This year at TIFF for me is over – after 4 days and 13 films, I proved if nothing else, that I am getting old. So old in fact that I didn’t make it through either of my Midnight Madness screenings – The Lords of Salem and Aftershock – without falling asleep. So while what I saw made me wish I had stayed awake, I cannot in good faith review either film. I will give some brief thoughts on the other 11 though – in the rambling paragraphs below. While this year at TIFF, I didn’t see many “bad” films, I only saw one film that I would deem truly “great” – although another has greatness in it despite its flaws. I talk about the film below in no particular order – although the first film discussed was my least favorite, and the final two undeniably the best I saw.
My biggest disappointment was Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral a film that you have to admire the effort more than the execution. Cronenberg, David’s son, certainly has talent behind the camera – the movie is filled with memorable images, and the basic premise of the movie – that in the near future our culture’s celebrity fixation will get out of control with people wanting the same viruses that celebrities have, and even consume their cloned flesh, is an interesting one. But Cronenberg, who adapted his own short Broken Tulips to feature length, just doesn’t have enough to sustain a feature film here – and it doesn’t help that Caleb Landry Jones, who he cast in the lead is morose and uninteresting. Perhaps Cronenberg, who cast Sarah Gadon as the personification of female perfection after seeing her in Daddy’s A Dangerous Method, should have tried to get her Cosmopolis co-star Robert Pattinson for the lead. I may be one of the few who like Cosmopolis, but I think Pattinson proved there he could play this kind of dead inside “emotional vampire” well – whereas Jones’ performance pretty much sinks this movie. Still, I want to see what Cronenberg Jr. does next – although perhaps he should stay away from material his younger father would have done a lot better next time.
Ariel Vroman’s The Iceman had kind of the opposite problem – it was the film that they wanted to make, but it lacked any real ambition and adds nothing to the already crowded gangster genre. Michael Shannon is brilliant as Richard Kuklinski – the famed Iceman, a hit man for hire for the mob who killed perhaps more than 200 people in his life. I could complain about the factual inaccuracy of the movie – Kuklinski was a brute to his wife, not the loving family man we see here, and he was already a prolific serial killer before he became a mob hit man, but I see little point. Shannon is great as the crazed psychopath – not the jittery, paranoia he has done so well in the past, but a more contained fury. And the supporting cast – Ray Liotta as a mafia guy (naturally), Winona Ryder as Kuklinski’s clueless wife, James Franco in a one scene cameo as a sleazy porn director and especially Chris Evans as perhaps an even more psychopathic killer are all very good as well. I was never bored by The Iceman, but I was never truly involved either. There is a great movie in this material – and Shannon is capable of doing this role, but The Iceman was still a disappointment for me.
Not being a fan of his breakthrough film The Orphanage, I wasn’t sure what to expect from J. A. Bayona’s The Impossible, based on the unlikely true story of an English family on vacation in Thailand when the Tsunami of December 26, 2004 hit. The scenes of the tsunami itself, aided wonderfully by CGI and wonderful sound work, are brilliant – intense, brutal, bloody and scary. And the performances – by Naomi Watts as the determined mother who won’t give up no matter who injured she is, Ewan McGregor as the father, just as determined to get his family back, and young Tom Holland as the oldest son who has to act mature beyond his years, are all top notch. The movie plays well – and even got me crying a few times (I am a softy to be sure), but I have to admit that I felt bad that I let this movie, which is so blatantly emotionally manipulative get to me after it was over. The Impossible is very good while you are watching it, but fades quickly after. A technical achievement to be sure – and apparently they are gunning for Oscars with this which it very well may receive nominations for – but while I liked the film, I cannot say it’s a great one.
A film that does earn its immense emotional upheaval is Joshua Oppenheimer’s stunning, surreal documentary The Act of Killing. It’s no wonder that Errol Morris and especially Werner Herzog attached their names to this film after seeing it – it pushes the boundaries of documentary, and while some will either argue that the film is too easy on its subjects, or bring up ethical concerns, I had neither. The film is about the people the people who committed genocide in Indonesia in 1965-66 when the military orchestrated a coup – and wanted all the “communists” exterminated – although you were deemed a communist if you disagreed the coup, were in a union or were a native Chinese, or for a whole host of other “crimes”. The film centers on Anwar Congo, who has lived like a hero for decades after killing at least 100 people. Oppenheimer gets Congo and his friends to open up about what they did – which isn’t hard, they love to brag – and then gives them the means to “recreate” the torture and killings for the camera, using different Hollywood genres as their backdrop, since these killers were HUGE fans of American movies at the time. While it doesn’t seem like most of these people still have any regrets, Congo himself goes through a surprising personal upheaval – revealing his dreams and his guilt about what happened, and cannot go through with one scene where he has to play the “victim”. He’s still a murderer, and Oppenheimer shows this in ruthless detail, but he is also a human being, which Oppenheimer does not shy away from. Be sure to look for this film whenever it gets released.
A few directors had comebacks of sort at TIFF this year. After doing a couple of blockbusters, one good (Harry Potter) and one bad (Prince of Persia), Mike Newell returned to the type of movie he does best – classy, British productions with his adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. While he may not have added anything too new with this version, it is a fine production – great production design and costume design, in this film that seemed muddier, dirtier and crueler than other film versions. But he still hits the same problems many film adaptations of this novel hit – mainly that Pip and especially Estella are rather dull compared to everything around them. Still, Ralph Fiennes is wonderful as Magwich the convict (he seems to be channelling Daniel Day-Lewis in his early scenes), Robbie Coltrane great fun as Jaggers the lawyer, and Helena Bonham Carter goes wildly, inventively over the top as Miss Haversham – although one does wish this great actress took on a role that didn’t require Burton-esque theatrics from her. Fans of Dickens and this sort of classy production will love the film – the group of older women behind me raved about it after it was over – and for the rest of us, this is still an entertaining movie, even if it still doesn’t hold a candle to David Lean’s 1946 classic.
My most pleasant surprise was Brian De Palma’s Passion – his best film since Femme Fatale all the way in 2002. I had little hope for this film coming off of perhaps the worst film of his career – 2007’s Redacted – and a few negative reviews from its premier in Venice, but perhaps lowered expectations meant I liked the film more than I otherwise would have. It is true that many people will hate the film, and it does get off to a rocky start, but as the film moves along, and piles one absurd twist on top of the next, I was reminded more and more of De Palma’s thrillers from the 1970s and 80s, which didn’t necessarily depend on logic so much as style and keeping you guessing. True, Rachel McAdams as the mad bitch boss from hell is miscast, and perhaps so too is Noomi Rapace as her underling, who may or may not have taken deadly revenge (the best performance in the movie is clearly by Karoline Herfurth, as Rapace’s underling who comes out of nowhere and is stunning), but De Palma’s style is always the star, and the second half of the film has him at the height of his powers. It’s certainly not a new or original – and really doesn’t add anything to De Palma’s filmography, but I haven’t had this much fun at a De Palma film in a long time. You either go with this one or you don’t – I did, and had a blast. I understand why many will hate the film, and I cannot say that it’s really an objectively “good” movie, but on the level of guilty pleasure, this one worked for me.
A bigger comeback was made by Thomas Vinterberg, who made his best film since he breakthrough The Celebration in The Hunt. Again, this isn’t a great film, but it is a very good one with an excellent performance by Mads Mikkelsen as a kindergarten teacher falsely accused of molesting his students, and the consequences that comes along with that – even after he is cleared. Mikkelsen carries the movie, and if Vinterberg perhaps piles a little too much on top of him at times, he still manages to make you believe it all – at least during the runtime of the movie. Personally, I think the movie would have been better served by ending it a few scenes before Vinterberg does – with suspicious looks rather than overt action – but Vinterberg has crafted a gripping movie which may well figure in the Foreign Language Film Race, and possibly best actor as well.
You can’t really call Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep a comeback, since it fits in neatly with his two most recent films – Lions for Lambs and The Conspirator – as a fine, leftie political thriller. If the film becomes any kind of hit you can guarantee Fox News type using it as an example of how “out of touch” Hollywood is with America, but who cares? Redford’s film, about a member of the Weather Underground, played by Redford himself, who went underground 30 years ago and has his cover blown so he has to go on the run yet again is a top notch, classically structured thriller – with excellent performances by the entire cast. Redford still has some drawing power which is why the likes of Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleason, Richard Jenkins, Susan Sarandon, Terrence Howard and most memorably Nick Nolte, spewing out every word as if it is his last, show up in tiny roles that add to the movie immeasurably. The three bigger roles – Redford himself, Shia LeBeaof, in his best work to date as an enterprising young reporter, and Julie Christie, as another underground fugitive, are also quite good. Again, not a great film, but a fine, old school political thriller – the type of film Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make.
Laurent Cantet’s Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang, based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel, used non-professional, mostly Canadian teenage girls to play the title girl gang. Set in 1950s America, the “gang” starts innocently enough as these confused teenagers try to gain some control over their lives, their bodies and their sexuality – but then of course, things spiral out of control, and the gang gets in over their heads. Undeniably, the film is too long (at nearly two and half hours), but is always thought provoking and fascinating – and unlike a Hollywood production, these teenage girls are actually played by teenage girls - not hotties in their mid-20s – and who act like teenage girls. Like Cantet’s previous film, The Class, Foxfire gets amazingly natural performances from its non-professional cast, and feels like a real examination of the confusing teenage years – and acts as a corrective for so many films that simply see teenage girls as sex objects. The girls here are real, and that comes through in every frame. Yes, the film could stand to lose some of its running time, but that hardly diminishes its power.
Perhaps the most debated film I saw at this year’s festival will end up being Terrene Malick’s To the Wonder. This film has divided critics and audiences alike, even more so than Malick’s last film, the masterpiece The Tree of Life. To the Wonder is done in the same style as that film, but has a much smaller, simpler story – essentially the story of two people – Ben Affleck’s Oklahoma gas worker and Olga Kurylenko’s French free spirit – falling in love, falling out of love, and getting into a marriage both know is doomed before they even tie the knot. To me, this is Malick’s most problematic film. Even though Malick apparently cut out several subplots and supporting characters, he could have, and in my mind should have, cut even more. The subplot involving Javier Bardem’s priest struggling with his beliefs doesn’t feel like it belongs here – I know Malick is trying to tie together love and faith, but it doesn’t really hold together, and worse, some of the scenes with Bardem talking with the locals feels like Malick is looking down on these poor people. The other subplot – really an interlude – involves Affleck and Rachel McAdams, a woman he knew when he was younger, falling in love before he decides to leave her to returned to his doomed relationship with Kurylenko, doesn’t really feel natural either – it goes by far too quickly for it to build any real emotional impact, even though I think that Malick was trying to show how good a relationship could be. Yet, when the film focuses on Affleck and Kurylenko, the film is beautiful and quietly moving. Affleck, like many actors in Malick films, seems to have been cast more for his physical presence than anything else, and he is appropriately big, imposing and silent. It is Kurylenko who is the star here, and she gives an amazing performance as this woman adrift in a world she doesn’t know, having given up everything for him, and realizing it was all a big mistake. To the Wonder, like The Tree of Life, requires the viewer to meet Malick half way – you are either going to go with this film, let it drift over you, or fight it tooth and nail all the way through. While this is Malick’s most problematic film for me personally, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a beautiful film (Emmanuel Lubezki does more amazing things with the camera) and it still towers over what most other directors are attempting right now. It isn’t the masterpiece that The Tree of Life was, but that doesn’t mean it’s still very good nonetheless.
The one masterpiece I saw at TIFF was Michael Haneke’s Amour. I don’t buy what a lot of critics are saying about the film – that Haneke is showing his humanist side with this film. Depending on how you look at the film, Jean-Louis Trintignant is either a selfless man or one looking only to end his own suffering. Haneke’s films have always “punished” its characters, and by extension the audience, for their sins. It’s just this time, the only real sin his married couple has committed is growing old, which in some ways makes Amour an even crueler film than anything he has made before – and shows the audience just what is in store for them when the end inevitably comes. Yet, Amour is still a masterpiece – a brilliantly well made, and perfectly acted film by Trintignat and Emmanuelle Riva, as his wife who suffers a stroke and slowly deteriorates while he watches and takes care of her. It is a heartbreaking film as well – how can your heart break to watch suffering like this. Many may find Amour to be too claustrophobic for them – it happens almost entirely in the elderly couple’s apartment, but that is part of its brilliance. Haneke almost seems to be taking a page out of Roman Polanski’s book of confined spaces, but still filtered through Haneke’s worldview. Amour is a bleak film to be sure – but also a brilliant one.