TIFF Diary, Day 2: 'Nocturnal Animals,' 'Arrival,' 'A Monster Calls' And More

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Lewis MacDougall as Connor in <em>A Monster Calls</em>.

Linda Holmes is filing dispatches from the Toronto International Film Festival. These movies will see wider release in the coming months.

Nocturnal Animals

Tom Ford (the fashion designer) surprised a fair number of folks with his very good first feature as a director, A Single Man, in 2009. It was gorgeous to look at, as one might expect, but it was also deeply felt, thanks in part to a strong central performance from Colin Firth.

Fast forward to 2016. Ford's second directorial effort, Nocturnal Animals, based on Austin Wright's novel Tony & Susan, nests one story inside another. We begin with the life of Susan (Amy Adams), an icy, bored gallery owner who's surprised to get a copy of her first husband Edward's new novel, which she sits down to read while her second husband is away.

We then follow the story inside that novel, in which Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter get involved in a road rage incident that ends in violence, sending Tony off to team up with a laconic police officer (Michael Shannon) to find the perpetrators. (How laconic is he? My note was "laconic," and then I read the press notes, which also say "laconic." Laconic kinda guy, is the point.) Gyllenhaal also plays Edward in Susan's flashbacks, and Isla Fisher looks about as much like Amy Adams as any actor ever looks like another, so Ford is being fairly straightforward about the fact that Edward's novel is his working out of his feelings about his marriage to Susan.

Tony's story is more interesting than Susan's. The part of the film focused on her is very beautiful but very sterile, so glossy and perfectly arranged that it looks like advertorial content for premium liquor. It's closer to what skeptics might have expected from Tom Ford (the fashion designer) before they saw Tom Ford's first film: it's preoccupied with arrangements of bodies and faces and the red curtain of Amy Adams' hair to the point where the story it's telling feels almost irrelevant. Tony's part of the movie is more engaging, and the opening sequence with his family is as terrifying and suspenseful as it needs to be. Where the script falls short is in tying the stories together and placing them in dialogue with each other, which it needs to do to make the whole satisfying. What emerges is a superficial textual connection where when you hear a man called "weak" in one scene, you can guarantee you will hear it in another, maybe in a couple of others. I wanted to like the film better than I did out of appreciation for its succession of beautiful pictures and for the very good (and often unexpectedly funny) Michael Shannon performance. It just didn't quite hold together.

Arrival

Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy) tends to make intensely personal dramas about terribly difficult choices, and thus doesn't seem like a natural director for a film about aliens landing in 12 spaceships spread across the world and the humans trying to communicate with them. And early on, it's an alien movie paced like a meditative drama, making for some very long and (yes, artfully) slow scenes of Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner as a linguist and a scientist being recruited to work on communicating with the new neighbors and taken aboard the vessel that's landed in Montana.

As Louise (Adams) works to establish some kind of basis for communication with creatures that sound a little like the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons, the story starts to come into sharper focus. It wouldn't be fair to talk too much about its narrative turns, but once it reaches the third act and begins to do its thematic work more openly, Arrival does have very Villeneuve-ian elements, if that's a non-word we can use. Again, there are choices; again, there are losses. At the risk of being the kind of person who insists every sports movie is not about sports, this is not exactly a film about aliens. I mean, it is a film about aliens, but like lots of the best movies about aliens (Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, for instance), it's really a film about the disruption of your own universe and how you proceed. Of the two Amy Adams films I saw today, I liked this one significantly more.

A Monster Calls

It's a shame that there are so many undercooked, cheaply paid off films about kids dealing with sadness, because the world needs good films about kids dealing with sadness, and this adaptation of Patrick Ness' novel is one. Lewis MacDougall plays Connor, an English boy whose single mother (Felicity Jones) is dying. There are times in movies, and in real life, where you just look at someone and say to yourself, "That poor kid." Connor is like that. His mom is sick, his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is hovering but cold, his dad (Toby Kebbell) is sort of a lovable flake who mostly lives in America now, and at school, the bullies are picking on him. Connor is, however, creative and decent, and he's surprised when he suddenly begins receiving visits from a monster in the shape of a tree near his house (voiced quite wonderfully by Liam Neeson). The monster wants to tell Connor some stories, and then he needs Connor to tell a story, too. The stories from the monster are animated in an unusual but beautiful watercolor style, perhaps signaling that now that we have near-realistic CGI and that point's been made, there's much more to do with animation than simply try to get as literal as possible.

There are so many familiar beats here — mom growing thin and pale and losing her hair, son not wanting to hear her negative prognosis from anyone — that I felt a vague unease that while the film's animation sequences are gorgeous and its monster is really compelling, it wouldn't have much to say about its actual story that hasn't been heard before. But in fact, a climactic scene between Connor and his monster does strike some sophisticated chords, to the point where the story is probably a little heavy for really little kids; maybe better for elementary-school kids. Director J.A. Bayona, working from a screenplay Ness wrote, has done a lot of beautiful work here, often deeply sad but also thoughtful and fair about Connor's situation.

It is a tear-jerker, in the final analysis. I have a few rules for evaluating movies where I cry (as I did here), and one of them is that I feel better about the complexity of a film's sentiments when I cry not only at the saddest moments, but also at moments of forgiveness and generosity and grace. A Monster Calls passed that test. Bring some tissues.

Hermia and Helena

As the title suggests, there's a loose connection to A Midsummer Night's Dream in this Argentinian film directed by Matías Piñeiro, who's previously made films riffing on other Shakespeare plays, including Twelfth Night and Love's Labour's Lost. Here, we follow Camila, a Buenos Aires woman who gets a fellowship to New York and encounters (or re-encounters) a variety of people, including a woman who thinks she's road-tripping to visit the woman who used to live in Camila's apartment, a man who works at the institute where the fellowship is who seems to recruit girlfriends from among the fellows, and an old boyfriend who apparently has just been waiting for her to return.

While it's meant to be a chatty and loose film by its very nature, most of the first two-thirds left me a little cold. Piñeiro does seem to be playing with Midsummer, but where that play is whimsical and light, the film is regrettably flat. But then, toward the end, Camila visits a man from her family's past, and the scene they have together is so natural and so deeply human that it shifts the entire tone of the film and of Camila's character.

This is the way of some festival films, I find. Because the vision behind them often feels more personal and specific, there's a greater chance that it will seem strange or incomplete. But that specificity and idiosyncratic imperfection also often means that films that seem like they're not working can suddenly make a sharp turn down another path.

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