TORONTO – It’s my first year at the Toronto International Film Festival, a delay that I can explain away with life events and fiscal impracticalities, but if we’re being honest, it also always seemed a little overwhelming. I mean, first of all, the festival in this whole other country, where your money is different and your iPhone doesn’t work and why are all the signs also in French and Christ, I’ve sound like an Ugly American. But more than that, it’s the sheer volume of this festival – just shy of three hundred features, plus another hundred shorts. You try and piece together a schedule from that kind of volume. I dare you.
But here I am, at the end of my first day, and I’m scrounging for wifi and my credit card keeps getting declined and I remain somewhat baffled by this currency (seriously, a two dollar coin?), but I’ve seen my first two movies, and lived to tell the tale. And I also saw two more much-heralded titles in advance, and have thoughts on those. Oh, and Sully is out today, which isn’t playing in Toronto, but it was at Telluride last weekend, so it’s a festival film too, and so maybe we can talk about it a bit?
Jim Jarmsuch is only seen once in his new Stooges bio-documentary Gimme Danger, as he sits down the man we know as Iggy Pop for an interview in his laundry room (don’t ask – it’s not explained) and announces, “We are interrogating Jim Osterberg about The Stooges, the greatest rock and roll band ever.” And then his film launches into their story at the point you’d least expect: at their lowest point, in 1973 (“they were dirt,” the on-screen text informs us), just before what Iggy dubs their “sputtering demise.” It’s a fascinating way to open up their story, slipping in through a back window rather than the front door. It’s a shame the rest of the movie doesn’t take the same kinds of chances.
Which is not to say that it isn’t engaging. Iggy has always a been a great rock storyteller – wry, candid, funny, nasty. Jarmusch finds some serviceable tricks to help him and the surviving members tell the story of how they came together, found a sound, and crafted (if that’s not too high-falutin’ a word) three rough, tough, revolutionary rock albums. The filmmaker’s dry wit serves him well when he trots out such overworked devices as illustrative animation and ironically deployed educational films. The archival footage is evocative – you can all but smell the sweat in the frame – and it’s an inherently cinematic story, since they came up fast and came down the same way. For a story of music innovators and gleeful deconstructionists, Gimme Danger is surprisingly conventional in its style and approach. The music still kicks, though.
The blood-splattered, coke-fueled phantasmagoria that opens Dog Eat Dog does not, to put it mildly, immediately identify the picture as the work of Paul Schrader, the frequently austere and serious-minded director of Affliction, Hardcore, and American Gigolo. But this is not a Schrader we’ve seen before, beyond occasional stylistic flourishes that here become the main attraction. This is Schrader doing an exploitation movie, and it’s as gleefully, giddily disreputable as it should be.
Not that it all works; Matthew Wilder’s script (from a novel by Edward Bunker, the real-life con who played Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs) backs the movie into a few corners it can’t finesse its way out of, the storytelling gets awfully murky in the middle stretch, and star Nicolas Cage gives us a few moments of distracting Cage-iness. But it’s just such a pleasure to watch a Schrader film this alive again, not just in the baroque style, but in the weird little dialogue detours and conversational cul-de-sacs. It doesn’t really all hold together. But it certainly does move.
Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (which debuted at Cannes in May and unspools here later this week) captures, as the filmmaker’s stunning A Separation did a few years back, how we revisit and reexamine every tiny decision and detail of a terrible event, turning it back over once more, looking for answers and fixes that simply are not there. The crushing weight of these events can drift off, but only fleetingly; watch how he dramatizes the momentary psychological diversion of a nice meal with a guest, the kind of modestly human moment he’s can craft out of nothing, and then watch how quickly the tiniest reminder can deflate the entire enterprise.
His tangled tale this time concerns a husband and wife in dire living straits (one of the many striking differences between Farhadi’s films and even independent American counterparts is his continued awareness of paycheck-to-paycheck living), a horrible trauma that their situation indirectly visits upon the wife, and the actions each of them take, and do not take, in the period that follows. His writing and direction are so sensitive that he puts us in tune with these complex emotions, and we find ourselves reading between the lines of their interactions – guilt, frustration, rage, impotence, fear. The Salesman engages with the choices of its characters, and their consequences, with a particular urgency. That is Asghar Fahardi’s gift, and it should not be undervalued.
Andrea Arnold’s teenage road trip drama American Honey rides into Toronto on a similar wave of Cannes-generated goodwill, and it’s easy to see why critics have taken to it. The film has an offhand intimacy and authenticity that borders on documentary, and a wild, anything-goes storytelling spirit. It runs an expansive 163 minutes, and yes, it could be shorter. But the most memorable moments are frequently those that would’ve been the first to go from a trim, 100-minute version – awkward interactions and sticky situations that we keep waiting to go sideways, conversations that go long because they can, and are better for it.
It feels, like writer/director Arnold’s work so often does, homemade; I’m not sure whether they actually just popped a skeleton crew into a second van and followed these actors (and, I suspect, non-actors) around the Midwest, but it feels like they did. I’m from this area, and the verisimilitude is striking – I’ve been in these extended stay hotels, these trailer homes, these highway rest areas, and American Honey gets the feel of those places, their rhythms, and the particular kind of sadness you can feel if you’re in them too long.
And finally, cheating a bit, some thoughts on Sully, which opens today and — just you watch — is going to make so much money. Director Clint Eastwood’s famous efficiency is a good match for this story; in fact, we hear the first of many take-off and impacts under the opening logos, that’s how ready he is to get this thing going (it runs a lean 96 minutes, and there are worse transgressions than that, here in prestige movie season). It knows Captain Sullenberger’s life is about this one incident, and replays it for us as often he replayed it for himself. (The only real deviation from that event are two brief flashbacks to his youth, which look and feel like padding.)
Todd Komarnicki’s screenplay is a little stiff, stretching somewhat to create villains and saddling the picture with “colorful” characters on Flight 1549 (shades of the Airport series) that Eastwood mostly lets drift. And there are a few moments that cross the line between “old-fashioned” and “corny”; I’m thinking particularly of a scene of Sully jogging as things people have said to him reverberate in his head, heavily echoed (I mean, c’mon, that was moldy in the ‘60s).
But for the most part, Eastwood’s no-frills approach works. The landing scenes are riveting, scary, and convincing, and he wisely lets Hanks do as little as possible, and destroy us anyway; find me another actor who can give you those same goosebumps when he gets the survivor count. But the scenes of the flight’s rescue are just as moving, in a quiet what that’s hard to describe – I’m not sure why the tiny moment of a cop casually rearranging a passenger’s blanket as they pass, or of another authoritatively stating the seemingly trite line “No one dies today,” land with the impact they do. But perhaps it’s because they are, ultimately, what this story is about: people who were just very good at their jobs, and did them without making a fuss. That’s what the rescuers did that day, and that’s what Sully did. And so does Hanks, and so does Eastwood.
We’ll be back tomorrow with looks at Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (An Amy Adams double feature, RIP me), and more.