By: Daniel Reynolds
Let’s forget the preamble. It is early September, we’re in the throes of the Toronto International Film Festival. We’ve passed the first half, so here are some thoughts on the films I’ve seen so far. Oh, and on a personal note, it is amazing how tired you can get from sitting around all weekend watching movies.
The Past: As a visual metaphor for a movie, the opening sequence of Asghar Farhadi‘s newest film The Past is softly handled but decidedly apt. Fresh off a plane from Tehran, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) looks around for the exit and sees Marie (Berenice Bejo) on the other side of a pane of glass. They mouth words, seeing each other but perhaps not quite understanding each other. The Past, a thoughtful family drama, mines this space between seeing and hearing; reflecting on people’s ability to look through prisms and decide on the truth of what they see.
The cast broadens. We are introduced to some children, Lea and Fouad, both young, and Lucie, teen aged. There is also another man who walks into the picture, Samir (Tahar Rahim). References are made to events of the recent and more distant past. The film’s structure, which cleverly toys with the connections between these characters, moves forward over a period of a few days but keeps introducing new shards of information that pull the narrative backward.
To discuss the plot of The Past, or the true relations between its characters, is to cheapen its effect. However, its effect is felt only through a series of late breaking developments, the suddenness of which undoes some of the careful work that went before. As the story unfolds, characters learn (as we do) of the ties that bind them, the actions of recent history that have trapped them in their present, possibly dictated their future. This is a calm, controlled movie, one with the capacity to move, but you just have to be willing to hear it through the glass.
Pioneer: Mirroring other underwater classics like Das Boot, Pioneer wants to make you feel the heat, pressure and claustrophobia of life under the sea. As you can imagine, there are no singing crabs (well, unless you start to hallucinate). Director Erik Skjoldbjerg wisely sets the stage with grainy news footage of the 1980s oil boom in Norway; it’s the real life absurdity of men scaling ropes, tubes and scaffolding while North Sea waves crash around them. We meet Petter and Knut, literal brothers-in-arms, who, along with Wes Bentley (really), and other shifty looking Scandinavians are set to engage in the laying of pipelines along the sea bed.
The standout sequences of the film involve the initial dives with period era technology. These are terrifying vistas, breathtaking to behold. The confining dull metals of man suddenly open to the great dark unknowns of the ocean floor. But, we need a plot and after an accident occurs, Petter is left adrift in, well, he’s not sure. He’s been having trouble staying alert, his supervisors (including a gruff Stephen Lang) suddenly seem very untrustworthy. This is oil exploration as seen through the Parallax View.
Unfortunately, the film starts to mirror the presumed mental deterioration of our hero, and while Aksel Hennie does bewildered well, Petter swims into a murky conspiracy that both chills and confuses. While he gets attacked, chased, and lied to, I never could quite get a handle on what was going on. There is a certain inevitability to the film, which is underscored by its final image. Norway is one of the richest countries in the world because, as Pioneer explains, they had people willing to dive 300 plus metres underwater to connect pipes. It sounds crazy because it is crazy.
Hateship Loveship: Based on an Alice Munro short story, Hateship Loveship, introduces us to Johanna Perry (Kristen Wiig), a quiet, unassuming and peculiarly devoted woman. The opening scene says it all: the elderly woman Johanna is taking care of dies after declaring she’d like to wear her blue dress. Johanna dutifully puts it on the corpse.
Sidling up to her new house of employment, Johanna meets her next employers, the family led by Nick Nolte (turning into a grizzly bear), granddaughter Hailee Steinfeld and the erstwhile father figure played with usual roughhouse charm by Guy Pearce. This film at first did not have a ton to recommend; the story feels telegraphed (Christine Lahti pops up as a particularly chatty banker who can’t wait to fill in the backstory) and the plot machinations feel contrived. It wants to be revelatory, but instead feels rote.
But, then something happens; the action moves to a decrepit motel, the clock starts to spin faster, time passes, and much like Johanna’s dogged persistence, I found myself coming around to the film. Credit goes to Wiig, who’s quiet performance (shades of Bill Murray, the goal for every SNL alum) stretches but never breaks to cover the gaps in the movie. While much of Hateship Loveship feels familiar, it is worth watching if only to see Wiig given the chance to do something new.
Like Father, Like Son: As a filmmaker, Hirokazu Kore-eda is easy at first glance to overlook. His films are serene, the passage of time calm; there are no jarring cuts or trick shots, just even-handed camera work and an elegance that seems effortless. In truth, this kind of cinematic grace is not easy. Like Father, Like Son is another Kore-eda gem which takes a simple, albeit painful, idea and uses it to explore the emotional connections between parents and children, fathers and sons and nature versus nurture.
The story involves two families: a well off upwardly mobile couple headed by hard working father Masaharu Fukuyama and a lower class family with a gaggle of kids and a delightfully goofy father. This second family are the type you’d rather not sit next to in a restaurant. Both families have 6-year-old boys but as it turns out, they each have the wrong one, the full implications of which are gradually revealed through the film.
Like Ozu before him, Kore-eda does not traffic in lurid melodrama, but rather he uses the exacting language of people trying to live as correctly as they can without incident. His films are emotional without being exhausting. Like Father, Like Son moves peacefully, albeit sometimes a tad sluggishly, towards its conclusion and while Kore-eda seems to always have an extra grace note or two to play before the final shot, his ending is again beautiful and true.
Sex, Drugs and Taxation: I suppose it is refreshing to know that other countries can make biopics that are just as quirky yet ultimately formulaic as their US/Canadian counterparts. Some background: apparently Denmark is the most taxed nation in the world (Christoffer Boe, the director on hand at the screening, mentioned that Danes play as much as 60% tax on everything). So, back in the 1960s, a lumpen accounting savant, Mogens Glistrup, met with a deranged playboy travel tycoon, Simon Spies, to essentially remake the air travel industry in their country and eventually start evading taxation.
As you can expect, the film’s structure practically write itself. There is the meet cute involving ping pong, the initial setbacks, the fun and games (which include a lot of prostitutes and one sequence where Spies faces down a gorilla; he is naked and, um, engorged at the time), followed by the peaks of success precipitating as you can expect, a fall. The true stories of Glistrup and Spies are, as the filmmakers insist, almost too bizarre to be true. Clothed in an increasingly weird wardrobe (and absurd beard), Pilou Asbek plays Spies as robustly as one can a man who was at turns a “whoremonger”, drugged out adventurer and general troublemaker. In Glistrup, played with remarkably ugly aplomb by Nicolas Bro, he found his ideal partner to take on the establishment. As an educational experience, Sex, Drugs and Taxation is worth watching; it’s a pile of paper work, wildly dramatized. As a film, like similar bizarro fictional-doc/biopics like It’s All Gone Pete Tong, the movie entertains and skips along with enough energy that you forget you’re doing history homework.
MANAKAMANA: It was Ingmar Bergman that said “the human face is the most important subject of the cinema.” This is a maxim that the makers of MANAKAMANA, Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez (of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab) have clearly taken to heart. This is a certain brand of fixed voyeurism that pushes you to really study another person, if for only ten minutes at a time.
Filmed as a continuous, albeit edited together, sequence of cable car rides traversing the Trisuli Valley in Nepal, MANAKAMANA is a movie free of narrative. Actually, it is a film free of any propulsion at all save for the gliding movement of the cable car itself. But, upon deeper reflection, there is a story. It just happens to be far, far broader than the canvas it’s painted on. What do we see when we look into the faces of these strangers?
A woman looks at her basket of flowers, three young men take pictures and toy with a kitten, two women (mother and daughter?) struggle to eat chocolate popsicles, musicians tune their instruments and engage in an impromptu jam session. These scenes are presented without context, we know nothing about these people but what we can supply with our own imagination and reflections. MANAKAMANA is a “boring” movie, but one that achieves an almost zen-like equilibrium with that idea. We never reach the summit, we never get any answers, we just ride up and down, taking it all in. While I probably would not want to watch this movie again, there is something almost transcendental about the idea of following a cable car full of goats up to a holy site in rural Nepal. It is the magic of humans, of movement, of film, of life.
Deep breath. After absorbing six movies in four days we now move into the second half of TIFF. This is usually where you have to remind yourself that it is a marathon not a sprint. A marathon that involves a lot of sitting in dark rooms. OK, maybe it’s not the best analogy but you get my point. Onward to the next seven movies!