Jason Wood, Artistic Director for Film at HOME, reports back on the films he viewed at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival:
For expedience plot details taken from TIFF.
The Limehouse Golem
In Victorian-era London, an intrepid police inspector (Bill Nighy) investigates a series of brutal killings that seem to be linked to a fearsome creature of Jewish legend. Based on Peter Ackroyd’s Victorian London–set novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, this attempt to put a spin on the serial killer by taking a female perspective (I won’t say more so as to not give the twist away) is an enjoyable enough misfire with a strong cast including Eddie Marsan and Daniel Mays. Nighy is fine in the central role and obviously feels liberated from Exotic Marigold Hotel territory but truth be told I found this an unoriginal and uninspired retread of Murder by Decree via Ripper Street. 19th century London is vividly realized and it’s certainly somewhere I wouldn’t have wanted to live.
Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Armie Hammer headline the second feature from director Tom Ford (A Single Man), about a woman who is forced to confront the demons of her past as she is drawn into the world of a thriller novel written by her ex-husband. Adapted from Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, Ford’s look at the inner life of a complex woman whose life is about to be turned upside down left me cold. Critics however have been unanimous in their praise. It is well performed – Michael Shannon is a stand out and I feel a Shannon season coming on, but this is a chilly, somewhat preposterous film that is over designed and far too convinced of its own brilliance. Aaron Taylor Johnson continues his quest to be Britain’s worst and yet most consistently employed actor (Jude Law is in second). For me, neither successful as a thriller nor as a piece of psychological. It’s all surface and very shallow depth and very much a film by a fashion designer.
Dog Eat Dog
Troy (Nicolas Cage), Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe), and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) are three ex-cons looking for a payday, a final big score that will be their ticket to an early retirement. Luckily, Mafioso “The Greek” (director Paul Schrader) has just the job for them: kidnapping a mobster’s baby. Deep down, they know this is a bad idea, but does that stop them? Of course not. Pitch-black hilarity ensues. Based on a 1995 novel by writer and ex-convict Edward Bunker (who co-wrote the scripts for Straight Time, Animal Factory, and Runaway Train), Paul Schrader’s potty-mouthed potboiler has Dafoe as its ace in the pack. It’s a scintillating, bat-shit crazy performance and you simply can’t take your eyes off him. Cage is better than he has been since Bad Lieutenant (that’s not saying much) and the film has a suitably scuzzy feel. Schrader directs with flair, though I felt his part to be a miss-step.
Chilean director Pablo Larraín (Tony Manero, No) depicts the events leading up to and following the assassination of JFK through the eyes of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Natalie Portman). The assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 was one of those moments that defined a generation. That this handsome, charismatic leader with a beautiful wife and two young children could have his life ended so brutally defied comprehension. Told solely through the eyes of Jackie Kennedy, I found this film to be near perfect. Portman is sensational in the lead role and there is strong support from Greta Gerwig, John Hurt and Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy. Hell, Richard E. Grant is in it, and even he is good. It’s meticulously structured and a poignant and cogent meditation on grief, power and mythology. A film filled with profound and profoundly intimate moments, I was reminded of Munch’s The Hours and the Times in its intelligent analysis of a public figure. Mica Levi’s score is superb.
The second film from Pablo Larraín weaves an engrossing metafictional fable around the 1948 manhunt for celebrated poet and politician Pablo Neruda, who goes underground when Chile outlaws communism and Neruda finds himself pursued by an ambitious police inspector (Gael García Bernal, playing a fictitious character) hoping to make a name for himself by capturing the famous fugitive. A million miles from IL Postino, Neruda shows how the words and actions of one man can rouse a nation and give a voice to the voiceless. Bernal is superb, emanating Trintingnant in The Conformist, and Luis Gnecco and Mercedes Morán also both excel as Neruda and his wife Delia. Considering his past achievements and the recent Jackie, it’s hard to think of a director currently working today who is as accomplished and prolific as Larraín who here fully explores and tests the limits of the filmic biography.
Rooney Mara (Carol) and Ben Mendelsohn (Mississippi Grind,) star in this adaptation of David Harrower’s play Blackbird, about a young woman who arrives in the workplace of an older man from her past, seeking answers for the long-ago events that have fatefully shaped both of their lives. Described as a psychological thriller with elements of a revenge plot, Una paddles in murky moral waters as it looks at grooming, abuse and paedophilia, but despite committed performances this felt like a very theatrical endeavor and failed to convince. The Kent coast makes a suitably grim backdrop.
In the new film from provocative Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk (Pieta), a poor North Korean fisherman finds himself an accidental defector, and is groomed to be a spy by an ambitious South Korean military officer. A highly original rumination on the question of what it means to be a Korean national today, and on the suffering caused by the political division of the peninsula, The Net features an extraordinarily riveting central performance from Ryoo Seung-bum. The director is known for his tendency towards shock but his latest is disquieting for al together different reasons. It’s a harrowing and extremely cogent portrait of how individuals are exploited and abused for political gain.
Liz (Dakota Fanning) has a quiet country life on a farm with her kind-hearted husband and children, but we immediately sense that things are too good to be true. One Sunday, a mysterious new reverend (a` heavily scarred Guy Pearce) gives his inaugural sermon, and Liz fills with terror; her past has come back to haunt her. Following the service, a local woman goes into labour on the church floor. Through no fault of Liz’s, the birth goes woefully wrong. When the woman’s husband seeks revenge, the reverend comes to the rescue of Liz and her family — though he warns that punishment will soon befall her. The next day, the family’s sheep are found slaughtered, Liz is sequestered, and her daughter is kidnapped. Thus begins a nigh-biblical sequence of events involving blood, fire, and an epic years-long odyssey spanning states and territories. Establishing the stakes early on, and aided by Rogier Stoffers’ lush images, Koolhoven suffuses Brimstone with tension that never lets up. Fanning snares our sympathies with her character’s devotion to protect those she loves, while Pearce is chilling as an unrelenting force. Despite their opposition, both Liz and the reverend seek redemption. Only one shall apprehend it. Imagine Night of the Hunter meets Deadwood. Way too long though…
Manchester By the Sea
With only his third feature in 16 years, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) takes us through a familiar milieu in Manchester by the Sea, but does so in wholly unfamiliar ways. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is the resident handyman for a small apartment complex in a Boston suburb. He spends his days shovelling snow, fixing leaks, and doing his best to ignore the tenants’ small talk. He spends his evenings either alone in his basement apartment or nursing a beer at his local, where he’ll pick a fight with anyone who throws a glance his way. Yet somehow we know that buried beneath this sadness is another life.
When he receives the news that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died of a congenital heart condition and that, to his unpleasant surprise, he’s been appointed legal guardian of Joe’s teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Lee returns to his nearby seaside hometown, a place of both cherished and painful memories. As this mismatched pair stumbles through the mundane details of estate planning and the awkward strain of adolescence, Lee is forced to confront his past, revealed seamlessly through flashbacks, and the realities of his present. Reminiscent of the character driven American cinema of the 1970s (Ashby, Ritchie, Rafelson), Manchester by the Sea offers an extraordinary and harrowing portrait of lost souls. Like Margaret this is a flawed and sometimes messy film and yet it is these very flaws that lend the film its life and natural ability to replicate the human experience. Certain to garner exceptional reviews, this will be heralded as a major work and quite rightly so. The performances are first rate and the film is incredibly attuned to the failings and foibles of human nature. Despite moments of brevity this is a dark work unafraid to sine a light on the darker recesses of the human soul but it is all the richer for it. A film for lost souls, it is explicit on the subject of trauma and depression, Affleck’s ‘I can’t beat this. I just can’t’ delivering a dagger to the hardest heart.
Acclaimed theatre director William Oldroyd relocates Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to 19th-century North Eastern England, in this Gothic tale about a young woman (Florence Pugh) trapped in a marriage of convenience whose passionate affair unleashes a maelstrom of murder and mayhem on a country estate. With formal overtones of Ordet, this incredibly primal work plays out like an early century film noir with increased racial and class overtones. Pugh is fantastic in the central role, a little ball of evil bending the universe and its subjects to her own decree, Oldroyd beautifully balances the dichotomy between the wilds of nature and the chilly symbolism of the patriarchal manor, conjuring a gothic tale of repeated betrayal that is as enthralling as it is disturbing.
It’s 1978, and Justine (Brie Larson) has brokered a gun deal in an abandoned warehouse between IRA men Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley), and gun dealers Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Ord (Armie Hammer). Everything seems to be going smoothly — until shots are fired during the handover and pandemonium ensues, the warehouse erupting in a barrage of gunfire worthy of John Woo. The explosive and chaotic battle escalates to a manic standoff, a bloody game of survival where everyone left alive is either trying to escape with a bag of money, or make sure that nobody else does. Executive produced by Marin Scorsese, I must admit that I anticipated a lazy orgy of wise cracks and violence. But this is much better than that. Shot entirely on location in Brighton, this has the authentic look and film of a 1970s movie. Incredibly atmospheric, it’s also a lot of fun, due mainly to the sharp as a tact script by Amy Jump. Think Reservoir Dogs, minus the bullshit machismo.
Marital life is uneventful for Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) and Akie (Mariko Tsutsui). Each day goes by as if according to a well-known script. Toshio runs a machinery workshop out of his house, and the only time he spends with his wife and young daughter is when the family sits together almost wordlessly around the dining table. They go on this way, seemingly content to live as strangers to one another, until one day when, in front of Toshio’s shop, there appears a clean-faced man in a white shirt. It’s Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), an old friend of Toshio’s who has just gotten out of prison. His gentle manners cannot conceal his disquieting presence; he is clearly a harbinger of dark times. The winner of the best film in Cannes Un Certain Regard 2016, I found this to be an utterly fascinating work that displays a morql complexity worthy of Dennis Potter.
The second feature from writer-director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) follows its young protagonist from childhood to adulthood as he navigates both the dangers of drugs and violence in his depressed Florida neighbourhood, and his complex love for his male best friend. An impeccably crafted study of African-American masculinity from a vital creative voice in contemporary cinema, this synthesis of Boyhood, George Washington, Killer of Sheep and the multi-sexual lyrics of Frank Ocean is one of the finest festival discoveries I can remember. Structured according to the life cycle of its main protagonist Little/Chiron, this is a complex and audacious work about the black experience, the transition from childhood to adulthood and sexuality. Trevante Rhodes is a sensation as the older Chiron in a meticulously made work that will echo and reverberate for some time to come.
One Eyed Jacks
Beautifully restored thanks to the efforts of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, Marlon Brando’s only film as director is a brilliant and idiosyncratic revenge western about a betrayed bandit (Brando) hunting down the partner (Karl Malden) who left him in the lurch. The film joins Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, Peter Lorre’s The Lost One, and Barbara Loden’s Wanda as ill-fated “one-shot” directorial debuts by celebrated actors. Producing the film through his company Pennebaker Productions (named after his mother), Brando also took over directing duties after Stanley Kubrick decamped to make Lolita. Unsurprisingly, Brando’s indulgent approach proved the opposite of Kubrick’s chill perfectionism, bloating the budget (and the running time), flummoxing the studio, and exasperating the crew — the director-star reportedly waited days for just the Monterrey right wave to roll in. Featuring a roll call of celebrated character actors (Timothy Carey, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens) and the last film to be shot in VistaVision, One Eyed Jacks makes virtue of its coastal location and its famously improvised nature. An extremely sadistic work, it’s idiosyncratic and utterly beguiling.
Cannes prize-winning director Amat Escalante (Heli) combines family drama and social commentary with science fiction and horror in this hypnotic and utterly enthralling tale, about an unhappily married couple whose life is turned upside down when they encounter a mysterious creature that is both a source of pleasure and a force of destruction. Beautifully shot and paced, this feels like a much more mature work from Escalante that looks at a chauvinistic society characterized by homophobia, misogyny and an appetite for self-destruction. The film’s originality is a little blunted by memories of Zulawaski’s Possession but this still stands as sensual, erotic, and uncompromisingly out there.
Heal the Living
Ivory Coast-born filmmaker Katell Quillévéré adaptation of Maylis de Kerangal’s novel begins in innocence as a French teenager leaves his girlfriend’s apartment and joins his friends on a road trip to a seaside surfing spot. In another town, a woman receives the news that her heart condition has become more serious. Elsewhere, medical staff at a regional hospital work through the critical daily details of saving lives. Quillévéré threads together these interconnecting stories with skill and sensitivity as she ruminates on chance, consequence and the precariousness of life and this is certainly an emotional experience but I found the film less satisfying than the director’s Love Like Poison and at times felt myself a little manipulated.
Ruth (writer-director Alice Lowe, Sightseers) is seven months pregnant, and like many expectant mothers believes that her baby is speaking to her through an inner voice — the only difference being that her unborn child is telling her to go on a killing spree. Still mourning the death of her husband just months before, Ruth allows her baby to coach her on murder techniques and push her onward in a quest to dispatch people who stand in her way, from a pet shop owner to a lonely businesswoman (Kate Dickie). Utterly gleeful in its depiction of carnage and vengeance, this dark, dark and very funny comedy confirms Lowe, who was over seven months pregnant herself while filming this post-feminist revenge film, as a major talent in the Julia Davis vein. A fucked up synthesis of American Psycho, Child’s Play and Rosemary’s Baby, the film has some lovely reach outs to horror classics such as Don’t Look Now but also, behind the gore, makes a serious point about natal depression and grief. Also, how can you not like a film in which a bald man takes his wig off and sicks up into it?
La La Land
An ambitious jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) fall in love while pursuing their dreams of stardom, in this dazzlingly stylized homage to the classic Hollywood musical from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle. Drawing upon studio-era spectacle, La La Land ushers the musical into the 21st century in all its brightly coloured, anamorphic splendour, I so wanted to dislike this film it’s untrue but it’s impossible not to be beguiled by something that has such love for all the good things in life. Stone and Gosling are terrific and Chazelle’s integrity and respect for jazz also shines through so very brightly. A love letter to cinema (especially Rebel Without A Cause), and to the concept of love itself, the atrociously titled La La Land is adrenalin shot for the head and the heart.
Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey
The debut documentary from Terrence Malick chronicles nothing less than the history of the universe. A years in the making ode to the wonder of creation, it is impossible not to stand awestruck at the images of this film and visually it approaches perfection. It is however also overbearing and boorish in its religious evangelism. The solemn voiceover from Cate Blanchett is crass and interminable. This is the last Malick film I will ever see.
Salt and Fire
And then another crushing disappointment. Michael Shannon, Gael García Bernal and Veronica Ferres star in a genre bending eco thriller about a scientist and a corporate CEO who must overcome their ideological differences in order to avert potential disaster from a volcano on the verge of eruption. Shot on Bolivia’s awe-inspiring Uyuni salt flats, Salt and Fire takes its tonal lead from this barren and otherworldly setting and has a few Herzogian flourishes, such as a perfectly healthy man who uses a wheelchair. Shannon aside, it also has the smallest cast of male actors since Even Dwarves Started Small. Ferres is a void in the central role and the dialogue feels very stilted.
Filipino firebrand Brillante Mendoza (Slingshot, Kinatay) incisively explores the street-level corruption of the Duterte-era Philippines with this tragicomic tale about a low-level drug dealer (Jaclyn Jose, Best Actress winner at Cannes) on a desperate search for cash to pay a bribe to the local cops. Taking aim at the government’s opportunistic crusade against the drug trade — an issue that reputedly got strongman Rodrigo Duterte elected president earlier this year — and the effect it has on the powerless in Filipino society, Mendoza takes on a hellish if darkly comic journey into his country’s underbelly in which he brilliantly demonstrates that the drug trade is less an evil unto itself than it is a symptom or side effect of endemic poverty and corruption.