Warning: contains spoilers
In Inside Llewyn Davis, the titular protagonist (Oscar Isaac) is yet another one of Coens’ unlucky characters, bewildered by the cruel twists of fate. But what separates Davis—loosely based on folk musician Dave Van Ronk—from the brothers’ other protagonists is acknowledgement. Davis struggles to get by in early-1960s Greenwich Village, drifting from one friend’s couch to the next, holding out for his lucky break—and yet, he’s wise to and jaded by the precariousness of his profession.
Rola Nashef’s Detroit Unleaded features an early montage of women in hijabs, storefronts covered in Arabic writing, and a “Welcome to Detroit” sign, directly and quickly establishing Motor City’s strong Arab community. EJ Assi and Nada Shouhayib star as Sami and Naj, twentysomethings stuck at home due to family pressure. The film opens with Sami’s father being fatally shot while working at the family gas station; the story then flashes forward to the present day, where a grown-up Sami has shelved his dreams for college in order to keep the business alive. Naj, meanwhile, works at her brother Fadi’s (Steven Soro) cell-phone store despite having a business degree. Moving back in with Mom and Dad may be a common phenomenon for American post-collegiates in recent years, but it’s always been the expected course for many second-generation Middle-Eastern twentysomethings. The film explores how such traditions and lack of opportunities in Detroit hold back Sami and Naj, and though they’re initially semi-accepting of their fates, complete with eye rolling and exasperated sighs, the film’s simplistic solution to their problems is to have them overstep family expectations and leave the city.
The embarrassingly low production value of Bernard Rose’s 2 Jacks works symbiotically with the film’s botched performances. It’s as if the actors, among them Danny Huston and Sienna Miller, forsook their job as professionals paid to play fictional roles and decided to imitate reality-television wannabes who’ve taken one too many drama classes. While their performances feel decidedly more amateurish than phoned-in, the blame should still fall on Rose, who not only directed the film, but adapted Leo Tolstoy’s Two Hussars into a gauche and lazy script.
Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria initially seems like any other study of a midlife crisis, one of those easily marketable art-house films that appeals to the older middlebrow set. And the film will likely be sold as such, given its accessibility and how thoughtfully it portrays common experiences of middle-aged life, like getting over a divorce, allowing one’s grown-up children to live their own lives, and searching for new love. But Gloria has more to offer than simply bankable appeal. The 58-year-old titular protagonist (Paulina García) is a complicated female character, and the film does much to normalize her sexual appetite in a way that never feels self-righteous or explicitly political. With its compelling and original approach to its romance narrative, coupled with García’s nuanced and intuitive performance, the film delicately balances an entire octave of emotions.
HIGH-SCHOOL STUDENTS Matt (Matt Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams) are testing out new wireless mics in the park when they run into two fellow filmmakers. After the pair, who look about eight years old, describe their British murder mystery, Matt launches into a rapid, almost rabid pitch of his own. “Our movie is about two students in school who get bul- lied by this gang called the Dirties. And so they decide to get revenge on them by—”
“Killing them?!” The boy interrupts Matt, grinning. It’s more of a statement than a question. The film must somehow end with violence.
Matt’s elaborate monologue describing the film-within-a-film that anchors The Dirties (XYZ Films) is peppered with references to The Usual Suspects, Irreversible and other films these kids would never have seen. The moment deftly introduces a pop-culture-obsessed savant protagonist who is ostensibly working on a school project. Yet Matt’s film is less a homework assignment than a fictional revenge fantasy against the real-life Dirties, a gang of bullies he faces at school. And like this film-within-a- film, the feature debut from Toronto- based director Matt Johnson blurs the lines between real and imagined. Using “found footage” to offer disturb- ing insight into the world it inhabits, The Dirties is a nuanced entry into the debate surrounding the media’s killer influence.
Read the rest of the piece here.
With A Touch of Sin, Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke deviates slightly from his social-realist vein of the last 15 years. Like his other works (24 City, Still Life), A Touch of Sin offers a damning critique of contemporary Chinese society, one inspired by true events from daily headlines. This time, however, the unmistakable presence of anger and violence—the latter presented in slick, stylistic maneuverings that sometimes almost seem to betray the heavy themes at hand—underscores the dehumanizing aspect of daily life for many Chinese people. Split into four narratives that take place across the nation, A Touch of Sin offers a cross-section of systematic crime and corruption, the humiliation and debasement of its protagonists, and the urgency and desperation with which they resort to violent acts.
Jia and his wife, the actress Zhao Tao, who appears in many of his films, sat down with us during the recent Toronto International Film Festival. We talked about A Touch of Sin, and in particular, one memorable scene in which Zhao’s character, who is repeatedly abused by a client, decides to fight back.
Read the interview here.
Describing hot weather, Jane Austen once wrote, “It keeps one in a continual state of inelegance.” Amy Seimetz’s directorial feature debut film Sun Don’t Shine is a moody lovers-on-the-run tale that taps into that state: characters smeared with grease and mud, dripping sweat, a pink sheen on their desperate faces, all presented with such raw viscerality on 16mm stock that one cannot help but feel the claustrophobic Floridian heat on their own flesh.
Shooting in her home state of Florida was an important decision for Seimetz; as she describes in the interview, the state’s summer heat informs the way people dress, think and move. In Sun Don’t Shine, the emotionally needy Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil) and her comparatively cool-headed boyfriend Leo (Kentucker Audley) drive across state in a sedan with a bad secret in the trunk
Inelegance is [spoiler alert] the least of Crystal’s problems—the couple are trying to cover up the murder of Crystal’s husband, whom she killed in a fit of rage—and while their plan seems straightforward, Crystal’s childlike regressive tendencies, accompanied by emotional outbreaks and an inability to think coherently, make their trip nigh impossible. The film is less interesting in regard to the closure of its narrative than the emotional resonance that surfaces between these two characters, which show the psychological and cognitive breakdown of two people under that much pressure.
Read the interview here.
The expression to “turn over in one’s grave” was surely created with J.D. Salinger in mind. The hyper-reclusive writer enacted a living version of the idiom for most of his life, scoffing at the notion of celebrity and turning his back on a legion of obsessed fans who hounded him incessantly about his best-known novel, The Catcher in the Rye. If there’s anything that would make Salinger turn over in his grave, Shane Salerno’s documentary Salinger would be it. The film presents a problematic view of the author—voyeuristic, highly manipulative and perverse—that’s poorly disguised under its flurry of superficially impressive formal elements.
There were plenty of Jesse Eisenbergs and Jake Gyllenhaals and doppelganger-centered film adaptations to go around at Toronto. Richard Ayoade’s The Double, loosely based on the Fyodor Dostoevsky novella, pits Eisenberg against Eisenberg, his Mark Zuckerberg smartass squaring off against his Michael Cera nebbish. Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, adapted from José Saramago’sThe Double, features a double dose of Gyllenhaal as a disheveled history professor and a cocky actor, exact replicas of each other, right down to birthmarks and scars. Both films are unsurprisingly about male anxiety, a subject that can now be firmly deemed a preoccupation for Ayoade, whose Submarine explored similar territory.
Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s first film since 2004’s Birth, has discernible reference points (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Chris Cunningham’s Rubber Johnny), and yet, this peculiar film is the most original feature at Toronto, and possibly of this year. It operates within a sublime netherworld immediately recognizable as being sprung from Glazer’s imagination, where, previously, the soul of a man was reborn in a 10-year-old boy and caused woman to nearly lose her mind, and before that, where a frightening, oft-hilarious psychopath wreaked havoc on the sanity of a man suffering an existential crisis over his former life as a criminal. Now, in the gray, desolate coldness of Scotland, an extraterrestrial played by Scarlett Johansson seduces young Scottish men into a black hole where they meet a most unusual death. Given her pouty, coral-pink lips, chic black bob, alluring friendliness, and voluptuous breasts, the alien siren has little difficulty luring men back to “her place,” a decrepit building that, once inside, resembles the blanketing black nothingness of a virtual training game from The Matrix. Here, she walks into the darkness while slowly disrobing, the men following suit, unaware that the closer they reach her, the deeper they step into a never-ending inky ocean that swallows them whole.