Arrival (Photo: TIFF)

Six movies in one day is too many movies. It will run you ragged. It will turn your brain to soup. That may seem like an odd conclusion for a film critic to draw, especially while reporting from the Toronto International Film Festival, where days are meant to be spent hopping from theater to theater and where there’s always something interesting to see. But every movie-lover has their breaking point, and I approached mine around the time day one suddenly bled into day two with the kickoff selection of Midnight Madness, TIFF’s annual program of witching-hour fare. My eyes should have been shutting at that point, not locking onto another screen.

Fortunately, there are worse ways to end an 18-hour serious-art-film binge than making it out to a late-night premiere of something disreputable. Midnight Madness is a blast—a real party, packed to the gills with rowdy and receptive genre fans, which makes it a fun alternative to the more polite, reserved vibe of a standard festival screening. This year’s midnight cult seemed to understand its imperative to rebel from within; they bounced blue and red balloons down the aisles and heckled the endless slate of advertisements—some unchanged from last year or even the year before—that kicks off every public screening. If the movie didn’t keep me awake, the crowd would.

Free Fire (Photo: TIFF)

The movie kept me awake. Directed by Ben Wheatley (Kill List) and executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, Free Fire (Grade: B-) is a feature-length Mexican standoff, a one-location cartoon bloodbath that could have been put on ice back when knocking off Tarantino was still a growth industry. Set in an unsubtly costume-designed 1978, the film draws battle lines across an abandoned warehouse, dropping a game cast (Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, Jack Reynor, and several others) into an arms deal gone absurdly awry. The quips fly as fast as the bullets do, landing with about the same frequency—which is to say, semi-regularly. (This is a movie where characters take a half-dozen shots, feel every one, but keep crawling and complaining.)

High-Rise, Wheatley’s last film, suggested bigger, better, and more ambitious things for the director than taking up Guy Ritchie’s mantle; there’s nothing here remotely on par with that film’s audience-confounding tactics, like montaging out the entire second act. All the same, Wheatley throws his back into the assignment, keeping the chaos and sight lines straight, even as the characters start to lose track of who shot who. And the actors are mostly aces—Hammer hasn’t been this funny since The Social Network, Copley ever. I smell a future dorm-room staple; sleep deprivation or not, I’m glad I saw it with a midnight audience, whose laughter nearly drowned out the gunfire (loudest maybe since another chatty crime caper, The Way Of The Gun).

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Voyage Of Time (Photo: TIFF)

If Free Fire benefitted from the delirious, up-late atmosphere only a midnight at the Ryerson can provide, a new Terrence Malick project seems best suited for the cavernous innards of a cathedral. Never mind that Voyage Of Time (Grade: B) is a particularly secular creation story, its natural history lesson informed by the contributions of scientific advisors; at this point, Malick’s movies are sermons for the faithful, speaking their gospel through hushed voice-over pontification and stunning Steadicam footage of nature’s greatest wonders. Besides, getting keyed into the director’s awe and reverence might have been a touch easier in a sacred space like a church, where the flashlight beams of wandering ushers and the tinny blare of the occasional cell phone would be strictly forbidden.

Not that there’s much that could distract from the sheer beauty of Malick’s imagery. Essentially a full-length version of the celebrated creation scene in The Tree Of Life—in fact, I’d swear some of that footage has been reused here, or rather that Malick used footage shot for this project in that earlier one—Voyage Of Time employs a spectacular mixture of practical and digital effects to take audiences from the birth of the universe to Earth’s molten formation to the evolution of early life on the planet. It’s a project some 40 years in the making, and it arrives at TIFF in two versions, both bound for theaters: a 90-minute cut narrated by Cate Blanchett (where narrating means speaking directly to Mother Nature, in the usual searching whispers) and a 45-minute cut for IMAX screens, with Brad Pitt delivering the reportedly more educational accompaniment.

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I caught the longer cut, which plays in some respects like the logical next stop in Malick’s evolution into a non-narrative filmmaker. There are no characters, no story, just one striking snapshot of ancient history after another: stars blooming into existence like abstract art; volcanoes reshaping the planet’s surface; a fish crawling on its belly across the sand. There are too many awe-inspiring sights and sounds for me to not recommend Voyage Of Time. But those who have met Malick’s post-Life work with skepticism will find more hallmarks of self-parody; Blanchett’s breathy narration is even vaguer and more interchangeable than the musings of Malick’s last two movies (“So much joy—why not always?” she begs of the big filmmaker in the sky) and the jagged digital footage of modern civilization feels more like random filler than an compelling counterpoint to the “flashbacks.” The feeling I can’t escape is that all of this worked better as a detour in Tree Of Life. Stretched to feature length, it’s basically the most impressively shot episode of Planet Earth ever, but narrated by a stoned philosophy student.

Has Tree Of Life permanently reshaped Malick’s style, his MO? It’s certainly echoed through the movies he’s made since—and plenty he hasn’t made, too. There’s a little bit of Life in the opening scene of Arrival (Grade: B+), which establishes the emotional center of Denis Villeneuve’s surprisingly affecting foray into (relatively) big-budget filmmaking. Surprisingly affecting because one does not generally attend a film from the director of Sicario and Prisoners expecting four-hankie catharsis. The setup isn’t far from Sicario, centered as it is on a highly skilled professional woman fraying against dismissive male superiors. In this case, the professional is a linguist (Amy Adams) brought in to help communicate with alien visitors, who have landed in black spherical ships in a dozen different countries around the world. Working from a short story by Ted Chiang, Villeneuve stages the early passage like a procedural, drawing out the reveal of the aliens by trailing the characters through every stage of protocol en route to first contact. He also understands how monumentally scary the whole experience would be, and amplifies the sense of menace.

Arrival, which owes a debt of influence to everything from 2001 to Contact to the heady blockbusters of Christopher Nolan, isn’t quite hard sci-fi; like The Martian, it simplifies complicated processes for multiplex consumption. (It’s sometimes tough to say what Jeremy Renner, who plays the scientist brought in to accompany Adams’ character into the ship, actually does for the team.) But in an age when Hollywood sees almost nothing but big-bang spectacle in science fiction, the film’s narrow, even intimate focus on the drama of breaking the extraterrestrial language barrier gives it a distinctly adult appeal. By the end, the film has entwined a human story in twisty plot machinations—which it to say, this a movie that wants to blow minds and break hearts. Villeneuve’s greatest trick, beyond going sentimental without losing his chilly craftsmanship, is using the language of movies against viewers—hiding the endgame by making assumptions about how we’ll interpret the structure. The ending packs a wallop, and I suspect it would no matter where I saw the movie.

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American Pastoral (Photo: TIFF)

By contrast, not even the ultra-luxurious digs of the Shangri-La Hotel screening room could save American Pastoral (Grade: D), Ewan McGregor’s bafflingly tone-deaf directorial debut, based on the widely, wildly acclaimed Pulitzer winner by Philip Roth. McGregor (mis)casts himself as Seymour “Swede” Levov, a Jewish family fan and former football hero in 1960s Newark whose perfect American life comes unglued when his stuttering daughter (Dakota Fanning) bombs a post office to protest the Vietnam War. I haven’t read Roth’s novel, though I have it on good authority that there’s a meta-textual element that’s been completely excised. Surely, Roth offered something less simplistic than the toothless parable presented here, which might scan as a lament for the death of American decency at the hands of a destructive counterculture if it had any real perspective on its events at all. McGregor hits some stilted middle ground between a realistic depiction of the period and a hyper-stylized, satirical one, giving himself and his cast (including a particularly lost Jennifer Connelly) license to histrionically overact. I suspect Roth fans and Roth virgins will find common ground in denouncing this adaptation, or at least debating its biggest howlers—I’m torn between McGregor the actor yelling “You’re involved in something there. Something… political” and McGregor the director reminding us of the time frame by cueing up Buffalo Springfield.

Plus: The first day of TIFF is always a clusterfuck of impossible choices, as the major films from other festivals tend to screen against each other—probably because it’s assumed the press will already have seen them, though a fellow Chicago critic I ran into on the street argued that it was TIFF’s way of “not making it easy to see films that premiered elsewhere.” In any case, I spent most of Thursday catching up with Berlin and Cannes favorites, the latter of which Mike D’Angelo covered in full from the ground. Loving (Grade: B-), Jeff Nichols’ film about a famous Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage in America, is extremely well acted and well directed, but basically amounts to two hours of quiet dignity in the face of adversity—not the stuff of crackerjack drama, in other words. The Unknown Girl (Grade: B) applies the Dardennes’ durable style to a Jane-Doe whodunit, establishing that their considerable gifts don’t really lie with intricate plotting. (Great lead performance, though.) And Toni Erdmann (Grade: A-) is about as great as you’ve heard, though people claiming that it’s some broad crowd-pleaser are perhaps reaching—it’s much more Ozu, in its prickly father-daughter relationship, than Sandler.

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