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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment