Toronto Diary, Day 6: ‘La La Land,’ ‘Una,’ ‘The Bad Batch,’ ‘Into the Inferno’

Our TIFF coverage continues with a musical delight, a tough theatrical adaptation, and new films from Werner Herzog and Ana Lily Amirpour.

TORONTO: Believe the hype. Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is an absolutely joyful, delightfully old-fashioned romantic musical comedy, lush and luminous, filled with great songs, full-blooded production numbers, theatrical lighting effects, the works. But it also navigates a delicate line between all of that stylized jazz and an honest-to-God relationship drama, with scenes of conflict and disappointment that are utterly raw and exposed.

The last part is what I wasn’t expecting. The early scenes confirm what those wonderful trailers suggested, that the picture would deliver one of the movies’ longest-standing and simplest pleasures: watching two beautiful people fall in love. And it does not fall short there – the way Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling look at each other could end wars, and at risk of sounding comically prudish, there’s something kind of wonderful about the electricity allowed of the moment when they first hold hands. Their affection is so infectious that you’ll pretty much fall for one or the other (or, more likely, both). That letdowns, arguments, and breakups eventually follow is not surprising; the surprise is that they carry such emotional resonance.

We started hearing raves about La La Land a couple of weeks ago at Telluride, which means it’s already ridden out that wave and is starting to get a second round of critics who’ve heard those raves and are starting the inevitable, “Well, it’s not that good” backlash. God knows how many more cycles of this we’ll get before the general public gets to see this thing, all the way in December, and maybe by then, anything less than the culmination of cinema will seem like a letdown. But I know this much: A film like this is a real risk. That it works at all is remarkable. That it works this well is a fucking miracle.

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There’s an edit in Benedict Andrews’s Una that’s more disturbing than anything in Blair Witch. In comes early in the film, at the end of a wordless sequence that follows the 13-year-old iteration of the title character from her bedroom to the shed of the neighbor across the street. She seems to see a signal in the way he’s left his car; she walks with a combination of excitement and nerves. We see her face as she stands at his door, and then that hard cut arrives, jarring – the scene goes from quiet to loud, she goes from teen to adult, and her face goes from a smile to a scowl, from optimism to ennui. She hasn’t, at that point, said a word. But everything we need to know about her is in that cut.

It’s a particularly striking because Una is a theatrical adaptation, of David Harrower’s play Blackbird, so of course it is a film filled with dialogue, done mostly as a duet between adult Una (Rooney Mara, drawing upon her knack at conveying hard-edged brokenness) and the man who abused her, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn, a performer of seemingly endless layers). He was caught for what he did to her, and served time, but now he has a new name, a new job, and new respectability, until Una shows up at his workplace. For her, it’s not so easily forgotten; it comes back to her in flashes of memory, often at inopportune moments. And it turns out, it does for him as well. It’s easy to get lost in the past.

The way director Andrews manages to intercut those memories, to make them part of the larger story (and mystery), keeps this from being just another stage two-hander adapted to the screen. But frankly, that would’ve even be such a bad thing, considering the skill of the performers in question; they’re evenly matched, keying off each other, working in symphony to carry off some of the tougher and/or trickier beats. This is a hard, difficult movie. But it’s vital.

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It’d be hard to summarize Ana Lily Amirpour’s new movie The Bad Batch without sounding like you’re doing a Stefon bit – “This movie has everything: cannibalism, amputees, surrealism, bunny rabbits, hallucinogens, motorcycles, a dystopian future, El Topo homages, Keanu Reeves as Jim Jones…” Trouble is, I’m not sure Amirpour ever got much further than that list at the screenwriting stage. It’s one of those movies that plays like they simply filmed the director’s notebooks rather than a script.

Not that those notebooks aren’t stunning. Her story, of “bad batch units” banished to a nowhere land outside Texas and left to fend for themselves, is grim, scary, and disgusting, filled with freakish visuals and pitch-black humor. She achieves the properly trippy tone, but it’s an empty ride – you keep waiting for it to start, and then it’s over.

Sometimes these things just don’t come together; Amirpour’s debut feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, probably had as many wordless stretches riding out a mood, and it worked fine. Here, I admire her ambition, and her commitment to a gonzo style; she finds plenty of evocative moments and clever touches, but they just don’t add up to much of anything. Then again, what do I know? I probably wasn’t high enough.

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Werner Herzog’s recent pop culture ubiquity has provided some quietly fascinating undercurrents for his recent documentaries. There’s no question that he’s a supremely self-aware filmmaker; he knows how his accented musings on the nature of life and death, coupled with his (savvily self-cultivated) reputation for gravitating towards extremes, have become the stuff of parody, imitation, and commentary. But does he run the risk of crossing the line from self-awareness to self-consciousness? Will his voice and style shift to give us what we’ve come to expect from a “Werner Herzog movie”?

Based on his latest, Into the Inferno, we needn’t worry. It opens with a breathtaking shot of a chopper hovering up to reveal five tiny figures, literally standing at the edge of a volcano. We settle in for one of Herzog’s daredevil movies, and it is, indeed, an exploration of volcanoes around the world – particularly the three where you can look directly down to see revealed magma (if you’re as nuts as Werner Herzog, that is). He’s accompanied on this journey by volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, whom he met while making Encounters at the End of the World a decade ago; his own history with volcanoes goes back to 1977’s La Soufrière, in which he and his crew remained in a town evacuated for volcanic eruption, to talk to the one resident who wasn’t leaving.

But Inferno is prone to transgressions – even by Herzogian standards – that eventually reveal their true purpose, beyond his customary interest in sticking not to a tight agenda, but exploring whatever might tickle his fancy. And this time, he finds himself struck by how cultures grow around these magnificent terrors, forming their identities from the volcanic sites and the powers ascribed to them. It is, as usual, a fascinating free-form essay, with stunning visuals, thoughtful voice-overs, and a few persona-generated giggles. But it’s not entirely what you’d expect, and that’s mostly to its benefit.