Our third dispatch from the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival (here’s our first, and here’s our second) includes more TIFF world premieres than any of our others so far: Armondo Iannucci’s Dickens adaptation, The Personal Life of David Coppefield; Alice Winocour’s astro not-in-space movie Proxima; the Kevin Phillips-directed Lumineers movie (lol), III; Jeff Barnaby’s First Nation zombie movie, Blood Quantum; former Chris Rock Show-producer Ali LeRoi’s directorial debut, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson; and Resin, the new film from New Zealand’s Daniel Borgman (which we had our own Daniel Gorman review, natch). Also in this dispatch, recent Venice competitor Martin Eden, from Lost and Beautiful director Pietro Marcello, and an alum from the Directors Fortnight section of this year’s Cannes, the “Finish BDSM comedy” Dogs Don’t Wear Pants. Or do they? Read on to find out…
Martin Eden — a character first created by Jack London, in 1909 — is largely defined by the many interpersonal and socioeconomic conflicts that make up his beleaguered existence: he’s too ambitious to continue his life as a sailor, so he aspires to better himself; his family is not of the necessary class for him to get an education, so he must become a self-taught writer instead; he rejects socialism, but continues to live off of the support of others while his work continues to be ignored; and, ultimately, he’s too prideful to accept recognition when it finally comes to him, years later. Martin Eden’s own self-guided narrative is recognized as one that fervently promotes individualism. Italian writer/director Pietro Marcello‘s adaptation plays its hand subtly: the ways in which these disparate political ideologies intersect and interact within Eden’s life are suffused, throughout, with an approach to storytelling that abandons didacticism in favor of properly (and effectively) exploring the many internalizations that end up destroying him. While most contemporary period pieces are content to just vaguely express these ideas in service of some grander thematic terms, Martin Eden refreshingly works through its class politics in real-time; Marcello gives complete narrative agency to our titular protagonist, while still imbuing the ideas of his film with a palpable urgency. Much of what helps to cast these conflicts in a more personal light comes from Luca Marinelli’s performance as Eden. This isn’t a traditionally flashy role, but Marinelli has such a distinctive presence, both psychically and emotionally, that he’s able to inhabit the screen with the same type of conflicting temperament that has defined this tragic hero type for over 100 years, one that wavers between the nobly ambitious and the stubbornly conceited. Paul Attard
Alice Winocour’s Proxima is a film constructed around a single premise: that astronauts can be mothers, too. By now, this should be revelatory to exactly no one, but this script — co-written by Jean-Stéphane Bron — seems to pretend that, say, Sandra Bullock in Gravity never happened. Admittedly, Winocour has, if not a novel, then at least a promising hook: No part of this astronaut movie will actually unfold in space, with the bulk of its runtime dedicated to the months-long lead-up to a Mars mission. Eva Green stars as Sarah, who, with fellow astronauts Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon) and Anton Ochievski (Aleksey Fateev), must undergo arduous physical and mental preparation (not to mention a quarantine period) before leaving Earth. “It’s procedure,” a psychologist (Sandra Hüller) tells Sarah, while attempting to help her young daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle), acclimate to the forthcoming change. And indeed, Proxima initially seems to have all the makings of a compelling, detail-oriented drama, grounded by the (at times literal) nuts and bolts of the mission’s preparatory phases. A scene where Sarah is asked how she wants to deal with her menstrual cycle in space offers, at the very least, a reminder of the details that so often go unremarked upon in movies about space travel. But too often does this plodding, unimaginative film rest on contrivance and cliche — not just manufacturing ludicrous logistical obstacles and phony conflict, but also making the (American) Mike glibly emblematic of the institutional sexism that Sarah must overcome. As a whole, Proxima offers no conception of Green’s character beyond the roles of “mother” and “astronaut.” It’s a film of marked incuriosity — and for story about those who dedicate their lives (and bodies) to the pursuit of knowledge in the far reaches of space, that deficiency is no small thing. Lawrence Garcia
The Personal History of David Copperfield
Armando Iannucci has basically staked his career on writing whiplash-inducing scripts with rapid-fire witticisms that are, structurally, integral to the stories that he wants to tell. In other words, the filmmaker would decidedly not be described as Dickensian or Victorian. Given the choice of pre-twentieth century British literary influences, the humorous neoclassicists and satirists feel like the more obvious sources of shared DNA. But following Whit Stillman into mannerist Jane Austen comedy territory is similarly logical. So it does make some amount of sense that Iannucci would opt — when choosing from Dickens’s considerable catalogue — for the relatively frisky (for this author anyway) David Copperfield, and even more so that he would transform this narrative into something closer to fable. To that end, Iannucci here is as visually playful as he’s ever been: wonky lensing, low-angle push-ins, and fuzzy frame edges all set the tone from the get. Pastels and otherwise muted tones define interiors, paired with frequent displays of drabness and squalor, all lending the film a thematic cushion, and situating its story in more the realm of a yarn than a grim class commentary. That stakes-lowering approach makes for pleasant viewing; it allows the transplanted Iannucci humor to indict without its usual acerbic undertones, and lends cartoonish liveliness to The Personal History of David Copperfield‘s episodic structure. It also means that everything feels a bit breathless and rushed, that ticking off plot points is the dominant screenplay stratagem. In this sense, David Copperfield is still an uneasy fit for Iannucci: the writer-director’s wryness is applied more to visually mirthful signifiers, and to imbuing notability in characters with limited screen time, than to exploring the varied forms of corrupting, societal rot that have been his brand — and that here are mostly played for the requisite arch villainy necessitated by all fairy tales. But if this approach, favoring trifle over nourishment, results in a capped ceiling, that’s really okay, because let’s be honest – Dickens was indulgent. Luke Gorham
With the distinct air of an artist desperate to cobble together a personal story out of some old rusty parts, III is a film absolutely devoid of inspiration that nevertheless spills over with aspiration. Ever since Beyoncé dropped Lemonade, pairing an album release with a film to has become something of a shorthand for marking the project as Significant — and the Lumineers’ new visual album is nothing if not self-important. The Kevin Phillips directed feature sets its sights no higher than stringing together a coherent, if nonlinear, narrative about a family beset by the plague of addiction, a literal interpretation of the album that inspired it. Phillips employs every hoary addiction cliche, and dresses the visuals of his film up with aspect ratio changes and energetic camerawork that beg to be taken seriously. This only makes every shot more ridiculous. A phantasmagoric CGI sequence of thousands of sperm racing towards an egg after a round of coked-out phone-booth sex is only the fourth or fifth most risible image in a film that also wants to wring gravity out of a baby sipping vodka. Instead of giving voice to the addicts at its center, III resorts to lurid objectification, rendering the Sparks family as pitiable constructs rather than people. While the Sparks men are only objects for either ire or empathy, the women are unlucky enough to be sexualized as often as not. But for all the film’s ills, its fatal flaw is still… the Lumineers, who sound, as they always have, like the results of a lab experiment engineered to strip Mumford & Sons of their meager stores of personality. Christopher Mello
With Resin, director Daniel Borgman explores the beauty and the terror of escaping a dysfunctional society and returning to something more simplistic. The film is very much about the clash between calm, placid surfaces and the violent ruptures that disturb them. Jens (Peter Plaugborg) and wife Maria (Sofie Grabol) have faked the death of their child, for unknown reasons, and settled into a hermit-like existence on the outskirts of their town. Fast forward several years: their now pre-teen daughter, Liv (Vivelill Sogaard Holm), seems reasonably happy, wandering about the forest with her father, hunting and gathering and otherwise living off the land. But still there’s a tension, the ever-present sense of some potential violence that’s waiting to erupt — their tiny shack is a mess, claustrophobic and cluttered with debris; Maria is pregnant and bedridden, obese to the point of immobility. Something is awry here. Plaugborg gives a mesmerizing performance as Jens, a man of clear intelligence who is capable of both tender warmth and violent rage. It’s never precisely clear what has induced him to remove his family from the world. But we soon see that he will do anything to keep this idyll safe.
There’s a sense of inevitability to Resin, a feeling that this simply cannot end well, that the family’s existence is an aberration. Scenes begin with screaming and teeth gnashing, and end in laughter; or begin with smiles and embraces, and end with murder. Borgman, working with cinematographer Louise McLaughlin, constantly juxtaposes the cramped, messy interiors of the home with the natural light of the surrounding forest. The camera will linger under water, floating in a field of calm, undulating blue, before emerging to witness a body violently thrashing. Borgman smash cuts between day and night scenes, or from the skinning of a rabbit to Liv tenderly performing a ceremonial burial for it. There’s a schism here, a disruption: as much as we might wish for it, living like this is not normal. To drive home this point, Borgman inserts brief essayistic asides, poetic flourishes that function as a kind of magic realism, bursts of life and death cycles that are as much indebted to documentary as they are to Brakhage. Even more fascinating, these scenes are positioned as a kind of impressionistic point of view of Liv’s imagination, as, for instance, she watches vegetation and flowers bloom and envelope a corpse. For her part, Liv goes out on nightly ‘hunting’ trips, as she sneaks into town and rummages through people’s homes and businesses, looking for food and trinkets. This introduces conflict, as the ‘real world’ eventually intrudes on Jens’s fabricated Eden — in the form of estranged family members and concerned townsfolk. Tragedy befalls us all, the false security of isolation comes crumbling down, and Liv, like all of us, must strike out on her own to face the world alone. Daniel Gorman
Notionally, Blood Quantum works. Conceived in the same think tank as Inglorious Basterds, Jeff Barnaby’s latest fuses zombic epidemia with issues of indigeneity, using both the anti-immigration fervor of the present and the colonialist aggression of the past as fodder for role reversal fantasy. Even the title here (and its implicit utilization in-film) operates as an ironic middle finger, poking fun at the mathematical quantification of what it means to be First Nations people. But theoretical praise is about all that can be offered Barnaby’s film: little of the filmmaker’s tables-turned provocation is explored with any depth, and instead opts for a narrative that is more concerned with rudimentary notions of nature versus nurture and thought-exercise moralism. Dialogue gestures toward an environmentalist bent, or even a preoccupation with native fatalism, but all that proves to be shallow throwaways, as the focus, instead, continues to shift back to the film’s pleather-clad, post-punk villain (an anarchic aesthetic that’s now clearly a fixation for Barnaby, after Rhymes for Young Ghouls), even as the character’s role as part of this internal conflict remains perplexing. Other dialogue includes such deadpan brain-melters as “You’re going to shit frisbees,” and at another point a pregnant woman’s vagina is analogized to Pandora’s Box, while the script mostly operates in service of expository dumps, consisting of plot or character motivation, when it isn’t trading in awkward exclamatories. The film’s horror mechanics aren’t much better, opting for excess at every opportunity — including a literal dick-gobbling scene — and oddly excising the looming threat of zombies for most of the runtime in favor of occasional attacks. What’s lost is any palpable tension, a decision that could have been mitigated by effective character drama — but that, too, is undone by exaggerated dynamics and stilted line deliveries. This is all superficial claptrap, material that is frustratingly rich in mineable and necessary discourse, but that’s left mishandled under the influence of baser instincts. Luke Gorham
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants
Depiction of extreme pain is not the most distressing thing about Finnish BDSM comedy Dogs Don’t Wear Pants. Frequent scenes of a dominatrix strangling a bereaved man until he’s near death don’t even register as outré after the first time. No, what’s hardest to swallow about Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää’s third feature is just how straight it is. With his wife dead, and his teenage daughter more distant every day, cardiac surgeon Juha (Pekka Strang) begins seeing a dominatrix, Mona (Krista Kosonen), after an accidental encounter during which he’s mistaken for a client in Mona’s sublime red lair, and strangled with a riding crop. Unable to breathe, Juha finds himself in a hallucinatory intimacy with his drowned wife, the only gratification, sexual or otherwise, he’s likely felt in years. So obviously, over the course of a few sessions, Juha falls for Mona. Less obvious is why Mona seems to reciprocate — even as she tries to keep him at a distance. What she finds so powerful in her sessions with Juha — to the extent that she’s no longer able to perform adequately with her other clients — is conveyed only by Kosonen’s performance: the actress is quieter and more nuanced than the neurotic Strang, and thus destined for lesser acclaim. Kosonen does a lot with a little, but it’s always hard not to think: ‘Him?!’ The film’s second half becomes heavy on incident and light on psychology, as Juha’s newfound addiction further pushes his daughter away and leads him to dangerous new extremes, which read, in the moment, like worrisome moral indictments of the very thing the film previously characterized as cathartic. That the ending flips back to a non-puritanical, less after-school-special view of BDSM would come as a relief if that same ending weren’t borrowed from the ‘go and get her’ moment at the end of countless romantic comedies. The contrast between what Dogs Don’t Wear Pants seemingly ought to be — what it, in its best moments, is — and the direction in which Valkeapää takes it is as striking as the difference between Mona’s evocative subterranean lair and the drab Helsinki above it. Christopher Mello
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson
Early on in The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, the title character quotes film critic Arlene Croce on The 400 Blows: “You are no longer looking at the film – the film is looking at you.” Debut director Ali LeRoi certainly has aspirations to this, but the messaging is severely bogged down by an over-reliance on narrative intricacies and head swivel-inducing character recalibrations. Part of this is by design: The film is only the latest in a seeming renaissance of Groundhog Day-inspired die-repeat narratives, and on the surface, the story of a young black man’s repeated murder at the hands of the police feels like a more than appropriate application of that treatment. The opportunity to investigate the inevitability of contemporary violence precipitated against black men in America, and in the variety of ways that this gimmick allows for, offers clear avenues of incendiary satire, and many of the images conjured reinforce a sense of provocation. The most memorable example of this finds Tunde, who is innocent of any crime, being choked out by a cop, the camera cutting to a sidewalk-level close-up of his face as he struggles, gives up, and struggles more — all while the red and blue lights of the law flash about his face.
A righteous anger is necessary for the success of such content, however, and LeRoi demonstrates more of a commitment to resolving the love triangle that’s integral to the plot, but that’s also entirely superfluous to the film’s more substantive concerns. This results in an exercise in having and eating ones cake, with predictably mixed results. Refreshing is the film’s willingness to break formula, to develop increasingly dissimilar scenarios — rather than just the slight right turns that this subgenre has conditioned viewers to expect — and to play loose with structure. Less palatable are the jarring shifts in the title character’s perspective, from one reincarnation to the next: Any semblance of internal logic is abandoned in favor of desired emotional beats, and even those are mostly blunted by the seemingly arbitrary nature of each new development. This is the main disruption of The Obituary of Tunde Johnson — while similar films are built on the character evolutions that are evinced by this conceit, Tunde’s self-acceptance (he struggles with being gay) has little to do with his manner of death. The only takeaway here is that the decision between dignity and survival doesn’t apply to the white and wealthy. It turns out, the reset button, as a frisky filmic gambit, doesn’t really work when the only lesson to be learned is that to be a black man in America is innately perilous. Luke Gorham