Sound of Metal, the inevitable Judy Garland biopic & more from TIFF day 2

…including a Montreal producer’s directorial debut.

Sound of Metal

Recovering addict Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) makes a living as a drummer in a “metal” (metal is mentioned in the title, but the actual music is perhaps more on a sludgy industrial tip) band whose only other member is his girlfriend Louise (Olivia Cooke). It’s a meagre living made tolerable by their state-of-the-art Airstream trailer and Ruben’s hard-earned sobriety, but it threatens to all go to shit when Ruben suddenly loses his hearing just before a gig. Consulting with experts, he learns that he has about 25 per cent of his hearing left — which makes it impossible for him to drum and brings him closer to a relapse than ever before.

The “metal” aspect of Sound of Metal is fairly minimal as it soon gives way to a recovery story with a raw-nerve bent. Director Darius Marder nevertheless takes it a notch above the usual heartwarming festival film by placing an inordinate amount of focus on the symptoms of Ruben’s deafness and the methodical steps of his recovery. The entire midsection of Sound of Metal is essentially told from Ruben’s perspective, swapping out large swaths of the soundtrack for muffled, distorted throbbing replicating what Ruben actually hears. More than just a stylistic affectation, it’s a way of telling a story about deafness that also brings in deaf audiences. 

A less formally adventurous film would simply use Louise as the audience surrogate. It would be about someone who, like the audience, can hear everything, and how they filter the life of a deaf person. Marder’s techniques aren’t just immersive — they’re a boon to the deaf community, who get to experience the film the way the hearing community experiences most movies. (The film was presented with closed captioning for its world premiere – all spoken dialogue and sound was subtitled, but not sign language.) Sound of Metal is extremely affecting for most of its duration, an extensively researched and heartfelt story with great performances from Cooke and Ahmed, but it’s punishingly long and overwritten by its third act, which seems to be in search of a place to end satisfyingly. Still, at the risk of delivering an overused cliché, you’ve never seen anything quite like this before.

Sound of Metal does not yet have a release date.

The Rest of Us

Prolific Montreal-based producer Aisling Chin-Yee makes her directorial debut with The Rest of Us, a dramedy whose broad strokes about the nature of family, forgiveness and the walls we put up in order to face another day are familiar, but whose attention to detail and efficient dialogue transcend the inherent limitations of yet another low-budget movie about a “different kind of family.” Heather Graham stars as Cami, a successful children’s author who lives with her college-age daughter Aster (Sophie Nélisse) in rural Ontario. Cami soon learns that her ex-husband (and Aster’s father) has died unexpectedly, bringing her in contact with the much-younger woman he left her for, Rachel (Jodi Balfour), and her preteen daughter Talulah (Abigail Pniowsky). 

Dad, as it turns out, wasn’t quite on the-up-and-up when it came to financial matters, and Rachel and Talulah soon find themselves with nowhere to go when the house is repossessed. Cami offers that the two can stay with her and Aster — or, rather, in the trailer on the grounds where Aster usually lives, which sends the latter into a not-uncommon rage. Aster resents Rachel for what she’s represented in their life, and the four women make strange bedfellows despite their similarities.

The Rest of Us isn’t about being quirky or about its characters being unique expressions of specificity. It’s about being real, and sometimes that means taking a less conventionally cinematic road in order to get at some truth. So much of The Rest of Us is about how, when the moment comes, our instincts are to go with reactions we can’t even fathom and to kick the reactions we do expect as far down as possible. At only 80 minutes, it’s perhaps too efficiently put together (let’s say that if you set up a subplot where there’s an unseen person and you withhold their identity for as long as possible, it won’t be that surprising to find out who that character is when you consider there are only six or seven named characters in the whole thing) considering how much of it is about the messiness and unpredictability of human interactions, but all four leads are doing excellent work, and it’s no small feat to create four fully fleshed-out characters in such a tight space.

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Judy

It seems almost too easy and too sad to make a Judy Garland biopic. As the poster child for the very idea that fame has its demons, her life was a series of addictions, exploitations and bottomings-out. Biopics love that kind of shit, and it seems almost impossible to imagine a Garland biopic that unfolds as anything but a bullet list of untold misery. Rupert Goold’s Judy doesn’t fully escape the boundaries of its Hollywood tragedy, but it’s a surprisingly affecting  portrait of Garland that avoids dipping too far into hagiography or tabloid sleaze thanks in large part to a phenomenally committed performance by Renée Zellwegger.

Homeless and financially destitute to the point where she can’t feasibly house her children, Judy Garland decides to take a lucrative contract as a headliner for a British club. The reasons why Garland can’t work are legion: she rarely sleeps or eats, preferring instead to quash the difference with pills or alcohol, which means that her stage performance can go either way. There’s nights when she’s on like no other, nights where she has to be forced on stage and nights where just about the only thing she can do is drunkenly berate the audience. Nevertheless, the gig gives her life a newfound vigour that’s compounded by her marriage to a New York meathead named Mickey (Finn Wittrock), who promises he has exciting business opportunities down the pipeline. 

Judy isn’t solely centred on Garland’s last run of London shows — it periodically flashes back to her period as a young actress under the despotic rule of Louis B. Mayer, who forbids her from eating more than a single french fry and keeps her pilled up for excruciating 18-hour days — but it gains a lot from keeping the scope small. Goold is interested in showing us how the world kicked Garland when she was down, but also how she kicked back, alternately vulnerable and full of feral rage. Zellweger goes beyond the camp conception of Garland, revealing a knotty but warm-hearted person who spent her whole life under others’ thumbs. It’s not perfect and it certainly gets cheesy (her friendship with a couple of gay British fans is a cute hat-tip to her legions of gay fans, but it also feels crowbarred in there out of a sense of duty), but considering how profoundly sad and fucked up its subject’s life was, it toes a fine line.

It Must Be Heaven

It’s been a while since Palestinian director Elia Suleiman has made a film — 10 years, to be exact, but his work hasn’t changed that much in that time. It Must Be Heaven is still a series of loosely connected vignettes starring a man (played by Suleiman himself) who watches the world around him, rarely (if ever) interjecting. He has been compared to Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, which isn’t inaccurate, but also suggests something a lot less deadpan and narratively wispy than what Suleiman delivers here. The gist of it is that Suleiman is playing himself, a Palestinian filmmaker who travels the world (well, Palestine, Paris and finally New York, which is partially played by Montreal) in the hopes of finding funding for a project that a French producer ultimately tells him is “not Palestinian enough” and could, in fact, “be set anywhere.” 

Suleiman’s every frame is symmetrical and the camera hardly moves within that frame. His tableaus are almost like small comic strips, and they run the gamut from Suleiman gazing bemusedly at a neighbour pruning his lemon tree, Suleiman gazing bemusedly at two sanitation workers trying to hit empty cans into a sewer grate with a broom, Suleiman gazing bemusedly as Gael Garcia Bernal (playing himself) chooses not to invite him along to a meeting with some producers, Suleiman gazing bemusedly at a cleaning woman across the way dusting every model who walks by on a television screen, and so on and such forth. The tableaus feel almost stream of consciousness — some are barely even fully formed jokes and more like vaguely interesting images, while others are more explicitly political (Suleiman spots two soldiers swapping sunglasses in the car while a woman sits blindfolded in the back seat).

Suleiman marches to a very specific cadence. The major difference with It Must Be Heaven is not so much in the comedic tone but rather in the absence of explicitly comedic moments. It’s more wistful, in a sense — more focused on Suleiman’s reactions or lack thereof, and perhaps in that sense, It Must Be Heaven is slightly less satisfying as a comedy than his previous work. It’s a refreshingly uncynical and go-with-the-flow work, however, and in these times where even the gentlest comedies are somehow about the end of the world, something like It Must Be Heaven proves surprisingly refreshing.

Pain & Glory

Nothing gets a filmmaker out of the weeds quite like a bit of self-flagellation and a couple of long, hard looks at yourself. After a couple of underwhelming attempts at recapturing his glory days in both drama (Julieta) and comedy (I’m So Excited!), Pedro Almodovar turns in his 8 ½ or All That Jazz — a nostalgic, sometimes brutally honest look at a life spent making films. Antonio Banderas stars as Salvador Mallo, a celebrated Spanish filmmaker who has practically been forced into retirement by chronic pain issues. Essentially reduced to being a hermit, Mallo is thrust back into the spotlight when one of his ’80s works is re-released. This forces him back into contact with the film’s lead actor (Asier Etxeandia), with whom he had a falling out while making the film.

It would be tempting to say that Almodovar falls back on all his old tricks — and, in fact, Almodovar’s worst movies tend to be the ones where his signature moves are deployed with the cynicism of routine — but Pain and Glory is a rather skillful synthesis of not only his thematic bugaboos (homosexuality, his mother, the intrinsic seductive nature of art) but also his style. Almodovar is perhaps less hard on himself than other filmmakers who have waded in similar waters, but he finds a compelling way of reflecting on his own body of work without solipsism or self-pity. It’s purposefully slack and devoid of the grander flourishes of melodrama that categorize his later work, which makes it one of the more heartfelt old-man auteur movies in recent memory. ■

See our report from TIFF day one here.