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. 

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