#TIFF16: Critic’s Dispatches
A bad old-fashioned historical drama about the Armenian genocide revisits final days of Ottoman Empire while La La Land and few gin and gingers quench artistic thirst
By Jay Stone
TORONTO — They threw a party last night at the Toronto International Film Festival where they served a delicious drink made of gin and ginger ale, and you could have as many as you want.
When I regained consciousness, it was time for The Promise, a bad old-fashioned historical drama in which the troubles of three little people — in this case, an Armenian apothecary (Oscar Isaac), a comely dance teacher (Charlotte Le Bon) and an American journalist (Christian Bale) — don’t amount to a hill of beans when they’re cast across the vast and clichéd canvas of tragedy during the First World War. Fusillades of exposition fly across the screen, capturing our doomed heroes in a crossfire of clunky dialogue, tired movie tropes, and earnest over-acting. Pass the gin and ginger ale. Pass two.
The Promise, directed by Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), is one of those movies that starts with a map and a written explanation, this time about how the Ottoman Empire is about to fall into the looming cauldron of . . . well, of The Promise actually. Isaac’s apothecary heads off to Constantinople to attend medical school and meets Le Bon’s teacher at a bad time: he’s just become engaged to a woman back home, and she’s involved with Bale’s drunken reporter, a man who is not only alerting the American public to what is happening in Turkey but also providing lots of angry monologues to keep the audience abreast of things.
Fusillades of exposition fly across the screen, capturing our doomed heroes in a crossfire of clunky dialogue, tired movie tropes, and earnest over-acting. Pass the gin and ginger ale. Pass two.
The romantic subtext of the film — hampered somewhat by the performance of Le Bon, a sort of poor man’s Keira Knightley whose unquenchably brave smile of charity would have been enough on its own to ignite the Balkan powder keg — is mostly an excuse for the main plot. That is an expose of the genocide (still denied by Turkey) of a million Armenians who were, in this telling, subject to the kind of horrors — slaughtered in their homes, shipped off in boxcars, forced to work as slaves building a railway — that were to be repeated in Nazi Germany 25 years later.
The earnest tone of outrage is somewhat hampered by the casting of Isaac, who was born in Guatemala but is meant to represent Armenia. It’s redolent of the bad old days when Native Americans were played by Italian actors and Mexicans were portrayed by Eli Wallach. A movie this specifically designed to right an historic wrong cries out for an Armenian lead.
A movie this specifically designed to right an historic wrong cries out for an Armenian lead.
Anyway, a bracing cup of coffee later and it was time — finally, finally — for La La Land, the darling of this TIFF and no wonder. It’s a delight, a musical starring Ryan Gosling as Sebastian, a jazz musician in Los Angeles who wants to play real music rather than the lounge pap that is the only stuff anyone wants, and Emma Stone as Mia, a would-be actress who works in a movie studio commissary and is constantly frustrated by failed auditions.
Filled with clever songs and filmed in a dazzling style that pays tribute to old Hollywood — you can see everything from Singing in the Rain to New York, New York — it’s a stirring song-and-dance romance that shows off the versatility of its stars, their undeniable chemistry, and the joys of the form itself. The opening sequence, filmed in one eye-catching take, features a bunch of people trapped in a traffic jam getting out of their cars and dancing their way down the freeway, singing the praises of another L.A. day. La La Land captures the city in all its glitzy, phony, irresistible glamor, and it also gets the art-vs.-commerce paradox at the core of cinema itself.
It was written and directed by Damien Chazelle, most famous for Whiplash but also the director of Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a charming 2009 mumblecore musical with no budget but tons of energy. La La Land will remind people of The Artist in its love of movies (Sebastian and Mia go to a screening of Rebel Without A Cause, then drive to the Los Angeles planetarium for a dance among the stars) and in its inevitable march toward Oscar glory.
It was the first film at the festival that truly moved me, further proof that music and dance can cut right through our rational brains and touch our emotions. La La Land is the latest re-invention of the genre, updated with young stars and modern touches (sounds of car horns and iPhone rings are incorporated into the score), but retaining its majestic artificiality. The movie isn’t perfect— it sags in the middle, and some of the musical numbers don’t quite make the leap into ecstasy — but it’s close enough. It’s also a terrific hangover cure.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 8-18, check in with The Ex-Press for daily updates.
THE EX-PRESS, September 12, 2016