Saturday, September 17, 2016

TIFF 2016 - Part 2

Each year at TIFF, my most anticipated and usually favourite movie of the film festival is a musical.  I have seen some wonderful ones over the years including London Road, The Last Five Years, Sunshine on Leith and The Sapphires.  This year's musical La La Land was actually one of the buzziest and most sought-after movies of the festival.  All the scheduled showings sold out before the end of the purchase window and there was so much overwhelming demand at the press screenings that over 100 people had to be turned away, which is unprecedented. Additional regular and press showings were actually added to the schedule to give more people a chance to see it.  Luckily we had secured our tickets early on and were thrilled to be able to watch La La Land on the big screen with a live audience.  It did not disappoint and the audience cheered and clapped several times during the screening.  It has a very good chance of winning the coveted Grosch People's Choice Award.

La La Land stars Ryan Gosling as struggling jazz pianist Sebastian, and  Emma Stone as aspiring actress Mia, who meet and fall in love while each trying to make their mark in L.A.  This is an old-fashioned throw-back musical that does not feel the need to justify why characters suddenly break out in song and dance–rather, it is just an accepted part of the genre from the golden age of Hollywood musical films.  Director Damien Chazelle (known for Whiplash) sets the tone right off the bat with a mega opening number in the vein of classics such as West Side Story (Prologue), Fiddler on the Roof (Tradition), Hairspray (Good Morning Baltimore) and Grease (Grease is the Word!).  La La Land's opening number "Another Day of Sun" is filmed on the ramp between Highways 100 and 105 in Los Angeles and involves over 100 multi-coloured vehicles and brightly dressed singers, dancers and acrobats weaving in and out, over and on top of cars stalled in a traffic jam.  The vibrant colour scheme is continued in several other joyous big musical numbers in terms of wardrobe, sets and background scenery.  A melancholy air seeps into other parts of the movie, with a sombre colour palette achieved by filming around twilight.

While both are musically talented to begin with, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling spent months learning tap and ballroom dancing together, achieving amazing results as they channel Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  There is a homage to Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain as Seb performs the signature move of twirling around a light pole. Gosling also was tutored in playing jazz piano for over three months.  The movie strikes a balance between showing the lonely, shallow, impersonal side of L.A. and Hollywood, contrasted against the wondrous magical side. The same can be said of the romance between Mia and Seb, which is portrayed in colourful montages and fantasy scenes of dancing in the stars when things are going well, but slips back to reality in darker, sober tones when problems arise.  A final fantasy montage towards the end of the movie harks back to dream-like dance sequences in iconic musicals such as An American in Paris, Oklahoma and Carousel.

Stone and Gosling both have sweet, melodic voices which they showcase by each singing a haunting, melancholy solo.  Depressed by repeated rejection in her auditions, Mia sings "Here's to the ones who dream; foolish as they may seem; here's to the heart that aches, here's to the mess we make ...".   Sebastian's song is even more devastating as he both croons and whistles "City of Stars, Are you shining just for me? ... Who knows, is this the start of something wonderful?  Or one more dream that I cannot make true?"  His sad, soulful voice makes your heart ache for him.  This movie is a wonderful tribute to the magical musicals of days gone by, but one that also grounds itself in the reality of the current day.  I hope it makes a new generation of people fall in love with musicals as I have.

The Exception is a fictionalized spy thriller set in the historic period around 1940 when Germany's last emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, is living in exile in the Netherlands which has been conquered by the Nazis.  A Dutch Jew named Mieke is acting as a maid in the Kaiser's household, but is actually a British spy whose mission is not revealed until the end of the movie.  Mieke develops a relationship with German Wehrmacht captain Stefan Brandt, who must make a choice between love and duty when he discovers her true identity.  Lily James and Jai Courtney give strong performances as the lovers, but it is Christopher Plummer playing Kaiser Wilhelm who shines.  Displaying a wide range of emotions including suppressed anger that occasionally explodes, a mischievous streak, compassion, tenderness and a resigned sadness, Plummer steals the show every time he is on the screen. This movie has it all, from drama to suspense to action to romance to wry, sarcastic humour usually delivered by the Kaiser.  In the Q&A, it was noted that while Captain Brandt was an SS soldier in the book from which the movie was based (The Kaiser's Last Kiss), he was deliberately changed to be a Wehrmacht soldier, to make the relationship with Mieke more palpable.  In terms of the title of the movie, it is made clear that in midst of all the evil and savagery shown by the German army, Brandt is "the exception".  The line "Take your clothes off", uttered several times in the movie, may quickly be added to the list of classic film quotes.

Prevenge is an extremely bloody dark comedy written by, directed by and starring British comedian Alice Lowe, who we first saw a few years ago in the movie Sightseers, in another sad-sack, slightly unhinged loner role.  In Prevenge, Lowe plays Ruth, a severely pregnant woman who is grieving for her recently deceased husband and hears her baby talking to her, urging her to kill people.  At first, the killings seem random and possibly justified by the behaviour of her lecherous victims.  But as the movie progresses, you realize that there is a much more personal reason driving her mad, vengeful acts.   While quite unapologetically gory, Ruth's plans and execution of her murders, accompanied by the high-pitched, squeaky urgings, commentary and admonishments of her unborn fetus, take on a strangely comical air.  In the Q&A, Lowe revealed that she wrote this part for herself when she was 7 months pregnant, realizing that no one else would cast her in a role in her state.  She got the idea by trying to dream up the most absurd situations that would contrast against the usual sanctity of pregnancy and motherhood.  Lowe provided the voice of the baby herself, quipping that it was so she would get the most credits in the movie.  Alice's actual baby Della Moon makes a brief cameo as Ruth's baby at the end of the movie and is also given an acting credit.  Lowe is so funny in a subversively dark crass way.  She even has a Twitter handle @PrevengeBaby which allows her to send crude, snarky, provocative tweets and blame it on the baby, such as "That bitch @alicelowe up on stage taking all the f---ing credit." and "Anne Hathaway definitely farted during her Q&A" and "I'd bitchslap @Bridget_Jones baby".  How hilariously brilliant is that?

The Chinese movie I'm Not Madame Bovary plays out like an allegory and acts as a social commentary on Chinese laws and customs, governmental bureaucracy, its views towards women, and the concept of saving face.  It deals with a peasant woman named Li Xue Lian from a small rural Chinese village, who conspires with her husband Qin Yuhe to fake their divorce in order to skirt some law that prevents them from owning a second apartment, and then remarry after the apartment is secured.  Rather than remarrying her, Qin takes up with another woman leaving Lian out in the cold.  The scorned Lian spends the next decade trying to gain justice by suing her husband (for breach of contract?) and then suing each level of the rural justice system when they fail to support her claim.  Her desire is for her original divorce to be declared fake so that she could divorce her cheating husband "for real" under her own terms.  Making matters worse, Qin shames her by libelously labeling her "Pan Jinlian", a synonym for "indecent woman", making Lian more determined than ever to win her case and clear her reputation.  Pan Jinlian is a fictional character from a famous 17th Century Chinese novel who cheated on her husband and then murdered him with the help of her lover.  It is very interesting that the English translation of the movie title changed the reference from Pan Jinlian to the more recognizable "Madame Bovary", the character from a famous French novel about an adulteress.

Although originally underestimated for being a poor peasant and a woman, Lian proves to be a force of nature as she stymies the government officials with her unrelenting focus and drive.  She accosts the officials at every turn, stages protests and sit-ins during important political conventions, submits a new law suit annually and takes her case all the way to Beijing, causing general loss of face to all the bureaucrats, police and legal officials that are unable to contain her.  The situation becomes quite humorous at times as the bureaucrats run around like keystone cops, hatching new plans to try to stop her from suing for yet another year.  At one point early on, out of desperation Lian tries to find someone to kill her Qin for her.  She almost seals the deal with the butcher, trading the murder for sex, but he backs out when he finds out that not only does she want him to kill the husband, but also the county judge, the provincial head judge and the mayor, all of whom she perceives have wronged her.  Lian's negotiations with the butcher are hilarious as he complains "that's a lot of killing for one night of sex".

In addition to being a very entertaining satire, I'm Not Madame Bovary is interesting to watch because of the unique aspect ratio pillarbox and masking effects used by the director.  Over 3/4 of the movie is shown through a circular filter, as if you were peeking through a round window.  This added to the "story-book" feel of the tale.  Twice in the movie, the aspect ratio changed temporarily to a narrow rectangle, but each time I was so engrossed in the plot that I did not detect the change until a few minutes later.  My best guess is that the scenes in Beijing were rectangular while the other scenes in the villages were circular.  I would have loved to hear the director's reasoning for these choices in a Q&A but unfortunately I saw this as a press screening so no Q&A was held.

Tramps is an endearing and (relatively) low-budget film that feints at being a caper movie, but is actually a romantic road/quest movie at heart.  The setup sounds ominous and shady enough, when naive Danny is convinced to complete a "job" for older brother Darren, who was detained in jail overnight for a misdemeanor. All Danny needs to do is to meet up with the driver of a red Nissan, be driven to a metro station where he will exchange a briefcase with another briefcase held by a woman holding a green purse.  Problems ensue when he accidentally "exchanges" with the wrong woman, inadvertently stealing the woman's purse instead.  In order to collect their respective payments, Danny and the driver Ellie must track down the woman who now has their briefcase.  In the course of their adventure, the two bond and learn to trust each other as Danny's earnestness slowly breaks down Ellie's walls.  This is a very sweet little movie that eschews big car chases and other action film tropes, relying instead on good dialogue and chemistry between the leads.  Danny is played by British actor Callum Turner whose hairstyle, lanky build, goofy mannerisms and charismatic grin make him a dead ringer for the late actor Corey Monteith.

Barakah Meets Barakah is possibly the first romantic comedy to come out of Saudi Arabia although it is just as much if not more of a social commentary.  It shines a light on the cultural, political and religious restrictions that hinder romance and other freedoms in the relatively modern city of Jeddah.  Mild-mannered civil servant Barakah Urabi is smitten with and tries to woo wealthy, free-spirited Instagram star Bibi Harith but is hindered by conservative views and the religious police which prevent them from openly being alone together unless they are engaged to be married.  Bibi runs through several scenarios when Barakah asks to meet her, with them all resulting in being rounded up by the religious police.  They end up surreptitiously speaking in a grocery store with their backs turned from each other. One central theme of the movie is what should be considered public space, be it the beach or the seas, where people can act freely.

Censorship in the arts is also a major theme, as highlighted by the opening credits which immediately set the tone of the movie, with the cheeky disclaimer "The pixelisation you see in this film is totally normal. It is not a commentary on censorship. We repeat, it is not a commentary on censorship."  In anticipation of moral codes and standards, the director has humorously "self-censored" his movie using pixelation, including obscuring the view of a glass of liquor, and of Bibi gesturing insolently with her index finger extended as she snaps an Instagram photo with her selfie-stick, which just draws even more attention to what is being censored.  It should be noted that although Bibi has millions of followers on Instagram and generates much revenue from her posts, she is still afraid to post a photo of her face, and only shows partial images of herself.  In one scene,   Barakah stares at a sign on the beach indicating all the banned actions such as swimming, photos, dogs, fires, etc.  This sign is not too dissimilar to ones found in North America, but take on an added meaning in light of the tight rules and regulations upheld in Saudi Arabia.

A subplot involving Barakah cross-dressing to play Ophelia in a local production of Hamlet further distorts the usual gender roles and distribution of power that already seems shifted in the relationship between Bibi and Barakah.  The rehearsal scenes where Barakah is reciting Ophelia's lines are very funny, especially since he still sports his mustache and beard.  In another scene, Bibi wears a fake mustache as she drives off in a red Ferrari (driving by women is prohibited by Saudi clerics).  When we learn that Bibi is a nickname and that her real name is actually also the gender-neutral name Barakah (thus the title of the film), this further adds to the gender fluidity of the pair. Barakah meets Barakah does a good job of showing the development of modern Saudi Arabia as it slowly moves through the social media age of the 21st Century.

No comments: