Toronto International Film Festival 2014

2014 Toronto International Film Festival | Update Two

images-9The man ahead of me in the line has just arrived from the Telluride Film Festival. While you wait to get into a film screening, you strike up all sorts of conversations. And this man gives me his opinion of what cinema will be celebrated at year’s end. BIRDMAN, the latest from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a wonder he says. Adding that it is about a filmmaker trying to take control of the world around him. That sounds a bit like Fellini’s 8 ½, I offer, and he says no, no BIRDMAN is far more serious than that. The entire film has been shot to simulate a single continuous take, so it gets high marks just for that he further explains. And Michael Keaton is Oscar bound he prognosticates. As is Steve Carrel, for FOXCATCHER he says, another film bound for Academy awards honors. The biggest disappointment for him has been WILD in which he complains that Reese Witherspoon is horribly miscast. I mention that I am part of that small minority that believes that Jean-Marc Vallee’s previous effort DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB was a terrible film. Then WILD is not going to change your mind about this director, he says. What was his best film he saw at Telluride, I ask? Oh, it’s the Argentine film WILD TALES he says with much excitement, and it is playing at Toronto and I must buy a ticket. And then we get into the cinema, leaving my head spinning. And that is the opinion of just one person at the festival. Throw together all the world’s cinephiles and you wouldn’t sleep for fear of missing an important film at the festival.

TIFF 2014 publicity still for THE NEW GIRLFRIEND

TIFF 2014 publicity still for THE NEW GIRLFRIEND

THE NEW GIRLFRIEND is the latest film from Francois Ozon. It wasn’t so long ago that Ozon was the reigning enfant terrible of French cinema, having helmed movies that gleefully crossed the line. But with wit that went beyond the shock value; SWIMMING POOL, WATER FALLING ON BURNING ROCKS, and CRIMINAL LOVERS were the films that put him on the map. Then he turned respectable with UNDER THE SUN, 8 WOMEN and POTICHE. How curious that in what seems like only a matter of years, Xavier Dolan (who is not even 25 years old) has taken over the enfant terrible title, bringing into question Ozon’s ability to still rock the boat by making films that simultaneously provoke and impress. THE NEW GIRLFRIEND is not going to change Ozon’s calling card, not least because this film has the unfortunate timing of coming out on the heels of the somewhat similarly themed LAURENCE ANYWAYS from Xavier Dolan last year. No matter how you cut it, Dolan’s a superior film.

With THE NEW GIRLFRIEND Ozon is clearly paying homage to the films of Douglas Sirk (with a dash of Almodovar, for good measure). So it is necessarily a melodrama, which is not a liability if handled well (Todd Haynes did an admirable job doing just that with FAR FROM HEAVEN). But THE NEW GIRLFRIEND, through most of its running time, feels like a helicopter trying to land in gusty winds; it keeps circling and circling, but is unable to settle on ground.

The film tells the story of Claire (Anais Demoustier) who is trying to shake off the sorrow following the death of her best friend Laura, who has also left behind a bereft husband David (Romain Duris) and infant child. Trying to deal with her grief and offer comfort to David, Claire walks into his home unannounced, to find him dressed in women’s clothing. David explains that he wants to be both father and mother to his child, and while Claire fails to understand this at first, she eventually becomes David’s accomplice in exploring his feminine sensibility. Much to the dismay of Claire’s husband who begins to suspect Claire’s time spent away from work. This can play as a light-hearted farce, as a serious look at the fluidity of sexuality and identity, or even as bitter satire of the overzealousness of political correctness in contemporary mores. But to play this material as a Douglas Sirk melodrama presents with inherent issues. For one thing Ozon over-commits to the Sirk sensibility to the extent that David’s home has furnishings reminiscent of sixties décor. It is difficult to shoehorn this visual palette into a story set in contemporary times without coming off jarringly anachronistic. And what should have been frothy and giddy comes off labored, and worse, dated. The film suffers as a whole from seeming like something that was made at least a couple of decades ago, not least from the way certain characters react to situations. I wish that Ozon’s desire to do Sirk had led to him setting this story in the sixties, which would make the look, and more critically, the behavior of the characters in this story a lot more believable.

 

2014 TIFF publicity still for TOKYO FIANCEE

2014 TIFF publicity still for TOKYO FIANCEE

TOKYO FIANCEE is first-time director Stefan Liberski contribution to all the stories in all the films about star-crossed lovers. It is based on a popular European novel by Amelie Nothomb about a French-speaking Belgian girl (Pauline Etienne) obsessed with Japan who happens to go to Japan and fall in love with a local Japanese boy (Taichi Inoue) who is obsessed with France. There have been many films about this sort of cultural dislocation. In particular such films that are also wittingly or otherwise romantic, tend to have a way of getting twee. TOKYO FIANCEE is very much a film about cultural dislocation, but it keeps the whimsy somewhat in check, doling out only homeopathic doses of it, for the most part. These are individuals you enjoy spending time with, even as you wonder why your own life did not come pre-filled with this sort of charm offensive. Heck, the lead is even named Amelie which should remind of you a certain Audrey Tatou confection that is much beloved but extra-frosted all the same. While the film spends the first half by playing with the mores of this sort of cinema (honest, if a little indulgent look, at the fish out of water), the latter part of the movie ultimately finds a defiantly unique voice. About being dispossessed in youth, and trying to locate a sense of self in a scary uncontrollable world.

Films like this live or die by their lead actors. Who have to carry the entire film, convincing every audience member that their company is worth having. And this film is worth watching, and you must do so, for Pauline Etienne. Looking uncannily like a young(er) Carey Mulligan, Etienne grounds the film with an openness that is disarming. Even when the plot calls on her to be charming beyond reason, she makes us believe that this person would indeed have this effect on these other individuals. Fragile, irrational, lost, impetuous, and searching, Etienne’s Amelie seems to convey these all with enviable flair. Even in the Q&A session after the end of the film, Etienne came across as effortlessly disarming. Discover this actor before the world catches up to her wonders. I cannot wait to see what she does next.

 

2014 TIFF publicity still for CART

2014 TIFF publicity still for CART

CART is a South Korean film loosely based on true events in which female workers at a supermarket who were abruptly notified of being laid off prior to the expiration of their contracts went on a strike to protest. What initially started as a frightening but also empowering stance to take on the system, eventually led to grave and worsening outcomes. What starts out seeming like a feel-good David vs. Goliath tale descends into a reckoning with reality in which corporations almost always prevail over workers. There is no doubt this film has a sincere focus, and it spends a fair bit of time investing in the individual lives of several of the key characters, if only to make clear the cascaded effect of social injustice on those beyond the direct victims. All of which is almost undone by a shrill background score that cues up every scene with the exact sentiment that the audience member is supposed to be filming. This very nearly destroys the film, but unlike say the nakedly melodramatic MARY KOM, this film makes it clear that hope may be the most elusive currency when a group of individuals decide to take on those who control them. This is an angry film, and necessarily so. And it is acted with honest conviction by a group of persuasive screen presences. Even with its flaws, including an over-eagerness to elicit sympathy, the cinema of the disenfranchised is essential. And CART is a good entry in this genre.

 

2014 Toronto International Film Festival | Update One

images-8You do not realize how much you have missed the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) until you settle down in the darkening theater just as your first film screening is about to begin and the title card warning against video recording pops up on the screen, and avid festival goers howl “aawrrr” at the screen. All at once. I have no idea as to what started this. Or what it means. It is an old TIFF tradition, present at least since the first time I started attending this most equitable of film festivals in 2006. But somehow the sound of all of us unknown movie lovers howling in unison at the screen like dogs at the moon, is unexpectedly comforting.

The first day of screenings is a wet one, with rains pelting cinephiles waiting in lines snaking across multiple blocks ahead of each screening at each venue. The rains seem cruel, but this is a sturdy lot of moviegoers, unfazed by lightning and instantly soaked clothing and squishy shoes. Toronto, ordinarily a city of enviable infrastructure and efficiency, seems to have added its own impediment this year with road constructions on every other street in downtown area where the TIFF Lightbox headquarters and surrounding other festival venues are located. Add to that streets closed off to road traffic specifically for TIFF activities/premieres/red-carpets, and it makes for quite an obstacle course to get to the film venues on time for those who do not live in the immediate vicinity. But as I said, this is a town where cinema is religion, and the masses show up in hordes for the festival.

2014 TIFF publicity still for FORCE MAJEURE

2014 TIFF publicity still for FORCE MAJEURE

The film FORCE MAJEURE arrived to TIFF already on the waft of rapturous reviews out of Cannes. And it did one of the more difficult thing for movies to do: live up to high expectations. What a film this is. First of all, it is majestic just from a technical standpoint. Conceptually, it is the examination of the consequences of a single act that plays out as a tightrope walk of grand suspense. Some filmmakers have a spark to their work; you can sense a grandness, a flourish to every scene in their films. You can sense this in the films of Fincher, Nolan, the Coen brothers. Writer-director Ruben Ostlund is a master aesthetist. There is an obvious pivotal scene in FORCE MAJEURE around which the entire film pivots and that alone is worth the price of admission for its technical grandeur. But set that money shot aside; even then, the film is remarkable for how neatly and studiously the shots have been culled together, with beautiful long, long takes that both present as challenges to the actors, some of them kids, and allow them to do remarkable work. And the sound design is pristine; the creaking of ski lift bars, the vacuum cleaner in a hotel lobby, the roar of an avalanche – all enhance the film.

I have deliberately not mentioned8 the plot. Not that this would be a terrible spoiler, and these days so much of a film’s plot are generally known even before release. But I enjoyed this film as much as I did because I knew little about it going in. Even so, I hope the principal moral inquiry at the center of this film is not given away by reviews. I will say this much though: the movie is set around the inhabitants of a ski resort in Sweden. And as the film proceeds about its business, it makes wry observations about relationships – the soft, vulnerable, scrupulously ignored underbellies of relationships – as it focuses its gaze on several couples. And even when the gaze is terse, there is an intelligence to the examination that is exacting, precise. And lest this sound too lofty, I want to assure you that there is easily earned humor at every turn in this film. And wit. In one scene, two characters start to argue in the elevator of the ski resort, and their words are getting to an increasingly dangerous place. The elevator stops, and a hotel staff member steps in with a large cart, forcing the characters to back all the way to the rear. The scene ends there. And you smile realizing that this couple is getting literally pushed into a corner. At another point, a wife asks this of her husband upon returning to their room after a testy dinner conversation: “What’s wrong? That’s not us.” It is a marvelous way to think of one’s relationship.

This is the quintessential film that will trigger intense debate following its viewing.

 

images-9The second film I watched today was MARY KOM, which is a biopic of India’s first female Olympic boxing medalist. Mary Kom, born Chungneijang in a rural corner of northeastern India, rose to prominence in a sport dominated by men in a country where female athletes already have a tougher ride. Outspoken and spirited, she earned the ire of many within the Indian Boxing Federation by voicing her complaints about the abysmal lack of support for athletes. She stepped away from the sport at the peak of her popularity after she was married and had kids, only to return back and re-challenge her position as the most winning female medalist in boxing. Her journey involved challenges with her parents who were justifiably concerned about her prospects, a hard to please boxing coach, as well as numerous adversaries in the professional matches.

When you have a true story that is this strong, the best thing a director can do is to get out of its way. Unfortunately, this treatment relies too heavily on melodrama that comes of as mostly unearned. So that the true accomplishments of this individual come off rote and shallow. Were this film not so bent on manipulating the audience into an emotional response, it could have been a quieter, more powerful endeavor. Mary Kom is played in the film by Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra, who in spite of having impressively worked on the physical transformation for the role is unable to capture the essence of this individual. Part of the problem may be with a superficial, paint-by-the-numbers script that jumps from adversity to adversity, and has too few scenes that clamp down on the motivations of the central character. We have seen this story in any number of sports films, and there is a reason the ROCKY films are so effective. There are a few parts that work well in MARY KOM, including Mary’s relationship with her husband. The universal female struggle to find balance between career and family is so much more heightened when your career happens to be competitive sports; that the film misses the opportunity to tap into this respectfully and with depth speaks to its failure. By the time the Indian National Anthem played in the last act in a shamelessly jingoistic attempt to rouse audience fervor, I had had enough.

Tomorrow will be another day at TIFF. Stay posted.