TIFF is back, featuring a ‘Knives Out’ sequel, a Spielberg semi-autobiography, a Weird Al parody biopic, and ‘The Menu’
For the first time since 2019, the 47th Toronto International Film Festival has full-capacity screenings in its theaters and screaming hordes of rubbernecking stargazers flooding the streets. What deadly virus? The pandemic is a punchline. Just look at Rian Johnson’s wickedly outrageous Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, which made its world premiere on Saturday night to a rapturous—and largely maskless—TIFF audience. One of its perversely wealthy characters actually leverages the global health crisis to force cash-strapped France into loaning him the actual Mona Lisa. “Blame it on the pando,” he sighs.
The latest murder mystery featuring master investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) takes place in May, 2020, and starts with a Zoom-call sight gag, a Manhattan bacchanale with hundreds of revelers sharing a social “pod,” an eccentric billionaire self-quarantining on a private Greek island, and a glamourpuss Kate Hudson wearing a gold fishnet mask. Want to cure your movie’s plotline of the coronavirus narrative? Just have Ethan Hawke pop out of a luxury car with an aerosol pistol and shoot a mystery oral spray into all the main characters’ mouths. “You’re good,” he says reassuringly, telling them to ditch their masks without any explanation. “You’re good.”
Also good: Glass Onion, a terrifically entertaining whodunnit, just as gleefully overplotted as Knives Out and equally vicious when it comes to skewering the rich and desperate. This time, the man at the center is Miles Bron (Edward Norton), a superrich tech visionary who invites five of his closest friends to a special murder mystery party at his futuristic compound surrounded by the Aegean Sea. “Each one of you is holding onto Miles Bron’s golden titties,” one surly guest snorts at the others, ruffling feathers and almost guaranteeing that bodies will drop.
Johnson’s posh puzzler wasn’t the only kill-the-rich satire debuting over the weekend. Also on the menu was The Menu, a deadly amuse-bouche from producer Adam McKay and helmed by Succession director Mark Mylod that brutally skewers the haute cuisine scene. Imagine a painfully exclusive restaurant with a strictly limited seating of dinner guests—all of them overpaid and insufferable in their own ways. Overseeing their palettes is Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), a severe master of gastronomic delights whose grimly serious agenda that night includes ritual suicide, a performance-art drowning, and an inflammatory dessert that brings down the house. Anya Taylor-Joy plays an unexpected guest who faces off against Slowik with her puncturing dismissal of deconstructed foods and a sly preference for cheeseburgers.
Amid the class warfare were also a few high-profile origin stories, including Steven Spielberg’s semiautobiographical drama The Fabelmans—his first film ever to play TIFF. The Academy Award-winning blockbuster director rarely does the festival circuit, so the announcement that his heartfelt Thanksgiving release would actually world premiere two months earlier in Toronto raised more than a few eyebrows. It’s a clear ploy to build buzz among the attending journalists and Oscar voters, which explains the fully-catered 8am press screenings on Sunday morning.
His film didn’t need a bump from the free muffins and freshly cut fruit: The Fabelmans is a delicious revelation all on its own. Spielberg’s most overtly personal movie eloquently explains the birth of a Hollywood legend. Far from sweetness and light, his journey starts with terror and becomes rife with personal guilt, anger, rejection, frustration, and an unsettling realization that his hobby-turned-obsession also holds a daunting power he doesn’t completely understand.
Spielberg’s sterling production is also an impressive showcase for Michelle Williams as his arts-junkie mother, a frustrated concert pianist whose lust for live feeds her son’s budding ambition. Best for last is a show-stopping coda with the unlikely yet brilliant casting of David Lynch as a foul-mouthed late-career John Ford.
But the real biopic revelation at TIFF was Roku’s first original production, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. This brilliantly loopy Opening Night selection of the festival’s infamous Midnight Madness section originated as Eric Appel’s Funny Or Die 2013 parody trailer, and the filmmaker’s feature-length version is a gut-busting firehose of supreme stupidity. The fanatically committed Daniel Radcliffe plays ’80s mock-rock wizard and accordion fiend Weird Al in a role that takes him from illicit polka parties to rocket-fueled stardom, a destructive sexual relationship with a sociopathic Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood), and a Rambo-flavored encounter with drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. What better way to tell the story of a parody songwriter than by making an outrageous parody of it?
“Al thought it was the right time,” said Appel in an onstage 2am Q&A after the screening ended. Yankovic had been playing the parody trailer at his concert for years and people had kept asking about a real version of the fake movie. In 2019, after the success of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, the mastermind behind “Another One Rides the Bus” and “Amish Paradise” made the call. So they wrote the script and pulled together the low-budget 18-day shoot. “There was very little convincing,” said Radcliffe when they offered him the job—although he did confess to never mastering the accordion. “I did what I could,” he apologized. “It’s a very hard instrument.”
Weird does have a brutal end that hammers a nail into the coffin of the Yankovic story. But that didn’t stop an audience member from asking if there’ll be a sequel. “I think there has to be,” said Weird Al.