BELIEVE THE HYPE: 12 Years a Slave lives up to its reputation.
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin
For years, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has been regarded as the de facto start of the fall movie season, the place — along with Telluride, whose unofficial premieres just barely precede it — where studios introduce their most prestigious, awards-eligible movies to the world at large. But this year, it was also the beginning of the movies’ silly season, where frivolous non-issues, and a few important but collateral ones, threatened to overwhelm the movies themselves.
The insanity reached its peak when a blogger, incensed by rampant texting in a press and industry screening of Ti West’s The Sacrament, dialed 911, ostensibly to report movie piracy in progress, a neat summation of the perpetual friction between TIFF’s commercial and artistic sides, as well as the grotesque entitlement and short tempers that flourish in its hothouse atmosphere. Then there was the controversy over Blue Is the Warmest Color, preceded into Toronto by an interview in which actresses Adele Exarchopoulous and Léa Seydoux, who shared an acting prize at Cannes, accused director Abdellatif Kechiche of abusing them on set, demanding dozens of takes of minor scenes and screaming at them as they spent 10 days filming Blue’s infamously extended lesbian love scene.
That the “10-minute love scene,” as it was frequently referred to, is only six minutes long is a good indication of how the unforgiving need to convert movies into click-worthy “news” infects the way they’re written and, inevitably, thought about. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, which finds Sandra Bullock and George Clooney adrift in space for all of its brief length, met with plenty of raves after its Venice premiere, but at Toronto it became a movie that was redefining cinema! That was as good as 2001! Steve McQueen’s wrenching 12 Years a Slave electrified the few who saw it at Telluride, but after its first Toronto screening, it became a lock for Best Picture! One of the greatest movies ever made!
With Chewitel Ejiofor as a free black man who is abducted and sold into Southern slavery, 12 Years a Slave is the rare movie that’s as good as the things people say about it. Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Shame had their harrowing moments, but they were more art objects than narrative films. 12 Years weds their unforgiving intensity to a story that, for all its horrifying details, is nonetheless recognizable, enough so that the movie took home TIFF’s coveted audience award. There will be time to discuss 12 Years a Slave’s Oscar chances, but right now “Will it win Best Picture?” is the least interesting question it poses.
As for Gravity, the only thing it redefines is the state of digital effects. What Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have accomplished is nothing short of astonishing, leaping over the uncanny valley to make a movie that looks as if it was shot on location in low Earth orbit. But the problem is that once you accept the effects as real, giving in to their seamless reality, there’s precious little left. The movie awkwardly crams character beats into stray nooks and crannies as if trying to plug a leak, but despite yeoman’s work from its two and only actors, the wanted-for emotions perish in the vacuum.
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is set on Earth, but it’s far more worthy of comparison to 2001, as well as Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. The fact that Scarlett Johansson, as an alien presence driving the streets of small-town Scotland, is frequently naked will surely be the film’s primary selling point, but the lookie-looks will be greeted with an opening sequence that’s almost pure abstraction, a virtuosic study in color and form that’s more thrilling than all of Gravity’s high-flown tricks. (Mica Levy’s score is just as jarringly inventive.) I’m not surprised that colleagues who stayed longer at Toronto went back for a second viewing, and I eagerly await my own.
The first film by West Oak Lane native Tommy Oliver, 1982, is a far rougher affair, but it’s built on the firm foundation of Hill Harper’s performance as a father whose wife lapses into drug addiction with the advent of crack cocaine. Drawing in part on his own story, Oliver commendably elides moments a lesser film would milk for every last salty tear, dropping the audio from several confrontations and letting his actors’ faces do the work.
Richard Ayoade, who made a moving debut two years ago with the winsome Submarine, returned with a surprising second act, a darkly comic adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Double with Jesse Eisenberg trapped in a dully mechanized world. Although the stylized Submarine was heavily redolent of Wes Anderson, the affinity wasn’t nearly as distracting as The Double’s wholesale borrowings from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, although it was saved from mere mimicry by a fitful strain of naked surrealism.
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