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. 

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