The Power of the Dog Jane Campion Benedict Cumberbatch

TIFF Report: New films by Jane Campion, Céline Sciamma, Justine Bateman

Our first round-up of TIFF reviews includes great new entries by Campion and Sciamma, Bateman’s directorial debut, an off-the-wall Indonesian action movie and more.

The 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is on in hybrid form from Sept. 9–18.

The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog, directed by Jane Campion

Jane Campion’s latest is a slow-burn western with more than a little Tennessee Williams in its DNA, an exacting character study that unfolds with a confident deliberateness that manages to offset its more melodramatic, Oscar-baiting tendencies. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank, a loud-mouthed and aggressive Montana rancher who runs a large ranch alongside his more subdued brother George (Jesse Plemons). The ranch’s power dynamics shift when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow with a grown son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) whose soft demeanor and “unmanly” interests immediately sets off the cruel Phil. His reign of terror drives Rose to drink and creates a climate of fear on the ranch, but it soon becomes obvious that there’s more than just evil to Phil’s bubbling violence.

Though it isn’t exactly a thriller, The Power of the Dog is told with such precision and craft by Campion that every scene is fraught with tension, a high-wire act that keeps us guessing throughout. Campion lays out every element with a patience that comes across not as slow-moving but exacting. Bolstered by great performances (especially from Cumberbatch, whose less-than-obvious casting as a dirt-covered alpha rancher lends the whole thing some extra depth), The Power of the Dog has all of the narrative qualities of an engrossing novel and all of the visual punch of a great movie.

The Power of the Dog is slated for release on Netflix on Nov. 17, 2021.

The Power of the Dog, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst

The Box

The Box Lorenzo Vigas TIFF review
The Box, directed by Lorenzo Vigas

The titular box in the latest film by Lorenzo Vigas contains the remains of 13-year-old Hatzin’s estranged father, a miner who has been killed in an accident. Hatzin has been tasked by his ailing grandmother to fetch the remains of a man he barely remembers. With the remains, however, is an ID card featuring a man (Hernan Mendoza) that Hatzin sees, alive and well, mere minutes after being handed the remains of his so-called father. Hatzin tracks the man down and discovers he denies being his father or even the man on the ID, but soon finds himself sucked into the man’s life and business as a sketchy handler of migrants hired for factory work.

The Box is an opaque, naturalistic drama that, in a perfect world, would draw comparisons with the work of the Dardenne brothers. Despite its intriguing setup, The Box soon becomes a tedious and ponderous exercise in the familiar, rapidly squandering our goodwill on a rather pedestrian and obvious narrative. It doesn’t help that our lead isn’t particularly magnetic but Vigas treats him as if he is, constantly framing his mostly expressionless face in long takes. Casting a non-professional actor at the heart of a film like this one is a gamble that often pays off, but it remains a gamble — one that doesn’t exactly pay off here.

The Box is not currently slated for a Montreal release.

The Box, starring Hatzin Navarrete and Hernan Mendoza

Petite Maman

Petite Maman Céline Sciamma TIFF review
Petite Maman, directed by Céline Sciamma

Céline Sciamma follows up her breakout Portrait of a Young Woman on Fire with the deceptively simple and pared-down Petite maman, an extremely effective exploration of childhood and parental bonds. It’s difficult to truly do Petite maman’s subject justice (and, at a scant 72 minutes, very easy to say too much) but its simplicity is also its strongest suit. Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) has travelled to the French countryside with her mother and father (Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne) to empty out her grandmother’s house after her passing. Soon after arriving, Nelly’s mother abruptly leaves without explanation and she meets a neighbour named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) to whom she bears a striking resemblance — and with whom she gets along famously.

Calling Petite maman “cute” seems condescending or derogatory in some way, but it’s certainly the first word that comes to mind when watching this gentle yet emotionally profound meditation on our relationship with our parents. Without getting into too much detail (the title in general constitutes kind of a spoiler, but then again, not really), the film migrates flawlessly from an exploration of the inherent loneliness of childhood into a sort of complex wish-fulfillment scenario that explores a possibility that many of us have thought of but remains completely impossible. Petite maman is succinct yet packed with memorable moments.

Petite Maman is slated to be distributed in Montreal theatres by Entract Films.

Petite Maman, starring Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz

Violet

Violet Justine Bateman TIFF review
Violet, directed by Justine Bateman

Actress Justine Bateman makes her feature directorial debut with Violet, in which Olivia Munn plays a successful film executive who finds her every thought and decision questioned by “The Voice” (Justin Theroux), an aural embodiment of anxiety, imposter syndrome and low self-confidence. The Voice pops up in every situation, a nasty and cutting conscience that works overtime to instil fear and doubt in every aspect of her life. The Voice is sometimes undercut by text on-screen that represents Violet “talking back” with her real desires.

Suffice to say that subtlety is not exactly at the forefront of Bateman’s mind here — the old “show, don’t tell” maxim of screenwriting goes right out the window here as the film bends over backwards in order to show and tell in great detail. Calling Violet experimental is a bit of a stretch, but it nevertheless offers a pretty formally daring take on a subject that isn’t necessarily an obvious cinematic one. Anyone who’s ever suffered from crippling self-doubt and impostor syndrome will immediately connect with the way Bateman approaches Violet’s inner monologue. It’s a little harder to relate to the first-world problems of wealthy, high-powered and conventionally attractive film executives, but one also assumes that Bateman is speaking with some degree of authority on a world she knows.

Violet is such an unconventional and risky proposition that it’s hard not to see its flaws as a sort of necessary evil when putting images to something that is, by its very nature, personal and internal. Though its rapid-fire aesthetics and time-lapse montages are not likely to age very well, Violet is very much a film of our time.

Violet is not currently slated for a Montreal release.

Violet, starring Olivia Munn and Justin Theroux

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash Edwin TIFF review
Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, directed by Edwin

The first half-hour of Indonesian director Edwin’s Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is so thoroughly insane and off-the-wall that it’s almost a foregone conclusion that the film can’t keep that up indefinitely. A bizarre mix of martial arts vehicles à la Jackie Chan or JCVD, of Japanese yakuza movies, of cornball romances and of gritty melodramas about toxic masculinity and impotence both literal and metaphorical, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash strikes such a strange balance of tones and genres that it’s truly impossible to pin down at first. Is it straight-faced, homage, parody, parody of a parody? The aesthetic choices that Edwin makes are not something I’m used to seeing in film; it reminds me more of post-post-post-ironic music, where something like corny ’80s AOR becomes lame, then ironically cool, then overplayed, then beloved in earnest when its codes become indistinguishable from their own parody. 

Suffice to say that this tale of an impotent man who falls in love with the bodyguard of a Mafia leader after they have several knock-down drag-out fights is pretty weird on the surface, a diligent recreation of a particular type of dingy ’80s genre film that nevertheless has serious intentions of exploring and cutting down toxic masculinity in the process. It works until it doesn’t. The film (adapted from a novel of the same name) soon loses focus, stretching itself out over too many characters and losing its grip on the freestyle association of ideas and themes. I started this movie absolutely hypnotized by its bizarre post-shitposting approach to irony and ended it mostly glazed over at the onslaught of stuff. Still, it’s not like you’re going to see a kung-fu movie with this much fingering anywhere else.


Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is not currently slated for a Montreal release.

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash starring Marthino Lio and Ladya Cheryl

Check the TIFF website for ticket availabilities for films being screened digitally this year.


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