Tiff Dispatch #4: Nicolas Cage in Dream Scenario, Payne’s The Holdovers and Waititi’s Next Goal Wins Debut To Toronto Audiences

Image courtesy of A24

Day 4 in the trenches at the Toronto International Film Festival and things were somewhat looking up. The day began with an 8:30am screening of Writer-director Kristoffer Borgli’s absurdist black comedy Dream Scenario starring Nicolas Cage as sapless college professor Paul Matthews. In what is described as a “dream epidemic,” the movie’s orbit centers on a crazy phenomenon where the entire world can’t stop dreaming about Matthews. In the dreams, at least in the beginning before things turn sinister, he just moseys in the background while someone is eaten by crocodiles or bludgeoned by a killer (the movie cheerfully recreates these sequences in a rather hilarious montage).

Dream Scenario pokes fun at everything from influencers and culture wars to corporate consumerism (at one point, a lowly marketing exec, played by Michael Cera, suggests Paul partners with Sprite to sell in people’s dreams). Cage is perfectly cast as the distraught college professor who has reached a stalemate in his career and you can tell he’s having the time of his life.(When he gets fed, we all get fed). Dream Scenario won’t be everyone’s cup of tea and the pragmatic humor is often hit or miss, but this is an audacious original movie guaranteed to start a worthwhile conversation among your friends. It also hails from A24 who will release it November 10th.

Next up is a return to grace for director Alexander Payne, whose latest venture The Holdovers, is a major step-up from his last effort, 2017’s Downsizing (not that it was hard). Paul Giamatti, reuniting with his Sideways director, gives one of his best performances in years playing a curmudgeon Ancient Civilizations professor Paul Hunham at the preppy Barton Academy in upstate New York circa 1970. He’s just been tasked with supervising the children who aren’t going home for the holidays, including the problematic and wise-crackin’ Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sessa who is a revelation).

Image courtesy of Focus Features

On the surface, it may be a simple tale involving two characters who will eventually find common ground and form a connection, but it’s told elegantly and radiates pure vibes, it may as well be a spiritual companion to Dead Poets Society. It’s also very funny, and the wild facial expressions Giamatti concocts throughout the movie are genius. Additionally, Da’Vine Joy Randolph turns in a solid, emotionally grounded performance playing the school’s head chef, Mary and enough can’t be said about Sessa, who is someone the industry should be watching over the next few years. Props to writer David Hemingson and Payne for molding a straightforward narrative into the feel good movie of the season. I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes an annual rewatch.

One of the bigger studio pictures to world premiere in the fall festival circuit amid the creative strikes, Taiki Waititi’s Next Goal Wins is, sadly, not another winner from the Oscar winner. Loosely based on the documentary of the same name, the movie dramatizes how the American Samoa soccer team fought adversity and became relevant after getting spanked 31-0 in a 2001 World Cup match. Micheal Fassbender stars as down-on-his-luck coach Thomas Rongen who is relocated to American Samoa after being fired by the US for missing the World Cup. His objective is simple: score a single score and not be ranked lost in the world.

Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

There are elements in Next Goal Wins that are worth championing, namely how transgender athlete Jaiyah Saelua became an unsung hero in the Soccer community, but Waititi’s handling of her story is problematic at best. Less effective, too, is the flow and rhythm of this underdog story where the camaraderie among the team never moves in sync. The finale is unfolded via third person, which is not only a totally anti-climatic way to end the film, but undercuts the achievements of this underdog squad. Blink and you’ll also miss Elisabeth Moss, who is given a thankless role as Rongen’s ex-wife and has approximately three minutes of screentime.

After the highs of Jojo Rabbit, there was no doubt Next Goal Wins was one of my most anticipated films of the festival. It’s now the biggest disappointment.

The final movie of day 4 belongs to an earnest, but completely forgettable directorial effort from Micheal Keaton who also stars in his Knox Goes Away. In it, he plays aging hitman John Knox who was recently diagnosed with a rare form of dementia that spreads much quicker and, in a matter of weeks, will render him useless. He’s trying to cash out of the game for good, but things hit a snag when his son (played by an overacting and misguided James Marsden) comes asking for help after an altercation goes south.

Image courtesy of Elevation Pictures

Trying to make amends for his years of being a terrible father, John races against the clock to save him while also fending off a pair of police detectives (Suzy Nakamura and John Hoogenakker) who are sniffing around. Keaton maintains a steady hand throughout the film and even managed to rope Al Pacino into the mix as an old colleague. As far as actor-director vehicles at TIFF goes, Knox Goes Away stands out. Then again, that’s not necessarily hard when the bare minimum is to just be watchable.

-Nate Adams