GET THE HELL OUT
starring Bruce Hung, Megan Lai, Tsung-Hua To, Chung-wang Wang
screenplay by I-Fan Wang, Shih-Keng Chien, Wan-Ju Yang
directed by I-Fan Wang
starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linday May, Swankie
written for the screen and directed by Chloé Zhao
directed by Spike Lee
by Bill Chambers Have the ticking time bombs the world is sitting on and TIFF's significantly reduced slate resulted in the 2020 iteration of the festival--the COVID-19 TIFF, the pre-election TIFF, the world's-on-fire TIFF--being programmed with increased political fervour? Three of the four films I've so far watched at TIFF 2020 suggest that's the case in their topicality, though I will allow that the silliest of these, Taiwan's Get the Hell Out, would not resonate nearly as much as it does were it not for these unremovable pandemic goggles I wear now, which transform everything old and new into ironic commentary on this moment in history. Get the Hell Out begins in medias res after a (sigh/jerk-off motion) zombie outbreak in parliament, then backtracks to show how the headstrong Hsiung (Megan Lai) was literally muscled out of office for refusing to endorse a chemical plant that will contaminate the environment with the rabies virus. She manipulates a lovestruck security guard with chronic--and portentous--nosebleeds named Wang (Bruce Ho) into running in her place, hoping to use him as a sock-puppet against her misogynistic former colleagues. Alas, he has his own cock-eyed agenda, and so the plague proceeds apace. Trapped in the parliament building, Hsiung and Wang are forced to fend off hordes of cannibalistic MPs as well as their nefarious rival, Li (Chung-wang Wang), the movie's nominal Trump stand-in.
Get the Hell Out features scene after scene of violent mass slaughter in the vein of Kingsman: The Secret Service's church massacre, with the same spastic, impossible camerawork. It's fatiguing, like watching someone else play a videogame forever, but younger Twitch types may see this as an evolutionary step for cinema. The film does eventually acknowledge its debt to the medium more directly as it throws up avatars and scores for Wang and Li during their climactic mano a mano, for which Li has mutated into a zombie-human hybrid with a monster arm, something I enjoyed in a Dead Heat sort of way. Though Get the Hell Out's playful impulses are somewhat refreshing for the genre, they ultimately distract from its cliched, rote trajectory rather than subvert it. What's interesting is the running thread about governmental collusion with big business (so lacking in nuance it should elicit eye-rolls, it instead registers with gratifying bitterness), not to mention an epilogue that satirizes the politics of a potential vaccine with an edge that current events have undoubtedly sharpened.
Inspired by the true story of Empire, Nevada, which became a ghost town in 2011 after the closing of Empire's Sheetrock plant--itself precipitated by the 2008 housing crisis--devastated the local economy so badly that the U.S. discontinued its ZIP Code, Chloé Zhao's Nomadland stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a widow forced to finally pull up stakes and leave Empire behind. She gets a job at an Amazon factory and lives out of her van, but the gig is temporary, and the nightly temperature drops soon nudge her to warmer climes. She hears about real-life YouTube personality Bob Wells, who teaches RVers and van-dwellers how to live on the open road, foster communities that make the nomadic life easier and less lonely to lead, and even how to circumvent parking by-laws. In her aimless stop-start journey across the American Southwest, Fern encounters many colourful characters playing themselves, or versions of themselves, in pseudo-documentary fashion (the film is based on journalist Jessica Bruder's non-fiction book), at first giving McDormand's performance an undercover quality. But by the time fellow ringer David Strathairn materializes as Dave, Fern's putative love interest, she's so thoroughly assimilated in this milieu that he becomes the temporary impostor. At one point, he accidentally breaks the dishes Fern's father bequeathed her, and it elicited a pang, nay, a yelp of sympathy from me I wasn't prepared for.
Strathairn at first seems to be revisiting his dashing Passion Fish character in late-middle-age, but Dave is clumsier--and not just with his hands. He errs in trying to change her, whether by buying her licorice instead of the cigarettes she asked for or by leaving her with his grandchild, as if it will awaken the homebody in her. Losing her husband and then her house have left her unmoored in some way that is permanent, and while she seems to have accepted her fate as a workhorse put out to pasture, to paraphrase Bob Wells, all too readily for some--like Dave, or her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith)--to accept, she's not self-destructive. The opposite, really: she's protecting herself from further disillusionment in a country where even having a house doesn't guarantee a fixed address. I wish Nomadland were a little more indignant on behalf of Fern, Dave, Bob, the wonderfully named Swankie, et al., and a little less politically modest; Dave incurs a hospital stay that passes without any kind of insight into American health care and what must be an extraordinarily complicated system for someone who lives hand-to-mouth to navigate. Who do these people vote for? I can guess, and I'm sure it's a moral contradiction that Nomadland, a Disney movie (officially, anyway), didn't want to confront. On the other hand, its gentle survey of humanity reminds me of another unlikely Disney production, David Lynch's The Straight Story, which is no small compliment.
The last movie I want to touch on is David Byrne's American Utopia, Spike Lee's filming of the eponymous Broadway show featuring Byrne performing songs primarily by Byrne or Byrne's old band Talking Heads with a diverse mix of musicians and performance artists who are not Talking Heads but do the Talking Heads proud. It's impossible to watch American Utopia without mentally comparing it to Jonathan Demme's masterpiece Stop Making Sense, and it follows a similar pattern of beginning with Byrne alone on stage (this time holding a human brain and singing "Here") and introducing its ensemble gradually, one member at a time. Byrne obviously knows a good gimmick when he sees it, but Lee is stuck paying de facto homage to Demme, having been contracted to shoot a finished show rather than build one from the ground up with Byrne as Demme did. Still, Lee and his DP, the great Ellen Kuras, shoot Byrne's minimalist installation well, occasionally taking us to the other side of the silver-beaded curtains that surround the band or adopting God's-eye views highlighting the complexity of choreography that looks less intricate at ground-level. Where Lee really asserts himself is during Byrne's characteristically rousing rendition of Janelle Monae's "Hell You Talmbout," intercutting pictures of Black victims of police violence to which the Broadway audience wasn't privy. For all of Byrne's liberal messaging throughout the concert--its producers went so far as to register voters in the lobby--it's this montage that speaks loudest and cements the integrity of the project. Get the Hell Out - Programme: Midnight Madness; Nomadland - Programme: Gala Presentations; David Byrne's American Utopia - Programme: Gala Presentations