TIFF turns into Cannes

The first two days of screenings in Toronto have yet to reveal any irresistible standouts. The films that premiered at Cannes seem to be the biggest draws so far, but it appears the most promising fare at TIFF will roll our over the next few days. Each of the three premieres that have been screened thus far — The Martian, Demolition and Where to Invade Next? — were met with solid approval, but none of them seem to have taken off into the same stratosphere as Carol, Spotlight, Beasts of No Nation and Steve Jobs at Telluride. As it stands now, that’s the situation. No film has caught fire with particularly strong buzz, but that will hopefully change soon as more movies are unveiled.
After its bow at Cannes, where it got mostly positive reviews, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario finally had its North American debut. The 3 o’clock screening at the Scotia Bank theater was as packed as any screening could get. The line stretched outdoors and the excitement was palpable. Villeneuve is French Canadian. Along with Xavier Dolan, Jean Marc-Valleeone, he’s one of the major Quebecois directors who have broken through the Hollywood system the past few years. All three are artistically driven filmmakers who seek to make art out of commercial films.
Sicario has been compared to Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic for its investigation of the Mexican drug cartel. That’s where comparisons should end. Sicario is a whole other beast, relying heavily on atmosphere, a pulse pounding score and Roger Deakins’ beautfully gritty photography. Emily Blunt, in the best performance of her career, is a SWAT team agent who gets promoted by a task force official (Josh Brolin, in a meaty role) to follow him through various danger zones of Mexico and learn about the nitty gritty goings on. Benicio Del Toro is a mysterious consultant hired to assist in the case, a man who doesn’t speak the whole truth and fully reveals himself as the story goes along. It’s his best role since 21 Grams and elevates the pulpy material to intensely real levels.
Villeneuve shoots the whole thing like a pro, giving us epic wide screen shots that take advantage of the breathtaking locations and his always gloomy visual style. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay (his first; he’s known primarily as a TV actor) has bumpy stretches, especially when the action takes a break, but the cast and crew elevate the drug drama into something artistic and twisty. It’s a good thing them that Sicario’s action sequences are refreshing, plentiful and the highlights as they encompass a wide array of claustrophobic feelings and put you right in the thick of the action, especially in a scene involving a raid inside a secret cartel tunnel. Blunt becomes an instant Best Actress hopeful playing the muscular, take no bull heroine Kate Macer. She has long been one of the most underrated talents in the industry, but here, given a juicy leading role, she brings it and proves her worth as an actress of considerable power. If The Devil Wears Prada, Edge of Tomorrow and Looper proved anything to us it’s that this actress has that extra something special most actors would die to have: good looks, personality and an immeasurably true talent. With her piercing blue eyes and bulked up physique she owns Sicario from beginning to end.
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Michael Moore’s film — Where to Invade Next? — is a casual, lightly amusing look at various countries in Europe that have adopted protocols and laws that seem to be right up Bernie Sanders’ alley. Not a bad thing altogether, but often eccentric. Moore’s doc is the first film he’s shot almost entirely outside the United States. Unlike his other documentaries, the message is broad and all over the place, but the ideals and rights he stands for are important — his point being we could all put our egos aside and perhaps learn a thing or two from these neighboring countries. France has a chef cooking up the lunch menu at the public elementary school cafeteria, Slovenia has free College education, Italy makes their workers take 2 hour lunch breaks and 8 week mandatory vacations a year, and Germany teaches its students about their country’s worst deeds, particularly the Holocaust. If you’re someone who’s been turned off by Moore’s style of filmmaking before, then this movie won’t convert you. It might not come close to reaching the peaks of Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine or Fahrenheit 9/11, but Moore is first and foremost an entertainer, an artist who takes his subject matter very much to heart. At of tonight the film still had no distributor, but it will surely get one before TIFF is over.
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The press got its first look at Jean Marc Vallee’s Demolition, a film that had been expected to be a big player for this year’s awards cycle before it was pushed to a 2016 release date. Vallee is a unique talent who’s French Canadian films like Cafe de Flore and C.R.A.Z.Y are well worth seeking out, he’s a visual stylist who concentrates a lot of his time in the editing room to try to get the right flow to his movies. A good example would be last year’s Wild which had a very organic non-linear narrative.
Demolition uses the criss-cross Vallee editing technique to tell the story of recently widowed husband — played by Jake Gyllenhaal — who therapeutically decides to demolish and repair various things, much to the chagrin of his father in-law played by the excellent Chris Cooper. Yes, that plot alone is filled with obvious metaphors about trying to start over and rebuild, but the film is surprisingly light on its feet and has a very redemptive feel to it. All that aside, I found Gylenhaal to be the reason to watch Demolition. He’s great and if this had been released in 2015 I’d say he would have had a decent shot at a nomination given that he was robbed last year for his career-best work in Nightcrawler.
In my view, the film gives the great Naomi Watts short shrift. She plays a lost soul who compliments Gylnehaal’s character a little too well. She isn’t given much screen time, in fact her character disappears for a long stretch only to suddenly come back near the end. As uneven at it may be, the film has artistry that I found as commendable as Vallee’s other two American films (Dallas Buyers Club and Wild). His use of music has always been there in his style, and in Demolition he uses certain passages of music to reinforce a state of mind or a mood that one of the characters might be feeling. There’s an especially amusing use of Heart’s “Crazy On You” which is very well done.
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Lazslo Nemes’ Son of Saul is a holocaust movie shot from the POV of a concentration camp prisoner forced to burn the bodies of gas chamber victims after leading them to the trap. The movie is an immeasurable accomplishment and the best directed movie I’ve seen this year, alongside George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. There are scenes here of staggering beauty and incredible pain, sometimes we wince and sometimes we just can’t look away at the filmmaking on display. This isn’t your typical holocaust movie, it doesn’t intend to only shock as much as just put you right there with the lead characters as they work the chambers, furnaces and ovens.
The movie opens with Saul finding out that the last group he led to the gas chambers included his 7-year-old son. Saul is a man so persistent in giving his deceased boy a proper burial that he risks his life and the lives of his co-prisoners just to find a proper rabbi for the kiddish ritual. His risk-taking can sometimes be maddening, but there is something to be said about a man who still believes in keeping his tradition and religion intact even in the face of unspeakable horror. The Jews around him are building up a resistance and are prepared to fight, but Saul seems completely aloof, focusing instead on finding a rabbi and having a burial.
Using hand-held camera can sometimes end up being damaging to the overall narrative of a film, but here it compliments the story and gives it a fresh spin. The fact the first time filmmaker Nemes was just 28 when he wrote and directed this masterpiece speaks volumes about his talent. Some scenes are so deeply realized and profoundly thought out that it feels like you’re in the hands of veteran master. The film uses its camera to find dizzyingly surreal moments for its characters and supplies a uniquely original take on a used up cinematic genre.
At Cannes it came as a shock to many critics when Son of Saul lost the Palme D’Or to Jacques Audiard’s Deephan. I’ll be talking about that movie next week when I interview its star and director.