Friday, September 12, 2014

TIFF '14 Diary: Day 7

When I first read about Two Days, One Night in the TIFF program book, I thought the combination of French film star Marion Cotillard and lauded Belgian directing duo Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne was an odd one. It might seem odd that such a pairing would seem odd, because why shouldn't France's best & most popular actress work with the most acclaimed directors making films in the language? But the two seem diametrically opposed symbolically. Marion Cotillard is undeniably one of the great beauties of world cinema, while the Dardenne brothers are the ultimate proletarian realist filmmakers. Cotillard looks like a movie star, while the Dardenne brothers consciously avoid anything that doesn't look like a plain slice of daily life. We should all be so lucky for Marion Cotillard to be a reflection of any sort of daily life. 

And yet here they are together, with the Dardenne brothers offering up their most blue-collar vision thus far, and Marion Cotillard as its center--a factory worker losing her job. If Bruce Springsteen wrote films in Belgium, this is what they might look like. But ignoring the obvious disconnect of actor and subject, Cotillard and the Dardennes have brought out the best in one another. 

It's hard to call anything the Dardennes do as high concept, because everything about their auteurism is rooted in how ordinary people handle the moral murkiness of potentially realistic situations, but this comes as close as we're ever likely to get. Cotillard plays Sandra, a factory worker who finds out on Friday she's getting laid off unless she can convince a majority of her 16 colleagues to vote against getting a paycheck bonus in order to retain her salary. The vote will be monday morning, giving her two days and one night to appeal to the humanism of sixteen people that have already had time to decide how to spend their bonuses. What ensues is little more than 90 minutes of Sandra tracking people down and asking them to vote for her to stay employed, but the Dardennes imbue the proceedings with a humanism that heightens the drama specifically because of how downplayed the formalistic touch is. We really feel like we're watching Sandra fight for her job, while ashamed of having to use her power of pity to do the fighting. Cotillard is great here; she's the opposite of Claire Danes on Homeland, who's crying is always so dramatic that it looks like a product of the CGI budget. Cotillard is more of an understated crier, but she can summon it quickly. It feels real every time. 

Something I've always loved about cinema more than prose is the power film has to catch you by surprise with precisely when something ends. With the written word, you basically always know how much you have left. You know when you're on the final page, and you know when you're reading the last sentence, and your brain is already reacting to what you're reading from the awareness standpoint of knowing its the end. With film, unless you're literally watching the clock, you never quite know when something's over until the credits start rolling, and great directors can use that as part of their arsenal. Even if you're aware that a film is wrapping up, you might still believe there are five minutes--another scene or two--remaining, when all of a sudden the screen goes black, and you're struck by the decision to end something without those final scenes you expected. That's what happens with Two Days, One Night. The screen doesn't suddenly cut to black; that's way too formalist for the Dardennes. But the credits do begin appearing on screen at a moment when we don't totally expect it, and I found that to be a really powerful touch. 

In the last few months of every year, a certain kind of movie starts appearing just as regularly and dependably as a CGI-lavished sequel is going to blow down our doors on the first weekend of May. These are usually referred to as "Oscar bait" films, and they tend to follow a certain checklist: period setting, true story, unappreciated protagonist dealing with some sort of handicap or secret, weighty subject, dramatic score, British actors, and a Weinstein name slapped somewhere on the credits. We get a half dozen of these every year, and more often than not, they disappoint. Every year gives us a handful of films that we assume are Oscar bound the first time we see the trailer, and then once we see the finished film we curse ourselves for being swindled by formula yet again. It's why we feel so let down by movies like J. Edgar and Hyde Park on Hudson--because not only did they pretty much suck, but we unfairly assumed they'd be contending for Best Picture until we saw the damn thing and wished we could travel three hours back in time and not get up from the couch. But sometimes, one of these cookie-cutter films comes through and delivers a result that is every bit as good as it seemed on paper. In 2014, The Imitation Game is that film. 

Benedict Cumberbatch, he of The Name and The Moment, stars as Alan Turing, a brilliant and socially abysmal young mathematician charged by the British government in 1939 with trying to break the allegedly unbreakable Nazi Enigma Code. To do so, he and his team of shockingly attractive geniuses (Oh, hey there Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode, I wasn't quite expecting you!) basically invent the world's first computer, and help the Allies win the war when they crack the code and begin intercepting Nazi signals. Less than ten years later, with Turing's military record a classified secret, he's persecuted by the British government for being homosexual. Talk about covering your damn bases. 

The Imitation Game is not an innovative film, but it's a film that does absolutely everything right. The story is a great one, and one that deserves to be told. The themes of how we react to (and punish) genius are just as applicable now as they've ever been. Cumberbatch is excellent as Turing. Like Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, he has the subtlety to not play the role as overtly gay, but to put the pieces there for us to find. The script, which topped Hollywood's famed Black List (an annual list of the best unproduced scripts in the industry) a few years ago, is top notch. The dialogue is snappy and engaging, the story is paced well, the themes are strong but not forced, and the chronology jumps are used well without being overdone and confusing. The score, by Alexandre Desplat--probably the most Oscar bait-y of film composers at the moment--is lovely and elegiac. Supporting roles by Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister) and Mark Strong are nice scene-stealers. The check-list is being carefully mastered. 

There will always be backlash around films created to win Oscars in the same way there's backlash around sports teams assembled to win championships. People like great results to occur organically instead of by intelligent diabolical design. But, people also like to see great pieces create a great whole, and The Imitation Game does that. This film will likely compete for Best Picture, not merely because it was created to do so, but because it was created with great care and it's just really good. The director, Morten Tyldum, is working for the first time in English. He previously made 2011's riveting Norwegian thriller, Headhunters, and it's nice to see him cash in on that potential without neutering himself. He's less risky here, but he's not mailing anything in either. Every aspect of this movie has the caring touch of a great filmmaker all over it. I doubt we'll still be talking about this film five or ten years down the road, but for the two hours you're in its thrall, it'll give you everything it has. 

Seven days into TIFF, two things are inevitably true: 1. I'm very behind on sleep and bound to conk out on anything that even remotely challenges my engagement level, and 2. Some terrible movie is lurking around the corner, ready to slap me in the face with its awfulness just when I let my guard down and start thinking I have a super-power of avoiding the dregs. As it happened, both of these universal TIFF truths pulled a double whammy on me in the same night. First up was the Russian epic Leviathan, which won Best Screenplay in Cannes and is being called the greatest Russian film in a decade. 

I should have known it was a bad sign when the director introduced the film by warning us it was long, and then laughing at his own joke when he followed up by saying, "But don't worry, it goes by quick." If I didn't already strongly suspect it, I realized within the first five minutes of the movie that he was employing heavy sarcasm with that remark. What I saw, which was approximately the first twenty minutes of a 142-minute film, was magisterial, but also slow and methodical. I think I could tell there's a great film there, but not one to challenge yourself with when you're tired. Sony Pictures Classics has picked this film up for U.S. distribution and a hopeful Oscar campaign for Best Foreign Language Film, so I should get another chance to see it in a few months. 

And then came the movie that I wish I could have slept through. If only I didn't see it right after a two hour nap. 

I wouldn't quite say I had high hopes for Revenge of the Green Dragons, but I definitely thought it would be a good bit of counter-programming at the end of a day that included films about the modern economies of Belgium and Russia. It's by the same director as Infernal Affairs, the great Hong Kong cop-flick that was remade into Martin Scorsese's The Departed, and it looked ambitious. It attempted to be a period crime epic about the Chinese street gangs of New York in the 1980's, the very same ones that inspired original Nintendo games like Double Dragon. Sadly, what we ended up with is a movie that only a twelve-year old playing Double Dragon in 1989 could have thought was a good idea. 

In the same way The Imitation Game got everything right, Revenge of the Green Dragons gets everything wrong. This movie is nothing but action movie tropes soaked in graphic violence and nihilism, but trying to be weighty and poignant instead of just embracing itself as a full-on B-movie. I always used to refer to Tony Scott as my least favorite director, and this movie looks like someone's deliberately homaging all of the worst parts of Tony Scott's style. It's the kind of movie where every gun-shot victim gets blown away in the exaggerated silent slow motion that's meant to make us feel, the female love interest gets tortured and murdered in a prototypical "women in refrigerators" moment, and the opening voice-over narration tells us that they didn't know how bad things would get. The main characters are completely unsympathetic, the supporting roles are all stock characters, and every death is accompanied by someone screaming "Nooo!!" while they're getting held back. I admit to loving dumb action movies, but this is a dumb action movie that thinks it's making a profound and dramatic statement on cycles of violence, when really all it's doing is attempting to ground trash cinema in unearned realism. This movie has no redeeming qualities. 

Tomorrow: Two good films directed by women, a Martin Scorsese documentary about the New York Review of Books, and another truly awful movie. 

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