TIFF17: Day Four

A Look at Mary Shelley; Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri; Dark is the Night; and Veronica

Sep 11, 2017 By Jason Wilson Web Exclusive
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Buzz is tricky around a film festival. Being too in tune with what the hive mind of critics and patrons and industry folk are talking about, you may be influencing your opinion too much without even knowing it. Ignoring it outright, and you might skip over something that wasn't already on your radar. When TIFF was running a year ago, I wasn't aware of Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, but after a screening or two, word started to spread that it was the movie to see. Lo and behold, it went large from there on out winning awards and acclaim from both the industry and public.

I don't know if we'll get another film that grabs everyonethe most widely beloved film from my vantage point has been Call Me by Your Name, but that was coming into festival with a full head of steam from Sundancebut it's something to keep an eye on. Your schedule can never be set in stone. One later night than anticipated, and you're better off sleeping in a bit to recharge instead of racing to see an 8:30 screening early in the morning. Crowds are grumpy then, too. But, there I was Sunday morning, anyway.

And sadly, Haifa al-Mansour's Mary Shelley will not be the festival surprise, though it will have its champions. It's more bland than outright bad, but it's a paint-by-numbers biopic for a good chunk operating more by a checklist of early life events being fired off in rapid succession. This is disappointing because the opening is eerie and gorgeous as the camera finds Mary (Elle Fanning) writing and reading by her mother's grave accompanied only by her pages and the encroaching fog.

Then we're treated to the bitter step-mother who just doesn't understand and the aloof father who winks at Mary when he's supposed to be doling out stern talking-tos. Eventually, she's moved to Scotland with family and meets future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. The affair is tumultuous, rife with drama and affection, and treated with no real nuance. The scenes don't flow. Mary Shelley should be a film about female empowerment breaking through a male-dominated world, time, and industryespecially considering the problems in the arts that echo today. But, it's treated dully. This is also the story about the creation of Frankenstein, and save a few flourishes of spark, it is void of the essence that makes its basis a seminal piece of gothic fiction. Fanning continues to knock it out of the park, however.

Then there's Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, which delivered exactly what was expected and something that absolutely wasn't. It's a nasty, vulgar, and pitch black comedy as McDonagh has delivered (In Bruges; Seven Psychopaths) previously, but it's also a surprisingly emotional, and heartfelt story about grief, loss, and broken human beings. And it almost coalesces perfectly.

Frances McDormand is fantastic (duh!) as Mildred Hayes, the mother of a teenage girl who was raped and killed seven months earlier. The culprit(s) have never been apprehended. So, she does the logical thing and puts up three billboards asking why. The profanity is often hilariously over-the-top and sometimes feels forced. It's almost like McDonagh doesn't trust the emotional core of the film, fearing that it may feel too sentimental, so he punctuates it with plenty of punchy dialog. The best moments are when it quiets down, though that may be facilitated by the pomp so his instincts may be right. The single, best moment (no spoilers, don't worry) features a cough.

After a few hours break, I caught up with Adolfo Alix Jr.'s Dark is the Night, and it didn't work. Here is a film set in Manila amidst the country's crackdown on the drug trade using questionable (fascist) means. It follows a middle-aged couple who deals drugs but exits the life of crime in large part due to the government's growing commitment to rid the city of drugs. This is accomplished by murdering unarmed users and labeling their corpses for all to see with a placard displaying the fact that he or she was a junky. Their son goes missing and none of their former partners will help. The search begins. And continues. On and on. The film is tedious instead of tense. The anxiety felt by the parents is understandable, and the symmetry of scenes is likely intentional to show how helpless they are, but it's inert as a functioning narrative.

The performances are fine in that they evoke this growing panic and dread among the parents, lying to themselves that everything will be okay. The political statement singling out corruption is fierce and righteous, but it needs a better movie to deliver it. It's a shame since it had a very promising opening scene that perfectly showcases the duality of the world they're in-a birthday party followed by a shooting committed by the police. After that, the wheels spin all the way to the inevitable finale.

Why Paco Plaza's Veronica wasn't selected for Midnight Madness is a head-scratcher. This is a heart-pounding horror movie from one of the directors of the REC trilogy, so it's not like it's entirely a departure. Three Spanish teenagers conduct a séance during a solar eclipse. Veronica (newcomer Sandra Escacena) speaks in tongues, the Ouija board breaks on its own, and she faints. A darkness follows her home and terrorizes the family, escalating its presence every time it shows up. Pretty standard set-up.

Smart move. Keeping it simple keeps it from flying out of control. Throughout most of the film, though, Plaza keeps the reality pretty close to his chest. Is it a haunting or a demonic possession? Does the distinction really even matter? What does matter is how effortlessly he raises tension. This has a lot to do with the sound design and the optimal camera angles. Veronica first returns home, hides the backpack with the Ouija board in it on top of her dresser and leaves the room. Thud. It's on the floor when she turns around to investigate. In another scene, Veronica walks toward the camera from the kitchen. As she does, the camera sees down the adjacent hallway, and what appears initially to just be her projected shadow turns out to be something else entirely.

It has one terrible montage, which can be forgiven, and a shoehorned "based on a true story" element that isn't. It's fine to be inspired by a "real" happening, but it really doesn't benefit the movie in any way other than inspiring bogus speculation about the real case. As a horror movie, it's got the goods and it doesn't rely on gore. Thematically, it's the second film (after Thelma) in two days that deals very much with a young woman coming of age and encountering a growing darkness surrounding her. And while Joachim Trier's film has been getting some of that buzz comparing it to Carrie, that connection may actually be more apropos for Veronica.

Monday brings a new week and one of the most anticipated films of the festival, especially after its accolades from Venice: Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water.


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