TIFF 2018: Wildlife

Overlooked – except this time a TIFF special

TIFF 2018: <i> Wildlife </i>

Unlike many of the other films that played at TIFF this year, Wildlife has been making the festival rounds since Sundance in January. Since then, it has received rapturous reviews, but nowhere near the level of praise that films like Roma and A Star Is Born are receiving. While I have not seen those films yet, Wildlife is certainly not to be underestimated. Though somewhat overlooked by the festival circuit, Wildlife is one of the best films of the year so far.

Based on Richard Ford’s novel of the same name, the film is the directorial debut of Paul Dano. Having worked under directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson on There Will Be Blood, Denis Villeneuve on Prisoners, and Steve McQueen on 12 Years a Slave, Dano has seen incredible formalist filmmaking firsthand, and it shows in his work. His debut is assured and consistent, taking up a sombre, almost dread-filled emotional tone from the beginning and never wavering.

The plot is astonishingly bare for a movie that’s an hour and 45 minutes long. In 1960, a family of three moves to Montana, seeking to improve their lives. As told through the eyes of 14-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould), his father (Jake Gyllenhaal) encounters complications with his job. Each member of the family, most notably Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), Joe’s mother, must do what they can to survive, physically and emotionally. That’s it.

While it has beats of both a coming-of-age drama and a deep tragedy, Wildlife is ultimately a very simple drama, recounted with heartbreaking detail and craft. Working in the rich tradition of quiet Midwestern American dramas and taking influence from movies like Ordinary People and A River Runs Through It, Dano tells this story with remarkable self-assurance. The camera moves only when it needs to; the tightly controlled colour palette is made up of wonderfully muted pastel greys, greens, and blues; and Dano picks up on every smile, glance, and sigh that his actors give out.

What may be most remarkable about Wildlife is its sense of empathy. This comes from the feminist lens through which Dano and Zoe Kazan, his partner and co-writer, view the film’s events. Jeanette, in addition to working and coping with the loss of her own dreams, must deal with both her husband moving away and her son growing older.

A lesser film would present the actions that Jeanette takes to cope, and live with some hope of happiness as morally reprehensible, but Dano and Kazan understand not just what it means to live as a woman in a world dominated by men, but also what it means to live as a woman in a world dominated by feminine performativity.

Wildlife is a sobering depiction of what it means to live under the American Dream, and what it takes away from you — it’s the empathy that Dano and Kazan lend the characters that makes this portrait so effective.

TIFF 2018: Vox Lux

Brady Corbet’s musical drama explores domestic acts of violence, terrorism, and privacy rights

TIFF 2018: <i> Vox Lux </i>

At its TIFF premiere on September 7, Vox Lux received a great deal of praise from critics and plenty of exposure to the public. It had also premiered at the 75th annual Venice Film Festival, receiving a similarly positive reception.

Directed by Brady Corbet and starring award-winning actors Natalie Portman and Jude Law, the films tells the story of a young girl, Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), who catapults to fame after surviving a mass shooting.

Vox Lux presents itself almost as a mockumentary-type film, with its use of ’90s style videography and voiceovers by Willem Dafoe. Divided into three parts, the film portrays the progression of Celeste’s budding career and her own personal development from a naïve teenager to a careless adult. The first part, set in 1999, depicts a young Celeste and her older sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin), who survive a traumatic school shooting.

The girls decide to write a song about their feelings toward the event, which captures the attention of a manager (Jude Law). Young Celeste and Eleanor savour their first taste of fame, travelling around central Europe and embarking on a music career.

In the later parts of the film, which follow a 31-year-old Celeste (Natalie Portman), she is now a careless pop star dealing with a plethora of scandals in both her public and personal lives. Celeste faces yet another act of violence in her life, with an act of terrorism using her image.

The film successfully tackles this difficult subject matter by echoing real life events, such as the Columbine mass shooting in 1999, and provides a fresh, first-person perspective.

It is at this point in the film that the audience notices the change in Celeste’s music style and image. They drastically shift from simple, teenybopper lyrics and bubblegum pop to an eclectic, edgy, and autotuned style, reflecting her troubles and overall downward spiral.

It seems as if Celeste is meant to be a parallel to real-life teen pop stars — 2007 was not a good year for Britney Spears.

In the end, the big question that the audience is left to contemplate is, “How much exposure is too much?”

TIFF 2018: The Predator

While not unbearable, Shane Black’s latest is ultimately too confused

TIFF 2018: <i> The Predator </i>

The latest instalment in the Predator franchise, The Predator, is, above all, a film that made me feel tired.

It’s fitting, at least, that Shane Black is the one behind the camera this time, having had a supporting role in the Schwarzenegger-starring 1987 original, though part of the problem here is that Black and Fred Dekker, his co-writer, seem to have thrown everything on their minds onto the wall to see what will stick. The result is a movie that, while it has its strong points, ultimately feels rather uninteresting.

The Predator is fairly effective in its immediate goal of, well, thrilling. But the final product is a film that is at once both formulaic and unrelentingly cynical.

To Black’s credit, he gets the setup and initial story right, delving into the lore behind the Predators’ species, culture, and internal politics — a term that is applied very loosely here, but still sort of fits. He explores interesting character dynamics, settling into a groove of doing what he does best: writing characters who are most entertaining while having casual conversation. Unfortunately, it’s mostly downhill from there.

Black’s filmography is full of underrated films. The Nice Guys is wonderful, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in particular is incredibly charming. However, the key to his charm is his irreverence.

The flippant, even rude conversations between his characters, plot-related or not, are the real centrepieces of his movies. It’s hard to explain, but watching actors rattle off Shane Black dialogue is often just really fun. His dialogue is how you wish you talked to people.

The Predator, designed to be a franchise entry from the start, is anything but irreverent. The gonzo ridiculousness of the original Predator is slightly present, but the impact of the Marvel/DC comic book movie industry is here too.

Mixed with the earnestness of a franchise movie, one in which the focus is designed to be the plot and the fight scenes, Black’s irreverence just comes across as overbearing cynicism. The characters veer away from flippancy and more toward being genuinely unlikeable.

This points to a broader problem within male-driven action filmmaking: the increasing popularity of confusing ‘damaged’ characters with well-rounded ones. Nobody is saying you can’t have both. But rather than rely on Black’s trademark dialogue to carry them through the movie, the characters of The Predator, alarmingly, use post-traumatic stress disorder as a crutch to explain both character motivations and personality traits.

PHOTO COURTESY of TIFF

Sometimes this is played for laughs — which might be even worse — but this confusion of motivations is what makes The Predator seem cynical. Of course, not all characters have to be subversive, and sometimes it is nice to ‘turn one’s brain off’ and watch a movie like The Predator.

But being damaged is not a character trait, and characters who are defined by this trait — perhaps attempting to emulate the antihero-driven storytelling style of shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, seem empty.

The Predator was also notoriously marred by editing problems, and it certainly shows. At one point, several characters show up in an RV, but its procurement is never really explained. The same thing happens with a dog featured on screen, and certain characters change clothes a few times without explanation.

The third act bears a general sense of incoherence: the dialogue doesn’t fit and it all seems rushed. It is fairly clear that even brilliant editing couldn’t have saved this movie. Black’s cynicism simply doesn’t mix with how formulaic the movie actually is.

There are alluring moments in The Predator and it’s certainly not an unbearable movie. At some points, the action is genuinely fun, and the art direction and creature design often goes in fun and inventive directions: The Predator has hunting dogs now! But I found myself waiting through most of the fight scenes to get to the conversations or the next interesting tidbit of Predator backstory.

Among other issues, The Predator is just too confused by its identities as both a franchise film and a Shane Black movie. Even if it gets some things right, it’s ultimately a slog.

In review: Brother and The Boat People

The Canadian novels depict the experiences of displaced, marginalized groups

In review:<em> Brother</em> and<em> The Boat People</em>

Brothers

The world is currently seeing unprecedentedly high numbers of displaced peoples. Domestically, Canada faces growing tensions around immigration, race, discrimination, and systemic violence. It’s increasingly easy to forget the faces behind the numbers; human lives often get boiled down to statistics or identity politics.

A new novel published by Penguin Random House, David Chariandy’s Brother, aims to address this. It focuses on those living in marginalized communities.

Brother is set in Chariandy’s native Scarborough suburbs. Set in the early nineties, Brother follows the lives of two second-generation, mixed-heritage Trinidadian-Canadian brothers, Michael and Francis, as they navigate the violent, stifling fringes of the city and grow up understanding that almost everybody, by default, underestimates them because of the colour of their skin.

As the narrator, Michael is quiet and reflective, a natural observer. Francis, the older brother, is magnetic and strong-willed; he hopes to carve out a space for himself in the music industry. Meanwhile, their mother — single and perpetually exhausted — works multiple jobs, tireless in her ambition to provide ‘opportunity’ for her sons.

However, facing the hostile realities of being Black in a prejudiced community, Michael and Francis collide directly with the fear-driven forces of a single bullet.

Throughout Brother, Chariandy offers a sincere meditation on grief in the aftermath of careless brutality, the bonds that hold families together, and the corrosive despair of being stuck in one place and tied down by poverty. The book is longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and is a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and rightly so.

The book is a jewel. I found that along with its blatant and honest portrayal of inequality, it’s filled with moments of grit, pride, courage, and hope. Although barely longer than a novella, Brother dazzles and devastates. It’s brutal, poetic, and palpable, all at once.

The Boat People

Palpability is the strength of The Boat People too, the beating of a human pulse that readers will feel within the pages. Bala successfully weaves distinct stories together, transitioning between three perspectives: those of Mahindan, a Sri Lankan refugee and the father of six-year-old Sellian; Priya, his second-generation Sri Lankan-Canadian lawyer; and Grace, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian adjudicator assigned with the task of deciding Mahindan’s future.

Bala’s tale opens up with the quotidian sounds, sights, and smells of a refugee boat, where all sense of time is lost. When Mahindan first sees the approaching horizon of a strip of land — Canada — a singular thought floods his mind: “We are safe.” And if, as readers, we’re unable to relate to his feeling of relief, we can certainly recognize the moment the refugees are met with protest: “Send the illegals back! Go home terrorists!”

Despite representing an accepting and tolerant sanctuary to Mahindan, he soon discovers that the country is full of fear and resentment. He’s separated from his son and placed in a prison cell as he waits to be granted asylum.

In our current global climate, many refugees and immigrants are treated with the same indignation and aggressive pushback. Where The Boat People excels is in its depiction of the politics and bureaucracy surrounding refugee status, and the organization of refugees’ lives.

According to Anita Chong, Senior Editor at McClelland & Stewart and editor of The Boat People, Bala’s poignant novel “asks us to reflect on the often too-cozy image that we have of Canada as a welcoming nation, an image that many Canadians have been especially proud to burnish in 2017 in comparison to what is happening in the United States. It asks us to remember that we have never been immune to the forces of fear and xenophobia.”

“Now that the worldwide refugee crisis has begun to push against Canada’s borders, Canadians are being asked to consider who should be allowed safe haven and who should be turned away,” added Chong.

One thing can be said for sure: both Brother and The Boat People are very timely additions to Canadian literature. They show how fiction is the antidote to hate and divisiveness, because of its ability to foster empathy for other ways of life and to recognize the universality of others’ struggles and joys.

Brother and The Boat People demand self-reflection. When we sing “O Canada” and pride ourselves in being “the True North strong and free,” we must ask ourselves a few questions: is freedom in Canada an exclusive term? If so, for whom is it reserved? Through the stories of Michael and Francis, and Mahindan and Sellian, we can learn to examine the powers of the institutions that are allowed to distribute or confiscate it.

Brain on Fire fails to bring the heat

Gerard Barrett’s film aims to bring awareness to rare disease

<em>Brain on Fire</em> fails to bring the heat

Critics everywhere are rolling their eyes at Brain on Fire: a medical thriller based on a true story. It follows Susannah (Chloë Grace Moretz), a reporter that is repeatedly misdiagnosed as she becomes increasingly ill.

The movie’s major criticisms are as follows: inadequate development of a main character; the medical procedures shown are done in cliché; the ‘cure’ in the movie is unrealistic, discovered by a ‘genius doctor’ — a medical Ex Machina.

But Brain on Fire was never meant to be a hard-hitting film, nor had it intended on revolutionizing script and plot elements. As director Gerard Barrett admits, “There were sacrifices that I had to make, to make sure that [the disease] was understandable. And that was important to me.”

In the film, Susannah, a young and ambitious journalist, has anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a rare auto-immune disease where the body attacks the brain causing partial inflammation and resulting in symptoms of psychosis. The disease was discovered as recently as 2006, and is not widely discussed in medical curricula around the world, making it a unique plot point for the movie.

Filming and pre-production took about three weeks in total — a small amount of time compared to most of Hollywood’s giant blockbusters. Instead of focusing on possible stylistic choices and narrative, Barrett kept things simple. He didn’t want the plot to be complicated, nor did he want to distract the audience’s attention from anything but the disease. Barrett said he wanted the audience to “just watch it, take it in, and use it in real life.”

At the same time, though, Barrett spread himself too thin. Had Barrett struck a balance between truth and artistic vision, perhaps the film would have been better received. As noble as it seems to want to use film as a platform to raise awareness, in doing so, Barrett neglected to engage in truly creative filmmaking.

Blair Witch drops the ball

The new installment pales in comparison to the original

<em>Blair Witch</em> drops the ball

As a recent fan of the original Blair Witch Project (1999), I walked into the remake with excitement and optimism — especially given the rave reviews it has received from horror film review sites. Perhaps it was partly due to this elevated expectation, but Blair Witch (2016) really did not live up to the hype.

Director Adam Wingard kept viewers on the edge of their seat with jump-scares every 10 minutes. Tension was emphasized by a soundtrack resembling the MGM lion roar and someone repeatedly dropping a bowling ball on the floor above.

While there were moments of hilarious genre self-reflexivity, Blair Witch went nowhere new, and certainly does not stay with the audience. The story is much the same as the original except this time it is Heather’s (Heather Donahue) brother, James (James Allen McCune), who is heading into the woods. He believes he has found evidence that his sister is still alive in the woods, and takes three friends, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), Ashley (Corbin Reid), and Peter (Brandon Scott), with him to try to find her. The two locals, who were supposed to be their guides, end up tagging along for the trip too.

In this case, more is not better. Retelling the ‘lost in the woods’ story with double the cast and better film equipment gave way for a faster-paced movie. The film was rushed and lacked restraint, which was the best part about the original. The addition of the new camera angles and highly exaggerated soundtrack only exacerbated this flaw even further. Instead of a slow build-up, the film rams into high gear almost as soon as they enter the woods, and the jump scares continue right to the end with almost no variation.

There are a few gems in the film, such as the meta-humour in the scene where, after yet another person pops on to the screen accompanied by an inexplicably loud sound effect, Lisa, exasperated, exclaims: “Everyone stop doing that!” There are also some fairly inventive horror moments, such as the events surrounding Ashley’s foot wound — which simultaneously invokes body horror cinema and camp — and the claustrophobic shots of Lisa trying to escape the house through a very tight underground tunnel.

These moments, however, do not make up for the incessant and cheap jump-scares that comprise the bulk of the film. The story is almost an exact retelling of the original, but with none of the elegance.

Deepwater Horizon comes up shallow

Peter Berg’s latest flick is cinematic wreckage, but has some redeeming qualities

<em>Deepwater Horizon</em> comes up shallow

Industrial debris flies through the air as mud and methane burst out of a high-pressure drill pipe on an offshore oil rig. The sudden release sends roustabouts and bottom-of-the-chain labourers soaring across the deck, blinded by a mixture of processed sludge and shattered fenestration. Gas meets flammable objects, and soon there are several five-alarm fires engulfing the area. A worker pounds on the door of a control room. Another is knocked overboard by the sheer force of discharge. A visiting British Petroleum representative, shocked by the current state of events, zombie-crawls to perceived safety. He finds none. It’s isolated mayhem in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.

Recently, the producers at Hollywood’s blockbuster factory appear to have realized something: Americans have a perverse fondness for reliving their country’s mishaps in IMAX. Blockbuster producers have been orchestrating movies full of explosions and mass chaos for decades, but it seems that they’ve upped their usage of recent events for primary source material. 13 Hours (2016) — Michael Bay’s highly politicized dumpster-fire from earlier this year — is a testament to this formula. American Sniper (2015) is another. Plenty of directors have tried this with 9/11, but so far, most have failed. Deepwater Horizon marks the trend’s latest instalment.

After directing action-thrillers like Lone Survivor (2013) and Battleship (2012),  filmmaker Peter Berg  has come out with Deepwater Horizon, which recounts the horrors of America’s largest oil spill to date. Centered around the perspective of Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), a trusted electrician on the oil rig Deepwater, the movie simulates the hours before and throughout the April 2010 incident that left 11 crewmen dead and caused 4.9 million barrels of oil to seep into the Gulf of Mexico.

In the beginning, Williams warns his superiors from British Petroleum of the dangers of over-extracting oil, recommending that they run a test to ensure that all is well with the rig. His superiors only care for profit, though, and while they’re willing to concede to a test, they aren’t willing to accept its results.

A goateed John Malkovich plays the British Petroleum supervisor responsible for the mishap; his Southern drawl morphing the Burn After Reading (2008) actor into a bald Colonel Sanders. Malkovich, no stranger to playing the villain, easily conjures a convincing portrayal of corporate greed. Despite the test’s negative outcome, he brazenly rejects pushback from the rig’s crew and orders them to carry on, business as usual. Within minutes, everything falls apart.

Quite literally, half of this film is a continuous explosion. From the moment the oil-induced mud begins leaking out of the drainpipes, to the gratifying fade-to-black an hour later, Deepwater Horizon subjects its viewers to seemingly endless destruction. IMAX theatres crank the volume up, amplifying the incessant sound of colliding metallic detritus and flying shrapnel.

If only the movie hadn’t explicitly reveled in the semi-submersible apparatus’s destruction would its viewers be able to appreciate its dedication to holding big money accountable — an irony lost on none, hopefully. But rather than direct your anger towards Peter Berg, direct it at those who made this movie possible in the first place: British Petroleum.

In review: Luminato’s Unsound

Sonic abstraction and hallucinatory effects comprise this year's Unsound

In review: Luminato’s Unsound

Unsound is an amorphous, genre-spanning festival that fractures the idea of what belongs inside a club.

While only in its second year in Toronto, Unsound began in 2003 in Krakow, Poland and has become an annual event. The festival marks an emerging sensibility in Toronto’s musical community. Sponsored by Luminato Festival, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, Unsound took place at the Hearn Generating Plant, June 10-11.

The various visual installations that were featured throughout the power plant sought to esteem the event beyond being a space where debauchery and delirium are encouraged.Interactive audiovisual accompaniments were paired with several performances to create a conceptual experience.

The fusion of technology and sound manufactured a multi-sensory environment for audience members. Several artists, including Roly Porter, presented strobe lights that produced borderline hallucinatory effects. During the pair’s performance, audience members were asked to close their eyes in order to “hear with them” — the intention being to hear with your eyes rather than ears.

Their strobe lights were almost blinding, deliberately so, in order to facilitate a “light show beneath the lids.” Later in the night, Evian Christ closed the main stage’s set. He paired his laser light show with fog machines to obscure audience members, and provide a more solitary environment in which audience members could experience club music.

The industrial setting augmented the nostalgic and authentic revival of rave culture. Despite being housed in a generating plant, abstract forms of electronic music, such as Tim Hecker’s noise, were tolerated by an audience whose palates have been limited to more conventional soundscapes.

Genres that were heard were not exclusively limited to sonic abstraction — rather, in the side room, audience members were invited to watch as Olivia Ungaro and Aurora Halal, among others, performed sets rooted in techno. That said, even these artists used technical finesse to deconstruct canonic genres, and manipulated their qualifying parameters into new forms. Aurora Halal produced a live demonstration of how analog performance can yield the same perfection as a digitally produced track.

The artists on the lineup ensured that the sounds heard payed homage to the traditions of their respective genres, while paving a path for the future of the clubbing experience.

Toronto is small enough as a music city to be monopolized by management and public representation brands. These brands not only own their talent, but own the spaces in which their talent will perform. The monoculture that emerges from this hinders the growth of more experimental ecologies of genres that could flourish in a metropolis like ours. Unsound is a step against this monoculture, and a step in the right direction.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.