Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Movie: TIFF 2015 - Part 1

Either there are more movies this year that appeal to us or we have gotten more savvy at choosing them.  After 11 days and 26 movies at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, there were only two and a half movies that we really did not enjoy.  The half was due to watching a Shorts Programme where I liked 5/9 of the short films.  This is an amazing result for us.  Compare this to two years ago, when after 3 days and 7 movies, we had yet to watch anything that we thought was any good.  Like every other year, we selected a good mix of films in terms of genre and nationality, favouring smaller movies or foreign movies that we might otherwise not have a chance to see.  This year we chose movies from 17 different countries including ones that we don't usually pick, such as Japan, Palestine, Austria, Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand.  In addition to the shorts, we also had a documentary and a Midnight Madness horror film, making it a well rounded and diverse lineup of movies.

We really enjoyed Trumbo, which describes the period during the 1940-1950s when American paranoia about the threat of Communism led to the "Hollywood Blacklists".  People in the movie industry who were deemed to be Communists were forced to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee to denounce Communism and to rat out fellow party members.  Those who refused to testify were jailed for Contempt of Congress and upon their release, were shunned and their services were boycotted.

The movie focuses on acclaimed screen writer Dalton Trumbo, played superbly by Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston, who was jailed for 1 year for refusing to testify, and was subsequently denied work from any of the major Hollywood studios.  Throughout this ordeal which lasted over 10 years, Trumbo kept his integrity, sharp tongue and quick wit about him.  He formed a screen writing "black market" whereby he and his colleagues secretly created screen plays under assumed names.  Incredibly, two of the scripts that Trumbo wrote during this period, Roman Holiday and The Brave One, won Academy Awards although he would not be recognized for these victories until decades later.

Helen Mirren plays Hedda Hopper, a powerful Hollywood gossip columnist who used her popular column to spread anti-Communist propaganda and apply pressure on studio heads to enforce the blacklist.  For such a serious topic, the movie is full of humour and even laugh-out-loud moments, driven mostly by Cranston's spot-on delivery of Trumbo's quick repartee and witticisms, as well as a hilarious scene featuring John Goodman and a baseball bat.  There are also many poignant moments, including one between Trumbo and his daughter, played by Elle Fanning, and a confrontation with actor Edward G. Robinson, once a close friend and staunch party member who eventually was pressured into denouncing Communism and betraying his friends.  In his own defense, Robinson pointed out that he had not worked for over a year, and while Trumbo and the other writers could continue to write under aliases, there was no hiding for actors.  Trumbo acknowledged this in a speech made after the blacklist was over when he said "In the final tally, we were all victims".

The power of the blacklist finally dissipated when two Hollywood powerhouses of the time, director Otto Preminger and actor Kirk Douglas, bravely defied political pressure by publicly crediting Dalton Trumbo as the writer for creating the screenplays for Exodus and Spartacus respectively.  When Kirk Douglas was threatened of being boycotted, he quoted the famous line from his movie when he said "You can't replace me, I AM Spartacus".  This as well as several other scenes caused the audience in our screening to erupt in applause.

Unfortunately we had to run to our next movie and missed most of the Q&A with director Jay Roach, but we did stay long enough to hear that Trumbo's two daughters attended the premiere screening and that a series of letters written by Trumbo to friends and family had been published into a book.  One letter in particular was written to his son Chris, telling him not to feel guilty about the natural act of masturbation.  The letter was signed "From the masturbator's masturbator .. your father, Dalton Trumbo".  This was an excellent, feel good movie which hopefully will do well in the upcoming awards season.

The Lobster is a thought-provoking absurdist satire which comments on modern society's predilection towards couples and prejudices against single people. Taking these concepts to extremes, the movie is set in a dystopian world where single, divorced or widowed people are sent to a retreat called "The Hotel" where they are given training on how to find a mate, and are allotted 45 days to do so.
Anyone failing to make a match within that time period is turned into an animal of his choosing and set loose in "The Woods".  The inmates are given a chance to extend their deadlines by hunting for escapees.  Shooting runaways with a tranquilizer gun and recapturing one gains you an extra day.  The generally accepted criteria for forming a couple in this strange society is based on a shared physical or personality defect such as having a limp, speaking with a lisp or being prone to nosebleeds.

Sadsack, recently divorced David, played by a dumpy-looking Colin Farrell,  is brought to The Hotel, accompanied by a dog who we learn is his brother "who didn't make it during his stay".  David's animal of choice is a lobster since this species has a relatively long lifespan and lives in the ocean which appeals to him.  The Hotel provides seminars about the benefits of having a mate in different situations, such as being available to perform the Heimlich maneuver on you if you are choking.  It also organizers meet-up dances and other activities to encourage coupling.

David's attempts to find a soulmate grow more desperate as time runs out, to the point where he fakes having a cruel and heartless nature in order to be paired by a female sadist.  When David is unable to keep up the charade and reacts emotionally to a horrific act perpetuated by the sadist to test him, he decides to escape.  Almost captured, he is aided by a rogue group of loners who live in The Woods, bound by rules where relationships and emotional attachments are strictly forbidden and punishable by severe physical torture.  This sounds fine to David after what he has been through, until he meets his true love and soulmate, a woman played by Rachel Weiss who shares his limitation of shortsightedness.

This movie provides biting commentary on what society considers to be an acceptable pairing, be it related to race, religion, gender, social status, or in this crazy world, personal defects. The absurdity of the movie starts with its initial scene where, without explanation, a woman drives up to a pair of donkeys in the woods, gets out of the car, shoots one and drives away.  On retrospect, one could imagine that this is a spurned wife getting revenge on her wayward former spouse who has been transformed into a donkey (Why would you pick a donkey as your animal?!?)  This movie has many funny moments but also some serious themes that make you stop and think about the state of your own society.  The Greek director Yorgo Lamthimos, whose previous film Dogtooth was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2011, attended the Q&A with his star Rachel Weiss.

Feeding my love of musicals, we watched several movie musicals this year.  "London Road"  is an English language cinematic interpretation of the verbatim stage musical which we watched as a Canstage theatre production last year.  In 2006, during a period when a serial killer murdered five prostitutes in Ipswich, U.K., the playwright taped a series of interviews with the townspeople to gauge their reactions during the man hunt, capture and trial of the suspect.  She created the songs and dialogue for the musical by taking the text word for word from the interviews, including nervous tics, coughs, giggles and hesitations such as "umm..", "er..", "you know", or "like".  The resulting songs are operatic in style, with lines of dialogue repeated multiple times.

It was interesting comparing the movie with play.  As expected, the movie needed to trim and reorder some of the songs and scenes from the play in order to reach a reasonable viewing length, but in doing so, important context was lost.  In the play, the song "It Could Be Him?" revealed how nervous the townswomen were, feeling wary of all the males around them - "It could be anyone here...".  It also conveyed the strain on the men who felt they were being unjustly suspected.  "I used to get on the bus, I used to say I'm innocent!  I'm innocent .. there were days when I just didn't go out ...".  Much of this sense of menace and foreboding was lost in the movie where the song was sung primarily by giggling girls racing through the streets and shops.  In addition, the characterizations of the townspeople lacked depth in the movie in comparison to the play.  The main advantage of the movie over the play was the location shots that helped you to better visualize the environment where these events took place.

In the Q&A, director Rufus Norris discussed how he never considered filming on the real road in Ipswich since he would not want to force the neighbourhood to relive the trauma of those days.  Instead he found the perfect road that was overlooked by a looming industrial factory that provided the perfect atmosphere for the movie.  He also talked about how he wanted most of the actors to be relative unknowns so that they would blend more into the story.  The one exception was actor Tom Hardy, who apparently became much more famous after he was cast in a cameo as a creepy taxi driver.   Recognizing Hardy jolted you out of the scene for a moment and Norris joked that he would have to cut out all of Tom's scenes because of this.

We were excited about watching the Chinese musical  Office by Hong Kong action film director Johnnie To, whose crime thrillers are usually a staple of our annual TIFF experience.  In the past few years, he has been expanding his repertoire and trying out new genres.  Dealing with corporate politics, romance, intrigue, and backstabbing in the times leading up to the global financial crisis of 2008, Office is not only To's first musical, but also one that he decided to shoot in 3D!  It was a strange and challenging experience trying to watch the fast moving action, especially in the choreographed musical numbers, while trying to read the subtitles that seem like they are floating in space on a different plane.

 Office is based on a stage play called Design For Living by actress Sylvia Chang, and by filming in 3D, To reproduces the experience of watching live theatre. The set has a futuristic Sci-Fi feel with all the metal beams, multi-leveled platforms and the giant spinning clock in the middle of the workplace.  The clock with its see-through mechanical gears seems to symbolize the life of the office drones, who are cogs in the wheel of the mega corporation, punching the clock day in and day out.  When a central character over-leverages just prior to the financial crash and is pressured to come up with the money, the clock starts to spin faster and faster, showing that he is quickly running out of time.

The characters spoke Mandarin, Cantonese, and even a bit of English throughout the movie.  I could understand the latter two languages which allowed me to skip reading the subtitles in these cases, but unfortunately all the songs were performed in Mandarin, which is foreign to me.  Office is beautifully shot, has a compelling story line and the melodies and the lyrics of the songs were beautiful.  But needing to read the subtitles to interpret what was sung caused a time-delayed disconnect, so that the emotional impact of the performances was diminished.  

This emotional disconnect was also felt in The Idol, which follows the journey of Mohammad Assaf, the first Palestinian from the Gaza strip to win the singing competition Arab Idol. The singing was in a foreign language without subtitles, since the director wanted people to listen to the voice rather than reading subtitles.  But it was more than just the language barrier that caused the feeling of detachment towards the climax of the film.  The bigger issue was that the majority of the movie focused on Assaf as a child, who along with his sister and two friends, scrounged and saved so that they could buy instruments to form a band.  We became so emotionally invested in these four children that when they were suddenly aged towards the end of the film, it was difficult to transfer those feelings to the grownup actors.  It was even confusing trying to figuring out which older actor represented which youngster.  After spending so much time exploring the lives, hopes, dreams, hardships and adversities of the children, the rest of the story felt rushed once they grew up. The scenes depicting Assaf's march through the Arab Idol competition just flew by, so that when he finally won, the excitement for this feat was muted.

The Q&A was attended by 3 of the 4 children as well as the real Mohammad Assaf himself.  We learned that while Assaf's voice was used for the singing, he declined the chance to play himself in the movie, deciding to leave the acting to real actors.  The director explained that the female actress who played the sister was unable to attend the festival due to immigration issues and that even Assaf, who was granted a diplomatic UN passport after his victory, barely received his Visa into Canada in time.

Watching a set of short films is always a hit and miss experience since there will usually be some very good ones, and some weird, inexplicable ones.  In the series that I watched, there were three excellent shorts.  Never Happened is a quirky, sexy comedy about coworkers on a business trip who have a fantastical way to negate their "quicky" affair.  Benjamin is a heart-wrenching drama about four best friends, a lesbian and a gay couple, who enter into a surrogacy arrangement where each woman carries a baby for one of the couples.  Tragedy strikes when one of the women miscarries.   Finally a delightful, whimsical animated film called Otto deals with a little girl whose imaginary friend becomes a comfort to a depressed childless couple.

The documentary "Women He Undressed" is very unique in the way that it tells the life story of Australian designer Orry-Kelly, who was costume designer to the Hollywood stars from the 1930s up until his death in 1964.  He clothed such greats as Betty Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, Shirley Maclaine, Jane Fonda,  won 3 academy awards for Best Costume Design for the movies An American In Paris, Les Girls and Some Like It Hot, and worked on classics such as Casablanca, Oklahoma, Irma La Douche and Gypsy.  The documentary deals not only with Orry-Kelly's astonishing career, but also delves into his personal life as a gay man, battling homophobia in Hollywood and dealing with alcoholism.  Much time is spent on the personal relationship that he carried on in his youth, with a young actor who would eventually take the screen name of Cary Grant.  Unlike Orry-Kelly, Grant fought hard to hide his homosexuality throughout his life, even to the point of using his influence to squash the publication of Orry-Kelly's memoirs for fear of being mentioned in it.

Rather than relying solely on interviews, archival photos and footage, director Gillian Armstrong casts actors to play the parts of Orry-Kelly (as a child and as an adult), his mother Florence Kelly and various other characters.  By doing so, Armstrong walks a fine line between documentary and biopic. The opening and closing scenes of the movie depict a stylized version of Orry-Kelly's funeral.  Tall, model-like women, dressed in gowns probably designed by Orry-Kelly, act as pallbearers, carrying the red rowboat named after his hometown Kiama,  which appears a motif throughout the film.

I usually don't like the horror movies, but if I must watch one, the "The Final Girls" is definitely more my speed.  As a spoof of the genre, it is campy fun (pun intended), full of heart and emotion with a minimum amount of blood, gore and scares. Orphaned teenager Max Cartwright misses her mother Amanda, a struggling actress who died in a car crash 3 years ago.  Max is reluctantly convinced by her friends to attend a tribute screening of her mother's most famous film "Camp Bloodbath", a cheesy slasher flick set in a summer camp, where a supernatural being stalks and kills the camp counselors, especially those who engage in sexy or sexual acts. It turns out the killer is the evil spirit of a nerdy camp kid named Billy, who was bullied and badly burned back in 1957 and has been exacting his revenge throughout the years. Amanda plays the role of shy, guitar-playing Nancy, who is killed in the movie shortly after losing her virginity.  As per the tropes of this psycho-killer genre, Billy will continue his reign of terror until the last potential victim, usually depicted as a courageous and virginal "final girl", is able to defeat him.

A fire breaks out during the screening of Camp Bloodbath and while trying to escape, Max and her friends somehow end up getting trapped inside the movie.  While they search for ways to vanquish the killer and escape the movie, Max also gets the opportunity to connect with Nancy (a.k.a. her mother).   The heart of the movie comes in the interactions between Max and Amanda, while the humour is generated by quirky camp counselors including smarmy, lascivious Kurt and stereotypically ditsy dumb blonde Tina, who performs the most hilarious striptease in an attempt to lure the killer out into the open.  The arrival of Max and her group changes the plot of the Camp Bloodbath, causing characters to die out of turn.  When the movie's intended final girl is killed prematurely, Max and Amanda unite to step up and take over this role.  Parodying the idea of being trapped in a movie, concepts such as the flashback scene, rolling credits and the movie sequel are cleverly incorporated into the story line.

The director Todd Strauss-Schulson, four cast members and the composer showed up for the premiere screening. The character of Max is played by Taissa Farmiga, who looks so much like her sister Vera (from Up in the Air) while Malin Akerman plays Amanda and Nina Dobrev from Vampire Stories plays Max's friend Nina.  The Final Girls is a delightful movie filled with thrills, laughs and touching moments.  Given my usual aversion to the horror genre, who would have thought that this would be one of my favourite movies at this year's festival?

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