When you see so many movies in a short enough time span, it’s inevitable to draw comparisons and find commonalities between them. Sometimes, this is largely fabricated. Other times, less so. The opening days of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival definitely fall in the “less so” category, as three of the first five movies I saw featured antagonists that want me dead. Yes, somehow in my first five films, I managed to see two about neo-Nazis, and a third set in Auschwitz.
Auschwitz was where I began my TIFF ’15, being viscerally walked right to the door of a gas chamber with an invasive single take close-up of a member of the camp’s sonderkommando unit—those Jews assigned to usher prisoners into the gas chambers and then deal with their bodies afterward. The film was Son of Saul, which won the Cannes Grand Prix back in May (sort of the runner-up award), and emerged from the Riviera as the presumptive frontrunner for the Foreign Language Oscar.
First-time Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes has made a film more uncomfortable than you ever would have thought even a holocaust film could be. The main character, Saul, occupies the center of the frame in virtually every second of the movie, with the camera almost always six inches in front of his face or six inches behind his head, so that the entirety of the holocaust is seen only on the margins of the screen, often out of focus in Saul’s peripheral vision. But the point there isn’t to diminish the impact by hiding it, it’s to show how omnipresent, and therefore depressingly ignorable, everything was. Stacking bodies and scrubbing blood off the floors was the reality; the camera doesn’t focus in on it because you can’t fathom Saul would have either.
The plot involves Saul trying to arrange in secret a traditional Jewish burial for a young boy who dies in the gas chamber during the film’s opening scene, but that isn’t really the point. Introducing the film, Nemes talked about how every film he’d seen portraying the Holocaust was a story of survival, and that simply wasn’t reality for the vast majority of people in the camps. Like 12 Years a Slave, the major Holocaust films—Schindler’s List, The Pianist, Life is Beautiful—all portrayed one of history’s greatest atrocities as a status quo from which one might feasibly exit. Son of Saul has no such pretense. It displays Auschwitz as the place it was: a place where an entire people were being exterminated. The way Nemes turns this into first person, point of view realism is one of the most sobering experiences I’ve ever had as a filmgoer, but also one I will never be able to forget.
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Luckily, I felt much better later in the evening when I saw Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, which depicted a band of neo-Nazis getting killed in every grizzly way imaginable. Saulnier had a surprise critical hit two years ago with the low-budget (and low-dialogue) revenge thriller Blue Ruin, and Green Room exports that degree of realistic graphic violence into this high-concept, post-irony nightmare that can literally (and quite accurately) be described as “punks versus skinheads.”
The gist is a hardcore Portland punk band gets a gig playing a compound in the Orgeon backwoods that turns out to be a neo-Nazi rally, and before they can get out, they witness a murder. Of course shit then gets real, but Saulnier is much too smart to wallow in formula. It’s to Green Room’s credit that a movie which starts with the highest of high concepts quickly makes you forget its absurdity and react to the events on screen as though you’re watching real life. The violence, which is never persistent, always returns just when you’ve let your guard down, and involves the highest degree of visual gore possible without devolving to camp.
One thing that’s quite clever about the film is the almost videogame-like structure Saulnier has applied to it. The punks start in a locked room, and after each escape attempt goes poorly, they return to the locked room to regroup and plan anew, just as a videogame returns you to the start of the level when you die. It’s unclear whether by coincidence or diabolical design that the main hero (Anton Yelchin) and the main villain (Patrick Stewart) are both former officers of the U.S.S. Enterprise, but it’s definitely by design that no one escapes intact. Including the viewer.
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World premieres in the opening days of TIFF are often a mixed bag, because so much is still playing Telluride and Venice in the days before, and it takes some time for everyone to gather in the Great White North. Some films I saw—a French skinhead character piece called French Blood, and an amusing-but-slight dramedy about a record producer called Len and Company—aren’t really worth spending much time on. The former is an un-engaging retread of American History X, and the latter is one of those movies that feel like each scene is lifted from something else. My favorite was the bring-dad-to-school scene, which was nearly identical to the one in City Slickers, but with a more eccentric vocabulary. The phrase “then it all went tits up” was definitely deployed, to the snickering bemusement of the class (but not the teacher).
We also got a Hank Williams biopic, which is mainly worth discussing due to star Tom Hiddleston, who turned in a career-best performance in a movie that didn’t deserve such an effort. We need to institute an originality clause for music biopics now. The old cliché about VH1’s seminal “Behind the Music” series was that every episode sort of turned into the same story. Why anyone would expect feature film adaptations of these sagas to behave differently is a question devoid of logical answers. And so it is with I Saw the Light.
The three previous major music biopics—Get On Up, Love & Mercy, and Straight Outta Compton—have all found small-yet specific ways to avoid the these-are-all-the-same curse. Straight Outta Compton lucked into an amazing moment of cultural relevancy (if anything about the need for a national awareness about Black Lives Mattering could ever be called lucky), while Love & Mercy relied on two actors and a dual narrative of very specific times and events. Get On Up is a bit trickier to nail down in terms of why it succeeded, beyond just kind of getting everything right—racial relevancy, mixing chronologies, some of the best music ever recorded, and a monumental lead performance. I Saw the Light can only lay claim to the latter. Nothing else really works. Hank Williams’ marriage at the center of the narrative (Elizabeth Olsen plays his wife) only forces up unfavorable Walk the Line comparisons, the music isn’t particularly relevant to where society is right now (at least much less so than songs like “fuck tha Police” and “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”), and nothing about the narrative particularly works beyond reminding us that Hank Williams lived hard and died young—something he has in common with dozens of other major musical figures.
Tom Hiddleston, who does all his own singing and playing in the film, is the reason this is still worth a look. But director Marc Abraham, whose only previous film, Flash of Genius, was about (no joke) the guy who invented alternating speeds for windshield wipers, just doesn’t know how to make this story more interesting than watching VH1 Classic.
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The best film of TIFF’s opening days, and surprisingly the most optimistic one, was Michael Moore’s first effort since 2009’s Capitalism: A Love Story. While the cheeky title, Where to Invade Next, makes it seem like Moore has created another elaborate takedown of American problems, it’s actually the opposite—it tries to lift us up. Before it had an official name, Moore’s crew called the film “Mike’s Happy Movie,” and even Moore himself told the crowd that he thinks of it as his “no problems, all solutions movie.”
The structure sees Moore visit nearly a dozen other countries, and spend about ten minutes with each one analyzing something they truly excel at. Italians work far less than Americans, which actually leads to greater productivity and more happiness; Norway has the world’s most humane prison systems; Slovenia has completely free college for everyone, even foreign students (seriously, Moore passed out applications to the crowd at the premiere); Finland has the best educational system, largely because their students spend less time in school and do almost no homework, which keeps them fresh and interested; Iceland has the most women in charge; France has their school cafeterias run by actual chefs, providing fine-dining-level food to all of their students. Then in each case, there’s a brief discussion about how easily America could excel in the same way. In many cases, Moore points out that the ideas these other countries employed actually came from us first, and that America “just needs to visit our lost & found box.”
The real poignancy of the movie, though, arrives in the final sequence, where Moore visits with a friend who was in Berlin when the wall came down. The friend talks about the night when one man started hammering at the wall with a chisel, then a second man joined him, and then suddenly dozens were doing it. “People always say these problems are too complicated to fix,” the friend says, “but you just grab the hammer & chisel and start knocking away at it. And with the Berlin Wall, that’s literally what we did.” The film then ends with that motto: “Hammer. Chisel. Down.”
It’s hard and almost distasteful to try and find fault in a movie this relentlessly optimistic. My only real complaint is that the scope might be too broad, and maybe Moore tries to do too much. But that’s also the film’s charm. It almost can’t help its own giddiness at showing us all of the great things happening in other parts of the world. Part of me wonders if this could have been better served as an HBO series, where Moore spends an hour each week looking more in depth at each one of these issues. But something like that wouldn’t have the narrative arc that the final Berlin sequence requires to work, and that’s too important to the message to leave on the cutting room floor. In some ways, Where to Invade Next feels less educational than Moore’s other films, because the information is so much more cursory. But this is probably Moore’s most theoretically insightful film, and maybe that’s the kind of education we need. Maybe we need to be like Finland, spending a little less time with something so that we can focus on it more powerfully. Hammer, chisel, down.
Coming Next: Bryan Cranston as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, Sandra Bullock as a Bolivian political strategist playing dirty, Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel at a Swiss spa, and Netflix's first major movie, Beasts of No Nation