Canada’s own Jason Reitman was a festival darling at TIFF right from the get-go, having been the subject of a distribution squabble with his first feature, Thank You For Smoking, in 2005, and then returning to feed the fest’s hungry Oscar machine with Juno (2007) and Up In The Air (2009). This year, he hosted a live reading of the screenplay for Boogie Nights, an event that featured Jesse Eisenberg reading the role of Dirk Diggler and Dakota Fanning as Rollergirl.
I wasn’t there, but it sounds like a better time than watching Reitman’s new film, Labor Day (Grade: C-), which suggests the experience of being pelted with a thousand supermarket paperbacks at once. Veering away from the prickly tonal complexity of Young Adult—a female Greenberg centered on a courageously off-putting Charlize Theron performance—Reitman has taken a stab at bald-faced melodrama, trolling viewers with an almost comical onslaught of clichés.
Based on a well-regarded 2009 novel by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day signals its awfulness right from the opening credits, a slow breeze through suburbia set to an oppressively doleful Rolfe Kent score. We meet a child of divorce (Gattlin Griffith) living with his lonely mom (Kate Winslet). Dad (Clark Gregg) ran off with his secretary, an act his son still resents. On a trip to the store with his mom, the boy meets an escaped murder convict (Josh Brolin), who threatens them into taking him back to their house and soon becomes a handy guy to have around. He plays baseball! He bakes great apple pies! He knows the importance of being able to fix a flat tire! The sentimentality stifles even as great an actress as Winslet, who’s given little to do but pine and cry, and the miserablist pile-on of the backstories pushes Labor Day toward the realm of exploitation.
Reitman’s movie is an exercise in aggressive familiarity. The most de-familiarzing film in Toronto, by far, is Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin (Grade: A-), which—with its daisy-chain, Holy Motors-like structure—sometimes resembles installation art more than a theatrical feature. That’s not an insult, in this case. Opening by quoting 2001: A Space Odyssey, and featuring long stretches of total abstraction, it’s the most ambitious film here, throwing out the rules of conventional structure in a way that takes some getting used to. This is hardly the first film to observe an alien encountering strange customs, but it may be the first that seems conceived from that perspective formally as well as dramatically.
After landing on Earth and slipping into the skin of a human woman, Scarlett Johansson’s space creature drives around Scotland picking up various men, whose rapid vocal interjections are looped in a way that makes them sound like another language (at least to an American). Not only does Johansson misunderstand what she sees—for instance, asking a man with a profound facial deformity why he doesn’t have a girlfriend, unaware that she’s being hurtful—but she seems to experience it through imperfect stimuli. The soundtrack, courtesy of a hypnotically strange score by Mica Levi, would be a mesmerizing experience on its own.
Under The Skin is shot in a low-grade, underlit digital style, and Glazer suggested at a Q&A that the film involved a fair bit of improv, with Johansson venturing into actual Scottish locales among non-actors. The movie is bound to be a polarizing experience, likely to at times irritate even viewers who admire it. (There are stretches that come a bit close to Matthew Barney for my tastes.) But it’s rare to see a film that isn’t even readily assimilated, let alone processed. At the festival, Under The Skin’s blindsiding ambition stands in stark contrast to Gravity’s dramatic conservativeness.
Richard Ayoade’s second feature as director, The Double (Grade: B-) is a loose reworking of Dostoyevsky in the idiom of Brazil and Soderbergh’s Kafka. The film makes terrific use of Jesse Eisenberg’s twin modes, nebbish and asshole, casting him in the roles of both a meek analytics expert and his confident, glad-handing new co-worker. No one notices that the two men look exactly the same, and the caddish new guy first helps Eisenberg No. 1, then stymies him, in his efforts at initiating romance with a co-worker (Mia Wasikowka). There’s not a whole lot to this version of The Double, but its visual comedy and offhand surrealism make it a mild pleasure.
Hany Abu-Assad’s Palestinian feature Omar (Grade: C+) is also, in a different way, about duality, as the eponymous protagonist, who participates in a plot to shoot an Israeli soldier, is arrested and then co-opted into spying on his comrades. Though it effectively documents the paranoia and compromise that are part and parcel of life in the occupied territories, it’s not as strong a film as Paradise Now (2005), which more urgently and ambiguously zeroed in on its suicide-bomber protagonists as they neared a moment of action. And the last beat, however preordained, is destructive—seemingly an active endorsement of violence. —Ben Kenigsberg
Any time a narrative feature, with a story and characters and everything, gets relegated to Wavelengths, TIFF’s multi-program slate of experimental cinema work, it’s safe to assume that the film in question may be a little… challenging. So as I filed into Jackman Hall yesterday for the nearly three-hour new movie by Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang, who made the relatively accessible What Time Is It There? about a decade ago and a string of increasingly inaccessible films in the years since, I was fully prepared for a tough sit. (Some of the reviews from Venice compounded this expectation.) It’s a pleasure, then, to report that Stray Dogs (Grade: A-) is not some impenetrable endurance test, at least for those attuned to the director’s strategy of holding on an image for what can sometimes feel like a small eternity. Looking beyond its epic long takes, Tsai’s latest is small and human and primal—a howl from the gutter, and a survival story about life on the fringe, in which a family of four ekes out an existence one day and scavenged meal at a time.
Certainly, there’s more to grasp onto here than there was in Face, the filmmaker’s previous full-length effort, which would have made a fine Wavelengths selection, too. Whereas that beguiling curiosity trafficked in symbolic abstraction and nutty non sequiturs, Stray Dogs is as stripped bare as the water-damaged abandoned building its characters sometimes call home. The father, played by Tsai perennial Lee Kang-Sheng, works as a “human billboard” in Tapei, standing at busy intersections, in pouring rain or otherwise. (Bitter, bitter irony: He’s advertising for a real-estate company but has no shelter of his own.) His latchkey kids, real-life siblings (and Tsai godchildren) Lee Yi-Chieh and Lee Yi-Cheng, spend many of their afternoons alone. Sometimes they accompany their mother to work. Wait, is she their mother? In his most enigmatic move, Tsai casts three different actresses in the role. (For a few baffling minutes, I wondered if there was another woman in the father’s life.)
Stray Dogs is basically plotless, at least if one describes plot as forward motion for the characters. Lee and his family live day to day, and the film unfolds as a series of snapshot vignettes of what they call a life—scrounging for sustenance, climbing into trees to sleep, washing themselves in a public restroom, etc. There’s a cumulative power to Tsai’s vision of perseverance and decay; the plight of this struggling family unit weighs more heavily on the heart with each passing minute. Anyone who lives or works in a big city can attest to how easy it is to become conditioned to the peripheral sight of abject poverty. Callous as it sounds, homelessness is a fact of urban existence, one that those on the other side learn to process—through a mixture of familiarity and willful emotional distancing—as another part of the texture of the city. Stray Dogs fights tooth and nail, one glorious long take at a time, against such turning of blind eyes. Yes, there are a few moments that veer dangerously close to self-parody, as when Lee expresses his anguish by caressing, suffocating, and finally devouring a doll his children have made out of a head of cabbage. But this is also the rare marathon-length art film that seems to grow less oppressive the longer it goes on, thanks to the flood of empathy it increasingly provokes. The final scene is one of those all-or-nothing moments of transcendence, a very long stare into the void that will leave those watching either hopelessly impatient or emotionally spent. Even as I struggled to grasp the full significance of the image Stray Dogs ends on, the full force of its compassion bowled me over. It’s a fiercely humanistic movie.
As something of a superfan of the expressive French auteur Claire Denis (Beau Travail, 35 Shots Of Rum), it pains me a bit to confess that I was probably just a little too festival-fatigued to completely follow her latest act of elegant obfuscation, Bastards (Grade: B). One of the grand pleasures of watching a Denis movie is leaning in and paying close attention; admirably allergic to expository dialogue, the director puts great trust in her audience to sort out the nature of onscreen relationships. Perhaps too much trust, in this case: Chronologically non-linear, though not as bafflingly so as The Intruder, this grim tale of exploitation takes its time revealing how its various characters—including a ship captain (Vincent Lindon), a cruel mogul (Michel Subor), and a traumatized teenage girl (Lola Créton)—are all connected. Putting the puzzle pieces together may be more rewarding than seeing the big picture. But while plenty have complained about the mundane nature of the story, once all its layers of misdirection have been peeled back, there’s a potent whiff of Chinatown-grade outrage to the ending. Denis has made a movie about how powerful men take what they want from the world; one need not have the whole thing figured out to be shaken by its horror and dismay. Also, pixels suit the director just fine; she exploits the textures of digital just as seductively as she did the grain of celluloid. Save some credit for regular cinematographer Agnès Godard, who expertly captures the allure and danger of night.
Improbably sandwiched between these two uncompromising world-cinema visions, like a piece of expired baloney between two slices of fine gourmet bread, was the TIFF premiere of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s cartoonish directorial debut, Don Jon (Grade: C+). The actor-turned-filmmaker casts himself as a muscular mook who falls for Scarlett Johansson’s “perfect 10” club girl, but can’t quite shake his pathological need for pornography. A broad comic sideshow of Jersey Shore caricatures, the movie at the very least sidesteps the moralizing message it seems to be building towards. (The hero’s problem isn’t that he jerks off too much, but that he’s never actually connected to someone through sex.) As an actor, JGL fails to completely transform the titular character into a real human being. As a director, he leans much too heavily on fast-cut repetition—he’s no Edgar Wright—though a running gag about the sound of a laptop booting up is pretty inspired. A few days ago, I wrote about how a more conventional American movie can feel like a breath of fresh air when programmed alongside punishing festival fare. Sometimes, however, said movie just ends up looking even less substantial by comparison. Tsai Ming-Liang, it turns out, is a hard act to follow. —A.A. Dowd