Film

TIFF 2016: Colossal, Pyromaniac, Nocturnal Animals, Arrival, American Pastoral, Trespass Against Us

Anne Hathaway in Colossal (2016)

Monster mayhem, aliens, Philip Roth and dysfunctional families -- it's all in a day at Toronto International Film Festival 2016.

We have a lot of ground to cover, but before launching into day 2 of Toronto International Film Festival, there’s a little business from day 1 to finish off. So let’s head to Anne Hathaway and her monster with a brief detour in the forests of Norway.

Colossal is about as high concept a film as you can manage. That it makes little sense were you to think about it for more than ten seconds is just part of the charm. Hathaway plays a burnt out New York writer who spends her nights drinking and days crashing at her boyfriend’s apartment. Given she’s not contributing to the rent after a year of unemployment, he understandably has enough, kicks her out, and she's back to the small town she grew up in.

So far Nacho Vigalondo’s film is firmly in the comedy-drama territory, especially when she meets up with her old friend Jason Sudeikis and resumes the destructive behavior that put her there in the first place. This all makes for an amiably entertaining set-up. Oh, and I might not have mentioned it but a giant monster is also destroying the South Korean capital. The two events don’t seem directly related, but Hathaway discovers a weird connection to the monster.

The ensuing madness is generally great fun, sagging a little towards the end before rallying for a strong finish. There may be more moving films at TIFF, but for pure enjoyment Colossal is hard to beat.

Per Frisch in Pyromanen (2016)

Off to Norway and another monster awaits us, this one taking a more human form. Out in the remote Finsland area, an arsonist is terrifying inhabitants, building up from burning shacks to burning people. This is no real surprise given the film is called Pyromanen. It’s from Norwegian director Erik Skjoldbjærg, who has a good track record with thrillers. He made the original Insomnia (remade by Christopher Nolan), and was last seen sowing conspiracy theories into the oil industry in Pioneer.

His latest is two thirds of a good film, full of beautiful countryside and horrific blazes. The villain of the piece is the weak link, presented as slightly more than a blank slate but not as a real person. This reduces an otherwise solid release.

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Now that that’s out the way, we can move to day 2, which started with another 9am belter. Manchester by the Sea seemed untoppable, and yet Nocturnal Animals gets mighty close. It’s the second film from Tom Ford, better known for his work in the fashion industry, and it starts by playing to his strengths.

Amy Adams is a conceptual artist living in an expensively austere and oh so modern mansion. She has a distant husband and a strong sense of a life wasted. Then a manuscript turns up from her ex-husband.

Here Ford tips the film on its head, the manuscript becoming the story as she reads all about Jake Gyllenhaal’s night-time troubles when three guys kidnap his wife and teenage daughter on a remote Texan road. This side of the story is full of dirt and sweat, and could almost be real were it not for Michael Shannon’s show stopping turn as a local police officer. Throw in a brilliant score, impeccable visuals and some Lynchian touches, and we have ourselves a real winner. Sure it’s odd, but who wants normal?

Amy Adams in Arrival (2016)

Let’s take stock for a moment; we’ve had giant monsters, fire loving monsters and Texan monsters. Arrival has none of these. It comes with aliens, instead. Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has carved out an impressive record of late. He follows Sicario last year with this first contact sci-fi drama. Amy Adams is back again having given up the art to become a language specialist. When 12 silvery objects land across the globe, she’s brought in to try and communicate with one that's hovering over a field in Montana.

Watching Adams attempt to teach the aliens English is remarkably gripping, aided by some genuinely breath-taking shots. One had me almost mesmerized as Adams and Jeremy Renner’s physicist ascended (or descended or just plain walked sideways -- the gravity in these things is confusing) into the ship.

Now don’t get me wrong, I liked part of Arrival, but it tacks on a horrible personal backstory concerning Adams and a sick child. Apparently, the wonder of first contact isn’t enough to move us, so we need an attempt at emotional profundity that falls flat no matter how pretty the strings sound. I'm in the minority on this one it seems, but this irritated the hell out of me. Ask everyone else and they plain loved Arrival. There’s no accounting for taste, it seems.

Ewan McGregor and Hannah Nordberg in American Pastoral (2016)

That’s a lot of ground covered already but don’t go anywhere yet. We still have two more films left. Both at public screenings as well after I traded in some of my jealously guarded ticket allocation. First up there’s American Pastoral. I’m a big Philip Roth fan and this is one of his best books. His writing style doesn’t lend itself to decent adaptations and I can’t say my hopes were high. After two hours of emotionally flat Roth-lite, my worries were not extinguished.

Ewan McGregor takes the lead role as Swede Levov, a man living the American dream in the '60s. At least until his daughter gets involved in terrorist activity and disappears from his life. McGregor makes his directing debut, and although he draws decent performances from a cast including Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning, this adaptation loses the rich inner life of the novel without replacing it with anything.

Indeed, the longer it goes on, the less impact American Pastoral has. It also makes the unforgivable error of weakening the central themes of the novel. Adaptations must be their own thing, but not by losing the core of the work. Which is exactly what happens here.

Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender in Trespass Against Us (2016)

There was still a chance to redeem the evening as I exited the cinema only to circle back round and join a queue to go in again. After period drama, it was time for a change of pace with Trespass Against Us. The pace change is immediate in this debut from English director Adam Smith. It opens with a car careening through a field. Michael Fassbender sits in the driver's seat but his young son has the wheel. Fassbender is Chad, the golden child of traveller kingpin Colby (Brendan Gleeson). He does his bidding and always has, but now he wants out.

Family dynamics moor this arresting drama, though for pure exhilaration a couple of chase scenes steal the show. With authentic and almost impenetrable dialogue, and performances that take the cast far from their comfort zones, this is a very strong debut. It goes on a little too long, but that’s hardly the worst cinematic crime in the world.

I do have to admit I was happy when it all ended. I emerged at midnight off the back of five films (another embargoed until the next installment). Given the first of the day started at 9am, all I want now is sleep. Then we go again in the morning.

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