Friday, September 12, 2014

Movie: TIFF 2014

For TIFF 2014, I watched 29 movies in 11 days for an average of 3 movies per day plus two preview movies before the festival officially started.  These 31 movies were a new record for me and I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew.  Compared to last season, this year's festival seemed to include many more movies that appealed to my husband and I, which made picking the candidates very easy, but narrowing down and scheduling the final picks quite difficult.  After the first pass of reviewing the movies' synopsis, we had over 50 contenders on our "short"-list that either one or both of us considered watching.

The scheduling exercise involved ensuring that there was no overlaps and sufficient times between movies.  This included not only the movie run-time plus the Question and Answer (Q&A) session if available, but also the wait time in the line-ups to get into the theatres (usually 1 hour or more to get the seats of our choice - 2 seats together, not too close to the screen but close enough to take photos of the movie stars), plus travel time to get between theatres that could be as far as 3.5km apart.  There was also the consideration of which screening to go to for each movie.  Attending the first screening almost guarantees your chance of seeing the director and possibly actors of the movie and receiving a Q&A session.  The chances diminish if you attend the second screening and are practically nil by the third and last screening.  So where possible, we tried schedule first screenings for films with topics that would provide interesting discussions, or had good stars in the cast.  This logistic challenge was greatly aided by my favourite tool, the trusty spreadsheet with its filtering and colour-coding capabilities.

While it would be unrealistic to expect all 31 of my picks to be winners, this year even the relatively "bad" ones were not horrible.  I did not get that "I've just wasted 2 hours of my life that I can never get back" feeling from previous years. And there were many more movies that I thoroughly enjoyed including a good mix of smaller films, foreign language films, documentaries and mainstream Hollywood fare.  The following are some of my favourite movies of 2014.

The movie I was most looking forward to seeing was The Last 5 Years and I was not disappointed.  The Last 5 Years is the movie adaptation of one of my favourite musicals by composer Jason Robert Brown.  Entirely through song, it tells the story of the doomed relationship of struggling actress Cathy and up-and-coming author Jamie.  One of their major issues is poignantly summarized by Jamie in a song where he sings " I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy I will not lose because you can't win."

With alternating solos, Cathy starts at the end of their relationship and moves backwards towards the beginning when they first meet, while Jamie sings chronologically from the beginning until the end.  In the theatre production, Cathy and Jamie are never on stage at the same time, except for when their timelines meet in the middle and they get married, and also at the end when Cathy is glowingly saying goodbye after their first date while Jamie is sadly saying goodbye to their union.

The movie, starring Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect) and Jeremy Jordan (Smash), is a brilliant adaptation whose settings and visuals perfectly captured the images that I envisioned while listening to the soundtrack.  Unlike the theatre version, Cathy and Jeremy are in the scenes of each other's solos, interacting and reacting to what is being sung to them.  The time jumps are made obvious not only by the tone and lyrics of the songs, but through clothing, hairstyles, colours and lighting.  The happy scenes representing the beginning of the relationship are brightly lit with the characters wearing rich, vibrant colours.  Towards the end of the relationship, both the lighting and the clothes become dark and somber.

In the final scene that depicts both Jamie at the end and Cathy at the beginning, there is contrasting lighting to represent the two timelines. Jamie sits in a darkly lit room writing a goodbye letter, while through the window, you can see Cathy standing outside the apartment on a bright sunny day.  The point of view switches to Cathy waving goodbye after their first date, but through the darkened window, you see Jamie at the desk writing his letter.

In the Q&A following the world premiere screening, the director commented that he had to stay as faithful as possible to the source material, since theatre aficionados are as fanatic as Comicon geeks and would not stand for tinkering with their beloved musical.  Composer and movie collaborator Jason Robert Brown was also at the Q&A and talked about how he insisted on not having any of his songs changed or cut, especially one called Schmuel that was particularly challenging to film.  Having the perspective of both the director and the original composer made this a very special Q&A session.

The U.K. film Pride is a heart-warming tale based on actual events of the lengthy miners' strike that occurred in 1983 during the Margaret Thatcher regime.  A group of London-based gays and lesbians decided to show solidarity and raise money for the miners, whose plight they empathized with since they had the same experiences of being persecuted and harassed by the police.  The group "Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners" (LGSM) ended up raising more money than any support group and picked one small Welsh community to donate the funds to.  The movie describes how these two groups came together and overcame fears and prejudices in order to develop a mutual understanding and trust of each other, leading to some life-long friendships.  This movie is funny, touching and all the more poignant since it really happened.

Pride's Q&A session was especially insightful because it was attended not only by the director and technical staff, but also by three of the actual people who were portrayed in the movie. They were two members of LGSM, plus one of the wives of the miners, who showed leadership during the strike and eventually became a Labour member of Parliament.  It was interesting hearing them talk about the gay rights movement back then, and to get their perspective on how things have changed since.  They all agreed that while great strides have been made, there still is a ways to go.

The German film Labyrinth of Lies is also based on historic events.  It is a thriller dealing with the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of the mid 1960s.  While Auschwitz trials were held in Poland just after WWII, none occurred in Germany until decades later.  In fact, it was surprising to learn that just over a decade after the second World War, most Germans did not know any details about what happened in Auschwitz.  The overriding sentiment of the time was that the past should be left buried and that Germany should be allowed to move on and heal.

Watching Labyrinth of Lies quite illuminating, as was the Q&A.  There was as much discussion on the historical and political events and implications as there were about the making of the movie.  Being one generation removed from the events, the interviewees were all well educated about the Holocaust, including being taught the history in school, watching movies about it and visiting the camps.  So they also were shocked to find out that this was not the case right after the war.  The director spoke of their research into the "national narrative" of those times, which was "We need to draw a line on the past.  We lost the war; let's try to look ahead and build the future".  No one spoke of what happened, not the perpetrators, not the victims, not the onlookers.  When asked about how much of the movie was based on fact, we learned that the State Attorney General Fritz Bauer, who championed the cause, and Thomas Gnielka, the reporter who brought forth the initial evidence, were based on real people.  The cases in the lists of victims discussed were real, and the last sentence of the movie were the actual words spoken by the court judge at the start of the trials.  However  the hero of the movie, the handsome, passionate young prosecutor who doggedly pursued evidence of Nazi war crimes, plus his love interest were added for dramatic purposes. 

The Australian comedy The Little Death is a hysterically funny film whose title is based on the French term "la petite mort" which is a euphemism for orgasm.  It cycles between vignettes of five couples, each dealing with an unusual sexual predilection.  Rowena discovers that she is only aroused when her partner Richard is crying, and so she finds different ways to trigger his tears including constantly reminding him about his recently deceased father, hiding his beloved dog, and making him chop onions.  Dan and Evie try to spice up their marriage with sexual role-play, but Dan gets too invested in his roles. When they "play doctor", Dan "diagnoses" Evie with Hepatitis C, basically killing any romantic mood between them.  Monica works at a "Deaf Relay Chat" centre where she uses sign language to converse with deaf clients and then passes the information verbally to non-deaf recipients.  Hilarity ensues when Sam wants her to call a phone-sex worker.  Phil only responds to his wife when she is asleep and takes to spiking her tea with sleeping pills and then wooing her while she is unconscious.  Maeve has a rape fantasy which her boyfriend Paul tries to fulfill by setting up fake rape scenarios.  When he first hears her request, Paul thinks that Maeve wants him to rate her, and declares that she is a solid 10.  He is horrified when she clarifies what she actually wants. There is actually very little nudity in this movie that is all about sex.  The director (who also plays Paul) felt it was unnecessary since simply talking about sex is so much more powerful.

The Canadian psychological thriller Elephant Song is based on a play of the same name by Nicolas Billon.  A doctor in a psychiatric hospital has gone missing and his patient Michael is the last person he saw before his disappearance.  His colleague, Dr. Green, is sent to question Michael, who is highly intelligent, manipulative and claims to know what happened to his doctor.  A verbal cat and mouse mind game ensues as Dr. Green tries to find the truth.  The movie plays out like a tense mystery in a dimly lit setting that is reminiscent of One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest.  It is difficult to decide when Michael is lying and whether he is the victim or the perpetrator of some crime, or just plain crazy.  Quebec director and actor Xavier Dolan (J'ai tué ma mère) is excellent in his chilling portrayal of Michael.  He seems to be making a career of playing gay men with "mommy issues".

Force Majeure is a Swedish drama set in a ski resort where a couple with two small children are vacationing.  The start of the film alternates between sweeping, majestic scenery of the French Alps as the family ski together, and mundane, repetitive scenes including brushing of teeth and sleeping in the chalet apartment.  Everything changes when a scary event puts the father's sense of manhood and the expected male role as protector of the family into question.  The rest of the film deals with the aftermath of the father's actions (or inaction) as the family dynamics are shattered.  An interesting scene at the end of the movie compares how the mother reacts in her own moment of fear and crisis, and how different the reactions are to her actions as opposed to the earlier ones of the father.  As the director commented in the Q&A, "The expectations of a man is to stand up for his family when there is a sudden threat, while the expectations of a woman is to take care of the family in the longer term.  If she is drawn away by her emotions, it is OK that she got scared in the moment.  For a man, this is not acceptable."  Force Majeure is a quiet movie with beautiful cinematography and a very interesting theme that comments on social mores and expectations.

While it is always great that the Toronto International Film Festival allows us to see smaller, foreign movies that we may not have the opportunity to watch in the regular cinemas, it is also fun to watch a few Hollywood movies, especially if we get to see and hear from the director and stars in the Q&A.

This year, we saw Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson in Learning to Drive, a sweet movie about a devastated divorcee who learns to take control of her life again as she learns how to drive and befriends the driving instructor.  When the director is asked in the Q&A why she cast Ben Kingsley as a Sikh when he was not one, she replied that Ben Kingsley was a great actor and if she was making a film about a chair, she would have cast Ben Kingsley as the chair as well.

Chris Evans (Captain America) directs and stars with Alice Eve in Before We Go, a delightfully refreshing romantic comedy that does not follow the traditional "boy meets girl-boy loses girl-boy gets girl back" trope.  Nick is a musician who comes to New York for an audition.  He meets a frantic Brooke, who is desperate to get home to Boston before morning, but misses the last train after having her purse stolen.  Together, they wander around Manhattan through the night, trying different schemes to raise enough money to get her home.  Along the way, they develop a friendship, find out each other's back stories and help each other with respective problems.  Chris Evans does a great job as a first time director.  He talked about wanting to capture special little memorable moments throughout the film and he certainly succeeds in doing so.

Simon Pegg stars as the suave, slick, but slightly smarmy and goofy assassin in the Australian action comedy Kill Me Three Times.  The large cast also includes Teresa Palmer and Luke Hemsworth, whose features and deep blue eyes clearly identify him as the lesser known brother to Liam (Hunger Games) and Chris (Thor).  The plot of the assassin hired to kill a cheating wife is told three times, with each iteration revealing more information that clarifies the story and changes previous interpretations. This is a fun movie with twists and turns that keep things interesting.

The Imitation Game has all the makings of an Oscar contender including being a biopic set during World War II and a great performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as mathematical genius Alan Turing, who helped break the Germans' Enigma code. The director has talked about the painstaking attention to authenticity and accuracy in the story, and the period details of the set and costume designs.  He has said in multiple interviews that rather than being "based on a true story", the credits should have said "this was a true story".  They filmed at the actual boy's school that Turing went to, as well as at Bletchley Park where Turing worked for the British government on code-breaking.  The enigma machines shown in the movie were real machines from the war, and Turing's big computer in the movie was a replication of the one Turing actually built at the time.  It was gratifying that for the first time, by picking Imitation Game, we finally watched and help vote for the winner of the coveted People's Choice Award, which is often the harbinger for an Oscar Best Picture win. 

I really enjoyed This is Where I Leave You, which drew big laughs for its premise of a dysfunctional group of non-practicing Jewish siblings reuniting in their family home to "sit shiva" to mourn the death of their father.  In addition to the humorous moments, I found much of the dialogue between the bickering siblings to be quite realistic and often touching.  But this was a big Hollywood movie which ended up playing in the theatres within a week after the festival and our second showing did not have a Q&A session.  So we just paid a hefty premium to watch a movie that we could have seen for half the price at the Cineplex a few days later.  This is why we try to limit the number of these movies that we watch during TIFF, gravitating more towards movies that we otherwise may not get a chance to see.

As for the movies we didn't like that much this year, there seemed to be a trend.  Next year, we intend to be more careful when choosing Asian or French comedies and melodramas.  We realized that we either do not connect with the humour of the comedies, or found the dramas to be overly sappy and weepy.  For example, the Korean movie Confessions was described as a noir thriller but ended up being too much of a melodrama with multiple scenes involving bawling male leads.  On the other hand, the humour of the Chinese buddy road trip comedy Breakup Buddies was lost on us due to bad translations that disappeared before you could finish reading them.  And even when we could read them, we did not find the English text to be funny, despite those who understood the actual Mandarin dialogue roaring with laughter.  So it was either lost in translation or a cultural divide that could not be bridged.  Then there was the mushy French romance Three Hearts about a love triangle between two sisters and the same man.  What bugged me the most was the constant foreboding Jaws-like (da-dum, da-dum) music that played throughout the movie, and yet nothing ever happened to warrant the dramatic tension.  Watching this movie was probably the closest I came this year to wishing for a time machine to go back 2 hours in time and forget what I just sat through.

Overall though, this was a very good festival year and we were pleased with most of our picks.