TIFF Dispatch: Anatomy of Fall, New Hayo Miyazaki, and a Couple of Dicks Kick Off the Toronto International Film Festival

The fall festival circuit is in full throttle as the Toronto International Film Festival kicked off on September 7th with a slew of world premieres and current award hopefuls. My day started with Justine Treit’s incredible Anatomy of a Fall, which took home Cannes top prize: the Palme D’or (the same trophy Parasite took home a few years ago in route to a Best Picture win) and the movie lived up to the billing: A tense courtroom procedural that operates like a symphony and features a sensational lead performance from German actress Sandra Hüller. She plays Sandra Voyter, who is put on trial for the death of her husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis) after he was found dead in the driveway. Initially, it looked like a suicide jump, but there were several inconsistencies that didn’t align with that theory, including the formation of blood spatters and an inconclusive autopsy which failed to rule out third party involvement. 

Image courtesy Les Films Pelléas

Spoken in French and English, Anatomy of a Fall is a compelling and taut drama where it holds the viewer in its grip, with its technical wizardry, immersive score (including an unforgettable needle drop of a prominent rap song that will live rent free in your head for days), and a story just as much about the struggles of marriage as it is the mystery surrounding Samuel’s demise. Elsewhere, young Milo Machado Graner shines playing Daniel, Sandra’s visually impaired son who is also the sole witness of the crime and Swann Arlaud throws a no-hitter playing defense attorney Vincent Renzie. Neon is set to release the film later this fall. Don’t miss it. 

Speaking of Hüller, turns out Anatomy of a Fall wouldn’t be the last time I saw her as she also has a prominent role as the matriarch of a Gestapo family living next to the Auschwitz internment camp in writer-director Jonathan Glazer’s brilliant The Zone of Interest. The Under the Skin filmmaker delivers a piercing, emotional, and grounded narrative, based on the book by Martin Amis, surrounding Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), a commandant, and the lavish, picture-perfect life his family lives while, just on the other side of the fence, you can hear the screams as humans are burned alive. Considering we’ve seen countless movies on this subject, The Zone of Interest is an interesting dissection that relies more on the audio experience compared to a visual one. The horrors of what happened at Auschwitz are left to the imagination of the viewer and Glazer juxtaposes that with the Höss family swimming in their pool, canoeing down the river, and tending to the “paradise garden.” 

Image courtesy A24

All the while, gunshots can be heard in spitting distance and at one point a train is seen transporting prisoners overhead while Hoss’ children play in the backyard (the framing by cinematographer Lukasz Zal is immaculate). Glazer is unwavering in his approach to this tough subject, and suggests history’s most unforgivable atrocities were committed by people who were too cowardly to face the music. This is a film that will sit with you long after it's over. A24 will release it later this year. 

Switching up gears to something a little less depressing, writer-director John Carney’s Flora and Son captures the same feel-good energy of his Once even if it doesn’t have the same emotional grapple. Filled with a slew of original, catchy, music, whip smart comedic timing from its ensemble, and set in Dublin, Flora and Son puts Eve Hewson in the driver's seat playing Flora, a single mom struggling to connect with her son, Max (Oren Kinlan) who is one screw-up away from getting put into a juvenile detention center. On a whim, she decides to give music another shot, much to the bemoan of her ex, Ian, played by Jack Reynor, who will never miss an opportunity to let you know he was in a band headlining alongside Snow Patrol. Rounding out the cast is Joseph Gordon-Levitt channeling his inner Bob Ross as Flora’s LA-based music instructor, Jeff and the sparks and chemistry sizzle. Though the movie struggles at juggling the romantic conundrums of Flora (will she fly to LA and meet Jeff or try and patch things up back home with Ian?) The real crux of the movie, obviously, comes from the relationship between Max and Flora. 

Image courtesy of Distressed Films

And the two embark on a unique quest and band together to write lyrics and music (one such track is appropriately titled Dublin 07 in an homage to James Bond). It’s a harmless and breezy watch that’s not going to change your life, but you’ll walk away remembering Carney’s tactics (since Jeff is halfway across the globe, their tutoring sessions are often presented as if he’s standing right beside Flora), great music, and the personality Hewson brings to the table. Apple TV+ has it slated for a September 29th streaming bow. 

The opening night film belonged to the maestro himself, Hayao Miyazaki, the 82-year old filmmaker, and his latest cinematic achievement The Boy and the Heron. Toronto audiences were the first outside of Japan to screen the film and the energy and enthusiasm inside the Princess of Wales theater was nothing if not electric. The director’s first film since 2013’s The Wind Rises, the Oscar winner has brought himself out of a retirement for what’s presumably his last (?) film. 

Image courtesy of Studio Ghibli

The Boy and Heron acts as a poetic send-off for the director that showcases him at his most vulnerable. He’s staring down the barrel of his own morality and wants to leave the world in a better place than he found it while also asking the audience “How do you live?” which is the title of the film overseas. Such is the fantastical journey young Mahito (voiced by Soma Santoki) endures alongside a Gray Heron (Masaki Suda) who foretells of a hidden world that can lead to the resurrection of his dead mother. Going into the weeds and revealing more details would ruin the experience Miyazaki has so carefully curated (in Japan, the film was boldly released without a single trailer or still). What you should know is that the Studio Ghibli film features plenty of the director’s signature flourishes: breathtaking 2D animation, whimsical critters, and a daunting tale about the scales of power in a universe that needs a protector. It lacks the punch of the filmmakers earlier works, but The Boy and the Heron still acts as an authentic send-off to one of cinema’s biggest giants. The film is set to release around Christmas. 

Well, there had to be one dud right? And unfortunately that belongs to Patricia Arquette’s directorial debut Gonzo Girl, which chronicles the early nineties drug and sexcapades of famed novelist Walker Reade. Based on the book of the same name by Cheryl Della Pietra, Gonzo Girl, as presented in the cinematic medium, can never seem to get its head on straight despite a loose and memorable performance from the always reliable Willem Dafoe. He plays Reade, of course, who is shackled with an assistant, Alley Russo (Camile Morrone) in a bid to keep his forthcoming manuscript on track or risk being let go by his agent. The “Gonzo” girl so to speak. 

Image courtesy of Catch and Release Pictures

She quickly acclimates into Reade’s wild, drug induced lifestyle where he believes “4 am is when the real writing starts.” Easier said than done. It’s an overstuffed and jumbled mess that never does anything remotely interesting with its characters aside from crafting a few decent acid trips. Morrone, and frankly the rest of the cast, which includes Arquette as Reade’s secretary and Elizabeth Lail playing Reade’s overbearing girlfriend Devaney Peltier, can’t get on the same level as Dafoe, which is a bummer because this is probably the loosest I’ve seen him. There’s only so much he can do when the others can’t rise to the occasion and Arquette makes some weird directing choices along the way. 

Like Reade, Gonzo Girl is barely lucid enough to keep its plot together, which takes several detours with characters and relationships the movie doesn’t seem keen on exploring. It’s a well fought effort, but ultimately has nothing to say. The movie is seeking distribution. Look for a streamer to pick this one up. 

Finally, the last film of the day (and a world premiere in the Midnight Madness section of the film festival) is A24’s inhumane, vulgar,  grotesque, proudly gay, and at times ingenious Dicks: The Musical. Touted as the first musical from the famed indie studio and helmed by Larry Charles (Borat), Dicks is a movie for a very specific audience (and judging by the howls of laughter from inside the Royal Alexandra Theatre, they were it). It’s a film that, even running a tight 85-minutes, can sometimes overstay its welcome and extend the joke far beyond what would be considered reasonable. John Waters would be proud. 

Image courtesy of A24

Of course, this is a musical with lyrics like “Life is a handjob, I play to win,” a floating CGI vagina, and puppets/characters dubbed “The Sewer Boys,” so make sure expectations are in check. It hails from the braintrust of newcomers Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson, who created Dicks for off-Broadway consumption in 2015 where it was called “Fucking Identical Twins.” The production values and star power has been raised considerably (including a nice extended cameo from Megan Thee Stallion who doesn’t seem to understand why she’s in this movie). Sharp and Jackson play long-lost twin brothers who, in a riff on The Parent Trap, plot to reunite their estranged parents (played by Nathan Lane and Megan Mullalley). 

Lane and Mullally are completely game for whatever Sharp and Jackson hurl at them (and they endure a lot), and Bowen Yang is having a ball playing, let’s just say, a different incarnation of Jesus. If any of this sounds like your thing, A24 has it slated for release at the end of September. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. 

-Nate Adams