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October 2022

Made to Measure

Courtesy of TIFF

The Blue Caftan (2022)

Now this is cinema. It’s a small movie, with a slow pace, focused on watching three people think their thoughts and say very little of what they are actually thinking. It’s set in a place most people have heard of – Casablanca – but in a world most people haven’t – the workshop of a master craftsman (a maâlem) who embroiders caftans by hand. In Moroccan culture, caftans made by a maâlem are a treasured possession designed to last the lifetime of the wearer, or even passed from mother to daughter in a way that perhaps only christening gowns are in the West. (One customer mentions her caftan was a gift from her husband on the birth of their first son, 50 years ago.) Or at least they were. Times being what they are, hardly anyone is interested in buying something designed to last forever anymore. But a movie like “The Blue Caftan” makes a beautiful, enchanting case for always taking your time.

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Bearer of Bad News

Courtesy of TIFF

Until Branches Bend (2022)

Robin (Grace Glowicki) is in her 20s and works as a grader at the fruit factory in town. It’s one of the best jobs going locally; and she is proud to do it, and takes it seriously. She lives with her younger sister Laney (Alexandra Roberts), who dates the rich boys for whom a summer of physical labor is a fun escape. Robin dates men who are married. There’s Jay (Paul Kular), with whom she is forever having arguments in parking lots; and there’s factory management Dennis (Lochlyn Munro, excellent as the bland, depersonalized face of corporate evil). As a grader, it’s Robin’s job to give the fruit the final once-over before putting them into the punnets which go to the shops. In one fruit she notices a kind of beetle. Not on the fruit – in the fruit. She has the presence of mind to go on break before taking a few photos and bringing the evidence to Dennis. She’s worried this is an early harbinger of an infestation, the kind that can ruin an entire crop and throw the whole valley out of work. The kind of modern-day plague that can cause your parents to lose their farm and hasten their deaths and leave someone living alone with their sister. Dennis reassures her he will handle it, but Robin already knows about the lies married men can tell.

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Restricted Aria

Larry Horricks/20th Century Studios

Chevalier (2022)

The opening scene is almost too good to be true. Mozart himself is giving a concert in Paris when an audience member stands up and insults him. Of course Mozart laughs – he’s Mozart! – but the smile vanishes when the insulter challenges him to a violin-playing duel. Of course Mozart accepts – he’s Mozart! – but soon realizes that the challenger is actually pretty damn good, and the audience is so delighted by his chutzpah and his skill that they cheer him to victory. Who the hell is this? Well, his name is Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and before this triumph he stood out in 18th-century French high society anyway. He’s Black.

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No Netflix, No Chill

Searchlight Pictures

Empire of Light (2022)

At a certain point, blockbuster filmmakers must get bored. If you have, over the course of your career, demonstrated that you can handle both small budgets and colossal ones, high romance and shooty-action stuff, talky teenagers and morose adults, then what mountains are there left to climb? If you’re Sam Mendes, you direct your own screenplay and call it “Empire of Light.” It’s a love letter to cinema, of course; while he might be winning a bet he made with himself he’s still career-minded enough to keep his pet project in awards consideration. But while he was at it, Mr. Mendes decided to give cinematographer Roger Deakins a few tough marks to hit as well (backlit night fireworks, lamplit rooms at sunrise and the inside of a projectionist’s booth are just three examples). The irritating thing is that Mr. Mendes and Mr. Deakins are so skilled they could have succeeded blindfolded. They are two of current cinema’s greatest auteurs, who know how to stage an image in a way that elevates the plot. “Empire of Light” is so casually gorgeous it’s easy to overlook its flaws.

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Killer Instinct

Courtesy of TIFF

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)

When was the last time a movie was so thoroughly, unashamedly, fun? Rian Johnson might have had “Star Wars” unjustifiably taken away from him, but never has anyone needed a major franchise less. Not when he can, with no visible strain on his part and all the support in the world (including a world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival), casually set up a better one of his own. “Glass Onion” is a flawless delight; and it’s crystal clear Mr. Johnson is only getting started.

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The Parent Trap

Universal Pictures

Ticket to Paradise (2022)

As an advertisement for modern parenting, “Ticket to Paradise” is a terrific argument for abortion on demand. Instead, it’s meant to be that dying art, the romantic comedy. While on holiday in Bali with best friend Wren (Billie Lourd), recent law grad Lily (Kaitlyn Dever) meets local man Gede (pronounced G’day, and played by Maxime Bouttier) and almost immediately they decide to get married. But the movie doesn’t care about them. Their relationship only exists to spite Lily’s parents, who have been bitterly divorced for decades. Instead the romance and the comedy are meant to be found in whether David (George Clooney) and Georgia (Julia Roberts) will be able to set aside their mutual loathing and work together to prevent the wedding. How comedic! How romantic!

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Modern-Day Gypsy

Sony Pictures Classics

Carmen (2022)

Robert De Niro once answered a question about his career by saying “The talent is the choices.” Whether or not Paul Mescal knows that quote, it’s advice he has taken to heart. After the television show “Normal People” captured everyone’s imaginations in early lockdown, both he and his costar Daisy Edgar-Jones were given the freedom to choose what they wanted to do next, an incredible position for any actor in their early 20s to be in. While Ms. Edgar-Jones has gone for unusual rom-coms and more standard courtroom dramas, Mr. Mescal has proved himself willing to experiment, and push beyond the comfort zone a lot of actors on the rise have.

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A Hospital on Life Support

Pathé UK

Allelujah (2022)

“Allelujah” is the worst of both worlds: It’s a pro-socialized-healthcare polemic that manages to condemn publicly funded medicine; and it’s an expertly made piece of racist trash. It beggars belief how writer Alan Bennett (a beloved British institution, who has been at the heart of the light-comedy scene through his diaries and plays for more than 60 years) and director Richard Eyre, who got a knighthood for his services to drama nearly a quarter-century ago, got it so wrong. And it’s not just that what they meant as a love letter for the National Health Service turned into a rallying cry for its own destruction. It’s that perhaps, in service to drama, they chose to make a movie that can’t tell the difference between mother’s milk and morphine.

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Nurse-ry Crimes

Courtesy of TIFF

The Good Nurse (2022)

The main topic of “The Good Nurse,” which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, is healthcare under capitalism, while its subtext is the power of kindness. It’s important to make that explicit since there’s a worrying recent trend for audiences to interpret “based on a true story” to mean that what is shown on screen is exactly as things happened in real life. There is no longer tolerance for changes to serve a cinematic purpose (such as the third child in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) or in order to simplify complicated plots (such as when multiple characters are combined into one in almost any film). Netflix has pushed this “based on a true story” to new limits, by having the subject of the brand-new “A Friend of the Family” appear at the start to assure us it exists with her blessing. There is some argument for this – if someone made a movie about my life while I was still alive to see it, you had better believe I’d expect all my irritating opinions to be respected by the filmmakers. But there is also a strong case for a better understanding about the blurred lines inherent in any retelling – life is messy and complicated, and sometimes sanding the edges makes for a better story. On a less philosophical level, a better understanding of how fiction handles the truth would also cut down on spoilers, and more easily enable us to examine a piece of art on its own terms. Nothing is ever only about itself; there’s always subtext. “The Good Nurse” is also a Netflix film, and also based on a true story, but writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns (a Brit, ie someone from a nation with socialized healthcare) and director Tobias Lindholm (a Dane, also from a nation with socialized healthcare) are uninterested in sensationalizing suffering. For once we have a movie which minimizes its depiction of pain.

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Life in the Dumps

Courtesy of TIFF

Daughter of Rage (2022)

A swarm of kids on a Nicaraguan landfill approach as an ambulance opens its back doors and hurls out what are clearly bags of medical waste. The kids pounce, and to their delight discover that one of the bags contains body parts. As they begin a mock fight with some amputated arms, one of them shouts, “The dead are here!” For a grim opener, you could hardly do better, though “Daughter of Rage” is not a macabre horror story. It’s just a run-of-the-mill horror story, about what poverty does to an 11-year-old girl whose mother cannot protect her.

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