Our fifth and final dispatch from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival (here’s the first, the second, the third, and the fourth) represents perhaps our most eclectic group of films yet: There are acclaimed filmmakers whose new works were seemingly passed on by some of the season’s other major fests (Xavier Dolan’s The Life and Death of John F. Donovan, Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro), an under-the-radar directing pair whose latest has been slowly accruing buzz since its Cannes premiere (Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s Birds of Passage), a hotly tipped fall awards contender (Damien Chazelle’s First Man), two very different documentaries (James Benning’s L. Cohen, Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?), and a wild card from a photographer-turned-filmmaker making his feature film debut (Richard Billingham’s Ray & Liz).
Following in the footsteps of Cindy Sherman, Julian Schnabel, and Steve McQueen, amongst others, Birmingham-born artist Richard Billingham makes the jump from the gallery to feature films with Ray & Liz. But the fact that Billingham is a photographer known for portraiture is key to what doesn’t work about his film. Ostensibly autobiographical, and loosely connected to a series of photographs Billingham took of his family, over the years, Ray & Liz chronicles two young boys and their parents, the drunk but mostly affable Ray (Justin Salinger) and the gargantuan, frequently furious Liz (Ella Smith) living on the fringes of British society. Almost all of the action is confined to small, cramped living spaces of government subsidized homes, with peeling paint, scraped-off wallpaper, dirty carpeting and crummy furniture. Taking place over several years, the film’s three discreet sections observe Ray (Patrick Romer), who lives alone in a small flat, and whose penchant for drinking the days away becomes the film’s through-line. Cinematographer Daniel Landin, who did stunning work on Under the Skin, ensures that Ray & Liz frequently looks beautiful. But it’s a shallow beauty — at its worst a kind of indie film affectation, Wes Anderson by way of Mike Leigh and Terence Davies. Shallow focus robs the images of any depth, so the focus is on patterns, kitschy tchotchkes, dollops of light through billowing window curtains and the like. The spaces don’t feel lived-in or authentic; they feel art-directed and stage managed. When Billingham cuts between two simple, static camera setups, occasionally throwing in an insert shot in extreme close-up to break from the back-and-forth monotony, his efforts register mainly as aesthetic posturing. The camera only occasionally moves, and there are a couple of totally unmotivated zooms that mostly just distract. There’s neither flow nor rhythm — no sense of how to put together moving images. Although now a film director, Billingham comes across mainly as a pretty good still photographer. Dan Gorman
What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is a documentary with an almost confounding resolve to simply document. Given the subject matter — the intertwined lives of four different groups of African-Americans living in the deep South during the summer of 2017 — one might expect activism to be this film’s central goal, or an objective that attempts to directly engage with a viewer’s sense of moral outrage. But director Roberto Minervini doesn’t see his subjects as catalysts for reform, but rather as flesh and blood humans forced to confront the brutal realities of the racist country in which they live. They’re survivors: from youths (brothers Ronald and Titus) who are born into poverty, to the public at large (the New Black Panther Party), who conduct outreach while trying to fight back, with their cries — calling for “justice” in regards to the murder of Alton Sterling in a distended sequences towards the end — falling on deaf ears. It’s through these societal failures that Minervini’s able to distantly observe the intersection between the personal and the political, documenting fallout from the failure to properly address the staggering correlation between the two. For a woman like Judy Hill, a middle-aged musician on the verge of losing her bar, the failure of her business isn’t just something she alone is burdened with, but also a sign of imminent gentrification that thousands face. For Minervini, these issues ripple beyond the scope of what one film can do, so he wisely chooses to give a platform to those who have been made voiceless, effectively capturing the inner pain of those who continue to withstand oppression. Paul Attard
Perhaps the most surprising thing about First Man, director Damien Chazelle’s latest, is how little the director tries to narratively subvert the limited trappings of biography. As played by Ryan Gosling, Neil Armstrong is an aloof, melancholic professional whose motivations are largely unclear (to the film’s credit) until they aren’t (to the film’s detriment). While considering what makes an iconic figure of such docile temperament tick may make for an interesting thought experiment, the approach is neither thrilling nor enlightening in execution, and in effect gives little room for any other characters to substantially develop. Formally, Chazelle fares far better. His elaborate flourishes in past films here give way to more intimate, textured visuals, even sporadically riffing on Malick’s penchant for swirling, narrative-overlaid push-ins. And in a direct refutation of the expected bombast that comes with the interstellar setting, Chazelle smartly chooses to couch much of the dramatic action within the claustrophobic interiors of rocket modules, with the camera often shooting the abstracted black of space through limited-view windows. Supplementing this is Chazelle’s aural design: utilizing his frequent collaborator Justin Hurwitz’s (La La Land, Whiplash), this comparatively austere score mines maximum tension from small moments. But craft can only carry First Man so far. An insipid approach to character and a miscalculated elongation of a climactic release proves the final beat in a film that trends downwards from its thrilling opening sequence. Luke Gorham
L. Cohen, the latest from American avant-garde director James Benning (and also a tribute to the late Canadian singer-songwriter), is a work of rare beauty — literally so, given that it unfolds over a single 45-minute shot of a farm field in Oregon “on a very special day.” The sole composition is typically masterful: patches of grass and dry brush occupy the right foreground, a pair of rusty drums and a tire draw attention to the left, while a set of telegraph poles stretch out into the background towards the snow-capped mountains. Extending the filmmaker’s recent digital experimentation, L. Cohen attunes the viewer to slight, almost imperceptible shifts in light, as augmented by both the camera’s auto-exposure settings and the generally overcast sky. Throughout the runtime, there’s a conspicuous lack of movement within the frame — but neither is it completely static, so the composition’s overall impression is uncanny. It’s what one could call an almost-still life — which is not to say that nothing occurs. Indeed, if a durational work like this could be said to be “about” something, it’s measuring change, to borrow from the title of Benning’s own 2016 feature. Contemplative and imbued with a sense of melancholy, L. Cohen cannily recalibrates viewer expectations; it’s a film where it only seems as if nothing is happening (when in fact a lot is), a quality that makes its truly astonishing shift — too good to spoil — that much more miraculous. A very special day, indeed. Lawrence Garcia
The story goes: a young Xavier Dolan wrote fan letters to Leonardo Dicaprio, and as an adult, he considered what the fallout would have been had an A-lister actually begun a correspondence with a young child and been found out. The resulting film is The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, a didactic, self-important melodrama that feigns profundity while only shallowly probing its characters and conceits. The film is stupidly structured as an interview between a reluctant journalist (Thandie Newton) and the aforementioned child, Rupert (now grown, played by Ben Schnetzer), a framework that exists exclusively to provide instructive exposition. Rather than straightforwardly relate the story of Rupert’s pen-pal relationship with heartthrob actor John Donovan (Kit Harrington), an overnight sensation trapped between his public success and covert sexuality, Dolan habitually brings us back to the present so that the smug interviewer (a stand-in for society and all of its normalized judgments) can be lectured on notions of identity, privacy, and art. When Dolan abandons this black hole of a concept, there are glimpses of the tenderness that often works so well in his films: a particular high point finds John in the bath, his brother (Jared Keeso) and mother (Susan Sarandon) mirroring his jubilance as “Hanging by a Moment” pounds from the radio, and all three enjoying a moment of respite. But even these moments lead us to Dolan the pedant, whose explicit articulation of ideas obscures a career-long attention to character and form. Luke Gorham
Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro is art in the Age of Trump — so basically the most weak-sauce imaginable critique of a buffoonish caricature (former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi instead) meant as comfort food for liberal audiences. There’s plenty of low-hanging fruit to gawk at here, from Berlusconi himself (played by Toni Servillo, caked under an unseemly volume of make-up and mugging for nearly every second he’s on-screen) to his young underling Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who tries to catch the media tycoon’s attention by throwing endless amounts of ecstasy-fueled soirées. Both men are vain, selfish, and cynical, which serves the film’s transparently one-note mockery of the world’s current political atmosphere, even as it contains the development of even a single female character over the distended 145-minute runtime. (Originally released as two separate movies earlier in the year, Loro has now been edited into one shapeless mess.) Sorrentino is less concerned with exploring the psychology of these narcissists than with showing them in the most opulent possible situations. Why take a moment to explain where Sergio’s lust for power came from when you can have him railing coke and fucking women half his age instead? Loro’s numerous party sequences (usually set to pulsating EDM music and featuring as many half-naked models as possible) are what Sorrentino tries to pass for commentary on the administrative class, as if presenting such debauchery were the same as condemning it. But maybe the crown jewel of Sorrentino’s carelessness is how he slowly transforms Berlusconi into a source of pity, a choice that completely removes any point that the supposed “satire” had been building to. PA
Birds of Passage, Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s latest collaborative effort (previously a producer, Gallego serves as co-director here) finds the duo continuing their thematic excavation of the indigenous tradition and its relationship with modernity. As with their previous work Embrace of the Serpent, in which Guerra and Gallego opted for a scaled-back approach to the jungle adventure narrative, Birds offers a fresh, modest take on the oft-histrionic (Colombian) drug trade subgenre. By beginning in a small, matriarchal community ruled by codes of honor and ritual, the directors ensure the film never strays far from the specificity of this milieu; everything that follows is contextualized by the preservation or perversion of custom. If the film’s trajectory feels inevitable from its early moments, the particularities of culture and character frequently delight (a traditional courtship dance proves a kinetic highlight), while the film’s capitalist critique takes root in surprising and schematically subversive character work. But it’s the consistent marriage of form and voice that proves most affecting — thematic concerns mirrored in compositions of striking, violent beauty — such as in the filmmakers’ final act, a wide-angle shot of a solitary, lavish home, flames licking its windows and collapsed walls, the entire scene backed by a clear blue sky meeting arid flats of ocher and beige, and the drone of assault weapons fading into silence. Luke Gorham