David, the guy who’s renting us his apartment in Toronto, is a Canadian variation on the Venice Beach type, and when we arrive an hour early on the day before the festival, he greets us at the door barefoot, with shoulder-length hair, a muscle tee, and a brace over his left leg. (“Karaoke accident,” he explains, barely.) David’s two-bedroom is art-department spot-on, from the mix-and-match mid-century furniture to the dream catcher on the lamp switch. The walls are hung with vintage movie posters and autographed soul records. Even the keychains are beaded.
It’s an improvement over last year’s accommodations, the impersonal and vaguely J.G. Ballard-sounding “largest hotel in Canada.” For the next week, I’ll be staying here with Alex—better known as A.V. Club film editor A.A. Dowd—as we cover the Toronto International Film Festival. (He has the bedroom with the snowboarding gear and the Le Samourai one-sheet; I have the balcony.) As we did last year, we’ll be writing about what we’re seeing on alternating days; TIFF is the crowded all-you-can-eat buffet of major festivals, packed with enough competing premieres and sidebar programs to ensure that we’ll both be busy.
Of course, a critic’s first 24 hours at a big film festival is all downtime, mostly spent picking up badges and passes and buying toothpaste. The morning of the first day, I find myself in the luxury hotel HQ of a major American distributor, the décor of which can best be described as “Trump palatial.” Still short a proper festival-going notebook (pocket-sized, unlined, with an inner accordion pocket for receipts), I swipe one of their stationary pads while no one is looking. I end up scribbling my notes for the first day on this, the first of which is “filmed play,” underlined.
It’s a note about Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years (Grade: B+), and it’s not meant pejoratively. Haigh’s first feature since his super-low-budget breakthrough, Weekend, is another two-hander about the fundamentals of couplehood, again set over the span a few days. Preparing to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Jeff (Tom Courtenay), receive an official letter in German, a language Jeff only barely remembers from his backpacking days. It’s here that Haigh introduces an image that gains all the more power because it exists only in the audience’s imagination: the body of a woman, found perfectly preserved in a glacier.
This is Katia, Jeff’s first love, who disappeared in the Alps 50 years ago. From here, Haigh launches into a carefully shaded exploration of marriage and lost time, initially motivated by Kate’s suspicion that she was a replacement for a woman her husband could have loved more. Frequently working in long takes, Haigh plays with stage conventions (e.g. most of the action happens off-screen) and theatrical dialogue (She: “I was thinking of getting you a watch.” He: “I like not knowing the time.”), while sticking to one of the building blocks of cinema—that is, an intimate close-up of an actor’s face. Rampling and Courtenay are both superb and understated.
Imperfect doubles: Both Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition (Grade: C+) and Wim Wenders’ Every Thing Will Be Fine (Grade: C-) are about men who are traumatized by fatal car accidents, live in ultra-modern glass houses, and befriend sulky teenagers who write them letters. Vallée’s film is a kind of post-Recession American Beauty, right down to the oldies soundtrack, overbearing dad with a secret, and well-off white-collar protagonist who cheerily takes a working-class job to signal his disaffection. (Heck, it even has Chris Cooper, again as the dad.)
Demolition—TIFF’s opening-night film—stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Davis Mitchell, a Wall Street broker whose wife is killed in a car crash, leading him to engage in such largely symbolic activities as taking apart appliances and writing long, highly personal complaint letters about the vending machine that ate his $1.25 in the hospital waiting room. Bryan Sipe’s screenplay is a run-on of fantasies, wish-fulfillments, and digs at life’s little frustrations, which feels slightly subversive because it sometimes flirts with the edge of fascism, as daydream sequences about guns and complaints about everyday ugliness are wont to do.
Though Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild) doesn’t have the visual chops for the highly stylized material—his style basically amounting to “handheld widescreen”—he does manage to get the cast (which includes Naomi Watts as the vending machine customer service rep who eventually befriends Davis, and newcomer Judah Lewis as her glam-rock-obsessed son) to nail the broad comic tone. There are the occasional moments of electricity (Davis’ “For some reason, everything has become a metaphor” is a self-aware jab that manages to encapsulate the experience of grief), but the movie never really makes anything of Davis’ frustrations, and ends with a series of emotional cop-outs. Say what you will about American Beauty, but at least it had a climax.
However, nothing in the last 20 minutes of Demolition can match the sheer sputtering of Wenders’ potently soporific melodrama. James Franco, in full-on sleepy-eyed mode, plays an aspiring novelist whose car strikes and kills a toddler; though not at fault, Franco’s Thomas Eldan is understandably disturbed by the incident, which leads him to sever relationships, burn out, and then emerge creatively renewed, drawing on the trauma to write his breakthrough novel, This Is A Room. (The cover looks like one of the parody novels from Listen Up Philip.)
There’s a germ of an inspired premise here in the idea of the toddler’s brother, now a teenager, confronting Eldan 11 years after the fact about how he used someone else’s family tragedy for creative fuel, owing his career to a child’s death. The problem is that this moment comes toward the end of Every Thing Will Be Fine, and that what precedes it is almost comically uninvolving non-drama distinguished only by its completely arbitrary plotting and skips in time and its bizarrely vague, Wiseau-esque dialogue (“I like both of your previous books”), made all the more stilted by an over-reliance on deadened dubbing.
Unusually, Wenders shot the film in 3D, and though the opening, winter-set sequence sometimes suggests the way the Hollywood melodramas of 1950s used color—with Alexandre Desplat’s throwback score an obvious reference to the period—he seems to run out of uses for the format by the 15-minute mark, barring a couple of Vertigo-style zoom-and-dollies peppered throughout.
Pitched somewhere between artful non-fiction hybrid and sub-Vice freak show, The Other Side (Grade: C+) profiles meth tweakers and armed militia hobbyists in Louisiana; sights seen include a pregnant stripper shooting heroin, a woman fellating a dildo while wearing an Obama mask, and a memorial service where the camera keeps drifting in the direction of an ROTC cadet with dwarfism. Director Roberto Minervini’s approach—real people doing real things in situations that sometimes feel staged—is bound to attract academic descriptors like “participatory ethno-fiction,” but the filmmaker it brings to mind the most is François Reichenbach, the French documentarian who turned his fascination with all things uniquely American into a series of colorful shorts and features in the 1950s and ’60s.
Like Reichenbach, Minervini—who is Italian—is an outsider drawn to those parts of American culture that Europeans usually feel the least culturally equipped to understand. As in his earlier, Texas-shot films (Low Tide, Stop The Pounding Heart), he handles his people sensitively, though here the approach is complicated by their proclivity for racist, paranoid ranting. (Sometimes it feels half-hearted, as though they were trying to shock a foreign visitor.) The paradoxical thing about this kind of non-judgemental, explicit-but-opaque style is that it tends to have a weakness for broad metaphors and generalizations, and here, it all comes down to the down-trodden and fucked-up bonding over family because they feel at odds with the powers that be. Still, there’s no denying Minervini’s knack for access, or his eye.