Monday, September 16, 2013

TIFF' 13: Huddled together in the darkness

The Missing Picture

It is Monday morning. The September sun raised itself up via a lumbering crane shot over an overexposed Toronto shivering with cinema withdrawal—a Toronto as unseasonably chilly as Donald Rumsfeld’s smiling evil grandpa eyes, which twinkle eerily and often in Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known. The 38th Toronto International Film Festival came to a close last night. Morris’ problematic, unmissable, semantically obsessed feature-length interview with the former Secretary of Defense was just one of several new works that, like the sadistic levels of air conditioning in most TIFF venues, left my teeth chattering and my soul on ice. Sometimes in a very good way.


The best way? How about Claire Denis’ Bastards? This bleak masterpiece and true contemporary noir, with elements drawn from William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, follows a French naval captain as he absconds from his errant seaman’s life to move into a vast Paris apartment and plot revenge on a business tycoon he blames for the defiling of his niece, the collapse of his family’s business, and the suicide of his brother-in-law. Denis regulars (Vincent Lindon, Michel Subor, Grégoire Colin) help seal the film’s seductive doom, but it’s Chiara Mastroianni’s haunted, enigmatic performance as the tycoon’s wife that most perfectly captures Bastards’ choked air of desperation and inevitability. Nearly as good as Mastroianni—and not nearly as famous—is Leandra Leal as the femme fatale in Brazilian director Fernando Coimbra’s inventively structured kidnapping drama A Wolf at the Door, one of this year’s most welcome surprises.

You Are Here

Denis’ filmmaking is so sensual and intoxicating that, truthfully, Bastards didn’t leave me nearly as cold as, say, the ostensibly heartwarming but catastrophically misguided You Are Here, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s blunt stab at helming a movie. This fumbling, cynically conceived bromance that turns into a rom-com stars Owen Wilson as a womanizing weatherman and Zach Galifianakis as his nutjob buddy. It is bracingly unfunny, fussed-over and forced, with a ludicrous lovers’ resolution. You’ll have better luck buying into the romance in Spanish director Manuel Martín Cuenca’s drearily immaculate Caníbal, which is about—you guessed it—a cannibal. In love. Things don’t go so well. It’s hard to give a shit. But Granada looks gorgeous. Better yet, just watch Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, which may be my favourite vampire movie ever. It's certainly the only one I know of that is mostly about aggravating in-laws coming to visit. I have a feeling you'll be reading a lot more about this one here fairly soon. 


Things lighten up, so to speak, with Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s 3D astronaut survival chamber drama in which Sandra Bullock and George Clooney get walloped with debris while floating in space and struggle to find safe haven while their oxygen supply plummets. The visuals and soundscapes are absolutely astounding: I have never seen such sequences, in which the camera’s trajectory is so disorientingly aligned to that of the objects and people drifting helplessly onscreen. The opening 20 minutes or so make you feel as if we could go anywhere. If only Stephen Prince’s score wasn’t so annoyingly overblown and the character development wasn’t so disappointingly earthbound.

Under the Skin

Yet, just when you’ve recovered from Cuarón’s extraterrestrial traipsing, life on Earth suddenly seems exotic all over again in Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s hypnotic science-fiction in which Scarlett Johansson’s lovely body is inhabited by an ebony alien stalking horny young men in Scotland before eventually getting stalked herself. A substantial portion of the film was made without the participants’ knowledge: Glazer put Johansson in a black wig and a white van and had her drive around and try to pick up unsuspecting Glaswegians. Presumably these guys figured out they were in a movie by the time she led them into a dark house where they stripped down and slipped into some obsidian interstellar goo from which they never emerge. Anthropological and austere, Under the Skin is an intentionally alienating experience for much of the first two-thirds, before its central character goes incrementally native and places herself in danger. All dialogue is virtually incidental and much of Johansson’s performance is designed to remain remote, but the film isn’t anywhere near as baffling as some reports have made it out to be. It is a hugely inventive story about a stranger in a strange land and the perils of empathy.

Night Moves

One more hostile intruder: who’s that guy Jake Gyllenhaal’s stalking in Enemy? Why, it’s Jake Gyllenhaal! Quebec director Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of José Saramago’s novel The Double is perversely withholding and surprisingly effective. It makes Toronto look like nothing but high-rises and freeways, the perfect backdrop for this tale of a lonely professor who spots his doppelgänger playing a bit part in a movie and decides that there can be only one. TIFF 2013’s other doppelgänger movie—double doppelgänger!—which is actually titled The Double, stars Jesse Eisenberg. I didn’t see it. Figured if I was going to get stuck with two of somebody I’d rather it be Gyllenhaal. I got a good dose of Eisenberg’s chronic slouching in Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, which also stars Peter Sarsgaard and Dakota Fanning and concerns an eco-terrorist plot that goes awry. Eisenberg gets on my nerves but he fits the role. The film is very good, if not quite the revelation of Meek’s Cutoff.

Stray Dogs

Festivals at their best remind us that cinema is meant to be a collective experience, so let’s embrace a few films about families—most of which, oddly enough, were part of Wavelengths, the experimentally minded and most dependable program at TIFF. A candidate for this year’s single best film, Tsai Ming Liang’s Stray Dogs—said to be the Malay-Taiwanese auteur’s last(!)—follows a family of three scraping by on the streets of Taipei. It is another masterwork of sumptuous tableaux laden with intense, burgeoning emotion and frequently accented with quietly mischievous humour.

The Strange Little Cat

Swiss director Ramon Zürcher’s beguiling feature debut The Strange Little Cat limits its scope to the preparation and execution of a simple family dinner, yet is full of clamorous life, seemingly normal until some cryptic comment or event intrudes before slipping away again. It may be the weirdest most seemingly normal movie I’ve ever seen. Cambodian documentarian Rithy Panh’s autobiographical The Missing Picture meanwhile attempts to chronicle a childhood spent pining for something the rest of us would consider normal. Panh was 11 when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and sent Panh’s family to a work camp. Panh wanted to tell the story of his adolescence through pictures, but because the visual documents of this era are almost entirely composed of propaganda, Panh decided to render his memories through elaborate claymation sequences.
12 Years a Slave

Running out of space here, so let me leave you with two favourite moments at TIFF ’13:

1. Toward the end of Hunger and Shame director Steve McQueen’s surprisingly conventional—but still totally grueling—12 Years a Slave, there is an odd scene in which the film’s star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, appears on screen in close-up, very still, and for a surprisingly long time. The previously rapt, reverent audience suddenly became very noisy when some asshole’s cellphone went off, and looking up at Ejiofor’s enormous head, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was waiting for everyone to shut up.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness

2. My last film of TIFF ’13 was the tripartite A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, another Wavelengths title. The film begins almost documentary-like, examining life at a Estonian commune, then follows musician Robert A.A. Lowe as he finds tranquility in the Finnish wilderness, then roams a gig in a small club performed by Lowe’s heavily made-up Finnish black metal outfit. The camera movement as sinewy and lovely as the music is crushing, harsh and, at times, a little silly. The final moments are perfect: Lowe exits the stage before the band even finishes, immediately and efficiently sets about wiping off his white make-up, puts on his coat and goes out the back door. I love this ending because. It is an eloquent reminder that this is all a show, that the darkness still looms, but that we can cast cinematic spells, use thunderous moments of art to keep it at bay, before shaking it off, going back out into the open air and getting on with the rest of it all. 

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