TIFF17 Day Six

A Look at Brawl in Cell Block 99, The Square, and Ravens

Sep 13, 2017 By Jason Wilson Web Exclusive
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Let's work backwards. It's 1:30 in the morning here in Toronto, I just got in from S. Craig Zahler's latest Brawl in Cell Block 99, and I'm wired but need to sleep. Midnight Madness, as I've professed in this space before, is my favorite part of TIFF. It's not because it features the best, most thoughtful films of the year, and it isn't always high art. What Midnight Madness is more than anything else is capital F fun. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is no different.

One change was they moved the screening time to 10:45, curious for a film as part of Midnight Madness. Madness programmer Peter Kuplowsky announced before the screening that it wasn't the typical film you'd see in the series, referring to it as more of a slow burn that leads to a brutal payoff (not dissimilar to Zahler's last movie, the insane horror-western hybrid, Bone Tomahawk). He did say that he timed the screening so the witching hour coincided with the appearance of one Udo Kier. Very apropos, Mr. Kuplowsky.

And it is a slow burn. Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is let go from his job and returns to shadier dealings, delivering drug packages for a friend. A job goes bad and he winds up in jail. To explain what leads to the brawl would give far too much away in terms of plot, but let's just say the fight scenes deliver the goods. The violence is simultaneously revolting and rousing, and it's in large part due to the work put in by Vaughn and the script that sets Bradley up as a mostly sympathetic character. Without the build and backstoryincluding a wonderful early scene with a parked carthe fights would have been gratuitous. While pacing may be an issue as it drags on occasion, it's not without merit. This is also the strongest dramatic work Vaughn has ever committed to celluloid, at least in recent memory. Though, it has been quite a while since I saw Clay Pigeons.

But it is a strong exercise in managing and manipulating expectations, and the crowd was certainly game. They hooted and hollered and cheered at all the right moments. If you come to TIFF in the future, you need to take in at least one Midnight Madness movie. It's an absolute blast.

Ruben Ostlunds' The Square won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, so anything less than superlative would be a disappointment, which is unfair. The Square is a movie of ideas. It focuses on the class divide between the haves and have-nots and their perceptions of one anotherthough told through the perspectives of the haves. It also waxes philosophical about art and its value, both commercially and to society at large. The capitalist leanings of the art world are conflicting with the art being produced. Perhaps Ostlund is trying to raise a mirror to the film world at large, chasing record profits and receipts in lieu of making challenging works of art and self-censoring at the first sign of backlash. The film raises these questions, and while there are few answers to be had I don't think The Square is necessarily interested in getting to the bottom of things. This is never more apparent than in the business with the chimp. Instead, it opts to dive into set-pieces of absurdity to break the tension while layering even more questions about the bourgeoisie and, in many ways, the pointlessness of it all.

To concern yourself with the narrative beats following an agitated museum curator as a new exhibition approaches is to miss the forest for the trees. It's not a simple elevator pitch movie, and it could be to its detriment while also being its greatest, most thought provoking element.

It will certainly be divisive, and by casting such a jumble of thoughts into a blender it all comes out in a bit of a mush, but it should have people talking and pontificating about moments. If it's in righteous fury and indignation over the content and its value, perhaps Ostlund's achieved exactly what he's set out to.

Finally, Sweden's Jens Assur's feature debut Ravens is part of the Discovery wing of TIFF. This can be a mixed bag, and not one that yields fun in lieu of deep meaning. Assur is a veteran of shorts, though, and his steady hand is apparent herein. Agne is a struggling farmer in the late 1970s who is increasingly bitter at the world for his lot in life. While he never comes out and says it, he exhibits behavior that suggests he feels he's entitled to more. He complains of his son's lack of work ethic, coercing him into helping him work. It's clear, too, that many of his shortcomings are not because life has cursed him as he believes, but because he's so pigheaded and stubborn and refuses help and compromise from fellow farmers.

Ravens isn't exclusively about Agne in solitude, but also follows the rest of the family. The patriarch, however, is the cloud over everyone. He refuses to take the family on vacationthe work is importantand it takes its toll. The film is set firmly in its tone of bleakness, and it may come across as overly dour. But Agne, for all his faults, is well-meaning. It's just overshadowed by his unwillingness to budge. It's a compelling drama with an impeccable musical score and it features a wonderful closing shot that carries much of the film's weight as it fades to black. Seek it out.

Day seven will be a busy one. I'm planning on seeing at least five films if not six including Greta Gerwig's hyped directorial debut, Lady Bird, and the latest collaboration between Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Let the Corpses Tan.

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