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TIFF18: The Sisters Brothers

Murder and machismo, that’s what you’re in for when you sit down to watch The Sisters Brothers. Charlie and Eli Sisters are a couple of guns for hire. They care deeply about maintaining their bad reputations, which shouldn’t be a problem as long as they keep working for The Commodore, a fearsome and violent man.

Their next mission, should they choose to accept it: kill Herman Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who’s got something The Commodore wants. A professional scout, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), is already tracking him, and once located, the Sisters Brothers ride in for the dirty work.

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly play the brothers – Phoenix the younger brother, Charlie, but natural leader of the two. He’s more violent and more gung-ho. Reilly, on theMV5BNWE3MDAwMDgtZGY0MS00OGM3LTk4MzEtYjIxODZkMDc0NGY2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1496,1000_AL_ other hand, gives Eli a slightly sweeter disposition. He dreams of retirement but remains in the game to keep watch over his brother, who’s a drunk always looking for trouble, and always, always finding it. Eli pines for a woman who was kind to him once. He laments the fate of his pitiable horse. He cuts his brother’s hair.

When the foursome finally meet up, Herman isn’t the villain everyone anticipated, and his commodity proves irresistible to anyone who hears about it. But if his body and potion aren’t offered up to The Commodore in a hurry, there’ll be hell to pay. With allegiances divided and a different ending standing tantalizingly before them, what will the Sisters Brothers choose, and how will the body count be affected? Because there WILL be a body count, make no mistake on that.

The Sisters Brothers is adapted from a book I absolutely adored and passed around to nearly everyone I know, by  Canadian author Patrick DeWitt. John C. Reilly also read it and loved it, and he optioned the book in 2011; he produces this film alongside his wife, Alison Dickey, an indie film producer he met on the set of Casualties of War when she was an assistant to Sean Penn – they’ve been married for over 25 years). They’ve tapped French director Jacques Audiard to helm this shoot-em-up western, and Audiard gives it a sensibility that’s weird and eccentric. Not your typical western, not your typical anything. It’s as funny as it is violent, and both characters and story break out of the genre frequently enough to surprise you.

The acting is great. Riz Ahmed especially gives Herman’s character a bit of a twist, colouring the movie with a slightly more optimistic or meditative vibe. But of course the film belongs to Reilly and he knows it. Though I wish we would have spent a little more time with Eli alone, away from his brother’s influence, deeper into his psyche (flashbacks, I suppose, would have been nice), there’s still something very special going on there, something half-sweet (Eli is still a bad man), half-innocent, half-introspective, half-other-worldly. These aren’t necessarily the kind of cowboys you’re used to but I enjoy the genre’s subversion, the clever hacks that elevate it to something unique and fun to watch. DeWitt’s novel is quite good and I urge you to read it. But unlike many adaptations, this film captures some of its surprising warmth. Despite the Sisters Brothers being contract killers, we find a fair bit of compassion for them as they unravel the traumas of their past and seek a path forward, perhaps not quite forged in enlightenment, but in understanding, and from a need to do and be better.

Charlie and Eli are a some of the most interesting characters to come out of the western genre. Charlie simmers with anger. Eli ooze regret. The brothers bicker like an old married couple but they have each other’s backs when needed – and if often is. But no matter how much sympathy we’re feeling for them, Audiard doesn’t shy away from the fact that the guns on their hips are used to commit murder, for money. Their morals are for sale to the highest bidder. It makes them complex, and eminently watchable.

 

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TIFF18: Wildlife

Joe Brinson’s family has just recently moved to Montana but his dad’s already out of work. You can tell it’s 1960 because father and son play football in belted khakis with their perfectly-pressed polo shirts neatly tucked in. Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) has a lot of pride and believes he’s “just too well-liked.” Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan) swallows whatever disappointment she feels with her husband out of work again after yet another move to a place she doesn’t want to be, and still manages to ask politely for his permission to find work herself. Joe goes to work too, part-time, as his father slides into depression. But when Jerry finally gets off the couch and goes to work, Jeanette finally lets her anger erupt. He’s going to fight the massive forest fires for a buck an hour, and she doesn’t think that’s worth risking his life for. When he goes anyway, the crack in their marriage fractures perhaps irreparably, and Jeanette goes off the rails.

Wildlife is a movie about people on the brink. The Brinson family are on the brink of financial ruin. Jerry and Jeanette are on the brink of divorce. With fires ever raging, theMV5BZjhiNzJkZjctZjY2Ny00YTdjLWIxMjYtNjQwZjVmNjFiNGRjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUxMjc1OTM@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,922_AL_ whole town’s on the brink of disaster. In 1960, the whole country’s on the brink of a sexual revolution, and women’s lib. But they’re not there yet. It’s shameful that Jeanette has to work instead of staying home with her son (who is 14 and never home). And they clearly don’t know how to do divorce; they forget the part about telling each other, and not committing adultery in front of the children. It’s a crazy time to be alive!

Paul Dano directed and co-wrote (with partner Zoe Kazan) Wildlife and the love and care show up on film, but he somehow holds back from showing us all the fancy tricks he can do, flexing his muscle with restraint instead. It’s impressive.

And given his pedigree I suppose it’s unsurprising how great he is with his cast. Carey Mulligan, to my  mind, turns out one great performance after another, but this still might be my favourite. It’s almost certainly the most complex. Jeanette is a woman ahead of her time. Her agency is startling, her behaviour a direct challenge to the values of 1960. The fact that her son (Ed Oxenbould) is a direct witness to her wantonness is often challenging, but Mulligan makes sure that Jeanette is given a humane treatment, while the script kindly paints the couple without heroes or villains – just two people forced to flaunt and rewrite the rules. It’s a sympathetic family portrait, if not quite an intimate one (we’re often at an emotional remove). And sometimes the story loses steam, but damn if Mulligan doesn’t just keep pulling me back in. All eyes on her.

Stronger

Stronger could easily have leaned on its ultra handsome movie star to sound off a few patriotic one-liners while heroic cliches were ticked off one at a time, and that movie would have made money – possibly more money than the actual Stronger did. Instead, the real Stronger takes a much more interesting approach: it admits that its central character, real-life survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing Jeff Bauman, is not a hero. He’s just a guy who was at the wrong place at the wrong time, but a picture of him captured at that wrong time made him an icon and helped unite his country in a time of grief and confusion.

Jeff Bauman was just an ordinary guy. He worked at Costco, he lived and was bullied by his Mom, and he couldn’t keep a girlfriend. Erin broke up with him repeatedly because he was just never really there for her, and so of course the one time that he does show up, he gets blown up to bits.

1-4Stronger doesn’t care much about the crime or about the terrorism; it follows a lone survivor who struggles to put his life back together afterward. Had Jeff Bauman lost his legs in a car crash, no one would call him brave, or a hero, because no one would be watching. But as the face of Strength and Hope in the war against terror, Bauman has to handle public scrutiny even on his darkest days.

Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the most versatile actors of his age working today, and this is another unglamourous, conflicted character that he pulls of winningly. The anguish and painful contradictions he manages to convey make the movie sometimes hard to watch. But Gyllenhaal isn’t alone. Tatiana Maslany plays Jeff’s on again, off again love interest, Erin, and Stronger is as much her story as it is his. Unlike Patriots Day, Stronger isn’t about an act of terrorism, it’s about two people scraping their lives back together after a major, seismic event, and about how that catastrophe doesn’t really erase the problems that existed before it, even though it kind of feels like should. Most movies wouldn’t bother to make Maslany’s character so important, so human, but Stronger doesn’t take the safe route or the obvious one. Jeff Bauman became a symbol when he appeared in a photograph that day, but in every moment before the camera’s click, and every moment after it, he is just a man, and Erin is the woman too conscientious to abandon him in his time of need, but too smart to buy into the hero nonsense. When everyone else sees him as an emblem of Boston Strong, she sees him as the same old flawed guy he’s always been.

A brilliant ensemble cast fleshes out Stronger in surprising ways. This isn’t about flag waving or triumphing over terrorism, it’s a relationship drama that dares to peer down dark corners unflinchingly.

Okja

The new CEO of Mirando, Lucy (Tilda Swinton), announces that her company has made a discovery that will rid the world of hunger: a super piglet that looks like a cross between a rhino and an elephant that we’re assured tastes really fucking good. 26 super piglets are distributed to farmers around the world to be cared for over the next decade. In 10 years, popular TV veterinarian Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) will judge them and declare one ‘the best.’

Cut to: 10 years later, Wilcox hikes up a remote Korean hillside to visit Okja, a prized super piglet raised by Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) and her father. Raised on love and freedom, Okja is objectively the best of the bunch, but that means this beloved pet must go to NYC okja-creature-littlegirl-woodsto be paraded around by its parent corporation (to disguise the secret testing) – unless of course she’s kidnapped by the Animal Liberation Front headed by Jay (Paul Dano), “not a terrorist,” along the way. And the ALF is only the first group of people Mija will come across that want to control the fate of her large friend, Okja.

Co-written and directed by Snowpiercer’s Bong Joon Ho, you can bet he’s got some interesting thing to say about these events: GMOs, image-obsessed corporations, eco-terrorism. But he cleverly brings it back to one of the most basic relationships to remind us of what’s important: the one between a girl and her best friend, the family pet. Here in North America, not only can we not imagine eating dogs, we object to it morally. Here, we name our dogs, we sleep curled up beside them, we feed them table scraps from our fingers, we look into their sweet faces and tell them they’re good boys, very good boys. If we accorded all animals the respect we give our pets, it would change the food industry okjaas we know it. This is the way Bong Joon Ho choose to frame Okja’s predicament.

Tonally, Okja is very different from Snowpiercer. If the score doesn’t alert you to its farcical nature, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s voice doesn’t do it, then the unconvincing CGI will likely push you in that very direction. But Bong Joon Ho’s skill as a director means that he juggles these switchbacks in tone very carefully, and Okja’s whimsy never fails. Yes, it’s a completely weird movie, one that can feel like a cartoon and a horror at the same time, that can make you laugh amid the darkest of scenes. I realize this movie won’t be for everyone, but I found it profoundly interesting. Tilda Swinton is excellent, and Gyllenhaal does something we’ve never seen from him before. But it’s Seo-Hyun Ahn who steals the show, her bond with Okja and her purity of heart that elevate this movie from fantasy to fable.

 

 

 

Zodiac: 10th Annivesary

It’s been a decade since David Fincher graced cinemas with Zodiac, which means it’s been 10 years since it climbed its way to the top of my favourite David Fincher films list, and remained there.

Zodiac is about the 1960s\70s manhunt for the San Francisco-area Zodiac Killer, who went on a murder spree-media frenzy, terrorizing people in several Northern California zodiac.jpgcommunities but evading police and justice to this day. The Zodiac Killer had held a dimming spot in our collective conscious for years when David Fincher got his hands on the material (a new book on the case by Robert Graysmith was the inspiration, though not terribly well-written) and turned a tired story into something that could take your breath away.

There are several brilliant strokes that make this movie more than just a movie.

  1. It focuses on Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist at a San Francisco newspaper (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and Paul Avery, a reporter (Robert Downey, Jr.), who became obsessed with the case and played armchair detectives. This was effective story-telling be because Graysmith and Avery are just like us: outsiders. They have no business “detecting.” They have no privileged information. They’re just interested, and it makes us interested.
  2. That said, this is a serial killer movie without the serial killer. The crimes were never solved. At best, he’s a shadowy figure in the movie (and brilliantly, Fincher had several different actors play this shadowy figure so we always feel a little off-kilter). This truly is about the regular people (and Inspector Toschi, a cop frustrated by the case’s dead ends – played by Mark Ruffalo), feeling more like Spotlight than Seven.
  3. Although the movie works very well strictly as crime drama, that’s really just a superficial reading of Zodiac, the tip of the iceberg with a whole lot more waiting to be discovered underneath. The film’s tone lulls us into a trance. The score, the pacing, the editing, it all works together to draw us into this hyper-awareness that heightens everything, so that we watch raptly, watching office scenes with trepidation equal to the creepy, cob-webby basement scenes. We start to realize that the serial killer is not what’s threatening Graysmith; it’s the search for truth that’s ripping his life apart. Now that little nugget comes with a whole lot more cynicism that mere murder can provide.
  4. The case and the film each build consistently, unrelentingly. You get pulled into it, dragged along. It’s not about the violence and blood (there’s very little of either), but about relentless pursuit, without resolution. That’s hard to maintain and in less capable hands, this could easily have been a dry and boring movie. But Fincher bring the suspense, and without us realizing it, he infuses that suspense into every scene. The suspense never lets up. It becomes an ache, one achieved not with fancy car chases or dramatic shootouts, but through methodical police work, the film as detail-oriented as the director himself.
  5. There’s no ending. Or no satisfying one, at least. That goes against what usually makes a Fincher film great, those memorable last lines, a Beatles tune playing over the credits. But Zodiac goes without, because in real life, the Zodiac Killer got away. Maybe we know who it is. Maybe. But no arrest was ever made, no one ever served time. The film reflects this truth and denies us catharsis and our “Hollywood ending” as we understand them. The Zodiac murders weren’t just a news item, it was The Case for a generation, one that never got wrapped up. Fincher was part of that generation, and grew up in the area. It obviously stuck with him. In many ways, Zodiac is his most personal film, so he made it not about the killer, but about the people chasing him. The people trying to solve the ultimate puzzle, and paying the price when justice is ellusive.

Because life is cruel, Zodiac was NOT a hit at the box office, making a paltry $33M in the U.S. against its $65M budget. It was never going to be a hit. It’s not lurid or bloody. It’s an ode to method. And while today we’ve become obsessed with this method (Making A zodiac-murder-scene.gifMurderer, OJ: Made in America), 10 years ago it was unknown. Maybe it was Fincher who invented it. He definitely perfected it, and without an entire season’s worth of episodes to devote to his subject, he imbues each scene with loads of meaning, making each one impactful and riveting. Maybe not as riveting as Wild Hogs, that atrocious piece of shit starring Tim Allen, John Travolta and Martin Lawrence (it opened the same weekend and beat Zodiac by about 30 million dollars), but in the past decade, it has impressed nearly everyone who’s sought it out. The cast is splendid, the script smart, the direction thoughtful and meaningful. But it did not win the Oscar. Know why? BECAUSE IT WASN’T EVEN NOMINATED!

Life

When I think about space, my limited imagination often goes to the arrogant American astronauts boldly planting a flag on the moon. In fact, there are now 6 American flags on american-flag-moonthe moon, one from each Apollo mission that landed there. Of course, none of these flags would be identifiably American any more, the stars and stripes long since bleached away by radiation from the sun. And none of them ever rippled in the breeze as the famous photo would have you believe (there is no wind on the moon, there is no atmosphere on the moon). It was a ruse devised by NASA and enabled by Neil Armstrong. The flag has a hidden metal rod along the top of the fabric; when Armstrong planted it, he gave the metal bar a push and the flag “waved.” It was a cheat, but after declaring a giant leap on behalf of “mankind”, the Americans wanted a way to tell the world “We got here first.”

Why am I rambling about the flags on the moon? Well, mostly because I don’t think there’s a single inch of film in all of Life where director Daniel Espinosa could plant his flag. It’s a complete retread. And I don’t mean that it’s bad, just that it owes a lot to space movies that have come before it, and it doesn’t have anything original to add to the “trapped in space” trope.

There’s questionable judgment and the flagrant flogging of protocol. There are plot holes to rival black holes. If you think about it at all you’ll be sucked into the vacuum of space where there’s no enjoyment of anything. But there is a way to enjoy this film: lay back and enjoy the ride. Because what Life is is a pretty intense thriller. My anxiety was so high I life3had to look away from the screen and focus on my gold Converse for safety’s sake. It was so tense I had the bones in Sean’s right hand nearly as mangled as a certain someone‘s in the movie.

Basically, six surprisingly attractive astronauts are hanging out in the International Space Station, waiting for a special delivery, some samples from Mars. Their mission is to probe the samples that arrive, and before long they’ve found the first incontrovertible evidence of life on Mars, which is cool for about 10 seconds before it starts trying to eat them. This is of course their own damn fault for pushing the thing out of hibernation in the first place. Note to everyone: curiosity killed the cat. So yeah, this alien thingy becomes very strong and oddly sentient and wildly out of control. The astronauts’ lives are in imminent and immediate danger, which is hard to care about because we hardly know them before the single cell from Mars becomes the monster that threatens humanity. And that’s the other slight problem is that the lives of the astronauts are overshadowed by the greater threat against all of humankind.

Luckily, the acting is pretty good. None of the characters is all that distinguishable but between Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds, there’s enough charisma to circle the earth roughly 16 times a day (Zing! that’s an international space station joke, y’all!).

Okay, I’m quitting while I’m ahead. Life: fun but forgettable.

Nocturnal Animals

As the film opens, Susan (Amy Adams) feels guilty for not being happy, despite having ‘everything’ – Armie Hammer plays her current husband, but apparently they were maybe never truly supposed to be together.

A successful art gallery owner, Susan’s home is perfectly styled, filled with lacquered objets, 18nocturnal1-master768-v2beautiful things, much like herself, impeccably dressed, heavily made up. Her “bare” (movie bare, of course) face comes as a shock when she curls into bed to read a manuscript that has arrived that earlier that day, a surprise from the ex-husband she hasn’t heard from in 20 years.

She’s immediately engrossed in the story, which we see recreated as a movie within a movie. Jake Gyllenhaal and Isla Fisher play two halves of a couple travelling down a remote road at night. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays a sinister man threatening them. It’s immediately tense. Disturbing. Distraught, Susan slams the book shut.

But that’s not the end, is it? No, she keeps going. And things get darker, and trickier. Director Tom Ford pulls a nasty trick on us: in casting Isla Fisher, he is intentionally making her a very easy substitute for Amy Adams (Isla Fisher once sent Christmas cards to friends and family with Amy Adams photo-shopped in her place, and no one noticed). But we’re not the only ones to notice the similarities: Susan starts to feel a little unsettled too.

This is only Tom Ford’s second film; I was blown away by his first effort, A Single Man. He has a distinctive style, he’s incredibly visual, but the story in A Single Man held up. More than that: it crawled right into my soul and crushed it, just a tiny bit. Colin Firth was robbed when he didn’t maxresdefault-6win an Oscar for it (well, he lost to Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart, and that was certainly deserved as well; luckily Firth one the very next year for The King’s Speech). You may know that Tom Ford is a fashion designer, but that’s clearly not the only trick up his sleeve. His direction is not a gimmick (it likely helps that he leaves the costuming to someone else, and that no Tom Ford suits appear in the film). Maybe it’s little more style than substance, but it’s not without substance, or merit, or worth. Nocturnal Animals is dark and moody and horrible. It is sometimes graphic, and psychologically tortured, and stunning.

It’s the kind of movie that will haunt you for days. There are lots of performances worth talking about: Amy Adams, and the sadness she can convey in her downturned eyes; Jake Gyllenhaal’s fire, and his anguish. Aaron Taylor-Johnson was nominated for a Golden Globe for his supporting skeevy work here, but I think it’s Michael Shannon who maybe deserved the nomination, mustache and all. Can this man do any wrong? Oh wait

Most people bill Nocturnal Animals as a work of revenge, but I feel it’s more about regret. I suppose your interpretation may rest on the ending, which is intentionally vague, but I believe an indictment on Susan’s character. What did you think?