All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun. D.W. Griffith apparently uttered that phrase during the earlier stages of cinema’s development, and years later, the formula is as prominent as ever. Max Landis, the writer of American Ultra and now Mr. Right (5/10), lives and dies by these two elements. If you take away the girl or the gun from Mr. Right, there is no film.
The girl – Martha (the lovely Anna Kendrick), a quirky manic-pixie who becomes depressed after she leaves her cheating boyfriend – meets an odd but charming man (a typically charismatic Sam Rockwell) at a convenience store, but soon after, she grows suspicious of his idiosyncrasies. He seems like the perfect guy – handsome, fun and outgoing – except for one secret. He is a hitman.
The gun – the hitman has a moral code and refuses to kill for hire, so whenever he is contacted to do a job, he murders those that hired him to murder. On-the-run from a potentially crooked police officer (Tim Roth) and a powerful drug dealer, the hitman’s shady past also puts Martha in danger.
Doing right by relying on the chemistry and strength of Kendrick and Rockwell, Mr. Right has many sequences that showcase the leads’ talents but, unfortunately, these likeable actors have little to work with. Like asking a chef to make a sandwich without bread, or a politician to deliver a speech without lying, Rockwell and Kendrick do their best in a film that lacks the necessities: sensible plotting, meticulous cinematography, and well-paced editing.
Similar to American Ultra, Mr. Right relies heavily on the cross-pollination of contradictions: politeness in murder, charm in amorality, and a romantic-comedy in a gruesome action flick. The shifts from innocent puppy-love to sudden outbursts of violence are the film’s central gag, but after it begins to offer diminishing returns, as the film arrives at a trite and tired conclusion, we can’t help but think that something so right – Sam Rockwell and Anna Kendrick’s endearing performances – could be in service of something so awkwardly wrong.
Jafar Panahi’s camera is a gun; his editing scissors are a sword; his films are a battle cry. With subtlety and playfulness Taxi (9.5/10) is a militaristic attack against oppressive censorship and tyranny. This film is a declaration of war delivered by a director working in peak form. As an artistic statement, a manifesto, and an act of rebellion; Taxi is not only good entertainment and great art, it’s also an attempt to transform Iranian politics through cinema.
In 2010, Panahi was arrested by the Iranian government for trying to make a documentary about the controversial 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After being let out of jail and put on house-arrest, Panahi was still banned from making films for 20 years. Since his government ordained censorship, Panahi has broken his constraints by making three films: This Is Not A Film, a documentary that was smuggled to film festivals on a USB drive hidden in a cake, Closed Curtain, a narrative film shot in Panahi’s apartment and a friend’s house, and now, Taxi, an ethnographic dissection of Tehran from the perspective of a cab driven by Panahi.
Because Panahi plays himself, many audience members were confused as to whether Taxi was a documentary or a narrative film with actors. A testament to the minimalistic aesthetic and the strong performances, the film’s realism is always convincing.
In the latter half of Taxi’s brief 82 minutes, Panahi’s niece rides in the cab as she discusses a short film project she has to complete for school. As instructed by the teacher, this short must be “screenable,” meaning it must not conflict with the censor’s guidelines which explicitly restrict “sordid realism.” Taxi is a direct response to these censors as it comedically juxtaposes the young girl’s attempt to make a “screenable” film and the view of Iranian culture inside the cab. Panahi is outlining the absurdity of the censor’s restrictions of representation while making a film that deliberately subverts as many of the government’s rules as possible. It shows us child poverty. It depicts misogyny. It brings light to those oppressed by the government.
Where Taxi has a clear message, Beasts Of No Nation (8/10), a film about child soldiers that could have been an overlong Free The Children advertisement, has less clear-cut politics. It is a nuanced and morally ambiguous story that avoids being exploitative or one-dimensional. In part indebted to a great cast led by newcomer Abraham Atta and the consistently great Idris Elba, Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective, Sin Nombre) has made a gripping film about the effects of war, a loss of innocence and a critique of its characters’ masculine persona.
Based on a novel by Uzodinma Iweala, we follow Agu’s assimilation into a militia of child soldiers after his father and brother are killed by an invasion of their pacifist town. With the heartache and rage from being torn from his family, Agu sets out to kill those responsible under the command of a charismatic and proud commandant (Idris Elba). Elba’s character doesn’t twirl his moustache while gunning down enemies or abusing children. He has an honest cause, and although he may be evil, it’s hidden behind a confident ego and an appealing swagger.
With the right balance between gritty gore and tasteful restraint, Fukunaga has honestly dramatized this familiar story without easy contrivances or simplified answers. A long-take where Agu mistakes a woman for his mother and a sequence that borrows from Richard Mosse’s Infrared photography of the Congo, the director has an astonishing ability to create visually distinct sequences that make Beasts Of No Nation seem less repetitive and overlong than it actually is.
As the diverse programming at TIFF has proved, all you need is a girl and a gun to be entertained. But sometimes cinema can aspire to greater ambitions; it can become the gun to lead a cavalry for positive change.