There’s no right or wrong way to attend a film festival, but it seems fair to assert that any American who comes to TIFF to watch nothing but high-profile American movies is—to put it kindly—not getting their money’s worth. Then again, sometimes a star-studded homegrown drama can be a nice festival palate cleanser, especially when the rest of your day is spent grappling with smaller, tougher, more esoteric fare. The English-language debut of Denis Villeneuve, who made the Oscar-nominated Incendies, Prisoners (Grade: B+) fits that bill nicely—though it’s not exactly a breezy genre distraction. Set in Pennsylvania, during the investigation of a child-kidnapping case, the film is conventional but almost nonstop gripping, even after its plotting takes a turn for the slightly ludicrous. A sense of impending doom seeps into the opening shot, in which an unsuspecting deer wanders into frame, the camera pulling back slowly to reveal the teenage hunter—father by his side—moving the animal into the crosshairs of his riffle.
As it turns out, these two aren’t the only ones on the prowl. Hours later, on the afternoon of a rainy Thanksgiving Day, two grade-school girls disappear. One of them is the daughter of the man from the first scene, a devout tough-love type played by Hugh Jackman, seething with intensity. Maybe too much intensity, actually: Burying all traces of his Wolverine-worthy charisma, the actor seems close to the edge from the start, which makes his eventual descent into blinding, bellowing rage less impactful. Better navigating a spectrum of emotions is Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays the investigating officer—a local hotshot detective who’s allegedly cracked every case he’s been assigned. Gyllenhaal lends this archetypal character an amusing irritability; his exasperation is basically the lone source of levity in what turns out to be a pretty relentlessly grim thriller.
Villeneuve crosscuts deftly between the efforts of his dueling protagonists, men united in their aims but divided by their methods. The police eventually nab a suspect, a mentally disabled man (Paul Dano) seen driving a suspicious van in the area, but they don’t have any evidence to keep him in custody. Consumed with paternal desperation, Jackman takes matters into his own hands; the subsequent scenes are disturbing not just for the brutality of their violence, but also for their allegorical power. (Jackman locks his silent captive in a cramped wooden box and slings a pillowcase over his head. Sound familiar?)
Prisoners is concerned with the relationship between ends and means, but not too deeply. It’s predominately a crackerjack mystery yarn, one that grows increasingly farfetched as it progresses but never quite loses its darkly magnetic pull. Working with the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, who lends this ugly material a seductive sheen, Villeneuve takes a heavy step into David Fincher territory: There are shades of Zodiac in the gorgeous nighttime photography and obsessive procedure and of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in the implausible plotting. Prisoners also recalls the bleak crime dramas of Bong Jo-Hoon (Memories Of Murder, Mother), though it could have used a little more of those films’ ambiguity. In any case, the crowd I watched it with sat in awed, tense silence throughout—a mighty good sign that a thriller is doing its job. I might have to make room in my schedule for Enemy, another film directed by Villeneuve, starring Gyllenhaal, and showing at TIFF this year.
A half hour after Prisoners let out, I ducked into a late screening of a very different movie and experienced an almost polar-opposite reaction from the audience. MANAKAMANA (Grade: B), a repetitive but sometimes beguiling documentary produced by the directors of Leviathan, inspired waves of walk-outs. The impatience was somewhat understandable: A Wavelength selection screening in the less avant-friendly environs of the Lightbox, MANAKAMANA requires total submission to its conceptual methodology. Filmmakers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez mounted cameras inside the cable cars that provide access to the eponymous temple in Nepal. The entire film is a series of medium shots of the commuters—a father and son, college girls, women eating ice cream—as they travel up or down the mountain, the breathtaking terrain framed behind them. Though one T-shirt-clad teen insists that the round-trip takes 17 minutes, travel time seems to vary. Are the subjects aware of the camera? Some seem to deliberately avoid its lens, others may be performing for it. (And all but a few seem genuinely unsettled by the loud, mechanical grinding that occurs occasionally during the trip.) Time, most likely, is manipulated; though the directors create the illusion of an unbroken single shot, each landing of the cable car provides a cover of darkness in which they can cut.
Here and there, MANAKAMANA settles on a disarming moment: a married couple plainly unable to disguise its discontent, a lovely musical interlude, even a zoological punchline. But the film overstays its welcome; one too many times does that cable car begin its ascent or descent, to the point where the last few fades to black start to feel likes teases. Still, I found it less tedious than Closed Curtain (Grade: B-), the latest act of defiance from convicted Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi, who’s still under house arrest and still banned from making movies (though apparently his legal situation has somehow changed, in ways the picture doesn’t address.) Like This Is Not A Film, Closed Curtain takes place almost entirely within the director’s home. Unlike that film, it has a kind of loose fictional plot, in which a writer (Kambuzia Partovi, the film’s co-director) spars with a house intruder who comes to represent surrender/suicide. That may sound livelier than the film that was not a film, but without the meta trickery of its predecessor, Closed Curtain just begins to feel like a lesser (though more handsomely shot) variation. It’s nice to see Panahi keeping busy, of course, especially given that the main drive of this one is his fear of not being able to work anymore. But the finished product feels a bit like a restless throwaway, a film he made of compulsion to just make something. Someone, somehow, get this man out of captivity and back into the streets, like the heroines of his great, joyful Offside. —A.A. Dowd
One of the drawbacks of film festivals is that movies come in freighted with expectations about how they’ll “perform.” Every film is either a Best Picture contender or a catastrophe—and once a label has been applied, that’s the end of the discussion. Despite Twitter’s best efforts, it’s not likely that 12 Years A Slave (Grade: B+) conquered the Oscars—or racism in America—in the course of a single screening.
That kind of reaction is a disservice to the film Steve McQueen has actually made, which is not simply “about slavery,” but another in the director’s portraits of self-denial. Like the fasting Bobby Sands in Hunger (2008) and the repressed sex addict Michael Fassbender played in Shame (2011), Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup—a real-life Saratoga, New York, man kidnapped and sold into slavery, on whose 1853 memoir the film is based—is forced into a situation where reticence is the only option. Even telling his new “owners” he can read and write would put him in grave danger of being killed. There’s a Kafka-esque relentlessness to his ordeal, as he wakes up from his abduction and is beaten when he protests that he’s a free man. He has no access to the law. Even when seemingly good men swear to help him, their word proves to be worthless.
12 Years A Slave becomes a story of survival and, to some extent, martyrdom, in the sense that staying alive requires acquiescing to an unjust system. Solomon becomes a favored slave to a plantation owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) he considers to be a decent man “under the circumstances”—a stance that earns him accusations from fellow slaves of showing sympathy for the devil. After he’s sold to Fassbender’s volatile taskmaster, the film escalates even further in its violence and horror. McQueen’s long takes accentuate the brutality, as when Solomon is nearly lynched but then left noosed even after being spared, or when he’s forced to perform a whipping that Fassbender is ashamed to do. A crucial late scene finds the protagonist slowly joining in with the singing of a spiritual, his conversion to slave life complete.
Marred by a few distracting cameos and an overwrought Hans Zimmer score that, at least on first listen, sounds almost identical to the Shame score, this is nevertheless a powerful, vividly rendered film, with a depiction of slavery that’s less expansive but more stark than that seen in the Boschian atmospherics of Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo (1975) or Tarantino’s movie-ized Django Unchained (2012). Ejiofor and Fassbender give intensely physical performances; the latter, looking a little Van Gogh–like, is terrifying even when he drapes his arm around Ejiofor, who balances his co-star with an exquisite reserve. It’s unquestionably a film to be seen and argued over—but don’t call it Oscar bait. It’s better than that.
Yesterday I also overheard someone claim that Daniel Brühl would receive a nomination for Ron Howard’s Rush (Grade: B-), the kind of remark that, again, betrays a profound lack of self-consciousness. The movie, chronicling the 1970s rivalry between Britain’s James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austria’s Niki Lauda (Brühl), will likely appeal mainly to diehard Formula One fans, though it does document a dynamic contrast in athletic styles. Hunt is the playboy who lives for danger and instinct. Lauda, on the other hand, is relentlessly methodical; in a major scene, he says he’s reluctant to race if conditions give him higher than a precisely 20 percent chance that he’ll be killed. Despite a clumsy, intermittent voiceover from Peter Morgan’s screenplay, Rush is basically a foursquare sports film, enlivened by whiplash-inducing, crisply edited racing sequences but otherwise pretty ordinary—certainly not on par with the more grandly scaled craftsmanship in Howard’s Cinderella Man.
Howard isn’t the only director here to be overshadowed by his past work. Kiyoshi “no relation to Akira” Kurosawa can be a first-rate horror filmmaker (1997’s Cure), but his Real (Grade: C) is an unsatisfying, shamelessly derivative mix of elements from Inception, Flatliners, and Shutter Island. The movie starts promisingly, as a man (Takeru Satô) makes a technology-abetted incursion into the mind of his comatose lover (Haruka Ayase), a manga artist who apparently attempted suicide after experiencing profound writer’s block. While the first half boasts some creepy images and the kind of pervading dread that marked both Cure and Kurosawa’s Pulse (2001), the further the film travels into its characters’ pasts, the more it falls back on blunt Freudianism and risible metaphysics.
Tim’s Vermeer (Grade: B-) puts forth an intriguing idea: that Vermeer, in a secret method, painted by using a camera obscura combined with a mirror as a guide. It’s a technique anyone can use that essentially qualifies the artist’s paintings as proto-photographs. This Penn & Teller production (Teller takes directing credit; Penn appears as a talking head) follows San Antonio–based technologist Tim Jenison as he sets out to test his theory by painting his own version of a Vermeer, using only tools the painter had at the time. It’s a cool hypothesis, catnip for art-history buffs, but it can’t quite sustain feature length.
Lastly, I’m going to have plead “grade pending” on this year’s Locarno winner, The Story Of My Death, whose final 15 minutes I missed due to some last-minute schedule reshuffling. But on the basis of the two-hours-plus I saw, Albert Serra’s imagined meeting of the minds between Casanova and Dracula—the latter doesn’t appear until past the halfway mark—is as verbose and self-serious and as his biblical riff Birdsong (2008) and his Don Quixote story Honor Of The Knights (2006) were laconic and wry. —Ben Kenigsberg