The Toronto International Film Festival turned 40 this year, and because it can’t buy itself a sports car or get a tattoo, it expressed its midlife crisis in another way: by adding a couple of new additions to its already-robust slate of programming. Further stoking the fires of debate between big- and small-screen partisans, the Primetime program offers attendees the chance to see the first two episodes—and in one baffling case, also the eighth episode—of several international series, including the rebooted Heroes Reborn, the second season of the French horror series The Returned, and Jason Reitman’s new Hulu show, Casual. The other new program, Platform (named for the Jia Zhang-ke film), adds a competition lineup to this famously non-competitive festival, pitting a handful of films by mostly unknown directors against each other.
Will either of these programs last? No one goes to a major international film festival to get an early start on the fall television season. (Well, no one should anyway.) And no one goes to Toronto expecting the kind of carefully curated lineup offered at Berlin, Venice, or Cannes. TIFF is about quantity and variety, apples and oranges. It’s the festival you attend if you can’t attend those other festivals, because most of their major highlights play again here. Its identity is that it has no identity, beyond a general, democratic support of cinema of all shapes and sizes. And so covering Toronto becomes an exercise in setting priorities—in deciding what kind of cinema deserves your precious time and what kind doesn’t.
Two days into my fourth year at TIFF—my third for the A.V. Club, and my second with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, who wrote yesterday’s kickoff dispatch—and I’m already struggling with that balancing act, the push-pull between getting the scoop on something “major” and rolling the dice on something potentially major. There’s no reason, beyond providing some early word, to shift your schedule to accommodate a movie that will be playing in every mall and multiplex within a few weeks, even a few days. And yet Prometheus notwithstanding, who am I to resist the gravitational pull of Ridley Scott blasting himself back into the realm of futuristic sci-fi? The opening minutes of his latest mega-budget Hollywood effort survey the barren surface of a lonely planet, as the score (by Harry Gregson-Williams) not-so-subtly evokes the eerie early tinkle of the Nostromo’s doomed voyage. And yet The Martian (Grade: B), Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s recent bestseller, is no chilly space odyssey. It’s more Apollo 13 than Alien, more bear hug than death grip. It presents a deep space where people can hear you scream, provided you can project your voice.
Exhibiting the proper mixture of fear and fortitude, desperation and good humor, Matt Damon slims down and beards up to play astronaut Mark Watney, a botanist left for dead on Mars by his crew, who justifiably presumed he died after being struck by debris during a sandstorm. While Earth mourns his loss, Watney goes into survival mode, learning how to grow crops in the inhospitable soil and struggling to find a way to communicate with ground control. The Martian cuts back and forth from Watney’s solitary plight—he narrates throughout, sometimes to a camera—to the efforts of NASA personnel (most played by movie stars) to organize a rescue mission.
One can can’t help but wish the movie better steeped its audience in the isolation of its title character, making us feel those days (or Sols, in Mars speak) rather than feverishly montaging through them. But that would be a much different film than the endearingly square one that Scott has made. Most of The Martian is pure problem solving, as both Watney and the team back home try to “science the shit out of” their dilemma. The screenplay, a seriocomic streamlining by Drew Goddard, keeps the focus squarely on the problem at hand. What personal lives the characters have are left almost entirely off camera, with the film instead getting into the nitty gritty of their strategizing, the heated backdoor meetings between engineers, PR people, and bigwigs. What emerges is a corny but genuinely rousing ode to both NASA and science in general, with Scott offering not just another fully realized vision of the future, but an uncharacteristic levity and warmth, best characterized, perhaps, by the goofball, diagetic use of disco songs during key action sequences.
The hopefulness of The Martian found a complement, of sorts, in the first film in six years by documentary cinema’s most high-profile name, Michael Moore. Some critics have already called his latest polemic, which he shot in relative secrecy, a return to form, in part because it seems to operate less like a harangue and more like a celebration of what America could be, if it simply adopted the more progressive attitudes and policies of other nations. Yet Moore’s techniques haven’t much evolved. In fact, Where To Invade Next (Grade: C-) may be his most manipulative and speciously argued doc yet, as he creates the kind of black-and-white parallels he’s often accused conservative pundits of manufacturing.
Beginning with a fear-mongering montage of America’s recent follies, set to thunderously melodramatic music, Invade is not, as the title might indicate, an exposé of the military industrial complex. Instead, Moore adopts a cutesy framing device: Carrying an American flag over one shoulder, he travels the world, “invading” (mostly European) countries and claiming their good ideas—about education, about prison reform, about nutrition, etc.—for use back in America. Remember the travelogue segments of Sicko, wherein Moore feigned incredulity at every interviewee who discussed the healthcare system of their country? Invade is like a feature-length version of that passage, presenting scene after scene of the filmmaker gaping in mock confusion as, say, an Italian couple tells him that they get eight weeks of vacation per year, complemented by reverse shots of the same subjects looking baffled when Moore tells them that Americans get zero. (What he means, of course, is that employers aren’t required to offer paid vacation in the States, though he frames it as though that’s the universal policy of all U.S. businesses—a good example of his sometimes-shady rhetorical tactics.)
Invade is often on-point about the failings of American culture, and Moore eventually works his way to a pretty stirring and convincing argument for putting more women in power worldwide. It’s just that his approach is fundamentally reductive, dependent as it is on making the U.S. look like an unlivable hellhole and every country he visits look like paradise on Earth. (It’s tempting to call his use of swelling music as tongue-in-cheek, but that wouldn’t serve the message here.) Moore simplifies complicated issues to serve his agenda, as when he argues that Finland’s no-homework educational policies are the key to its high global ranking—despite the inconvenient truth that South Korea, which ranked number one last year, doesn’t exactly sanction unlimited free time for its students. The director offers no tangible solutions for how America might actually integrate these various philosophies; divorced of his greatest gifts as a filmmaker—digging up damning documents, for example—he simply deals in broad generalizations. And despite closing on a note of pro-American optimism, Invade is the first of Moore’s films that makes me sympathetic to those who claim he hates his own country.
One has to wonder what the documentarian would make of Our Brand Is Crisis (Grade: C), which lionizes the tactics of ruthless political strategists, before belatedly siding with the masses they screw over. Directed by David Gordon Green, the film dramatizes the events depicted in a 2005 documentary of the same name about the role American campaign consultants played in the 2002 Bolivian presidential election. Which is to say, this new Brand treats recent political history as a backdrop for a crowd-pleasing Sandra Bullock vehicle, with the actress cast as a brassy, fictional strategist who hides her heart of gold behind a keen, mercenary instinct for the dirty business of winning votes. It’s the kind of movie that wants you to simultaneously enjoy and condemn the devious tactics of its heroine; we’re meant to root for her to win, then feel scornful of how she might—a Jason Reitman tactic if ever there was one. Actually, Reitman would probably be better suited to this material than Green, who disappears as he never has before into workmanlike competence. Only a funky dance party, which he somehow manages to insert into basically everything he makes, suggests the filmmaker’s presence. I trashed Manglehorn here at Toronto last year, but maybe an outright folly is better than an anonymous mediocrity.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, my major highlights of Toronto so far have all been carryovers from other festivals, which TIFF almost always screens at the very beginning. (For those who don’t hit the other fests, day one can be a nightmare of scheduling conflicts and tough decisions.) Berlin winners made up a large chunk of my first day, beginning with a look at their choice for the Golden Bear (or first place), Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (Grade: B+), in which the formerly imprisoned Iranian director again plays himself, this time driving around Tehran in a cab and picking up various friends, family members, and actors playing strangers. To my eyes, his previous two films, made under house arrest despite a strict legal instruction to put the camera down, were triumphs of political defiance but not of filmmaking: Panahi testing his restrictions but not transcending them. But Taxi, with its episodic structure and spikes of broad comedy, brings out more of the lively auteur who made the great Offside—mostly because his newfound mobility allows him access to more actors and more locations, not to mention a sense of liberty the previous two films naturally couldn’t convey. (Suggested alternate title: This Is A Film.) Inevitably, the material turns self-reflexive, the focus shifting again to Iranian censorship, but Panahi manages to weave his critique more smoothly into the narrative. His presence helps: Visibly relieved to be out on the streets again, Panahi plays himself as an amused observer and terrible cabbie, interjecting with heartening insights like, “All movies are worth watching.” All of yours, certainly, Jafar.
On some level, Taxi is the kind of movie you celebrate simply for its existence; the fact that it got made at all is impressive in and of itself. The same could be said, in a way, for another Berlin winner, Victoria (Grade: C+), with the crucial difference being that there’s little here to admire beyond the logistics of execution. One of those single-shot movies, like Birdman or Rope, Victoria really was shot in one long take, capturing 138 minutes of real time between a pretty Spanish club-hopper (Laia Costa) and the group of amiable knuckleheads she accompanies over an eventful night in Berlin. It’s a feat of planning and commitment for everyone involved, from the actors to the seemingly tireless cameraman, but that’s about all it is. Director-cowriter Sebastian Schipper has applied this magnificent formal stunt to a completely pedestrian boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-girl-into-trouble story, and rather than keeping you locked into the immediacy of the moment, the technique becomes a sole source of interest: You end up marveling at the logistics of the production when you should be getting invested in the plight of these foolish, mostly uninteresting kids. As a relationship study, the film had nothing on the third Berlin title I caught, Andrew Haigh’s devastating 45 Years (Grade: A-), which builds steadily in poignancy over its runtime, buoyed by a pair of remarkably lived-in performances. As Ignatiy wrote about the film yesterday, I’ll save further thoughts for when the film opens Stateside in December, adding only that while my festival partner saw a good deal of theater in 45 Years, I detected more of its short-story roots, particularly in its economy and the open-ended sting of its ending.
Otherwise, it was a perfect couple days to catch up with Cannes titles, none of which disappointed. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has a great gift for using absurdism to examine larger topics, from social/parental conditioning (his magnificent Dogtooth) to the art of acting (Alps). Set in an alternate world where single people are given 40 days to find a life partner before being transformed into an animal of their choice, The Lobster (Grade: B) tackles the pressures society puts on people to either settle down with someone or, conversely, to maintain their autonomy. The director’s first English-language film, it feels nonetheless quintessentially Lanthimosian in its potent blend of deadpan satire and nightmarish horror. If the central conceit never quite deepens into a major insight, the filmmaker refusing to say something especially significant about romantic attachment (or un-attachment), The Lobster still works very well as comedy, in no small part because the actors—especially a frumpy, sadsack Colin Farrell—absolutely nail the delivery of Lanthimos’ hilarious lobotomy-patient dialogue.
Questions of meaning, and what the filmmaker is “saying,” have widely plagued Sicario (Grade: B+), Denis Villeneuve’s hellishly intense drug-cartel thriller. Again, as the film opens next week (and will be a topic of discussion in the next Film Club video), I’ll only breeze the surface of this very Cormac McCarthy-ish study in innocence pitted against chaos and unspeakable malice. It pulls the confounding trick of setting up a perfectly familiar one-honest-cop scenario (with the terrific Emily Blunt as said cop) and then shatters our expectations of how it might unfold. It’s a merciless film, in more ways than one.
So, too, is Green Room (Grade: A-), from Jeremy Saulnier, the writer-director of Blue Ruin. Somehow shredding the nerves even more skillfully than he did last time, Saulnier pits a touring hardcore band against neo-Nazi punks in a pressure cooker bad-luck scenario. As the title indicates, large stretches of the film take place in a green room, which becomes the main battleground between these two groups, forced into a desperate confrontation. Saulnier delivers the requisite (and quite gory) thrills, while allowing his characters to respond with realistic terror and agony; I thought of Deliverance when Anton Yelchin, as our default hero, completely loses his shit over some very nasty blade wounds. As bracing as the action is, though, the tense lead-up to it is even more masterful, Saulnier chilling the blood with how calmly and rationally his skinhead villains go about executing their, uh, solution. (Casting Patrick Stewart as a pragmatic big bad was a true casting coup.) Green Room is propulsive, artful genre filmmaking, and I wish I could have seen it at the Midnight Madness premiere, with a big audience. But at Toronto, it’s all about priorities, and that new Michael Moore film isn’t going to watch itself.