As an excuse for Emmanuel Lubezki to rotate his camera through a bunch of cool-looking 3-D space hardware, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (Grade: B-) does its job spectacularly. In narrative terms, though, it’s somewhat lacking, essentially counting on viewers to be so lulled by gorgeous refractions of light and insane long takes à la Children Of Men that they won’t care about dramatic anemia or missed opportunities for tension.
The setup is simple. A collision with hurtling detritus leaves astronauts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney the sole survivors of a space station catastrophe, bobbing and weaving through the darkness. Visually immersive without being consistently involving, Gravity, like Avatar, revels in its own virtuosity. Every scene aspires to be the “open the pod bay door, HAL” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, as the scientists struggle to stay tethered to each other and to board what remains of their vessels.
Still, some of the hallmarks of Kubrick’s movie—the eerie silence, the painstaking pacing—are in short supply. Cueing the viewer with a heavy-handed score, Cuarón rarely slows the proceedings down long enough to generate lengthy suspense. The movie presents its characters with one challenge after another, but doesn’t take a breath to give the audience its bearings. Apollo 13 presented a more richly detailed space-rescue operation; the screenplay kept viewers acutely aware of, say, the condensation on electrical panels or which switches need to be pushed at a given time. Watching Gravity often feels like watching an especially long prep reel for Star Tours, without ever being allowed to board the ride.
It’s true that the film—human-scaled, technically precise, inventive in its stereoscopy—represents a less depressing future-of-cinema scenario than Pacific Rim’s tedious gigantism, but it’s a decidedly mixed bag. When it comes to capturing actors on film, the aggressive 3-D makes Gravity look slightly cheesy. Clooney brings his usual insouciance to the task at hand, but Bullock, saddled with a too-pat back story, doesn’t convey the psychological depths her character requires. This is a case of technology put to expert use, but one fears a future in which Hollywood decides to dispense with the humans entirely.
Those who say television is the future of cinema might struggle make their case on the basis of the miniseries Southcliffe (Grade: C), written by veteran miserablist Tony Grisoni (Red Riding, The Unloved) and directed—though not with much of an apparent signature—by Martha Marcy May Marlene’s Sean Durkin. The film chronicles life in the eponymous, factious British town before, during, and after a shooting spree, an event initially relayed obliquely. The first two of four chapters play tricks with chronology as a means of keeping viewers off-balance. Despite that suspense-goosing measure, Southcliffe doesn’t become compelling until the third of four episodes—though even then, as Rory Kinnear’s Southcliffe-raised, London-based TV reporter is drunkenly shouting that the town deserved what it got, the movie has safely left the realm of common sense. Some affecting turns (by Shirley Henderson and especially Eddie Marsan as a grieving couple) salvage some of it, but the film is an unilluminating—and, with its unvaried palette of gray tones, under-illuminated—wallow in grief.
Another film about witnessing tragedy, the JFK assassination drama Parkland (Grade: C+) received some vicious pans at Venice; the title refers to the Dallas Hospital to which Kennedy was rushed after being shot, which is also where Oswald died a few days later. The obvious comparison is Emilio Estevez’s Bobby (2006), which similarly observed a cross-section of ‘60s America on the eve of RFK’s assassination. But the crucial difference here is that the persons onscreen, from Billy Bob Thornton’s Secret Service agent to the young trauma doctor played by Zac Efron to Paul Giamatti’s suddenly besieged Abraham Zapruder are all directly involved with the aftermath of the murder.
The feature directing debut of journalist-turned filmmaker Peter Landesman, it’s not the best-made procedural, heavy on cheap irony (“Nice day for a motorcade!” Ron Livingston’s FBI agent exclaims at the beginning, because who didn’t say that that morning?) and overplaying tacky angles, as James Badge Dale (playing Oswald’s brother) is warned he’ll have to change his name and skip town. But there’s still a morbid fascination in seeing these events play out from the immediate periphery, whether it’s in watching agents decide how to load Kennedy’s coffin onto the Air Force One (hastily removing rows of seats) or learning where the Zapruder film was developed (a Kodak lab on the edge of town, which was ill-equipped for 8mm—imagine if the footage had been overexposed). Tolerance for variable acting is a must; Thornton provides some gravitas as an agent who feels he’s failed in his mission, while Jacki Weaver, as Oswald’s mother, gives perhaps the shrillest performance since the Kennedy administration.
Much more current—maybe too current—is The Square (Grade: C+), which really requires a provisional grade. This documentary from Jehane Noujaim (Control Room) observes the Arab Spring from the vantage point of activists in Tahrir Square, capturing their changing perspectives as the government and constitution evolve. But upheaval in Egypt is very much ongoing—and even more than with The Fifth Estate, this is a film in danger of being rendered dated by headlines at any moment. Edited until just before the festival—there’s footage from Morsi’s ouster this summer, plus title cards filling us in on August—the film is valuable for its ground-level view of a movement that the American cable news too often abstracts into facelessness. But the film seems scattered, in search of a defined subject. As actor-activist Khalid Abdalla (The Kite Runner) explains on-screen, it won’t be possible to gauge the effects of the events in Egypt for decades—which leaves any filmmaker who wants to make a documentary on the subject in a bind. At a certain point, a movie has to be finished and released, especially if it might spur change. But it doesn’t seem like this story has a clear upshot yet—or at least a cutoff that would allow Noujaim to focus the footage more clearly.
In a cool development, the Q&A following the screening adjourned to an alley around the corner from the theater, where the filmmakers, joined by a healthy crowd, attempted (unsuccessfully) to contact another of the subjects, Ahmed Hassan, in Egypt via Skype, as they’d done after an earlier screening. This time, they’d prepared to project his image onto the bottom of mattress leaning against the alley wall. It didn’t work, but the scene was something else. The Square is grassroots activism first, cinema second—and there’s nothing wrong with that. —Ben Kenigsberg
When it comes to festival coverage, I subscribe to the perhaps antiquated notion that it’s not so important to be among the very first to weigh in on a buzzed-about title. Entertainment journalists thrive on getting the scoop, and on feeling as though they’re “shaping the conversation,” but waiting just a little longer—say, an extra 24 hours—can help assuage the nagging temptation to align oneself instantly with the pro or con camps. Or maybe that’s just my rationale for not wanting to brave the madhouse crowds of a Gala premiere.
Either way, while many of my peers spent yesterday watching, debating, or getting shut out of screenings of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, I was still catching up with the previous day’s major talking point: Steve McQueen’s harrowing historical drama 12 Years A Slave (Grade: A-), the episodic true tale of a free black man in upstate New York, circa 1841, who’s kidnapped and sold into the Southern plantation system. What’s not being widely acknowledged about the movie is that it’s not just the best feature McQueen has yet made, but also—for all its unflinching brutality—also his most conventionally satisfying. Don’t let me be misunderstood: There’s nothing middlebrow about the film, which tackles the nightmare of American slavery without sentimentality, nor with the need to provide comeuppance or catharsis. Arriving less than a year after Tarantino’s crass Django Unchained, which trivialized the subject by treating its horrors as the catalyst for a kicky revenge fable, 12 Years A Slave has a starkness that belies its status as an instant “Oscar frontrunner.”
Yet when held up against McQueen’s other pictures, the Bobby Sands biopic Hunger and the sex addiction drama Shame, this new one looks undeniably classical in construction. It is, first and foremost, a triumph of storytelling, one less concerned with inspiring awe through aesthetics than investing viewers in its narrative. While those previous efforts found McQueen gazing upon his subjects from a remove, his interest devoted more clearly to surfaces than psychology, 12 Years A Slave erases the emotional distance between the filmmaker and his protagonist. There are less showboating set-pieces—a few long single takes, but no epic ones—because those would largely distract from the devastating understatement of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s lead performance. I tend to side with my colleague in his assertion that the film is best appreciated as a penetrating character study; to ascribe a grand historical agenda to its litany of sorrows is to rob it of its specificity. In any case, whether one takes 12 Years A Slave as the definitive big-screen treatment of slavery or just a tough, wounding vision of what one man is willing to do to survive, there’s no denying what it represents for its creator. Before our eyes, a talented craftsman has transformed into a gifted storyteller.
Strong acting was a through line in my third day at TIFF: Besides 12 Years A Slave—which boasts great work from just about everyone onscreen, including a tender Benedict Cumberbatch and a loathsome Paul Dano (who takes his most deserved beating since There Will Be Blood)—all of the high-profile American movies I caught on Saturday benefitted from the commitment of their stars. In yet another of his mid-career knockout performances, Matthew McConaughey gets scary, Machinist thin to play real-life Texas electrician Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club (Grade: B). A homophobic good old boy with a taste for unprotected sex, Woodroof contracted HIV in 1986; shunned by his friends and given 30 days to live by his doctors, he ended up setting up an alternative medication ring for his fellow afflicted, smuggling unapproved drugs into the country while the FDA was pushing the lethal AZT on the dying. As with too many biopics, Dallas Buyers Club detrimentally attempts to conform its true story to dramatic conventions, setting up a quasi-romance between McConaughey and doctor Jennifer Garner, and establishing boo-and-hiss-worthy villains in Woodroof’s battle with the government and pharmaceutical companies. Yet there’s still something undeniably moving about the film’s trajectory, which allows McConaughey to blossom into an empathetic figure—one whose homophobia fades as his fighting spirit intensifies—without losing his rapscallion spirit. He’s an indelible character around which to base a movie.
Lingering sentimentality may be partially responsible for the good reviews bestowed upon Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said (Grade: B), which features the penultimate performance from the late, great James Gandolfini. Truthfully, though, this is one of Holofcener’s better efforts, largely because it eases up on the first-world problems she normally mines for comedic material. (A subplot involving the difficulty of firing a maid is the lone, unfortunate exception.) There’s something more universal about this story of a single mother and middle-aged masseuse (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, charming) who starts dating a fellow divorcee (Gandolfini), only to discover that he’s the ex-husband her new friend and client (Catherine Keener) has been endlessly bitching about. That’s a fairly contrived sitcom scenario, but Holofcener bends it into a loose, lightly funny meditation on divorce, getting older, and impending empty-nest syndrome. Also, yes, Gandolfini is terrific.
Things got weirder yesterday evening, when I capped a day of American movies with two oddball international selections. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of Celestial Wives Of The Meadow Mari (Grade: B-), a bizarre blend of Russian folklore and sex comedy that unfolds over 23 vignettes of varying hilarity and grotesqueness. Director Alexey Fedorchenko, who made the elegiac ethnographic drama Silent Souls, has an eye for striking imagery and an admirable interest in disappearing customs. But Celestial Wives often feels like little more than a string of bawdy-surreal gags, as though Apichatpong Weerasethakul had mounted a remake of Movie 43. (I know that sounds awesome and to the right eyes, it might be.) Also, some of the segments are just plain gross. See, or maybe don’t see, the scene in which mischievous male spirits throw cups of jizz at the dancing girls who summoned them.
Much more compelling, though also exhausting, was The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears (Grade: B), which finds Amer directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani still gloriously riffing on the stylistic hallmarks of giallo. To both its benefit and eventual detriment, this new one attempts to apply the duo’s nonstop virtuoso tricks to an honest-to-God narrative, a man’s search for the wife who disappeared from his forebodingly swanky French apartment building. The problem here isn’t that Cattet and Forzani slice and dice their story into near abstraction; Amer did that, too, which was one of the things that made it such a pure-cinema delight. Strange Colour simply suffers from an excess of material; after a while, the swirling camera moves, split screen, still-image violence, deafening sonic assault, and endless close-ups (of red lips, leather-glad hands, knives, razors, and lots and lots of eyeballs) becomes a little numbing. Until then, however—and breaking points will vary—it feels like the most visually dazzling film of the fest. —A.A. Dowd