One of the best things about a festival program is its ability to keep viewers on their toes, especially when it seems like all has been seen. Some of this year's films shook up the norm in numerous ways, whether in unique tone (“A Perfect Day”) or with performance (“Cuckold”). In essence, they challenged the very idea of what entertainment needs to grip an audience. These two films are special in their own way, but are nonetheless flawed by other means.
And then of course, there's festival favorite "Spotlight." But before getting to that fall fest hit, let's look into "A Perfect Day" and "Cuckold" in ascending order of quality.
There is some unfulfilled tonal ambition within Fernando León de Aranoa’s “A Perfect Day,” a black comedy that follows aid workers in the war-torn Balkans in 1995. The joke begins with their objective—finding a way to lift a corpse out of a village’s well. All they need is some rope, but that proves a day-long task for the film's group, which includes Benicio del Toro’s rugged Mambrú, Tim Robbins' free-spirited B (channeling oughts-era Bill Murray), Olga Kurylenko as Mambrú’s old fling Katya and Mélanie Theirry as a by-the-book amateur to the experience. Numerous obstacles (physical and political) get in their way, but scant amusement ensues.
This sometimes wacky, sometimes bleak film would be more enjoyable if it were simply funnier, as the ambition to laugh in the face of such frustrating, horrifying standards is weakened by flat joke set-ups and execution. It's very apparent the stakes that surround them (including land mines, which continually have them challenging fate), but the tension from those elements do not alone make the script funny. The pace leaves one starving for something a bit snappier, especially as the sarcastic movie aims to not succumb to the extremely morbid environment, but dance through it. Though the story is wrapped up pretty neatly with a bow fitting to its optimistic, dark heart, “A Perfect Day” struggles to take off with its sense of humor.
Adding to the dead weight within "A Perfect Day" is its eye-rolling sexism, in which its two lead women are either sexualized (Kurylenko) or peppy about following protocol (Thierry and Kurylenko)—the women follow the rules so that the gruff guys don’t have to. And the men are usually right, based on some macho intuition. Even when Kurylenko tries to appeal with bullish soldiers by using her oft-scoffed-at protocol, the camera is more concerned with what Del Toro’s doing at the same time. The setting for a workplace comedy has changed from the usual in “A Perfect Day,” but the dynamics haven’t.
Add a bar jukebox soundtrack (which includes Marilyn Manson's cover of "Sweet Dreams," but curiously NOT Lou Reed's "Perfect Day"), some interstitial, overhead shots of the landscape, and you have a gallows humor comedy that is relatively middle of the road in spite of its attempts. It's got a flavor of its own, but a bland one at that.
Writer/director/actor Charlie Vundla puts the audience in the headspace of a jilted man in “Cuckold,” which is more or less about a guy named Smanga (Vundla) whose wife Laura (Terry Pheto) ditched him for another man. He spends his depressed time sipping out of a whiskey bottle, shooting his revolver out in the rain, watching porn with a very defeated face, etc. Y'know, “guy stuff.” One night at a bar, he runs into an old pal named Jon (Louis Roux), who needs a place to stay. The both of them at weird crossroads in their lives, they decide to hang out, and start selling weed to help pay for Smanga’s house bills.
About halfway through the film, Laura comes back (as shown prominently in the trailer, so technically not a spoiler), to Smanga’s eventual acceptance and Jon’s curiosity. “Cuckold” then becomes a type of comedy about friendship, and trust, while Smanga and Jon's companionship gets tense because of her. But regardless as to who Laura ends up with, no one has their grubby hands on Terry Pheto more than Nicolaas Hofmeyer’s gawking cinematography, which flattens her character and the film’s chance to be a unique take on fragile masculinity. Instead, “Cuckold” is an imbalanced bro movie, albeit with a very striking performance leading the way.
Vundla’s line delivery as a refreshingly bizarre lead will be one of the most distinct memories to take away from the 51st year of this festival. Wonderfully dry and irritated with the world to the point of stiffness, his character’s straightforward dialogue has a unique comedy to it, especially as it comes from his gritted teeth and pissed-off glare; One wonders what he’d be able to do in a bigger movie.
“Cuckold” resembles something of a Duplass brothers joint, sans the duo’s hammy zooms. As it shows the men goofing around, often sitting in a little pool outside Smanga’s house, it has a nature that recalls a movement some people like to call “mumblecore.” In these hit-or-miss spots, the refreshing, self-mocking comedy that inspires this story keeps it afloat. But the ogling second half makes “Cuckold” what it shouldn’t be—just another dude movie.
Of course, there's also no inherent evil within that which may be familiar, especially when it so confidently buzzes like Tom McCarthy's "Spotlight." The film has been burning up the festival circuit, (from Venice to Middleburg), and was CIFF's closing title. In short, it pays tribute to the Boston Globe reporting team of the film's title, as they investigated the city's archdiocese and their cover-up of up to 90 counts of abuse by clergy. Included in the bunch are reporters played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d'Arcy James. They answer to the likes of editors played by John Slattery and Liev Schreiber. Billy Crudup and Stanley Tucci also appear as lawyers on opposing parts of a devastating secret.
As you can imagine from seeing all of those names together in the same paragraph, this is a great cast. About five minutes into "Spotlight," once an extended take introduces us to their lair, you realize that you like every single actor here playing a hard-working person; it's a giddy sight to see them embody someone who genuinely loves their job. They're nonetheless a fit match to go up against an evil system, as representatives of a newspaper for a city that people keep talking about like it's a small town.
Even before the Spotlight team takes on this piece in one of the first scenes, the script has an assured pace. Combining their individual powers (the speediness and pushiness of Ruffalo's Michael Rezendes, or the connections that Keaton's Robby Robinson has) the group works to get documents uncovered, to get to the bottom of the story while simultaneously digging up their own buried news clippings. The film blazes, a la last year's drumming sensation "Whiplash," on that same chemical of ambition. Even if the story doesn't sink in too deep after the "Spotlight" has passed, it offers a rhythm that can't be denied.
McCarthy's film has a great sensitivity to the horrors as well, in stark scenes that share with viewers a survivor's experience with abuse, and that of sharing those life-changing stories with another person. McCarthy completes a sturdy big picture within his investigation film by treating survivors with the same genuine nature as his reverence for the Spotlight crew. His directing is even sharp for what he does and doesn't show—there are no flashbacks or reenactments, and a key character is presented strictly as a voice on the phone. McCarthy prevails with such careful measurement.
"Spotlight" is the best crowd-pleaser of the year. Now, the word "crowd-pleaser" is only a relatively backhanded term if associated with something that's shilling to audiences, like the atrocious Bill Murray movie "St. Vincent" from last year. "Spotlight" is a crowd-pleaser only in that it aims to thoroughly satisfy more than challenge its audience, complete with gripping characters in a pursuit for justice. Theoretically, its battle of good and evil is no contest, but McCarthy honors the notion that with the right cast and sharp filmmaking, movies have no less purpose when providing a great comfort. "Spotlight" is led headfirst by its values—those of teamwork, pride, and honesty; values that are even older than printed paper, but have the same timeless, human quality.