I hardly know how to begin summing up our crazy time at the Toronto International Film Festival. We’re actually only about halfway through our experience, but if I don’t start putting down some thoughts now, I’m going to run out of usable memory space.
Demolition: Our first film of the festival is still probably my favourite. Music-obsessed Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild) calls this the “most rock-n-roll movie I’ve ever made” and while that’s not the descriptor that immediately came to my mind, I do get where he’s coming from. I would call this movie vigorous. It’s very alive, ironically, since it’s about a man (Davis, played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who’s been numb for the past dozen years or so. It takes the sudden death of his wife for him to realize that he probably didn’t love her. And once that realization is made, his whole life starts to tilt to the left. He becomes obsessed with understanding and improving small, safe things: the leak in his fridge, the squeak in a door, the defective hospital vending machine. A surprisingly confessional letter about the latter connects him to a lonely customer service lady (Naomi Watts) and they stumble together toward truth, just two lost souls helping each other without even meaning to. Gyllenhaal is nothing short of amazing. We see him removed from grief, literally doing whatever he can just to feel – manual labour, loud music, the embracing of pain. Gylllenhaal does disconnection eerily well. But he also has some bracing bonding scenes with a young co-star, the two careening from frank discussions about homosexuality in Home Depot, to the point-blank testing of bullet proof vests. The mourning in this movie is off-kilter to say the least, and jumpcuts and flashbacks keep the loopy momentum going – sometimes quite elegantly, as the editing and cinematography are both superb. Davis busies himself with demolition – he likes taking things apart, methodically, to see how it looks inside, but he can’t quite put it all back together. The physical demolition of his house, of the things surrounding him, serves as an apt metaphor for his sorrow, for his life up until now. It is brutal and quirky and offbeat. Gyllenhaal has been turning in solid performance after solid performance, but this one might be The One. It’s an unconventional movie but also deeply spiritual in its way. Jean-Marc Vallée, when asked after the movie about this theme, responded: “Have you ever smashed the shit out of something? It feels great!”
The Lobster: I realize now, having used words like quirky and offbeat to describe Demolition, that there aren’t words to describe this one. Director Yorgos Lanthimos is a sick man. He has imagined a world not so unlike ours, he thinks, where single people are so ostracized that it’s been made illegal to be without a spouse. When alone, they’re forced into this hotel where they either find a mate, or get turned into an animal. Many fail. Exotic animals abound.This is how we meet Colin Farrell and John C. Reilly as they desperately attempt to be lucky in love. It’s got the deadpan feel of a Wes Anderson movie, only instead of the warm and fuzzy nostalgia, there’s bleak and panicky hopelessness. This movie won’t appeal to most, or even many, but if you can stomach the brutality, this movie is not without some major laughs. And believe me, you earn them. Sean was having a little post-traumatic shock as he lef the theatre, but a few days a lots of reflection later, he found the movie to be undeniably growing on him. The movie is absurdist and bizarre and unique. It is occasionally shovel-to-the-face brutal. Lanthimos understatedly calls it a movie “about relationships”, and his leading lady, Rachel Weisz called it his most “romantic” yet.
Eye In the Sky: Helen Mirren and Barkhad Abdi joined director Gavin Hood in introducing this wonderful film to us – just icing on the cake as the film itself would have been more than enough. Helen Mirren, as you might expect, is completely compelling as a Colonel who’s been tracking radicalized British citizens for 6 years. Just as she’s found them she encounters bureaucratic hell trying to get permission to do her job – that is, to eliminate the threat. What I didn’t realize going in to this movie is that it would not solely be a vehicle for Mirren but a really strong ensemble cast who all pull their weight to give this film so many interesting layers. Drone warfare is obviously a pretty timely discussion, but this movie is also an entertaining nail-biter, successfully blending ethical dilemmas with on-the-street action thanks to Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) who ratchets up the tension. The crux: there’s a house full of terrorists. They’re literally arming themselves for an imminent suicide attack. Capturing them is not an option – they must be killed before they kill dozens, or hundreds. But just outside this house is a little girl, selling bread. So government officials debate her fate. Mirren the military tour de force is adamant that the terrorists must be stopped at any cost. Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), the guy with the finger on the trigger, is not so sure. You can see the weight of this decision in his eyes, knowing it’s not his to make, yet doing everything in his power to stall. If he’s the heart and Mirren is the head of this operation, there are dozens of politicians muddling up the chain of command in between. The movie is asking us what is acceptable – the sacrifice of one bright little girl to save potentially dozens? The politicians waffle. The girl herself is not the problem, rather it’s the way it would look to the electoral public. How can they spin this? Who will win the propaganda war? Hood does a great job of subtly reminding us that no matter what, not everyone in the kill zone deserves to die. But at the same time, he lets us feel the urgency, lets us count the potential dead bodies if the suicide attack is allowed to continue. And who would be responsible for that? This movie never stops being tense, even when it draws uncomfortable laughter: Alan Rickman, at the head of the table of the dithering politicians, rolls his eyes for all of us as everyone passes the buck. This movie never flinches and it doesn’t take sides. There is an emotional heft to it and I felt it on a visceral level when this sweet little girl is callously referred to as but “one collateral damage issue.” Oof.
Sicario: Matt was ultimately disappointed with the film but was still lucky enough to be at the premiere where Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro were both on hand to answer questions along with Canadian director Denis Villeneuve.
We Monsters: A German film by Sebastian Ko about a mother and father who follow their most primal instinct to protect their teenaged daughter even as she commits an unspeakable crime. It’s weirdly relatable and abhorrent at the same time, and keeps asking us what we would do even as it pushes the envelope to deeper and darker places. Many shots are obstructed, keeping shady characters exactly that, a little out of focus, a little blurred, a little on the sly. The cinematographer cultivates a sense of dread expertly, boxing those characters in, keeping the shots almost claustrophobic. There’s a real sense of panic, of increasing alarm and desperation, and it’s not easy to watch. But it is kind of fascinating. Afterward, Ko was on hand to answer questions, and when someone asked him about the recurrent shots of a butterfly eventually emerging from its cocoon, he confessed that at first it was just meant as a metaphor for adolescence, but in the end he was struck that what emerged was a “pretty ugly creature” and made for a pretty fitting parallel.