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‘Outlaw King’ and ‘Non-Fiction’ bring winds of technological change to Toronto

‘Outlaw King’ and ‘Non-Fiction’ bring winds of technological change to Toronto
Chris Pine in a still from "Outlaw King." (Courtesy of TIFF)

The 2018 Toronto Film Festival is underway (Sept. 6-16), and L.A. Times critic Justin Chang is there on the ground, seeing as many movies as possible and keeping a day-by-day, film-by-film diary. This is one in a series of entries spanning from day one to closing night. For more entries and reviews, click here.

There were a fair number of “oohs” and “aahs” at the Toronto opening-night premiere of David Mackenzie’s “Outlaw King” on Thursday — not for the movie, which hadn’t started yet, but for the bright and shiny new Netflix logo that preceded it. Rather than the familiar white screen and jarring musical thunderclap — you know, the one that immediately puts you in a living-room state of mind — the movie kicked off with a more artful, discreet treatment, simply positioning the red letter “N” against a black screen.

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It’s a sign that the streaming giant, a formidable presence here at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, might be trying to distinguish its workaday product from its prestige fare. It’s also an acknowledgment, deliberate or not, that “Outlaw King” belongs on the big screen and nowhere else. An unofficial sequel to “Braveheart,” the film stars an excellent Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce, the Scottish warrior-king who effectively took over for William Wallace in casting off the shackles of English rule.

It’s been a while since a picture actually spurred me to think “They don’t make ’em like this anymore,” which I mean less as an index of quality than a simple acknowledgment of “Outlaw King’s” size and scale, the lavish on-screen evidence that no expense was spared. Gorgeously filmed on location in Scotland with an enormous ensemble — the standouts include Stephen Dillane as the viciously calculating King Edward I, Billy Howle as his feckless but monstrous son and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as one of Bruce’s most loyal allies — the movie is a juicy slab of cinematic red meat, a symphony of mud, blood and viscera set to a soundtrack of thundering hoofbeats and howls of vengeance.

Often shot in long, snaky takes of impressive duration, “Outlaw King” turns every battle scene into a graphic buffet of butchery, serving up enough throat slittings, disembowelments and impalements (humans and horses) to make “Game of Thrones” addicts feel right at Hardhome. But as in his superior prison drama “Starred Up” and the thriller-western “Hell or High Water” (in which Pine also played a man trying to extract a measure of justice), Mackenzie proves more than a mere maestro of screen violence. He’s a skilled observer of communities, of individual and collective resistance, and he wants us to feel Bruce’s revolutionary spirit in our bones.

Over the course of a generous 137-minute running time, Mackenzie evinces a patience in his own storytelling that only occasionally tests yours. There are excesses and longueurs, to be sure, but crucially, the tone of the piece never feels monotonous. It gives you time to consider the present-day political implications of, say, a nation too riven with internal disputes to band together against a larger enemy who knows exactly how to exploit those weaknesses to his advantage. It also draws you into the tender and affecting love story of Bruce and his new wife and queen consort, Elizabeth (the superb Florence Pugh, “Lady Macbeth”).

One thing’s for certain: This bloody, bawdy, often jarringly funny period pulp may not be the best movie Netflix screens in Toronto this year, but it will almost certainly be the most movie Netflix screens in Toronto this year. Even still, the company has no shortage of titles set to screen here over the next 10 days, signifying that the streaming giant is not only ramping up its auteur game but launching a major awards-season offensive.

The company’s most anticipated titles include Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” a semi-autobiographical drama set in his native Mexico, and Paul Greengrass’ “22 July,” a dramatic reconstruction of the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway. (Both films already premiered earlier this month at the Venice International Film Festival.) Others include the world premieres of Nicole Holofcener’s drama “The Land of Steady Habits,” Jeremy Saulnier’s thriller “Hold the Dark” and “Quincy,” a documentary on the life and music of Quincy Jones.

Juliette Binoche and Guillaume Canet in "Non-Fiction."
Juliette Binoche and Guillaume Canet in "Non-Fiction." (Courtesy of TIFF)

A mix of old-fashioned cinematic pleasures and forward-looking themes also propels “Non-Fiction,” the delightfully voluble new comedy from the French writer-director Olivier Assayas. For roughly an hour and 45 minutes, this delightfully voluble new comedy sustains a tireless volley of verbiage, planting itself in a grand tradition of gabby French cinema that Assayas has visited before (most gloriously in 2009’s “Summer Hours”), and that stretches back at least as far as Éric Rohmer.

Most of Assayas’ characters here are situated in and around the Paris literary world, and as such they are well versed in the art of flinging words, declarations and occasional insults back and forth. All that talk can be exhausting, to be sure, though it also feels rewardingly inexhaustible. In earlier Assayas films such as “Irma Vep” and “Cold Water,” your attention is magnetized by the camera’s swift, darting movements. The frame holds steadier here; it’s the churning dialogue — funny, seductive, always carving out fresh tributaries — that propels you forward.

The dominant topic, one that animates nearly every interaction, is the steady encroachment of digital technology on every aspect of our lives, work and art. Léonard (Vincent Macaigne), a shlubby technophobe and resolutely uncommercial novelist, is surprised at a bookstore Q&A to learn that his latest semi-autobiographical text has become the subject of a heated online controversy. His publisher, Alain (Guillaume Canet), is savvier and better attuned to market realities, but even he casts a wary eye at troubling developments in his field, including the rise of e-books, the death of public libraries and the dubious democratization of media culture in the age of the internet.

That’s more than enough for any movie to chew on, and I haven’t even mentioned the ideas introduced by the other principal characters, including Léonard’s wife, Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), a political consultant who has no interest in coddling his easily bruised ego, and Alain’s equally outspoken partner, Selena (Juliette Binoche), a popular TV actress who keeps every conversation on its toes. It’s not the first time Binoche has appeared in an Assayas joint, and here, as in “Clouds of Sils Maria” (2014), the spectacle of a major celebrity playing a major celebrity packs a delectably funny meta-fillip.

The degree to which art imitates life is one of “Non-Fiction’s” headiest themes. So too is adultery, which at times gives the film the structure and feel of a vintage Woody Allen roundelay. Léonard’s latest novel, which chronicles an extramarital affair, is assumed by many (correctly) to have been drawn from personal experience. Meanwhile, Alain falls into bed with his co-worker Laure (Christa Théret), an aggressive innovator who has been hired to oversee the publishing house’s “digital transformation.” This fling functions as something of a metaphor — an acknowledgment that tradition will ultimately have to yield to change.

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This is not a new lesson, of course, but neither is it in danger of growing old. For anyone who has spent much time traveling the international film-festival circuit, it will be hard to watch “Non-Fiction” without reflecting on how the steady rise of all things digital has impacted the art and technology of cinema. The term “film festival” itself increasingly feels like a misnomer, insofar as most of the movies that screen at Toronto and other events are shot and projected digitally. Events that once positioned themselves as bastions of cinematic high art now grudgingly make room for sidebars devoted to episodic television and virtual reality.

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Toronto, one of the largest, most diverse and egalitarian of major international festivals, has proved more willing to adapt than most. Unlike, say, Cannes, whose very French adherence to long-standing cultural tradition has been well documented, this festival tends to welcome the new with open arms. We’ll see what discoveries the next 10 days bring.

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