TIFF 2013: Night Moves, Gravity, October November, Under The Skin
My previous day at TIFF was originally going to comprise of four films as well, but unfortunately I had to bail out of one film due to pure tiredness (I’ll keep the film’s title unnamed here, but if it wasn’t for my physical limitations I would have stayed since it was good from what I saw). Luckily, I was able to chug through my second four-film day without a hitch, but I’ve learned now that it’s not something I should try more than once.
I decided to start my big day with Night Moves, which turned out to be the worst possible film to choose as a starting point. I’ve been a fan of Kelly Reichardt’s work from what I’ve seen, and was excited to see her approach being used on a genre film. Three activists from different walks of life get together to pull off a dangerous act of ‘eco-terror’: They buy a boat and rig it with explosives, hoping to blow up a dam. Theoretically what Reichardt is attempting here is interesting in its own right. Her stripped down style getting applied to a thriller makes for some neat moments, and the way things unravel so the three characters become corrupted by the same selfish behavior they abhor is a nice development.
The only problem is that Reichardt’s approach is bone dry, sucking out all of the tension and forward momentum. Paradoxically, while the main group (played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard who all do their best at understating as much as possible) feel well-defined and realistic as characters, the tone of the film is so distant it’s impossible to feel anything about them. The last time Reichardt took a crack at a genre film it was the western with Meek’s Cutoff, which worked wonderfully. This time I think she simply picked the wrong area to work with. Hopefully next time she’ll be successful again with whatever she chooses.
Next up was the film that I had been waiting for since it was announced back in July: Gravity. Alfonso Cuaron spent seven years developing his follow-up to the brilliant Children of Men, and it’s apparent from the start just how much effort went into this film. The special effects are incredible, and it will be impossible to watch this without wondering exactly how they pulled off some moments. So Gravity does deliver in the spectacle department, but that’s mostly it. Granted it’s really good at it, and it’s an easy recommendation, but this is far from the new classic that people have been going on about.
Gravity is merely a well-done thriller that never lets up pacing-wise. Starting right in space with Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a new astronaut, and a veteran on his last mission (George Clooney), it takes all but 10 minutes before debris from a satellite crash has Bullock and Clooney flying in opposite directions with nothing to hold on to. That’s merely the start of the many, many problems Bullock encounters while she frantically tries to make it back to Earth alive, and by the end the amount of near-death experiences become absurd (and it drew some laughter from the audience as well).
There really won’t be anything better this year on a technical level, but Gravity is far too basic to enjoy beyond the surface. Bullock and Clooney are terrific in their roles, making the most of the little material they’re given. Bullock is given some backstory to work with, but the film’s suffocating and repetitive pace drown out any emotional impact. I know that what I’m saying sounds very negative about the film, but it’s mostly because I came away disappointed that Gravity did not live up to my high expectations. There are some truly incredible sequences in here, and for a studio tentpole it’s quite original, but don’t expect a masterpiece.
Continuing my strange tonal shifts in films throughout the day, I went to check out October November. Gotz Spielmann’s last film Revanche blew me away when I saw it years ago, and at the beginning I was expecting more of the same riveting drama when an actress (Nora von Waldstätten) is confronted by the wife of a man she’s having an affair with. That scene turns out to be the only moment where fireworks go off, as the focus shifts to the actress’ sister (Ursula Strauss) who runs a small hotel in the countryside owned by her father.
The two sisters reunite when their father takes a heart attack, and the tensions between them form the basis for October November. Strauss is jealous of her sister leaving to be successful while she was forced to stay at home, and Waldstätten feels like she has no idea who she really is. It’s another existential European drama, and Spielmann really doesn’t seem to know how to get these issues across. The majority of October November is a no-stakes drama until the final act sees the two daughters waiting for their father to finally pass away. Despite being superbly shot and acted, there really is very little to get interested in. There’s no doubt that Spielmann is still a mature and terrific writer/director, but he seems to have invested in subject matter that returns very little.
Under the Skin
I ended my day with Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, and what a way to close off my long weekend at TIFF. I’m not over the moon like some people who have seen this, but I can’t blame them for being so ecstatic. Glazer is a master of style, and his 9 year absence seems to have made his images even more striking. The film’s first half, which simply follows Scarlett Johansson’s alien character around as she seduces men to a horrific fate, works as an excellent mood piece. Glazer has created some shots that will probably stick with me more than any other film I’ve seen here, and Micah Levi’s score is one of the best of the year by leaps and bounds.
It pained me a lot when Under the Skin didn’t coalesce into something wholly terrific for me. The second half of the film, in which Johansson gains human qualities and gets hunted down by her alien superiors, is a step down from the beautifully expressive and original first half. Glazer seems to have a hard time getting across what he wants to say at some points (his goal, to show Earth through an outsider’s perspective, wasn’t exactly successful in my eyes), and while Johansson is great her role is too enigmatic to make any of the final acts resonate. At times horrifying, beautiful and strange, Under the Skin is a classic case of a film not adding up to the sum of its parts.
Ben Wheatley’s hallucinogenic trip through A Field in England, and the best film I’ve seen at TIFF.