Thursday, September 15, 2016

TIFF 2016 - Part 1

Because of my level of membership with TIFF, I have the privilege of watching advanced screenings of movies prior to the start of the film festival, as well as joining press and industry (P&I) screenings during the festival.  In addition to not requiring to pay for these viewings, there is the added advantage of not needing to wait in line for lengthy periods of time in order to secure a decent seat (not too close to the front, in my case).  For most screenings (other than the ones most highly in demand like La La Land), you can waltz into the theatre 5-10 minutes prior to the showing.  Since I don't pay for these movies, I am also more willing to take a risk on plots that don't fall into my usual bailiwick (musicals, comedies, action thrillers).  The movie starts right on time with no warning, trailers or advertisements, so that I don't have to sit through the same commercials over and over again.  This is especially tedious when TIFF does not bother to update the commercial from the previous years, as is the case of the RBC/TIFF sponsored ad "Someday" which has been played so often that the audience has taken to calling out the lines as they are spoken on screen and jeering derisively each time it is shown.

The disadvantage of course is that I don't get the chance to see the director or any stars and there is no Q&A.  I also don't get to sit with a regular audience and be able to feed off their reactions. The crowd that attends the P&I screenings tend to be more staid and reserved.  I also like watching some movies with my husband Rich, who is not currently a TIFF patron member and is not entitled to watch P&I with me.  Accordingly, we usually buy some number of tickets for movies that I schedule in with my press screenings.  It is quite the logistic challenge to fit it all in, but not needing to line up over an hour in advance certainly helps. This year my purchased tickets to P&I ratio is close to 50%-50% and I must admit that the advantages of going to these are starting to outweigh the disadvantages in my mind.  I watched all of the following films either as advanced or P&I screenings:

Ma Vie de Courgette (My Life as Zucchini) is a heart-warming stop motion animation movie that deals with very serious issues in a gentle but direct manner, not glossing over or shying away from fairly dark topics. A little wide-eyed blue haired boy who goes by the nickname Courgette was abandoned by his father and lives with his drunken, abusive mother. Courgette's two most prized possessions are a kite on which he drew a picture of his father as a superhero, and a beer can which reminds him of his mother.

When she dies suddenly (possibly caused accidentally by Courgette), the boy is sent to an orphanage where all the other children have equally traumatic histories. One witnessed her father kill her mother and then himself, one was abandoned by his mother, another child's father is in jail for armed robbery and it is hinted at that an especially traumatized girl may have been sexually abused by her father. Despite their sad pasts, the children receive love and care from the orphanage personnel and learn to trust and rely on each other. It seems amazing that a movie dealing with such a dark premise could be so uplifting, illustrating the resiliency and triumph of the human spirit of the children.  It is impossible not to fall in love with this group of characters with the big soulful eyes. This French-Swiss collaboration won the audience award in the Cannes Film Festival and is the Swiss Best Foreign Film entry for next year's Academy Awards.
For the past few years, I have watched a Japanese dramedy during TIFF as well as a few on DVD. From "Departures" about a man who finds his calling as a funeral home encoffiner performing Japanese rituals of preparing the dead for burial, to "Like Father, Like Son" about two families who find out that their young sons had been switched at birth, to "Our Little Sister", about three sisters who meet their half sister at their father's funeral, the movies have exhibited a grace, intelligence, sweetness and subtlety that have been a joy to watch in comparison to much of what is offered in North American theatres these days.

This trend continued at this year's TIFF when I watched "The Long Excuse", starring the same actor, Mashiro Motoki, who played the protagonist in Departures, a kind, gentle and generous man who learned to love helping the deceased move on with dignity. Motoki's role in the Long Excuse could not be more of a departure (pun intended) from that previous role. He plays Sachio Kinugasa, a self-centred, self loathing novelist and  minor TV celebrity who has not had a successful book published for years, and who is inconsiderate and uncaring towards his devoted wife Natsuko. Natsuko leaves on a short vacation with her best friend Yoichi and both are killed in a bus accident.  At the same time, Sachio is shown cheating on his wife in what is implied to be a recurring practice. Sachio must re-evaluate his life choices while trying to display an expected level of grief that he does not totally feel.

By contrast, Yoichi's husband Yuki is overwhelmed with grief and unable to cope with raising his young daughter Akari and son Shinpei, who is forced to quit school to take care of his little sister.  After a chance meeting, Sachio's world is turned upside-down when he impulsively offers to look after the two children and learns to truly care for someone other than himself.  The scenes between Sachio and the children are humorous and heart-warming.  One repeated motif of Sachio struggling to ride a bicycle up a big hill while Akari cheers him on from her carrier seat, may be interpreted as a metaphor for Sachio's own struggles, transformation and strengthening of character.

What I appreciated most about this movie, and these Japanese movies in general, is the subtle but poignant ways that a point is made.  In a scene where Sachio is leaving the funeral home with Natsuko's ashes with hoards for reporters filming his exit, he displays a solemn expression in their presence, but immediately checks on his hair and appearance in the mirror once he enters his chauffered limo.  This simple act perfectly captures his nature without a word being spoken.  Towards the end of the movie Sachio defends his choice not to have children of his own by stating that Natsuko hated children and did not want them. This assertion is quietly rebutted when Akari presents him with the gift of a photo of her entire family enjoying a picnic with Natsuko, who is smiling and hugging the children.  Again without a word, the look on Schio's face as he glances at the photo makes it clear that he realizes how wrong he was and how little he understood his wife.

Every year, TIFF's City to City programme features movies from a different city.  This year, the chosen city is Lagos, Nigeria.  This choice made us a bit leery since the last time an African city was spotlighted, the movies were mostly depressing with the synopses dominated by words like "tragic" and "genocide".  To my delight, this year there were several comedies in the mix, including Okafor's Law and The Wedding Party.  Rich was still suspicious since we have experienced watching previous foreign comedies where the humour just does not translate or resonate with us.  I decided to give it a chance and chose "The Wedding Party".

The Wedding Party has all the familiar hijinks and plot tropes as the typical North American romantic comedy, but with more hysterics, beautiful African wardrobe and heavy Nigerian-accented English that was often difficult to understand, especially when the characters are shouting at once. Wealthy reformed playboy Dozie is set to marry the virginous socialite Dunni, despite objections from his snobbish mother, machinations from his ex-girlfriend who is scheming to get him back, a substitute best man who can't do anything right, animosity and competition between the in-laws, unexpected financial problems, a neurotic wedding planner, wedding crashers and issues with the bride's dress and the banquet meal.

What made the movie interesting for me was seeing the different traditions that make up a Nigerian wedding.  From the colourful attire and headdresses worn by the parents, to the chanting and gospel rituals, to the practice of having the families with entourage on the bride and groom's sides to literally dance their way into the reception hall, these cultural differences made this wedding unique.  One major bone of contention between the mothers was over which family would have the honour of dancing in first.  This was a fun movie to watch although a bit more work needs to be done in the final edit with regards to the subtitles.  Often unintelligible dialogue was not subtitled, while more discernible dialogue was.

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is based on the drawings and story of graphic novelist Dash Shaw and has an impressive voice cast including Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Maya Rudolph,  and Susan Sarandon.  It starts off as a portrayal of high school cliques, teenage angst and jealousies but soon evolves into a disaster flick, as surmised by the title of the movie. Due to shoddy construction standards and building on a fault-line, an earthquake causes a high school to collapse and fall into the sea.  Led by self-titled anti-hero Dash and lunch-lady Lorraine, a small group of students try to escape the sinking building while fighting off rising waters, sharks, fires and other obstacles.  This is not a film for children, as Shaw is heavy-handed with his rendering of blood, gore, decapitated heads and body parts in this weird graphic novel based animation.  There is even a warning in the opening credits that the psychedelic colours and spiraling images may cause epileptic fits, or at least will make you feel dizzy, as in my case.

When I read the synopsis on the Japanese movie Rage, I thought I would be watching a taut thriller about the search for a vicious serial killer who might be one of three potential suspects within three different cities. The movie starts off with police detectives investigating a bloody double murder where the murderer scrawled the word "Rage" in blood on the wall.  Through fingerprints they quickly identify the perpetrator, but discover that he had plastic surgery and now they are not quite sure what he looks like. He might be Tetsuya Tashiro, a warehouse worker going under an assumed name in small town Chiba, or Naoto ┼înishi, a gay drifter in Tokyo with a mysterious past, or Shingo Tanaka, a nomad who hides out on a deserted island near Okinawa.

As it turns out, most of this movie was not thrilling at all, but instead spends the next two hours following three very over-wrought and mellow-dramatic subplots before identifying the killer while vindicating the other two suspects in the final ten minutes. The interspersed subplots went on for so long that I partly forgot about the murder aspect until the end. Even the theme of rage seems to only be tenuously explored, and it is interesting to note that the subtitled dialogue translates the word as "Anger".  This movie was well acted, but it was not the one that I was hoping to see.

Movies with incredible plots are all the more poignant when they are based on a true story.  Such is the case with the film Lion, which is based on the real life of Saroo, a little Indian boy living in a small, impoverished village in rural India.  One evening, five-year-old Saroo pesters his beloved brother Guddu into agreeing to take him along on a night job near the train station.  When Guddu does not return after leaving his brother to find out about the job, Saroo accidentally falls asleep on a freight train that departs and travels over two days and thousands of miles away to Calcutta.  Speaking only Hindu and not Bengali, Saroo is unable to ask for help and ends up on the streets for months before being placed in an orphanage.  He mispronounces the name of the village that he is from and only knows his mother's name as "mum".  After months without success in trying to locate his family, who are illiterate and do not gave access to the Calcutta newspapers, Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple and is raised in Tasmania.  Twenty years later, haunted by memories of his original family and racked with guilt about their pain in losing him, Saroo begins a search for his family. He uses data on the speed of the train and length of his travels to create a search radius and then uses Google Earth to help recognize the exact location.  Miraculously after a lengthy process, he is able to find his village, finally reunites with his mother and finds out what happened to his brother.

Excellent performances are given by Dev Patel as the adult Saroo and Nicole Kidman as his adoptive mother Sue. But the true revelation comes from the heart-melting perfomance by little Sunny Pawar who plays the young Saroo.  The first-time actor was chosen from over 4000 children who applied for the part and spoke no English.  Add stunning cinematography filmed in India and Australia, an emotionally evocative score and a compelling story, and you have a winner that will surely generate some Oscar buzz.  The movie ends with footage showing the real Saroo and Sue in India to meet Saroo's biological mother and explains why the movie is titled "Lion".

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