Monday, September 11, 2017

TIFF 2017 - Comedies

I have a preference for happy or funny movies, which I find much more entertaining, albeit perhaps not as thought-provoking as dark or depressing dramas about serious issues. When making my movie selections for the film festival, I tend to gravitate towards the ones that sound cheerful, at least based on the synopsis. Unfortunately experience has thought me that the 1-3 paragraph writeup for a movie might not always reflect the actual movie, especially for foreign films where sometimes the humour just does not translate. (Note to self .. must remember that I don’t find Korean “comedies” to be funny). The movies of this genre that I picked this year elicited a wide range of responses, from a light chuckle to roaring laughter to uneasy laughter at some dark comedies.

Of the 42 movies that I watched at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, my favourite by far is C’est La Vie.  This hilarious French comedy about a high-end wedding planner named Max had the audience howling with laughter from the first frame through to the last.  The movie opens with a scene where Max is negotiating with a young couple about the cost of their impending wedding, which is to be held at a location with a stunning view of the Eiffel Tower.  When they pressure him repeatedly to reduce expenses by being “more inventive”, the exasperated Max finally snaps and goes on an extended rant where he suggests that the guests contribute to the meal by bringing coleslaw in Tupperware, beer and lemonade to make shandies and fruit purée in plastic cups for dessert.

The rest of the movie involves the preparation for and execution of an elaborate all-inclusive wedding, held on the estate of a gorgeous 18th Century castle. Max needs to deal with an obnoxiously pompous groom, a head waiter who corrects everyone’s grammar and is infatuated with the bride, a troublesome wedding photographer who is rude to the guests, eats all the appetizers and sleeps with the groom’s mother, a temperamental wedding singer who is feuding with Max’s second-in-command, as well as other blunders and issues caused by his huge staff.  To top it off, Max’s mistress Joisette is tired of waiting for him to get a divorce and makes him jealous by flirting with a young waiter.

Everything that could possibly go wrong does, including meat being spoiled, food poisoning, power outages, awkward auto-corrected text messages and mishaps with the entertainment that includes a run-away helium balloon and over-exploding fireworks.  The movie is even more funny because the jokes arise from situational humour as opposed to slapstick comedy.  Despite the large cast, there is enough character development that you get to know and care about the goofy and beleaguered wedding crew.  After watching so many serious, depressing movies, it was such a joy to watch and enjoy a movie whose only goal is to make you laugh.

Based on the trailers and ads, I thought Downsizing was going to be a lighthearted science fiction-based comedy about the development of the technology to shrink people to a fraction of their original sizes, as a way of physically and economically “downsizing”.  Given that the movie prominently featured comedic actress Kristen Wiig in all the promotional images, I was expecting a movie full of jokes exploring the trials and tribulations about being shrunken and miniaturized.  The first 10-15 minutes of the film fulfilled this expectation.  But then the movie took a hard turn and morphed into a serious, preachy melodrama and morality tale about climate change and saving the environment.  Had I been prepared for and chosen to watch such a movie, I would have appreciated a touching, thought-provoking narrative with beautifully shot visuals of Norwegian fjords.  But since I was led to believe that I would be watching a comedy, I felt a bit of bait-and-switch had occurred by the end of the film.

Mediation Park is a sweet, low-keyed Canadian drama/comedy (dramedy?) about an immigrant Chinese family consisting of Bing, the stern but loving patriarch, the meek and obliging mother Maria, their brassy daughter Ava who is married to her white husband Jonathan, and an estranged son Charlie that Bing forbids his family from seeing, even to attend Charlie’s upcoming wedding.  Maria, who does not speak much English, can not drive and has never worked in Canada, feels beholden to Bing since he supports her financially and emotionally, discouraging her from making friends or seeking independence.  She seems content or at least resigned to her lot, until she discovers that Bing has been cheating on her.  This spurs Maria to question her loyalty to Bing for the first time, and to tentatively expand her horizons.  She befriends a group of neighbours and joins them in illegally renting out her parking spot to make some money, learns how to ride a bicycle to get around town and secretly follows Bing in order to spy on him with his mistress.  This movie is carried by Chinese actress Pei-Pei Cheng, whose beautiful smile lights up the screen, and whose escalating acts of defiance make you want to stand up and cheer.  Ava is played by Canadian actress of Korean heritage Sandra Oh, who I guess was considered to be Chinese-looking enough for the role, even though she could not speak Cantonese like the actors who played her parents.

I watched a pair of Canadian comedies both dealing with nerdy, socially awkward high school students trying to fit in with their peers.  Refreshingly though, neither character is portrayed as a victim.  Instead, they are written as brave, confident individuals who are not afraid to stand up for themselves.  In Public Schooled, Liam has been home-schooled and kept relatively isolated through his entire childhood by his over-protective single mother Claire.  Although scholastically brilliant, Liam is socially inept through lack of exposure to other kids his own age.  Claire has arranged for him to take a high school equivalency test, after which he can go straight to university, with the goal to attend Cambridge.  Liam aces the test, finishing in half the allotted time.  But as he is about to leave, he spots a beautiful blond student with a prosthetic leg and immediately becomes smitten.   Quickly retrieving his submission, Liam purposely tanks the test so that he can attend high school for the first time.  Like Meditation Park, Public Schooled is about gaining independence, but it is also about learning to let go.  Claire is so needy, clingy and possessive of her son that it would have been more than a little bit creepy, had not the part been played by actress Judy Greer who exudes so much wacky charm that you tend to give her the benefit of the doubt.  Comedian Russell Peters has a great cameo as a weird guidance councilor.

The heroine of Don't Talk to Irene does not care that she is short, dumpy, wears glasses and does not fit the stereotypical mold of a high school cheerleader. Regardless, Irene is determined to become a cheerleader, just like her mom Lydia was before Lydia became pregnant as a teenager.  Once again, Lydia is the over-protective mother who tries to shelter Irene to prevent her from being picked on and getting hurt.  When Irene is caught up in a fake hazing ritual for becoming a cheerleader, she and her bullies are suspended from school and sent to the local retirement home as punishment.  Once there, Irene gives the sedate, depressed elders a new purpose in life, by corralling them into forming a dance troop (using Lydia’s old cheerleading moves) so that they can enter a reality dance contest.  This movie is about empowerment, breaking stereotypes and pursuing your dreams.  Both Don’t Talk to Irene and Public-Schooled are pleasant and entertaining, if not terribly realistic movies.  Unfortunately, in real schools, both these kids would probably have been harassed and bullied much more than what was depicted.  But such is the magic of movies that they give you hope for a better world.

Like Death of Stalin, Under the Tree is another dark comedy that had moments where you pause and wonder why you are laughing at such shocking events.  But where Death of Stalin was played for laughs throughout the movie, much of Under the Tree feels like a slow psychological thriller with the occasional comedic scenes.  This is an Icelandic film about neighbours feuding over a shade tree.  The tree resides on the property of an older cat-owing couple, Inga and Baldvin, who are grieving the disappearance and apparent suicide of their oldest son.  The tree casts shade on the property of their neighbours Konrad and Eyborg, who let their large German Shepherd run wild, often onto the elder couple’s yard.  The feud escalates from a war of words to increasingly serious acts of retribution and retaliation.  The last 10 minutes of the movie have you laughing and gasping in horror at the same time.

The Spanish film The Motive is also advertised as a dark comedy, but the tone and slow pacing makes it more like a drama with some wickedly funny moments.  Alvaro dreams of being an author of great literature, as opposed to his best-selling writer wife Amanda, who he considers to be a hack that churns out low-brow fiction.  Unfortunately Alvaro has no talent for writing, despite taking multiple writing courses where his disdainful instructor advises him to live and experience more, then write about it.  Alvaro is overwhelmed with jealousy towards Amanda, and when he catches her cheating on him, it is the last straw.  He decides to quit his job, move out on his own into an apartment building and write his epic.  When no ideas come to him, Alvaro starts to manipulate his new neighbours into stressful situations that he can then use as plot material for his book.  For most of the movie, Alvaro comes across as a smug, selfish and amoral character that is difficult to root for.  But a twist ending forces you to at least admire his audacity and commitment to generating ideas for his craft, even at his own expense.  The Motive won the International Federation of Film Critics award for the Special Presentations Programme of the festival.

My husband Rich’s favourite movie of the festival was stand-up comic Louis C.K’s film I Love You Daddy about a wealthy and successful divorced TV screenwriter Glen, who has to deal with the challenges of protecting his strong-willed and spoiled 17-year-old daughter China, who he has constantly indulged and spoiled in the past.  China is able to wheedle and manipulate Glen into agreeing to outrageous requests like skipping school to take an extended spring break in Miami, and thanks him each time with the phrase “I love you, Daddy”, which starts off sounding sweet but eventually feels insidious.  Glen belatedly tries to exert some parental control when China, played by Chloe Grace Moretz, becomes infatuated with Leslie, a significantly older, even more successful movie screen writer who has a reputation of seducing young girls.  John Malkovich excels in the role of the slick, zen-like Leslie. This movie is both funny and sweet, with moments of biting social satire that may or may not be a reference to Woody Allen’s oeuvre, but may also make reference to Allen’s own reputation for dabbling with younger women/girls, something that Louis C.K. himself has also been accused of.  The most interesting part about the movie is the way it was made, in secret and privately funded with no input from studios or financiers.  Shot entirely in black and white on 35mm film with an old fashioned score that gives the main characters their own theme music, I Love You, Daddy is both a homage to the era of old-styled classic cinema, as well as an indictment against the Hollywood scene.

In Brad's Status, comedian Ben Stiller gives a surprisingly nuanced and sedate performance as happily married family man Brad, who works for a non-profit company and has a musician son Troy, who is interviewing for colleges.  Brad feels like an under-achiever when he compares himself to his university clique, who have all gone on to what Brad perceives as more successful, lucrative careers than him.  On a road trip with Troy to visit his colleges of choice, including Tuft University, where Brad went, and Harvard, which is Troy’s first choice, Brad comes to terms with his feelings of inadequacy and learns the typical clichéd lesson that success is measured by more than material wealth and that his friends' lives are not as great as he thought. There are no earthshaking revelations in this movie, which follows most of the usual tropes for its plot line.  Yet there were many touching moments and some funny ones where Brad imagines his wealthy friends jet-setting around the world or frolicking on the beach with nubile young women.

This year, I liked most of my selected comedies, which ranged from hilarious to mildly amusing, but were generally quite enjoyable.  The one exception was the Nigerian romantic comedy Royal Hibiscus Hotel, which I picked because I really liked the Nigerian romantic comedy from last year called The Wedding Party.  Unfortunately, whereas that movie was smart and funny, this one was unimaginative and derivative in plot, with boring dialogue, stiff acting and lack of chemistry between the romantic leads.  On top of this, I found the shrill, shrieky speech pattern of the mother to be extremely irritating.  I thought the same about the mothers in “The Wedding Party” but because the rest of the movie was so good, I didn’t mind as much as I did this time.  I think for next year, I might think twice about trying another Nigerian comedy.

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