TIFF ’20 – Day 1: Fireball, American Utopia, Shiva Baby, Get the Hell Out, Night of the Kings

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (UK/Austria/USA, 2020. Dir: Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer): Here are some fighting words to get started: Werner Herzog documentaries are a mixed bag. At times, his interests are not aligned with anyone else’s and his research is surface-level (Lo and BeholdInto the Abyss). Luckily, Fireball has a compelling subject (the meteorites that have shaped civilization) and features Herzog at his most dynamic and easygoing (he can be a notch portentous). The filmmaker makes his case without a hitch, but more importantly, the interviewees from around the world obsessing over rocks falling from the sky are a very compelling group. Along the way, Herzog finds tasty information nuggets that help making this doc a pleasing experience. 3/5 falling planets. Distribution: Apple TV.

David Byrne’s American Utopia (USA, 2020. Dir: Spike Lee): Concert movies are a tough sell. Not only you’re not ‘there’, there’s a very limited number of visual choices available to the director. These films can be monotonous, particularly when the artist in question doesn’t play the hits. David Byrne does stage his better known songs, but even then the movie goes too long. Byrne’s brand of world music is pleasant enough, but hardly triggers the passion other artists stir. Between tunes, the multi-hyphened musician makes some well-meaning political commentary. It hits home only once, when at the tune of “Hell You Talmbout”, Byrne and co. list some of the many black victims of racism in recent years. Only then you can feel the hand of Spike Lee steering the boat. Plus and minuses, it’s not Stop Making Sense2.5/5 planets in the road to nowhere.

Shiva Baby (USA/Canada, 2020. Dir: Emma Seligman): A strong bottle comedy out of nowhere, Shiva Babymines social awkwardness and personal turmoil to great effect. Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is an aimless twentysomething who dabbles into light prostitution. Forced by his Jewish parents, the girl must attend a shiva in which all her unsavory behavior and numerous lies come crashing down, a situation made worse by the presence of an ex-girlfriend and her sugar daddy. A character piece at heart, it’s hard not to sympathize with Danielle given the relatable horrors of family gatherings. Shiva Baby doesn’t stick the landing (the lead is mortified throughout, but doesn’t really grow), but the journey is a fun one. 3.5/5 planets who needed the money.

Get the Hell Out (Taiwan, 2020. Dir: I-Fan Wang): The zombie comedy is a subgenre seldom done well. Most times it’s grating as heck. Get the Hell Out is incredibly kinetic, but doesn’t bring anything new to the table: A rabies outbreak takes place in parliament and pits honest lawmakers against bloodsucking freaks (and zombies). It’s never a good sign when a government has an Agriculture Disease Bureau. The film gives the impression that anything goes, but in reality it uses every trope in the book and hopes to trick the audience by the sheer volume of clichés. Sion Sono has used this formula before and much better. 2/5 immunocompromised planets.

Night of the Kings (Côte d’Ivoire/France/Canada/Senegal, 2020. Dir: Philippe Lacote): This is one of those movies in which the concept behind is far superior to the execution. An overcrowded prison is on the verge of a gang war. As a ploy to gain time, the local kingpin selects a new inmate to tell a story in a ritual that’s normally ends with the death of said prisoner. Taking a page from “One Thousand and One Nights”, the young man spins a story that incorporates tradition and Côte d’Ivoire’s recent history. Night of the Kings fails to live up to the gimmick and unfolds chaotically for very long 90 minutes. More inexcusably: The film wastes Denis Lavant (Holy Motors) in a nothing role. 2/5 sleepy planets.