Piers Marchant at TIFF, Day 3September 8, 2019
Best Film of the Day: Knives Out
The Vast of Night: It’s not an uncommon conceit, in the Age of Irony, to utilize an old, archaic piece of media and camp it up by playing it arrow-straight, but thankfully, that is not the approach taken by Andrew Patterson. For this “Twilight Zone” take, about an alien visit in a small New Mexico town in the ‘50s, he avoids irony in favor of taking the source code and infusing it with more arthouse convention. The film, which stars the charming Jake Horowitz as a local DJ, and Sierra McCormick as a young but capable switchboard operator, who discover an alien communication code floating on the radio waves on a night the rest of the town is at a high school ball game, has a kind of vibe all its own. The opening scene with a swirling tracking shot as it follows the irascible Everett (Horowitz), firing off rapid bon mots at all comers as he navigates through the radio set up of the basketball game and walks his young friend to her night job at the switch board is a blast, almost Coens-esque in its uncanny dialogue spin and character embellishment. Alas, after that blazing start, it eventually settles down into a somewhat less inspired aliens-above-us drama, albeit with unusually long monologues from the characters and long static shots that go well past expectation. Still, it’s a strong screenplay, and I would expect to see something else soon from Patterson – and I don’t mean a postcard.
Sea Fever: As a dedicated fan of Ridley Scott’s Alien, I can appreciate the set-up of Neasa Hardiman’s monster-on-a-boat thriller, but the devil as they say, is in the details, and here, few of them stand up to much scrutiny. Siobhan (Hermione Corfield), a young, socially averse doctoral student (a specialist in abnormal pattern recognition) is forced by her professor to board a fishing ship for a three week stint at sea. At first, steering clear of the crew, Siobhan does her work and keeps her nose down, but when the desperate captain disobeys the coastguard prohibited zone and ventures into the unsafe waters, the ship soon becomes the object of prey for a giant, multi-tentacled glowing beastie that fills their water supply with small, gelatinous larva. With such a set-up you would hope the film would be smart and snappy, but instead it gets bogged down with sloppy plot points and lazily convenient characterization — when it comes time for Siobhan to suddenly disavow her antisocial attitude, it’s as if she never had a contrary conviction. It ends elegiacally, but not in a way that makes much sense. One of those movies where so many better alternative plans were readily available for everyone, their doom becomes more and more of their own fault.
Knives Out: Rian Johnson has always had the ability to craft densely layered plot entwinings: His debut, Brick, is a Dashiel Hammett-like noir set in a modern high school, as it happens, so after taking such an undeserved beating from the Star Wars fanchildren for helming The Last Jedi to their disapproval, it makes perfect sense he would want to go back to his roots, as it were. Given a classic murder mystery set-up – a wildly successful mystery novelist (Christopher Plummer) with a large, bitter family, is found dead one morning in the study of his New England mansion from an apparent murder, leaving a houseful of suspects – Johnson packs his film with broad acting talents, and lets them duel each other, chewing up the meticulous scenery. What’s more unexpected is the film’s sense of humor, and its distinct undercurrent of political satire (as one critic put it after the screening, the movie “is America”). You have the republican reactionary husband (Don Johnson), whose smug wife (Jamie Lee Curtis), fancies herself a self-made business tycoon, despite accepting a huge loan from her wealthy papa; the vacant liberal-leaning daughter-in-law (Toni Collette), who has her own fiduciary improprieties she needs to hide from her college student daughter (Katherine Langford); the creepy younger son (Michael Shannon), whose own younger son (Jaeden Martell), is even creepier and a Nazi sympathizer; and, at last, the sweetly humble nurse (Ana de Armas), who has to suffer these fools while harboring her own secret about the night her employer was killed. All these conniving twits, each with their own agenda, and possible motive, come under the watchful eye of Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, having a blast with a well-baked southern accent), a private investigator hired by an unknown party to solve this conflagration of plot threads. But here’s the kicker: The death is explained about a third of the way through, leaving the rest of the film open to a different sort of whodunit, no less satisfying – I assure you – than the standard form. Johnson takes the genre and drives his plot up, over, and through the conventions in a way that feels excitingly fresh, and deliriously entertaining. I hate to go the bombastic critic route, but this is the most fun you’ll have in a theater this year.
Bacurau: A Brazilian future dystopian western, in which a small, close-knit village in the remote plains, is terrorized by a paramilitary group of Americans (lead by Udo Kier) who hunt them down for some sort of sport credits. The village reaches out to a local mad criminal baron (Silvero Pereira) to help, and soon the scurvy yanks have much more of a fight on their hands they were counting on. As an anti-colonialist screed, it’s surprisingly effective. We root for the town, whose socialist help-each-other ethic, overpowers the forces of the market-based capitalists, a thrilling scenario in almost any setting. True, at the end, Kier’s character ominously promises the village his crew were “only the beginning,” but one band of Capitalist thrill-seeking mugs at a time.
Tomorrow: The day starts with Giuseppe Capotondi’s thriller, The Burnt Orange Heresy; moves a little more far out with Color Out of Space, with Nic Cage; finally get to see Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story; and close out with Pablo Larraín’s Ema.
Photo: Knives Out