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FILMS GONE WILD – THE 2016 TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL

I just got in today and was surprised with a ticket to the Opening Night Gala of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN by the great PR office here at TIFF, so we know of at least one film I’ll be seeing tomorrow. I also have a couple already under my belt and absurdly ambitious plans to try and see/review 30 films or more before I get kicked out of Canada with my scribblings. But before we do that, let’s take a look at a handful of films I reviewed out of Cannes this year that have reappeared here in North America courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Two of these were among my absolute favorites at Cannes. So much so that I considered watching them again here – just for some movie happy time in between the “work” screenings.

 

AMERICAN HONEY

Andrea Arnold’s AMERICAN HONEY opens with a scene of teenage Star, dumpster diving with her younger brother and sister. As they hitchhike back home with their spoils, she spies a van full of young people pull into a neighboring store’s parking lot. The young people, she soon discovers, are a travelling group selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. Encouraged by Jake (Shia LaBeouf), she leaves her abusive home and joins the group, soon getting caught up in their lifestyle of grifting money off locals, and partying all night long at roadside motels, fueled by whatever alcohol and drugs they can get their hands on until they pick up to hit the next town. That, combined with her mercurial attraction to Jake, makes for a heady mix and a welcome distraction from the dead end life she left behind. However, she can also see how easily she can be replaced and discarded from her newly adopted “family” if she isn’t careful to protect herself.

AMERICAN HONEY taps into the hopelessness and despair of the lower class in this country from a young person’s perspective. While older adults deal with the realities of a severely depressed economy and the dwindling prospects for a prosperous life, the next generation can easily see nothing but struggle with no avenues for a secure life ahead of them. Star is asked, “Got anyone that’s gonna miss you?” And on her negative reply: “Good. You’re hired.” That’s the world Arnold believes they are seeing and the film explores how they deal with it. A couple times in the film, someone is asked what their dreams are. And the reply is that no one has ever asked them that question. The idea being, that things are so bad and uncertain now, that everyone has no choice but to live in the moment, take what you can get from people, and then move on. There is a BADLANDS flair to the relationship between Star and Jake, and as “real” as Arnold tries to make what she captures on screen, with improvised dialogue and scenes, even she can’t resist a pure-cinema moment like having Star exclaim, “This is America!” as she hangs out of a car speeding down the highway. There is an invigorating energy, and nagging angst – and at times, even dread – running throughout the film, but it also runs considerably longer than necessary, frankly. It’s a slice of life that we understand quickly and that long running time could be trying for audiences. However, a personal desire for more brevity in storytelling aside, the film is most definitely an invigorating ride.

 

LOVING

Jeff Nichols’s LOVING tells the true life story of Richard and Mildred Loving, whose interracial marriage, the reaction to it, and the persecution they received in Virginia due to it led to a 9-year legal battle and eventual Supreme Court decision striking down laws in states across the country forbidding interracial unions. The film traces the decisions made by the couple following her first pregnancy to get married, and then return to the state following their conviction to have the child midwifed by Loving’s mother, and the run ins with the local police as well as the rulings against them in the courts, eventually resulting in the landmark Supreme Court decision in their favor.

LOVING takes great pains to eschew melodrama in favor of low-key and “truthful” storytelling as it seeks to put a human face on the people behind the historic law. However, the true life story behind a landmark Supreme Court case does not automatically translate into landmark drama. Here, the instinct to not gin up tragic beats or moments of crises in order to force an expected dramatic structure, while admirable, also severely undercuts the immediacy and the stakes of the story. Several times there is the anticipation of a threat or reprisal that apparently never happened. A car races up to the Lovings’ house, but it turns out it was just a friend – as opposed to racist townsfolk coming with torches and pitchforks, so to speak, or Richard Loving finds a brick wrapped in a Life Magazine story on the couple in the front seat of his car, as opposed to say, having that brick be thrown through a window. Also, while stories like this routinely offer up a villain for the audience to focus their concern on behalf of the main characters on, here (for example) our racist cop more or less give a stern talking to. Therefore, while the drama is heartfelt and affecting and makes for what we have to assume is an “honest” portrayal of the struggles the Lovings went through at that time, it would not be difficult to see some filmgoers viewing the proceedings with a shrug.

 

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS

Colm McCarthy’s THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS represents another attempt to do something fresh within the zombie/infected movie genre. This time, we’re in the near future where society is dealing with flesh eating “hungries” that have been created by a mutated fungal disease. However, there is actually a second generation that have the disease yet still have cognitive functions to go with their desire for flesh and blood. So, while the ruthless Dr. Caldwell (played by Glenn Close) experiments on the children in order to find a cure, Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton) compassionately takes them through their lesson plans. However, one particular student, Melanie, proves to be an exceptionally quick learner and quite possibly either the hope for a cure and way out of the crisis, or equally as possible – the downfall for all of human society.

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS does a very admirable job of reimagining the zombie/infected genre and utilizing that new approach or angle to delve into different issues than the usual fare routinely offers up. To frequent viewers and fans of the genre, the style and look of the film will likely hit a midway point between a studio’s big budget approach and a B-movie’s economically thrifty approach. And, frankly – the key interest point will be Glenn Close’s participation in the film. Admittedly, it is more than a little disconcerting to see Close repeatedly bashing in the head of an attacking infected person, but she is also clearly enjoying her bad guy role with one key gruesome monologue in particular that’s worth the price of admission itself. So, while detractors could have some ammunition to dismiss the film as a “Son of the Zombie” or “Daughter of the Zombie” conceit, it reality the film is quite a solid, if modest, addition to the genre.

 

THE HANDMAIDEN (AGASSI)

Chan-Wook Park’s THE HANDMAIDEN (AGASSI) tells the story of subterfuge in 1930s Korea, during Japanese occupation, where Sookee has been hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress beholden to an old perverted uncle planning to marry her to secure her fortune. However, in truth, she is actually a pickpocket enlisted by a swindler posing as a Japanese Count, to help him seduce the heiress so he (and they) may steal the heiress’s fortune. It’s an intricate and full proof plan assured of success – that is until Sookee and the heiress begin to discover feelings for one another.

Ironically, THE HANDMAIDEN (AGASSI) is about the unfolding of a brilliantly conceived and precisely detailed plan of deceit, while the film itself is also brilliantly conceived and detailed – with its success hinged on how well it cloaks its parlor game. The film is told in three chapters, from different character’s points of view, to not just shed light on what we have seen, but explain the motivations behind those actions as we watch the sting play out. And what plays out is a thrilling, sexy game between three players, clouded and sharpened by their greed, lust, and even love for each other. Spiced by some S&M play and explicit sexual discovery, the plot twists turn on themselves in a dizzying manner with the lives and loves of the characters hanging in the balance as the double and triple crosses are revealed. As mentioned, the sex is explicit, and (as with all of Park’s films) there will be blood, but even for those that would normally shy away from films with those elements, they’ll find the game is very much afoot and would likely find it impossible not to become thoroughly wrapped up and thrilled by the proceedings as well. Bottom line, I can’t recommend this film enough.

 

RAW

Julia Ducournau’s RAW follows Justine, a brilliant young French student, as she enters a prestigious veterinary school, following both her parents and joining her sister, Alexia, who is an upper classman. She quickly experiences the school’s merciless hazing rituals, during which the vegetarian Justine is forced – with her sister’s insistence – to eat raw meat for the first time. The consequences of that decision go far beyond an upset stomach as Justine’s body starts going through changes and she begins exhibiting cravings she never had before that cause her to behave in ways that quickly escalate from confusing to frightening and dangerous as her true self emerges.

RAW delivers an unsettling coming-of-age tale with one of the most formidable, complicated, and ultimately threatening sister combos in a genre film since GINGER SNAPS. While Justine’s cravings for raw flesh escalate quickly, the moment where she reaches a point of no return is not simply shocking, it is also emotionally powerful – and that can be said for the film as a whole. The desire for flesh – whether to eat it or sexually – while graphic and bloody, doesn’t simply descend into blood splattering set pieces or default to lazy cannibal or vampire film tropes. Instead, there is a steady hand keeping us on Justine’s journey and relationship with Alexia. There is also a thrilling and dynamic style at play, including one sequence shot in a way that recalls cinematic seduction of the Milk Bar scene from CLOCKWORK ORANGE. All told, and much like the relationship between the two sisters, RAW is disturbing and maybe even upsetting for some, but it is not a film that can be dismissed or forgotten easily – it will stay with you, whether you like it or not.

 

SWEET DREAMS (FAI BEI SOGNI)

Marco Bellocchio’s SWEET DREAMS begins in Turin, 1969 as nine-year-old Massimo’s childhood goes through a seismic shift following the sudden and mysterious death of his mother. Fast-forward to the 90’s where he has grown up to become an accomplished journalist, yet is still tormented by unresolved issues and feelings concerning his mother’s death that are now causing him to have severe panic attacks. With the help of a compassionate and attractive doctor, he seeks to find out the truth and resolve his conflicted emotions once and for all.

SWEET DREAMS is a familiar exercise in a person’s attempts to uncover the truths of their childhood in an effort to finally lay restless ghosts to sleep, so the central character can finally move forward with their life. Bellocchio takes us back and forth from Massimo’s memories of his childhood, to his experiences as an adult working through relationships and trying to connect on an emotional level with someone despite his self-imposed hurdles. And frankly, we get the gist of the whole endeavor very quickly which cuts into the sympathy for the character the longer the film continues. It is all executed very romantically with nuance and style, but it also significantly indulges in the whole process which could make the film a trying viewing experience for anyone that has places to go or people to see, if you know what I mean.