And other highlights from this year’s Toronto International Film Festival
“Dreams are messages from the deep,” intones an obscure voice in the darkness. The opening words of Denis Villeneuve’s staggering Dune are apposite prelude to cinematic reverie: thundering soundscapes, galvanic conflagrations, galactic treachery and messianic world-building. It’s a reminder of how great filmgoing experiences insist on total surrender, and conjure almost theological reverence. You want to see a movie? Kneel before Dune, Torontonians!
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Let the Spice Flow
The pandemic may not be over, but film festivals sure are done with it. Cannes was the first this year to throw down the in-person-only gauntlet when July was still part of a pre-Delta-variant hot vaxx summer. Telluride used its remote mountain location and notoriously high-priced buy-in to bolster its tony event’s infection-free exclusivity. And Venice just concluded its second virus-responsible physical event, after pulling off an even more miraculous in-the-flesh feat last year before vaccinations were available.
So pressure was on for the Toronto International Film Festival to mount its 46th edition with actual attendees from around the world. Did they? Yes and no. While its on-the-ground crowds have been somewhat higher than last year, TIFF still blinked and offered a virtual option. And when you give people the option, especially when they’re in other countries, most stay at home. Which is a shame, because TIFF hosted arguably the most compelling reason to see movies on the big screen: Dune.
Villeneuve’s sumptuous adaptation of the 1965 Frank Herbert classic technically debuted at Venice earlier this month, but made its IMAX premiere this past week at Toronto’s Cinesphere, the very first theater constructed specifically for the technology’s looming specifications. What could be more apt both cinematically and patriotically: the French-Canadian auteur designed his film to be shown in IMAX—itself a Canadian company based in Ontario. And the format’s sensorial domination makes his $165 million Dune spectacle a mystical revelation.
David Lynch famously disavowed his 1984 version of the sci-fi opus, an ambitious and conflated overreach that still shimmers with its own weirding ways. Side-stepping that same peril, Villeneuve decided to cover only the book’s first half, pacing himself with a Part One that uses 155 simmering minutes to tackle what Lynch covered in a brisk hour. This new take on the fall of the House of Atreides at the hands of Baron Harkonnen quivers with dread throughout, and makes the sand-swept planet of Arrakis tremendously tactile. You’ll be shaking the spice mélange out of your own hair for days.
Villeneuve is first and foremost an intuitive director, more focused on how audiences feel and less on how they process plot points. Seeing Dune is—and should be—a tremendously physical experience. More’s the pity that Warner Bros is sticking to its day-and-date plans to release the film October 22 in theaters as well as on HBO Max. Less patient viewers will be more pitiless, and more dismissive, of a film that so viscerally wants to transport you.
Big themes from real life
Politics, religion, bitter vendettas, hallucinations—Dune isn’t the only film with a monopoly on big themes. TIFF delivered a panoply of stories that touch on the same eternal struggles. Huda’s Salon, the latest from two-time Oscar-nominee Hany Abu-Assad, addresses Palestinian-Israeli strife through a ripped-from-the-headlines potboiler. A hairdresser named Huda drugs her customers, takes pictures of them in uncompromising positions, and blackmails them into being informants to the Israeli secret service. Then Palestinian resistance fighters capture the salon owner and interrogate her to find out why she’s a traitor to her own kind. The lurid melodrama unfolds into an earnest but didactic exploration of desperate people in no-win situations.
You want a messiah? Just watch Ritwik Pareek’s Dug Dug, an Indian satire where a soused motorcyclist wipes out on his bike and a passing truck cuts him in half. The blood-soaked asphalt becomes the scene of an unlikely shrine, as the townspeople convince themselves that the his intoxicated soul has supernaturally infused the Dug Dug bike he rode. “OK then, start with the rituals,” sighs one official. Soon enough, religious fervor sprouts all around him, as needy people desperate for a savior find one in the dead drunk. “Don’t think too much. Just do what is commanded by the Gods,” says their high priest. Subtle, this film is not.
South Asia also delivered a gonzo tale of deadly passions and unexpected redemption in the Indonesian thriller Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash. An impotent man channels his rage into being a fearless/peerless hitman, until he meets his match facing off against a female bodyguard. The two fall in love, but not before her past catches up with her and his future requires one more hit. Martial arts collide with maudlin plot twists, prison time and a phantom woman who arises from a garbage heap and flexes her ninja skills. The exploitation homage uses pulp grammar to tell a fundamentally, and improbably, heartfelt story of toxic masculinity, repressed trauma, and forgiveness.
We’re just so exhausted
Anger management intersects with mental illness—as well as the toll of our virus-torn, eco-perilous times—in two star-driven nail-biters. Without being overtly about Covid anxieties, they capture portraits of a stressed-out society absolutely exhausted by rage, fear, and distrust.
Riz Ahmed toplines Michael Pearce’s Encounter, which follows a former Marine hunting what he describes as “non-terrestrial micro-organisms.” The alien bugs are secretly infiltrating humans everywhere, infecting half the population, and it’s his job to rescue his two sons from his ex-wife and her new boyfriend. Or maybe he’s just a vet with PTSDand an ex-con whose life is falling apart. It’s an engaging but uneven look at trauma with an absolutely bracing performance from Ahmed.
In The Guilty, Jake Gyllenhaal gives himself completely to his role as Joe Baylor, a haunted, on-edge LAPD officer estranged from his wife, due in court the next day for an unknown crime, and stuck on desk duty at a 911 dispatch. And then he gets a cell call from a woman abducted in a white van. Based on the acclaimed 2018 Danish drama of the same name, director Antoine Fuqua transposes the story to Los Angeles, where wildfires don’t play a direct role in the story but serve as the white-noise background. It’s a snapshot of a city where frayed nerves are the baseline and the only way we connect is remotely, feeling our way through blind situations. And it makes for a taut drama that too often flirts with incredulity but works effectively as stifling reminder of our disconnected, claustrophobic times.