Thursday, September 11, 2014

TIFF '14 Diary: Day 6

Of every film I've seen this year at TIFF, Foxcatcher is the one I feel least prepared to manufacture an immediate opinion on. That's not because there's so much to unpack (there isn't), but rather that I can't quite figured out how I'm supposed to unpack it. Never have I been more desperate to raise my hand in a post-screening Q&A and ask a director, "What was the point in telling this story?" But, since there's really no uncouth way to ask that, I kept a lid on it. 

Foxcatcher tells the true story of USA olympic gold-medal wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz, who in the mid-1980's moved to Pennsylvania to live and train on the estate of eccentric millionaire John du Pont, a patriot and wrestling fan who wanted to bankroll USA wrestling as long as it meant he could oversee and participate in the training. John du Pont then became fixated on Mark Schultz, and what started out as a close friendship between the two gradually became creepier. What happened next is a matter of public record, but I won't spoil it for those that don't know. 

It's an absolutely fascinating story, and maybe that's the entirety of the point--to tell an interesting story. But with the way things played out in real life, and the way the movie makes the artistic choice to not delve into the meanings of the conclusion at all, it leaves you with a really empty feeling, unable to figure out what to make of what you've just seen. What's the intended interpretation or lesson? That eccentric millionaires are kind of weird? 

In terms of filmmaking, Foxcatcher is hypnotic. It encases you in a slowly unfolding dream reality, like something that only could have been created in the merging subconsciouses of Hitchcock and Kubrick. The isolation and color saturation in the shots is sobering, and the creepy, unblinking stares Steve Carell delivers as John du Pont cut to the core. Carell, barely recognizable behind a prosthetic nose that makes him look like a nightmarish live action version of his Despicable Me villain, delivers the best acting performance of the year so far. It's a performance that's all about the measured restraint of statuesque silence. There are moments when you feel so sure Carell is playing something as a joke, but then the extended awkward expressions slowly reveal an unbudging seriousness. Unlike the Hannibal Lector of Anthony Hopkins that lives in our mind through his anecdotes about fava beans and livers, Carell's du Pont doesn't require the use of snappy dialogue to seer his scariness into our heads. Just those quiet stares. 

The Schultz brothers are played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, who also both do a fantastic job, though their performances are more understated. The director is Bennett Miller, who previously made Capote and Moneyball. His films are united by their carefully crafted retellings of bizarre and unconventional true stories, but his previous two films have concluded with a more obvious sense of meaning. This one merely concludes, as silently and strangely as it began. 

At the total opposite end of the spectrum was Joshua Oppenheimer's new documentary, The Look of Silence, which is just overflowing with meaning and interpretations ripe for discussion.  This is the sequel to Oppenheimer's Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary, The Act of Killing, which followed leaders of the Indonesian death squads from the 1960's as they discussed and reenacted their crimes. These men were never punished, never paid for the atrocities they committed, and are largely still in power. When they discussed and recreated their crimes in The Act of Killing, they did so as though they were staging action movies about their lives, and imagined themselves as classic Hollywood gangsters. They casually spoke about how they found effective ways to torture people that minimized the amount of blood that got on their clothing. 

The Act of Killing was an intensely powerful, sobering, heartbreaking film, one that will probably be discussed and studied for decades to come. It also prompted a discussion both internationally and within Indonesia about what happened in the 1960's, and why these mass murderers are still free and celebrated within their own country. The Look of Silence continues those thoughts, and follows an Indonesian man named Adi, whose brother was one of the victims of the death squads. As Adi confronts the men who led the death squads and seeks their acknowledgment of the wrongdoing of their actions, we see the other side of the story given to us by the previous film. There isn't too much to say beyond that; these films sort of defy the concept of having a critical angle. They ought to be seen and taught and thought about not because they represent the peak of the cinematic art form, but because they illuminate the value and fragility of life. 

Without intending to, I selected a really heavy slate of films on TIFF day 6. Susanne Bier's A Second Chance continued that trend, and against all odds, was maybe the heaviest one yet. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones' Jamie Lannister) plays Andreas, a Copenhagen detective with a new born child, who is prompted into a tough choice when tragedy strikes at home and he discovers the neglected baby of a junkie he's investigating. The film then enters full-on Gone Baby Gone territory, but does so in a fascinating way--the question that Gone Baby Gone shocked us with at its conclusion is the one A Second Chance spends the majority of its run time openly asking. 

Bier is one of the masters of contemporary European cinema, with several great films under her belt including Brothers, the Oscar-nominated After the Wedding, and the Oscar-winning In a Better World. Her films always set up extremely unique-yet-realistic scenarios where her characters are forced into difficult quandaries of moral ambiguity, and the conclusions of her films never offer easy answers. Her characters make choices, and then live with their consequences. What I really loved about this film is the ending, which (deliberately?) gave us the same concluding scene as Gone Baby Gone, but with a very different result that still feels genuine and true. 

When I plan out my schedule for TIFF every year, I always go back and read a lot of coverage from Cannes, because many of those films play TIFF as well. On the first draft of my TIFF schedule, my final film for the evening of day 6 was a documentary called Merchants of Doubt, about professional skeptics hired by businesses to cast suspicions on climate change and the like. But then I read Grantland's Wesley Morris talk about an Argentinian film he'd seen in Cannes called Wild Tales, and the enthusiasm he had for it sold me and convinced me to make the swap. 

Holy hell, am I glad I did. Wild Tales is not just the best film I've seen at TIFF '14, but maybe my favorite TIFF memory in five years of coming to the festival. This film represents the first time I've ever shouted out "Oh Jesus Christ!" during a screening, and also the first time I've ever leapt to my feet and tried to prompt a standing ovation on my own--about half of the audience joined me. 

Wild Tales features six different stories that are related only thematically, and each quickly goes from realistic to ludicrous in a very short amount of time. The common link I found between the tales is the way simple conflicts and disagreements can quickly escalate into Shakespearean tragedies merely by people not being able to forgive and move on. In the post-screening Q&A, director Damian Szifron put it another way: they're each about "the pleasure of losing control," he said. Yes, they certainly are. 

In the immortal words of Gwen Stefani, "This shit is bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-S." I don't know that I have ever laughed harder, been more shocked, more engaged, and more excited to see what would come next than I was during Wild Tales. Just when you think you might have a handle on where Szifron is taking you with one of his stories about people at the end of their ropes, he dives head-first through that door and then throws you through a window. This film is absolutely relentless. But within all of these stories of modern civility being gleefully torn asunder is a striking moral core about the necessity of forgiveness, the understanding of knowing when to apologize, and the power of being able to walk away. The film's final tale is my favorite, chronicling the strangest wedding reception ever. Actress Erica Rivas, who plays the bride, Romina, gives us the funniest portrayal of "wit's end" I can ever recall seeing, but I also responded most to this particular wild tale because of how differently it ended than the others. In perhaps the most wild move of all, the final tale concludes with the "fuck it" mentality of the characters taking on a very different manifestation than one of revenge. It was the perfect, and the only, way to end such an unrestrained and exciting film. 

Tomorrow: A wonderful realist film of contemporary Belgium starring Marion Cotillard, a Russian epic that I slept through, an excellent chronicle of a forgotten World War II hero that's likely to be a Best Picture contender, and the first terrible movie I saw at TIFF '14. 

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