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TIFF 2016: “Message From the King,” “Without Name,” “The Bad Batch”

Toronto’s Vanguard program has been one of my favorite sections of the festival over my first two years of attendance. It’s where I found “Spring,” “Goodnight Mommy,” “The Duke of Burgundy,” “February” (aka “The Blackcoat’s Daughter”), and more. And so this year’s line-up became an essential part of my personal scheduling. Although I had to miss what most are arguing is the film of this year’s Vanguard, Nacho Vigalondo’s “Colossal” (another writer will cover it), and I have yet to get to Osgood Perkins’ “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House.” The sad news is that this year’s Vanguard, at least for me personally, will not live up to previous years, as the three films that I have seen from the program are all various degrees of disappointing.

Let’s start with a noir genre exercise that actually shared Opening Night of this year’s fest back on Thursday. While Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt were walking the red carpet for “The Magnificent Seven,” the talented cast of “Message From the King” were on stage across town at the Elgin Screening Room. Fabrice Du Welz (“Alleluia”) directs this story of a man coming to Los Angeles from Cape Town, South Africa, looking for his sister. I’m often fascinated by foreign directors tackling places as symbolic of America as L.A., and this particular riff on “The Limey” stars the great Chadwick Boseman, an actor whom I keep wanting to see get the right part to take him to the next level. This isn’t it.

Boseman stars as Jacob King (yes, that’s his last name, and he literally says the title after beating someone nearly to death, which is indicative of the film’s overall lack of subtlety). Jacob arrives in L.A. looking for his sister, quickly finding her battered body in the morgue. She was tortured before she was killed, and Jacob soon learns she had fallen deep into the underbelly of the City of Angels, getting involved in heavy drug use and pornography. As Jacob gets closer to figuring out who killed his sister, he gets deeper into the grotesque world of Los Angeles, starting with petty drug dealers and moving up to politicians and power players. Teresa Palmer co-stars as a woman who lives with her daughter in the same hotel in which King is staying (and who becomes his only friend), while Luke Evans and Alfred Molina play the sleaziest of the sleaze.

And I do mean sleaze. “Message From the King” eventually gets so grimy that you want to wash it off. I don’t have a problem with movies that explore dark territory, but said exploration demands something in exchange. It could be clever dialogue, interesting characters, thematic depth—whatever it may be, we need a reason to venture into Dante’s Inferno, and “Message from the King” doesn’t really provide one.

A much better film but still a slight disappointment thanks largely to sky-high expectations set by my colleague Glenn Kenny is Ana Lily Amirpour’s “The Bad Batch,” although it’s a film that I certainly want to see again and could use some more time away from festival madness to unpack and analyze. Something similar happened with Amirpour’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” a film I didn’t immediately take to at Sundance like some of my colleagues, but that grew in memory and on repeat viewing. You should seek it out if you haven’t seen it. “The Bad Batch” is an even more ambitious venture, and it shows off Amirpour’s incredible sense of framing and overall confidence. There aren’t many directors willing to start their sophomore film with fifteen dialogue-free minutes, but that’s the kind of filmmaker this is—one willing to take risks.

“The Bad Batch” opens with an unnamed girl being pushed into a desert of cannibals and villains. Think the landscape of “Mad Max: Fury Road” about a generation before the action of that masterpiece. She’s one of “the bad batch,” the people deemed unworthy of civilization and now forced into a dangerous world that basically consists of two societies—one of muscled cannibals led by Jason Momoa, and another of dancing fools in a town called Comfort, led by Keanu Reeves. Despite having two limbs literally eaten by the former group, our heroine learns that they may actually be a better alternative.

“The Bad Batch” contains very little dialogue and almost no traditional narrative. It is hard to even describe it accurately, which is exactly what I think Amirpour wants. She wants to challenge expectations. Personally, I wish the journey led somewhere more rewarding. Too much of this project feels half-baked, like notes in a journal that needed to be formed into something more concrete. There are also times when I sense the artifice of it all instead of believing the world in which it takes place. However, I give Amirpour tons of credit for committing to her vision, and I look forward to seeing where she looks next.

A TIFF site description that compares a film to Roman Polanski’s “The Tenant” sets a certain bar of expectation that Lorcan Finnegan’s “Without Name” cannot get over. This first-time director has the ambition to get his work into Vanguard, but the execution is repetitive, lacking and pretentious when it should be scary. “Without Name” wants to echo mood horror pieces like those of Polanski or David Lynch but there’s a reason that so few people make those kind of films—they’re really hard to pull off.

Eric (Alan McKenna) is a land surveyor, hired by a mysterious employer to survey a remote forest, where he basically starts to go insane. By the time his lovely co-worker Olivia (Niamh Algar) gets there, Eric is seeing figures in the woods and hearing strange sounds. Don’t worry, this is no “Blair Witch”—it’s more an undefined threat marked by sound design and shots of Eric looking concerned. The concept of getting lost in the forest and the idea of the natural world holding threats greater than we could possibly understand offer plenty of opportunities for horror filmmaking. Finnegan can’t quite find the hook, keeping us as lost as his hero. 


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