Goodness Gracious: Finding Virtue and Reality at the Movies

With increasing frequency, the cinema year's demarcation has been Labor Day or, more specifically, September's Toronto International Film Festival. Simply put, there's everything before TIFF (a flood of stereotypical hit-or-miss reboots or sequels) and everything after (a density of award-worthy performances and screenplays). And this year's TIFF has, once again, set a banquet for us to feast on all the way through award season. With 333 titles in this year's festival, 229 of which are global or North American premieres, there's only so much room on one's plate. Quite frankly, considering that TIFF 2019 is only half over, I'm already full.

The most satisfying bites, thus far, have come from two films that include a dollop of optimism on the side: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and The Personal History of David Copperfield.

First, can we all agree that everyone's favorite everyman (and part-time Idahoan) Tom Hanks was born to play Fred Rogers? Mr. Hanks' name attached to such a project practically guarantees an audience. But A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, directed by Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) is no pedestrian paean to childhood comforts. Drawing on journalist Tom Junod's 1998 profile of Rogers for Esquire in 1998, this truly engaging film balances pure catharsis and the unbridled pleasure of a signature performance from the two-time Oscar winner. Technically perfect and imbued with the almost spiritual goodness that marks all his work, Hanks' Fred Rogers reveals some long-embedded adult truths in the deep wisdom of childhood.

"He just wanted to make little kids, little human beings, feel safe, even if they didn't have all the answers," Hanks told Boise Weekly on the red carpet just prior to his film's world premiere in Toronto. "I think what I learned is that you can somehow choose an authentic life."

His is not just the feel-good movie of the year; that would short shrift all the goodness that this movie will spread for years to come. It's an adults-only rediscovery of our inner children.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is, by far, the biggest film surprise of 2019. Yes, there have been more than a dozen screen adaptations, dating back to 1911, of Charles Dickens' bible of nobility. But this gloriously frenetic reimagining of this oft-told tale of truth and maturity has never been more uplifting. Rooted deeply in its original mid-19th-century setting, this new Copperfield transposes its source material into a decidedly 21st-century cinematic context, but this very modern film never strays from a core conceit: that great art is born of great experience, and one's true fortune is measured in one's friends.

The film's first wonderment is that it is the imagination of Armando Iannucci, creator of Veep, which just wrapped seven glorious seasons on HBO. No worries though; there are no F-bombs in Iannucci's David Copperfield. No, the Emmy-winning writer/director chooses to jar us instead with some delightful colorblind casting choices, and ceaseless visual delights (walls literally fly away to make room for the story's many flashbacks).

Dev Patel, as Copperfield, leads an august supporting cast that includes the always-scrumptious Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Benedict Wong, Ben Whishaw and an enchanting Jairaj Varsani as young David.

Following his film's world premiere at TIFF, Patel joked that when he was first asked by Iannucci to consider joining the cast, he truly thought the story was about that other David Copperfield.

"I was the dopey guy who thought he was the magician. So, I went to this meeting, all excited about the possibility of sawing some people in half," said Patel, adding that he took particular pride in bringing the Dickens classic to a new, more diverse audience. "Hopefully, it will avoid some other dopey guy like me who didn't know who David Copperfield is. Hopefully, a new generation will see this new David Copperfield and find a face they can relate to."

I've already screened dozens of exciting world premieres at TIFF, and there are dozens more to come in the next several days. Rest assured, we'll be sharing the good news on those titles in the coming weeks. In the meantime, know this: You've a long list of films from which to choose to fill your date nights in the weeks and months ahead. Lucky you.

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