by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Toronto International Film Festival 2017 – Dispatch 1

September 15, 2017

The fall film festival season is already in full swing, but the Toronto International Film Festival stands out due to its emphasis on commercialism, and its popularity with the general public. In fact, with each successive year (we’ve been attending since the mid-2000s), TIFF seems to increase its focus on celebrity and accessibility, and at the expense of its former, more exploratory programming (as is evidenced this year by TIFF dropping its standout Vanguard program as well as the diverse City to City program). The sheer volume of films TIFF programs always at least ensures that there are gems and disasters there for the finding—which means a feeling of discovery, for better and worse. In our first dispatch from TIFF 2017, we highlight films from both sides of that spectrum.

Shape of WaterGuillermo del Toro abandons his recent efforts at delivering alt-blockbusters and curating photography for interior design catalogs with his latest, The Shape of Water. A mute-mermaid romance set against a backdrop of Cold War-era espionage, del Toro’s latest showcases typically gorgeous production design which, unlike in, say, Crimson Peak, actually serves a purpose: the film jumps between the sterile blues and greens of a laboratory setting and the warmer colors and elegant decor of a working class 1950s apartment. Of course, it’s an obvious contrast to make, and Shape retains this schema throughout, but subtlety has never been the director’s strength — he’s at his best when saturating the screen according to his specific maximalist mode. As is the case with most del Toro films, the director can’t help but get in his own way from time to time: plot developments are sometimes rushed and other times they’re deeply lame, giving the clear impression of some sequences being undervalued, and the thematics are more than a bit didactic, especially felt in Shape‘s more earnest moments. The darkness of his best work is missing here, as is its allegorical specificity: with The Shape of Water, del Toro seems content to hang his hat on the outré love story at its center, never mind the comic book periphery that undermines much of its power. Still, there are delicate visual flourishes, moments that demonstrate a commitment to the small rather than the big, that impress, and while much of the film’s welcome weirdness feels miscalculated, the sum suggests just enough of a return to the director’s more modest origins. Luke Gorham

Mrs FangChinese documentarian Wang Bing is interested in process, in the minutiae of daily life within a system—and especially in the way systems break down. So it wouldn’t have been a surprise if Mrs. Fang had chosen to focus its attention on the intimate details of its 67-year-old, Alzheimer’s-suffering widow’s death. But that doesn’t seem to be what the director is up to here; instead, he often retreats from Fang’s bedside for little vignettes taking place just outside the family home. The several fishing scenes here though, for instance, are less about providing the audience a reprieve than they are about understanding how the different generations of Fang’s family are coping. It’s the young that go fishing—and when they finish, they go to work. They’re rarely if ever seen by Fang’s bedside, a fact that one of her sons laments. Almost everyone here keeps moving; Fang’s children, too, keep moving, but in the more confined space of the dying matriarch’s bedroom. Fang, meanwhile—in crucial, lengthy close-ups—is almost still, at rest. The existential consideration of this human progression aligns Mrs. Fang with the tenets of Wang’s objectivist, anthropological cinema. Sam C. Mac

Jeanette2If Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc doesn’t scale the insurmountable heights of St. Joan films by Dreyer or Bresson, it’s for Bruno Dumont’s lack of interest in retreading tired ground. Instead of focusing on Joan’s suffering or the procedure under which she was sentenced to death, Dumont centers his film around questions of the nature of an adolescent Joan’s faith and her later hesitance to become the warlord France needs. All of this is set to chintzy rock opera music, complete with off-key singing, anachronistic dabbing, and headbanging nuns. Juxtaposing the frequent musical numbers with somber reflections on the suffering of France and the righteous need to go to war brings levity to the film while emphasizing both Joan’s childhood and her probable madness. In the film’s most memorable scene, a very young Joan and a pair of nuns polemicize at one another through song until habits come off and hair starts flying in rhythm. But for however much the film lightens the subject matter, Dumont never lessens it, so often are serious pleas to God given the same weight that Dreyer lent them. Chris Mello

downsizingDownsizing represents a departure from a filmography built on incisive character studies and black comedy; Alexander Payne imbues his latest with a broader tonal register, and with mixed results. The film takes place at some point in the near future, where breakthroughs in cellular reduction have resulted in the ability to shrink people to approximately five centimetres in height, a proposed solution to the earth’s climate and overpopulation issues. After some introductory exposition, the film plays as a one-note joke for 45 minutes with every punchline amounting to “short people problems.” Thankfully, what feels like aimlessness in the first half evolves into something more postmodern. In fact, the CliffsNotes version of this script demands Vonnegut comparisons: Paul Safronek (Matt Damon) experimentally shrinks himself, becomes untethered from meaningful existence, meets and bonds with a Vietnamese dissident, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, a standout), who was shrunk as punishment and sent to Oregon in a TV box, and ultimately ends up in Norway visiting the test group-cum-doomsday cult founded by the original scientist of this technology. While all this helps to alleviate a tenuous narrative through-line, particularly as the film begins to concern itself with the potential ramifications of such a world-altering technology, it doesn’t quite compensate for the placidity and silliness of Paul’s core existential crises, or his flirtation with deterministic serendipity. LG

Let the Corpses TanThose familiar with Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani‘s previous films, Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, will be well-prepared for another of the duo’s audiovisual genre abstractions. Except Let the Corpses Tan is geared toward vintage Euro westerns and splashes of French New Wave mis en scène, as opposed to the earlier works’ giallo and horror influences. The new film also largely jettisons these filmmakers’ deconstructionism: instead of interrogating the presentation of female sexuality in a notoriously misogynistic genre, Corpses is content to remain, primarily, an action film, albeit one stripped down almost entirely to the filmmakers’ patented, glorious insert shots and blaring sound effects (hope you like the noise of creaking leather). Practically an 85-minute demonstration of someone’s kink fetishes, Corpses may be for fans only, but if you can tune into its wavelength the effect is exhilarating. Matt Lynch

radianceConcerning the brief, fleeting romance between a woman who writes audio descriptions for films and her harshest critic, an all but totally blind man, Naomi Kawase’s thinly-sketched Radiance feels designed to court claims of poignancy. The pair clash repeatedly as she tries to lend assistance he thinks he doesn’t need and he tells her she is horrible at her job. Throughout, from its invocation of cinema as an experience shared across gaps of ability to its focus on an ex-photographer gone blind, there’s a sense that all of this is meant to resonate deeply. But because the film is so often satisfied to lifelessly plod through the motions of a middling drama so light it might evaporate, there’s not enough here to engage with past the surface. It’s a nice surface, admittedly: the film is gorgeously lit and capably acted, the visuals serene and understated. But when used only to convey supposedly profound metaphor, even Radiance‘s naturalism feels like yet another cloying contrivance. CM

MiamiIn Zaida Bergroth’s Miami, the meek Anna (Sonja Kuittinen) is reunited with her estranged sister, Angela (Krista Kosonen)—a club dancer in dutch with the mob—and the two come up with a plan to blackmail johns getting private hotel room dances to pay off Angela’s debt. Hmm, think it’ll all work out in the end? Despite terrific lead performances, this thing is unforgivably generic, its rote narrative dictating increasingly dumb decisions by the protagonists, with an inevitable punctuation of grim violence. There’s cookie-cutter low-light digital handheld and a couple of montages set to benign Europop. But without anything to say about these women exercising some newfound power or the economic and social systems that keep them struggling (there’s even a convenient subplot about a corrupt politician that would have been a perfect delivery device) this is just another girls on the run movie. Re-watch Thelma & Louise instead. ML

8E9A6510.CR2Scott Cooper is not a subtle filmmaker. Further proof of this comes in the first five minutes of his Hostiles, when two young children and a swaddled baby are killed by the rifles of marauding Comanches. Beginning in 1890s New Mexico, Cooper’s latest follows the bigoted, war-weary army Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) after he is ordered to safely escort the dying Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a fierce warrior who has been imprisoned in Fort Berrington for seven years, to his homeland in Montana. A short time into their journey, Blocker and company add Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), the grieving mother of the aforementioned murdered children who is found at her burned home, still clutching the lifeless baby in her arms. (I repeat, Scott Cooper is not subtle.) Theoretically, Hostiles is a necessary film for this moment: the treatment of abhorrent treatment of Native populations has been ignored for too long and the recent events at Standing Rock have rightly brought this to increased public attention. Practically, however, Hostiles is a well-intentioned disaster. Characters are dispatched with extraordinary haste, and none outside of the spiritually-ill Metz (Rory Cochrane) leave much of an impression. But the biggest issue here is Cooper’s handling of the indigenous characters: impressive actors like Studi, Adam Beach, and Q’orianka Kilcher exist solely for the benefit of white redemption rather than being written as real, human characters in their own right. Hostiles is saved from being a complete loss thanks to the frequently gorgeous cinematography from DP Masanobu Takayanagi, who imbues a few Malickian touch. Respectfully, though, no amount of visual aplomb would be able to save this misguided and entirely tone-deaf pat-on-the-back from Scott Cooper. LG