Saturday, September 19, 2015

My TIFF Recap

2015 marks TIFF’s 40th Anniversary, and my own personal 11th Anniversary of attending the festival. Back before I had kids, I would go full time for 5 days, and part time the rest of the days, ending up seeing somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 films. I hope that when my kids get older, I can go back to that sort of schedule. But for now, I can only go a few days – this year, it was three days and 13 films (well, 14 – I’ll get to that). Being at TIFF is like walking around in a movie induced haze for days on end – starting early in the morning, and go to midnight, seeing 4 or 5 films in a day, running from one theater to the next, standing in lines, not eating or drinking or sleeping very much. I stumble back to my hotel at the end of each night and simply collapse – and get ready to do it all over again the next day. I know to some, Film Festivals aren’t the best way to see films – seeing so many films in a compressed time period has an effect on how you see them – some more minor films gets lost in your memory, and other, deeper films don’t have the time to settle like they should. I have never found this to be the case for me. You do get time to digest the films, as you wait for the next one – and the great ones keep coming back to your mind over the course of the festival. This year, out of the 14 films I saw, I think 1 is a certifiable masterpiece, but there were several others I consider to be great, and most of the rest were all at the very least interesting and good. For the most part, I try to catch interesting sounding films – films that I may not have a chance to see on a big screen again, or at the very least films that I have heard are great from other festivals. You can stick to the movie stars and Oscar movies if you like – I always try to get a mixture of everything that TIFF has to offer. The great thing about TIFF is that they offer so many films, from so many genres and styles, that you can have any sort of festival you want. The bad part of that is that because they select so many films, some are inevitably going to be bad – so let’s get the two bad films I saw at TIFF out of the way, and then we can move onto the good stuff. (For the record, I’m not really going worst to best here, although I will start with the worst and end with the best – many of the middle movies are about equal).

The worst film I saw at TIFF 2015 would be in the running for the worst film I have ever seen at TIFF in 11 years. That would be Dito Montiel’s Man Down a heavy handed movie dealing with an Afghan war veteran (Shia LaBeouf). Two things make the films at least watchable – the first being LaBeouf’s very committed (though not necessary good) performance in the lead role. This is ACTING and it’s never boring, at least. The other is that the structure of the movie is so needlessly complex – jumping all over the place in terms of time periods – from LaBeouf in Afghanistan, to his days in basic training, to his pre-war relationship with his wife (Kate Mara) and their son, to him being interviewed by an army shrink (Gary Oldman) about an “incident”   to some sort of dark   future, where America has been destroyed and LaBeouf and his best friend (Jai Courtney)   try and find his wife and son. Montiel forces you to pay attention, because if you don’t, you’ll have no idea what the hell is happening. The bad part is that nothing that is happening is all that interesting – and all the actors who are not LaBeouf seem bored (to be fair, Jai Courtney always seems bored, so that’s just his thing). What Oldman or Mara’s excuses are, I don’t know, but part of it could be the horrible roles they have. Worse yet, the movie is one of those with a “shocking twist ending” – which isn’t all that shocking except in how heavy handed it is – plus the fact that after the twist is revealed, the movie just keeps on going for far too long. If for some reason, all this still sounds interesting to you, don’t worry – I’m sure you’ll be able to find Man Down where you find most of Montiel’s films –heading straight to VOD and your local Wal-Mart’s bargain bin.

Nowhere near as bad as Man Down, but still not very good was the Canadian mockumentary No Men Beyond This Point directed by Marc Sawers, which imagines a world that, starting in the 1950s, women started to be able to become pregnant without the aid of men – in fact could not get pregnant by men at all – and only gave birth to girls. Now, in 2015, the film tells the story of how this happened – and of the youngest man in the world, now in his mid-30s. There are some amusing lines in the film, and its never that painful to watch, but Sawers never really does anything the least bit unexpected in the film – and some of the things he suggests would happen in a world like this are quite simply laughably stupid (and not in the way Sawers intends). There is a seed of a good idea here – but unfortunately, the movie does nothing to exploit it, taking the easiest path possible throughout. Again, I cannot imagine this one is coming to a theater near anyone, anytime soon.

Another film that undoubtedly won’t be heading to too many theaters, outside of film festivals, but for entirely reasons would be Tsai Ming-liang’s Afternoon. The celebrated Malaysian born, Taiwan based filmmaker had said he was going to retire after his last films – 2013’s Stray Dogs – even though he’s still in his 50s, and while he Afternoon is a new film just two years later, he still may well be retired. This isn’t a film like his others – but rather is a filmed conversation with his leading man Kang-sheng Lee. Tsai, who has always loved long, unbroken shots, outdoes himself here – the entire movie is made up of 4 identical shots – with Tsai and Lee in chairs near the top of the house in the mountains they now share – with two large windows taking up much of the frame, as the trees from outside creep inside, and you see mountains in the background. All of this probably sounds kind of dull – and admittedly, it can be. And those looking for insights into the many films this pair have made together will likely be disappointed – many of their films are mentioned, but none are really discussed. Instead it’s a film about their friendship and collaboration on a more personal level. To be honest, most people probably won’t care about this film – even at TIFF, the screening I attended was maybe half full – and it does play more like something that will wind up as a special feature on a Criterion Collection DVD than a film unto itself, but I found the film calming, beautiful and serene, and really kind of fascinating. Like I said, it likely will not be seen in theaters outside of film festivals – but if you like Tsai, it is certainly worth seeing.

Another sparsely attended of my screenings was for Sergey Losnitsa’s The Event which is a documentary entirely made up of archival footage from Leningrad from August 1991, when a group of Soviet elites tried a coup d’état, and Russians took to the street to protest. The film is meant as a companion piece to last year’s Maidan (a film I didn’t see) about protests in the Ukraine over Putin’s acts of aggression. Putin shows up in the footage here as well – as a young KGB agent – but the protests are much different than the ones in the Ukraine – calmer, less angry. The ultimate point may well be that the more things change, the more they stay the same – there is a sense of hope among the protesters in the film – and it is true that less than 6 months later, the Soviet Union would collapse. Things didn’t get much better however, which is why there are still protests and anger. The film doesn’t provide much in the way of context for the events – but I found it wasn’t completely necessary – although the film will certainly be of more interest to Russian audiences (if they can see it) or those more versed in Russian history than I.

You may think that there would be little interest in a movie about Icelandic goat herders, but Grimur Hakonarson’s Rams was packed at TIFF, and the audience really seemed to enjoy the film, right up until the ambiguous ending, where there was an audible collective groan (personally, I like it when movies end like Rams does, but many audiences don’t seem to agree with me). Winner of the Un Certain Regard Prize at Cannes this year, Rams is about two brothers who can literally see each other’s houses from their own kitchens, but haven’t spoken in decades (we will eventually find out why). The two both raise goat – like many in their small valley community – and they are the only two with the type raised by their father – but an outbreak of scrapple means all the animals have to be slaughtered – but both brothers are too stubborn to allow that to happen without a fight. The film is thoughtful and gently comedic, and ends in an emotional maelstrom that you really do not expect in a movie about Icelandic goat herders. I wonder if the subject matter will keep general audiences away when the film is released – but hopefully not. While I don’t think the film ever rises to the level of greatness, it is solid throughout – and is more of a crowd pleaser than you may think.

Mad Canadian genius Guy Maddin was back at TIFF with not just one but two movies. The more official of the two was The Forbidden Room – which he co-directed with Evan Johnson, and apparently has been trimmed a little since its premiere at Sundance in January. Now just a shade under two hours, The Forbidden Room is a visually stunning film, in the usual Guy Maddin way but even more so, with a narrative layered inside of narratives – all apparently based on the plot of lost silent films, which is, of course, the type of thing Maddin would do. The film has a collection of Canadian and French stars – as it spins from one narrative to the next and back again, it’s all perhaps a little too complicated and complex, and yes, confusing. Still, there isn’t a frame of this film that isn’t full of visual invention – and the film is frequently hilarious in that typical Maddin way. I don’t think The Forbidden Room quite rises to the level of Maddin’s best work – like My Winnipeg, The Heart of the World or The Saddest Music in the World – but it’s certainly a must see for fans of Maddin. The other Guy Maddin film at TIFF – also co-directed by Evan Johnson, as well as Gaelen Johnson – only played on a flat screen TV in the corner of the Bell Lightbox Lobby on a continuous loop throughout the festival. Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton is more Maddin madness, but this time I think it really is one of the best things Maddin has ever made, and one can only hope that the film will be available in some form or another after the festival. Somehow Maddin was able to convince the “Great Canadian Populist” Paul Gross to allow him on the set of his Afghan war film Hyena Road to do a “making of” documentary of the film. Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton starts out with Maddin definitely throwing shade at Gross (that is where the Great Canadian Populist line comes from) as Maddin laments the fact that his own production is dragging on, and he’s out of money, while Gross gets a budget many times his own. This part of the film is hilarious, but then the film takes a more serious turn – and becomes less about Gross and his movie, and more about the nature of war movies in general, which Maddin describes as a “funeral without a body”, and wonders if there is a way to do a war movie that forces the audience to confront the reality of war rather than to try and recreate it faithfully, and then goes ahead and tries that – but taking footage from the Gross’s film, and playing with it – turning one sequence into a silly laser fight, with a with high contrast, and ending with footage from the set with a soundtrack of Guy LaFleaur reading from his own book scoring. Maddin’s films, of course, have always been steeped in cinema history – and this is one of his most interesting looks at it, forcing the viewer to see war movies in a new light. You may not necessarily agree with everything Maddin says in the film – I don’t – but it’s fascinating to think about, and Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton really is one of the best films Maddin has made. I really hope more people get a chance to see the film – which I have to doubt, since few outside of Canada will care about Paul Gross, and there won’t be many even in Canada who will (watching the film in the corner of the Lightbox lobby, I was surrounded by others – but most people seemed to be there for the benches, not the film). I had very little desire to see Hyena Road – and the reviews out of TIFF, where the film played, have basically confirmed my fears about the jingoistic seeming film (with some saying that a better name for the film would be “Canada, Fuck Yeah!”) – but I have to say, I just may see the film when it opens next month, if for no other reason than to actually see how Gross choses to show the same scenes Maddin does in this film. If you get to see this film – please do so.

Italian master Marco Bellocchio celebrates the 50th Anniversary of his first film – the masterpiece Fists in the Pocket – with a new film, set once again in his hometown of Bobbio, Blood of My Blood. Bellocchio has never seemed to quite get the attention his films deserve – and I include myself here, as I haven’t seen as many of his films as I probably should – and Blood of My Blood will likely also not quite get the attention it deserves. It is a beautiful, confounding film – the type that demands conversation afterwards, and perhaps a second viewing as well. The film is split into two – the first taking place a couple hundred years ago, as a rich outsider arrives in Bobbio, and along with Church Officials, are trying to get a beautiful young woman to “confess” to being in league with the devil, to clear the name of her lover, a priest, who recently committed suicide. The second part, set in the present day, also has a rich outsider arriving in Bobbio – this time it`s a Russian billionaire who wants to buy the prison – the same one from the first section – and the efforts made by the elderly vampire who calls it his home, and has power in the community, to stop him. How the two halves relate to each other is never made quite clearly – although there are certainly echoes of each part in the other. It’s the type of film that drew me into its web, and afterwards sent me scrambling to read some reviews that would hopefully help explain its complexities – although as the film had just premiered at the Venice film festival the previous week, and the consensus there seemed to be much like mine – a beautiful, intricate film that will demand repeat viewings to fully comprehend – they didn’t much help. Still, here’s hoping that Bellocchios film gets the attention it deserves in the coming months.

If Bellocchio is a confirmed Italian master, than Paolo Sorrentino is a more modern Italian director whose work is divisive, with many thinking he is a new master, and others not being quite so sure. His latest film, Youth, is his second in English, and his follow-up to the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, The Great Beauty - that many liked much more than I – I found it to be a hollow, repetitive Fellini clone that was basically a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. You could say the same thing about Youth – which stars Michael Caine as a famous composer and conductor, now retired, and on vacation in Switzerland, along with his old friend – a director played by Harvey Keitel, working on a new film, and his daughter (Rachel Weisz) who is going through a divorce, and still bitter about some things from her childhood. The film is basically about aging and death – of course – but doesn’t really have much of interest to say about either subject. Still, it is much better than The Great Beauty, if for no other reason than its shorter and less repetitive, so Sorrentino’s flashy style doesn’t wear itself out (and at times is genuinely stunning) and because the performances by Caine, Keitel, Paul Dano (as a young actor) and especially Weisz (who is typically guarded throughout, but has one stunning scene) and especially Jane Fonda – in what basically amounts to a cameo (although a brilliant one, clearly the best work she has done since returning to acting a decade ago) is typically top notch. Perhaps, I am willing to concede, that I’m too young for Youth to truly speak to me - the mainly older audience at the Princess of Wales seemed really into it. I liked Youth quite a bit – although I’m still not convinced Sorrentino is a great director, and I’m still waiting for him to top Il Divo.

Making somewhat of a comeback was Michael Moore, with his first film in 6 years, and in his best in more than decade, with Where to Invade Next. Like all of Moore’s films, there are certainly areas that you can nitpick – and I’m sure when the film is released there will be a lot of that – but overall the film really is more optimistic than anything Moore has ever made, and is basically about how America should, and could, do better than it currently does in terms of serving its own citizenry. Moore takes a tour of countries around the world (mostly in Europe) to see how they do things differently, and to take those ideas make to America to improve things there. He heads to Italy to find out about their vacation policies, to France to talk about school lunches, Finland for education policy, to Slovenia for free university education, to Iceland for female equality, etc. The film is fun, entertaining and very funny – the packed house at the Ryerson was certainly in the bag for the film from the start – and really does showcase the best and worst of Moore throughout. I found the film endlessly fascinating, fun and entertaining. Sure, you can pick a lot of nits here, but I think it’s hard to argue with Moore’s overarching point here.

A director on a current hot streak who kept it going was Denis Villeneuve who was at TIFF with his drug war, epic action film Sicario, which really is the best of its kind since Steven Soderberg's Traffic way back in 2000. The film stars Emily Blunt as a FBI agent who joins a task force going after a Mexican drug cartel, who has no idea what she is getting herself into. The film is intense from the start, and becomes increasingly bloody, brutal and violent, and although one can complain that the movie gradually leaves Blunt behind to focus on another character – a brilliantly cold and calculated Benicio Del Toro – that’s also kind of the point of the movie – that Blunt is used by those around her, in part because she is a woman and feel they can control her. Brilliantly shot by Roger Deakins, with great performances throughout, Sicario is one of the most intense films you will see this year – a thriller with a brain, that also manages to remain pure entertainment. Don’t miss this later this fall.

There were also new discoveries to be made – at least by me – and two of the best films I saw at TIFF were by filmmaker unknown to me until now. The first is Victoria directed by Sebastian Schipper, which focuses on the title character, brilliantly played by Laia Costa, a young Spanish living in Berlin, who meets a group of four Berlin party boys at a club, and stupidly decides to hang out with them afterwards. It isn’t stupid for the reasons you would expect – but for different reasons, as the night of fun and partying eventually turns into an ill-advised bank robbery and its aftermath, with the group of not exactly master criminals, do everything they shouldn’t do if they want to get away with it. You may have heard of the film – which won a prize at the Berlin film festival earlier this year – in part because of its formal gambit – the whole film, all 2 hours and 15 minutes of it, is done entirely in one take. There is no doubt that this is a gimmick – but it’s a brilliantly handled one by Schipper, who makes the films into a propulsive and energetic entertainment. There is nothing new here to be sure, but the film works as pure entertainment – which is never a bad thing. The challenge for Schipper will be to find a follow-up where he can do something this entertaining without falling back on a gimmick, as it would get old fast. For this time though the film works – brilliantly.

There was also Sundance sensation The Witch by first time director Robert Eggers which really does join the ranks of recent films like The Babadook and It Follows, as genuinely unsettling and scary horror movies, that actually elevate the genre somewhat. Set in the 1600s in New England, The Witch follows a very devote family – thrown out of their community, who try and make a go of farming and (mostly) self-destruct in a paranoia spiral. Yes, there is an actual witch in the film, but the family is still responsible for most of their own downfall – right up to the stunning final moments. It’s probably best to see The Witch knowing as little as possible about it – so I won’t say much more. I will say that the only demerit in the film is some rather poor acting by the children in the film (not including lead, Ana Taylor-Joy who plays the eldest daughter in a stunning performance) but the film is one of those horror movies that get under your skin, and stays there long after it ends.

As much as I loved Sicario, The Witch and Victoria, there was only one film I saw at TIFF that I would say is a genuine masterpiece – and that would be Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa a stop motion animated film, that it quite simply one of the best films of the year, and worthy of being the long awaited follow-up to Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York way back in 2008 – which was one of my absolute favorite films of that decade. Like all of Kaufman’s films as a writer, you can summarize the film quickly, but that won’t give you a sense of what the film is actually about – but I’ll stick to a brief summary, The film is about an author and speaker (brilliantly voiced by David Thewlis) in Cincinnati for a speech. Unhappy with his life, he reaches out for something more – first reaching back to his past in an effort to recapture something that is long gone, and then reaching for something new that briefly seems like it could be his salvation. The other voice work – but Jennifer Jason Leigh as a new woman in his life, and by Tom Noonan who does the voice of everyone else in the film is also brilliant. The animation is brilliant – and the precise right choice for this material (the bizarre criticism by some the films detractors that the film wouldn’t work if not for the animation is something I don’t get – would Fantasia work as a live action film? Would The Godfather work as animation?) The film is further proof that not enough people use animation to do brilliantly original, adult films – and like all of Kaufman’s films is quietly profound. This is a film that will be talked about for a long time to come.
So that’s it for TIFF for another year. The general consensus was that it was an off year for the festival – which isn’t a surprise, considering everything from Sundance to Cannes to Venice to Telluride has also been considered somewhat disappointing this year, and TIFF will always have an element of its roots as The Festival of Festivals – which gathers the best films of all the other festivals in a given year. It would be ridiculous of me – who only saw 14 films of the hundreds playing at the festival, to pass judgement on it. What I will say is that out of those 14 films, only two were bad, and the rest were at the very least were good and all of them were interesting. And any festival that gives me a chance to see a film as brilliant as Anomalisa is worth it in my book. There is no doubt about it – I’ll be back again next year.

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