by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

Toronto International Film Festival 2016 – Dispatch 2

September 26, 2016

The 41st Toronto International Film Festival recently wrapped, and our writers were on hand to soak up the cinema bounty. Our second and final dispatch (find our first here) features some heavy, (seemingly) politically-minded films, including Bertrand Bonello’s festival fire-bomb Nocturama, which was rejected by both the Cannes and Venice film festivals; Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, a documentary about the European migrant crisis; and Oliver Stone’s latest biopic, Snowden. Also in this dispatch: more Cannes competition holdovers, from the Dardennes brothers’ lukewarmly received The Unknown Girl to Kleber Mendoça Filho’s own politically-slanted screed Aquarius, to Jeff Nichols’s based-on-a-true-story romance Loving, to Pedro Almodóvar’s novel adaptation Julieta. Rounding out the blurb selection for this feature are some upcoming theatrical releases, Tom Ford’s Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal -starring Nocturnal Animals and Terrence Malick’s Sun and Moon -starring Voyage of Time, along with a wealth of more under-the-radar arthouse films that deserve your attention.

nocturnal-animalsTom Ford may have overburdened his first film, the Christopher Isherwood adaptation A Single Man, with quick-cut impressionistic montages and an overly polished look, but at least some of his attention-grabbing effects could be said to express the inner life of his tortured main character. In his follow-up, Nocturnal Animals, Ford has tamed his previously impulsive, jittery editing rhythms, but he’s ramped up the voluptuous production design: Even a West Texas desert sunrise feels as ravishingly upholstered as Amy Adams’s outfits and upper-class decors. Somewhere, however, the troubled souls of its characters get lost amid all that useless beauty. Disenchanted art-gallery owner Susan (Adams) is ostensibly wracked with guilt over the way her relationship with writer ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) has ended, and Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal again)—the fictional character Edward has conceived for the novel he dedicates to Susan—is ostensibly wracked with guilt over his failure to protect his wife and daughter from being killed by a trio of white-trash psychos (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, and Robert Aramayo). Ford, however, is too busy making it all look sleek and pretty for that anguish to register. Kenji Fujishima


Bertrand Bonello’s controversial new feature Nocturama, which was passed over by both the Cannes and Venice film festivals, has been pigeonholed as a film that supports or in some way exploits the culture of terrorism. But while extremist acts play a role in the film, it’s a mischaracterization to say they are its central focus. Rather, this is a movie about economic strife, boredom, and a search for individualism. It follows a group of French, college-aged youths from the planning and execution stages of a terrorist plot to its tense aftermath. Bonello never gives a clear motivation for why this group turns to terrorism, and this odd disconnect makes the characters seem alien at first; it’s only after they’ve set off bombs and hid themselves away in an abandoned mall that the psychological aspect kicks in, the perpetrators finally becoming more human. Bonello is interested in the fears, insecurities, and, yes, also the joy that comes with adolescence. One dazzling set piece after another (props to Bonello for masterfully incorporating “Whip My Hair” and Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like”) culminates in one of the most astonishing—and tough to watch—finales of the year. This is a film of incredible empathy: Bonello engages with his subjects and their points of view, even as he’s careful not to endorse them. Two scenes with eerie store mannequins allow characters to reflect on themselves—one on how he’s changed, the other on how little he’s changed—as everyone here searches for solace in an unforgiving world. Paul Attard

the-ornithologistUtterly adventurous, João Pedro Rodrigues’s dizzying and highly personal The Ornithologist is loosely based on the life of St. Anthony of Padua and unfolds in the remote northeast wilderness of the director’s native Portugal, where the film’s central figure, the handsome Fernando (played by Paul Hamy, but voiced by Rodrigues), kayaks along a river searching for rare birds. A serene and docile mood—Rui Poças’s majestic widescreen cinematography occasionally resembles something out of a nature doc or travelogue—eventually gives way to a phantasmagoric and occasionally surreal examination of the unique intersections between religion and fantasy. Fernando’s journey, which places him on a mythical road to personal, sexual and spiritual awakening, reflects the life of not only St. Anthony, but also of Rodrigues himself, who replaces Fernando in the film, toward the end. The nature of transformation—psychological, physical, and eventually metaphysical—points to a unique kind of self-enlightenment capable through the process of creating cinema and experiencing nature, which Rodrigues compares to an alternately spiritual and erotic endeavor. During his stint in the jungle, Fernando encounters a pair of Chinese lesbians as well as a trio of bare-breasted huntresses, evades evil forest demons and has some one-on-one time with Jesus Christ. He’s also peed on. The film bears stylistic similarities to Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jean Genet, but Rodrigues, who describes The Ornithologist as “an adventure film,” is also channeling a somewhat surprising source: John Ford. Like a typical Ford protagonist, Fernando endures a series of trials and tribulations amid a natural yet arduous landscape, with the ultimate goal being personal transformation. Here, the exploration of the transformative process, under the specific guise of a religious and sexual awakening, proves more subversive and irreverent than anything Ford ever attempted, but the rhythms—and thus the catharsis—feel unexpectedly the same. Drew Hunt

julietaRelationships fray without stated explanations in Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta—but the settings reveal what information characters don’t. Julieta (Emma Suarez) receives startling news from a friend on the streets of Madrid, flanked by brutalist architecture in the background. In front of that staggering building, Julieta recieves secondhand words from her long-lost daughter, and the shock of this leads the woman into a state of introspection. She recalls her young self (Adriana Ugarte), and the train where she met her husband (Daniel Grao)—rendered on-screen with polished sets and rear projection-style backgrounds, like a Technicolor romance. She remembers visiting her parents and finding her father in the garden alongside a young mistress, all while her ill mother remains locked in a shrouded bedroom—one character defined by the fertility of his setting, the other by the stark emptiness of her own. And she calls back to the apartment she rented after her daughter ran away from home, a sleek modernist place with unadorned walls and sparse installations, like a blank slate she never asked for. The cinematography is by Jean-Claude Larrieu, the costume design is by Sonia Grande, and the production design is by Antxon Gomez—all three do just as much storytelling as the film’s narrative. The decades that pass are represented through these formative moments, revealed in a way that shapes the years into cycles: two daughters silently traumatized by their elders, two parents abandoned without explanation, two deaths occurring under mysterious circumstances, two husbands straying from their vows. Each character incurs the sort of debts that come with love, but clean breaks are non-existent, which is to say that they’re never paid off. Julieta moves with patience and rigor toward one sole moment of resolution—which, of course, takes place on an open road. Jake Mulligan

fire-at-seaAn angry juxtaposition structures Gianfranco Rosi’s migrant crisis documentary Fire at Sea. Rather than focus solely on the struggles of refugees as they cross the Mediterranean to Lampedusa, Rosi uses the bulk of his film to observe the mundane life of that Sicilian island’s inhabitants. By spending time with a young boy with a lazy eye—a sublime literalist metaphor—and a doctor often called upon to help new arrivals, while only occasionally punctuating the quotidian rhythm with images of migrant strife, Fire at Sea makes clear its point that the horrors faced at sea go largely unnoticed by the locals and the world at large. Despite the subject matter, the sea Rosi captures is rarely turbulent: Instead, scenes of death and sickness play out atop serene waters, intercut with breathtaking undersea photography. The sea is, after all, a life source for the local population—who thrive off fishing—and a means of escape for refugees from war-torn parts of the world. And yet, as one migrant recounts his journey to Lampedusa, he recalls that, though 90 boarded the boat, only 30 survived the journey. Rosi seeks not only to increase awareness of the crisis but to indict ignorance and functional indifference to it. As the doctor says, most assume that he would have gotten used to seeing the bodies after a while. For Fire at Sea, that assumption—incorrect though it is—points to an attitude that allows the crisis to continue. Chris Mello

voyage-of-timeVoyage of Time: Life’s Journey, was always going to be a thing of beauty. In fact, the only visual surprise is just how seamlessly the dazzling CGI blends with Paul Atkins’s nature photography. What is surprising, then, and perhaps a source of the mild backlash the film has received, is that Voyage largely operates as a minor work for Malick, a strangely digestible calcification of themes he’s more abstrusely played with elsewhere. A literal take on his existentialist proclivities, Voyage is a film that does not require the viewer to be dialed into Malick’s particular wavelength to absorb it, let alone enjoy it (though a certain familiarity doesn’t hurt). The joke, I suppose, is that Voyage proves to be his most narrative film in some time, telling a straightforward visual story even as Cate Blanchett’s oblique voiceover does its best to muddy the waters. With this year’s Knight of Cups, Malick ventured dangerously, tangibly close to self-parody, his late-career tics of swooping aerial shots and prayerful narration beginning to feel like crutches. Voyage proves itself devoid of this self-indulgence, a more intimate exploration of Malick’s worldview, an invitation rather than a baptism. And while, as was the case with Cups, it may be tempting for the viewer to engage on a wholly visceral level here, muting the bloated poetics, that would be to miss the instances of soulful clarity that crop up throughout. When Blanchett muses, “Mother, what do I love when I love you?” it’s tough to not feel moved by the eternal, searching, and deeply human questions Malick is asking in this years-in-the-making origin story of the universe, and across the breadth of his career. Luke Gorham

unknown-girlCritics out of Cannes labeled Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne‘s The Unknown Girl “a lesser work.” If that’s the case, it just proves that the brothers are among the finest working directors. The film, another tale of proletariat moralism—one of the Dardennes’ favorite subjects—follows Doctor Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) on her quest to find the identity of a recently deceased woman whom she could have saved. The Dardennes’ previous film, Two Days, One Night, quickly comes to mind: Davin goes from person to person and finds new leads directing her on where to go next, often looping back to the same people and being sent on wild goose chases. This part of the film works especially well, with each new character giving enough humanistic insight to make the mystery at The Unknown Girl‘s center that much more pressing to resolve. The only misstep comes at the end, as the film gestures for an emotional arc it hasn’t fully developed: two different character’s go through changes, and it feels hurried. But apart from the rushed ending, there’s plenty here to recommend. Haenel is a formidable presence as the troubled doctor, and the Dardennes’s eye for tension born from grounded realism remains. Overall, it’s a pleasure to watch as the directors continue to explore their signature talents, even when they’re not bringing their A-game. PA

colossalGive Nacho Vigalondo’s latest points for being consistently unpredictable: it’s a monster movie, in a sense, but the monsters turn out to be analogous for its two main characters, Gloria (Anne Hathaway), an alcoholic New Yorker who retreats to her hometown after her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) throws her out, and Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a bartender in Gloria’s hometown with whom she reconnects. As was the case with Vigalondo’s Extraterrestrial, the genre elements are merely conduits for more character-based concerns, and there’s a breathtaking intimacy and naturalism to some of the early scenes, with the writer/director allowing his characters plenty of room to breathe and simply exist. Alas, Colossal never quite fulfills the promise of its setup; instead, Vigalondo seems to lose the thread of his characters, exuding more of an interest in manipulating them to conform to simplistic good-versus-evil binaries. And ultimately, there’s something rather distasteful about a film that essentially shows the relatively trivial conflicts between two white American characters being played out on a destructive grand scale in a faraway Asian city (Seoul in this case). Colossal manages to embody both American imperialism and white privilege at the same time—no mean feat. KF

snowdenOh, how the mighty have fallen. Once the political firebrand of the far left, Oliver Stone has lost the intensity that pushed his earlier work. However, Stone seems still to believe he hasn’t lost his touch, and so he’s taken on a film about our contemporary culture of government spying. Tracking the life of Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from CIA to NSA to fugitive, Stone seems convinced that his audience is in the dark about the government’s recent wrongdoing. Snowden serves as a vehicle for (in Stone’s mind) us clueless schmucks, as our hero blindly follows his country’s orders and then realizes the error of his ways. Stone and co-screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald construct Snowden so as to follow a horribly cliched “hero” template. A scene where a former teacher of Snowden watches his achievements and says, “He did it. The kid actually did it,” plays out unironically, making Snowden’s turn from nerd to rogue seem even more forced. The approach lessens the material, turning a story of personal sacrifice against wrongdoing into one that feels safe and easy. Oddly, the film’s framing device heavily features Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) filming Snowden for her own documentary, Citizenfour, which provided a much more insightful look into the man’s life and psychology. Poitras’s film wasn’t confined by generic tropes—and even as a doc, it was involving and tense, effectively rendering Stone’s latest pretty useless. PA

lovingCinema’s nominal purveyor of ruralism, most successfully of the Southern sort, Jeff Nichols is the de facto director to handle a story such as the one told in LovingSurprisingly, though, he struggles just to stay afloat here, forced to navigate the thankless detritus of this true-story narrative. Doing his best to actively work against the typical prestige-film plot rhythms of the script, Nichols wisely opts to dial everything down to four where a lesser director may have ratcheted things to eleven. It’s a decision that facilitates the film’s best tendency, with Nichols delivering intimately low-key domestic exchanges between leads Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga and reveling in the waves of palpable tension that crash upon his characters—and he does all this without surrendering to any histrionic thriller flourishes. Worrisome elements, like a small town sheriff who projects early on as the film’s facile villain, prove red herrings in Nichols’s hands, teasing what a by-the-numbers rendering of this story would look like before subverting expectations. But despite a handful of standout moments sprinkled throughout and the film’s relative, functional sturdiness, Loving is largely a film comprised of muted highs and evaded lows, resulting in something that feels preventative. It’s as if Nichols saw all that could go wrong and worked only to avoid it, not transcend or transform. That’s hardly an achievement. LG

aquariusBrazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho has narrowed his scope with Aquarius, after the hustle and bustle of his last feature, Neighboring Sounds. Filho gives his latest drama—a meditative character study of the elderly Dona Clara (Sonia Braga)—ample room to gestate, and for his leading lady to shine. Braga’s performance gracefully balances the many hard truths that come with age—among them, her children who only visit when it’s convenient, her love life that never seems to take off, and the real estate company trying to buy her out of her apartment. The latter subplot is the most forced, relying heavily on making the realtors as antagonistic as possible—in contrast to how naturalistic everything else seems, this makes its inclusion feel a bit shoehorned. In the end, Clara needs to dignify her actions only to herself, choosing to live life the way she wishes. There’s a joy to this revelation, coming from a deeply human portrait of a woman who embraces who she is. It’s admirable the lengths Filho goes to protect human decency, something he believes is worth fighting for, no matter the surrounding circumstances. PA

unaTackling the trickiest of transpositions, that of adapting a dialogue-driven one-act play to the big screen, Benedict Andrews’s Una takes on David Harrower’s Blackbird—and it mostly succeeds, thanks to fine acting and a smart reconstruction of its source’s setting. Rather than taking place in a small, closed-off room, Andrews moves the dark reunion at the core of this story—that of a victim (Rooney Mara) confronting her sexual abuser (Ben Mendelsohn)—to a large warehouse. This new venue allows for external influences to permeate the dialogue, with walk-and-talks through labyrinthine hallways and constant interruptions ramping up the already palpable tension. And while Andrews does his directorial duty in eschewing the typical pratfalls of stage-cum-film adaptions, this is Mara and Mendelsohn’s show. Both excel in crafting characters who not only remain ambiguous to the audience but who increasingly seem to not know themselves all that well. Mara’s Una vacillates between embittered, retribution-driven autonomy and decades-old fragility; no real clarity is given as to which is her primary motivator. Mendelsohn’s character will be viewed with more natural prejudice, despite a performance that complicates his usual smarminess with the tendrils of remorse, its unsettling effectiveness rooted in our inability to decipher whether he’s being disingenuous with Una, with himself,  or not at all; so nuanced is the performance that it distracts from the obvious fact that his monstrousness is immutable fact. Bleak and vicious throughout, Una surprises by necessarily reserving judgment of its characters, the film’s pummeling effect tough to shake. LG

malignitetWith Maliglitut, which literally translates to “the followers,” director Zacharius Kunuk embarks on an approximate remake of John Ford’s The Searchers, relocating the action to the Arctic tundra of northern Canada. On paper, this is an inspired choice, riffing on the mythopoeia of the Old West through tradition-heavy Inuit culture, and capitalizing on the stark vistas this geographic locale affords. Kunuk captures his action with striking imagery of a cinematically underrepresented culture in motion, alternating wide shots of pinpoint action across a white backdrop with intimate close-ups. He likewise compliments this transplanted story with a primal sound design, utilizing rhythmic chants and guttural bellows in place of a score, with long sequences of vast silence punctuated by crunching snow and dog yips. Unfortunately, while the nuts and bolts prove satisfying enough, the final product remains flimsy, abandoning any complexity of character in service of narrative similitude, a particular mistake given John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards character as the touchstone. This could have been forgiven had Kunuk placed greater emphasis on exploring his native people, where he shined with the imperfect but striking Atanarjuat. But after a dazzling opening sequence, any attention to culture or custom is set aside, instead opting for unambiguous villainy and the pace-killing monotony of the ‘chase.’ Spare to a fault, Maliglitut feels like a half-conceived work, dazzling in theory but deeply-flawed and underwhelming in execution. LG