September 19, 2021

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “One Second,” “Wolf” & “Silent Night”


ONE SECOND (Neon – TBD):  Zhang Yimou’s film was notoriously the subject of controversy with the Chinese government, which held it back from its originally scheduled film festival debut in 2019, and forced some reediting and even reshooting, so one assumes that in its initial version, the story, set during the Cultural Revolution, was more politically pointed.  The released cut, though, isn’t the hash it could have been (and if you squint, the commentary is still visible, at least in part).  It’s set in the Chinese desert region circa 1975, when television wasn’t available, and moviegoing was a communal event, the entire town gathering for showings of the same ten-year-old propaganda films that were shuttled by hand over and over from one remote village to the next and back again.  An unnamed man (Zhang Yi) is desperate to see the newsreel accompanying the film, so much so that we come to learn that he’s escaped prison just so he can watch a fragment of it.  His efforts are confounded by a teen orphan (Liu Haocun), who’s just as desperate for the film itself–the very celluloid–that she needs for a purpose that has nothing to do with cinema.  The two engage in an almost Road Runner vs Coyote series of conflicts and reversals through the desert, until they reach the next destination, a town whose projectionist is so renowned that he’s known as “Mr. Movie” (Fan Wei).  The entire town has to join in when it’s discovered that the newsreel has been accidentally dragged through the desert, and needs to be cleaned and untangled frame by frame.  Zhang’s perspective on movies is inspiring but also clear-eyed, focused on film not as entertainment but rather as a document and a physical object.  Yet in doing so, he and co-writer Zou Jingzhi tell a marvelously entertaining yarn, with a trio of fully fleshed-out performances, and gorgeous visuals from cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding.  Despite facing his own troubles as he tried to have his own movie presented to audiences, Zhang has delivered a funny, bracing tale of film in all its aspects.

WOLF (Focus/Universal – Dec. 3):  Natalie Biancheri’s film is built around species disphoria, a real condition in which people believe that they are animals mistakenly existing in human bodies.  In Wolf, Jacob (George MacKay, from 1917) believes himself to be the title animal, and when his parents are unable to cope with his violence and other animal behavior, they bring him to a (fictional) facility specializing in the condition, where he meets, among other species, a squirrel, a horse, a parrot, a duck and most importantly a wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), with whom he bonds.  The staff, led by a Dr. Mann, who’s nickname is “Zookeeper” (Paddy Considine), employs increasingly extreme methods to make the residents admit that they in fact belong in the bodies they inhabit.  There are some very dicey metaphors that could have come into play here, but Biancheri stays away from all that, and instead adopts the kind of view associated with 1960s-70s films like King of Hearts, where only the mad were seen as truly free.  MacKay certainly commits to his role, and Depp is effective as his more conflicted bonding partner.  Biancheri’s writing, though, is often vague, and the characters aren’t fully formed.  It’s easy to imagine Wolf as a cult movie, less so as one that would resonate with broader audiences.

SILENT NIGHT (AMC+ – December TBD):  Camille Griffin’s film is something of a bait and switch.  For the first 20 minutes or so, it presents itself as a bubbly Richard-Curtis-type British ensemble comedy, where an assortment of first-class actors all gather together in the same large house for a Christmas Eve that will be marked by romantic entanglements and awkward, long-brewing confrontations.  The cast, too, lends itself to those expectations, with Keira Knightley as the hosts, and a guest list that includes Annabelle Wallis, Lucy Punch, Lily-Rose Depp and Sope Dirisu.  The hints begin dropping, though, that something more solemn is going on, and fairly quickly we com come to understand that this party is literally for the end of the world, as toxic clouds caused by climate change are in the process of killing every living creature on Earth.  The British government has issued suicide pills to all its citizens, and Silent Night resolves itself into a story about the pros and cons of taking the doomsday pill.  The intention, to the very end, is to retain some dose of black comedy, as random, petty issues hinder the suicide plans, but overall things turn quite grim.  The focal point of the story turns out to be Art (Roman Griffin Davis, from Jo Jo Rabbit and also the director’s son), who pushes hardest at the issue of whether to take the pill or see what happens.  Silent Night is deliberately schizophrenic, and its leaps of tone don’t entirely work, in part because unlike, say, Dr Strangelove, there isn’t much plot here, serious or satiric, beyond whether ot not to commit suicide.  The film comes off as a difficult experiment whose formulas needed some refinement.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."