Friday, September 13, 2013

TIFF Wrap-Up

So, although there are three full days left in the festival, my TIFF experience for 2013 is done. Over the course of 5 days (really 3 full days, and 2 half days) I watched 17 films – ranging from horrible to masterpiece. The best thing about TIFF is also the worst thing – the sheer size of it. Because they play well over 200 features a year, you know some movies are going to be great – and some will be awful. It’s not unfair to say that TIFF will play pretty much anything that has any sort of star power attached to it – but they also play movies that are unlikely to find distribution anywhere else. You can have any sort of festival experience you want. You want stars? They have stars. You want Avant-Garde? They got that too. Documentaries, crazy cult movies, slow moving foreign films and everything in between, TIFF has it. Having been burned too many times by picking movies based on stars or a short write up by TIFF, I’ve learned to mainly stick to known qualities – films that have either played at other festivals, and thus, have been reviewed – or by directors I know and love. I do try and get a bit of everything at TIFF – and this year, I think I did that. And overall, this was one of my most enjoyable TIFF experiences ever – 17 movies, only three of them I would describe as bad, only one more that I was disappointed in, even if it wasn’t that bad, and everything else, I was glad I saw – even if I didn’t love them. So, without further delay, let’s have a look back at what I saw this year at TIFF. No, I didn’t see all of the big ones – really only two of the HUGE buzz movies this year, but a whole lot of interesting films. I’ll start with the worst, end with the best, and get to the rest somewhere in the middle (but no, the order of the films isn’t really meant to be a ranking in any definitive way).

The worst film I saw at TIFF this year was clearly James Franco’s Child of God. I was nervous about this film – mainly because I haven’t heard many good things about Franco’s previous directing efforts, and because it’s based on a Cormac McCarthy novel – who can be difficult to adapt – I wasn’t sure an inexperienced director like Franco was up for it. I was, unfortunately, correct. Franco strains for authenticity throughout the movie – set in the poor, rural South, but everything about the movie rings false. His attempt at realism is undermined by the appearance of a well-known actor like Tim Blake Nelson, mugging his was through a role as Sheriff, and in a small role, Franco himself. They simply do not fit in with the more grizzled faces Franco has throughout. And Franco, although you can tell he’s trying, cannot get past his literature major sensibility – seriously, I didn’t need to see actual passages from the novel on screen. And Franco has trouble with the more disturbing moments in the novel – which involves necrophilia – never making them as disturbing as they should be (some of the scenes border of being unintentionally comical). Perhaps all of this could have overcome if the lead performance, by Scott Haze, was great – but it isn’t. I give Haze full marks for going all out for the role – but there is never moment in the film when Haze isn’t ACTING – he never disappears into the role, and goes so wildly over the top it’s distracting. As a directing and writing effort, it’s not going to do Franco any favors – and while I know some loved Haze, I’m not convinced.

Another horrible, Southern film was Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot. Based on the infamous West Memphis Three case, there was some question as to whether after 4 documentaries, and countless TV specials, if there was anything new Egoyan could do with the material. Sadly, the answer is no. Still, Devil’s Knot could have been good, had Egoyan and his screenwriters known what the most interesting parts of the movie were. Had he concentrated on a town in the grip of Satanic Panic, he could have made a fine, if unoriginal, film. The best performances in the movie are the supporting ones – often with only a scene or two. Mirelle Enos as a woman who goes “undercover” for the cops, Dane DeHaan as a screwed up kid who confesses, and recants, but is never charged and best of all Kevin Durand as John Mark Byers (well known to people who have seen the Paradise Lost films) are all wonderful – but shunted to the background, in favor of Colin Firth’s investigator, Reese Witherspoon’s grieving mother, and Alessandro Nivola, as her husband. Firth seems as asleep in front of the camera as Egoyan is behind it, Witherspoon is practically schizophrenic in the films first half, bouncing from loopy to monotone, and then spends the second half lookly continually shocked, and Nivola (who plays the person many now believe committed the murders) does everything except twirl his mustache. Whether Egoyan is having trouble finding funding for more personal projects, or else he’s simply out of ideas, Devil’s Knot is the second major disappointment in a row from him – following the remake Chloe.

The third film I really didn’t like was Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman, about the affair between Charles Dickens (Fiennes himself) and the much younger Nelly Ternan (Felcity Price). The film is handsomely mounted, but dramatically inert. Fiennes makes Dickens into an overgrown child, with no real depth – it’s hard to reconcile this man with the genius writer. Price is given little to do but stand around a look pretty. Worse, there’s no chemistry between them. The best performance in the movie is by Joanna Scanlan, as Dickens’ long suffering wife, who he casually, cruelly tosses aside for Nelly – she’s the real invisible woman in the film, and Fiennes doesn’t realize that. If you’re selling the movie as one of the “greatest romances of all time”, then there should be some passion to it – and The Invisible Woman has none.

Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm is far better than those three films, but still ranks as a disappointment. The Quebec wunderkind, who at 24 has already directed 4 films – continues his tour of different genres to see what he likes best – this time, it’s a thriller. There’s nothing wrong with that, and Dolan proves adept at building tension in the film, and benefits greatly from the wonderful, crazy score by Gabriel Yared, doing a riff on Bernard Hermann. The problem is, once Dolan sets up his movie – about a gay man who travels to rural Quebec for his boyfriend’s funeral, and has to lie to his mother, who didn’t know her late son was gay, and be abused by his older brother – the film doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s all setup, and no payoff. I kept waiting for the film to reach high gear, and then it was over. Dolan is still a talent to watch, but Tom at the Farm isn’t a step forward for him.

There were two slow moving foreign films – both of which I   admired more than I actually liked, but for vastly different reasons. The first was Mohammad Rasolof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn. You cannot help but admire Rasolof – he’s been banned from making film in his native Iran, and made the film anyway. His entire cast and crew had to remain anonymous to avoid persecution. And the film is widely critical of Iran – as it recounts the censorship of Iranian intellectuals, including the 1995 case where they tried to kill 25 intellectuals by driving the bus they were driving off a cliff, and their attempts to cover it up – even years later. What’s most interesting is that Rasolof portrays one of the killers in his film completely sympathetically – he’s just a guy trying to support his very sick son. The movie contains some stunning sequences, as powerful as anything I saw this year, but is also slowly paced, repetitive, with acting ranging from bad to mediocre (probably because pros wouldn’t do the film). I admire the effort more than the result – but damn, do I admire the effort.

The other film I admired more than liked was Philip Groning’s The Police Officers Wife. Groning’s last film, the documentary Into Great Silence (2005) was hugely acclaimed in cinephile circles, and since he hasn’t made a film since – or a fiction film in even longer – the film qualifies as a major event for some. The film is a slow moving, 3 hour, 59 chapter portrait of a family’s implosion due to domestic violence. The film is filled with long takes, with little or no camera movement, and builds slowly. The fact that Groning adds in a title card announcing the beginning and end of each chapter – some last mere seconds, some up to 10 minutes – slows things down even more. Yet, after a while, I fell into the films rhythm, and by the end of the film, I was transfixed. Still, it took a long time to get there. I cannot imagine the audience for the film, but even if I never want to see the film again, I’m glad I saw it here, in a theater, where there was no pause I could use to escape.

John Krokidas’ debut film Kill Your Darlings, is a definite mixed bag, but when the film works, it’s very good. The film is about the birth of the Beat movement, with a young Alan Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe – surprisingly good) falling hard for Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan – mesmerizing, and as always, better than the film he’s in). The problem is that Carr already has an admirer – the older David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) – who he kills, and claims it was an “honor killing” – in that Kammerer is a homosexual, who wouldn’t leave the straight Carr alone. The truth is, of course, more complex than that. The rest of the casting is a mixed bag. Ben Foster is too subdued (that’s a first) as William S. Burroughs, and Jack Huston never quite convinces as Jack Kerouac. Still, the film is a fascinating coming of age story, and proves that Radcliffe should be able to move past Potter – and confirms that DeHaan is a talent to watch.

Speaking of uneven acting showcases, there was August: Osage County, which proved to be a divisive film at this year’s festival. While I certainly have my issues with the film – Abigail Breslin, Dermont Mulroney, Ewan McGregor and especially Benedict Cumberbatch are miscast, and the cuts director John Wells made to Tracy Letts brilliant play seem to have been designed to make Julia Roberts character more sympathetic (also the point, I think, of the horrible final scene, that wasn’t in the play – which even Wells thinks may not make it to the theatrical version, and we can all hope that’s true), which in some ways misses the point, I think. And as a director, Wells doesn’t really do anything with the material, except let the actors rip into the dialogue – a better director, like William Friedkin who directed two excellent Letts adaptation would have helped. And yet, you can still place me firmly in the “pro” camp for the film. Meryl Streep nails Violet, the foul mouthed, cruel matriarch – complain she goes over the top if you must, but the role pretty much demands that she does. Roberts, surprisingly, more than holds her own – she doesn’t shirk away from the uglier material (hearing her saying the infamous line “Eat the fish, bitch!” to Streep was a highlight.) Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepherd and Juliette Lewis also pretty much nail their roles. Poor Misty Upton is probably the biggest victim of trimming the three hour play, as she’s shunted even more to the background than her character already was – and it should also be said that while McGregor is miscast, many of his characters best moments are also cut (that goes back to trying to make Roberts character more sympathetic). Yes, the movie is lighter than the play – but the play was always a pitch black comedy about a dysfunctional family. And watching these actors relish the roles was mostly a joy. Not a perfect adaptation of a brilliant play – but then again, few are.

Acting also elevated David Gordon Green’s Joe – his best film in many years. After more than few years of horrible paycheck roles, Nicolas Cage once again proves why, when he wants to be, he’s one of the best actors in the world. He plays the title character – an alcoholic, with a violent past, who is trying desperately to hold everything together. It’s the type of role that once you see Cage in it, you cannot imagine another actor pulling the role off. Equally good is young Tye Sheridan, as the young man Joe takes under his wing. And Gary Poulter, a real homeless man Green cast as Sheridan’s father, is brilliant as well. If the plot sounds a little like Jeff Nichols Mud – also starring Sheridan – the similarities are superficial, as Nichols was basically making a fairy tale, and Green is much more interested in making a down, dirty, violent, Southern film, with hints of Malick. The film verges on poverty porn at times – and like all of Green’s films, he falters a little when he has to impose a plot on characters who don’t really need one. But much more than Prince Avalanche, Joe proves Green still has the chops he showed in first few movies – and it’s always a good thing when Cage comes out of paycheck hibernation to deliver this type of performance.

A surprising performance by Jesse Eisenberg highlights Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves – her most accessible film to date, as it takes the form of a thriller, but still undeniably one of her films as it is a slow burn thriller, about people outside mainstream society. This time, it’s a trio of eco-terrorists, played by Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard. The first half has them plan and carry out an attack on a dam, and the second half details the nasty fallout of their plan. Eisenberg’s performance is completely unexpected, in that the man known for motor mouth roles like The Social Network stays largely silent in this film – and he nails it. Fanning is excellent in the film’s first half, as is Sarsgaard, but they are both relegated to the background in the film’s second half, which mainly focuses on Eisenberg. I don’t think the film is quite up to the level of Reichardt’s best films – Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy or Meek’s Cutoff – but it’s close, and if it brings her more of an audience, all the better.

If Eisenberg delivered the most surprising performance I saw, than Donald Rumsfeld delivered the least surprising one in Errol Morris’ newest documentary The Unknown Known. The film is an obvious companion piece of Morris’ The Fog of War, which was a feature about Robert McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War, who in the 30 years between the war and the movie, had much time to ruminant on mistakes and errors, and while he may not be overly apologetic, he at least has self-awareness, and the ability to be honest. Rumsfeld seems to have neither, as he hides behind semantics, and when he’s caught in a lie, simply tells another one without missing a beat. I don’t think we’ve heard Morris’ voice, behind that infamous camera, more in any other movie he’s directed – and that’s because he’s constantly has to be challenging everything Rumsfeld is saying. The film isn’t as great as The Fog of War – because the subject isn’t as co-operative, but Morris still crafts a fascinating movie about the man who led America to war. It won’t change your mind on Rumsfeld, but it’s still a very good doc.

The biggest directorial “discovery” for me at the festival was Jeremy Saulnier, who directed the excellent revenge movie Blue Ruin (for those wondering, this wasn’t on my preview, but because of a scheduling conflict, I had to switch out Omar for this). I didn’t see Saulnier’s debut film – Murder Party – which was apparently a horror comedy. There is nothing funny about Blue Ruin, a violent, bloody movie about a man (the excellent Macon Blair), who has spent the last 20 years living out of his car since his parents were murdered. When their killer is freed, he sets out to get revenge – and sets off a series of bloody events, where the family secrets of both his family, and those of the murderer, are revealed. Saulnier twists the typical revenge format enough to make the movie feel original and exciting, but not so much that it’s gets into clever for clever sake territory. Blair does kill a lot of people, but he doesn’t suddenly become Rambo or anything – his kills are clumsy, he screws up several times, and when he shot with an arrow, and tries to take care of it himself, he finds he cannot do it (it also inspired my favorite line in any movie I saw this year, when he was asked about the blood on his pants, and he responds “It’s an arrow (sigh), wound”). The film may not quite be A History of Violence, but it comes as close as possible for a micro budgeted indie movie (he funded it using Kickstarter) – and definitely marks him as someone to watch.

A great rediscovery was Under the Skin by Jonathan Glazer, who hasn’t made a film since 2004’s Birth, of which I was a big fan (as I was of his debut – Sexy Beast). The film has already proved to be divisive – and inspired more walkouts than any other film I saw at TIFF (surprising, since I would have thought that would be The Police Officer’s Wife). But this visually stunning, audacious art film, with a brilliant performance by Scarlett Johansson as an alien, usually her sexual wiles to lure men to their deaths, is the type of film that demands to be seen. As it was my fifth film of the day, I already know I need to see it again to fully take it all in, but I will say that the film had some of the most stunning, unforgettable and downright terrifying imagery of any film I saw at TIFF (the shot of a toddler, alone on a beach, struggling to stand will haunt me forever). Glazer has gotten more daring with each passing film, and although the film makes a wrong turn or two in the final act, this is ambitious, audacious filmmaking at its finest.

Fans of anime master Hayao Miyazaki were all saddened during the Venice Film Festival when it confirmed The Wind Rises would be his final film as a director – and rightly so, as Miyazaki gets my vote for the best director or animation in cinema history. They will be gladdened to know however that while The Wind Rises is not quite the masterpiece that Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away were, this is still one of his best films – a visually stunning piece about a Japanese aeronautical engineer in the years between 1918 and WWII, who moves Japan to the forefront of technology. Some have complained that Miyazaki should have shown what the Japanese did with his planes – using them as weapons of war – and that’s bullshit, since one of the themes of the movie is the conflict between his desire to make beautiful planes, and the purposes those planes are used for. A fairer complaint would be about the romance that Miyazaki adds into the movie, although even this makes The Wind Rises more emotional than it would be otherwise. No, there are no mystical creatures or lands that Miyazaki is known for, but this is still a stunning animated film that puts ever other animated film I’ve seen in the past few years to shame.

The Cannes critical hit Stranger by the Lake by Alain Guiraudie deserved all the praise it received at that festival. A brilliant, tense, Hitchcockian thriller, the film will be off putting for some as it contains the most graphic gay sex scenes you could see outside of a porn film. But those scenes are not there for shock value – but to deepen the movie as a whole. The film is about a gay cruising spot – a beautiful beach in the South of France, where men come to sunbath naked, swim, and go off into the woods for anonymous sex. Franck meets two men at the beach he’s drawn to in radically different ways – the older, chubbier, sexually confused Henri, who he shares a real connection with, but isn’t sexually attracted to, and Michel, a muscular, mustachioed man he immediately lusts after – and that lust does not diminish when he witnesses, from a distance, Michel drowning his lover in the lake – in fact, it only enhances his attraction. As their “relationship” develops, Franck finds himself both addicted to Michel, and afraid he’ll also end up dead – leading to a terrifying climax, and an ambiguous ending. Those scared away by some gay sex, will miss out on one of the best films of the year.

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is likely to be the most visually stunning film of the year. His penchant for long takes is on full display, and the use of visual effects and 3-D ranks among the best I have ever seen. The movie, about a pair of astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) who get cut off from their ship and have to struggle their way back, is a mesmerizing visual experience from start to finish – and may well represent the best work of Bullock’s career. Some will complain that the movie is all about its technical prowess, and less about story, and that’s not entirely unfair, although I did find that Bullock grounded the movie on a relatable, emotional level, that really made you care about her character, and the film is such a dazzling technical achievement that it demands to be seen – on the biggest screen possible (this is the type of movie I don’t know if it will work on a TV screen) – and is easily one of the best films of the year. It took Cuaron a long time to follow-up Children of Men, but damn it, it was worth it.

Jia Zhang-ke’s brilliant A Touch of Sin is somewhat a departure for him, as it is an extremely violent film, and was inspired, visually, by Wuxia cinema of China’s past, but it is still very much a Jia Zhang-ke film, as it addresses the same issues of his other great films – including Platform, Unknown Pleasures, The World and Still Life. The film is a quartet of stories, based on real life events, about the seemingly rise of random violence in China – and as Jia makes clear in the movie, the violence can be directly tied to China’s changing economic landscape. The stories involve an angry man, who is tired of his village being exploited by a greedy mining company, and decides to take matters into his own hands, a bored man who stays away from his family for months on end, and makes his living killing and robbing people, a put upon woman, trapped as a mistress to a wealthy man, who finally snaps at her job at a spa, and a man who bounces from one job to the next, never being able to find something he’s good at, that allows him to make enough money, or avoid heartbreak. The film is shockingly bloody and violent, but never exploitive, and to me represents the pinnacle in an already brilliant directing career. Some people go to Festivals like Toronto, wanting to see this year’s big Oscar films – and yes, some of the film I saw there will likely be nominated for Oscars (or at least try to be), but a film like A Touch of Sin will come nowhere close to being an “Oscar movie”, but will last long after most people have forgotten what won this year. It is, simply put, a masterpiece.

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