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. 

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