Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Great Scenes: Music Unites Shawshank Prison

Earlier this week, The Shawshank Redemption celebrated it's 20th anniversary from opening in theaters. I saw it in theaters at the time, as a 12-year old, with my friend A.J. Harra. As 7th graders just trying to be cool at the time, we loved watching horror movies, and we just thought we were going to see something based on a Stephen King story. What we got was radically different, but it changed my life. Shawshank has been one of my 3 or 4 favorite movies ever since (often alternating in and out of the top spot with Pulp Fiction and The Third Man), and it largely helped define within me why cinema is such a powerful art form. I wanted to somehow celebrate the film on its 20th anniversary this week, and such a piece of writing could have taken many forms. Artistically and technically, this film is a masterpiece, but those are things I probably didn't/couldn't realize twenty years ago. When the film first made a major impact on me, it was as a story, and I wanted to try and focus in on why. As a 12-year old, I couldn't possibly empathize with people serving life sentences in jail, but anyone, across all ages and all lives, can understand the power of finding hope in a situation that ought to be devoid of such a sentiment. That's the real power of this story, the way the main characters locate hope and meaning within small things. No scene better illustrates that than this one, where the main character, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), has just opened several boxes of materials donated to the new prison library he's organizing. 

The skill in a film like Shawshank is that it figures out subtle ways to manipulate you in manners that you don't even notice, but which build to incredible moments. When this scene begins, there's no score, and for most of the first half of the film, the score is very quiet and subdued, never drawing too much attention to itself. The effect means that when the Mozart record first gets turned on, the viewer emotionally responds to it the same way the prisoners do--like an aural beacon of hope that's been absent from our lives for far too long. 

The thing I notice more and more about this film every time I see it is the way the shots are composed. It relies on a certain stillness, and a way of using camera distance to emphasize both grandness and entrapment. The scene begins not just in the confinement of an office, but by the camera confining every physical action as the only element of the screen. Opening a record, dropping the needle, taking the keys, locking the door, turning on the PA system, the guard dropping his Archie comic. And then, as the voices begin to soar, everything opens up. The shot in the workshop at about the 1:25 mark of the video is the first one where the camera emphasizes scope, by slowly panning back until Morgan Freeman's character is revealed in the foreground. Then the same thing happens in the infirmary, beginning with a close-up of a face and moving sideways to show all of the patients stepping into the light and the music. But the truly great moment starts at 1:37, as the camera moves out into the prison yard, slowly craning upwards to show the entirety of the prison in complete unmoving thrall, before finally moving behind the loud speaker that they're all so intently focused on. It's just a perfect shot. 

When people think of this movie, Morgan Freeman's incredible narration is often one of the first things that comes to mind. Nearly every scene is punctuated by his words, and his voice is our gateway into thinking about these characters. But in this scene, director Frank Darabont wisely lets the music speak for itself before having Freeman enter the proceedings. By the time Freeman tells us that "for those briefest of moments, every man in Shawshank felt free," we've already seen the proof of that statement. 

After this scene, Andy emerges from his two week punishment in solitary confinement by telling his friends that it was the easiest time he ever did, because he had the music in his head to keep him company. It's a way of acknowledging that the power of great moments can stay with us, no matter how brief they were in the first place. This four minutes of filmmaking has stayed with me for twenty years and counting. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

TIFF '14 Diary: Day 8

A frequent viewing option at TIFF is the directorial debut by a beloved actor. Last year's TIFF screened Quartet and Bad Words, which were (respectively) Dustin Hoffman and Jason Bateman's first films behind the camera. This year I could have seen debut films by Chris Evans, Alan Rickman, Jon Stewart, Paul Bettany, and Ethan Hawke, all of which sounded promising. In particular, Ethan Hawke's documentary Seymour: An Introduction has been getting outstanding reviews. But American actors stepping behind the camera is so often a crapshoot. It's something they almost all eventually try to do, and very few succeed at. For every Clint Eastwood and--yes, he's in this category--Ben Affleck, there are a dozen Robert De Niro's, who give us the boring and manufactured gravitas of The Good Shepherd before thankfully not trying again.  But what I was particularly intrigued by at this year's festival was a directorial effort by the great French actress Melanie Laurent, who brought a little film called Respire to TIFF. European movie stars don't have a history of getting the directing bug in the same way American movie stars do, so when one does, it's more of an occasion for curiosity than a likely reason to groan. 

Respire (Breathe) is the story of a seductive friendship between two high school girls, Charlie and Sarah, which runs the gamut from playful, to inseparable, to dangerous and malicious. It's a story that we so often see play out to less extreme degrees (in Mean Girls, just to name an obvious example), but Respire has the audacity to follow it to its most sobering potential outcome. As a narrative, the leaps in phases of this relationship don't always make the most logical sense, but Laurent's pacing and emotive use of her actresses moves things along much more subtly than the plot would make it seem possible. 

The obvious comparison here is to last year's hot-button French film Blue is the Warmest Color, though that's true much more psychologically than narratively. While the infatuation of the two girls in Blue manifests itself in an explicitly sexual way, Respire keeps things more platonic. On a tension level, that works, because it ensures that we don't know what the stakes of this relationship really are. What Laurent does with her actresses is nicely delicate, and ensures the film rises above the high school shock story that it easily could have become. This is a small film that doesn't draw attention to itself through casting or dramatic flair, but unlike her American acting counterparts, Laurent seems to know that's the best way to get her directing feet wet. 

Something really rewarding about now having been going to TIFF for several years is seeing the work of directors who consistently bring their films to the festival, and watching how they evolve. At TIFF 2011, one of my great discoveries was a film called Your Sister's Sister, by a relatively unknown filmmaker from the Pacific Northwest named Lynn Shelton. I saw Your Sister's Sister pretty much by accident. I originally had a ticket to Machine Gun Preacher, but it got such scathing advance reviews that I decided to swap it out for something else, and Your Sister's Sister was the only promising film in that time slot that still had a ticket available. It was a wonderful film, and I loved the way Shelton set up a bizarre scenario that ended up feeling completely realistic because of the naked emotional truth her characters discovered about themselves, and the conversational honesty that her ad-lib, unscripted style brought out of the actors. I've liked Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt for a while now, but I still think of Sister as some of their best acting. 

After that screening, I felt a bit of ownership over "discovering" Shelton, and I hoped that her work would reach a wider audience in the future. So of course I was delighted when I saw she had a new film at TIFF '14, Laggies, which looked like a pseudo-major release starring some decently big names. Keira Knightley plays Megan, a twenty-something whose friends all have their lives figured out, while she's working part-time for her father's accounting firm, twirling a sign out on the street. The fact that she has a Master's Degree and her longtime boyfriend has just proposed only makes matters worse. While Megan is supposed to be spending a week at some type of "figure out your future" retreat, she has a chance encounter with Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), a high schooler that starts looking up to her after Megan buys her beer. What ensues--Megan spending a week hiding out in Annika's house and then falling for her single dad (Sam Rockwell)--is ridiculous high-concept, but like Shelton's other work, it never really plays as such. 

Shelton has a gift for digging at the reality buried under outlandish set-ups involving three characters whose lives butt up against each other in strange ways. Her films always begin as high-concept, but never feel that way by the time they resolve, because we feel so immersed in the inner-workings of her character's psyches. I was surprised to find out Shelton didn't write Laggies--it was an original screenplay by a first-timer named Andrea Seigel that just floated its way over to her--but her stamp is all over it. This was also the first time that one of Shelton's films hasn't been largely ad-libbed, but you wouldn't know it from watching, and that's a good thing. There's a naturalistic way to how the actors interact with one another that doesn't feel forced, even given the strange circumstances the characters all find themselves in. Laggies is a funny film with real heart, some of Keira Knightley's best acting (with a very credible Seattle accent), and further evidence that Shelton is one of the most interesting American-Indie filmmakers working in contemporary cinema. 

At first The 50 Year Argument--a documentary about the New York Review of Books--didn't seem like something I might prioritize on my schedule. I have, after all, never read the publication. I also knew it would be airing on HBO just a few weeks after TIFF ended (Monday, September 29, to be exact). But I didn't really think of this documentary as being about a publication that I have no familiarity with; rather, I thought of it as being about a group of people who have spent 50 years guiding the cultural conversation. As a critic and writer who hopes to inspire cultural discourse myself, what could be closer to my heart? 

Of course, I was also intrigued by the fact that it was co-directed by Martin Scorsese (working with David Tedeschi, who was the editor on some of his previous documentaries), and the possibility of an extended interview and Q&A with Marty was just too salivating to pass up. When Scorsese was asked by TIFF documentary programmer Thom Powers what drew him to the project, his response crystalized what intrigued me about the film in the first place: "I wanted to make a film about the urgency of being engaged and the sensuousness of ideas," he said. That sentence pretty much describes what I love about analyzing culture. 

Unfortunately, that sentence in the post-film interview was also the highlight of the screening for me. The 50 Year Argument was by no means a bad film--it was quite interesting and thought-provoking--but I don't quite think it accomplished what it set out to do. Or maybe it just didn't do what I hoped it would. I'm not entirely sure if what I was expecting was even realistic in the first place. I wanted an in-depth analysis of the mindset of an institution that tries to lead and trigger intellectual discourse. Instead, Argument gave me 90 minutes of interviews with contributors to the New York Review of Books telling stories and anecdotes about their involvement with the magazine. That isn't a pejorative; most of the stories were fascinating and helped illuminate the importance the magazine has had in the coverage of several important topics over the years. But the real flaw I found in the film was that the whole never amounted to more than the sum of the parts. At the end, it really was just 90 minutes of good stories and interviews that didn't build to a more cohesive statement. 

At a festival with over 300 films, selecting what to see can be remarkably nerve-racking, so some reliance on pedigree becomes automatic. You can easily talk yourself into films that don't necessarily sound good if you know they're by good directors, just as you can talk yourself out of films that DO sound good if they're by directors you have a history of not liking. And that's how I ended up spending my Thursday night watching the complete and utter disaster that was The Cobbler

I had reservations going in. I haven't liked an Adam Sandler movie in a solid ten years, and it feels like a lot longer. Throwing him into a plot about a New York shoe cobbler who can transform into other people when he puts on their shoes did NOT sound like something I wanted to see. But I was seduced by pedigree. The Cobbler was written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, who was batting a thousand in his previous three films as writer/director: the quite good The Station Agent and The Visitor, and 2011's excellent Win Win. All three of those films found real people at the margins of society and crafted profound portraits of who they were and why their struggles are stories worth telling. I was dubious about whether Adam Sandler turning into other people could continue that trend, but I gave it a chance. Oooof. 

Put simply, this movie is just awful. It's the kind of movie where Adam Sandler uses magical bright red high heals to turn into a drag queen, all for the sake of scaring a tied-up Method Man into revealing the location of the money from his drug stash. Now read that sentence again. Do you want to see this movie? No, no you don't. That's what I'm here for--to throw away two hours of my life in order to protect you from wasting yours. You're welcome. 

Tomorrow: Bill Murray's best role in over a decade, a fantastic French period-crime procedural that reminded me of Michael Mann's Heat, and a gorgeously shot African film that might be a Foreign Language Film Oscar contender. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

In Theaters: My Old Lady

Adapting theater into film is always such a mixed bag. With musicals, the genre at least provides ample opportunity for a film to stretch its visual legs a bit, but stage dramas are especially tricky. Many of the best ones usually involve few characters, few locations, and minimal moving about the cabin. So much of the emoting in a stage play has to come from voice inflection and dramatic dialogue, because the audience in the theater mostly can't see the nuances of an actor's facial expressions. But with film, the creation of emotion largely comes from the editing and camera-work. And that's when a drama like My Old Lady, adapted from the stage, runs into problems. 

The story here is a good one. Kevin Kline stars as Mathias, an alcoholic with three ex-wives and very little else to his name. When his wealthy father dies, he declines to leave Mathias any inheritance except a beautiful French apartment he owned. But Mathias finds out the catch when he travels to Paris looking to sell the apartment in order to get his life back on financial track. It turns out the apartment is part of a French tradition called a "viager," which means the sale of the apartment is not complete until the current occupant dies, and the buyer still pays until that happens. So, Mathias suddenly finds out that his incredibly valuable Parisian apartment comes with Mathilde, a 92-year old woman (Maggie Smith ), and a monthly fee of 2,400 Euros that he must pay to her until she dies. Also, her daughter (Kristin Scott Thomas) is there, and then he finds out Mathilde and his father had been having an affair decades ago that negatively impacted Mathias's childhood, and of course everything becomes more complicated. 

There's a lot of interesting stuff going on here. Maggie Smith, for starters, is fantastic as Mathilde. The emotional resonance of the story mostly works, as does the subtle humor and the French flavor of the musical score. The source material is by Israel Horovitz, a lauded playwright with a lengthy career (and father of Beastie Boy Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz), and Israel also serves as screenwriter and director here, adapting his own work into film for the first time. But film follows such a different visual language than theater that it's difficult not to spend the majority of My Old Lady's run time feeling like you're simply watching a filmed play. Is that ultimately a bad thing? That largely depends on what you want out of a film-going experience. My Old Lady is not a visually interesting movie, but it is still an interesting movie. Are those two things mutually exclusive? Maybe, but not absolutely. The story is interesting, the dialogue is compelling, and the acting is mostly top-notch (though Kevin Kline over-plays thing a bit, which may simply be the direction he received from Horovitz being used to the demands of theater). Is that enough to make a good movie? Again, that depends on what any individual viewer believes the qualities of a good movie are. For myself, My Old Lady is half of a good movie, but one that it's clear came from all of a good stage play. For 106 minutes, that can be good enough. 

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.