BOHAN XING/THE VARSITY

TIFF pandemonium began last Thursday with the arrival of big shot celebrities and highly anticipated films. Here is just a sample of our thoughts on some of the 300 or so films at this year’s edition of Toronto’s biggest film festival.

 

Kill Your Darlings

Daniel Radcliffe is already heading back to school. In Kill Your Darlings, the former Harry Potter star swaps the halls of Hogwarts for New York’s Columbia University to play the young Allen Ginsberg, another famous spectacled protagonist who raids the library’s restricted section.

As if Equus wasn’t daring enough, Radcliffe curses, masturbates, flirts with drugs, and sleeps with boys — cementing his and every child star’s dreams of redefinition by choosing the most licentious, adult roles possible.

But this is not yet the swinging 60s, when the Beat Generation achieved solidarity on a national, cultural scale. Kill Your Darlings is set in the 40s, when Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) were merely a band of innovative and irresponsible youth who rejected the antiquated notions of their close-minded professors, well-to-do parents, and Ogden Nash.

Together, the Beats plan to strike out on the road and execute their ‘New Vision.’ But before they were great writers mired in controversy, they were simply mired in controversy. When David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), Lucien Carr’s parasitic and possessive adult lover, is found dead, Ginsberg faces his most challenging and important writing project: Carr’s defense.

The story nicely imposes the institutional search for truth in school and the judiciary on the creative search for truth in writing, drugs and sexual promiscuity. Unlike Walter Salles’s adaptation of On The Road, John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings succeeds at replicating the frenetic energy of the Beat Generation’s formative years. —DH

RATING: 3/5

 

Blue Ruin


Blue Ruin is the story of a scruffy vagabond, Dwight (Macon Blair), who turns deadly when he receives upsetting news that opens up old wounds. Dwight says a total of ten words for the entire first act of the film — they look and sound unnatural, like he’s got a perpetual mouthful of mashed potatoes. Blair (Hellbenders) lends a twitchy fragility to his amateur murderer. Director Jeremy Saulnier’s depiction of an outsider fashioning a life out of scraps shows promise.

But when a wobbly revenge story begins to unfold, Saulnier’s camerawork folds under the pressure to thrill and turns languid. Sequences often drag on for a beat too long. The camera follows Dwight around for what feels like hours, but it doesn’t incite us to care about him.

The film attempts to frame guns themselves as killers. It asks us to sympathize with a hesitant but willing murderer and to observe how objects take on a violent agency of their own. But Dwight is a homeless recluse without much regard for himself or others; it never seems like he has much to lose. His concern for the people who love him, a sister he abandoned and a former classmate he uses for his gun collection, seems half-hearted at best. Despite the heavy-handed personification of automatic weapons, Dwight’s most disturbing and memorable murder is committed without a gun.

Blue Ruin is an exercise in tepidness. While some may consider this thoughtful — tiff declares that it “never degenerates into a one-sided morality tale”— the film lacks the precision to convey a nuanced stand on American gun culture. It takes tact to explore this grey area — tact that Saulnier doesn’t have quite yet.  — EH

RATING: 2/5

 

The Armstrong Lie


There is an old adage that speaks of tangled webs and fractured ties in the wake of an intricate lie. When we commit ourselves to maintaining the illusion of a deception, we must work harder to ensure no one else discovers our plot.

In Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie, truth is always hiding just beyond an earnest and almost believable deception. The film chronicles the rise and fall of superstar cyclist Lance Armstrong, whose survival of cancer, Tour de France wins, and Livestrong initiatives were eclipsed by a career of cheating. Gibney is ambitious as he narrates footage documenting Armstrong’s 2009 return to sports, and scathing as he investigates a history of doping in professional cycling.

In a bold move that echoes the study of documentary filmmaking itself, Gibney often inserts himself into his own narrative. He questions Armstrong’s motivations, as well as his own, through the use of voiceover, and neglects to edit himself out of certain interviews.

Ultimately, The Armstrong Lie is an exercise in unmasking deception. Though it offers its viewers what initially feels like an inspirational tale about overcoming life’s biggest obstacles, it becomes something much different. This is tricky filmmaking, an example of a documentary that hides its machinations in plain sight. Much like the fallen athlete himself, once Gibney illustrates the ways in which his subject lies, we are made to question everything we think we know about the truth. Most rewarding, though, is that we are made to question what we know about the film. — NG

RATING: 3.5/5

 

Don Jon


Joseph Gordon-Levitt must have had a hard time filming his feature directorial debut, and not just because he plays a porn addict – the titular, tit-loving Don Jon. Without the auteur’s equivalent of a little blue pill, Gordon-Levitt writes, directs, and stars in this triple X showcase of his triple threat talent. Needless to say, his potential is huge and Don Jon is a satisfying experience that will leave you wanting more.

A multi-hyphenate behind-the-scenes, Gordon-Levitt plays Jon Martello Jr., nicknamed Don Jon, a family-oriented, Church-going, gym-loving Jersey Shore-type, who is engaged in own balancing act of sorts between the disappointment of real sex and the joys of virtual sex. John’s case for the latter is quite the rhetoric.

John meets his match when Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett  Johansson), a neurotic sucker for romantic dramas, struts into his life and sets an ultimatum: it’s either her or the porn.

Less pretentious and more entertaining than Steve McQueen’s Shame, Don Jon’s take on porn addiction is more than skin-deep. With plenty of humour and stock footage, Gordon-Levitt demonstrates the plentitude and manipulation of sexuality in our modern culture. He makes a stirring argument that Hollywood romance is as fake and as guilty of perpetuating false ideals as pornography.

If feelings of enjoyment persist for more than four hours, view again. Nudity notwithstanding, this is a film that stimulates. — DH

Rating: 3/5

 

Blue is the Warmest Color


What can I say about Blue is the Warmest Color that hasn’t already been said? The winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes has been scrutinized from every angle. It’s been called beautiful, heartfelt, and gut-wrenching. It’s been dismissed as a lesbian drama, an obscure art film, and a left-pandering trend piece. It’s been labeled voyeurism, exploitation, and porn.

With Léa Seydoux as Emma and Adèle Exarchopoulos as Adèle, Blue is the Warmest Color is a character piece. Director Abdellatif Kechiche’s camera functions like a lover; it finds a muse in Adèle and introduces us to her with fondness. There are lingering close ups of her lips while she is sleeping and eating. Sequences follow her unhurriedly as she cooks, smokes, and teaches young children in her class.

It’s true. Kechiche’s fixation with Adèle rings obsessive at times. His camera lavishes over her every move. But this attentiveness speaks to the spirit of unashamed passion at the centre of the story: no matter how uncomfortable, it wants to see, touch, and taste everything. Lust is the language of this film.

Exarchopoulos is exquisite. Though the camera is pinned to her every move, she remains elusive and free. We know her but we can’t seem to figure her out.

In Blue is the Warmest Color, the lines that separate where one person ends and another begins are blurred; Adèle is both reaffirmed and lost forever as she drowns in Emma, a demonstration of how a film can be both deeply erotic and deeply moving. — EH

RATING: 4/5

 

Watermark


Though Watermark features interviews with a range of individuals and captures human characters at work, Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky’s documentary is shot primarily in a poetic mode. Much like Burtynsky’s photography — which utilizes high-tech instruments to capture finely detailed portraits of natural (and unnatural or manmade) landscapes — this documentary is concerned with illustrating its point as well as explaining it. Baichwal and Burtynsky want to show their audience why a “common” substance like water is so important, and how it is ultimately a finite resource.

Perching, craning, and flying their cameras over vast expanses, the directors train our eyes on some concerning uses of H2O and strategically imply their dangers by contrasting them with images of immeasurable beauty. From the muddied waters gushing through China’s silt deposits in the film’s opening frames to the subtle trickle of chemically treated waste flowing into the rivers surrounding Dakar, this documentary is simultaneously breathtaking and alarming.

Insistent on letting the visuals do the talking, Baichwal and Burtynsky’s feature has breathing room to jump out of the screen and at the viewer. Many images appear static, but this is rarely the case; their pictorial quality is achieved by a nuanced, perfectionistic attention to detail and framing. What results is a compelling documentary that informs and entertains, allowing its audiences to marvel at its images while contemplating the very real environmental toll of human progress on water. — NG

RATING: 4/5

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