Courtesy of TIFF

Amy Nicholson At TIFF: A Pyromaniac, An Irish Asylum, And The Twilight Beauty Of Burlesque Dancers

Our critic is at the Toronto International Film Festival, seeking out the movies that might get lost among the American Oscar bait

Watching five movies a day takes an athlete’s endurance. Marathons are mall-walked in less. Here at the Toronto International Film Festival — where I’m aiming to keep that pace for a week and a half just to see a sixth of the 323-film bonanza — cinema survival is a science. First your knees go, then your ass. Even the young hobble when the final credits roll.

The fun really starts when your mind begins to spot patterns in chaos. Like a tweaker on a four-day bender, or Nicolas Cage in anything, every coincidence is a clue to our global psyche. My first day at TIFF, three dramas in a row blamed characters’ behaviors on offscreen dead moms. (Movies always see mothers as martyrs!) The second day, two splatter-flicks killed people by breaking the blade off an office paper slicer. (Movies always see cubicles as death!) And the third, two bit-players had identical triceps pistol tattoos that took aim at their shoulder. (Bad taste is international!)

And the international here is key: Toronto is a great festival for worldwide weirdness, which means skipping the buzzy American Oscar bait to seek out films audiences might miss. Pyromaniac, from Norway, is about a fire chief’s son who sets fire to houses — both abandoned and not — so he can put out the blazes. This skinny blond misfit wants to be a hero, and eventually director Erik Skjoldbjærg (Insomnia, later remade by Christopher Nolan) elbows us to ask what to do with a generation of young men desperate to prove their power. That question echoes when we talk about internet trolls, MRAs, and school shooters. Skjoldbjærg doesn’t have an answer. (If he did, he’d get his country’s Nobel Peace Prize.) But he has empathy for these boys, and for the parents torn between loving their son and sounding the alarm.

From there, the program leapt to Indonesia for the skull-cracker Headshot, starring The Raid’s Iko Uwais as an amnesiac hitman. Headshot boasted a few cool camera moves and a dozen good goons, but the only thing I’ll remember about it is how my seatmate and I became convinced the film would end with Uwais saying, “Call me Ishmael.” (Alas, it did not.) Then it was on to Bogotá for Greg McLean’s office massacre The Belko Experiment, in which 80 corporate dorks are ordered to slay each other by happy hour. “We’ve got to be bold here,” commands the boss — then he grabs a gun. Only psychopaths would call that a pep talk. Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn wrote the script, which tidily clues us in to the employees’ flirtations, friendships, and petty grievances. McLean and Gunn aim to prove that these government workers might look business casual, yet those sensible slacks can’t hide their inner caveman. The film thinks it’s a treatise on the human condition. It’s really more of a neon Post-it, but it’s worth a look.

After lunch, I headed to St. Petersburg for another vivisection of machismo. The Duelist, which stars Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol’s Vladimir Mashkov as a manipulative count, is a deadpan evisceration of class snobbery, which in 19th-century Russia operated on a bizarre rule: If a poor person shot someone, it was murder; if a nobleman shot someone, it was a matter of honor. Questioning someone’s honor can be as easy as bumping them at a party — in a city this posh and bored, the 1 percent throws parties just to take turns on an indoor bicycle. Of course, if a rich man is afraid of dying, he can hire someone to take his place. Enter crack marksman Yakovlev (Colin Farrell clone Pyotr Fyodorov), who has made a literal killing subbing in for aristocrats too scared to pull the trigger. “He’s insane,” tut-tuts a local official, “but he’s a nobleman.” It’s a luxuriously chilly film that prides itself on serving its revenge ice-cold. I recommend loosening up with a couple shots of vodka beforehand; this melodrama only works if you’re in the mood to give in.

Same goes for Jim Sheridan’s half-century-spanning weeper The Secret Scripture, although you can’t pound booze in front of the uptight Catholics in this 1940s small Irish town. The local priest (Divergent’s Theo James) could lock you in an asylum, and that’s the fate of Belfast beauty Rose (Rooney Mara and Vanessa Redgrave), who moves to the southern hamlet during World War II and finds herself pursued by three suitors: goofy pilot Michael (Jack Reynor), twiddly Jack (Aidan Turner), and Father Gaunt (James). After the men come to blows, the local women blame Rose for tempting them into violence, and the rejected pastor agrees. The great history of girls taking the blame for male lust stretches back to, well, the Bible, but the script’s structure cribs heavily from The Notebook — until it derails in the third act with a twist the script doesn’t need.

The Secret Scripture makes a fitting (and frustrating) double-feature with André Øvredal’s Autopsy of Jane Doe. This time, our beleaguered woman is a corpse, and father-and-son coroners (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch) have the right to put their hands anywhere they want: they pry open her mouth, peel back her skin, and pull out her heart. Still, they’re helping the cops solve her cause of death, which makes them the heroes of sorts in a horror flick that works well enough until it suddenly doesn’t. Øvredal leans too much on second-tier Stephen King spooks, including a retro radio earworm that rattled through my head all afternoon. Science and superstition are at war, but Øvredal chooses poorly and clues us in too early. As much as I liked the concept and shivered at the clinical close-ups of cracked ribs, the film died too soon, a victim of its own sloppy motives.

So far, the two best films of TIFF are a pair of parallel documentaries I picked at random. Mostly Sunny is the West’s reintroduction to Bollywood superstar Sunny Leone, a Canadian-born, Orange County–raised beauty who spun a Hustler centerfold and Vivid hardcore porn contract into becoming India’s most-googled woman three years in a row. Sunny, born Karenjit Vohra, is brilliant without being bright. When director Dilip Mehta asks her why she chose her younger brother Sunny’s name as her X-rated pseudonym, she shrugs: “I guess I just like it, too?” She could stare at herself in the mirror for hours without a bit of self-reflection. Yet the film gives her room to figure out her story, which turns out to be more about India’s colonialized Victorian Puritanism than Sunny’s unabashed cash-grab. Sure, the only reason she’s India’s most famous porn star is because no one else will take off their clothes. But now that she’s getting hired to dance at weddings and act in mainstream romantic comedies (badly), she must be doing something smart. Call her Karenjit Kardashian.

Curious to see where Sunny will be in 30 years? Check out María José Cuevas’s tender and hilarious documentary Beauties of the Night. In 1970s Mexico, a quintet of burlesque babes — Princesa Yamal, Olga Breeskin, Lyn May, Rossy Mendoza, and Wanda Seux – dominated the television. Today, the ladies are in their sixties and their curves won’t quit. “Down with modesty!” they cheer, shimmying into their rhinestone bustiers and smashing their birthday piñata in five-inch heels and four-inch miniskirts. Wanda dotes on a dozen tiny white dogs, which she insists is easier than dealing with men. Rossy broke up with a boyfriend when he asked her to wash his socks. Lyn boasts that she has sex for three hours a day. Her husband hobbles by on a walker. We’ll take her word for it. When one of her previous husbands died (she’s had seven), she claims she dug up his corpse and slept next to it for two months. We’ll take her word for that, too.

In different hands, Beauties of the Night would be glittering kitsch. But these women trust Cuevas with their fully lived lives. They perform for themselves and for her. They sing and dance in their kitchens and even give each other Botox, a nerve-racking comedy that climaxes with Princesa confessing that she can’t remember which of Wanda’s creases she just injected. Like pros, they soak up the camera. Yet what’s beautiful about the film isn’t just their adamant glamour, it’s their willingness to reveal themselves fully — they’re naked physically and emotionally, and you can’t resist falling in love with them, just like the hundreds of suitors who once showered them with rubies and Rolexes.

“Your skin gets wrinkled,” says Princesa, “not your soul.” That’s wisdom from a woman who’s earned it. And that’s all the motivation I need for another full week of movies.