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TIFF 2016. Correspondences #3

The third installment in our festival coverage delves into Terrence Malick's IMAX documentary and Tom Ford's follow-up to "A Single Man."
Voyage of Time
Dear Danny,
TIFF is indeed an ocean, vast and churning, and we all have lighthouse films—titles around which we build schedules, and that help us situate ourselves amid the bustle. One such lighthouse film for me was Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time, a long-gestating IMAX documentary being shown here in two versions, one running 90 minutes and another 45 minutes. The longer cut, subtitled Life’s Journey, was the one I caught, and it’s a rapturous work of telescopes and microscopes. The scope is cosmic as well as infinitesimal, as befits a film that ruminates on the very formation of life and nature, beginning with semi-abstract orbs that could be shimmering stars or inflamed ova. Blending natural footage with computer-rendered effects, Malick envisions the shape-shifting universe as a most lavish planetarium light-show. Darkness yields to fire, erupting lava hardens and cools underwater, beguilingly bulbous critters swim and crawl past the camera. There are roaring geysers, cetacean behemoths, screen-filling sprawls of rock and ice. There are also earfuls of Mahler and Haydn, along with the mandatory ellipsis-laden Malick narration, recited by Cate Blanchett like incantatory captions: “Nature… Who am I to you? … O mother, abyss of light...”
“Mother” is a recurring murmur throughout Voyage of Time, used to address this mysterious feminine force of creation with a fusion of awe and inquisitive desolation. A dinosaur nuzzles its offspring, who’s later seen alone by the edge of the sea before a meteor rumbles from above. “So much joy… Why not always?” Rushing through millions of years, the film’s paramount feeling is one of impermanence, of life desperately trying to hang on to a spectacularly mutating cosmos. Human beings occupy little of its running time: There are grainy video inserts of contemporary events across the globe (Skid Row glimpses, Hindi ceremonies, Middle East refugee camps), and Dawn of Man reenactments with skittish Neanderthals carrying Promethean torches. In a pregnant image, one of the cave-dwellers leaves a hand imprint on mud, just another attempt at leaving a mark on a wondrous world that couldn’t care less. Malick is often accused of New Age mysticism, but his strikes me as a ruthlessly scientific vision, an evolutionary view of beauty and pain that concludes logically here with the collapse of the sun itself. And yet the tone is exalted rather than bleak, because for Malick the search, the need for questioning and discovery is itself a source of transcendence. Voyage of Time does occasionally suffer from the diffuse prettiness that marred To the Wonder and Knight of Cups—at its most facile, during manicured savannah ambles or helicopter vistas of glittering Dubai buildings, it suggests a Disney version of Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness. Mostly, however, it’s a fiercely enveloping marvel, with Malick offering image after image like molten stained-glass panels.
On the other hand, prettiness is all Tom Ford has in Nocturnal Animals. From glassy Los Angeles atriums to a used wad of toilet paper, every element is glacéed with the slick polish of a magazine spread, or that of the “provocative” installations favored by Susan (Amy Adams), a posh but doleful art-gallery curator. Relief from her tediously money-coated world arrives one night in the form of a manuscript bearing the film’s title, written by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Suddenly, the heroine finds herself gripped by this tale of terror and retribution, in which a family man (also played, in the movie-within-the-movie she imagines, by Gyllenhaal) experiences tragedy and tracks down the taunting redneck (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) responsible. The more she reads, the more she recognizes it as a purgative meta-text reflecting the ups and downs of her relationship with Edward. (Cue rhyme from a pair of immaculately posed violated corpses to the protagonist’s teen daughter asleep in the same posture.) Ford (a former fashion designer, as every critic is contractually required to bring up) has a shapely way with scene-sculpting, and his juggling of Susan’s real world, the narrative she envisions and her flashbacks of the couple’s past is far more fluent than the enervated boutique impressionism of A Single Man, his first film. Yet no matter how nice the shot (a ripsnorting Michael Shannon, in tan lawman suit and stetson against a sun-blasted hotel sign), Ford’s rarefied good taste leeches off any potential danger or exploration. What’s left is pristine hollowness, not a braided portrait of art and fury but a fancy guide titled How to Take Revenge on Your Ex and Become the New Cormac McCarthy.
Far from the ostentatious cine-shuffling of Nocturnal Animals is the forthright leanness of Hello Destroyer, a fine feature debut by Canadian director Kevan Funk. Wiry and painfully withdrawn, young Tyson (Jared Abrahamson) finds his place in the athletic world as a junior enforcer in a Prince George hockey team. With its arduous exercises, hazings, and coaches barking about pounding human steel into swords, there’s more than a hint of militaristic grind to the setting. Tyson absorbs it all in tight close-ups, his eyes darting nervously behind his protective visor while game music becomes an ominous, thumb-thumb ringing in his ears. “Good amount of aggression,” praises the coach at one point. Once he goes over that “good amount,” however, Tyson finds himself punished for violence by the very institution that cultivated it. Often framing its protagonist’s close-cropped head from behind or in stark profile, Funk’s camera has an almost Austrian ruthlessness—imagine a nation’s national pastime treated like Benny’s Video. Rather than a tightening-the-screws race to a crackup, Hello Destroyer is a patient and pensively compassionate observation of lost people rattling around within hypocritical systems, in and out of the ice rink. Now if only a Brazilian filmmaker brought the same kind of thoughtful scrutiny to soccer stadium…
Eager to hear more about your wanderings, Danny.
Best,
Fern

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