Pop­corn, syrup and a con­vict lost in space

While Steve McQueen and Barry Jenk­ins led the hype for Os­cars, it was vet­eran di­rec­tor Claire De­nis’s bizarre sci-fi High Life that re­ally caught the eye, writes Sim­ran Hans

The Observer - The New Review - - Film -

The Toronto in­ter­na­tional film fes­ti­val is an in­creas­ingly glitzy af­fair, with enough world pre­mieres from cel­e­brated au­teurs to have even ca­sual movie­go­ers froth­ing at the mouth – and crit­ics pos­i­tively weak at the knees. Court­ing the sweet spot be­tween art house and main­stream, it’s a prime des­ti­na­tion for Os­car con­tenders open­ing on the fes­ti­val cir­cuit (tak­ing place just af­ter Venice and the pres­ti­gious though less well-known Tel­luride). Dis­tri­bu­tion deals are made in high­rise ho­tels, and celebri­ties roam the streets like civil­ians.

The fes­ti­val may be a hype ma­chine, but the hype it­self is as frag­ile as a bub­blegum bal­loon. Praise swelled around Steve McQueen’s Wi­d­ows, a wildly en­ter­tain­ing fe­male-led crime thriller co-writ­ten by the di­rec­tor with the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn, and set on the mean streets of Chicago’s South Side. Vi­ola Davis is Veron­ica, widow of Liam Nee­son’s crim­i­nal Harry Rawl­ings and in­her­i­tor of a siz­able debt in the wake of his last, bun­gled job. McQueen’s pre­vi­ous three films were el­e­gant and som­bre, and in­ter­ested in how bod­ies do and don’t yield to vi­o­lence in­flicted by the self, so­ci­ety and the state. The al­to­gether lighter, slighter Wi­d­ows feels like a sharp left turn: the artist­di­rec­tor has made an al­most trashy pop­corn movie with a sly sense of hu­mour, in­dulging in adrenalinepump­ing, car-chase set pieces and soapy par­o­dies of seedy politi­cians. It’s a lit­tle top heavy and rushes its con­clu­sion, but it’s ex­cit­ing to see McQueen hav­ing so much fun.

On the other hand, I felt the bub­ble de­flate upon ex­it­ing Barry Jenk­ins’s fol­low-up to the Os­car­win­ning Moon­light. His adap­tion of James Bald­win’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk was rap­tur­ously re­ceived but I couldn’t quite con­nect with it. A painstak­ingly crafted melo­drama about two lovers in Har­lem, cast in rich, pri­mary colours, its syrupy tone and lan­guorous pac­ing carve space for the kind of char­ac­ters that have tra­di­tion­ally been writ­ten out of this kind of movie, but the fussy, self-con­scious genre flour­ishes left me oddly cold.

The fes­ti­val’s high­est pro­file non­fic­tion of­fer­ings both took on Trump’s Amer­ica, but Michael Moore’s Fahren­heit 11/9 and Er­rol Mor­ris’s Steve Ban­non doc­u­men­tary Amer­i­can Dharma are two dis­tinct an­i­mals. At its best, the for­mer is a pas­sion­ate chal­lenge to es­tab­lish­ment pol­i­tics, crit­i­cis­ing the Demo­cratic party for its lack of due dili­gence re­gard­ing the Flint water cri­sis in Michi­gan (Moore’s home town), sug­gest­ing it had an im­pact on the com­mu­nity’s vot­ing be­hav­iour. When con­fronted with footage of Barack Obama drink­ing a glass of the pol­luted water as if to sug­gest pos­si­ble con­tam­i­na­tion is not a prob­lem, or a scene of Moore cheek­ily spray­ing a lo­cal politi­cian’s man­i­cured front lawn with water from a tank la­belled “Flint water”, it’s not an un­con­vinc­ing theory. Over­all, how­ever, Moore’s project is too sprawl­ing to be con­sid­ered an outright suc­cess, at­tempt­ing as it does to jug­gle an anal­y­sis of Trump’s vic­tory while also doc­u­ment­ing the ef­forts of the pres­i­dent’s younger and more op­ti­mistic chal­lengers. At least Moore’s in­clu­sion of re­cent ac­tivism, in­clud­ing that car­ried out by the teenage sur­vivors of this year’s Park­land school shoot­ing, of­fers a ker­nel of hope.

Mor­ris’s Amer­i­can Dharma, on the other hand, is down­right ir­re­spon­si­ble. A oneon-one con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Mor­ris and Ban­non takes place in an air­craft han­gar; a scene that sees the struc­ture go up in flames seems to be a prod­uct of giv­ing Agent Or­ange’s for­mer me­dia strate­gist too much oxy­gen. Ban­non is fright­en­ingly ar­tic­u­late and rhetor­i­cally adept; Mor­ris frus­trat­ingly mild in his soft­ball chal­lenges. If the film is an at­tempt to skewer him, it’s a res­o­lute fail­ure.

There were sev­eral films di­rected by ac­tors, in­clud­ing Teen Spirit, the di­rec­to­rial de­but from Max Minghella (son of the late di­rec­tor An­thony Minghella, and star of HBO’s The Hand­maid’s Tale). Set on the Isle of Wight, where Mingh ella is from, the mu­sic-driven drama imag­ines Elle Fan­ning as the school-aged daugh­ter of a Pol­ish farm­hand who en­ters an X Fac­torstyle com­pe­ti­tion, aided by for­mer opera singer and lo­cal drunk Vlad (Zlatko Burić). “It was the wrong song – should’ve done a ballad,” laments Fan­ning’s Vi­o­let and, in­deed, many of the film’s mu­sic choices feel weirdly and wrongly dated. (Fan­ning’s cov­ers of songs by Robyn, Adele and El­lie Gould­ing ap­pear on the film’s sound­track.) Still, the de­tail and speci­ficity of the film’s dis­tinctly Bri­tish cul­tural ref­er­ence points are in­spired in their naffness – and Rebecca Hall is de­li­cious as a riff on Si­mon Cow­ell.

The French ac­tor Louis Gar­rel (also the son of a film-maker, Philippe Gar­rel) writes, di­rects and stars in A Faith­ful Man. It’s sur­pris­ingly good – a nim­ble ro­man­tic com­edy with a puck­ish sense of hu­mour re­gard­ing crushes, fan­tasies and ro­man­tic af­fairs. Gar­rel casts him­self as the axis of a love tri­an­gle, but it’s the women, Lily-Rose Depp and Gar­rel’s real-life part­ner, Laeti­tia Casta, who steal the show.

Act­ing-wise, I spot­ted some starry turns that will surely court Acad­emy votes. In Karyn Kuasama’s grimy desert noir De­stroyer, Ni­cole Kid­man dis­ap­pears into the unglam­orous Erin Bell, a hard-boiled FBI agent and unlov­able an­ti­hero with red-rimmed eyes and a his­tory of il­lad­vised de­ci­sions.

Ti­mothée Cha­la­met is af­fect­ing but showy as a crys­tal meth-ad­dicted teen in Felix Van Groenin­gen’s blandly sen­ti­men­tal Beau­ti­ful Boy, based on Rolling Stone jour­nal­ist David Sh­eff’s mem­oir. Yet it’s Steve Car­rell as his fa­ther who’s the more un­der­stated of the two leads, com­mu­ni­cat­ing the pain of a par­ent un­able to res­cue their child from an ugly cy­cle of self-im­posed suf­fer­ing. Kris­ten Ste­wart’s awkward, shuf­fling phys­i­cal­ity is a good fit for the role of JT LeRoy in Justin Kelly’s Jeremiah Ter­mi­na­tor LeRoy, while her co-star Laura Dern has a ball as the slip­pery, ma­nip­u­la­tive author Laura Al­bert.

A Bri­tish film I liked was Michael Win­ter­bot­tom’s The Wed­ding Guest.

A tense, wiry lit­tle thriller set in Pak­istan, In­dia and Nepal, its first 30 min­utes are ex­hil­a­rat­ingly tight. We see a brood­ing and se­duc­tive Dev Pa­tel travel from London to La­hore with four pass­ports in his suit­case; he hires a car, buys a gun, and drives across Pak­istan with the con­fi­dence of a Bourne or Bond. His chem­istry with his co-star, the In­dian ac­tress Rad­hika Apte, is sim­i­larly smoul­der­ing.

In­dia also fea­tures promi­nently in Maya, the new film from Mia HansenLøve (Eden, Things to Come). A po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ist from Paris (Ro­man Kolinka) trav­els to Goa to re­group af­ter be­ing held hostage for sev­eral months in Syria, but the film is less Eat Pray Love than it sounds, and sub­tle on the sub­ject of over­work.

Best of all was Claire De­nis’s Eng­lish lan­guage de­but, High Life, whose plot alone is so won­der­fully bizarre I can hardly be­lieve the film ex­ists. An ex­per­i­men­tal sci-fi, it stars Robert Pat­tin­son as a con­vict ma­rooned on a space­ship with only a small baby to keep him com­pany; flash­backs re­veal that there were once other crew mem­bers, at the mercy of a horny mad sci­en­tist (Juli­ette Binoche, eyes hun­gry and hair knot­ted in a witchy, bum-length braid). The film is haunt­ing and spare, deeply sad, ob­sessed with death and pow­ered by a de­monic, erotic charge; at 72, the ven­er­a­ble French film-maker is still try­ing new things.

Starry turns in­clude Ni­cole Kid­man as an unlov­able hard­boiled FBI agent with a his­tory of ill-ad­vised de­ci­sions

In Claire De­nis’s ‘haunt­ing’ High Life, Robert Pat­tin­son plays a con­vict in space with only a baby for com­pany.

Steve McQueen at the Toronto pre­miere of his ‘wildly en­ter­tain­ing’ Wi­d­ows. Empics

ABOVENi­cole Kid­man work­ing the Toronto red car­pet last week. Pho­to­graph by Va­lerie Macon/AFP/ Getty Images

‘Brood­ing, se­duc­tive’ Dev Pa­tel, be­low, in Michael Win­ter­bot­tom’s The Wed­ding Guest. TFF

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