Tuesday, September 18, 2018

TIFF 2018 Recap

Every year I consider not going to TIFF. I am a creature of habit, and even though I now I only go three days, it is a disruption of my habits, and often seems like it’s not worth the effort and expense. Then every year I go, and forget all that – because I love going, love seeing the movies, love being around people who love cinema, and have a great time. This year, all that was still true – but also when it was over, I was a lot more run down, tired and a little bit sick. That is probably because for the first time in almost a decade, I didn’t get a hotel room, and had to travel back and forth to my house every day – which adds two hours to the beginning of my day, and two hours to the end. Next year, I’m going to TIFF, and hope to get a hotel room again (I didn’t this year, because a trip to Disney World with my kids meant we were looking to save money). If not, I’ll probably go from four films a day, down to three – and just go one more day. Because by the end, I was bushed. None of this has anything to do with TIFF itself. The ticketing system worked extremely well this year for me – no complaints there unlike in the past, none of my movies started late (that has to do with the fact I went later in the festival, when the media and celebrities – you know, the ones that cause the delays – were long gone), and they even let us in the theaters earlier than usual. It was a well-run festival. It has to do with me – and the realization that I am not the same person who could operate on a few hours of sleep for days and days on end like I used to. Time catches up to us all.
Now, onto the movie themselves. I think next year, I’ll just skip my mini-preview, because I always end up changing my schedule – this time five of the twelve films on my preview ended up changing – in a couple of cases it was because I got tickets to movies I couldn’t originally, and part of it was scheduling issues, as I realized I was too ambitious (I could have been MUCH more tired had I stuck to my original schedule). There is little rhyme or reason to the order of the films listed below – I’m just going with the flow.
For the second straight year (after about a decade of missing it), I saw the People Choice’s winner. This year it was Green Book (Peter Farrelly) a lightweight comedy/drama starring Viggo Mortenson as a stereotypical Italian American from the Bronx who in 1962 is hired to chauffer around a highly educated black musician (Mahershala Ali) around the Deep South for two months. In the process, Mortenson’s character goes from someone who would throw out the glasses his wife served lemonade to two black workers in the opening scenes, to being best friends with a black man. In many ways, seeing the film with a couple of thousand of people at the Princess of Wales during TIFF is the perfect way to see it – the target audience is there (mainly white, mainly liberal, mainly older, mainly affluent) – because that film plays like gangbusters in that environment, and it’s hard not to get swept up in it – especially when the performances by Mortenson and especially Ali are as good as they are. This film will get think pieced to death when it comes out – and not without reason. In a year that contains great films about race in America – Sorry to Bother You, BlackKklansman, Widows (we’ll get there) and reportedly If Beale Street Could Talk (I didn’t see that one) it would both disheartening, and completely in character if Green Book was the film about race that the Academy embraces – it is old fashioned in every way, and earns its comparisons to Driving Miss Daisy. Still, the film is lightweight and fun – and seeing it now before the knives really come out for it (again, much of what will be said against the film will be true), is probably best. It’s not great art, but it’s fun.
I also saw one of the Runners-Up for the award – Roma (Alfonso Cuaron), which has earned all the praise it has received. Shot in beautiful black and white, almost entirely in master-shots, Roma is Cuaron’s lookback at the time of his childhood – but focuses mainly on Cleo (the remarkable Yalitz Aparicio) – the nanny/maid of a middle class family in the title neighborhood, who gets pregnant, and then abandoned by the baby’s father, and has to go through the next year as she struggles – and the family she works for falls apart when the doctor father leaves. The film is great in the details it shows of their lives, their neighborhood, their country – and also gets the bigger emotional notes right as well – it brought me to tears several times in the last act. If it’s not quite Cuaron’s best film (Children of Men is still my favorite) – it’s his most personal and deeply felt, and is easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year. If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere Netflix will play it in theaters, see it there – not just the images, but the remarkable sound work deserves to be seen in a theater. If not, Netflix will due – but it’s a shame most won’t be able to see it on a big screen.
A film I thought would be in play for the People’s Choice award (and I wouldn’t be shocked if it placed high, but since they only release three titles, we’ll never now) is Widows (Steve McQueen) – a gangbusters genre film that is probably the most purely entertaining film I saw at TIFF, but it still a film with a lot on its mind. It is essentially a heist film where three widows (Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez) whose husbands were all killed in a robbery gun awry, decide to band together to pull off the next job they were planning. The performances are all great – Davis anchors this, Debicki steals it, and the supporting cast is all great – especially Daniel Kaluuya doing a great heel turn and Colin Farrell as a corrupt politician, who would like to go straight – but even the smallest roles are well written and performed (Lukas Haas, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, etc.). The film touches upon issues like sexism, misogyny, racism, police brutality, political corruption and many other topics – but doesn’t get bogged down in them, never failing to deliver the entertainment. It’s a film you’ll watch a hundred times on cable – and never get tired of. This isn’t the film I expected from McQueen – who previous three films (Hunger, Shame, the Oscar winning 12 Years a Slave) were harsh – punishing audiences as much as anything. Here, he’s made a crowd pleaser.
For a film that is definitely not an audience pleaser we go to The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard) – which continues my streak (started well before I was born) of being a Godard film I know I don’t fully understand. His latest film, like many of his recent films, is a kind of collage film, collecting images and sounds from the past, as Godard criticizes those in the audience for not caring enough about the images, what they mean, and what they represent. For me, I’m a little sad that Godard has lost the playfulness of his last feature – Goodbye to Language 3-D – and the eye-popping effects that film had. This is a return to pure cranky Godard, which isn’t the mode I like him most. It’s still interesting, and worth seeing if you like Godard.
From the almost 90-year-old Godard, getting his well over 100th directing credit, we go to a director making his debut – The Standoff at Sparrow Creek (Henry Dunham). The film desperately wants to be Reservoir Dogs, except with militia men instead of jewel thieves – as in the aftermath of a mass shooting at a police shooting, the members of a local militia gather at their bunker – full of weapons – and realize that one of their own had to be the shooter – but who? It falls on James Badge Dale, playing a former cop, to interrogate the rest and figure it all out. The film isn’t as good as Tarantino – much of the dialogue works, but there are more than a few clunkers in there as well, and I think the movie tries to be too cute with its multiple twists in the end, but for a Tarantino clone, it’s well above average. I cannot help but wonder what the discussion around the film will be if it gets a major release – as its politics are murky, and you could accuse it of riling up the wrong people.
The political conversation is already in full swing around American Dharma (Errol Morris) – his latest documentary, this time consisting of a long conversation with Steve Bannon. To a certain extent, by making the film, Morris was in a no-win situation – some think (not without reason) that simply talking to Bannon means he has one because his ideas are treated with seriousness. Others won’t mind Morris talking to Bannon – but want the filmmaker to eviscerate him – which has never been Morris’ style. He likes to give his subjects enough rope to hang themselves with. What Morris does, remarkably well, in American Dharma is allow Bannon to talk, and air his views, but Morris undermines them all – with the clips from old movies he chooses, and a serious of headlines and quotes, which show just how disingenuous Bannon is being. It’s an incredibly scary documentary, that shows how Trump rose to power – and how even with Bannon out of the White House, and out of Breitbart – his ideas have still taken hold. You can skip if you wish Morris’ approach was different – but to me, it’s one of the best docs I’ve seen this year.
A film that probably won’t inspire the political debate it clearly wants to is The Front Runner (Jason Reitman) – a film that looks at the brief campaign Gary Hart launched to become the Democratic nominee in 1988 – where he entered a 12-point favorite over everyone (including George Bush, who would win) and ended three weeks later due to a sexual scandal. The film clearly wants to be a combination of The Candidate and Primary Colors, as directed by Robert Altman (so Tanner ‘ 88 basically), but is perhaps too obsessed with playing fair to all sides, so much so that the film seems to lack a point of view. Despite fine work by Hugh Jackman as Hart, the film doesn’t seem to know who he is – was he a principled guy, brought down by a newly scandal hungry media, or someone hiding behind his principles, because he was caught with his dick out? I do appreciate much of what the film does – in particular not treating the “girl” as an afterthought – it shows her as an intelligent, yet na├»ve person, who is eventually thrown to the wolves coldly by the Hart campaign. The hugely talented (and huge) ensemble cast is predictably quite good, and the film is entertaining. The film really does want to draw a line between what happened to Hart, and where we are now with the media – but backs away from drawing that line explicitly. It’s just missing a certain something that would elevate it from good to great – perhaps this is a story that would be better served in a limited series running 4 to 5 times longer than the film’s 2-hour runtime.
A film that combines the past and present more explicitly is Transit (Christian Petzold) which adapts a book from the 1940s about people trying to flee Europe, but sets it in a strange quasi-present, where we now know refugees are fleeing to Europe. Interestingly, Petzold doesn’t change much of the references from the novel, but the parallels are undeniable. It’s another of Petzold’s melodramas – as it hinges as a love triangle of sorts, as the main character poses as a dead writer to get a visa to Mexico – but then meets the dead man’s wife and her new lover (and doesn’t explain what he’s doing). The film is strange surreal – and will require a lot of thought to fully decode – but it’s a film that doesn’t leave your mind when it’s over.
Another film looking to the past is Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski), his follow-up to the Oscar winning Ida, which has a lot of stylistic similarities to that film – the boxy, Academy ratio, beautiful black and white photography, which often leaves a lot of space above the character’s heads. The story takes place over a 15-year period, starting in 1949, in Poland and centers on a couple who fall in love, but are constantly pushed apart by the political climates. It’s a tragic romance – you get the feeling very early things are not going to end well (and they don’t). The film is deliberately fragmentary – checking in on them every few years as things get progressively bleak – not even a few joyful musical moments can mask the pain. I don’t think the film is quite the film Ida was – but it’s close, and another example of how good Pawlikowski is, and how important it is for Poland to keep examining their past.
A superficially similar film was Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke) which acts as a kind of career summation of Jia’s career so far – combining elements of Unknown Pleasures, Still Born and A Touch of Sin, with a structure similar to Mountains May Depart. The film takes place over 17 years, starting in 2001 – and focuses on a couple – Jia’s muse, the great Tao Zhao and her gangster boyfriend, played by Fan Liao. The first act ends with Tao taking the blame of Fan’s gun – and hence, a five-year prison sentence – and when she gets out things are not quite how she thinks they will be. Like many of Jia’s film, it’s a film about China’s modernization, and move towards capitalism – and the mixed blessing that has been for the country. It’s also a love story, about a woman who keeps getting hurt because the man she loves is not capable of the same kind of love. The ending of the film is ambiguous in the best way imaginable. It’s not quite up to the best of Jia’s work – but it’s pretty close.
I am out of similarities to tie one movie to the next, so let’s just get to the wonderful bizarre brilliance of In Fabric (Peter Strickland). On the face of it, it should be completely ridiculous – it is about a haunted dress, who ends killing anyone who wears it. But it’s all in the style of what Strickland does – like Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, the film is a play on old European B-movies, with a strange twist. This one really loves Dario Argento, and its insane in that way – as first the dress is bought by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, a single mother looking for love and then moves onto a washing machine repairman, and his wife (Hayley Squires, proving her great work in Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake was no fluke). The film is so wonderfully weird and surreal, I don’t think any description of it will do its justice – but if you’re predisposed to like this, you will love this one.
Finally, ending with the best film I saw this year at TIFF – one of the very best films of the year – Burning (Lee Chang-dong) a strange character study that turns into a thriller of sorts. It’s about a young man from the country (a brilliantly subdued Ah-In Yoo) who runs into an old classmate, Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon) – and falls in love with her. When she returns from a trip to Africa with a new boyfriend, Ben (Steven Yeun) – one of those affluent young men who you don’t know what he does, the young man at the center becomes suspicious of him – suspicions that grow when Hae-mi seemingly disappears. The film has an interesting three act structure – we are interested in who Ben is, and what he’s doing, and gradually that shifts to the main character as we scrutinize his motivations – right up to the shocking climax of movie. Lee Chang-dong has long been a favorite of mine – I saw both Secret Sunshine and Poetry at TIFF, and loved both of them – and here he has outdone himself. A masterpiece – easily the best film I saw at TIFF, which is saying something since I saw so many ones this year.
And that’s it for now. I will be back for TIFF next year – I just hope next year I get a little more sleep. 

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