Our fourth dispatch from the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival (here’s our first, our second, and our third) skews heavily Canadian: Atom Egoyan’s latest, lurid work, Guest of Honour; Matthew Rankin’s Midnight Madness entry and Guy Maddin riff, The Twentieth Century; Calvin Thomas and Lev Lewis’s White Lie; and a film titled The Last Porno Show. Also here: another Midnight Madness entry and ostensible crowd-please, The Platform; The County, the latest from the Icelandic director of Rams; another Alex Gibney documentary, Citizen K; and the buzzy Sound of Metal, starring Riz Ahmed.
The Twentieth Century
In the Canada of The Twentieth Century, Winnipeg director Matthew Rankin’s gonzo historical reimagining of the nation’s late 19th century history, disappointment reigns supreme. (“Expect less than is your right,” goes one of the fictional Canadian oaths that’s recited before an official banner of Disappointment.) Telling a (quite literally) perverted history of the rise of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, the film might seem like an improbable selection for TIFF’s Midnight Madness program; however, it conforms to the negative expectations of the section more than one might expect. Comparisons to fellow Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin are inevitable, as both share an evident interest in lost and/or defunct film forms, artificial staging, and wild humor. An early sequence where candidates for a political nomination are put through various “tests of leadership” — ribbon cutting, leg wrestling, and seal clubbing, among others — immediately recalls the “four trials of the Red Wolves” scene in 2015’s The Forbidden Room. To say that The Twentieth Century is a significantly lesser achievement than Maddin’s film, however, would be a gross understatement. Not always easy to tease out, the difference seems to be that the incongruous, borderline surreal turns of Maddin’s singularly fecund oeuvre feel touched by genuine madness, whereas Rankin’s film registers as merely mannered — filled with the coruscating energy of his shorts (most recently The Tesla World Light), but mostly absent of a cogent reason for being. That said, there’s no question that the director has ample technical facility (a climactic skate through a maze of light and mirrors is a visual highlight)and his enduring commitment to a blatantly artificial, uncommercial aesthetic puts him above many a Canadian filmmaker. There’s ample cause for disappointment, then, when it comes to The Twentieth Century. But there’s also good reason to expect more from Rankin’s next film. Lawrence Garcia
Borrowing from J.G. Ballard’s metaphorical scaffolding — as outlined in the author’s social-horror novel, High-Rise (and its mismanaged film adaptation) — Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s conceptually similar, subgenred mash-up The Platform opts for a literalized actualization of the failures of benevolence. The Pit exists somewhere between a manifestation of trickle-down theory and a vertical recreation of Rome; it’s a facility in which two people live per level, and a square void in the middle allowing for daily meals to travel on a platform from top to bottom, stopping for a brief, determinate amount of time at each floor so that the pairs can quickly gorge. Here, food is capital, and The Platform opens with the meticulous and orante orchestrations of what appears to be a high-end kitchen, inside which refined and garish dishes are labored over and garnished, all under the guidance of a demanding head chef. And yet, we soon find that this colorful feast is sent into the drab gray of concrete below. The top floor have dibs, then, and each subsequent floor must settle for rifling through diminishing leftovers (and sometimes the excrement deposited onto the tabletop). Your level also changes every month, meaning status is fleeting and arbitrary. That the nature of privilege in The Pit is random does not change the entitlement felt and cruelty exhibited by those at the top. So yeah, not much subtlety going on here. And that’s okay, for much of this film anyway. This satiristic class critique doesn’t necessitate much, and Gaztelu-Urrutia compensates for whatever nuance his film lacks by imbuing The Platform with an assured aesthetic character and some smarmy charm. The film’s cold open brings us to feeding time quickly, quick cuts and a lurid sound design capture the smackings and slurpings of gluttonous prisoners (and volunteers, though this is barely explained) —all of this set to a clock tick-sounding score that falls somewhere between jaunty circus noises and music box propulsivity. Additionally, the character of Trimagasi makes for a slimy, Charon-like figure, and lends the film’s early proceedings a campy grotesquerie. But as the effortful stylizations and menacing tone give way to plot machinations and some nonsense about innocence, or perhaps even hints of generational morality, most of the puckish and brutal fun, like so many falling bodies, slips into the void. Luke Gorham
Sound of Metal
Sound of Metal seems to believe itself to be part of some kind of sonic evolution in cinema. It isn’t. Darius Marder’s debut concerns Ruben (Riz Ahmed), the drummer of a heavy metal duo formed with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), and the psychological and relational fallout of his sudden, extreme hearing loss. Marder cushions his narrative and its specific developments within a precise attention to aural texturing, not only obfuscating and distorting sound, to invoke a first-person experience, but also utilizing juxtaposition — frequent shots of genteel tranquility are accompanied by familiar, soothing sounds; wind blowing through grass and leaves, or the hum of crickets in a flower-filled field, all of which run counter to the anxiety of Ruben’s silence. But while noble in representation, and even admittedly viscerally effective, ultimately Sound of Metal‘s sonic palette doesn’t amount to much more than alternating instances of silence, garbling, and a tinny manipulation of sound. More damning is that the thematic weight this technique musters in no way approaches what’s accomplished in the far more innovative and substantial application found in the similarly conceived Love & Mercy.
It doesn’t help that all of this would-be technical aplomb is in service of a fairly formulaic recovery narrative — reconstrued here with “hearing” as a toxic pursuit at the expense of acceptance and evolution — which rears its ugly head after a promising opening that involves bits of therapeutic specificity and the exploration of a newfound community. Stages of grief are explored, lessons are learned, people change, life continues. More surprising, then, and more successful, are the ways in which Sound of Metal demonstrates restraint. Moments that suggest an impending crescendo are instead handled with a subdued, pre-romantic tenor, emulating the way that stories are lived out and experienced rather than the way that they are shaped and told — Marder at least understands how to pull his punches to maximum effect. The performances are similarly pitched, if a bit subverted by the broad familiarity of the narrative strokes, and manage to get all the emotional beats just right — not an easy thing to do in a showcase-y film with the potential for cheap emotional manipulation. Sound of Metal was hampered a bit upon its initial festival run thanks to its aggrandized marketing rhetoric, though distance should ultimately allow viewers to now experience its littered strengths with more appropriate expectations. And so while it fails as a game-changer and a (r)evolution of cinematic sonics, it works somewhat better as a bit of affectingly lived-in, post-shtick drama.
I don’t know much about the history of the co-op farming system in Iceland— which began in the 19th century and persisted for decades before largely collapsing in the 1990’s— and Grimur Hakonarson’s new film, The County, doesn’t do much to change that. Loosely based on stories of the last large scale co-op still standing, The County was filmed in Iceland’s rural northwest, some distance from the metropolitan Reykjavik. It’s a story about rural survival and oppressive capitalist systems, certainly issues of universal contemporary importance. Unfortunately, here’s a case where a documentary on the subject might have been more interesting than the scattered, tepid fictionalized version that we get here. Inga (Arndis Hronn Egilsdottir) and Reynir (Hinrik Olafsson) are dairy farmers who are deeply in debt to their co-op, which has encouraged them to buy new technology, but in turn charges them exorbitant fees for supplies. The co-op refuses to allow farmers to purchase goods from any other source, even if the price is cheaper, and blacklists any farmers found circumventing this rigged system. When Reynir is killed, in a trucking accident, Inga mounts a one-woman assault against the co-op, attacking them on social media, comparing them to the mafia, and otherwise agitating the powers that be. Hakonarson leans too hard on the David vs. Goliath angle here, making the co-op brash, mustache twirling villains and the farmers themselves pure, salt-of-the-earth victims of an oppressive system. There are interesting elements, including some long sequences that show Inga at work, in simple, unadorned documentary style. Hakonarson has a nice eye for clean, precise framing (the wintery, barren landscape is particularly beautiful) and careful compositions, but he also indulges in scenes that are pulled straight from a thriller — Inga is terrorized at night by co-op thugs — as well as awkwardly placed comedic beats. There’s a lot of tonal whiplash in The County that seems intended, mainly, to goose the audience. The film’s last act is crammed with incident, as a new dairy co-op — organized by Inga — mobilizes, leading to a series of rousing speeches, a climactic vote, and… tan unspectacular shrug of a finale. Frankly, there’s enough plot here to fill a TV miniseries, and the truncated runtime (the movie is less than 90 minutes long) doesn’t leave anything room to breathe. Egilsdottir gives a fine performance as the salty Inga, and the film comes to life when she aggressively demands answers from the co-op directors. But nothing adds up here in any kind of meaningful way. Everything fits just a little too neatly, without any of the rough edges or compromises that make up life under modern capitalism. There’s a story to tell about the ambitious, labor friendly, even utopian idea of the co-op practice, and how it has been corrupted by greed, but that’s not really explored. It’s particularly frustrating how Facebook is shown purely as a force for social good, and the notion that engaging in some platonic ideal of free-market capitalism is inherently desirable skirts far too many right-wing ideologies. Hakonarson wants to streamline all these complicated ideas into a feel good story. In the process, though,, he winds up doing his characters and his audience a grave disservice. Daniel Gorman
There was no way that we were going to escape the first four years of the Trump presidency without Alex Gibney making a documentary about one of its numerous scandals. Just as predictably perhaps, Gibney opts to turn his focus on the spectre of Vladimir Putin, whose approval of Trump’s election (and general shadiness) has, let’s just say, really captured the imagination of Liberal America. To Gibney’s credit, this new film, Citizen K, keeps discussion of Russian collusion off to the side and focuses more on mapping the rise of Putin and the implementation of his authoritarian control over Russian media and communication. His entry point into this narrative is through Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the Russian oligarchs who amassed tremendous wealth by exploiting the chaos and poverty brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequently guided Russia’s transition to democracy and a privatized economic system from behind the scenes. By the time GIbney begins interviewing Khodorkovsky, the billionaire has found himself exiled by Putin, who was initially installed as president of Russia to serve the interests of Khodorovsky and his fellow oligarchs, before he outmaneuvered them so as to better consolidate his hold over Russian society, and weaponized the media against them. This is all mapped out quite nicely within the film’s first hour in a way that often resembles the mode of the political history narrativizing employed by Adam Curtis, and for a time Citizen K is a useful text, illuminating an important stretch of recent history that your average non-Russian will only have a vague comprehension of. But then the second hour comes around and Gibney opts to refocus the film, turning it into a chronicle of Khodorovsky’s present day life in London, which he spends funding and promoting efforts to oust Putin from office. At this point the film begins to heavily rely upon talking head interviews with Khodorovsky and more or less cedes the pulpit to his agenda, accepting the narrative that this man who once preyed upon the misfortune of the Russian populace eventually realized the error of his ways and now combats Putin’s government as a redemptive act. This isn’t to say that Putin shouldn’t be scrutinized, but that Khodorovsky is complicit, and that Gibney is all too willing to accept the altruistic front the oligarch presents. Documentarians operating in the political world inevitably come up against controversial figures, even ideologically toxic ones (Errol Morris countless times, Laura Poitras with Risk), but Gibney rarely pushes back on Khodorovsky, admitting that many Russians distrust him for his corruption with a sort of shrug before bringing the movie to a close. This film’s subject could be approached in an enlightened, balanced way, one that locates the distress of living in a modern moment, when it’s hard to ignore the fact that nearly no one with significant political agency has the citizenry’s best interests at heart. But, alas, Gibney opts instead for a stance that passively endorses the xenophobic “Russia Gate” fear mongering that has been dominating our news cycles for far too long. M.G. Mailhoux
The Last Porno Show
The Last Porno Show opens with shots of both hardcore pornography and an aerial view of a man graphically masturbating in a movie theater. It is a bold move, one that promises the viewer a bit of raunchy nastiness. But writer-director Kire Paputts is not interested in any sort of titillation, a pervasive self-seriousness tipping his artistic hand. This is one of those films where filmmaking itself takes center stage and works as a therapeutic tool for our protagonist, Wayne (also Paputts), and as the film opens, he is participating in one of those ridiculous improv classes that only exists in movies, and blowing an audition. Fate intervenes when he inherits a run-down porno theater from his recently deceased father, and what looks like an unwanted burden soon becomes a blessing as Wayne channels his past for acting inspiration, resulting in a leading role in an independent film. It turns out that if your father was a sex addict/exhibitionist who literally raised you in a porn theater, your childhood is going to be pretty fucked up, a fact which Wayne seems unwilling to confront. Before long, he is going full-on Method in his acting, literally dressing in his father’s clothes and even sporting a fake moustache. That this is played for laughs is somewhat distressing. By the time the man is literally fucking a television set featuring a woman that also slept with this father, well, words aren’t sufficient. The biggest problem with The Last Porno Show is that it is a tonal mess, although its doubtful that there is a filmmaker on the planet who could successfully execute what Paputts is attempting here. There is a little bit of A Man in Uniform, someTaxi Driver, a hint of Tropic Thunder. But the cocktail produced tastes of pure arsenic. Maybe child sexual abuse isn’t the first subject a filmmaker should mine for laughs. That all of this is supposed to result in a major breakthrough for our main character, signified by a scene near film’s end where Wayne decides not to engage in what basically amounts to sexual assault, and this after a sequence where he is brutally beaten for attempting child abuse — it’s all far too much. This is a vile and reprehensible film, and it’s made all the more so by the fact that it has the gall to end on a note of bogus uplift. There aren’t enough Silkwood showers in the world to make one feel clean after watching this monstrosity. Steven Warner
Guest of Honour
There’s a certain level of absurdness that is only manifested in an auteur’s twilight years, reaching for that kind of ephemerality that once symboled success, but failing to achieve any semblance of that depth. There hasn’t been a clearer example in recent years than Submergence, by director Wim Wenders — one of the worst films that hit theaters last year. Atom Egoyan has struggled with similar issues of fading relevance and his ability to recreate what once made him a celebrated filmmaker, and his latest film certainly comes the closest to absolute failure out of any that he’s made, even if it is ridiculously fun. The main problem with Guest of Honour is that it too obviously wants to be taken seriously. Jim (David Thewlis) is a health inspector, fastidious in his work, shown carefully examining every bit of dust and assessing all health codes to justify a restaurant’s pass/fail status — all of this while his daughter, Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira), a high school teacher, is in jail for abusing two of her students…or did she? There’s a thematic undercurrent of guilt, how every one of the characters is burdened by it, even periphery characters getting in on the iniquitous fun. As the byzantine plot finishes unfolding itself, near the end — with a drunken speech that hints at violence to come (a suggestion never realized), the planting of rabbit excrement as a sort of extortion, and a funeral that doesn’t ultimately tie any of this together — we’re left with a series of sequences clearly aimed at expressing some unclear theme, some lesson to be learned. But there’s nothing to be found in this mess except for inexplicably self-serious absurdity, and the unmistakable feeling that we’re being asked to consider, say, the death of a rabbit (and the ill-intended scattering of its droppings) as some sort of deep metaphor. Jaime Grijalba Gomez
Calvin Thomas and Lev Lewis have been at the heart of the burgeoning Canadian independent film scene over the past few years, with their 2018 film Spice It Up serving as a kind of summation of the movement’s interest in the intersection of performance and real life, balancing insider satire with a solid emotional core. White Lie, though, is a step toward conventionality, with a cast of professional actors in a psychological thriller about a young woman deeply invested in faking that she has cancer. Katie (Kacey Rohl), a student and dancer, has run this scam for some time, using it to solicit donations through social media and even get herself a starring role in a ballet, which appears to be about her illness. The film follows her for a harrowing couple of days as her lie begins to unravel, tracing the increasingly desperate ways in which Katie attempts to maintain said lie. This basically plays like a straight version of a Seinfeld episode, with Katie as the Costanza at the center of it all, barely afloat atop a sea of deceit. Thomas and Lewis make little attempt to explain Katie’s motivations, though there are some vague hints. We’re left to speculate about why she lies, an ambiguity which might be to the film’s benefit, but it makes her a difficult character with whom to sympathize. She’s neither a charming con artist nor a particularly pitiable figure, just a person compelled to play every angle she can, no matter the consequence. Sean Gilman