-production, in which “the owner of a struggling post-Soviet pig farm finds a surprising benefactor in a visiting American investor, whose ‘good’ intentions upend the gentle rhythms of small-town life.”

And that’s the film festival for you: it might be a warm and wonderful comedy, or it could be what you might later describe as the best Lithuania/Bulgaria/Poland co-production of the month. You can’t tell without actually going to watch it, and who has time for that?

As it happens, I was reading this while seated next to a friend from Texas who was wondering aloud what he should see after he watched “the Quebec zombies,” his shorthand name for Les Affames, (“a remote village in Quebec is terrorized by a flesh-eating plague”) from director Robin Aubert. He seemed to be leaning toward The Euthanizer, about the crisis in the life of a freelance black-market pet euthanizer. As a freelancer myself, I know the problem.

Then the lights went down and we watched a preview screening of Borg/McEnroe, the opening night movie of the overstuffed surprise package known as the Toronto International Film Festival. It also address the themes of division — not art vs. commerce, or small charming discovery vs. artsy eye-glazer, but in this case the epic tennis rivalry between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg that culminated at the 1980 Wimbledon championships.

McEnroe, a kind of human temper tantrum in running shoes, is played by Shia LaBoeuf, who has a similarly edgy persona: at a post-screening press conference, he said he boned up for the role by watching the movie Amadeus and its depiction of Mozart’s bratty genius. Borg, an icy Swede, is brought to life by Sverrir Gudnason, an eerie lookalike and one of a seemingly endless parade of long-haired Nordic gods who apparently comprise the entire acting population of Scandinavia.

The tennis match was thus a meeting of pure id vs. pure superego, with lots of room for the middleman — ego — on both sides of the net.

It’s actually a pretty good tennis movie, allowing for some of the clunky exposition that sports films have to throw in to educate viewers who might not be entirely up in the intricacies of the game; in this case, Borg/McEnroe has announcers explaining how the tiebreak system works as if it never came up before in the tournament. Withal, it’s a vast improvement on the usual TIFF opening-night galas, which typically have viewers wondering if there isn’t a Lithuania/Bulgaria/Poland co-production showing somewhere to cleanse the artistic palate.

The day started well too, with a screening of Call Me By Your Name, from Italian director Luca Guadagnino. One of the hot-buzz movies of the festival, it stars Homeland’s Timothee Chalamet as Elio the teenaged son of a rich, artistic and endlessly educated family in Italy — they’re all trilingual, except for mom, who also speaks German — who develops a fascination with Oliver (Armie Hammer), the brash, confident and handsome American who has come to assist Elio’s father, a professor of something really intelligent. There’s lots of talk about Kierkegaard and Herodotus, and Oliver delivers a fascinating etymological analysis of the word “apricot,” but the film shines mostly in its evocation of the casual prosperity of the family’s rural elegance, its broad-minded attitudes to sex, and the fierce, sometimes, cruel passions of the couple at its centre. Like the director’s previous movie, A Bigger Splash, it finds the precise emotional balance between outrage and a lust for life that exists among privileged outsiders in an overheated landscape.

The previous evening, we began our 2017 festival with a viewing of Downsizing, a satire from Alexander Payne (Sideways, Nebraska) about a future when scientists have found a way to shrink human beings to five inches in height, thus saving on garbage and food consumption and at the same time making everyone pretty rich, tiny houses being cheap to build.

Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig star as Paul and Audrey, a middle-class couple who opt for the shrinking procedure so they can live at Leisureland, a miniature housing development of pint-size mansions. This takes about 40 minutes. The rest of the film drops the idea — or at least counts on us to remember that these people are supposed to be minuscule — in favour of a story of how Paul, an occupational therapist, learns to be compassionate toward the less fortunate in the community. He’s assisted by a Vietnamese house cleaner named Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau, who gives a remarkable performance of hectoring activism.)

It seems to be a parable, or a metaphor, about the environment, and it got glowing reviews when it opened the Venice film festival. I thought it was astonishing, but not in a good way, although I suspect it’s one of those movies that you have to live with for a while.

Meanwhile, I have to decide what I want to see tonight. This could be my only chance to see the Japanese drama Birds Without Names (“An unstable young woman pines for the old boyfriend who nearly beat her to death.”) Or maybe there’s still some seats left at Miracle.

Read The Ex-Press movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.

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