Mascots (Grade: C), Christopher Guest’s first mockumentary since A Mighty Wind (and first feature as a director in over a decade), offers up an unwieldy cast of familiar Guest-ian caricatures, but little sympathy. There’s another problem: The wacky sports mascot competition in which this particular set of over-sharing oddballs is participating is one of Guest’s lamer ideas, and whether you’ll find yourself snickering at the climax or occasionally fidgeting out of boredom depends on whether you find sports mascots inherently hilarious. One can’t help but suspect that longtime Guest co-writer and company player Eugene Levy might have been a grounding presence, as his characters are some of the most affectionately drawn (and saddest, in the case of A Mighty Wind) in Guest’s body of work. He sits this one out, as does the invaluable Catherine O’Hara.
Guest’s previous mockumentary projects all followed an identical formula that is laid bare here because of a lack of counterpoint. The play in Waiting For Guffman is staged for what’s recognizably a small-town Midwestern audience, the dog show in Best In Show could pass for the real thing, and the musicianship in A Mighty Wind is legitimately good—but in Mascots, everything is bizarre. (For instance, instead of hoping to impress a big city theater critic as in Guffman, the organizers are trying to land a TV deal with the Gluten Free Channel.) With no measure of reality to bounce off of, Guest’s regular ensemble of experienced improvisers (plus a few newcomers, including Zach Woods, tasked with filling the Levy role) come across like they’re suffering from Quirk Tourette’s, blurting out whatever weird traits come to mind: micropenis, raised in a cult based around Highway To Heaven, etc.
These characters aren’t that much weirder than earlier Guest creations; they’re just less funny and likable. He and his ensemble can still put together the occasional good throwaway gag (see: a memoir titled A Moose-ing Grace: A Mascot’s Journey To God… And Success In Real Estate), but Mascots strains for comic set-pieces. A visiting soccer mascot from England getting pulled over for driving on the side of the road is what passes for conflict here. It’s been 20 years (almost to the day) since Waiting For Guffman had its international premiere at TIFF, and Guest’s return to the genre he popularized feels like an undercooked rehash, right down to pointless inclusion of his Guffman character, Corky St. Clair.
Fulfilling my patriotic duty, I headed into TIFF’s press screening of The Duelist (Grade: C+), an expensive-ish (by Russian standards) piece of humorless camp that finds the midway point between Tom Hooper and Zack Snyder. Worst of all, it’s actually kind of diverting: a soap opera about a disgraced nobleman who returns to mid-19th century Saint Petersburg under a stolen identity to become a sharpshooter (his signature trick is blowing a shot glass off his own head with a ricocheted bullet) and contract killer. The premise of a Tsarist conspiracy that offs its enemies by luring them into duels with a professional dead shot is irresistible, but director Aleksei Mizgirev’s script is a mess of backstories and contradictory ideas about the myth of the Russian aristocracy.
Mizgirev has also somehow figured out how to make a visually incoherent movie without resorting to quick cuts; every shot is framed for oomph (The Duelist will be distributed in IMAX in the U.S.), leaving all questions related to eye lines and continuity up to the interpretation of the audience. Yet this prodigally over-serious collection of fetish-wear-esque period costumes, rain machine effects, crumbling textures, and disorienting low angles is rarely boring. With fitful success, it attempts to twist the intrigues of the Tolstoy-era nobility into overwrought pulp, complete with a self-loathing sex scene, while Pyotr Fyodorov—looking even more like a cut-rate Colin Farrell than usual—broods and glowers his way through every scene as the anti-hero who keeps reminding everyone that he’s an anti-hero.
Pulp and disappointment turned out to the major motifs of my final days at TIFF, best exemplified by Walter Hill’s prurient transploitation flick (Re)Assignment (Grade: C+). A pulp fairy tale in the mode of Hill’s earlier (and much, much better) Johnny Handsome, (Re)Assignment casts Michelle Rodriguez as Frank Kitchen, a hit man given a forced sex change by a vengeful plastic surgeon (Sigourney Weaver). I’m guessing that zero trans people were consulted on the script (originally titled Tomboy), which comes across as outdated but isn’t wrongheaded. Frank’s new feminine body doesn’t turn him into a woman any more than having “male” on your birth certificate makes one a man, and, despite looking like Michelle Rodriguez, his few attempts at passing as female fail. (A nice touch: He puts on a wig, despite having his own shoulder-length hair.) Basically, Re(Assignment)’s unwillingness to do much of anything with its premise gives it a modicum of integrity.
But at the same time, Hill—one of the essential American genre directors, responsible for the likes of The Driver, The Warriors, and 48 Hrs.—seems to have no clue what this movie is supposed to be about, other than pulp for pulp’s sake. There’s ample nudity, plenty of lurid touches, and music by Giorgio Moroder, creating a level of heightened sleaze. But there are also competing framing devices (the Weaver character‘s scenery-chewing narration from a mental hospital, Frank’s video-taped confession, comic-book panel transitions) and more dropped ideas than plot. I’m of two minds on the unsituated Vancouver shooting locations (doubling very poorly for San Francisco): Having Canada’s default urban “nowhere in particular” stand in for one of America’s most distinctive cities adds to the air of cheapness, but also mirrors the central gambit of making a character defined by his intractable gender. Frank is always a man, but he is always played by a woman.
In another instance of suggestive casting, Nocturnal Animals (Grade: B-) plays off of the fact that Amy Adams and Isla Fisher kind of look alike by having one play a fictional character that the other suspects might be modeled on her. There’s no quick way to describe the plot of fashion designer Tom Ford’s second feature, an adaption of Austin Wright’s novel Tony And Susan that takes substantial liberties in interpreting a text that is already about how we interpret texts (including our own lives, insofar as they qualify as texts), pushing it further into stylization and reference. Confused yet? Here goes: Susan (Adams) receives a manuscript for a novel by her long estranged ex-husband, Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), a violent tale about evil and self-destruction that she interprets as a coded attack.
Ford uses casting to imply what Susan is thinking: Gyllenhaal also plays the protagonist of the novel, whom she sees as a transparent self-portrait; Fisher plays his wife, because she might be Susan; and India Menuez and Ellie Bamber (who also look a lot a like) play, respectively, Susan’s real-life daughter and the daughter in the novel. Trickier still, the most ambiguous and fascinating role goes to a completely fictional character, a lawman (Michael Shannon, excellent) who helps the protagonist seek revenge against a trio of murderous hillbillies. But wait, there’s more: the Cormac McCarthy-esque Texas setting is Ford’s idea, and so is the decision to make Susan (middle-class in Wright’s novel) into an art dealer in a chic and soul-sucking Los Angeles.
In effect, all three threads (present-day Susan, Tony’s novel, and Susan’s memories of their short-lived marriage) have some degree of stylization, as though they were related interpretations of different texts. (Here, the decision to throw modern art into the mix begins to make sense.) But as in his first feature, A Single Man, Ford the keen reader often loses to Ford the aesthete. In a film so dependent on structure, his self-indulgence becomes a destabilizer.
Plus: My final screening at TIFF ended up being Gastón Solnicki’s minimalist and minimally conceived Kékszakállú (Grade: C), which claims inspiration from Béla Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle. Sure thing, bro. I’d describe the film as an hour and change of young Argentine women in various states of bikinidom doing nothing in a semi-evocative way, though I was pretty taken with a factory sequence that answered questions I never knew I had about how Styrofoam gets made. Earlier, I ended up coming late into Ulrich Seidl’s Safari (Grade: n/a). I’m looking forward to watching it all the way through, though what I saw reinforced what my own impressions about Seidl’s strengths and weaknesses as a documentary filmmaker. (There is, though, an arresting sequence involving a dying giraffe.)
I spent all of this year’s TIFF fighting a cold, which meant that I had to keep my schedule lighter than my usual. So, in order to keep our coverage fairly broad and not double up too much with my co-correspondent A.A. Dowd, I opted to skip almost all of the movies I was looking forward to, and left TIFF without having seen Moonlight, Manchester By The Sea, Loving, The Handmaiden, Toni Erdmann, Personal Shopper, Elle, Ta’ang, or most of the Wavelengths shorts programs. (However, we’ve reviewed all but the last two.) For this reason, I’m keeping my picks for favorites from the festival to only three, two of which would be at or near the top in any year.
A brazen, often tremendous achievement in form and abstraction. The conclusion of French writer-director Bertrand Bonello’s informal trilogy about loneliness, belonging, and the modern world (the earlier films were House Of Pleasures and Saint Laurent), this intoxicating, oneiric, and darkly poignant film finds the meaning and appeal of terrorism by ignoring ideology. A socially diverse group of French teenagers plan and stage a violent attack with no apparent motive and then wait out the night in a massive department store—a consumerist dreamscape by way of of Assault On Precinct 13 and Dawn Of The Dead. I watched the final 15 minutes with my mouth hanging open.
2. La La Land
I initially hedged my bets on Damien Chazelle’s bittersweet romance with a split grade, because I suspected that its charm would fade over a few days. It has—and instead, I’ve found myself with an increased appreciation for what Chazelle accomplishes with this song-and-dance musical about happiness and wish fulfillment. This is synthesizing and paying homage to earlier film musicals and classic Hollywood romances for a reason, and the pastiche ending (the second best finale I saw at TIFF, after Nocturama) is a powerful emotional crescendo.
Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Ted Chiang’s “The Story Of Your Life” has its flaws (an occasionally clunky narrative, a goofy-looking effects sequence, etc.), but at its best it creates a sense of eeriness and reality that sci-fi movies often lack. Readers may have figured out that I tend to care a lot about endings; here, I’d say that the groundedness of the early scenes, which take a realistic approach to both an alien arrival and the scientific response it would entail, really helps establish the increasingly dreamlike and psychedelic third act as transformative.
Has it been a week already? Wasn’t I just sitting down for a morning screening of Jeff Nichols’ Loving, my first film of TIFF 2016? Festival time is weird. And taking the first Saturday of Toronto off for a wedding didn’t make it any less weird, though it did probably supply me with a second wind.
I liked a lot of what I saw at the fest this year—in part, of course, because I spent some time catching up with Cannes selections, and this was an especially great year for that festival. As always, it’s been a pleasure bringing you early word on so many new movies coming to a theater near you. Below is my top five of the fest, technically in order of preference, though that will probably change as I inevitably revisit these stellar movies (plus, I didn’t include Manchester By The Sea, which I saw at Sundance and is still my favorite film of the year, bar none). Other stuff I liked a little less but still a lot: The Salesman, A Quiet Passion, Jackie, Arrival, and Things To Come.
A romance. A shatteringly intimate character study. A movement into manhood told in three acts, by three different actors, all on the same wavelength of aching introversion. Barry Jenkins’ long-awaited second feature tackles big topics—masculinity, sexuality, black identity—without ever compromising its insights into the experiences of one kid negotiating his desires against the crashing blue water of Miami. Moonlight felt like the movie of Toronto, even if it didn’t actually premiere here. Sometimes everyone is right.
2. La La Land
Following the claustrophobic intensity of Whiplash, writer-director Damien Chazelle throws open the windows to a radiant throwback musical about two young artists trying to make it in Los Angeles. La La Land may borrow freely from the many musicals that came before it, but its craftsmanship doesn’t come in quotation marks, and neither does its focus on the hard choice between chasing your dreams into oblivion and deciding to settle for the reality of a steady gig. It’s song-and-dance in the key of life.
3. Toni Erdmann
A father fond of pranks spends a few tense days with the workaholic daughter he fears is teetering on the edge in Maren Ade’s long, prickly, and sometimes uproarious Toni Erdmann. This was the movie of Cannes, but while reports from the ground there emphasized the film’s comedy (my favorite moment, a small one: Dad joking with his kid that he’s planning on staying with her for a month, than remarking at her visible discomfort, “That was true fear”), it’s the complicated family drama that’s stuck with me a week later. It’s practically Ozu, at least in its relationship dynamics. Can’t wait to see it again.
I run hot and cold on Jim Jarmusch, and the basic conceit of his latest (“He’s a bus driver… who writes poetry?!”) seemed vaguely condescending, sight unseen. But Paterson is just lovely, a portrait of seven days in the life of a man (Adam Driver, ideally cast) who sees beauty in the ordinary details (and ordinary people) all around him. The film isn’t attempting anything much more complicated than a salute to the virtues of unglamorous contentment, but that’s the key to its simple power. I could have spent another whole week with Paterson of Paterson, New Jersey.
Park Chan-wook’s obscenely entertaining, sneakily moving con-job love triangle. The film keeps doubling back on itself in clever ways, revealing the true motives of its characters, but all the rug-pulling never interferes with the romantic notion—surprising, given the filmmaker—that it’s possible to look past a person’s illusions and facades and see the soul simmering underneath. Park has never made a movie this dazzling, this full, this good.