Movie-watching is srs bnz in Toronto during TIFF. Ticket holders line up for an hour+ in fickle weather, just so that they could get a good seat in a packed theater screening some obscure French documentary. I've become quite familiar with certain blocks in downtown Toronto, having spent hours per day in various line-ups for the past week. I've also found that four movies a day are one movie too many. There have been days when I went, "wait, what did I see the first thing today?"
The festival is almost done (just 2 days to go! *sadface*). Stand-outs so far:
Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann
, which is an almost 3 hour-long German comedy of embarrassment centered on a relationship between a prankster father and his uber straight-laced daughter. Sounds terrible on paper, but it just kept unfolding in directions I wasn't expecting -- it meanders here and there, squirmy at first, then at turns heartbreaking, weird and lovely, then flat-out, doubled-over-in-hysterics hilarious in parts. The best comedies have a vein of sorrow running through them -- this is one of those films. It also features an unforgettable karaoke rendition of a Whitney Houston song that made my theater burst into a spontaneous applause, like when was the last time *that* happened in your movie theater? La La Land
by Damien Chazelle, who made Whiplash
. In a word: SWOOOOOON. The mood invoked by its dreamy trailer
is spot on. This is a go-for-broke throwback musical without a cynical bone in its body, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who are much better actors than they are singers, but no matter. It's a gorgeous, fanciful love letter to Los Angeles, edged by a melancholic streak a mile wide, which was my favourite thing about it, naturally. Also, I need the soundtrack IMMEDIATELY.
Park Chan Wook's The Handmaiden
, I suspect, will not be for everyone. It's beautiful but kind of bonkers, not to mention LURID AS FUCK. I have heard of but have not read Sarah Water's Fingersmith
on which this movie is reportedly based, and now I am mad curious to see whether some of the more outré elements from the movie are taken from the book. Uh, probably not that scene near the end that features Park's trademark stylized violence (which is mercifully confined to that one scene). What surprised the hell out of me was how riotously *funny* this movie is. It is brimful of profane witticisms throughout, not surprising in a film where the characters are constantly trying to one-up one another. Its politics are fascinating -- there are of course the many twists and turns of its sexual politics. Then there is the transplantation of the story from Victorian England to colonial Korea under Japanese rule, which sets the film up for some glorious real estate and costume porn, and serves as the backdrop for interesting identity politics. Both of the major male characters, who are Koreans, try to pass themselves off as Japanese aristocrats, and the movie has a great time poking fun at their attempts at self invention that is also the negation of their national identity. The notion of reinvention of self is an ongoing theme through the movie, for good or ill and everything inbetween -- there is a lot to unpack there. I have to agree with some of the critics though -- its several explicit f/f love scenes are filmed in a super male-gazy way. I mean, the *content* prioritizes female pleasure, but the camera does not. But that reservation aside, I had a rollicking good time watching this exquisitely-made, OTT florid Gothic lesbian romance on drugs. Pro-tip: don't watch it with your parents! Also: LOL OCTOPUSManchester by the Sea
by Kenneth Lonergan: I saw this a couple of days ago with very little prior knowledge of what it was about -- I knew it starred Casey Affleck and was about Affleck's character dealing with his brother's death. I won't say much more since I think the best way to see this movie is to go into it relatively blind and let the story unfold gradually. I will go as far as to say that this is probably the best movie I've seen about grief and how a profound personal loss can affect both the individuals and the community since The Sweet Hereafter
20 years ago (talk about a high bar). In terms of sheer emotional impact, it might have been my favourite film in the festival -- I basically spent the last third of the film silently weeping, then walked around downtown for the rest of the day an emotional wreck. That makes it sound dreary but it's not, not at all. At the heart of the movie is the relationship between Affleck's character, who is a broken shell of a man, and his 16-year-old nephew, which is this rich and lovely living thing peppered with equal parts heartache and wonderful dry humour. At almost every turn, the movie avoids hackneyed traps and manages to come across both specific and universal. It asks, how can a person, who has zero spoons left, offer emotional support to someone in need in time of crisis? The answer proves to be tremendously rewarding and not at all facile. It also has some of the most effective use of flashbacks I've seen in films in recent years. The only thing I was not 100% on board with was some of its musical cues, which felt at times heavy-handed.
Also, Affleck is gonna win an Oscar come next February. You heard it here first. (No, okay, critics have been saying this since it debuted at Sundance back in January this year but whatever!)
Denis Villeneuve's Arrival
was one of my most anticipated film of this festival going in, and by and large, it does an admirable job adapting Ted Chiang's short story ("The Story of Your Life") with its tricky emotional tone intact. Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist called upon to help translate an alien language during Earth's first extraterrestrial encounter, and hers is a quiet, interior performance that nevertheless conveys a great deal without saying much. The aliens -- Heptapods -- are marvellously realized, and the way their written language is depicted on the screen (never explicitly described in the short story, if I recall) is cleverly done indeed. I did have a few niggles though, which I can't elaborate without getting into spoiler territory. In the story, there is no purpose revealed behind Heptapods' visit to Earth. This apparently proved to be too nebulous for the producers, thus they concocted a vague future threat against which humans and Heptapods would need to collaborate sometime down the road. Okay, fair enough. But they also added a threat of major military conflicts on earth in response to the alien landing (agitated by China and Russia, natch) to ante up the dramatic stake, which might be a realistic response but made me nonetheless cranky due to its conventionality. One significant, likely necessary, change, that shifts the emotional revelation to the end rather than the middle, is that the audience is not made immediately privy to the nature of Louise's vision of her daughter, which she starts experiencing in the middle of the work with the Heptapods. Adams portrays Louise as a grave soul who looks somewhat wounded from the beginning (plus Adams looks ageless enough that she could pass anywhere from early 30's to late 40's in the film), so the natural conclusion at the onset is that the birth and death of her daughter was the a loss in her past. So when the revelation comes in piecemeal in the final few scenes (showing Jeremy Renner's physicist character as the father of her child, ending with the moment of the child's conception), it makes a substantial emotional impact. That is, if one had not known of this "twist" in advance. For someone familiar with the story, the emotional resonance felt significantly more muted. Also, I kinda wish they'd found a way to inform the audience of the main hook of the story -- that the increasing familiarity with Heptapod B alters one's experience of chronology, and what that says about free will vs. determinism -- other than as an exposition-dump with a voice-over from Renner's character. I mean, I don't know how else they could have done it, but I feel like there should have been another way to make this more weighty.
These reservations aside, it's a beautifully made, thoughtful SF film with very fine performances and I am already looking forward to watching it again when it comes out. Elle
by Paul Verhoeven deals with the aftermath of a violent sexual assault the main character (named Michèle, a CEO of a video game producing company played by Isabelle Huppert) experiences at her home. The way she reacts to the rape is unusual to say the least, and the movie turns into a mesmerizing character study and shockingly, something of a black comedy, which left me confused and alarmed about my own emotional response because, well, the comedic parts are very black and also very funny. The thing is, I can't imagine any woman reacting to a severe trauma like this the way Michèle does. Except the movie makes a passable case for why she is made the way she is (she's given a very unusual background) and Isabelle Huppert is so fucking amazing in the role, you buy everything she is selling for the duration of the film. I suspect many would find the movie unconscionable. All I can say is that I couldn't take my eyes off the screen.
Impressions on a few others:
Terrence Malick's Voyage of Time
is... not precisely a documentary but some type of philosophical statement about Life, Time, Universe, and Everything. It is utterly breathtaking to look at, and Cate Blanchett contributes ponderous narration, sounding like Galadriel on a bunch of heavy narcotics. I saw this on an afternoon from a nosebleed balcony seat at the grand Princess of Wales theater, my stomach full of fantastic Thai food, and almost fell asleep in the middle of it. To wit: I don't think I'm not the right audience for what Malick is selling. I also found myself suuuuper irritated with its use of brown and black bodies in extremis as a convenient shorthand for human suffering. Critics seem to love it, so blah blah not my beautiful cake but may be yours, etc.Burn Your Maps
, dir. by Jordan Roberts: In a family ravaged by a recent death of an infant daughter, their son, a 8-year-old boy, suddenly decides he is a Mongolian goat-herder at heart (they are Caucasian) and starts dressing the part, floating goats and eagles made of toilet paper and all. This is framed as his way of coping with the loss and while the premise is, uh, somewhat Orientalist to say the least, I gotta say the journey proved to be quite enjoyable, mostly on the strength of a funny script and very fine performances by Vera Farmiga as the boy's mother and the ADORABLE Jacob Tremblay (the little boy from Room
last year) as the boy in question. In the middle of the film, they of course all go off to Mongolia and have healing, enlightening experiences aided by helpful locals. I KNOW. It sounds terrible, but I found myself charmed nevertheless, almost against my will. Tremblay participated in the Q&A after the showing and I nearly had kittens, 'cause GODDAMN that kid is cute.
Terry George's The Promise
is a handsomely-mounted historical epic chronicling Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks in 1910's, while doubling as a love triangle. Despite the presence of Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale, this turned out to be something of a dud -- it's a painfully old-fashioned film, which never met a cliché it didn't like. It could have been made in 1950's without a single change. I mean, it wasn't a hardship to sit through the film due to the aforementioned pretty (both the scenery and the actors) but I'd expected better. Ah well.
Jim Jarmusch is often a hit or miss for me but I quite enjoyed Paterson
, a small film with quotidian pleasures, centered on one of those rare birds -- a portrayal of a happy, functional relationship. It's an odd choice of role for Adam Driver (he plays a taciturn bus driver/poet in a small New Jersey town), who's made a career out of playing unhinged weirdos, but he acquits himself here quite well. And as his significant other, Golshifteh Farahani is adorable playing a character who could have easily been insufferable. On its own, it proved to be a bit too uneventful for my personal tastes (3 PM showing also meant I was fighting post-lunch lassitude) but it wormed its way into my graces at the end. Its cadre of oddball supporting characters (full 70% of whom are persons of colour) is uniformly endearing, and stealing every scene he is in, is this squat-faced cranky little English bulldog named Marvin. Paterson/Marvin 4eva!A United Kingdom
by Amma Asante reminded me quite a bit of the director's first feature, Belle
. Which is to say that it's a handsome historical biopic centered on an extraordinary (but not widely known) person of colour. David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike play the leads, as the tribal prince of what is now Botswana and the English girl he marries against all odds. The actors are very fine, and the political story is interesting indeed, but... after Belle and now this, I've basically come to a conclusion that Asante is just not very good at romance. The courtship is the least interesting thing about the film. Once they are in Bechuanaland, the movie picks up considerably. Overall, I found it earnest and worthy, but I kept wishing the actual filmmaking was more interesting.
Weirdest movie I've seen in the festival: The Bad Batch
by Ana Lily Amirpour, a post-apocalyptic romance between a double amputee and a cannibal (who had something to do with why our heroine does not have her right arm and the right leg, if you know what I mean AND I THINK YOU DO). I guess one's tolerance of cannibalism can be... uh, relative, since our Hero is played by Jason Momoa and happens to be 1) a fantastic artist and 2) a loving father to an adorable moppet. My imagination is sadly limited and kept tripping over the whole cannibal thing, but I am shallow like that. My favourite part of the movie, actually, was a hilarious turn by the totally unrecognizable Jim Carrey as the local mute hermit/garbage-cart man wandering the wasteland. I don't think it quite works as a whole, but hey, kudos to Amirpour for originality for sure.
Wow, OK, that's enough for now. I have 3 films to see today from 3 PM to 9PM, so off to downtown I go. Despite the crazy schedule, I AM HAVING THE BEST TIME. It's gonna be an annual thing, I can tell.