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Musical numbers, money schemes, and murder: highlights from the Toronto International Film Festival

Megan Thee Stallion rules ‘Dicks: The Musical,’ ‘Dumb Money’ falls short, and ‘Anatomy of a Fall’ puts audience expectations on trial

Eve Hewson, left, and Orén Kinlan in a scene from "Flora and Son." (Apple TV+ via AP)Uncredited/Associated Press

TORONTO — Every film festival has its traditions, but few are more revered (or reviled) than the Toronto International Film Festival pirate growl, which I’ve experienced firsthand before every public screening I’ve attended here since my first TIFF back in 2000.

Let me explain.

Before each film is an anti-piracy warning against recording the movie. As soon as that screen appears, someone in the audience will yell out “ARRRRR!” You know, like a pirate. Often, you’ll hear a chorus of voices, all saying “ARRRRR!”

I think it’s pretty damn funny; in fact, I look forward to it. This type of audience participation is why I love TIFF. The fest is, in my opinion, the most public-friendly major film festival. Not only is there a large cross-section of festival fare, from documentaries to foreign films to shocking genre movies, there are also events for those without festival tickets.

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In David Pecaut Square, one can find outdoor screenings of classics like 1976′s “Rocky.” An endless array of food trucks are parked on King Street West. You can also catch several musical performers offering up free concerts.

Though celebrity sightings seem to be fewer this year due to the Hollywood strikes (Nic Cage showed up at an event for his film “Dream Scenario”), the most famous festival star showed up on time and ready for its close-up. That would be the giant TIFF sign, which attracts lines of selfie seekers every year. It’s a rite of passage for festival-goers.

The Globe's Odie Henderson at the Toronto International Film Festival.Odie Henderson

I started my seventh TIFF with “Anatomy of a Fall,” the Palme d’Or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Director Justine Triet became only the third female director to win. She and co-writer Arthur Harari spin a murder mystery for star Sandra Hüller. Hüller plays Sandra, a writer who may or may not have murdered her husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis), by pushing him out of their attic window. The only person who has a clue about what really happened is their blind son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), and he is not completely sure of the details.

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Once Sandra is put on trial for murder, the film becomes an engrossing courtroom drama with flashy battles between lawyers and evidence that can be read multiple ways. What’s also on trial is our interpretation of what goes on in a marriage we are only privy to as outsiders.

Hüller gives a ferocious, slippery performance — we don’t know whether to believe Sandra is innocent or guilty. I’ll have more to say about this one when it gets released in mid-October.

Opening day ended, for me, with a selection from my favorite movie section of TIFF, Midnight Madness. Its programmers know what constitutes a midnight movie. This year’s gonzo features included the world premiere of “Dicks: The Musical,” directed by Larry Charles (2006′s “Borat”) and adapted by the film’s stars, Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp, from their off-Broadway show, “[Bleeping] Identical Twins.”

Josh Sharp (left) and Aaron Jackson at the "Dicks: The Musical" premiere during the Toronto International Film Festival last week.Frazer Harrison/Getty

On the red carpet before the screening, costar Bowen Yang (who plays God) told me that the film almost kept its profane original title. Truth be told, it’s a more appropriate description of this bizarro twist on “The Parent Trap.” The story follows two obnoxious bros (Sharp and Jackson) who work for ruthless CEO Megan Thee Stallion and discover they’re identical twins based on half lockets they each possess. One was raised by their mother, the other by their father.

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In order to unite the family they never had, they decide to get their divorced parents (Nathan Lane and Megan Mullally) back together. Unfortunately, Dad is gay and Mom is not only demented, but a certain part of her anatomy has fallen off and become sentient.

Nathan Lane and Megan Mullally in "Dicks: The Musical."Justin Lubin

I don’t know how the hell I’m going to review this movie in a family newspaper. Find out how well I did on Sept. 29 when “Dicks: The Musical” opens.

Fans of writer-director John Carney’s prior works (which include 2016′s “Sing Street” and 2007′s “Once”) will enjoy “Flora and Son,” his latest combination of song and social drama. It’s the cleaner of the two musicals opening on Sept. 29. This one’s heading to AppleTV+.

Single mom Flora (Eve Hewson) turns to music to try to reach her 14-year-old wannabe rapper son, Max (Orén Kinlan). After fishing a guitar out of a dumpster, she turns to YouTube to learn how to play. She finds Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a former songwriter who gives guitar lessons on Zoom for 20 quid a pop. An attraction develops between them, even though he’s in Los Angeles and she’s in Dublin.

Hewson and Gordon-Levitt are superb, as are the songs. This sweet little sleeper is one of my favorites at the festival so far.

On Friday, Nickelback performed a free concert, one I missed because I was stuck inside Roy Thomson Hall for the world premiere of the Wall Street vs. the little guys movie “Dumb Money.” “I, Tonya” director Craig Gillespie’s latest follows Brockton native Keith Gill (Paul Dano) as he outwits several financial big shots (one of whom is played by Seth Rogen).

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Director Craig Gillespie attends the "Dumb Money" premiere Friday at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.Michael Loccisano/Getty

I thought it was an unfunny snoozer. (The audience as a whole disagreed, applauding rapturously at the end.) Gillespie fills the film with headache-inducing montages of cable news footage and YouTube and TikTok videos. Dano is good, but Pete Davidson, as Gill’s brother, Kevin, plays another tired repeat of his comic persona. Ultimately, “Dumb Money” treats its audience as if it were too dumb to get the point.

In my next dispatch: Massachusetts movie madness.


Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.