Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Violet

Written by Anna Harrison

65/100

Violet’s titular heroine (Olivia Munn) has everything going for her: she’s an attractive and successful Hollywood executive, admired for her talent at choosing scripts and in possession of caring childhood friends, one of whom—named Red (Luke Bracey)—is letting her stay in his multimillion dollar house while Violet’s own multimillion dollar house gets a new kitchen. (Her friends, too, are attractive.) Alas, even for someone like Violet, there’s always “the committee.” “You know,” she tells her friend Lila (Erica Ash), “the voice that tells you you’re a piece of shit.” But in the hands of first-time director Justine Bateman, this voice (embodied by an offscreen Justin Theroux) isn’t just a voice: it’s a bombardment of images of death and decay, a scrawling cursive onscreen displaying Violet’s true desires, a steady crescendo in unsettling music, a red tint that overwhelms the screen at various points in time. 

It’s only through brief hints and flashbacks that we uncover the true source of Violet’s damaging conscience: her mother. Violet allowed her mother’s insults (most especially “you’re a baby,” though why that of all things is the most harmful degradation escapes me) to worm her way into her brain, and even all these years later they persist, snidely telling her to ignore her boss’s (Dennis Boutsikaris) inappropriate comments, to resist telling her friends her problems, and that dating Red would be career suicide as he’s only a lowly screenwriter, despite the fact that Red has been tailor made to be the perfect movie boyfriend; his only flaw is that he isn’t on Violet’s level professionally (apparently). 

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

Bateman’s own extensive experience in the industry lends a credibility to Violet’s interactions with those around her as she navigates the treacherous waters of Hollywood, where even for all the bluster with the #MeToo movement so often deals are made with sex, and so often women have to fight tooth and nail to be thought of as anything other than a hunk of meat. (And so often crew members go unappreciated, something Bateman tries to rectify by showcasing Violet’s crewmembers on camera after the credits roll.) While Bateman never directly calls attention to the gender dynamics at play, their presence can be felt nonetheless: Violet worries about being thought of as a bitch, about being too bossy, about appearing ungrateful, about her weight. It’s a very gendered approach to this issue, but never becomes overly didactic or heavy-handed, which makes it all the more effective.

The voiceover and onscreen written words, however, begin to become a bit too much as Violet goes on. The latter, in particular, begins to drift into college slam poetry night territory, and the metaphors become faux deep, self-satisfied fluff (though I’ve never been one for even good slam poetry in the best of times), but Bateman’s addition of these elements shows a unique voice and willingness to play around with the medium that many first time directors do not possess, so I’m inclined to forgive after an exasperated eye roll. Even if the stylistic choices may not always land, the choices themselves are bold and that’s worth at least some merit, though Munn gives a strong enough performance that she doesn’t even need these gimmicks.

Yet for all the doubt that racks her mind and the self-hatred that she grapples with, Violet seems to work through her issues swiftly enough. There’s no one epiphany for her, but rather a series of little victories that seem to have been won handily, and where Bateman avoided being too on-the-nose with her gender commentary, subtlety gets replaced by kitsch for Violet’s final bridge burning, everything wrapping up a little too neatly and with a little too much #girlbossery. But Violet still shows that Bateman has a strong command of her own voice, this bold but imperfect debut still has plenty going for it.

Violet Clip

Violet was screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

America: The Motion Picture

Written by Alexander Reams

46/100

Movie trailers are masters at the art of deception and misleading. Constantly setting up plots and characters that pull the viewer, myself included, in. I will admit my excitement for this film was raised exponentially by the trailer. George Washington with chainsaw arms, Samuel Adams as a frat bro, Thomas Edison as a magician, and Killer Mike (½ of Run the Jewels) as a blacksmith, in this retelling of the American Revolution sounds like a great idea. The film also looked like a smart satire mixed with humor that evoked memories of Deadpool. I thought that this film could be one of the best animated films of the year, as well as one I could massively enjoy. Unfortunately I was quickly let down by this very juvenile and unfunny film. 

Before I begin tearing most of the film apart, I’d like to talk about the animation style and a few scenes that stuck out. A style that while clearly not hand-drawn, is the best imitation of hand drawn animation I have seen in a long time. There are also some very enjoyable scenes that I found throughout the film. Specifically the final battle, shown briefly in the trailer, that includes buses acting as AT-AT walkers, George Washington in a stars and stripes baseball jersey and chainsaw arms, and Killer Mike as a hilarious blacksmith. 

I found almost all of the jokes to fall flat, even the running gag about a bar called “Vietnam”. Jason Mantzoukas has finally found a role where I found him annoying, and it does not work in anyone’s favor. I constantly found his blind racism spoof to be annoying and not at all smart. Especially his rapport with Olivia Munn’s “Thomas Edison”, Killer Mike’s “Blacksmith”, and Raoul Max Trujillo’s “Geronimo” are some of the most annoying bits in the film by far. Even the celebrity cameos they were able to get for this film are not at all welcome and feel especially out of place. With a bad screenplay, ok animation, and an annoying voice cast, I found this not worth a watch and one of the biggest disappointments so far this year.

America: The Motion Picture Trailer

America: The Motion Picture is currently streaming on Netflix.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

The Gateway

Written by Patrick Hao

28/100

Shea Whigham has the type of face that is able to give the whole backstory of his character. That’s why he has been a stalwart character actor in films like Silver Linings Playbook, Wolf of Wall Street, and Take Shelter. It’s a wonder why it took so long for Whigham to lead an indie crime film – hell, John Hawkes has led several at this point. The Gateway finally gives Whigham a chance to lead a film, although it does not match the sturdiness of Whigham’s performance.

The film, the second feature from commercial and music video director Michele Civetta, is stuck between a gritty sociopolitical character study and a pulp neo-noir destined to be a spontaneous movie choice by “that” uncle during the holidays. The Gateway, unfortunately, does neither especially well. On the character end, Whigham plays Parker Jode, an ex-fighter turn social worker, who takes an interest in helping a young girl, Ashley (Taegen Burns), and her troubled mother Dahlia (Olivia Munn) way beyond his duties as a social bureaucrat. Parker Jode is the classic reserved tough guy – one who feels more than he says. Civetta uses all of Whigham’s weathered wrinkles to his advantage in that regard.

On the crime end, Ashley’s father Mike (Zach Avery) is released from prison. He is a triple whammy of a drunk, cheat, and abuser who continues to commit robberies at the behest of local crime boss Duke (Frank Grillo). When an armed robbery turns violent, Mike decides to stash heroin into his unwitting daughter’s bag, setting the movie into action. Oh yeah, strong supporting characters playing their typecasts appear throughout from Taryn Manning (as a barfly of course), Mark Boone Junior (as a drug-dealing bartender of course), Keith David (as a Keith David type of course), and Bruce Dern (as a doddering cursing Vietnam vet, trying to atone for his sins as the father of Parker Jode of course).

The Gateway is exactly the type of movie you expect from the title, the poster, and the cast. None of it is especially convincing except for Wigham who is trying his darndest to make his world-weary character enough to carry the film. Civetta is not devoid of style. His influences are clear. The film starts out with neon hues like a second-rate Michael Mann and quickly devolves into straight to Redbox over lit tones.

It would have been better if the film decided to lean into its pulpier proclivities. Rather, Civetta and his screenplay written with Alex Felix Bendaña and Andrew Levitas leans into the hard times social message clichés. None of it is particularly convincing or inspiring. It doesn’t help that Olivia Munn and Zach Avery give stilted performances. It’s the chicken or the egg situation – was it the performances or the script that is wooden. The answer is probably a bit of both. Its hard to be too hard on a film like The Gateway. Its aspirations seem minimal, with its only ambitions being a calling card to whomever gets a break from this small film. It does not help the case of Shea Whigham, “Leading Man,” because even as the lead, the film is straining to focus on someone else.

The Gateway Trailer

The Gateway is available in select theaters and on VOD. Available on Blu-ray and DVD on September 7th.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.