Hello! My name is Daniel and I’ll be one of your TIFF tour guides for the next few days along with Next Best Picture’s own Beatrice Loayza. This is my ninth straight TIFF and I had tickets for 42 films. I saw a lot of the major Oscar-y stuff including “Roma,” “First Man,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Widows,” “Boy Erased,” and “The Front Runner,” along with a good amount of foreign films, indies, documentaries, and various other weird little things that randomly seemed interesting to me a few weeks ago when I tried to plow through over 250 film descriptions and plot a coherent schedule in under five days.
The first film I saw at TIFF 2018 happened to be one of those weird things – an Icelandic drama about two teen girls facing crippling drug addiction called “Let Me Fall.” I utterly fell for the trailer the first time I watched it. The film lived up to those expectations in the early goings. The opening credits featured a long-held shot of one of the main character’s faces that was reminiscent of – and nearly as powerful as – the final shot in “Call Me By Your Name.” A bit later was a second, even-more-stunning long shot, this time of a girl who died of an overdose at a party. With the camera slowly, achingly closing in on her lifeless eyes over the course of what feels like (at least) a full minute, everyone around her panics as they realize she’s dead. But the camera’s gaze ensures that we only loosely connect to the panic as a peripheral event; we’re firmly locked into those piercing eyes. Whatever actress played that dead girl has the freakish superpower to not blink for a really long time and her utter lifelessness gouged into my soul.
But “Let Me Fall” eventually turns into (way) too much of a good thing. It doesn’t shy away from reaching full “Requiem For A Dream” territory midway through, and unfortunately, “Let Me Fall” is 34 minutes longer than “Requiem For A Dream.” So, however you felt at the end of that one, imagine sustaining that for a lot longer. By the end, the audience was almost as lifeless as the dead girl at the party. And that’s not just an inevitable result of the debilitating subject matter, but also that the film loses its stylistic vivacity, as though it could tell it was belatedly stumbling to a conclusion that just kept getting further away, and deeper down a dark hole.
Hey, speaking of the Sunken Place, let’s go there literally with “Kursk,” a tragic true story about a Russian submarine accident in 2000. This movie has some serious pedigree; it was directed by Thomas Vinterberg (whose excellent Danish film “The Hunt” was a Foreign Language Oscar nominee in 2014), written by Robert Rodat (“Saving Private Ryan”), shot by Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), scored by Alexandre Desplat (every good movie, 2008–present), and it features an all-star cast of Western European actors playing Russian without changing their natural accents – Matthias Schoenaerts (Belgian), Léa Seydoux (French), the late Michael Nyqvist (Swedish), August Diehl (German), and the still-fucking-killing-it Max Von Sydow (Swedish). Then there’s also Colin Firth, who takes on the Sienna Miller Memorial role of “Movie Star on Phone, Very Concerned.” Do you realize Colin Firth hasn’t had a starring role in a decent movie since he won his Oscar in early 2011? How is that possible? And yes, I’ve already considered whatever “But what about…” thought swirling in your head. Sorry, but “Kingsman” was not for me.
Anyway…”Kursk” is… well, I liked it, but here’s a giant caveat: I didn’t know the true story, so I was genuinely in suspense because I didn’t know what would happen. If you already know the ending (because you were way better at following the news in 2000), this will be a dramatically different watch for you than it was for me. The suspense is really palpable, and some of the submarine set pieces are quite impressive. There’s also a political angle that’s peppered in fairly well. But really there’s not much here you haven’t seen before. It’s a well-crafted film by a lot of people who know what they’re doing, but it never amounts to much more than that. There is, however, one key payoff moment at the end, when Von Sydow (playing former Russian President Boris Yeltsin) has a run-in with a little boy that doesn’t go according to plan. Looking at Von Sydow’s eyes during that exchange remind you that he is a true master of acting.
I stayed in the Sunken Place for my next film, a little German drama called “Styx” that won three major prizes at the Berlinale in February and has been cleaning up awards on the international fest circuit ever since. “Styx” takes place in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere off the coast of Spain and West Africa, as a middle-aged German doctor is taking a solo sailing trip when she encounters a small, sinking barge filled with African refugees. Once the coastal authorities prove indifferent to providing aid, she must decide what she can do, and more importantly, what she can risk. “Styx” is pure cinema with no score and virtually no dialogue. This immersive visual experience exists intensely in the moment. The ending of “Styx” is not a happy one as there’s no plausible way it could have been. But the specific way it arrives at its inevitable tragedy is one that will haunt you. “Styx” is the best film I saw during the first two days of TIFF and though it won’t be the subject of any Oscar buzz (it’s not eligible for the Foreign Language race), I highly recommend anyone check it out if it’s playing a local festival.
After three intensely depressing films in a row, I thought I might be in for a change of pace with “Vox Lux,” in which Natalie Portman plays a glam pop superstar. Not only was that a wrong thought…it was epically wrong. “Vox Lux” opens with a Columbine-like school massacre and then imagines the survival of that event as the origin story of a pop deity. Having just watched director Brady Corbet’s previous film, “The Childhood Of A Leader,” the day before TIFF started, I should have known I was in for a heavy downer, but nothing can quite prepare you for watching a school shooting that you had no inkling was coming. “Vox Lux” is filled to the brim with heavy topics of important consequence – school shootings, fame, drug addiction, terrorism, the media, and more. And while the movie is a tremendously interesting and a provocative piece of art, I disliked almost all of its execution.
The biggest flaw I found in the film was a structural one; “Vox Lux” is a diptych, with the first half taking place when our heroine, Celeste, is a teenager, and the second half finding her in her thirties. That second half, in which Portman arrives as the now-adult Celeste, blatantly ignores every ounce of characterization the first half had established. In the first half, Celeste is every bit the precocious, considerate-to-a-fault Taylor Swift. But when she reemerges 15 years later, she suddenly has the media personality of Madonna crossed with the unhinged-ness of peak Amy Winehouse. Is there a reality in which this type of transformation could conceivably occur? Sure. Does it seem plausible? No. And because the characterization in the second half seems so off, it has the side effect of removing the believability of Portman’s performance. Portman is phenomenal at hitting the beats the script asks her to hit, but there was never a single moment I didn’t feel like I was watching a big, grand LOOK AT ME performance. In terms of Oscars, I had tweeted about how it’s difficult to suss out what category Portman would compete in (since she doesn’t even appear until 50 minutes into the movie), but the more I think about it, it’s a useless debate. This movie is getting zero major nominations. Audiences will HATE this movie – it’s a mortal lock to get an F Cinemascore grade, and though I have no doubt a few critics will claim it’s the best film of the year, the Oscars don’t take well to the complete public rejection that this film is destined for. Just ask “mother!.”
Since my start to TIFF hadn’t been depressing enough yet, there was only one possible place to go – a Holocaust movie. But this was a happy one…kind of. “Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World Of Ben Ferencz” is a documentary about the still-living, 99-year-old chief prosecutor of one of the Nuremberg Trials. As a work of filmmaking, it’s pretty rote, and exactly what you’d expect. But as a story about a life, this is truly inspirational stuff. Ben Ferencz is not only still completely lucid, he still works full time, every day, helping to improve the world’s international criminal court. In the most memorable line of the film, Ferencz is speaking with incredible detail about the specific Nazis he prosecuted; when one name comes up, Ferencz says, “He killed 33,000 Jews in two days, September 29 and 30, 1941. And I got the bastard.” As a Jew myself, it’s impossible to think or feel anything negative about a film that delivers such a moment.
Five films in, I’ve already covered drug addiction, military tragedy, drowning refugees, schools shootings, and the Holocaust, so where could I go from there? If you guessed police brutality, nope, that’s first thing tomorrow (seriously). Instead, it’s time for a hyper-realist movie about the most tragic terrorist attacks of the decade. “Hotel Mumbai” stars Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Jason Isaacs, and Nazanin Boniadi as people trying to live through the horrific attack on Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel in 2008, which left 31 people dead as one part of a coordinated attack across the whole city. I went into this film ready to be offended by it; like “The Impossible” and “Captain Phillips” before it – two films which I found quite racist in their portrayal of who deserves resources and who gets a voice – I was worried “Hotel Mumbai” would devolve into an epic “Save the white people, ignore the brown people” tragedy of representation. But I’m happy to say I couldn’t have been more wrong, and “Hotel Mumbai” really nailed its handling of multiple races. The real heroes here are the Indian employees of the hotel, many of whom stayed to help save wealthy white guests; this is their story more than anyone else’s.
“Hotel Mumbai” is a strange film to think about. It’s expertly crafted and riveting to watch, even as it’s emotionally devastating. But I struggle with the very nature of its existence. The obvious comparison here is “United 93,” but the difference is in the subtleties. With “United 93,” nearly every death is in the final moment, and the journey to that point is built on the human drama. But with “Hotel Mumbai,” people are getting graphically cut down in hails of gunfire every few minutes. The end results may have the same nobility – portraying selfless acts of heroism that saved dozens and dozens of lives even as many were killed – but the visual journey of arriving there isn’t the same at all, and the savagery of “Hotel Mumbai’s” violence made me really grapple with why such a thing needed to be portrayed. That’s not a feeling “United 93” ever evoked with me.
Luckily, I got to (finally!) see something more lighthearted to bring day 2 of TIFF 2018 to an end. In A24’s “Gloria Bell,” Julianne Moore plays a late-middle-age divorcee who meets a man (John Turturro) while frequenting singles dance clubs, and the burgeoning relationship starts fine before getting a bit weird. Taken in a vacuum, “Gloria Bell” is a wonderful film. But when taken in context, I don’t know why this film was made. “Gloria Bell” was directed by Sebastián Lelio, and it’s a shot-for-shot remake of his own film from 2013, which was simply called “Gloria.” Lelio won last year’s Foreign Language Film Oscar for the excellent “A Fantastic Woman,” and he also made this summer’s acclaimed “Disobedience” (which Rachel McAdams has some small Oscar buzz for). In other words, Lelio is an excellent filmmaker in his prime. How many great films do we typically get during a top-tier filmmaker’s peak years? Five? Maybe ten at best? So why is such a good filmmaker using his time and resources to do a shot-for-shot remake of his own recent, acclaimed work? To be fair, I am not the arbiter of any artist’s time, and one of my fundamental beliefs about the world is that talented creators ought to be able to follow their muse. If this is the next film Lelio wanted to make, I won’t begrudge him that. But directorial careers tend to have very finite amounts of output, and it does feel like this film exists at the expense of something else that would have been far more original.
Having said all that, “Gloria Bell” is just fantastic, and if you haven’t seen the original, you’re in for a real treat. Even if you have seen the original, it’s just wonderful to see Julianne Moore go to work on such a great character. This is one of the best roles of her career, and the final shot alone will prominently launch her into the 2019 Oscar race once A24 releases the film next year.
And that ends Day 2. Stay tuned for Days 3 and 4, which will have my reactions to Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” Jason Reitman’s “The Front Runner,” Jonah Hill’s “Mid90s,” Jacques Audiard’s “The Sisters Brothers,” some very good Foreign Language Oscar contenders, and a possible winner of TIFF’s all-important People’s Choice Award. Also, the prestigious winner of the annual “First Film I Completely Slept Through Award” will be crowned. What will it be? Stay tuned to find out.
You can follow Daniel and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @Thirdmanmovies