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Building Context in Best Pictures – How Four Nominees Use Flashbacks To Tell Their Story

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*Warning – this article contains spoilers for ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, ‘Manchester by the Sea’, ‘Lion’, and ‘Arrival’

Lee Chandler is dejected and confused, staring out a law office window into a bleak New England landscape. He feebly protests some news he just received, and the camera fixates on his pained expression. Flashback: Lee Chandler drunkenly stumbles out of the Manchester home he just unwittingly set on fire, destroying – or ending – five lives, including his own.

Desmond Doss hunkers in a Hacksaw Ridge foxhole and trades stories of childhood suffering with Fitz, his tormentor-turned-comrade. They take turns outlining the indignities and tragedies of their formative years, moments removed from the traumatic combat that bonded them together. Flashback: Doss levels a pistol at his father, after wresting it from him in defense of Doss’ mother; in this moment Doss realizes he will never lay his hands on a weapon again.

It’s dark outside Saroo Brierley’s apartment, and Saroo is once again moving pushpins around a wall-hung map of India. He shifts his focus from the board to his laptop, where he desperately tracks the voyages of commuter trains, a fruitless attempt to find his true home. Flashback: a young Saroo ambles through his birthplace, darting through alleys and around corners, building a roadmap in his own mind.

Dr. Louise Banks can’t sleep, in part because of the pressures associated with inventing a language between humans and aliens, but mostly because she is haunted by memories. She cries out, tosses, turns, and assures her coworkers she’s okay. Flashback: Dr. Banks is in a hospital room, watching as her terminally ill daughter slips further toward the inevitable.

None of these stories told in Manchester by The Sea, Hacksaw Ridge, Lion, and Arrival are strictly linear, and they move through time with distinct approaches. The varying usage of flashbacks in each film illustrates the innumerable ways a single narrative device can be used to meet an equally infinite array of needs. In this regard, the four are emblematic of the harmony between plotting, character, and emotion that builds the foundation of storytelling, for better or worse.

That the two most decorated films from this year’s awards ceremony – La La Land and Moonlight ­– also featured ambitious temporal shifts, while the category’s two fairly straightforward offerings – Hidden Figures and Fences – were largely Best Picture afterthoughts is more than coincidence. La La Land and Moonlight eschewed a flashback structure in favor of distinctive leaps forward, which doesn’t suggest the diminished efficacy of looking backward as much as it testifies to the singular brilliance of those two films. Hacksaw, Arrival, Manchester, and Lion may not have matched the lofty aims of Moonlight or La La Land, but in their own specific way, each demonstrates the limitless potential of a timeworn storytelling tradition.

Among this quartet, Hacksaw Ridge uses its flashbacks in the most obviously classic fashion: as a sort of musical cue replayed during pivotal moments. It’s a symptom of the film’s determinism, its dogged assertion that two events in Desmond Doss’ early years are the sole informants of every decision the character makes later in his life.

The first is a childhood scrap between Doss and his brother that escalates to real danger when Doss strikes his brother with a brick. A young Doss grapples with his actions in the family bathroom by staring at an illustration of the Ten Commandments. The second comes when Doss interrupts a physical struggle between his mother and father, turning his father’s abusive fury – and gun – against him. Doss relates later in the film that in this instant he knew he would never hold a weapon again.

Hacksaw Ridge can be difficult to dissect because the film is so intent on historical accuracy. It would be a mistake to assume that these events did not represent themselves in Doss’ adult makeup with the same proportion the film suggests. Even so, Hacksaw’s adherence to traditional flashback structure does two things. First, it reduces Doss the character and trades any of his agency for a fatalism stemming directly from these two events. Second – like a melodramatic theme – the flashes heighten the emotional stakes wherever they interject. They act as historical reminders and emotional seasoning.

Characterization is sacrificed in the film, but by drawing a direct line between Doss’ actions in the film’s present and these moments in his past, Hacksaw Ridge adds gravity to the events we see on screen – no small feat, as those events are categorically grave to begin with. These flashes don’t paint a full picture of Doss for the audience, but they exponentially enhance the importance and resonance of the fragments it can see.

Hacksaw Ridge begins in the past. The audience meets Doss as a boy, tussling with his brother. His father’s abuse, rage, and alcoholism is immediately established. So, when these images are revisited, it doesn’t shift the film’s reality. In Manchester by The Sea, the opposite is true.

 

When Manchester begins, the audience is introduced to Lee Chandler, a solitary building superintendent in one snow-swept Boston Neighborhood or another. There is no origin prologue, outside of brief scene with Lee, his brother, and his nephew on a fishing boat. Even in this moment there is no great truth, no stage setting that relates to the hollow janitor the audience soon meets.

As the film progresses – Lee must return to Manchester to settle his deceased brother’s affairs – the audience learns more about Lee’s past. This information is carefully doled out in a way that starkly contrasts with the flashbacks in Hacksaw Ridge. While that film attempts to use its memories to establish colossal stakes from its earliest moments, Manchester is measured; its context moves in like a storm. First, with creeping darkness, followed by small, foreboding droplets, and finally, in that law office, a breathtaking torrent.

As Lee moves around Manchester, the film is building a mystery. Other characters speak in hushed tones about events that might have happened, or may be apocryphal. Some treat him like a pariah, others with a pity and distance reserved for a person who is hopelessly broken. Interspersed are the flashbacks: Lee, with a happy family that apparently no longer exists; Lee, in a hospital room, learning of his brother’s congenital heart disease; Lee, partying in his one-time basement with dozens of one-time friends.

Like Hacksaw, Manchester uses the past to color the present, but it does so without the adopting the former’s simplified causality. In this film, the events not shown in flashbacks are more important than those present. As Manchester moves along, it’s clear that an unspeakable tragedy altered Lee to apparently irrevocable effect. The Lee in the film’s present is not the same as the Lee in happy flashbacks. The family we see in those flashbacks is, in one way or another, gone. Rather than repeatedly recalling tragedy as an explanation for all of Lee’s actions in the present, the film encourages its revelations to shift audience perspective in real time.

Neither of these two techniques is inherently superior. Hacksaw Ridge shows its cards early, and effectively replays them to beckon an emotional response. Manchester by The Sea withholds its information, teasing out details, and invests in a more concentrated wallop. When the film finally pulls all the way back and the audience learns that Lee’s three children were burned alive in a fire of his own mistaken drunken creation, the effect is far more devastating than any of the flashbacks parsed out in Hacksaw Ridge.

Manchester’s fluid flashbacks achieve more than just one ruinous reveal. Hacksaw Ridge can essentially be viewed as one present, peppered with paramount memories from the past; Manchester, though, is more or less telling two stories simultaneously. In addition to creating one giant reveal, this paints a more complete picture for the film’s secondary characters. Because the film dwells in its past – and not simply around one flashpoint – the audience is absorbing information that informs the actions of more than just the film’s protagonist. We know that Patty – Lee’s orphaned nephew – is sheltered from his birth mother because of her once-destructive habits. Additional import is attached to the family boat, not only because characters deem it important, but because the audience is shown a sequence of family moments happening aboard. Hacksaw Ridge uses its past to color the actions of a man at war, while Manchester tells the story of a man at war with his past.

In Lion, Saroo Brierley is a man ripped from his own past, desperately trying to find his way back. This film stands apart from the other three by spending substantial time in two distinct periods. Hacksaw and Manchester technically begin in the past, but they are mostly films that look backward while moving forward, whereas Lion spends time laying track in its “past,” with an opening third that tells the story of a young Saroo’s accidental journey from home. Before leaping to the present, twenty-five years in total, Lion gives its audience the entire story: Saroo, asleep on a train, is mistakenly taken a thousand miles from home to a strange country filled with imminent danger. He is adopted by a family in Australia, where audiences see him welcomed into a new home, see him adjust, even see him joined by an adopted brother. At this point, Lion moves to tell the astonishing true story of adult Saroo’s search for his real home.

Lion distinguishes itself by using flashbacks to drive plot in addition to sentiment. Like the above two films, Saroo’s memories serve as emotional anchors – specifically, the images of his caring older brother are haunting and evocative. At a certain point though, these snapshots from Saroo’s past begin to serve as signposts for his return. In the film’s final act, he has given up whatever hope he still had of finding “Ganestalay” – the name (misremembered by Saroo) of his nonexistent birthplace. After attempting to locate his home mathematically using train schedules, travel speeds, and radial calculations, it is a cocktail of luck and recollection that eventually helps Saroo find Ganesh Talai, his actual hometown. As he aimlessly scrolls across the planet on Google Earth, Saroo finds an image that strikes a chord. He zooms and zooms, mining his memory to map the terrain on his computer.

Hacksaw Ridge uses flashbacks to explain its present and Manchester by The Sea uses flashbacks to decode its present. Both films do it to build poignancy in their present. Lion does all of this, but adds another component to its internal memory, using flashbacks as an engine to drive plot in the final act.  That these flashbacks are memories, and that Saroo’s final journey home is mapped by images from the character’s actual past, only intensifies the triumph of his climactic return. The film smartly resists the deus ex machina of recovered memory, and uses the information that was before Saroo – and the audience – the entire time, drawing a conclusion to the events of the film and completing an emotional through-line that began on a train in act one.

There is a reason for considering these films in a particular order.  Hacksaw Ridge moves between two dimensions; here is the past, here is the present, hey – remember the past? Here it is once more. Manchester adds depth and fluidity to its movement, seamlessly shifting between past and present, allowing the two distinct times to color one another. Lion steadily positions the past and present closer to one another, exploring its protagonist’s increasing obsession and eventually using memories as literal and figurative sign posts in the film’s resolution. Arrival is the most formally ambitious of the group – it uses flashbacks in each of these ways, while simultaneously subverting all of them.

Arrival follows Louise Banks, a linguist tasked with building a language between humans and the aliens now hovering above Earth’s surface. Importantly, the audience – and characters – can only guess at the visitors’ intentions.

As the films wears on, the audience is shown flashbacks with greater frequency. Louise playing with her young daughter, Louise estranged from her husband, Louise in heartbreaking memories, coping with her daughter’s incurable sickness. Meanwhile, in the film’s present, Louise is increasingly distraught, as though her reality is shifting. She could be upset by the recurrence of these harsh memories, although she also seems to not recognize that they belong to her.

In this way Arrival is not unlike Manchester. There is a mystery at play, one that audiences must account for when viewing Louise’s actions and exploring her character. Like Manchester, Arrival slowly builds its context, broadening the window through which audiences view Louise’s past. Then again, Arrival is nothing like Manchester by The Sea at all. In the film’s final minutes, Arrival reveals that these jarring images weren’t flashbacks at all; they were flashes forward. The audience and character were through the looking glass the entire time. A daughter not yet born, a disease not yet contracted, a husband that was beside Louise all along. This formal subversion achieves the same emotional effect as the momentous reveal in Manchester, driving the film’s plot much like Lion. Arrival shows us that the aliens are from the future, gifting humans their language so that in the distant future humans are able help save them from a dire fate. The aliens exist out of time, which is to say the exist in many times at once; they interact with time differently than humans. Louise, through her continued interaction with the aliens, was being shown glimpses of her future. It also seems as though that interaction – and consequent exposure to radiation – is the source of her daughter’s illness.

These films use flashbacks in four distinct ways, each with varying degrees of sophistication and efficacy, each to tell a stories that amount to more than a sequence events. There is a strange intersectionality between flashback structure, overall aesthetic, and plot in each of them that is more than a happy accident.

Hacksaw Ridge is filmed with a throwback earnestness, about an aw-shucks greatest generation hero, a man the film deifies. That it uses flashbacks with little complexity is hardly surprising, just as it’s no surprise that Arrival – a story about aliens divorced from our concept of time – subverts them.

Manchester by The Sea and Lion each give the past immediacy – it looms, always, over the present. In one, a man can’t overcome his past, despite his best efforts; in the other, the man is never truly lost from his past, despite the best efforts of fate. While the four films have vastly different stories to tell, they have an argument in common: that story is more than plot, more than that simply what occurs between a beginning and end. That context is crucial.

Mike hails from the great state of Massachusetts, where he structured his identity around three inarguable truths - that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, Pearl Jam is the best band since 1980, and those who disagree are dead wrong. He complains about the proliferation of superhero movies while gleefully forking over sixteen dollars for each new release, and believes Tom Cruise has yet to make a bad movie. Follow Mike on twitter @haigismichael.

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Film

‘Rambo: Last Blood’ Suffers From Action Anemia

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After 2008’s surprisingly intense and entertaining Rambo, it was hard not to be curious as to what sort of bloodbath would be cooked up for the reluctant warrior’s next outing. Alas, the familial revenge story portrayed in Rambo: Last Blood feels like it was written for another character entirely — a much luckier and stupider one — and not the cunning, lethal combatant we’ve come to know and love. Suddenly introducing a pseudo-family life and the ability to express emotions beyond morose murmuring (Rambo smiles!), the story gets too bogged down in its half-baked drama before finally remembering the reason everyone came to see a movie about a guy who used to fire two machine guns at the same time in the first place. And by then, it’s too rushed, too little, and too late.

For those looking to get to the pulpy meat of the matter, be warned that Rambo: Last Blood instead takes its sweet time telling the hackneyed story, with a few false starts just to keep action fans frustrated. So, having mowed down hundreds of people across the world (especially in Burma), John Rambo has unceremoniously returned to the good ol’ U.S. of A. in search of that peaceful life that always seems to elude him in war-torn countries. To that end, he has somehow acquired a large ranch, where he for some reason is good at training horses, and somewhat okay at being an “uncle” to the 17-year-old Gabrielle, who is ready to leave her life on the ranch with her grandmother and this grizzled veteran, and head off to college.

When Gabrielle makes the idiotic (but understandably teenage) decision to disobey the guy who actually knows what he’s talking about when he says that the world is full of black-hearted people, she winds up drugged, kidnapped, and held prisoner in Mexico by sadistic creepos who deal in the sex slave trade. Sure, Rambo: Last Blood takes a little too long to get here, but the hostage scenario is ripe for the kind of one-man assault upon a bunch of dudes who more than deserve a serrated knife to the chest that this franchise specializes in (for reference, see Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo III, and Rambo). As Rambo gets that familiar crazy look in his eye, it appears that’s exactly what’s going to happen, but writers Matt Cirulnick and Stallone have other ideas.

Audiences have grown accustomed to the stealthy, sneaky tactics of Sly’s special forces soldier, and so when Rambo — who has rarely made a misstep in his pursuits of killing folk — blunders like a naive fuddy-duddy into an obviously unwinnable situation, the result is both a jarring and disappointing setback from which the script is never able to recover. Had Rambo: Last Blood foreshadowed this critical brain fart by depicting an aging lethal weapon losing control over his mental faculties (popping some glossed-over medication doesn’t do the trick), perhaps this behavior might have flown. But the labyrinthine tunnels and later booby traps (oh yes, there will be plenty of booby traps) suggest that this guy has still got it. Except for that one time, apparently.

The majority of Rambo: Last Blood is wasted on trying to get audiences to care about Rambo’s thinly constructed relationships with people they’ve never met, as if that will somehow make the multitude of deaths to come more personal. But because of the shoddy build up — including an underused Paz Vega as an “independent journalist” also affected by this crime ring — it just doesn’t seem to matter why these thugs need to die. They’re cartoonishly evil; let’s get to it already.

Unfortunately, by the time the action arrives, Rambo: Last Blood operates as if it’s on the clock, already needing to wrap things up. Whereas now would be the time to revel in the catharsis of blood-spattered stabbings, steel poles through the head, and grisly dismemberment, impatient editing cycles through each killing as if quickly ticking off boxes. Cringe-worthy moments are cut short, never allowing the gruesomeness to sink in, to affect. Add to that a disorienting lack of proper staging that splits up the dumbest assailants ever and allows Rambo to appear out of thin air right behind nearly all of them as if he were everywhere at once, and the whole thing end’s up a confusing, unsatisfying mess.

Director Adrian Grunberg — whose much more interesting Get the Gringo knew how to use violence for shocked giggles — also hurts the effort with a bland visual style that is annoyingly claustrophobic. Seemingly unable to place his camera anywhere that might visually enhance a scene, Grunberg instead pushes in too far on the action, and winds up showing little that’s comprehensible. He carries this tendency into conversations as well, getting overly intimate with craggled faces and greasy beards, sacrificing blocking in the process. There’s not much to look at here outside the beautifully deserted, southwestern ranch setting, but do you think Rambo: Last Blood will use this intriguing, open prairie environment for a different take on jungle warfare? Even the horses don’t pay off.

This is all a shame, as Stallone still has that dour Rambo charisma when he’s not trying to be a father figure, and few characters can perform such gruesome deeds with an audience still behind them. But though the beleaguered battler at one point insists that he hasn’t changed, Rambo: Last Blood drains some of the edgy fun from the franchise. If it truly is the end, then it’s a dull finish for one of cinema’s keenest he-men.

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Anime

‘Promare’ Feels Like the Younger Brother of ‘Gurren Lagann’

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Gurren Lagann is a cult classic directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, and written by Kazuki Nakashima. It has over-the-top action, constant bravado, quotable lines, and non-stop escalation into madness. Subtly is not a common word used in Imaishi and Nakashima’s vocabulary, and luckily, fans of their work will not be disappointed with their newest animated movie, Promare. Hot-headedness (literal and metaphorical) and grandiose speeches are rampant when Promare kicks logic to the curb and goes beyond the impossible in its own unique way. What it lacks in a cohesive story, it makes up for in elaborate visuals, eye-popping action, and charismatic characters.


No matter how many times Spider-Man or Superman saves someone from a burning building, the real heroes are the firefighters; they are the ones on the ground, first on the scene. In the world of Promare, firefighters are not just stopping regular old fires; they are tasked with extinguishing supernatural infernos caused by the Burnish — humans mutated to become pyrokinetics. Called the Burning Rescue, they heroically save any and every civilian threatened by these eternal flames, doing so with advanced gear, amped-up water cannons, and hand to hand combat. In addition, they have high-tech equipment that includes drones, an armory of ice and water-powered firearms, and numerous models of mech suits.

These heroes are tasked to stop the flaming terrorists and the havoc they wreak, and in the first act of Promare, a Burning Rescue team led by a young man named Galo take on one of the most feared Burnish terrorists. They use their pyrokinesis to give themselves black, spiky armour and motorcycles that would make Ghost Rider jealous, and after a rousing success with eleventh-hour powers, Galo floats in his victory. Soon, the more militaristic, anti-Burnish organization called Freeze Force barges in and detains the Burnish, taking some of the credit and diminishing Burning Rescue’s efforts. This testosterone-driven act kindles a small spark in the back of Galo’s head, later pushing him to discover a conspiracy that suggests not all is as it appears to be.

Galo is essentially a carbon copy of Kamina from Gurren Lagann. He’s a shirtless, blue-haired, brash young man who jumps in head first to save everyone, and makes sure he looks cool doing it every time. His peers and rivals mock his intelligence and audacity, but in a rare twist, Galo immediately proves that his not simply all bark; he is also a talented rescuer, and is able to stop multiple Burnish solo. Eventually, he develops a rival with Lio, a blonde-haired, light-eyed, somewhat effeminate villain with his own code of honour. He also runs across Kray Foresight, the governor, who is appreciative of Burning Rescue and all their work. However, though Burning Rescue is comprised of many equally talented members, they are mostly pushed to the background outside of being given a few moments to shine.  

Promare takes advantage of new animation styles, and combines both hand-drawn and computer-animated designs. The vapourwave art style is bombastic and chaotic, while the angular designs of the Burnish’s powers add a little edge to the action scenes, guaranteeing that there is no wasted space on screen. The movie runs from inferno-hot to sub-zero cold with no in-between; one would expect nothing less from Imaishi and Nakashima.

Walking into this film and expecting some kind of subtly, even when it comes to the most mundane of actions, is expecting far too much. In classic fashion, the filmmakers keep making every scene more grandiose and epic. Fight scenes aren’t simply adding an extra bad guy or giving the hero a handicap; everything grows to an exponential scale. The moment you expect that Promare has reached its limit, suddenly everything goes to the extreme. But this does has its disadvantages, as subtly and clear explanations of events go by the wayside. The plot moves fast and glosses over the details of the world, history, and lore. Instead of questioning “why is this weird thing happening,” it’s better to accept that it’s happening simply “just because” — far better to just watch the bonker visuals and series of events. This pacing also makes it difficult for character growth, where relationships are created and destroyed on a whim, yet could have benefited more with extra content. It’s like the difference between the Gurren Lagann series and the movies. Sure, the movies cover a lot of ground, but they are very much more loud, operatic spectacles rather than the growing confidence of a young shy boy into a full-fledged legend.

Promare is certainly a movie that stimulates the lizard-brain neurons. It’s flashy, over the top, and outright ridiculous. The heroes and villains are operatic, and there is no nuance stored anywhere in the character’s development. But that’s why the movie is wonderful; the creators are able to depict these extreme levels of silliness, then lampoon and expand on it. There are even moments where the characters themselves have to acknowledge that this level of weirdness is actually happening. But that’s why this movie is spectacular — it’s loud, it’s big, but it’s 100% unfiltered fun.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 4, 2019 as part of our Fantasia Film Festival coverage. 

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: Best of the Fest

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The Lighthouse

Have a conversation about movies with your family or coworkers late in the year and there’s a good chance someone will break out this old chestnut: “There just weren’t many good movies this year.” It’s a statement that says more about the speaker than the state of cinema; there are more great movies in any given year than anyone can manage to see. One of the great qualities of the Toronto International Film Festival is that the massive slate of films includes its own high-profile premieres, as well as screenings of festival favorites that bowed to acclaim earlier at places like Cannes and Venice. It’s a clearinghouse of sorts that gives one of the most well-rounded glimpses into the year’s best movies. Below are the ten best films we caught at the festival.

Anne at 13,000 ft

Anne at 13,000 ft

This world premiere, directed by Kazik Radwanski, initially presents the eponymous Anne (an astounding Deragh Campbell) as a daycare attendant having her first experiences with skydiving. Though Anne is alternately blissful and ecstatic when she’s jumping out of a plane, something is amiss at work, where she’s more interested in playing with the kids than supervising them. As she starts a new relationship with a man she met at a wedding (Matt Johnson), cracks in her façade start to appear. Radwanski keeps Anne’s breakdown front and center by putting her up close in the frame; she’s on screen almost every second of its brief 75-minute runtime. Featuring an astounding, aching lead performance, Anne at 13,000 ft sympathetically captures the moment the world starts to tilt for one woman. (Brian Marks)

Crazy World

Crazy World

With an extremely low budget and hearts of gold, the Wakaliwood movement in Uganda is a force of nature waiting to be fully unleashed on the world. Director IGG Nabwana’s Crazy World is the latest film to be translated for western audiences, having been originally produced in 2014. It showcases an international action scene that desperately needs to be seen by those who love films packed with ingenuity, comedy, and a genuine love for the medium that exudes from the screen. A fever dream of martial arts and absurdity, Crazy World is the kind of gonzo-action that can’t be denied its place in the pantheon of international action cinema. Placing this as the closing night film for the Midnight Madness program only ensures it gets a bigger audience than it otherwise would have. (Christopher Cross)

A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life is inspired by the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who was executed after he refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Jägerstätter is played by August Diehl, best known to American audiences as the lead Nazi in the bar shootout in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Writer-director Terrence Malick makes a glorious return to fully scripted films after three adventurous, mostly improvised movies that divided critics. Though Jägerstätter was eventually beatified for his stand against the Nazis, Diehl and Malick don’t try to make him a saint — he’s just someone taking a stand when overcome by conscience. Malick’s searching camera makes the Austrian hillside look invitingly gorgeous and lush, turning it into a kind of paradise from which Jägerstätter is brutally snatched. His more improvised films are all essential works of cinema, but A Hidden Life is Malick’s best work since his career-defining masterpiece, The Tree of Life. (Brian Marks)

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit

Receiving the TIFF Ebert Director Award this year, Taika Waititi came out with two awards, as his latest film, Jojo Rabbit,won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award, as well — and that for a film no other director would probably consider making: a comedy about Hitler. It’s a reductive elevator pitch, which is how many will approach the film when it is officially released, but Jojo Rabbit is hardly that. Instead, Waititi satirizes hate itself, as well as all the ridiculously extreme convictions people have that hold the world back from being peaceful. Easily the most audacious film in the director’s filmography, Jojo Rabbit successfully balances the quirky humor of Waititi’s previous efforts with a dark subject matter. The result is a movie that not only will make audiences laugh, but will have them valuing the importance of laughter and niceties in a hate-fueled time. (Christopher Cross)

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers blew everyone away with his debut feature, The Witch, which ratcheted up the paranoia until there was nowhere to go but supernatural. While his sophomore feature doesn’t feature a Black Phillip-stand in, The Lighthouse trades witchcraft and Satan for mermaids and Lovecraft. The result is another film drenched in paranoia, as its two lead actors give some of the funniest, nuanced, and entertaining performances of their careers. The Lighthouse isn’t just Eggers proving he’s not a one-trick pony — it’s Eggers proving he’s one of the greatest horror filmmakers working today. (Christopher Cross)

Marriage Story

Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s newest film, Marriage Story, is partly inspired by his divorce earlier this decade from the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson star as Charlie and Nicole; he’s a renowned theater director in New York, and she’s an actress best known for starring in a popular teen comedy, though in recent years she’s starred in her husband’s productions. The film opens with a touching set of dueling montages, as both characters recite their favorite aspects of their partners — only to reveal that they’re separating, and this is just an exercise cooked up by a mediator to keep their relations positive. Driver and Johansson are at the top of their game, and Baumbach has never been better. He keeps his camera work reserved so as not to distract from his airtight screenplay and the moving performances. No film can convey all the heartache and longing that comes with divorce, but Baumbach may have gotten closer than anyone else. (Brian Marks)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire began attracting rapturous praise when it premiered at Cannes, and its presence at TIFF has only confirmed its stature. Set sometime in the late 18th Century, Portrait concerns two young women struggling against the stifling societal expectations that govern them. Noémie Merlant stars as Marianne, the daughter of a respected painter who has her own artistic talents. She has been called to Brittany to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), which her family desires in order to send it to a Milanese suitor they hope to marry her off to. If he finds her beautiful enough, then the survival of their bloodline is guaranteed. But Héloïse has no intention of sitting for a portrait, forcing Marianne to get creative. Over time, she begins to question her role in Héloïse’s future, and the two develop an unshakeable bond. Herlant and Haenel give wonderfully tender performances, perfectly playing off each other for escalating dramatic tension. Sciamma is almost clinical in the way she films the two women, yet there’s a welcome touch of the fantastic that occasionally intrudes. A love story for the ages. (Brian Marks)

Saint Maud

Saint Maud

Rose Glass’s directorial debut, Saint Maud, is a film that wowed many audiences at TIFF, even if it didn’t necessarily win any awards. Picked up by A24 soon after the festival, the film highlights a nurse in private care that goes to extreme lengths to show her devotion to God and curing the world of sickness. A slow-burn that is masterfully handled through character work, this psychological thriller takes its time to get where its going, but is never a bore while getting there. Yet, once it does make its way to the intense final act, there is little room to breathe as Saint Maud moves and moves until its phenomenal conclusion. A strong debut with a fantastic lead performance by Morfydd Clark, this is the kind of film that will have you biting your nails as it sucks you into the mind of someone passionately devoted to God and trying to save her soul. (Christopher Cross)

The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century

With his debut feature, The Twentieth Century, Matthew Rankin reminds us of the seemingly limitless possibilities of cinema. The film documents the rise of former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in a truly bizarre style, featuring gorgeously saturated yet simultaneously faded colors that evoke the feel of early color films from the 1920s and ’30s. Dan Beirne plays a neurotic version of the future politician, who lives in perpetual adolescence and has a dark secret: he gets his rocks off with women’s heels. Rankin is clearly indebted to fellow Canadian Guy Maddin, and takes the same relish as he pulls from bits of film history while thoroughly deconstructing the traditional biopic. Rankin’s off-putting sense of humor and the movie’s otherworldly visuals will frighten off many viewers, but hopefully, it will delight even more. The Twentieth Century won the award for Best Canadian First Feature, and it’s sure to be a midnight movie classic. (Brian Marks)

Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems

The Safdie Brothers have followed up their grimy, abrasive Good Time with a film that never quite reaches those levels of tension, but is nevertheless cut from the same cloth. With Uncut Gems, the directing duo have crafted something so loud and chaotic — led by a perfectly-cast Adam Sandler — that there is no denying it’s a fun ride, even when it is not so fun to watch. Digging through the grit of loan sharks and a dog-eat-dog world, Uncut Gems is another bonafide hit by the Safdie brothers, but one that works when it piles on the misery — which it often does, rather than find a shred of happiness. (Christopher Cross)

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Film

‘Villains’ Offers Strong Performances, But Not Much Else

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Through its first nine months, 2019 has been quite a year for movies in which characters are trapped in a house for most of the running time, and that continues with Villains, an unconventional but ultimately underwhelming entry in the horror-comedy subgenre in which four very good performances can’t save a talky, underwhelming script. 

Written and directed by the team of Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, Villains was on the “Black List” of unproduced screenplays a few years back, and it debuted at South by Southwest this past spring. Bill Skarsgård (Pennywise himself, in his normal handsome visage) and Millennial horror queen Maika Monroe play a dimwitted but loving couple who are also small-time robbers, in the tradition of bumbling wannabe criminals like in Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket. Fleeing a robbery they committed at a gas station and dreaming of a life in Florida, the pair stumble into the home of George and Gloria (Burn Notice‘s Jeffrey Donovan, and Kyra Sedgwick), where things take a bit of a creepy and violent turn as the petty crooks discover the thing (or things) that this other couple is hiding.

Overall, Villains feels at a piece with that Southern, used-car-salesman patter associated with the current prestige cable shows The Righteous Gemstones and On Becoming a God in Central Florida. Unfortunately, though it sports a good structure and all four leads perform well, Villains never quite finds that extra gear. Also, the film isn’t quite as good at managing the often-jarring tonal shifts between horror and comedy that such entries as Ready or Not and Satanic Panic were able to pull off. 

Villains has a lot of what we’ve seen in this type of movie before: long sections where one or both of the protagonists are held hostage, that slow realization that characters we previously thought were normal are far from it, and bloody violence that tends to come out of nowhere. It also has that annoying thing where movie characters who run out of gas never had any indication until that moment that they were running low. And here, unlike in most of those instances, the characters have just come from — literally — robbing a gas station. 

However, the cast isn’t a problem. Monroe, so memorable in such horror movies as It Follows and Greta, is the highlight, while Skarsgård shows himself as an interesting actor when not encumbered by the Pennywise clown makeup. Donovan, sporting a wispy mustache, plays his part over-the-top, while Sedgwick, who isn’t on screen nearly enough these days, is clearly having a great time playing a wildly unstable character. 

Villains begins with a strong, heavy metal-scored introduction, and there’s a nifty, animated closing credits sequence. A shame that both offer a much more impressive visual and filmmaking sense than the movie we just watched. 

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: ‘Crazy World’ Brings Wakaliwood to the Masses

‘Crazy World’ is the latest Wakaliwood film from Uganda to be translated and brought to the world, containing crazy action on a low budget.

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Crazy World

With an extremely low budget and hearts of gold, the Wakaliwood movement in Uganda is a force of nature waiting to be fully unleashed on the world. Director IGG Nabwana’s Crazy World is the latest film to be translated for western audiences, having been originally produced in 2014. It showcases an international action scene that desperately needs to be seen by those who love films packed with ingenuity, comedy, and a genuine love for the medium that exudes from the screen. A fever dream of martial arts and absurdity, Crazy World is the kind of gonzo-action that can’t be denied its place in the pantheon of international action cinema.

As children are being abducted by the Tiger Mafia — led by a pint-sized leader frequently mistaken as a child himself — parents begin formulating a plot to rescue the children and get revenge on the thugs who keep destroying their village. Unfortunately for the Mafia, they’ve made the mistake of kidnapping the Waka Stars — children with can outsmart and beat up anybody when they work together. Other characters include a parent who has gone insane six months after his child was abducted (and now lives within the village dump), and of course, characters named after Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan for good measure.

Crazy World

As silly as the premise sounds, Crazy World is even more absurd in employing a trademark of Ugandan tradition by incorporating narration from a VJ — or “video jockey” — who describes what’s happening, why it’s happening, why it’s bad that it’s happening, and who is about to get their heads kicked in. A side note about the midnight screening for TIFF: the narration was done live, and made the whole experience all the more delirious. But even without the live narration, what’s there is simply a staple of Wakaliwood films. The narration can have to do with the film itself, or even suggest the social and political anxieties that make the scenes all the more striking.

It’s also impossible to talk about Crazy World without mentioning the utter insanity of the action. For starters, every kick and every punch lands with the loudest thud imaginable. It sounds like a boxing match is happening, but it’s actually kids beating up grown men. The fights tend to be contained to a small set where green screen is quite obviously employed (to hilarious effect), and some of the worst special effects show buildings and vehicles being blown up. This isn’t a knock; in fact, these low-budget effects work exceptionally well because the film itself feels just as DIY and cobbled together. It’s infectious how fast Crazy World moves and how well it works, simply due to well-choreographed action.

Crazy World

Crazy World is my entry point to Wakaliwood, and there will be many who have never seen a film like this. However, those that do might find a new favourite style of action filmmaking — one that leverages its set pieces against the backdrop of regional concerns in Uganda. It’s a movie that transports you not because it’s put together well, but because it’s put together so lovingly. A hilarious romp, Crazy World is one-of-a-kind cinema that sets the bar for low-budget filmmaking.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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Freelance Film Writers

Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip. We are currently looking for Indie Game reviewers.

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