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. 

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