TIFF 2013: The Final Curtain Call

By: Daniel Reynolds

To read some additional TIFF reviews check out the previous column HERE.

There are always more movies! The title says it all. After a fever dream week of images and dark rooms, enjoy some of my thoughts on the last bunch of films I saw during the second half of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin.

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin.

Under the Skin: Based on the acclaimed 2000 Michel Faber novel, Jonathan Glazer‘s Under the Skin is an uncommon and unsettling roll of film. An early scene, after the jaw dropping dissonant opening sequence, has the film’s star, Scarlett Johansson, studying an ant; it’s a symbolically potent image even as the film leaves us, much like the clueless insect, groping for answers by the end.

Borrowing liberally from the Stanley Kubrick school of uncomfortably controlled film making, Glazer sculpts an airy narrative regarding a ‘woman’ journeying around Scotland interacting with men. Unremarkable right? The unnerving hook of the film comes from its first sequence when the implication is made clear that this woman is not a woman. She is not human at all.

To that end, the film grapples with human discovery, sexual politics and a disquieting eye as to what it means to actually be of human body (spoiler: it can get ugly). As the film moves into its second half it gets both increasingly murky and more emotionally demanding. Johansson is always compelling to watch (it helps that – and I swear this is the appropriate word here – she is a babe) but she is increasingly left adrift in the film’s swimming narrative. Still, there’s those images that beggar belief and that score, a recurring set of shearing strings, sounding like a nouveau Hitchcock idea, that is uncontrollably alluring. Like its protagonist, there is something increasingly off about Under the Skin, and yet it has the suggestive ability to get, well, under your skin.

Joel Edgerton in Felony.

Joel Edgerton in Felony.

Felony: As a lover of crime and twisting caper stories, I went into the Joel Edgerton penned film Felony with some excitement. I admit I was hoping for some grand statement similar to Animal Kingdom, the Edgerton starring 2010 film that introduced (to me anyway) a whole host of Australian actors and filmmakers. Felony, ably directed by Matthew Saville, is not grand but it does lace together a compact story of professional disillusionment and compromise that is easily (actually, probably too easily) digested.

Edgerton is Detective Malcolm Toohey, standard issue good guy cop who makes the mistake of clipping a kid on a bicycle with his car one night on his way home from a celebratory evening at the pub. The kid ends up in a coma and Toohey ends up in a purgatory of his own design. We meet the boy’s mother, Ankhila (Sarah Roberts) and Toohey’s wife (Melissa George), both left to grapple with the lead cop’s choices. At this point, the film has all the potential to sink into a goopy morass. Fortunately, Tom Wilkinson is on hand to be charming and verbose and do Tom Wilkinson-y things. For a film teetering on the brink of dour melodrama, he is a value add as Det. Carl Summer, the wizened veteran who wants to keep the band humming together. Naturally with miscarried justice, new Det. Jim Melic (played by earnest jughead Jai Courtney, doing his best to not get blown off the screen), wants to uncover the truth. To the film’s credit, the three men all become embroiled in a small morality play, each implicating or implicated by the other, struggling to grasp at some equilibrium found in the presumed safe haven of justice. So yes, Felony is not much of a grand criminal expose, but it works well enough as a small “p” police procedural to be a satisfying experience.

Undergoing 'sensing' in REAL.

Undergoing ‘sensing’ in REAL.

REAL: Sometimes, when you skim the synopsis of movies during TIFF, your mind is convinced that the movie you are going to see will be compelling. Then, sometimes, you go to see a movie like REAL and you wonder if your mind was in a living coma at the time.

After his long time friend and lover Atsumi (Haruka Ayase) attempts suicide, the bereaved Koichi (Takeru Sato) decides to undergo a process known as ‘sensing’ to enter and revive her mind. On the surface, this is a potent idea, not unlike the action packed dream trap puzzles of Inception. Koichi goes diving into landscapes that are fluidly real, sliding into scenes with the constant threat of “dream within a dream” logic looming. The plot hinges on the search for a drawing of a plesiosaur, as a symbol for some past childhood trauma. The two long time lovers go diving into their dreams to uncover and repair the damage.

Unfortunately, as directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, REAL is something of a nightmare pastiche. Never missing a chance to spell out everything as it is literally happening, Kurosawa packs on the melodrama so much that each airtight scene ends up feeling like a poorly staged play. That it ends with a dreamy battle against an actual metaphysical plesiosaur in a warehouse is, I’m sorry to say, not something I’m making up. That’s real.

The brothers of Concrete Night.

The brothers of Concrete Night.

Concrete Night: You know that thing, where people want to make fun of a supposed ‘arty’ movie and its pretensions? They’ll talk about it being in black and white, maybe mention how completely detached from real life it is with an entirely airless and humourless tone? Well, that movie is Concrete Night. Directed by Pirjo Honkasalo, Concrete Night is the opaque story of Simo and his family living in slums somewhere in Finland. There’s a mother who may be a prostitute, or at least, a woman of some ill repute. There is an older brother, whom Simo looks up to unconditionally and irresponsibly. And there is the pervading sense of gloom that hangs so thoroughly over their lives.

The misunderstanding is this: when making a film of black and white, the contrast is important. Concrete Night gives us only the darkness, the sense of inevitable tragedy that ultimately ends up feeling meaningless in its unrelenting nature. I felt as though everything about this film had been conveyed within the first 15 minutes and spent the rest of my time in the theatre wondering why we needed another 90. As the title suggests, this is a hard, dark movie with an unresponsive texture. Look for it at your local art house cinema one day.

Ida

Ida.

Ida: Now, here is a tragic black and white movie, filmed in an equally stark location (1960s Poland) by Pawel Pawlikoski, that instead moves and inspires its audience to some laughter, to empathy, and an earned sense of sadness. Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) is an orphan and a studying nun, soon to be taking her vows. She is also, as she learns from her blunt, troubled aunt Wanda (the mesmerizing Agata Kulesza), a Jew. What follows is a story of discovery, as both Ida and Wanda dig through the tragedies of their shared World War II-era past and search inwardly for the significance of their future. Anchoring the film is Trzebuchowska’s Ida, a solid, quiet soul with eyes that seem to be constantly searching for understanding and reassurance. Meanwhile Kulesza, as Wanda, is a Judge of high standing, but also a drinker and carouser. She seems trapped by her history, her landscape, by even the black-and-white nature of the film itself. You get the sense Wanda wishes her life could be in colour.

Much of the film is set in a drab atmosphere. Half of the spaces feel unoccupied, cavernous. In fact, the voices in the movie always seem to be echoing, as if the film were being played out in some abandoned cathedral. The journey for both women becomes one of both union and division. There is a mountain of unspoken pain here, and the hard eyes of Wanda confirm that there are perhaps truths that Ida should not know, even as Wanda pushes her to experience life. It becomes remarkable then, as the landscape seems to stretch on into a forever of nothingness, watching Ida decide for herself. There is the past, there is the future and there are her actions of the present. Ida is the film that can be described as ‘arty’ and have it be a divine compliment.

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L’Intrepido: To begin with, L’Intrepido introduces us to a man, Antonio (Antonio Albanese), and we like him immediately. With a smiling warm face and friendly vibe, the audience is on Antonio’s side. As the title’s translation suggests, he is a lonely hero, which of course makes him all the more endearing. However, there are complications, not the least of which is the plot construction of the movie Antonio finds himself in.

Here is Antonio’s life: he is a fill-in. He gets set up and sent out on jobs all over Milan, working, for example, as a construction worker, a child’s entertainer and a sign poster all in one day. He gets to deliver (and share) some pizzas, he even drives a street car for a morning. This part of the movie is fun and entertaining. But those complications! Antonio meets a young woman while writing a test (the context of this test is never explained sufficiently), and they strike up a friendship. That plot ends abruptly. We learn Antonio has a son, he’s a struggling musician. He drops into and out of the movie infrequently enough that this plot never seems to develop smoothly. We learn Antonio has an ex-wife, but we have no idea what happened between them. Antonio ends up in more and more bizarre jobs (working at a shoe store that is a front for a secondhand prosthetics empire, then as a miner in Albania, for real). I left the movie still wondering what the point of it all was. What started as a slice of classic Italian neo-realism, some sort of aged Il Posto take on modern Italy, slid into one of meaninglessness. I hope Antonio is still out there somewhere and he fills-in on a better movie.

Night-Moves-Poster-206x300

Night Moves: Here is a special movie that subverts narrative sprawl and puts film economy into action. For the fans of director Kelly Reichardt, it should come as no surprise that her latest film, Night Moves, keeps its scope small, its script painfully sharp and, in a new twist, amps the thrills up considerably.

Night Moves concerns three people: Josh, Dena and Harmon. They are played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard, respectively. The movie lays out their decision to plan and execute a little bit of home grown eco-terrorism by blowing up a dam in rural Oregon. It reads simply, and the characters in the movie believe it will be simple. Get explosives, put them near dam, blow it up, disappear into the night. The compelling part comes not from the actions of the plot but from the results of those actions. This is where the film shines out of the moral darkness, carried beautifully by its actors. Sarsgaard, for his part, brings his usual loose cannon, dead-eyed energy to the film. His Harmon is jaded and perhaps reckless. Fanning plays Dena as a complicated girl, both the strongest and weakest member of the trio. And finally, Eisenberg does more with his nervous eyes, those eyes that belie an abject panic struggling to project strength, than most flailing actors can do with more dramatic pyrotechnics. This is a tense movie, with a minor plunky drone score and taut direction from Reichardt, but its tension comes not from explosives or car chases, it comes from the always scary notions of trust, the minute interactions between people in a community, and the fear of always looking over your shoulder. You should see it.

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And there you have it. After 11 days, I managed to see 13 films of which three achieved a certain greatness, three sunk to a certain badness, and seven ranged from interesting trifles to compelling failures. This is, as I have said, the TIFF gamble and I’ll be right there next year to do it all again. As for my brother Dennis, well, he’ll be resting his eyes for the rest of the month.

My Top Three Films of TIFF:

1) Like Father, Like Son

2) Night Moves

3) Ida

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