Saturday, September 27, 2014

TIFF '14 Diary: Day 8

A frequent viewing option at TIFF is the directorial debut by a beloved actor. Last year's TIFF screened Quartet and Bad Words, which were (respectively) Dustin Hoffman and Jason Bateman's first films behind the camera. This year I could have seen debut films by Chris Evans, Alan Rickman, Jon Stewart, Paul Bettany, and Ethan Hawke, all of which sounded promising. In particular, Ethan Hawke's documentary Seymour: An Introduction has been getting outstanding reviews. But American actors stepping behind the camera is so often a crapshoot. It's something they almost all eventually try to do, and very few succeed at. For every Clint Eastwood and--yes, he's in this category--Ben Affleck, there are a dozen Robert De Niro's, who give us the boring and manufactured gravitas of The Good Shepherd before thankfully not trying again.  But what I was particularly intrigued by at this year's festival was a directorial effort by the great French actress Melanie Laurent, who brought a little film called Respire to TIFF. European movie stars don't have a history of getting the directing bug in the same way American movie stars do, so when one does, it's more of an occasion for curiosity than a likely reason to groan. 

Respire (Breathe) is the story of a seductive friendship between two high school girls, Charlie and Sarah, which runs the gamut from playful, to inseparable, to dangerous and malicious. It's a story that we so often see play out to less extreme degrees (in Mean Girls, just to name an obvious example), but Respire has the audacity to follow it to its most sobering potential outcome. As a narrative, the leaps in phases of this relationship don't always make the most logical sense, but Laurent's pacing and emotive use of her actresses moves things along much more subtly than the plot would make it seem possible. 

The obvious comparison here is to last year's hot-button French film Blue is the Warmest Color, though that's true much more psychologically than narratively. While the infatuation of the two girls in Blue manifests itself in an explicitly sexual way, Respire keeps things more platonic. On a tension level, that works, because it ensures that we don't know what the stakes of this relationship really are. What Laurent does with her actresses is nicely delicate, and ensures the film rises above the high school shock story that it easily could have become. This is a small film that doesn't draw attention to itself through casting or dramatic flair, but unlike her American acting counterparts, Laurent seems to know that's the best way to get her directing feet wet. 

Something really rewarding about now having been going to TIFF for several years is seeing the work of directors who consistently bring their films to the festival, and watching how they evolve. At TIFF 2011, one of my great discoveries was a film called Your Sister's Sister, by a relatively unknown filmmaker from the Pacific Northwest named Lynn Shelton. I saw Your Sister's Sister pretty much by accident. I originally had a ticket to Machine Gun Preacher, but it got such scathing advance reviews that I decided to swap it out for something else, and Your Sister's Sister was the only promising film in that time slot that still had a ticket available. It was a wonderful film, and I loved the way Shelton set up a bizarre scenario that ended up feeling completely realistic because of the naked emotional truth her characters discovered about themselves, and the conversational honesty that her ad-lib, unscripted style brought out of the actors. I've liked Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt for a while now, but I still think of Sister as some of their best acting. 

After that screening, I felt a bit of ownership over "discovering" Shelton, and I hoped that her work would reach a wider audience in the future. So of course I was delighted when I saw she had a new film at TIFF '14, Laggies, which looked like a pseudo-major release starring some decently big names. Keira Knightley plays Megan, a twenty-something whose friends all have their lives figured out, while she's working part-time for her father's accounting firm, twirling a sign out on the street. The fact that she has a Master's Degree and her longtime boyfriend has just proposed only makes matters worse. While Megan is supposed to be spending a week at some type of "figure out your future" retreat, she has a chance encounter with Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), a high schooler that starts looking up to her after Megan buys her beer. What ensues--Megan spending a week hiding out in Annika's house and then falling for her single dad (Sam Rockwell)--is ridiculous high-concept, but like Shelton's other work, it never really plays as such. 

Shelton has a gift for digging at the reality buried under outlandish set-ups involving three characters whose lives butt up against each other in strange ways. Her films always begin as high-concept, but never feel that way by the time they resolve, because we feel so immersed in the inner-workings of her character's psyches. I was surprised to find out Shelton didn't write Laggies--it was an original screenplay by a first-timer named Andrea Seigel that just floated its way over to her--but her stamp is all over it. This was also the first time that one of Shelton's films hasn't been largely ad-libbed, but you wouldn't know it from watching, and that's a good thing. There's a naturalistic way to how the actors interact with one another that doesn't feel forced, even given the strange circumstances the characters all find themselves in. Laggies is a funny film with real heart, some of Keira Knightley's best acting (with a very credible Seattle accent), and further evidence that Shelton is one of the most interesting American-Indie filmmakers working in contemporary cinema. 

At first The 50 Year Argument--a documentary about the New York Review of Books--didn't seem like something I might prioritize on my schedule. I have, after all, never read the publication. I also knew it would be airing on HBO just a few weeks after TIFF ended (Monday, September 29, to be exact). But I didn't really think of this documentary as being about a publication that I have no familiarity with; rather, I thought of it as being about a group of people who have spent 50 years guiding the cultural conversation. As a critic and writer who hopes to inspire cultural discourse myself, what could be closer to my heart? 

Of course, I was also intrigued by the fact that it was co-directed by Martin Scorsese (working with David Tedeschi, who was the editor on some of his previous documentaries), and the possibility of an extended interview and Q&A with Marty was just too salivating to pass up. When Scorsese was asked by TIFF documentary programmer Thom Powers what drew him to the project, his response crystalized what intrigued me about the film in the first place: "I wanted to make a film about the urgency of being engaged and the sensuousness of ideas," he said. That sentence pretty much describes what I love about analyzing culture. 

Unfortunately, that sentence in the post-film interview was also the highlight of the screening for me. The 50 Year Argument was by no means a bad film--it was quite interesting and thought-provoking--but I don't quite think it accomplished what it set out to do. Or maybe it just didn't do what I hoped it would. I'm not entirely sure if what I was expecting was even realistic in the first place. I wanted an in-depth analysis of the mindset of an institution that tries to lead and trigger intellectual discourse. Instead, Argument gave me 90 minutes of interviews with contributors to the New York Review of Books telling stories and anecdotes about their involvement with the magazine. That isn't a pejorative; most of the stories were fascinating and helped illuminate the importance the magazine has had in the coverage of several important topics over the years. But the real flaw I found in the film was that the whole never amounted to more than the sum of the parts. At the end, it really was just 90 minutes of good stories and interviews that didn't build to a more cohesive statement. 

At a festival with over 300 films, selecting what to see can be remarkably nerve-racking, so some reliance on pedigree becomes automatic. You can easily talk yourself into films that don't necessarily sound good if you know they're by good directors, just as you can talk yourself out of films that DO sound good if they're by directors you have a history of not liking. And that's how I ended up spending my Thursday night watching the complete and utter disaster that was The Cobbler

I had reservations going in. I haven't liked an Adam Sandler movie in a solid ten years, and it feels like a lot longer. Throwing him into a plot about a New York shoe cobbler who can transform into other people when he puts on their shoes did NOT sound like something I wanted to see. But I was seduced by pedigree. The Cobbler was written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, who was batting a thousand in his previous three films as writer/director: the quite good The Station Agent and The Visitor, and 2011's excellent Win Win. All three of those films found real people at the margins of society and crafted profound portraits of who they were and why their struggles are stories worth telling. I was dubious about whether Adam Sandler turning into other people could continue that trend, but I gave it a chance. Oooof. 

Put simply, this movie is just awful. It's the kind of movie where Adam Sandler uses magical bright red high heals to turn into a drag queen, all for the sake of scaring a tied-up Method Man into revealing the location of the money from his drug stash. Now read that sentence again. Do you want to see this movie? No, no you don't. That's what I'm here for--to throw away two hours of my life in order to protect you from wasting yours. You're welcome. 

Tomorrow: Bill Murray's best role in over a decade, a fantastic French period-crime procedural that reminded me of Michael Mann's Heat, and a gorgeously shot African film that might be a Foreign Language Film Oscar contender. 

No comments:

Post a Comment