Toronto International Film Festival: We Report Back

Our Artistic Director of Film, Jason Wood, reports back from the 40th annual Toronto International Film Festival. Read on to get his thoughts on this year’s festival films. We’ll be updating this blog daily, so stay tuned to hear all the latest from Toronto. You can also follow  Jason on Twitter @jwoodfilm, and keep up to date with this year’s festival chat on the hashtag #TIFF15. 

Image by on Sam Javanrouh on Flickr.

Acquired by Curzon and screened to great acclaim at festivals elsewhere, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang is the tale of five pubescent sisters living under the tyrannical care of their guardians. Set in a Turkish village on the Black Sea, it opens with a beautiful extended take of school children frolicking in the sea. It’s an undeniably impressive and timely tale, and it’s heart breaking to see repressive, patriarchal customs being upheld. I found it a little too eager to please in places, and some of the shifts in tone between bucolic adolescence and harsh reality are uneven. This will likely be a crossover hit, and it’s certain to go down well with people who enjoy intelligent, populist, foreign language cinema.

I Saw the Light
One of two films at Toronto – perhaps there are more lurking in the shadows – featuring Tom Hiddleston, I Saw the Light is the highly anticipated biopic of troubled country and music legend, Hank Williams. The film, despite strong period production values, has an unfortunate TV movie feel, but there is no doubting the intensity of Hiddleston in the central role – he looks and sounds the part. Elizabeth Olsen, playing his wife, is less convincing.

Keith Richards: Under the Influence
I was expecting a hastily assembled promo film for Richards’ new album, but this insightful account of the guitarist’s life and work was terrific. The film featured some tremendous archive material of Richards (whose face now has more crags than Everest) living in Jamaica, as well as him performing with blues heroes Howling Wolf, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. Richards comes across as incredibly humble and extremely likeable. With all this and Tom Waits and shots of vinyl LPs being listened to – what’s not to like?

I am slightly biased when it comes to the films of Atom Egoyan. Still, I remain perplexed as to why his most recent work has met with such disdain. A former darling of the press, he has been given a bumpy ride of late, for seemingly abandoning a more experimental bent. Reuniting the director with Christopher Plummer, Remember is a sensitive, confidently directed work that combines a road movie and thriller with a plot to exterminate a surviving block commander at Auschwitz. There are great supporting turns from Bruno Ganz and Martin Landau, but Plummer is firmly in the driving seat. The technical aspects of the film are first-rate, and there is also sardonic humour at play (a scene where a young child reads a personal letter about the evil of the Nazi regime is priceless). A twist at the end of the tale brings an almighty wallop.

James White
The directorial debut of Josh Mond (producer of Afterschool and Martha Marcy May Marlene), this US indie features a compelling performance by Christopher Abbott as a self-obsessed looser whose inability to cope with life worsens when his disapproving mother, played Cynthia Nixon, is stuck with cancer. It’s a raw, mostly compelling film that, like Azazel Jacobs’ 2009 film Momma’s Man, looks at what happens to infantile men in an adult world. Featuring incredibly intense camerawork, the film evocatively captures New York City. Nixon, playing against type, almost exorcises the ghost of her execrable Sex and the City movies.

Mississippi Grind
An engaging road movie from filmmaking duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half NelsonSugarMississippi Grind follows the ever-confident Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) and his shaggy comrade Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn, one of my favourite actors – he inexplicably conveys an aroma of stale smoke) from Iowa to New Orleans, as they gamble their way towards that elusive big win. Giving a directorial nod to Robert Altman’s California Split, as well as several other classic character-driven films of the 1970s (including The Gambler, whose writer James Toback makes a memorable cameo here), Boden and Fleck take us on an unforgettable trip bathed in melancholy beauty and twilit wonder.

Sensitively exploring the folly of youth and the burden of responsibility, Belgian director Guillaume Senez makes an impressive debut with Keeper, screening in the Discover section at this year’s festival. Maxime (Kacey Mottet Klein) and Mélanie (Galatea Bellugi) are a typical teenage couple. Like most love struck fifteen-year-olds, they can’t get enough of each other and think they’ll be together forever. But when Mélanie becomes pregnant, their worlds are rocked. We would seem to be firmly in the territory of the Dardenne brothers here, but the film inventively relocates the story to the milieu of the middle class bourgeoisie. It’s a refreshingly honest portrayal of a somewhat spoiled boy’s transition into manhood, and features a heartbreaking and sobering denouement.

Sunset Song
Terence Davies’ adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic 1932 novel is masterful from its first shot to the last. Following a farming family who struggle to eke out a living in northeast Scotland, this moving mediation on the past and look at the brutality of men, is exquisitely rendered, with each scene evocative of an Old Masters painting. Using the director’s technique of memory realism, the film depicts the growth of relationships and an aura of unexpected bliss. An incredibly sensitive and poignant work, the performances are first-rate (though one tires of Peter Mullan playing brutes), as is, characteristically, the director’s use of score. A triumph.

Cemetery of Splendour
A young medium and a middle-aged hospital volunteer investigate a case of mass sleeping sickness that may have supernatural roots, in the gorgeous, mysterious, and gently humorous new film from Palme d’Or winner, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. A sublime fusion of history, memory, socio-political allegory, and mysticism, Cemetery of Splendour creates an enchanted world where the present coexists with the past, dreams are real, and magic emerges from the mundane. Seen in the sanctity of a darkened theatre, this is a singular, meditative experience that is unlikely be forgotten.

Opening with the line, “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog…”, J.G. Ballard’s justly celebrated 1975 novel was never going to be the easiest work to adapt for the screen. The tale of a modern tower block structured according to the bank balances of its inhabitants, cocktail party-loving wealthy residents frolic in the penthouse suites, while the less privileged watch this endless hedonism from the floors below. It’s a pressure cauldron situation and all too soon, as witnessed by young doctor Robert Laing, society slips into a violent reverse, and an extreme survival mentality takes hold. Arguably the ultimate dystopian tale, High-Rise, developed by producer Jeremy Thomas, once had Nicolas Roeg scheduled to direct. It never came to fruition, but Thomas kept the flame alive with numerous other incarnations, and now British director Ben Wheatley – whose previous work has explored themes of primal urges, secret sects, and the sense of civilization teetering precariously close to collapse – delivers a startling and audacious take on fragmentation, tribalism and class injustice. Adapted by Amy Jump and featuring a cast including Tom Hiddlestone as Laing, Jeremy Irons as god-like architect Anthony Royal, and Luke Evans as Richard Wilder, a TV producer with a nose for uncovering uncomfortable truths, Wheatley’s film captures the source material’s alarming psychological insights, while also emphasizing the profoundly disturbing connections between technology and the human condition. Beautifully evoking the 1970s, the minimalist electronic score fuses Clint Mansell with Portishead’s astonishing take on Abba’s SOS.

No Home Movie
The great Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman crafts a moving portrait of her relationship with her mother, an Auschwitz survivor whose harrowing past and chronic anxiety has greatly shaped her daughter’s art. The film’s aesthetic is raw and rough-hewn. It shuttles between fiction, documentary and essay film, and wanders, sometimes determinedly, without knowing the direction in which it’s heading. Sometimes this is enlightening, but in other instances it is maddening, and I feel that a little more focus would not have gone amiss.

11 Minutes
After a 17-year break from filmmaking in the 1990s and 2000s, Jerzy Skolimowski, a major figure of Polish cinema, returned to his native country and emerged in 2008 with Four Nights with Anna, heralding his resurrection. Firmly ensconced back in Poland with his rebellious instincts intact, Skolimowski pushes into new cinematic territory with 11 Minutes, a highly provocative, multi-narrative film that shuttles between the stories of several characters over the course of a single day in Warsaw. It’s a concept of which Krzysztof Kieslowski would have been proud. Reflecting the fragmented nature of the modern world, at times frantic and at others contemplative, this is an impressive and immersive work with remarkable special effects. Skolimowski is a master of sound, and this film, with its shuddering audio, is no exception. 11 Minutes prompts and prods the audience. It’s like a Gasper Noe film, but made with intelligence and wit.

Blood of my Blood
Italian maestro Marco Bellocchio’s post-Vincere vein of form continues with Blood of my Blood, a time-spanning look at an Italian monastery that conceals a terrible secret. Beautifully photographed, the film – which has overtones of The Devils and Witchfinder General – explores the concept of power but also analyses the abuse of religious authority and the appalling treatment of women. I preferred the earlier period sequences in the film, but still found this a rigorous and intellectually sound work.

Where to Invade Next
It’s difficult with Michael Moore. He certainly played a large part in the renaissance of the documentary as a commercial force, and yet his films are so slapdash in their lack of critical perspective and their manipulative and lachrymose massaging of sentiment. Where to Invade Next continues in a similar vein. It’s sturdier than Capitalism: A Love Story and is equally and enjoyably vehement in its pursuing of the United States as a receptacle of racism, ineptitude and bad management. But do we need Moore to tell us again what a bad country America is? The format here is simple. Moore visits various countries across the globe to save the United States’ military the job of annexing them. He then captures a principle or law to bring back to America, to show it the folly of its ways. Thus, he captures better school meals from France, female equality in Tunisia, fairer treatment of workers in Germany and Italy, and female-led control of the banking industry from Iceland. The list goes on. It’s all very persuasive and skilfully edited, but it doesn’t really add up to much or tell us anything we don’t already know. The list of countries he visits is also incredibly selective. Moore missed out the U.K. this time, no doubt after the fallout from his embracing of the slowly asphyxiating NHS system. I think Moore is a poor documentary filmmaker and entirely lacks critical judgment, but he is undoubtedly an incredibly good brand and a very good salesman.

Bleak Street
Alongside Sunset Song, the most impressive film I have seen at this year’s festival was Mexican maestro Arturo Ripstein’s aptly named, expressionistic true-crime story, Bleak Street, about the bizarre 2009 murders of dwarf wrestling brothers, Alberto and Alejandro Jiménez. A film that peers into the darkest shadows of Mexico City, it is beautifully photographed in black and white and is poignantly evocative of the both the golden era of Mexican cinema (it’s cine de oro) and the work of Ripstein’s early mentor, Luis Buñuel. In terms of capturing a sense of suffering, poverty and prostitution, Los Olvidados is an apt comparison. Beautifully scripted by Paz Alicia Garciadiego, Ripstein’s wife and long-time collaborator, this is an engrossing melodrama-cum-character study that subtly reveals the lives of the brothers and their two woe-begotten killers. Sensational.

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