Our full-length review of Mother! (Grade: B+) will come later; suffice it to say that it’s the most irrational piece of filmmaking that Darren Aronofsky has produced since his black-and-white debut, Pi. So instead, I’ll start with the dumbest movie I’ve seen at TIFF so far, a nasty Z-grade exploitation flick by Ryûhei Kitamura (Versus, The Midnight Meat Train) called Downrange (Grade: C), in which a bunch of teen-soap-looking nobodies squat behind a bullet-riddled Ford Expedition on some curve of California road while a faceless sniper in a ghillie suit takes shots at them from a nearby oak tree.
Downrange is trash, but in an almost elemental vein: the single, completely unscenic location; the sadistic ending; the disgustingly cheap gore, all fake eyeballs and choking noises and red goo; the predictably ineffectual cops who all look like they belong in a local mattress commercial, as the salesmen; ravens picking at eyeballs and a wolf wandering by; the non-plot that’s just pure squirming victimhood and a no-motive killer. There’s a macro lens close-up of the sniper chewing jerky that might be the funniest shot of the festival and a point-of-view shot from the perspective of a rotating tire.
Below a certain budget, all genre movies become abstract and allegorical. And anyway, I’d rather have real trash than phony costume drama like The Current War (Grade: C-). A heap of bad history, the movie rewrites the one-sided feud between the early electric power moguls Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) into a clumsy public-domain mockbuster of The Prestige; you can almost hear director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me And Earl And The Dying Girl) trying to slap himself awake as he inserts overhead shots, canted angles, zooms, and wide-angle Tom Hooper-isms into every scene.
Shannon, cast against type as the voice of unpretentious reason, gives one of those totally relatable performances for which he has a secret talent, rescuing The Current War one scene at a time from its fairy-tale genius-worship of Edison and the mystical dandy Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult). But the truth is that a movie about deeply personal obsessions can’t work if it doesn’t have some of its own, and the prevailing mood of The Current War is indifference; there’s no point listing the crimes against the past committed by Michael Mitnick’s dramatically inept script, which ends with a tacked-on, emotionally manipulative paean to the wonders of cinem-ah that anyone who cares about film history will likely find insulting.
The real story is sensational stuff: orchestrated slander campaigns, New York City linemen fried gruesomely on the job, a horrifically botched execution, America’s most famous inventor publicly electrocuting dogs. Fashioning it into something this insipid is almost an accomplishment, like shooting yourself in the foot twice. And so, The Current War ends up being bested by the baseline artistry of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s Battle Of The Sexes (Grade: B-), about the 1973 prime-time tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). (This is the second tennis rivalry movie at TIFF this year, after the opening night selection, Borg/McEnroe.)
An amiable, minor crowd-pleaser, Battle Of The Sexes plays out as a pair of character studies: King, the reserved but powerfully motivated champion butting up against the insidious sexism of sports and media while coming to terms with her own sexuality; Riggs, the middle-aged compulsive gambler and clown playing the part of an exaggerated chauvinist pig for attention and publicity. In terms of visual style, this is the most mature work that Faris and Dayton—who previously made Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks—have produced; the mostly effortless use of long lenses, doorways, mirrors, silhouettes, and big empty spaces makes up for some of the broader instincts of the script. (There are even more zooms here than in The Current War, but they’re actually choreographed and purposeful.) Its one real problem is that it just isn’t interested in tennis; the climax is directed no differently than the highlight reel of a TV broadcast, with the rousing score (by Moonlight’s Nicholas Britell) doing much of the heavy lifting.