Friday, September 12, 2014

TIFF '14 Diary: Day 7

When I first read about Two Days, One Night in the TIFF program book, I thought the combination of French film star Marion Cotillard and lauded Belgian directing duo Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne was an odd one. It might seem odd that such a pairing would seem odd, because why shouldn't France's best & most popular actress work with the most acclaimed directors making films in the language? But the two seem diametrically opposed symbolically. Marion Cotillard is undeniably one of the great beauties of world cinema, while the Dardenne brothers are the ultimate proletarian realist filmmakers. Cotillard looks like a movie star, while the Dardenne brothers consciously avoid anything that doesn't look like a plain slice of daily life. We should all be so lucky for Marion Cotillard to be a reflection of any sort of daily life. 

And yet here they are together, with the Dardenne brothers offering up their most blue-collar vision thus far, and Marion Cotillard as its center--a factory worker losing her job. If Bruce Springsteen wrote films in Belgium, this is what they might look like. But ignoring the obvious disconnect of actor and subject, Cotillard and the Dardennes have brought out the best in one another. 

It's hard to call anything the Dardennes do as high concept, because everything about their auteurism is rooted in how ordinary people handle the moral murkiness of potentially realistic situations, but this comes as close as we're ever likely to get. Cotillard plays Sandra, a factory worker who finds out on Friday she's getting laid off unless she can convince a majority of her 16 colleagues to vote against getting a paycheck bonus in order to retain her salary. The vote will be monday morning, giving her two days and one night to appeal to the humanism of sixteen people that have already had time to decide how to spend their bonuses. What ensues is little more than 90 minutes of Sandra tracking people down and asking them to vote for her to stay employed, but the Dardennes imbue the proceedings with a humanism that heightens the drama specifically because of how downplayed the formalistic touch is. We really feel like we're watching Sandra fight for her job, while ashamed of having to use her power of pity to do the fighting. Cotillard is great here; she's the opposite of Claire Danes on Homeland, who's crying is always so dramatic that it looks like a product of the CGI budget. Cotillard is more of an understated crier, but she can summon it quickly. It feels real every time. 

Something I've always loved about cinema more than prose is the power film has to catch you by surprise with precisely when something ends. With the written word, you basically always know how much you have left. You know when you're on the final page, and you know when you're reading the last sentence, and your brain is already reacting to what you're reading from the awareness standpoint of knowing its the end. With film, unless you're literally watching the clock, you never quite know when something's over until the credits start rolling, and great directors can use that as part of their arsenal. Even if you're aware that a film is wrapping up, you might still believe there are five minutes--another scene or two--remaining, when all of a sudden the screen goes black, and you're struck by the decision to end something without those final scenes you expected. That's what happens with Two Days, One Night. The screen doesn't suddenly cut to black; that's way too formalist for the Dardennes. But the credits do begin appearing on screen at a moment when we don't totally expect it, and I found that to be a really powerful touch. 

In the last few months of every year, a certain kind of movie starts appearing just as regularly and dependably as a CGI-lavished sequel is going to blow down our doors on the first weekend of May. These are usually referred to as "Oscar bait" films, and they tend to follow a certain checklist: period setting, true story, unappreciated protagonist dealing with some sort of handicap or secret, weighty subject, dramatic score, British actors, and a Weinstein name slapped somewhere on the credits. We get a half dozen of these every year, and more often than not, they disappoint. Every year gives us a handful of films that we assume are Oscar bound the first time we see the trailer, and then once we see the finished film we curse ourselves for being swindled by formula yet again. It's why we feel so let down by movies like J. Edgar and Hyde Park on Hudson--because not only did they pretty much suck, but we unfairly assumed they'd be contending for Best Picture until we saw the damn thing and wished we could travel three hours back in time and not get up from the couch. But sometimes, one of these cookie-cutter films comes through and delivers a result that is every bit as good as it seemed on paper. In 2014, The Imitation Game is that film. 

Benedict Cumberbatch, he of The Name and The Moment, stars as Alan Turing, a brilliant and socially abysmal young mathematician charged by the British government in 1939 with trying to break the allegedly unbreakable Nazi Enigma Code. To do so, he and his team of shockingly attractive geniuses (Oh, hey there Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode, I wasn't quite expecting you!) basically invent the world's first computer, and help the Allies win the war when they crack the code and begin intercepting Nazi signals. Less than ten years later, with Turing's military record a classified secret, he's persecuted by the British government for being homosexual. Talk about covering your damn bases. 

The Imitation Game is not an innovative film, but it's a film that does absolutely everything right. The story is a great one, and one that deserves to be told. The themes of how we react to (and punish) genius are just as applicable now as they've ever been. Cumberbatch is excellent as Turing. Like Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, he has the subtlety to not play the role as overtly gay, but to put the pieces there for us to find. The script, which topped Hollywood's famed Black List (an annual list of the best unproduced scripts in the industry) a few years ago, is top notch. The dialogue is snappy and engaging, the story is paced well, the themes are strong but not forced, and the chronology jumps are used well without being overdone and confusing. The score, by Alexandre Desplat--probably the most Oscar bait-y of film composers at the moment--is lovely and elegiac. Supporting roles by Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister) and Mark Strong are nice scene-stealers. The check-list is being carefully mastered. 

There will always be backlash around films created to win Oscars in the same way there's backlash around sports teams assembled to win championships. People like great results to occur organically instead of by intelligent diabolical design. But, people also like to see great pieces create a great whole, and The Imitation Game does that. This film will likely compete for Best Picture, not merely because it was created to do so, but because it was created with great care and it's just really good. The director, Morten Tyldum, is working for the first time in English. He previously made 2011's riveting Norwegian thriller, Headhunters, and it's nice to see him cash in on that potential without neutering himself. He's less risky here, but he's not mailing anything in either. Every aspect of this movie has the caring touch of a great filmmaker all over it. I doubt we'll still be talking about this film five or ten years down the road, but for the two hours you're in its thrall, it'll give you everything it has. 

Seven days into TIFF, two things are inevitably true: 1. I'm very behind on sleep and bound to conk out on anything that even remotely challenges my engagement level, and 2. Some terrible movie is lurking around the corner, ready to slap me in the face with its awfulness just when I let my guard down and start thinking I have a super-power of avoiding the dregs. As it happened, both of these universal TIFF truths pulled a double whammy on me in the same night. First up was the Russian epic Leviathan, which won Best Screenplay in Cannes and is being called the greatest Russian film in a decade. 

I should have known it was a bad sign when the director introduced the film by warning us it was long, and then laughing at his own joke when he followed up by saying, "But don't worry, it goes by quick." If I didn't already strongly suspect it, I realized within the first five minutes of the movie that he was employing heavy sarcasm with that remark. What I saw, which was approximately the first twenty minutes of a 142-minute film, was magisterial, but also slow and methodical. I think I could tell there's a great film there, but not one to challenge yourself with when you're tired. Sony Pictures Classics has picked this film up for U.S. distribution and a hopeful Oscar campaign for Best Foreign Language Film, so I should get another chance to see it in a few months. 

And then came the movie that I wish I could have slept through. If only I didn't see it right after a two hour nap. 

I wouldn't quite say I had high hopes for Revenge of the Green Dragons, but I definitely thought it would be a good bit of counter-programming at the end of a day that included films about the modern economies of Belgium and Russia. It's by the same director as Infernal Affairs, the great Hong Kong cop-flick that was remade into Martin Scorsese's The Departed, and it looked ambitious. It attempted to be a period crime epic about the Chinese street gangs of New York in the 1980's, the very same ones that inspired original Nintendo games like Double Dragon. Sadly, what we ended up with is a movie that only a twelve-year old playing Double Dragon in 1989 could have thought was a good idea. 

In the same way The Imitation Game got everything right, Revenge of the Green Dragons gets everything wrong. This movie is nothing but action movie tropes soaked in graphic violence and nihilism, but trying to be weighty and poignant instead of just embracing itself as a full-on B-movie. I always used to refer to Tony Scott as my least favorite director, and this movie looks like someone's deliberately homaging all of the worst parts of Tony Scott's style. It's the kind of movie where every gun-shot victim gets blown away in the exaggerated silent slow motion that's meant to make us feel, the female love interest gets tortured and murdered in a prototypical "women in refrigerators" moment, and the opening voice-over narration tells us that they didn't know how bad things would get. The main characters are completely unsympathetic, the supporting roles are all stock characters, and every death is accompanied by someone screaming "Nooo!!" while they're getting held back. I admit to loving dumb action movies, but this is a dumb action movie that thinks it's making a profound and dramatic statement on cycles of violence, when really all it's doing is attempting to ground trash cinema in unearned realism. This movie has no redeeming qualities. 

Tomorrow: Two good films directed by women, a Martin Scorsese documentary about the New York Review of Books, and another truly awful movie. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

TIFF '14 Diary: Day 6

Of every film I've seen this year at TIFF, Foxcatcher is the one I feel least prepared to manufacture an immediate opinion on. That's not because there's so much to unpack (there isn't), but rather that I can't quite figured out how I'm supposed to unpack it. Never have I been more desperate to raise my hand in a post-screening Q&A and ask a director, "What was the point in telling this story?" But, since there's really no uncouth way to ask that, I kept a lid on it. 

Foxcatcher tells the true story of USA olympic gold-medal wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz, who in the mid-1980's moved to Pennsylvania to live and train on the estate of eccentric millionaire John du Pont, a patriot and wrestling fan who wanted to bankroll USA wrestling as long as it meant he could oversee and participate in the training. John du Pont then became fixated on Mark Schultz, and what started out as a close friendship between the two gradually became creepier. What happened next is a matter of public record, but I won't spoil it for those that don't know. 

It's an absolutely fascinating story, and maybe that's the entirety of the point--to tell an interesting story. But with the way things played out in real life, and the way the movie makes the artistic choice to not delve into the meanings of the conclusion at all, it leaves you with a really empty feeling, unable to figure out what to make of what you've just seen. What's the intended interpretation or lesson? That eccentric millionaires are kind of weird? 

In terms of filmmaking, Foxcatcher is hypnotic. It encases you in a slowly unfolding dream reality, like something that only could have been created in the merging subconsciouses of Hitchcock and Kubrick. The isolation and color saturation in the shots is sobering, and the creepy, unblinking stares Steve Carell delivers as John du Pont cut to the core. Carell, barely recognizable behind a prosthetic nose that makes him look like a nightmarish live action version of his Despicable Me villain, delivers the best acting performance of the year so far. It's a performance that's all about the measured restraint of statuesque silence. There are moments when you feel so sure Carell is playing something as a joke, but then the extended awkward expressions slowly reveal an unbudging seriousness. Unlike the Hannibal Lector of Anthony Hopkins that lives in our mind through his anecdotes about fava beans and livers, Carell's du Pont doesn't require the use of snappy dialogue to seer his scariness into our heads. Just those quiet stares. 

The Schultz brothers are played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, who also both do a fantastic job, though their performances are more understated. The director is Bennett Miller, who previously made Capote and Moneyball. His films are united by their carefully crafted retellings of bizarre and unconventional true stories, but his previous two films have concluded with a more obvious sense of meaning. This one merely concludes, as silently and strangely as it began. 

At the total opposite end of the spectrum was Joshua Oppenheimer's new documentary, The Look of Silence, which is just overflowing with meaning and interpretations ripe for discussion.  This is the sequel to Oppenheimer's Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary, The Act of Killing, which followed leaders of the Indonesian death squads from the 1960's as they discussed and reenacted their crimes. These men were never punished, never paid for the atrocities they committed, and are largely still in power. When they discussed and recreated their crimes in The Act of Killing, they did so as though they were staging action movies about their lives, and imagined themselves as classic Hollywood gangsters. They casually spoke about how they found effective ways to torture people that minimized the amount of blood that got on their clothing. 

The Act of Killing was an intensely powerful, sobering, heartbreaking film, one that will probably be discussed and studied for decades to come. It also prompted a discussion both internationally and within Indonesia about what happened in the 1960's, and why these mass murderers are still free and celebrated within their own country. The Look of Silence continues those thoughts, and follows an Indonesian man named Adi, whose brother was one of the victims of the death squads. As Adi confronts the men who led the death squads and seeks their acknowledgment of the wrongdoing of their actions, we see the other side of the story given to us by the previous film. There isn't too much to say beyond that; these films sort of defy the concept of having a critical angle. They ought to be seen and taught and thought about not because they represent the peak of the cinematic art form, but because they illuminate the value and fragility of life. 

Without intending to, I selected a really heavy slate of films on TIFF day 6. Susanne Bier's A Second Chance continued that trend, and against all odds, was maybe the heaviest one yet. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones' Jamie Lannister) plays Andreas, a Copenhagen detective with a new born child, who is prompted into a tough choice when tragedy strikes at home and he discovers the neglected baby of a junkie he's investigating. The film then enters full-on Gone Baby Gone territory, but does so in a fascinating way--the question that Gone Baby Gone shocked us with at its conclusion is the one A Second Chance spends the majority of its run time openly asking. 

Bier is one of the masters of contemporary European cinema, with several great films under her belt including Brothers, the Oscar-nominated After the Wedding, and the Oscar-winning In a Better World. Her films always set up extremely unique-yet-realistic scenarios where her characters are forced into difficult quandaries of moral ambiguity, and the conclusions of her films never offer easy answers. Her characters make choices, and then live with their consequences. What I really loved about this film is the ending, which (deliberately?) gave us the same concluding scene as Gone Baby Gone, but with a very different result that still feels genuine and true. 

When I plan out my schedule for TIFF every year, I always go back and read a lot of coverage from Cannes, because many of those films play TIFF as well. On the first draft of my TIFF schedule, my final film for the evening of day 6 was a documentary called Merchants of Doubt, about professional skeptics hired by businesses to cast suspicions on climate change and the like. But then I read Grantland's Wesley Morris talk about an Argentinian film he'd seen in Cannes called Wild Tales, and the enthusiasm he had for it sold me and convinced me to make the swap. 

Holy hell, am I glad I did. Wild Tales is not just the best film I've seen at TIFF '14, but maybe my favorite TIFF memory in five years of coming to the festival. This film represents the first time I've ever shouted out "Oh Jesus Christ!" during a screening, and also the first time I've ever leapt to my feet and tried to prompt a standing ovation on my own--about half of the audience joined me. 

Wild Tales features six different stories that are related only thematically, and each quickly goes from realistic to ludicrous in a very short amount of time. The common link I found between the tales is the way simple conflicts and disagreements can quickly escalate into Shakespearean tragedies merely by people not being able to forgive and move on. In the post-screening Q&A, director Damian Szifron put it another way: they're each about "the pleasure of losing control," he said. Yes, they certainly are. 

In the immortal words of Gwen Stefani, "This shit is bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-S." I don't know that I have ever laughed harder, been more shocked, more engaged, and more excited to see what would come next than I was during Wild Tales. Just when you think you might have a handle on where Szifron is taking you with one of his stories about people at the end of their ropes, he dives head-first through that door and then throws you through a window. This film is absolutely relentless. But within all of these stories of modern civility being gleefully torn asunder is a striking moral core about the necessity of forgiveness, the understanding of knowing when to apologize, and the power of being able to walk away. The film's final tale is my favorite, chronicling the strangest wedding reception ever. Actress Erica Rivas, who plays the bride, Romina, gives us the funniest portrayal of "wit's end" I can ever recall seeing, but I also responded most to this particular wild tale because of how differently it ended than the others. In perhaps the most wild move of all, the final tale concludes with the "fuck it" mentality of the characters taking on a very different manifestation than one of revenge. It was the perfect, and the only, way to end such an unrestrained and exciting film. 

Tomorrow: A wonderful realist film of contemporary Belgium starring Marion Cotillard, a Russian epic that I slept through, an excellent chronicle of a forgotten World War II hero that's likely to be a Best Picture contender, and the first terrible movie I saw at TIFF '14. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

TIFF '14 Diary: Day 5

Just as day four of TIFF '14 ended with a musical, day five began with two of them, one a biopic, and one a competition not for the faint of heart. Overall this was my best day yet of TIFF '14, with four films watched: one great, two very good, and one entertaining. 

A few weeks I wrote about the James Brown biopic Get On Up, and one of the things I loved about it was the way it created a more all-encompassing portrait of the totality of James Brown by ignoring the rules of a strict chronology. It reminded me a bit of the Dylan pseudo-biopic I'm Not There, in which several iterations of Dylan are played by several different actors, all of which are meant to add up to a coherent portrait of someone whose public persona was so often incongruous. I'm Not There failed as a film for me, but I admired the idea and risk behind it. It was largely written by Oren Moverman, who also co-wrote the new Love & Mercy, about Beach Boy leader Brian Wilson. 

Love & Mercy uses the I'm Not There tactic of having more than one "name" actor play the main character across different time periods, but does so in a way that provides a much more concrete grounding for a film that communicates a story, instead of just ideas and glimpses, like I'm Not There did. Here, Brian Wilson is played by Paul Dano and John Cusack, with each actor tackling a key period in Wilson's life, intercut with one another. Dano plays Wilson from about '65-'67, when he conceived, wrote, and recorded Pet Sounds and struggled with it's follow-up, Smile, before suffering a complete breakdown. John Cusack tackles Wilson about twenty years later, when he's been a recluse for two decades, over-medicated, in the care of a tyrannical psychiatrist (played by Paul Giamatti), and beginning to date a beautiful young Cadillac dealer (Elizabeth Banks). 

I like the idea behind Love & Mercy; it captures Wilson at the two most pivotal stages of his life, acknowledges that he was barely the same person at those two stages (hence being played by two different actors), and ignores everything else. The follow-through is a bit more problematic. Dano's half of the film is wonderful. Everything about watching the creation of Pet Sounds will be total bliss for any pop music aficionado. This is Dano's best performance, and probably the best acting I've seen so far at TIFF '14. He encompasses Wilson's genius and psychosis without ever conveying either as controllable. The genius appears just as uncomfortable and uncontainable as its negative flip-side. Dano also does a lot of his own singing, and to my great surprise, it works. Had I known that going in, I would have been very dubious. Brian Wilson's voice is not one that can be jerked around with. But somehow Dano approximates it just enough so that the emotional experience of watching the tunes leave his mouth brings on a greater connectivity to the material. 

The Cusack sections don't work as well, for a lot of reasons. Cusack doesn't embody Wilson as much as Dano does. The Cusack segments don't let us into Wilson's head the way the recording sessions of the 60's do. The plot is more rote, the characters more cookie-cutter. Giamatti's Nurse Ratched-style shrink is a less compelling villain to Wilson's ambitions than his bandmate, Mike Love, was in the 1960's. None of these things harpoon the film; half of it is way too good for that, and these scenes aren't nearly bad enough. But they are dull, and anytime they go on for a bit, you start impatiently waiting for Dano and the 60's to come back. It's just enough to wonder if the movie might have worked better covering just one of the two periods, of if we really needed the later stuff to make sense of the onset of Wilson's mental illnesses. 

Whiplash, on the other hand, is a film for which I would change absolutely nothing. What an electric ride. It left me sweating. It stars Miles Teller (from The Spectacular Now) as Andrew Neyman, a jazz drumming prodigy competing for the top spot in New York's most prestigious student music ensemble. The only thing in his way is J.K. Simmons as his instructor Terence Fletcher, who steadfastly believes that the best way to pull true greatness out of people is to constantly reinforce in them the idea that they're completely worthless. Fletcher treats his students like the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, and his insults get just as profanely creative. Andrew becomes Fletcher's Private Pyle, but not because Andrew is the worst in the group--it's because he ought to be the best. What ensues is the most intense battle of personalities I can ever recall seeing. 

The Toronto alternative weekly paper, NOW, reviews a handful of the TIFF films before the festival, and sometimes I'll swap my schedule around based on their advance reviews. They gave Whiplash a negative review because of its concluding implication that "bullying works," but luckily this wasn't enough to make me skip the film because I also knew it won both the Audience Award and Jury Prize at Sundance (a twofer that rarely happens). But I kept that thought in my head, and it informed my viewing of the film. In a lot of obvious ways, NOW was right in their assessment. That is a semi-inescapable message of the film, but only if you take the film's conclusion as one Andrew Neyman is pleased with, which I don't think is automatic. Maybe the message isn't that bullying works, but actually the question of whether the results of bullying are worth the psychological toll. Just because Neyman is poked and prodded into becoming his best doesn't mean that journey was worth it. As with all of the crazy sports prodigies pushed by their parents and coaches at too young an age, we often wonder whether they would do it all over again or run far away. Bullying works only if you accept its outcome as a valuable one. 

The final sequence of Whiplash, the ultimate face-off between Neyman and Fletcher, is incredibly intense, to the point that a film about a jazz drummer somehow turns itself into a sports movie through sheer force of personality. Simmons and Teller are amazing. Their venom for one another feels so palpable that when the actors walked out on stage (to a raucous standing ovation) at the film's conclusion, I subconsciously expected them to start throwing haymakers at each other. It's just amazing--and a bit terrifying--how much vitriol they can summon in the name of performance. But what they do, and what director Damien Chazelle does with his editing and camera-work, is the most adrenaline-inducing film I've seen in years. 

It is fascinating what expectations can do. I have to imagine I was going to be blown away by Whiplash no matter what. It's just that good. But maybe part of why I responded so intensely to it is because of how eager I was to react to the "bullying works" review, one way or another. Wild was a film that I was probably unfairly expecting to blow me away. The trailer and subject looked good, it's by the director of Dallas Buyers Club (which I loved), and the screenplay was by Nick Hornby, who's none other than one of my three or four favorite writers, as well as probably the only writer that I've loved across three separate strata--novels, essays, and screenplays (his previous was the great An Education). Before I get unreasonably critical, I want to first say that Wild is a very good film. It will probably get a lot of fall awards attention, and that attention will be deserved. Reese Witherspoon has never been better, the tone is perfect, the location photography is gorgeous, and there are a nice handful of subtle moments that stick with you in unexpected ways. 

Having said all of that, I was somehow expecting more. I'm having a difficult time pinpointing exactly what more I wanted. Overall, there just didn't feel like there was quite enough there. The story--Cheryl is a heroin/bad decision addict who decides to get clean by hiking the 1,200-mile Pacific Coast Trail after her mother dies--is a good one, and one that derives from a lot of character conflict. But because so much of that conflict was internal, and very little of it involves physical dilemma on her actual hike, I think the film had a difficult time figuring out how to structure itself. The result switches back and forth between the hike and the memories Cheryl has of her mother, and her own poor choices involving drugs and (many) men, and those memories are interwoven in mostly effective ways. But the problem with this kind of manufactured memory conflict is that it can't climax, and it saddles the film without an emotional apex to mark the success of Cheryl's journey. Instead, her hike just sort of ends, we get a few inspirational words from her internal monologue, and then the credits roll. To be fair, I don't know what the fix is. I don't know how to insert a payoff moment into a hike. But that's a problem that a film is supposed to figure out, and this one didn't. Am I picking nits? Yeah, probably. As I said, this movie is very good. It does so much right. But the expectation of profoundness I was ready to feel at the conclusion did not occur. 

Of course, that could be because Wild started almost an hour late, and as soon as the credits began rolling I had to sprint out of there to make it to my next film, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films.

Cannon films is one of the great trash-houses of cinematic history. Started by two rich Israelis desperate to hobnob with Hollywood, The heyday of Cannon films from the late-1970s to early-1990s gave the world so many legendary bad movies that they could program their own 24-hour cable channel. Just to name a few: Death Wish II, Revenge of the Ninja, Masters of the Universe, Bloodsport, Cyborg, Cobra, The Delta Force, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, Over the Top, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, and what might be forever regarded as the worst movie title in history, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. The amazing thing is, a lot of these movies were hits. Cannon had an interesting business model of making bad B-movies, but giving them larger budgets than other B-movie studios, so they could attract "stars" looking for fast and shameless cash like Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, and others. They also spent more money on lavish sets and costumes, but not so much money that they didn't still look endearingly awful. What finally harpooned the studio was breaking their own rules and throwing too much money into the making of movies that had no chance to be good. 

The documentary about Cannon films that I saw Monday night as part of TIFF's Midnight Madness program was a love letter to the studio that couldn't quite figure out how to tell the story without reverently drooling all over it. But, that tone felt oddly appropriate, because who would ever watch a documentary about Cannon films other than the people who salivate at the thought of a box set containing all five American Ninja movies? I'll say this, Electric Boogaloo knows its audience. There's not too much to critique here. It tells a fun, ridiculous story about a fun, ridiculous subject. The documentary has a lot more boobs than depth, but that was the whole business model of Cannon films, so who can complain? 

Tomorrow: The much ballyhooed Foxcatcher, the even-more-depressing sequel of a very depressing documentary about mass-murderers in Indonesia, Jamie Lannister as a Danish cop with a morality crisis, and an Argentinian masterpiece that just might be my favorite TIFF film ever. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

TIFF '14 Diary: Day 4

There are pros and cons to seeing so many films in such a short time span, in an environment like TIFF. The film festival atmosphere--pomp and circumstance, reverence, applause--often makes things seem better than they really are, and it's also easy for the films to start blurring together. You don't have the necessary time that it takes to really let some films live in your mind, and allow your thoughts on them to organically cool into relative coherence. There's a temptation to forcefully decide immediately what you thought of something, before moving onto the next film some twenty minutes later. I know, I know; #whitepeopleproblems. But one thing that's interesting and even useful about seeing so many films in quick succession is the inevitability of topical, thematic, and stylistic overlap, which can help the films inform on one another in unique ways. Sometimes seeing one film will help you understand what you thought of another. 

When I saw Men, Women & Children yesterday, I wasn't enamored with it, but I still thought it explored interesting ideas. Then this morning, I saw Noah Baumbach's new film, While We're Young, which now makes me think Men, Women & Children just wasn't good at all. What I initially mistook as an exploration of ideas in yesterday's film I now see as merely a mentioning of them, like the reading of a thesis statement with no body of writing to follow. While We're Young, on the other hand, is the full exploration. It's a film that doesn't simply present ideas, but also wrestles with them, discusses them, mocks them, and ultimately tries to reconcile them, but unconfidently so. It's a film that has a fascinating debate with itself, and does so in an engaging and entertaining way. 

Baumbach's previous films have moved through phases, first tackling awkward family pain with the great The Squid & The Whale and the not-so-great Margot at the Wedding, then moving onto the pedantic minutiae of inconveniences in modern life with Greenberg, and the frivolity and stress of youth in the wonderful Frances Ha. While We're Young tackles all of these themes at once. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star as a forty-something married couple with no children and in a rut with the direction of their lives. When they become fast friends with a twenty-something couple played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, they're prompted to question their choices, as well as things like authenticity, hipness, age, and so much else. Baumbach does a great job of keeping things funny and light at any given moment, but making sure the subtexts of meaning are always rising to the forefront. The result ends up feeling like the best kind of Woody Allen movie, which is the potential Baumbach had always teased us with, but never quite realized until now. 

I was also both impressed and surprised by The Good Lie, though proportionately so. I had very low expectations going in, because it looked like the worst kind of attractive-white-person-saves-poor-dark-person formula drama. There just wasn't much else in that time slot, and I had liked the previous film from director Philippe Falardeau, the Oscar-nominated teacher drama Monsieur Lazhar. The Good Lie is about four refugees from The Sudan making it to America and finding jobs with the help of Reese Witherspoon. And you won't believe this, but they also help her become a better person. So sweet. I'll confess that I never saw The Blind Side, and I was worried The Good Lie would only confirm why I wanted nothing to do with it. (They're even by the same executive producers!)

The Good Lie turned out to be a nice little movie. It's formulaic and very risk-averse, but still acquits itself well as a good story genuinely told. Where it really goes right is in minimizing the screen time and importance of Witherspoon to the film's story arc. The trailer makes it look like she's the star--and of course it does, because that's how they'll market the film--but really, she's a supporting role. She probably has six or seven total scenes. She helps the four main characters, but this is really their story, and the film keeps us with them. Falardou does a good job of making sure we know that Witherspoon's character was important to them, but not so important as to imply that only the gumption and sass of a sexy white woman could get the job done. Witherspoon doesn't even appear until about 35 minutes into the film, and that's a good thing. This is a story about the immigration of Sudanese refugees, so the film needed to have them at the forefront and not some WASP. Though keeping the refugee characters at the forefront also had its inherent flaws, and the film used their earnestness in ways that felt a little too unfair, like a version of the "Good morning my neighbors!" scene from Coming To America that wasn't in on its own joke. 

Having said all that, The Good Lie was still merely good, and it reminded me of a quote from one of my best friends in high school, Steve. Back in 1999, when Steve had just seen The Cider House Rules, his review of it to me was one simple sentence: "It's a good movie, and it's absolutely no different than any other good movie you've ever seen." That's exactly what I thought at the end of The Good Lie. Nothing about this film distinguished itself, and when I get home from TIFF, it's probably not a film I'll ever think about again. But it's also important to understand that's not automatically a pejorative. Not every film has to be great, nor should every film try. The Good Lie tells a simple story, and tells it in a very straightforward way. But it also tells it honestly and with integrity, and it's a story worth telling. That can be good enough. 

The next film I saw was at the total opposite end of the spectrum, the far more ambitious and far more problematic Time Out of Mind. A character study about a homeless man, Time Out of Mind is the third film by writer/director Oren Moverman, who previously made the very-good-yet-very-difficult duo of The Messenger and Rampart. The difficulty of Moverman's previous films is retained here, but the quality and emotional poignance is not. Richard Gere is the star, and if that sounds odd, well, it should. Gere is a very good actor, and he's spent his whole career being unfairly taken for granted because of his looks. But--irony alert--his looks are the problem here. Richard Gere is just waaaaay too good looking to credibly play a homeless person. You cannot make Richard Gere look destitute. 

While Gere's looks lend the film a credibility problem, that is by far not the only thing wrong with Time Out of Mind. There's just not enough going on here. I'm not the kind of person that needs obvious narrative in my films, and I don't even totally need a character arc (I loved Inside Llewyn Davis, after all). But in the absence of those things, I still need to feel like there's an emotional journey of some sort, and I just didn't get that here. This movie is SLOW. The scenes are long, done in few takes, and very uneventful. Moverman's camera is often placed on the other side of a window, or across the street, lending a voyeuristic quality to the proceedings, implying that the way the audience watches Gere in his role is the way we all watch the homeless--unobviously and from a safe distance. It's an interesting creative choice, but it only makes the film feel less personal and more impenetrable. It's possible I missed some profound elements because I dozed off a few times. It's also possible I dozed off a few times because I wasn't gonna be missing anything. 

While I don't like admitting this, some of my scheduling decisions at TIFF can veer towards self-serving. There were a lot of good viewing options for my Sunday night film, and some of those even seemed closer to my tastes than a musical romantic comedy. But… none of those other films could deliver me Anna Kendrick in person, so I went to see the world premiere of her new musical romantic comedy, mostly for the sake of getting to ogle her during the Q&A. Well, the worst of intentions paid off! The Last Five Years is an absolutely wonderful, infectious, creative, and funny movie, and one I'm actively looking forward to seeing again. 

Adapted from an Off-Broadway musical around ten-years old, director and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese had to make interesting choices to get a cinematic result out of the material. The story is about Jamie and Cathy, and their five year relationship. Sounds simple, right? Well, in the original play, they each tell their stories separately, switching off songs and also moving in opposite chronologies. Cathy begins singing about the end of their relationship and working her way back to the beginning, while Jamie starts singing about their courtship and working his way forward. In the original play, they only shared one song, when their respective story chronologies met in the middle, at their wedding. 

The film keeps the same format, but finds fun and creative ways to integrate the scenes and actors far more into one another, such that the weaving is seamless. Kendrick and actor Jeremy Jordan, who are really the only two notable roles in the film, are both fantastic. Their chemistry not just with each other, but also with the story and the songs they're singing, is absolutely contagious, and they nail the material. The entire film is told through their singing, with virtually no spoken dialogue. They're also funny. I'm not sure if the jokes are all lifted from the source or added by LaGravenese (though one timely joke about Russell Crowe is certainly new), but the sense of humor on display is great. The whole time I was watching the film, I felt certain that The Last Five Years will not merely be a hit, but that it's likely to become the Grease of our generation--a classic that people of a certain age frequently cite as a formative viewing experience for them. 

Tomorrow: A Brian Wilson biopic where he's played by two different actors at two distinct periods of his life, a musical bloodbath about competitive jazz drumming that doubles as a great sports movie, another new Reese Witherspoon drama, and a documentary about a legendarily bad movie studio. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

TIFF '14 Diary: Day 3

In the five years since Inglourious Basterds came out (a time span in which I've probably seen the film a dozen times), I've repeatedly said that it felt like a movie made just for me. "I'm both Jewish and a French film nerd," I would say, "and here's a film that presents an alternate history of WWII being won by Jews and French film nerds." It's a fun analogy, and one I've gotten some good mileage out of over the last five years. But Day 3 of TIFF really presented a film that feels like it was made just for me. It's a German film called Phoenix, and it's the first masterpiece I've seen at TIFF '14. 

The Third Man is what I generally consider to be the Greatest Film of All-Time; I named my blog and Twitter account after it, and I have a giant poster of it hanging in my living room. My other favorite pre-1970's film is probably Vertigo, which is one of the great psychological exercises of cinema, one of the best uses of color as a formalistic element, and also the film that Sight & Sound named the greatest ever in its most recent poll of the world's film community (generally regarded as the most reliable "Greatest Films" list). What Phoenix does is really incredible. It essentially adapts the story and psychology of Vertigo into the world and setting of The Third Man, without ever feeling like a purposeful attempt to recall either film. It's a film that distinctly has its own identity, and never feels like a Tarantino-esque exercise in creative winking homage. 

Phoenix takes place in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of World War II, with the bombed-out buildings and the presence of different troops and sectors providing the setting just as they did with the Vienna of The Third Man. Nina Hoss stars as Nelly, a Holocaust survivor who requires facial reconstruction surgery, and is unrecognizable to her husband, who she quickly finds out may have sold her out to the Nazis in the first place. I'll resist the temptation to explain much more than that, because this film has to be seen and experienced without any knowledge of where it goes from there. 

I was entranced by this film for its duration, but where it really entered another level is the ending. Sometimes, great films have the audacity to not resolve any of the conflicts they set into motion, but to merely arrive at the moment where we know a resolution is imminent. It's a fascinating acknowledgment that sometimes conclusion is a completely superfluous part of great storytelling, or rather that a great conclusion doesn't always require the actual concluding of anything. Instead Phoenix merely leaves us with a facial expression; a look of understanding that the director described in the post-screening Q&A as "an implosion," and it's absolutely heart-wrenching. It's a moment of cinematic perfection that's likely to stay with me forever. 

Unfortunately, that statement doesn't describe the other two films I saw on the third day of TIFF. First up was the new Jason Reitman dramedy, Men, Women & Children, about the evils of technology on modern life, and how it negatively affects the quality of our inter-personal relationships. 

Men, Women & Children is an ensemble film with around a dozen main characters--half high-schoolers and half their parents--and all of their meaningful communication with each other is via various forms of technology. Or, as is the case with some of the characters, technology is the very reason their lives lack meaningful communication with others. There are some good scenes and ideas in this film, but overall it's very forgettable. Most people who've seen it are likening it to a version of 2005's Crash with social media as the culprit of society's ills instead of racism. I had initially intended on avoiding that comparison because it's too obvious, but the more I thought about it, it's obviousness is exactly why I feel it has to be included. This is simply an obvious movie, in most of the same ways Crash was. All of the emotional and character subtlety that Reitman filled his best films (Up In the Air and Juno) with is absent here, and in their place are a lot of scenes that go exactly where you expect them to. That isn't to say that some of those story destinations aren't still affecting, because a few of them are. But this is still far, far short of the Reitman that Up In the Air has perpetually made me hope to get again. 

Waste Land, the Belgian cop psychological noir film I ended the day with, was much better, but still had problems of its own. A story about a damaged Brussels homicide detective with masochistic behavior, a beautiful pregnant wife, and a case that requires him to investigate the underworld of Congolese immigrants, Waste Land is visually and tonally stunning. It's mood and color scheme recall early Fincher, while it's pacing and shot composition feel like Steve McQueen. The main character is played by popular Belgian star Jeremie Renier, who has been in several acclaimed French films of the last decade. He's at his best here, all brooding intensity that hides an interior we're sufficiently fascinated to see revealed. In fact, most everything about Waste Land is great, until the final third of the film when Renier's character increasingly loses his mind and his grasp on reality. It's a left turn into Shining-like territory that just doesn't work. What remains is an artistically compelling film that narratively tries to ruin itself, and very nearly does. Even still, there's enough great work here to make director Pieter Van Hees someone to watch out for in the future. 

Tomorrow: The great new Indie-comedy by Noah Baumbach, Reese Witherspoon's attempt to save Africa, Richard Gere playing a homeless man (yes, it's a stretch), and the best musical I've seen in at least seven years. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

TIFF '14 Diary: Day 2

One of the keys to making it through a long film festival (or music festival) is to give yourself lots of counter-programming to keep your attention from waning. A full schedule for the duration of TIFF allows somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 films, and it would be very easy to concoct a schedule in which you saw nothing but heavy dramas for 11 straight days. I've made the mistake in the past of not diversifying my slate enough, but like all things with practice, I've gotten a bit better at TIFFing in the last five years. So for day two, with most of the major Hollywood films still a few days away, I attended, in order, a Kristen Wiig mental illness comedy, a Brooklyn crime noir, a Dutch character drama, and a Finnish action movie with Samuel L. Jackson playing the President of the United States. 

This is the third straight year that I've gone to a first weekend, afternoon premiere of a new Kristen Wiig film. The first two yielded mixed results. 2012's Imogene (later retitled Girl Most Likely for its theatrical run) was funny, but stupid. The climax of the movie involved someone making a turtle tank costume for protection from the outside world. Last year's Hateship Loveship wasn't as ridiculous, but it also wasn't fun. It saddled a great and funny cast in a somber awkward drama about people that don't know how to access personalities. When I saw Wiig was back for a third straight year, I was initially hesitant. I tried to see the Turkish Palme D-Or winner, Winter Sleep, instead, but struck out on tickets. So I dove back in to the Wiig train, and I'm pleased I did. 

Welcome To Me is Wiig's best and funniest performance since Bridesmaids, and the first film since then to really harness her comedic skill set while also reminding us that she can act. Wiig plays Alice Klieg, a pseudo-invalid with severe bi-polar personality disorders, who wins an 86 million dollar lottery and pays a local TV station to give her a talk show where she doesn't actually have guests. The station, run by sleazy brothers James Marsden and Wes Bentley, are all too eager to give Alice anything she wants as long as she'll keep writing them checks for millions of dollars. Can she enter on a swan? Yes. Have cooking segments involving meatloaf cakes with sweet potato frosting? Yes. Can she reenact traumatic moments from her teenage years where friends lied to her and stole her makeup? Yes. Can she neuter dogs on live television? Sadly, amazingly, yes. 

Welcome To Me is hilarious in parts, especially in the early scenes of the show's first few episodes. Joan Cusack is particularly wonderful as the show's in-over-her-head producer, commanded by her bosses to just say yes to everything Alice wants. But the film also doesn't shy away from weighty subjects, especially in its final act. Wiig even goes all in for the most surprising full-frontal nude scene since Jason Segel's in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but unlike that one, which was completely played for comedic awkwardness, Wiig's is a dramatic moment of real pain for her character. I won't go overboard and try to tell you this film is a profound statement on mental illness, because it frankly isn't. But it does do a good job of alternately appealing to your sense of humor and your heart, and it works as a good character piece. It's a major course-correction for Wiig after a few years of getting away from what she's so good at, while also being a pretty daring leap forward for her dramatic chops. 

The Drop was not only my second film of the day, but also the second film for which I had tempered expectations going in. This time, those expectations weren't related to the recent pedigree of the talent, but rather to a legendary bad portent in Hollywood--the longer a finished movie sits on the shelf, the worse it probably is. The second lead star of The Drop is none other than James Gandolfini, who died nearly fifteen full months ago. So yeah, not a good sign. As it turns out, that wasn't the case with The Drop. It simply wasn't finished with post-production in time to be released last fall, and it's clearly an early-fall style crime film. But… that still doesn't mean it wasn't disappointing. 

I had a hard time with The Drop. It's a film where almost every piece works on its own, but the pieces don't work together. The dialogue is great, but the pacing is glacial. The screenplay is by acclaimed novelist Dennis Lehane, whose stories have been previously adapted into Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone (both outstanding films). But this is also his first feature film screenplay, and he doesn't acquit himself well with the ins and outs of how to structure a film. Likewise, the acting and characters are quite good, but neither are used in compelling ways. The film is directed by Belgian filmmaker Michael Roskam, who made 2011's Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee Bullhead. I can tell it's the same director, because The Drop has the same problems Bullhead did. In both films, fascinating plots and fascinating character dilemmas are set into motion, but then neither set of driving elements ends up impacting one another. Both films star tough men damaged by their past, and both characters swirl around lives of crime. But neither film can really seem to decide whether it wants to be a character piece or a crime film, so they end up half-assing both. In Bullhead, the climax is all character, while the crime plot remains largely unresolved. The Drop does a better job at addressing both, but only in the sense that both end ambiguously and unfulfillingly. This is a film worth seeing--Tom Hardy's performance and a final glimpse of Gandolfini both ensure that--and it has moments of real gravitas. Just know going in that when the final fade to black happens, you'll likely be questioning whether those two hours ought to have been used more effectively. 

The Dutch-by-way-of-Morocco character drama, The Invader, did not have that problem. It was a brisk 86 minutes that were used incredibly effectively, and ended at their dramatic peak. On the surface it's a somewhat traditional undercover cop story, with Amsterdam cop Sam entering a Moroccan drug family under cover of his mixed ethnic heritage. But where The Invader really goes right is in not being a crime story at all, but a character piece about a man trapped between the morally right world where he feels alone, and the morally corrupt world where he feels like part of a family. The dilemma is all internal, and first-time director Shariff Korver does a nice job of getting the audience into Sam's head. The great director Sidney Lumet once said that the key to an effective character piece is for the audience to have no idea where it's going, but to know when it gets there that it never could have ended any other way. The Intruder does that. it ends in a hard place, with no screen-time devoted to resolution. But it's an ending that feels earned and true. The Intruder isn't likely to get international distribution, but if you have a local film festival, drop them a line and tell them to seek this one out. 

For as long as I can remember--probably since repeated childhood viewings of Die Hard, The Road Warrior, and Big Trouble in Little China--I've always been a sucker for a good, old-school, high-concept, action movie, and that's exactly what Big Game is. What if I was to tell you that Samuel L. Jackson plays the President of the United States, stranded in the mountain wilderness of northern Finland, hunted by terrorists, and with his only protection a thirteen-year old Finnish boy armed with a bow and arrow, roaming the mountains for 24 hours on his village's traditional ritual of manhood? Would you be all in? Yes, yes you would be. 

Big Game was EXACTLY what I wanted it to be. It is completely ludicrous, cheesier than the most artery-clogging Cheetohs, and totally bad-ass. I couldn't help but smile widely for almost the entire movie. This is the kind of action movie that every set piece is set up so you know exactly what will happen before it does, and then you can only watch in delight as the movie does exactly what you expected. It's basically Escape From New York crossed with Cliffhanger, with a Finnish kid as Snake Pliskin. There are also knowing homages to Die Hard and (why not?) E.T. When the movie reaches it's totally and utterly inevitable conclusion, you just want to high-five the screen. 

Amazingly, Big Game isn't an American movie, even though it absolutely sounds like the kind of stuff Hollywood would concoct.  Big Game was written, directed, produced, shot, and edited by an all-Finnish creative team, and they landed Samuel L. Jackson the old-fashioned way--they sent him the script and he liked it. Somehow, this movie doesn't even have a U.S. distribution deal yet, but I have to imagine that will change soon, because the audience absolutely loved it. Every time the Finnish kid, Oskari, did something cool (which was approximately every six minutes), the crowd erupted in cheers. This is a movie with all the makings of a future cult classic that people impulsively watch on TNT re-runs. 

Tomorrow: The new Jason Reitman ensemble drama about the evils of the internet, The Shining as a Belgian cop film, and the first masterpiece I saw at TIFF '14. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

TIFF '14 Diary: Day 1

It's interesting when you visit a major city once a year like clockwork, how you can notice not just subtle changes, but also the things that conspicuously don't change. There are a handful of spots in Toronto--the street front of Union Station, the plaza in front of City Hall, a huge building one block north of Yonge/Dundas Square--that have been under the same construction, behind the same chain link fences and covered in the same scaffolding, all five years I've been coming to TIFF. How could it possibly take so long? But the changes can also take you by surprise, and mark the passage of time as well as anything. I found out last month when I started booking my trip that the place I've stayed for the last four years apparently closed in January, so now I'm at some new place that's infinitely nicer, but costs the same. I feel spoiled. It's also in an area of Toronto I hadn't explored yet--Little Italy--so this is bound to be a trip lavished with some great food. 

But the biggest change this year is with TIFF itself, and it's been the major talking point of the first day of the festival. (Well, other than the late, great Joan Rivers.) When TIFF started in 1976, it was originally called the Festival of Festivals, and the idea was to bring all of the best films from the major European festivals (Cannes, Venice, Berlin) to a North American audience. As the years have gone on, the film calendar has changed, and now Toronto comes just after Venice and Telluride, so the general trend has been for big fall prestige films and awards hopefuls to have their world premiere in one of those markets, then everything comes together the next week in Toronto, where films from Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, Venice, and Telluride all mingle together at the world's largest cinematic party. But this year, apparently TIFF decided they didn't like the major films (such as last year's Gravity and 12 Years a Slave) having their world premieres the week before in other markets, taking the attention away from Toronto. So they laid down the gauntlet. Any film that wants to play TIFF's opening weekend can't have played Venice or Telluride the week before. The idea, presumably, was to pressure major films into skipping those festivals all together, because the Toronto exposure was of a higher value, and thus securing the exclusivity of TIFF going forward. 

Well,that did not happen. The major films all still went to either Venice or Telluride, and just settled for playing TIFF after the first weekend. TIFF is, apparently, unhappy with this development, but I'm ecstatic. In year's past, virtually every major film playing Toronto (an 11 day festival) has had it's premiere in the festival's first four days, leading to an agonizing selection process for cinema goers. Six or seven different major venues in the city would all be hosting gala red carpet premieres at the same time, and any decision of what to go see meant an equal decision of five other potentially great films to miss. But not this year! Now that the first weekend is reserved for TIFF exclusives, the high profile premieres extend well into the next week, with major releases like Wild, Foxcatcher, and The Imitation Game all still several days away from their TIFF screenings. This hasn't exactly eliminated any scheduling nightmares. With over 300 films playing TIFF, there will always be stuff you can't fathom missing, and yet do. But  things are a bit easier now, and the first Friday and Saturday of the fest are marginally less chaotic. 

Of course there are slight downsides, such as not having anything playing the first time slot of the fest that I really wanted to see. And that's how my first film of TIFF '14 ended up being an erotic sex drama from South Korea. 

Scarlet Innocence is part of TIFF's City to City program, which spotlights the contemporary cinema of a major world city each year. TIFF's of recent past have spotlighted Mumbai and Buenos Aires, and this year is Seoul. I haven't attended much of the City to City program in the past--last year was Athens, and I didn't see a single one of the films. But this year I set a goal for myself of being more diverse than ever in my selection, and I've consistently read good things about South Korean Cinema over the last few years, so I dove right in with three tickets to films from Seoul. 

Scarlet Innocence was a sumptuously shot, compulsively watchable sex revenge thriller, but it didn't come across as very original for anyone that grew up in America in the 1990's, when films like  that were all the rage. The best part of the film were the many sex scenes, and not just because of the nudity (though there was that!)--honestly, these were some of the best photographed sex scenes I've ever seen. My gold standard for the art of filming a great sex scene has always been a tie between Out of Sight and the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. I'm not willing to say Scarlet Innocence surpasses either of those, but it's in the same league. Director Pil-Sung Yim has a great eye for visual composition and color, and I'm interested to see what he'll be able to do in the future with a more interesting story. 

Luckily, the other film of opening night was a great exercise in story depth. Clouds of Sils Maria, the latest film by French auteur Olivier Assayas, premiered in Cannes in May to enthusiastic reviews, and I was excited to see what Assayas could do with Hollywood actors filling out his cast. Juliette Binoche, who had previously worked with Assayas in 2008's Summer Hours, stars as Maria Enders, a famous actress of world cinema, who is preparing to maybe work with the hottest young star in Hollywood, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz). While Moretz is mostly just seen through footage of her acting and antics, the real co-star is Kristen Stewart as Valentine, Maria's assistant. 

The bulk of the running time is taken up by conversations between Maria and Valentine, about Maria's career, her future choices, her past affairs, and her impending work with Jo-Ann. While it may sound boring, it's anything but. As Maria and Valentine go hiking through the Alps, we experience their dilemmas and arguments as meditations on life in the pursuit of artistic satisfaction. Stewart is particularly fantastic, and as she tells Maria about the reputation of Jo-Ann Ellis, much of her dialogue acts as direct commentary on her own career as a hot young Hollywood starlet who sometimes often gets press for the wrong reasons. There are actually three levels of meta-commentary going on here, as the roles the characters discuss and act out inform directly on their dilemmas, and their discussion of these dilemmas provides commentary to their careers as actresses in the real world. 

Assayas has fun with the material where he's able, particularly in a great scene of Maria and Valentine watching Jo-Ann's latest 3D sic-fi epic in the theater, and afterward when Valentine attempts to explain the value of such a film to Maria, who just isn't having it. What we see of that sci-fi film within the film is absolutely ridiculous, and it feels like Assayas giving us his own views on crowd-pleasing sic-fi blockbusters as a part of "cinema." But while that may feel pretentious, it's impossible to not notice how much fun Assayas seems to be having by shooting the fake sci-fi movie scene, as though he were seizing the opportunity to wear the costume of a different type of filmmaker, without having to go through the arduous process of making such a film. He's slumming and being a comic-book movie tourist, but role-playing in a way that he's clearly stimulated by. 

These are the types of questions delivered to us in Clouds of Sils Maria. Indeed during the post-screening Q&A, Assayas said that he believes films should present questions, not answers. The only notable flaw to the film is the casting of Moretz, who's simply too young for the role. Moretz does an admirable job, but she was only sixteen when she filmed the role, and she just looks too young for us to buy her as a peak-of-her-fame Lindsey Lohan type. At its best, Clouds reminds me of the best Godard films from the 1960's, with their musings and romanticisms on the lives of people doing things off the beaten path. Clouds is never as visually inventive as Godard was at his peak, but that same restless desire to place us in the nitty gritty of different lives is all over this one. 

Tomorrow: Kristen Wiig's new comedy, Dennis Lehane's new Boston crime saga (and James Gandolfini's final acting performance), and my first Midnight Madness film of TIFF '14: Samuel L. Jackson as a US President stranded in the frozen tundras of Finland being hunted by terrorists.