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Julieta

“I don’t make motion pictures. I make EMOTION pictures”.

I can’t promise that the great Pedro Almodóvar actually said this but this quote was how my film teacher introduced me to the filmmaker’s work before showing us All About My Mother. As a 19 year-old college student, the only EMOTION I felt with any sincerity while watching Almodóvar’s 1999 classic was boredom.

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I’m glad I gave him another chance. I’ve seen many (though certainly not all) of his films and have re-watched Mother at least twice and have come to appreciate the focus on genuine human emotion that make up his films as well as the beautiful colours that are signatures of his cinematography.

It’s a beautiful thing when a work of art can transport you back to your youth and Julieta is that rare film. It’s the kind of film that reminds you what it’s like to be 19 and bored beyond belief by a Pedro Almodóvar film. So bored that I was willing to risk the glares of my fellow theatergoers by momentarily turning on my cell phone just to see how much more of this I had to sit through.

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Which isn’t so say that Julieta is a bad movie because it’s far from it. It’s script is inspired by three interconnected short stories from renowned Canadian writer Alice Munro, a fact that I am somehow irrationally a bit proud of as a Canadian. As a teenager, Julieta has a flirtation and affair with a mysterious man on a train. As a young mother, she visits her parents only to discover her mother doesn’t seem to be getting the care that she needs. And as an aging widow, she tries to reunite with her estranged daughter who left in search of spiritual enlightenment and never returned.

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The mother-daughter segment is the strongest of the three stories and Almodóvar is smart to use his somewhat non-linear structure to tease it throughout the film. As usual, he favours emotion over motion and the feelings always ring true and the film is always lovely to look at. Despite his fascination with the feelings and inner lives of his characters though, he’s usually much more generous with plot. While my favourite Almodóvar films tell riveting and unpredictable stories, there isn’t enough to connect the three parts of Julieta to feel like one story. Ironically for a film with three stories, there doesn’t seem to be enough story in Julieta to fill a full movie. It’s not bad but I’ve come to expect better.

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La La Land: Discussion

If you’re looking for a spoiler-free review of the film, please check it out over here. I wrote it all the way back in September, fresh from seeing it at TIFF, and I’ve been waiting all this bloody time just to talk about what for me is the best film of the year. I was absolutely giddy for this movie, how it made me feel, how it made me think, how it whisked me away into something both surreal and familiar. We exited the theatre from La La Land and rushed on to the next (I think it must have been Lion) but between the two, I wept. I wept for heartbreak, and for beauty, because La La Land abounds in both.

If you’ve kept reading, then you know by now that La La Land, for all of its romance, does not have a traditionally happy ending. But are the characters unhappy? Mia and Seb separate in part because their ambitions overshadow their love. Was this the right move? Do they have regrets? Certainly they’ve both gone on to achieve the success they so coveted. Mia is married, la-la-land-1with children. When she sits in Seb’s club at the end, we are treated to an alternate version of events in which they manage to stay together. Do they wish that this was so? Do they still love each other? Have they moved on?

One of Chazelle’s unspoken themes must be “Is it worth it?” – is it?

During their courtship, the movie takes cliches about love and makes them true: love lifts them, they dance on air, they sing from rooftops. Did this feel organic to you in the movie? I often felt that when things felt intense to them, they broke out into song as a metaphor for feelings that are too fervent to verbalize. When words fail, they’d sing, or dance, which is often the way we feel in our excited little hearts when we’re first falling in love (reminds me of a certain scene in 500 Day of Summer).

Sean noticed that when the relationship got rocky, the movie got a little more boring, and frankly, a little repetitive. The songs are reused. But in time he felt like that was sort of the point: that the newness and wonder of the relationship had worn off, that they were beyond the first crush and settling into patterns and habits and less passion. The film itself reflects it. Did you find new meaning in songs as they were revisited? During the second half of the film, during the relationship’s demise, there is noticeably less music, which means less joy, less intensity. Their world goes a little drab when the shine has worn off. Did you miss the music when it was gone? Certainly when it returns in that final scene, it’s a heart breaker.

Originally Chazelle imagined that Miles Teller and Emma Watson would fullfill the lead roles. I can’t picture Teller ever being right for the part. Watson left the project so she could do another musical, Beauty and the Beast. Ryan Gosling ended up turning down the opportunity to play the Beast so he could do this instead, with frequent collaborator, Emma Stone. Chazelle has stated they were hired together intentionally, because they’re a modern-day version of an old-Hollywood couple, frequently working together and already having an established chemistry. Do you think anyone else could have pulled off these roles? Do you think either of them has a legit chance at an Oscar?

Seb states that jazz has to be experienced. He’s disgusted by people who use it as ‘background music.’ It’s a special language that he teaches her and she comes to appreciate. He takes full advantage in the final scene, telling her he still loves her using only his music, and he plays so passionately that she can see how he wishes things had been different. However, there’s an interesting part in the movie, the “sellout” phase where Seb is playing jazz in the background during a scene. Is this where it all went downhill? What would you say was their final straw?

Chazelle has deliberately taken this musical off the backlots and grounded in modern-day Los Angeles. The opening number, though originally not my favourite, helps set the tone. This is the world in which they live, but both are outsiders among that set. At the end of the number, Gosling gives Stone the finger before driving off. The offramp used in this number is the same one they used in Speed, where they had to jump the gap. Lots of real locations were used in the film – even Seb’s apartment is an actual apartment, not a set. Let’s not forget that the movie isn’t called Mia or Seb, it’s called La La Land: the city is also a character. City of stars, city of dreams. Did the locations help give the movie a sense of reality to you?

The one criticism I’ve heard from this movie is that it never addresses the true roots of jazz: does La La Land “whitesplain” jazz? Is it racist in its portrayal? Did Damien Chazelle fail us by casting white actors in a movie about jazz? Then I wondered – wouldn’t Whiplash have faced the same controversy? It’s another movie about jazz starring two white dudes, but I don’t recall

hearing any hooplah over it [turns out the criticism was there all along]. Of course it’s not for me to say, but I can understand how it might sting a little to have an art form that was “invented” by African-Americans, music by black people for black people, to be told by white people. Not to say that jazz belongs to any one people, but if these are the only stories being told about jazz, then maybe the stories belong to the people who truly wrote them. And it does feel regressive in 2016 to see a white man play jazz, and a white woman dance to it, while people of colour make up the blurry background characters surrounding them, out of focus, besides the point. What do you think – is there cultural misappropriation going on here? Is Ryan Gosling a “white man saviour” in his quest to save jazz?

Mia and her friends are resplendent in primary colours because they’re young, and they dream in technicolour. She’s dressed in emerald, saphire, yellow. At the end of the movie though, she’s wearing white. She’s supposedly made her dreams come true, but she’s leached of colour. What’s that about?

American Honey

American Honey is one of those rare American movies that are so beautiful that even Shia LaBeouf couldn’t ruin it.

I’m not exaggerating. It really is that good. In fact, Shia’s in it. And he’s really goodamerican-honey-3. Really, really good.

American Honey works neither in spite of or because of his performance. Instead, he is just one of many important parts of an impressive cast of mostly non-actors with not a single weak link in the bunch. Jake (LaBeouf) leads a team of about a dozen runaway youths who earn their living by travelling across the United States selling magazine door-to-door. Their newest recruit Star (Sasha Lane) isn’t so sure that she is comfortable with the lies that her new colleagues use to sell their product but, having seemingly nowhere else to go and having quickly fallen for Jake, she starts to feel at home with them anyway.

american-honey-2I struggle to communicate what it is that works so well about American Honey. My writer’s block was so bad that I went to see it a second time, quite a commitment with its 163-minute running time. All I’ve really learnt from two sittings is that writer-director Andre Arnold creates a believable world around these characters and makes it easy for the audience to feel like they’re a part of it. (Well, maybe I should just speak for myself. At my first screening, the film had lost over half its audience by the end).

To keep from getting too bored or discouraged while on the road, Jake’s team engage in american-honeyany number of traditions and rituals that are often somehow both unsettling and charming. Their favourite songs, games, and chants serve the film well in helping create a subculture that we can believe and relate to. Beautifully naturalistic performances from an exceptionally well-chosen cast, great choice of music, and some terrific (though sometimes elf-indulgent) cinematography help bring their world to life.

It’s hard to describe what works about American Honey because it works mostly on an emotional level. Intellectually, I’m not sure if it’s really “about” anything other than an unusually honest and surreal coming of age story but the power of the filmmaking gave me chills.

 

Before The Flood

I learned two major things watching Before The Flood:

  1. Leonardo DiCaprio’s parents really should have sprung for an interior decorator for his nursery.
  2. (North) Americans are goddamned hypocrites.

We all know the Earth is dying, and we’re the murderers. This is pre-meditated, Murder One, capital stuff. There won’t be any plea-bargaining at the end of the world because we’re guilty as sin.

We’ve seen this coming for 20 years or more. Unfortunately, climate change is accelerating at a greater rate than even predicted. We have very

real, very frightening present-day consequences as it is. But we’re still not making changes. Oh sure we’re willing to do the small stuff, like recycling, or using lower-watt light bulbs, or bringing reusable bags to the grocery store. But the big stuff? Oh man. Don’t ask us to change our lifestyles! We’re very attached to those.

I’m attached to it. I’ll admit it. I treasure my back yard, which is why I live nearly 40km away from my work, so my car guzzles gas to make that daily round trip. I also live away from my family and my in-laws, so we’re either travelling 272km or 840km roundtrip to visit them – or 2646km if it’s my baby sister. And that doesn’t begin to include the 3 or 4 trips I take every year by air. It feels almost commonplace now to be able to get on a plane and land anywhere in the world, but it’s a luxury in how absolutely wasteful it is, how much energy we consume to travel long-distance. I know this. I feel guilty about it. But I’m still going to Hawaii in 3 weeks.

As privileged North Americans, we create 13 times as much ecological damage as someone in Brazil. One American consumes as many resources as 35 Indians, and 53 times more goods and services than someone from China. The sad fact is, we depend on the poor staying poor. If the people of India, China, and Africa caught up to our before-the-flood-leonardo-dicaprio-imageconsumption rates, the Earth would already be dead, and so would we. “Luckily”, poverty has stopped them from even accessing the kinds of resources that we have at our fingertips. If everyone had a light bulb in their home, a washing machine, a car in the driveway, a heat source for cooking…well, we’d be doomed. But the thing about developing nations is that they are in fact developing. They are making headway. They’re getting closer and closer to attaining our level of lifestyle everyday, and we’re PANICKING. We know it spells our demise. So we plead with them: don’t bother with coal or fossil fuels, go straight to solar power, India! Hey Kenya – why not go solar? Why not? Well, because those things cost more. Which is why we still haven’t adopted them ourselves. We’re the wealthiest countries and the most able to absorb those costs, but we haven’t.  We do not practice what we preach.

Fisher Stevens directs an urgent but humble documentary that keeps climate change advocate Leonardo DiCaprio front and centre, even as he questions his own credentials, and laments his carbon footprint.

Just a decade ago we saw America start a war over oil. In a not very distant future, those same wars could be fought over water. We’re already seeing climate change refugees – people forced to leave their homes because flooding or other “natural” disasters prompted by global warming. This won’t just be about the environment. This will quickly become an issue for national security.

There is hope. There are things we could and should be doing. You and I share a responsibility to lead by example. We need to start making wiser choices now, because we will be judged by future generations, and we need to decide whether we want to be lauded by them, or vilified.

 

 

National Geographic cares so much about this issue that it has made Before The Flood available for streaming for free. You can watch it here:

TIFF: Sing

What do Scarlett Johansson, Reese Witherspoon, and Matthew McConaughey all have in common? They’ve all got pipes. And  boy do they use them in the new animated movie, Sing.

Picture this: a cute and cuddly koala, fuzzy in all the right places, adorably attired in a bowtie and sounding an awful lot like Matthew McConaughey. His name is Buster and his theatre is his passion. It is not, however, much of a sing-animation-movie-wallpaper-02living. The theatre’s bankrupt. He hasn’t had a successful show in – well, maybe ever. The bank’s about to swoop in and take it from him, so in a last ditch effort to save it, he plans a singing competition.

Because his secretary is a bit of a dunce, the $1000 prize is advertised as much more, so people desperate for money as well as those desperate for fame all show up to auditions. From a talented pool he selects a chosen few: Ash, a punk porcupine with a penchant for writing her own tunes (Johansson); Johnny, a gentle gorilla trying to escape his dad’s gang (Taron Egerton); 300773_m1455639411Gunther, a flamboyant dancing pig (Nick Kroll) partnered with Rosita, a shy momma pig with a big voice (Reese Witherspoon); an arrogant crooner of a mouse (Seth McFarlane); and a timid teenaged elephant with stage fright (Tori Kelly).

We saw an “unfinished” version at TIFF, as a sneak peak, but to my eye Garth Jennings’s oeuvre looked pretty near polished. The truth is this film is generic and formulaic. The animation is nothing to write home about. But the songs are catchy as hell, and the talent backs it up. It’s fun. It’s fluff but it’s fun. Your kids will like it. And you may resist, but your toes will be tapping too. It’s that kind of infectious.

TIFF: Their Finest

London, 1940: most have gone to war but a few are left behind to entertain the people in this bleak time. The department of war is demanding that happy-ending war movies be churned out for morale.

At any rate, Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest was indeed a boost to my morale. Of course I love Bill Nighy, and he’s at his Nighest, with his signature gestures and snorts. He plays a very vain actor who can’t quite believe he’s perhaps aged past leading-man status. Luckily a diplomatic new writer, theirfinestCatrin (Gemma Arterton) hired to write “slop” (ie, the female dialogue) appeases him by enlarging the role of the drunk uncle just for him. Convincing her boss Tom (Sam Claflin) to let her do this is as infuriating and degrading as you’d imagine – until he starts to fall in love with her, of course.

Keep in mind that though they’re writing about the Miracle of Dunkirk, the war is still raging, and Catrin must decide whether to risk losing the thread of her story every time the air raid sirens go off. The cramped office remains nearly a sanctuary but outside the city is badly bruised.

The war was a time when, with young men absent, older gentlemen and women stepped up to get the work done. Catrin is constantly reminded, however, that her employment status won’t hold up when the boys return. untitledShe mustn’t get too attached to feeling useful or creative. The war makes everything tenuous.

But despite this sounding rather dire, it is very much a comedy, and a bit of a love letter to film making. The laughs are plentiful, robust. The stars are endlessly charming. I haven’t much cared for Sam Claflin and don’t have much of an opinion on Gemma Arterton, but both are excellent here. Nighy of course, is a prize scene-stealer, and he deftly makes away with every one he’s in. Sometimes the war is seen through rose-tinted glasses (a nostalgic effect?) when the war does assert itself, it leaves a crater. This one’s not to be missed.

TIFF: Lion

I was a little caught off guard by audience reaction to this movie at TIFF. I’d read the book and liked it well enough but the movie didn’t strike me as particularly must-see. Boots on the ground at TIFF though had me hearing something different. In fact, had me hearing that it was giving La La Land a run for its money as People’s Choice. People’s Choice! So I did what any sane woman would do: I gave up my tickets to I Am Not Your Negro and secured tickets to a last-minute additional screening of Lion.

mv5bndjimtnhmgmtntewzs00zdazlthhmdutngm4nzfhnjzhy2rjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtexndq2mti__v1_Lion tells the true story of a 5 year old Indian boy named Saroo. Separated from his brother one night, he falls asleep on a train and wakes up miles away from his home, his family, from people who speak his language. He survives on his own for weeks before being thrown into an orphanage and then shipped down to an Australian family who adopt him.

Once grown, Saroo finds himself thinking about the mother he disappeared from, who might very well still be looking for him. So he uses the only tool he has available to him: Google Earth. With little information to go on, he scans the internet every night for signs of his childhood home. It’s an impossible mv5bmdu4zgi4yjgtywzlns00nte2ltg1mmutytk2njflnzhjotrjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtexndq2mti__v1_task but Saroo is miraculously lucky. Off he goes to India, to see if he can locate any family near the place he once called home.

Sunny Pawar will quickly win your heart as 5 year old Saroo. His big, adorable eyes immediately indicate his innocence and vulnerability. His half of the movie is gripping and heart-wrenching because Pawar easily elicits our sympathy. While a lost child living on the streets would surely be attended to here, in India it is unfortunately all too common a sight. His pleading is ineffectual. I felt ready to shout at the movie screen myself. And such a tiny thing navigating the streets of Calcutta – it’s an indelible image that speaks directly to your heart.

When Saroo is sent to his new Mummy (Nicole Kidman) in Australia, it becomes a new movie: a fish out of water experience for a little boy who probably didn’t even know that such a country existed. But for all intents and purposes, Saroo grows up Australian. His brown skin gives him away, but he feels a fraud among other immigrants, his culture and background a mystery to him. Dev Patel plays grown-up Saroo, a man searching the Internet not just for his hometown but really also for himself. He doesn’t want to hurt his adoptive mother though, so he pulls away to protect her.

Unfortunately, Google Earth isn’t all that interesting or cinematic. Garth Davis chose to stick with Saroo’s real-life methods but it’s not thrilling or sexy on mv5bndu0mgqxndmtndc5zc00otm4lwe0zmqtndjmzdiwmju1zjezxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtexndq2mti__v1_the screen. It literally is just a guy staring a screen night after night for weeks, months, years. He’s moody and emotional in between, throwing his relationship (with Rooney Mara, in an underwritten role) onto the rocks. Nicole Kidman gives an admittedly strong and stirring performance as his mother and helps bridge the gap, but there’s a marked lag until Patel goes back to India.

The Indian scenes are triumphant, but they also raise a lot of questions. Where was Saroo better off? What happens to kids adopted outside their culture? Which one is his real home, his real mother?

I worried that Lion was garnering attention at TIFF because the audience, who skews older, might have felt good about watching something multi-cultural while still safely ensconced in a white lady’s movie. The film, however, won me over. Maybe it tries a little hard to be upbeat, but a feel-good ending is hardly a negative. Davis acquits himself well in his first directorial feature. The chapters are perhaps a bit uneven but the victory is not.

 

 

On a TIFF sidebar: While La La Land did end up receiving the People’s Choice award (Lion was the runner-up), the tickets I gave up, I Am Not Your Negro, would have had me watching the People’s Choice documentary winner. Ah well. You win some, you lose some. I can’t regret much since I was watching a great movie either way.

 

TIFF: The Journey Is The Destination

This is supposed to be the inspiring biopic of photojournalist/artist/activist Dan Eldon. But something is lost in the translation between his real-life journals that inform the story, and its appearance on the big screen. Namely, the inspiring part.

Supposedly Dan Eldon was an activist from a young age, raising money for various good causes. British-born but raised in Nairobi, he had a silver-spoon life, having the best in x9kbt0q2zcmaybswkkqklezuxi3education, the ability to visit over 40 countries while still in his teens, and loads of opportunity. He sprinkled his good fortune with charitable acts for others. But in the movie we don’t see a lot of Dan Eldon, activist. Rather we see Dan Eldon, purveyor of white privilege, with a side of white saviour to further sour the milk.

The film is brought alive under Bronwen Hughes’s able direction. She attempts to turn the film into a literal scrap book of sorts, travel-logging his adventures to honour creative source material, though this conceit is used sporadically. And it’s also not a great fit for the film, tonally. By the movie’s end, The Journey Is The Destination will have brought you to some very dark places. Cutesie scribbles and doodle a la Diary of a Wimpy Kid don’t really belong somewhere that ultimately ends up more Hotel Rwanda.

I want to believe in Dan Eldon, good person. It’s just that this movie keeps showing me Dan Eldon, man of many advantages and almost no self-awareness. The cast is strong: Ben Schnetzer is charming as Eldon, plus the likes of Maria Bello and Kelly Macdonald in particular are welcome additions, but they can’t do much with material that’s inconsistent and contradictory. In fact, in researching this guy, I’ve learned that most of what we see in the movie is just plain wrong. And the edits they’ve made, perhaps to make him seem less flighty, more substantial, also make him less sympathetic.

If you’re truly interested in the man, reading his writings is likely the better bet.

TIFF 2016: The Best

 

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Graduation

From time to time, we all have to compromise our own values. It’s part of growing up. But do you remember the first time that you betrayed your own moral code?

According to Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu, director of the brilliant and beautiful 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (which I have not seen), Graduation is about a lot of things. “It’s about family. It’s about aging. It’s about you. It’s about me”. But mostly, as the Cannes Best Director winner articulated at the North American premiere, it’s about that pivotal moment in one’s life where they make a conscious decision for the first time to do what they know in their heart to be wrong.

Romeo (Adrien Titieni) couldn’t be more proud of his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) when she gets accepted into a fancy British school but he still can’t relax. Despite her stellar grades, she still needs to pass her finals to get out their Romanian town. When a vicious random assault threatens to shake Eliza’s confidence just days before her exams, Romeo can’t help feeling tempted to use his position as a well-respected surgeon to bargain with her educators in exchange for some leniency.

Graduation takes its time. It takes time to establish the relationships, set up the scenario, and let the story play out. Mungiu doesn’t resort to melodrama or even a musical score to beg for our attention. Almost every scene plays out in just one meticulously framed take. It’s an approach that gives his actors plenty of room to shine and his story the time to come alive. If you don’t mind the slow pace, Graduation asks big questions and will get you talking. It’s a very rewarding experience.

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My Entire High School is Sinking Into the Sea

Dash Shaw was in high school when James Cameron’s Titanic was in theaters and couldn’t help imaging what it would be like if his school sank like the famous ship with all of his classmates inside. When you think about it, to avoid drowning to death in a sinking building, the smartest would head for the top floor and try to get to the roof. Once Shaw, director of My Entire High School is Sinking Into the Sea and apparently quite an accomplished comic book writer,  started imaging each floor being occupied by a different grade level, he knew he had a story worth telling.

To see a film called My Entire High School is Sinking Into the Sea without feeling like you’re seeing something completely unique would be a letdown. So I’m pleased to announce that, whether you love it or hate it, Shaw’s debut feature will not let you down. The unusual animation style takes a little getting used to at first and, even once you get comfortable, there is so much to look at that many of the movie’s jokes- and the jokes are almost constant- can be easy to miss. My Entire High School may eventually be best remember for its carnage (those who are spared from drowning are mostly impaled, electrocuted, or eaten by sharks) but it’s made all the more special by the hilarious and sometimes touching dynamic between three adolescent friends whose bond is in crisis just as their lives are in imminent danger. And it’s all brought to life by some of the best voice acting you’ll hear this year from Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Maya Rudolph, Reggie Watts, and Susan Sarandon.

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It’s Only the End of the World

I was one proud Asshole walking out of the Toronto premiere of Quebec director Xavier Dolan’s latest family drama. I was genuinely moved by a Xavier Dolan film. I admired Mommy, his last movie, I really did. It was just too self-indulgent for me to really relate to it in any real way.

So I was pleased to find myself loving this movie, more than almost anything else I saw at the Festival this year. I was finally starting to get it. I was quite disappointed to see that not everyone was as impressed as I was. It’s Only the End of the World currently has a score of 48 on Metacritic. If you’re not familiar with that site, let me put that in perspective. That’s only four points higher than Batman v. Superman’s score. Ouch.

I stand by my recommendation though. Based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, It’s Only the End of the World tells the story of a family who are easier to relate to than to understand. After a 12-year absence, Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) is finally coming home but he is bringing sad news with him. He is very sick and doesn’t have much time left. He’s not quite sure how to bring it up but it wouldn’t matter anyway because his mother, brother, and sister can’t stop alternating between picking fights with him and each other and awkwardly trying to force reconciliation. They try to bond over trivial things and fight over tiny details but can’t seem to bring themselves to talk about anything important.

The claustrophobic family reunion atmosphere seems to rein Dolan in a bit. He still manages to make Lagarce’s play his own though. For such a talky film, it’s surprisingly cinematic with its unnerving score and great performances from Ulliel, Nathalie Baye, Marion Cotilliard, Lea Seydoux, and Vincent Cassell. Using his signature tight close-ups, Dolan works with the actors to find subtext amid all the shouting. No easy task. Hard to act like you’re holding back when you’re screaming at each other.

I’m still not entirely sure what they were fighting about. But the story feels real and profoundly sad.

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Nocturnal Animals

Careful with this one. The people around me at the TIFF encore screening of Nocturnal Animals were basket cases watching it.

It’s easy to imagine yourself in the same position as Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), a husband and father whose family finds themselves terrorized while driving a lonely Texas highway in the middle of the night. The tension is nearly unbearable as this story unfolds. Those around me could barely sit still watching it and Susan (Amy Adams) is getting even more stressed reading about it. See, the scary part of Nocturnal Animals is but a story within a story. It’s the plot of a manuscript that Susan’s ex-husband (also Gyllenhaal) has sent her of his latest novel. As unnerving as the novel is to watch, it’s even worse for Susan. She’s quite sure the novel is about her.

The three narratives (there are also a lot of flashbacks of Susan’s marriage) are balanced beautifully in the second film from director Tom Ford (A Single Man). Susan is a successful art dealer and everything around her is beautiful and fake. In the story within the story, Tony’s world is harsh and all too real. Nocturnal Animals is sure to be divisive. Ford lays out his themes very clearly and I’m sure I feel comfortable with all of his implications. But there’s so much to look at and so much to feel, think,about, and talk about that you kind of just have to see it.

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Oh, and if you’re not sold yet, Michael Shannon plays a crazy cop in it.

TIFF: Salt and Fire

Pain and suffering. No, those aren’t themes in the movie, it’s just what I felt while watching Werner Herzog’s narrative feature film at TIFF this year. The man is a legend, an icon, a talented film maker. A talented documentary film maker. His stab at narrative cinema was an atrocity worse than the one detailed in the film.

Salt and Fire’s premise: Some corporation is wreaking havoc in South America. saltandfire_03The landscape has significantly changed, the salt flats growing exponentially. A volcano that runs underneath shows signs of erupting as a result, which would mean a global disaster. Like a wiping out of humanity disaster. So, in a strange bid to fix things, a misguided man (Michael Shannon) kidnaps a scientist (Veronica Ferres) and abandons her on the salt flats along with two blind boys.

It’s such a flimsy excuse of a story it’s hard to take it seriously. Gael Garcia Bernal plays another scientist in the delegation, but his character is given massive diarrhea and written out of the script 5 minutes in. Yes, you read that right. We were flabbergasted too.

The film has worse symptoms than just an unbelievable premise and a bad case of the runs. It’s also got the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard in my entire life. At first I wanted to chalk it up to Herzog not being an Anglophone (still, I believe there are things you can do about that, such as hire writers). The “dialogue” (I loathe to even call it that) sounds suspiciously like the narration of a documentary. It’s textbook and stilted and has no business coming out of a person’s mouth.

Salt and Fire was billed by TIFF as an “ecological thriller” but we got it straight from the horse’s mouth that this was not the case. Boy was it not the case. To salt-and-fire-1-620x413suggest that there is a thrill to be had here (other than the panicked state of Bernal’s panties) is laughable. Most of the film is just unending shots of salt. There’s a good 10 minutes just watching the kids play Trouble (the board game) for the blind.

I wondered why in the hell Michael Shannon, celebrated and usually reliable actor, would sign on to such an abortion. I have a sneaking suspicion it might for the same reason I attended the screening – to get close to Werner Herzog. And the truth is, seeing him in person was everything I hoped it would be. He was very Herzogian. He’s a man full of fire and passion. He is animated and dynamic and tireless. And as it turns out, he claims that the things I hated most about the movie are things he did on purpose.

He called the dialogue “highly stylized” (check out the comments for segments from his Q&A). Highly stylized! My highly stylized ass. He also called the film “a daydream that doesn’t follow the rules of cinema.” Which is admittedly a nice way of saying “I have no idea what I’m doing.” The story is so passive that it fails to engage its main theme. We never feel ignited. We never really even understand what’s going on. Does the movie have a purpose? Do the characters?

Werner Herzog is unapologetic, and I like him that way. But in the future, he and I should both stick to his documentaries.