Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds

Road tripping with Werner Herzog as TIFF meanders to the finish line

Whether a critic likes it or not, Twitter reactions are the new first-look reviews at film festivals. As soon as the credits stop rolling and the lights go up, you’ll see writers in the audience firing up their phones, competing to see who can most effectively set the tone for all future discussions of a film in 280 characters or less. Some critics are really good at this—like A.A. Dowd, who dutifully posts a reaction tweet for every festival title he sees. I, on the other hand, post opinions on Twitter sporadically and belatedly, and still have the audacity to wonder why they’re not taking off like I’d like them to.

But at least I’m not live-tweeting films as I watch them. It’s a practice unique to the new world of virtual film festivals, where no one else is in the room and the lights are probably on and who’s there to stop you, anyway? Almost as soon as the live-tweets started, they were condemned, however, to the point where festivals have started sending out emails asking critics not to indulge. As someone who can’t manage to tweet about a movie after it’s over half of the time, this has never been a problem for me—until I saw Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds (Grade: B-).

Fireball: Visitors From Other Worlds
Fireball: Visitors From Other Worlds
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

This new documentary, which can basically be described as Werner Herzog going on an endearingly nerdy road trip with his buddy Clive Oppenheimer to learn about meteorites, is so packed with Herzogisms that it actually took discipline not to share each one of them as they came up. It’s perfectly ethical to take notes during a movie, however, and so here are a few of the best ones: Herzog describes a town in the Yucatan as “a beach resort so godforsaken, you want to cry,” before lamenting that the local canines are “too dimwitted to understand that three-quarters of all species were extinguished by the event that took place right here.” Observing a model of a dinosaur, he muses: “Their eyes were made by humans. They see nothing.” He denounces “the stupid doctrine of film school,” sings the praises of the movie Deep Impact, and while touring a South Korean facility that “was more spacious than anticipated,” he recounts the slow, agonizing deaths by starvation of early Antarctic explorers over footage of a cozy dining hall.

It’s Herzog doing his Herzog thing, in other words. And he and co-director Oppenheimer, the Cambridge professor who appeared in Herzog’s 2007 film Encounters At The End Of The World and also co-directed 2016s Into The Inferno, are in a jovial mood as they traipse from Mexico to Antarctica to Papua New Guinea in search of our anthropological and geological connections to the meteorites that have shaped our planet. That means the old “we are all made of stardust” saw, confirmed here by a scientist who gamely chuckles at Herzog’s joke that he’s not stardust, he’s Bavarian. This film is charming and educational enough, but it’s not especially profound; it flirts with big ideas about the origins of life and the twin cycles of creation and destruction but doesn’t really let them sink in. Herzog’s too excited to move on to the next destination, and at times the handheld camerawork makes Fireball feel like watching his home movies from a vacation paid for by Apple. (It’s not all handheld, however; cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger steps in for the drone shots.) But if Herzog wants to ditch the whole “legendary filmmaker” thing and start a new career as the host of a scientific travel series, we’ve got a pitch for him.

Wildfire
Wildfire
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

Where Fireball is mobile, family drama Wildfire (Grade: B) is stuck in place—but it’s an interesting place: the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, which is so close that sisters Kelly (Nika McGuigan) and Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) used to play a game where they’d float between the two countries in a nearby lake. That was before their lives were scarred by tragedy, however, putting Kelly on a troubled path that makes her a pariah when she returns to their hometown as abruptly as she left. Much of director Cathy Brady’s film is dedicated to unpacking the sisters’ traumatic past, adding a nonlinear element that makes this kitchen-sink drama notably more engaging. But even if it was a wholly conventional narrative, McGuigan and Noone’s believable bond and naturalistic performances as troubled “Irish twins” would make Wildfire an engrossing watch—and a melancholy one, considering that McGuigan died from cancer shortly after the completion of the film.

Wildfire puts its cast’s talents toward naturalistic ends, but Fauna (Grade: B-), prolific Mexican-Canadian director Nicolás Pereda’s ninth feature in 13 years (with a handful of documentaries and shorts in between), is more interested in the artifice of acting. Opening with a road-tripping couple whose GPS keeps going out, Fauna starts off as what seems to be a pretty conventional if unusually wry dramedy, following Luisa (Luisa Pardo), Luisa’s boyfriend Paco (Francisco Barreiro), and her estranged brother Gabino (Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez) as they travel to visit Luisa and Gabino’s parents out in the sticks of Northern Mexico. But then Luisa’s dad asks Paco to recite some dialogue from his role on Narcos—the same role that Barreiro plays in real life—and things start, oh so gently, to get weird.

Fauna
Fauna
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

This is a more subdued film than Shinichiro Ueda’s Special Actors, which we reviewed out of the Fantasia Film Festival last month. But its appreciation for the craft is similar, as Pereda cleverly folds the story in on itself until the cast is playing characters who are playing characters who are rehearsing scenes and running lines in the story within the larger story. There’s an innocence to the way the characters put on noir archetypes like a child dressing up in an adult’s clothes, an impression that’s enhanced by the film’s use of some (presumably intentionally) terrible wigs. All this artifice isn’t for its own sake, however—in contemporary Mexico, femme fatales and dangerous, powerful men are intertwined with narco culture. And Fauna has some smart things to say about how the drug trade and its attendant stereotypes have changed the Mexican popular imagination. You just have to pay attention to follow the film’s many idiosyncratic twists and turns.

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