2020 Toronto Int. Film Fest Diary: Entry 4 - Last Words

by C.J. Prince

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday September 22, 2020

Chloë Grace Moretz in a scene from "Shadow in the Cloud."
Chloë Grace Moretz in a scene from "Shadow in the Cloud."  (Source:Courtesy of TIFF)

The Toronto International Film Festival has come to an end with less of a whimper and more of an exhausted sigh. In previous years, people would be buzzing about what film would walk away with the People's Choice Award, the festival's biggest honor (usually because any Hollywood film that gets it would be crowned as a frontrunner for the Oscars). This year, there wasn't much buzz despite an unprecedented result: Chloe Zhao's "Nomadland" came out as the winner, making it the first film to win both People's Choice and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Of course, the importance of such a distinction only depends on how much one puts any value into it. Your mileage may vary, although I'm sure the film's marketers are over the moon.

In my final days of the festival, I decided to look at Roseanne Liang's "Shadow in the Cloud," which took home the People's Choice Award for the Midnight Madness programme, an achievement undercut by the fact that it only had two other films to compete with. Taking place in 1943 but defined by a slick and anachronistic 80s style, "Shadow" stars Chloë Grace Moretz as a Woman's Auxiliary Air Force officer hopping on a plane from her base in New Zealand to deliver a package that cannot be opened under any circumstances. Surrounded by a crew of men surprised by their new passenger, they treat the presence of a woman like someone spit in their faces, shoving her into a turret underneath the plane to watch for enemy planes. She ends up seeing a giant, rat-like creature on the plane ripping it apart, but her concerns go unheard by the chauvinistic crew, making her take matters into her own strong, fierce, Girlboss hands.

Chloë Grace Moretz in a scene from "Shadow in the Cloud." Photo credit: Courtesy of TIFF

"Shadow in the Cloud" is a busy film despite taking place almost entirely on a plane. It's also staggeringly stupid as if the filmmakers took a 12-year-old boy's first draft and tossed in a bit of feminist flavor to take advantage of the zeitgeist. Every misogynist statement spoken by the male characters operates like a thwack on viewers' heads, treating them like dogs needing to be trained on when to frown at bad, bigoted behavior and eventually cheer at the inevitable comeuppance. It turns out women are perfectly capable of flying planes, taking out enemy fighters with perfect aim, crawling across a plane's underbelly in midair, pulling a Sully Sullenberger, and getting into a fistfight with a giant, deadly rat. Why would you assume otherwise?

In a better filmmaker's hands, the downright ridiculous elements might have fared better, but "Shadow in the Cloud" wraps everything in layers of serious, self-congratulatory messages of female empowerment that's downright laughable. There's nothing funnier than seeing a film think it's actually saying something about gender inequality when it has all the grace of "Me Tarzan, You Jane." Making matters worse is how all of this grade school girl power messaging comes from a screenplay originally written by Max Landis, an association the filmmakers have been contorting themselves to try and get away from (Landis has a history of misogynistic remarks and has been accused of sexual abuse by multiple women). Honestly, they're doing themselves no favors by downplaying his name. It would be better to put his name front and center so they can at least point to an excuse for why this garbage exists.

I didn't want to end my experience at this year's festival on a negative note, so I wanted to talk a bit about Nicolas Pereda's "Fauna," which turned out to be one of the best things I saw from TIFF's lineup. Pereda has made a name for himself on the experimental film scene over the past decade, so it comes as a bit of surprise that the film's first-half plays out like a hilarious, off-kilter riff of "Meet the Parents." Luisa (Luisa Pardo) and her boyfriend Paco (Francisco Barreiro) take a trip to visit her parents and brother Gabino (Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez) in a small mining town. A series of awkward encounters between Paco and Luisa's family ensues, as they fixate on the fact that Paco has a small role on the Netflix show "Narcos." Pereda's precise framing and use of long takes only heighten the awkwardness, the highlight being a sequence at a bar where Luisa's father demands Paco to act out scenes from the TV show.

But just as "Fauna" settles into one groove, Pereda makes a sudden change that turns the film into an entirely different beast. Revealing any details about what happens would end up harming it, since so much of the second half plays into ideas of expectations from the perspectives of filmmaker and audience. What I feel comfortable saying is that "Fauna" has two distinct halves that are full of parallels but feel totally incongruous with one another. Where Pereda's film ends up may not be conventionally satisfying, but the experience is so beguiling it hasn't left my head since I saw it. For me, it's these kinds of discoveries that define TIFF.

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