Thursday, September 07, 2017

TIFF 2017 - Part 1

Each year for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), my husband Rich and I try to pick mostly smaller movies, often foreign language ones, that would not come to our local theatres.   This year, we are watching 43-45 movies including the 8-10 that we watched in advanced screenings prior to the start of the festival.  During the actual festival, we will average 4 movies per day for the first 8 days of the 11 day event before slowing down in the final 3 days.  My selected movies include 13 from USA, 6 from Canada (almost considered a foreign movie in our US-centric film industry) and 26 from various other countries including China, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia/Malaysia/Thailand, UK, France, Spain, Russia, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Nigeria, Egypt, Serbia and Iraq, with 24 being subtitled foreign language films.  I was surprised how many Nordic countries were represented in my selections this year, with Denmark being the only country missing from my picks.  I tried to choose more “happy” or “whimsical” movies than my husband, since I can only be tense or depressed for so many sittings and still find it enjoyable.  Rich chose more war and horror movies, which I wanted no part of.  So we will watch 31 movies together and 12-14 separately.  It should be another good festival if we can make it through without collapsing from exhaustion.

The Day After was touted as a South Korean comedy of errors involving Bongwan, a manager of a small publishing company, whose scorned and vengeful wife mistakenly assumes that his new employee Areum is the former employee Changsook with whom he was having an affair.  This results in the wife beating up and berating the wrong woman.  The problem is that this movie was not funny and the main error was mine in forgetting that about South Korean “comedies”.  More a melodrama in my  mind, this slow moving, pensive film is beautifully shot in black and white and indiscriminately time jumps from past to present, making it confusing to follow what is going on.  There were drawn-out restaurant dining scenes (apparently a signature feature of director Hong Sangsoo), with philosophical discussions about the meaning of life and about religion.  Typical of Korean comedies, the man cries (actually bawls) repeatedly and there is no kissing allowed on film, so that romantic trysts are reduced to amorous hugs.

Borg/McEnroe is the opening movie for TIFF 2017, with Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason and American enfant terrible Shia La Beouf playing the titular roles.  TIFF has not had good luck picking a prestige movie for its festival opener in the past few years.  Possibly the need for this movie to be a “World Premiere” has hampered this selection, since many of the high profile movies get snapped up by the Venice and Telluride festivals which precede the one in Toronto.  This year’s pick is underwhelming to say the least, getting almost no buzz for the film, as opposed to the other tennis movie playing at TIFF, Battle of the Sexes with Steve Carrell as Bobby Riggs and Emma Stone as Billy Jean King.  The main reaction regarding Borg/McEnroe prior to its screening has been directed at La Beouf, whose outrageous and disruptive antics in his personal life seem to typecast him perfectly for the role of fellow bad boy McEnroe.  The roles were also visually well cast, as each actor physically resembled the player that he portrayed.

The 5-set Wimbledon final played in 1980 and won by Borg, is regarded to be one of the greatest tennis matches ever played, including a 20 minute long fourth set tie-breaker that went 18-16 in McEnroe’s favour.  The movie contrasted the icy calm composure of the experienced four-time Wimbledon champion Borg as opposed to the fiery demeanour of the up-and-coming superstar of the future, McEnroe.  But what was most illuminating was learning about the back stories of each player, with the film concentrating more on Borg since he had the most interesting childhood.  We were surprised to learn that as a young tennis protégé from a poor family, Borg’s temper and antics rivaled if not surpassed McEnroe’s behaviour.   Borg’s tantrums and histrionics, including loud rants and smashing racquets, caused him to be suspended from his local tennis club and declared “not right in the head” (as per the English subtitled translation of the movie).  It was not until his long-suffering coach convinced him that he needed the reign in his emotions and channel that fury into his game that Borg started to have success.

The actual match itself was exciting to watch, with the swelling score pumping up the drama, even for those who already knew the end result.  The crowd initially favoured Borg, giving him huge cheers while booing McEnroe, who had loudly berated the chair umpire during his previous semi-final match against fellow countryman Jimmy Connors. But McEnroe showed surprising restraint during the long final battle and even though he eventually lost, his mastery on the court won over the spectators, who gave him a standing ovation when he accepted his second place prize.  This was an exciting movie to watch, especially for tennis fans, but I wish that they had used more real footage from the actual match in order to show the winning points, as opposed to focusing so much on close-ups of the actors, as they feigned making the shots.  It will be interesting to compare this movie to the other tennis movie that we will watch, Battle of the Sexes.

The Square is a hilarious Swedish satire that mercilessly mocks the contemporary art world.  It focuses on Christian, the curator of the X-Royal Gallery, as he deals with various issues and situations that arise in the museum.  The movie starts off with Christian being interviewed by American reporter Anne, played by Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men and Hand Maid’s Tale fame.  As Anne probes the meaning and purpose of a Contemporary Art Gallery, Christian spouts artsy-sounding clichés that sound ridiculous if you stop to think about what he is actually saying (or not saying).  Christian’s subsequent hookup with Anne takes a bizarre turn and drifts almost into absurdist comedy when it is revealed that her roommate is a gorilla.
The featured exhibit inside the museum consists of multiple mounds of gravel on the floor.  A running joke involves people walking up and looking perplexed at the work and then walking away.  When a Zamboni-like floor cleaner tries to navigate around the mounds, you know that this is not going to end well.  Another exhibit features a large-screened video of a grunting, menacing “ape-man”, again with no real explanation as to context or meaning.  At a charity donors dinner, this work turns into performance art when the ape-man makes an appearance, antagonizing and attacking the guests.

The titular “Square” is a newly commissioned conceptual art piece consisting of a white square demarcated on the courtyard in front of the museum.  According to the artist, the square  represents a sanctuary where all people should be treated as equals and must care and provide aid for each other.  To promote this exhibit, the museum hires an ad agency who comes up with a wacky promotional video meant to attract interest through “shock and awe” tactics but ends up offending and infuriating the public.  Several of the scenes depict the plight of the homeless, making me wonder if this is a Swedish social issue that the director wants to draw focus to, or is the message a more general plea for compassion and tolerance.  This was my first movie of the festival so far that was just pure fun.  After watching a slew of serious movies with deep or depressing topics, I needed and totally enjoyed this.

The intriguingly titled Marlina, the Murderer in Four Acts is a very unique Indonesia/Malaysia/Thai/French collaboration that is paradoxically a low-key feminist Western set in the outbacks of one of these Asian countries.  The four acts are titled “The Robbery”, “The Journey”, “The Confession” and “The Birth”.  The quietly methodical but spunky heroine Marlina lives alone on her farm with her livestock in the yard and her dead mother-in-law plopped eerily in the back of the living room.  In act one, a lone bandit arrives on motorcycle and coldly informs Marlina that six more men are coming and that she will be robbed and gang-raped by them.  He demands that she make them all dinner first.  When the men arrive, two of them are sent to take away the livestock while the remaining five wait for their feast and night of debauchery.  With an amazing display of calm and intelligence, Marlina finds a way of dispatching the five men, but not before she is raped by the gang leader.  In midst of that act, Marlina is able to turn the tables on him and severs his head.  It is admirable that this stylish movie does not amp up the blood and swelling music, keeping both to a minimum.  The music is a delightful mix of an upbeat conventional score found in the typical Western, mixed in with melancholy Asian-sounding verses.

In Act 2, Marlina tries to get to the police station to search for justice, carrying the severed head in a sling as evidence of her attack (and partly as a trophy?).  She starts off on a bus headed for town, accompanied by her very pregnant friend who is about to give birth any time, as well as a bossy woman who is trying to get her nephew to his wedding along with two horses that are part of his dowry.  Eventually Marlina ends up on a horse, still slinging the severed head by her side, providing the iconic image of the lone Western hero riding into town. All the while, she is trying to avoid the inevitable standoff with the remaining two bandits.  I usually don’t like the Western genre but I was enchanted by this very stylish take on one, that celebrated kick-ass girl power.

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