Toronto Diary, Day 5: ‘Blair Witch,’ ‘Loving,’ ‘Jackie,’ ‘The B-Side,’ ‘The War Show’

A new take on a horror fave, the latest from Jeff Nichols and Pablo Larraín, and two sharp new docs.

TORONTO- The most daring thing about the original 1999 Blair Witch Project wasn’t really its “found footage” format, though that was certainly its biggest influence on the independent film landscape in general and indie horror in particular. No, what was really risky was the fact that it was a horror movie that didn’t get really, really scary until the last five or ten minutes. Until then, it functioned on mood and dread, the personalities of its performers, and the ingeniousness of its central gimmick: that three filmmakers had gone into the woods to investigate an urban legend, and they never came out, and here’s the footage they left behind.

The problem with replicating that formula, as the (usually reliable) makers of the new sequel Blair Witch attempt to do, is that it really is a limited interest proposition; you can only look at so many flashlights shining through tree branches as characters breathe heavy and yell each other’s names before your mind begins to wander. To be sure, the tech has upgraded – the ’99 filmmakers only had conventional 16mm and DV cameras at their disposal, whereas this team trots out “earpiece cameras” (for straight-up POV), drones, and GoPros.

But that’s about all director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett have to add, and that’s a shame, considering the spins they put You’re Next and The Guest’s respective sub-genres. But the entire plot of Blair Witch, as explicitly stated in its dialogue, is “We’re looking for the house from Heather’s footage,” which means they’re retracing the original crew’s steps, which means we’re retracing the first movie’s steps. It’s less a sequel or a “reboot” than a remake, but without the freshness of the stylistic and marketing hooks that made the first one so memorable. And then the last ten minutes aren’t even scary. It’s not hard to guess why Wingard and Barrett took the franchise on; its influence is all over their V/H/S projects. I just wish they’d have figured out a way to shake it up a little more. Then again, that’s how we ended up with Book of Shadows.

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Jeff Nichols’s Loving is based on a true story, the 1967 Supreme Court Loving v Virginia decision that lifted the prohibition of interracial marriage. And it would be very easy to make it into, for lack of a less pejorative phrase, a TV movie – all big speeches and declarative conflicts and easy emotion. But Nichols is not that kind of filmmaker. He is a Southerner, with a keen ear for the rhythms of country living. He takes his time in the opening scenes, letting us settle into this region, and meet the people who populate it; to know who they are, and what they are together. It’s a movie that’s quiet and lived-in, and because he exhibits that patience, the cumulative power of the final events is overwhelming.

He knows, for example, that for non-confrontational types like these, it wouldn’t be a question of how people talk to them – it’s how they look at them. And how they look back; one of the most astute touches is how his actors don’t make eye contact with people in authority, lest they poke the bear. These weren’t agitators or activists; they weren’t looking to start a fight, or change the world. They just wanted to be together. Nichols knows that the key to his film is to just tell their story, simply and directly, and let the other stuff take care of itself.

Which is not to say that Loving is entirely muted. There is a character arc, and a powerful one – for Mildred (the extraordinary Ruth Negga), who is initially inclined to accept whatever judgments are passed on them, but ultimately cannot abide being forced to live away from her family. She begins to push back, with small acts, and then with dedication and resilience; this is a story about her finding her fight. And at the end of the picture, as their case is made in front of the Court, Nichols illustrates that argument with the simplest of images: a family, sitting down down at the dinner table. Something about that juxtaposition is overpowering, in a way that the most soaring oratory can’t approach. What a remarkable film this is.

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The snapshot biopic – films like Selma and Lincoln, wherein we zoom in on a collapsed period of time to understand an important figure, rather than trying to smash their entire life into two hours – is alive and well in Jackie, Pablo Larraín’s portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in the hours and days following her husband’s 1963 assassination. That event has been dramatized so often that it’s hard to imagine what another film could possibly add; to its immense credit, Jackie is surprisingly experimental and experiential, walking us through those most private moments, and daring us to imagine their intensity.

That intensity is captured by Natalie Portman, in a tough, hard-edged, yet vulnerable performance. It’s intensely stylized – you often get the sense of watching a performer playing a performer – and the choices Noah Oppenheim’s script makes about when to pop in (and for how long) give it an almost operatic quality. Yet the fire in her eyes keeps us guessing, and Larraín keeps hold of them by choosing to shoot in a sometimes uncomfortably close manner, in tight close-ups and two-shots, with conversations pitched almost directly into the lens. Her elegance, pedigree, and fame made her seem the most remote of figures, but for just over 90 minutes, Jackie seems to exist alongside her. It’s an electrifying and unexpected piece of work.

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The B-Side is an appropriate title for the Errol Morris’s documentary, feeling as it does like a musician trying out a new style or key on a minor one-off. Morris is not concerning himself with matters of geopolitical import, as in Standard Operating Procedure, The Fog of War, or The Unknown Known, or documenting the wild, globe-trotting weirdness of Tabloid. The subject this time is, per the subtitle, the portrait photography of Elsa Dorfman, a friend and neighbor in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who spent decades taking portraits of counterculture figures and regular people on large-format Polaroid film.

It’s far more formally relaxed than his recent works, dispensing with his “Interrotron” interview technology and technique, which wouldn’t have fit the vibe of the movie anyway. This is, when you get down to it, two old friends looking at old photos, sharing memories, telling stories. But it’s nonetheless a film with much to say, about the shifting winds of technology, the challenges of art that stands the tests of time, and how we choose to think about the lives we’ve lived. “The now is racing beyond you,” she says reflectively, as Morris clicks through a series of her evocative self-portraits, and she’s right; the best we can do is try to capture something of that now in our work. That’s what Dorfman’s done her whole life. And Morris, too.

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Early in Andreas Dalsgaard and Obaidah Zytoon’s The War Show, the Syrian friends who are participating in the protests of the 2011 Arab Spring discuss where they think they’ll be in three years. They land on two possibilities: either liberated or dead. As the film unspools, and the joy, freedom, and camaraderie of protest give way to notes of hopelessness and helplessness, that conversation reverberates, underscoring the personal stakes of this political struggle.

That balance is struck, and shifts, throughout this remarkable documentary, which was assembled from years of video shot by Zytoon, a radio host invigorated by the events of that spring. Initially, it’s told very much through the lens of her, her friends, and their political awakenings – an effective approach, making this a story about people rather than policy (and allowing her to explain the complexities and complications of this struggle, step by step). But that story evolves because the conflict evolves, and her earned cynicism eventually reveals itself.

The style shifts, from home movie to documentary, which is appropriate; Zytoon herself goes from participant to observer. In the late stretches, it’s striking how much women, such a vibrant part of the original movement (in one memorable scene, a woman heading out to a protest explains, “We just want our children to live in dignity and freedom”), have been erased. By the end, this has just become another competition between men with guns and bombs.