Friday, September 21, 2018

TIFF 2018

Each year, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) experience is a major exercise in planning, logistics and scheduling.  The annual TIFF process involves choosing a shortlist of desired movies from almost 300 offerings and then trying to fit as many of them as possible into a nine day window during which we can attend special press and industry screenings held at the Scotiabank Theatre.  This year we had the extra wrinkle of a family wedding in Vancouver which fell on the first Saturday of the festival.  Wanting to minimize the impact that this short interruption would have on our film festival time, we came up with a totally unreasonable, overly ambitious plan.  We would watch an 8:45am movie on the Saturday, head to Pearson Airport for a 2pm flight that landed in Vancouver at 4pm, attend the wedding from 6pm-10:45pm, head to the Vancouver Airport for a 12:45am red-eye flight back to Toronto catching whatever sleep that we could, land at 8am Sunday morning, rush home to shower, and then somehow, I would watch two more movies at noon and 4pm before collapsing with exhaustion.  Amazingly, this insane plan went off like clockwork with no unexpected surprises or delays and we were in a different time zone for such a short period of time that there was no jet lag to deal with.  My husband Rich had a bit less stamina and chose to skip the Sunday movies, but we were both back at it on Monday.

Despite our quick cross-country trek, we still had a good festival, watching between 30-33 movies each including previews starting the week prior to the festival.  This was a step back from the 40+ movies that we watched last year, but not just because of our trip.  This year we found it much more difficult to find movies that we wanted to watch.  I usually look for foreign or indie movies that would not be coming to the theatres imminently and comedies or feel-good movies which are always a rarity within the festival lineup.  This year, I could not find any movie that was an all-out comedy (unlike last year's hilarious C'est La Vie), and had to settle for light dramas with comedic moments or light comedies with major dramatic moments.  I also had trouble filling my schedule with foreign or indie movies and ended up watching many more mainstream films than usual.  As always, I saw some excellent movies that I loved, a bunch that were just OK, and one that we thought was so stupid that we walked out after 30 minutes.  In previous years I have blogged about just about all the movies that I watched, but this year I will just describe the ones that I enjoyed the most.

My favourite movie of the festival was the Spanish sub-titled "Everybody Knows" starring Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, who happen to be married in real life.  Cruz plays Laura, who returns to her home town with her daughter and son in order to attend her sister's wedding.  When her daughter is kidnapped during the reception, the frantic search and attempt to raise ransom money opens up old familial wounds and drudges up long hidden secrets.  The acting is first rate all around and the tension is taut in this film that spans the genres of drama, mystery and thriller.

The Belgian film "Duelles" is psychological thriller that plays out like a classic Alfred Hitchcock movie.  The sense of dread and foreboding is purposely ratcheted from the very first scene when you see a woman furtively sneak into her neighbour's home for some unknown reason while dramatic music plays in the background.  It turns out that in this case, the director is just playing with his audience, but the tension that he generates is a harbinger of things to come.  Alice and Celine are next-door neighbours and best friends who each live with a husband and young son.  When tragedy strikes one of the families, it changes the dynamic of the friendship forever and the concepts of suspicion, paranoia, blame, responsibility and retribution are explored.

Having enjoyed watching a Japanese drama at the past few festivals, I was excited to watch this year's offering called "Shoplifters" and it did not disappoint.  A rag-tag group of misfits who subsist on shoplifting, scams and petty crimes, find a neglected and abused little girl and decide to take her home and add her to their "family unit".  Despite living in poverty and resorting to immoral or illegal activities to survive, the multi-generational group displays a true affection for one another that is touching and makes you root for them.  This is a very sweet, soulful movie that explores the theme of what makes a real family, as the true nature of the relationships between this mismatched group is slowly revealed.  Shoplifters will be Japan's official submission for Best Foreign Film in the 2019 Academy Awards.

The heart-wrenching Belgian film "Kursk" is based on the true story of the Russian submarine disaster in 2000 that killed all 118 personnel on board.  This included a group of 23 sailors who survived an initial torpedo explosion, only to run out of oxygen and drown days later after rescue attempts were hampered by incompetence, arrogance and politics on behalf of the Russian government and military.  In order for Russia to save face and protect its military secrets, foreign assistance from multiple countries including USA, Britain and France was refused until it was too late to save the men on the K-141 Kursk submarine.  The sense of tragedy and waste of lives of the doomed crewmen is heightened by first depicting them in happier times prior to the fateful mission.  We are introduced to the fictional submarine captain Mikhail Kalekov, his pregnant wife Tanya and their young son, and then shown the wedding ceremony of one of the crewmen, which further deepens the audience's connection with the men and emphasizes their camaraderie and loyalty to each other.  This is a very powerful movie with excellent cinematography in the depiction of the dark, dank, confined space where the crewmen of the disabled submarine endured their final days.  Two poignant scenes towards the end of the movie hark back to scenes from the beginning of the film, further tugging at one's heartstrings.  Unfortunately, the decision to use a cast who were mainly French, Belgian or English, and all spoke in accented English instead of using Russian subtitles, detracted from the emotional impact of the film.

The most comedic entry that I watched at this year's TIFF was not a movie at all, but rather a 4-episode TV mini-series.  Since 2015, a new category called "Prime Time" has been added to the festival's programming which offers a number of episodes of television series from around the world.  This format did not interest me in the past, since it involved watching just a couple of segments of an extended series that I may or may not be able to find the rest of on TV.  It did not seem worthwhile to have this teaser and then be left hanging.   A recent trend in television has been the short mini-series, which may span only 3-4 episodes while providing a complete story, just like a movie.  Watching something like this makes the format much more tenable for me.  

The four 40-minute-long episodes of the Israeli TV mini-series called "Stockholm" has a great premise that invokes comparisons to the classic movie Weekend At Bernie's.  Four life-long friends discover that the fifth friend in their group, the acclaimed and successful economist Avishai, has died a mere 5 days before the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize in Economics, for which he is the favourite to win this year.  Not wanting him to miss out on this honour (and for a few personal reasons by one of the friends), the group decides to postpone the revelation of his passing until after the announcement.  Of course, misunderstandings arise and unforeseen problems ensue.  But there are also serious moments as we learn about the hidden motivations of each of the remaining friends, and long-kept secrets come to the surface.  The final image of the series takes a second to comprehend  but it provides the perfect laugh-out-loud finale to this madcap farce.

"Assassination Nation" screened as part of the Midnight Madness program due to its cartoonishly gory scenes of violence.  But is actually quite the intelligent and witty satire that presents a modern day spin on the 17th century Salem Witch Trials, where unfounded accusations, mob mentality and mass hysteria led to the unjust persecution of innocent victims.  The misogyny, homophobia and the dangers of social media all come into play in the small town of Salem, where four young women are accused of being behind a series of computer hacks that have resulted in the exposure of the townspeople's embarrassing private information and volatile secrets.  In this age of #MeToo and female empowerment, it is not surprising that the besieged women fight back, resulting in a bloodbath worthy of the film's Midnight Madness pedigree.

I usually don't like documentaries as much as fictional movies, but this year we watched a couple that stood out from the rest, due to the unique ways in which the stories were told.  The first was "Screwball", which laid out the details of the Major League Baseball (MLB) doping scandal of 2013, which resulted in the suspension of 14 players for 50 or more games, including all-star Yankees infielder Alex Rodriguez who received a suspension for 162 games.  Anthony Bosch, the founder of the health clinic Biogenesis of America was found guilty of providing performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to major-league ball players, as well as to younger players in the minors.  The circumstances leading to the exposure of the doping scandal are told through interviews with Bosch, his disgruntled employee Porter Fisher who first blew the whistle on the shady dealings, as well as the Miami Times reporter who received the story, and a drug enforcement agent who was investigating the case.  Supporting these traditional documentary-styled interviews is a hilarious reenactment of the events of the scandal, using children to play all the roles of the people involved.  This emphasized how ridiculously childish all the participants acted, including A-Rod, the MLB commissioner and upper brass, and various gangsters, thugs and drug dealers that were in cahoots with Bosch.  No one comes across in a good light in this scathing depiction of attempted cover-ups, incompetence and greed.

The second documentary that interested me was "Maria By Callas", which eschewed the typical interviews from third parties that give their recollections about the subject.  Instead, the entire life story of superstar opera singer Maria Callas was told solely through her own words, images and actions via taped interviews, videos of performances, photographs and reading of letters that she had written.  This resulted in one of the most personal and in-depth biographical documentaries that I have ever seen, since so much of the information being received about Callas came directly from her.  In various interviews and letters, she reveals that she never really wanted to be a singer but was forced into it by her mother, and she felt misunderstood by those who deemed her divaesque and difficult.  Most touching were the segments describing her long-term affair with Aristotle Onassis and the heartfelt letter that she wrote to him when she thought they could finally be together after divorcing their respective spouses, only to find out in the news that he had married Jackie Kennedy instead.

Our most mainstream documentary was Michael Moore's latest work, titled "Fahrenheit 11-9", a play on the title of his previous film Fahrenheit 9-11, which in turn was a play on the famous book Fahrenheit 451.  November 9, 2016 marks the date that Donald Trump was elected President of the United States.  While part of Moore's documentary does focus on Trump, with a cleverly irreverent comparison of the president to Adolf Hitler, the main focus of the movie deals with the factors that led to the election of such a divisive candidate, including feelings of disenfranchisement and disillusionment from the electorate.  But while all the Trump-bashing was expected, the most shocking revelation came as an indictment against Obama.  Much of the film describes the tragedy and travesty of the Flint Michigan water crisis which came about when Governor Rick Synder authorized moving the water source of the mostly poor, black community from the safe clean drinking water of Lake Huron to the lead-poisoned water of the Flint River.  I knew much about this part of the story, including the denials from Synder that the water was actually unsafe.  What I did not know was that President Obama finally visited Flint, promising aid for the people who thought that they had found salvation at last.  Instead, Obama made a show of pretending to drink the contaminated Flint water, thus perpetuating the illusion that there was not such a big issue and that the water was safe.  Watching this just about broke my heart and made me understand why many disgusted and disillusioned people in Michigan did not bother to vote for either Democrats or Republicans, since what was the difference and what was the point? 

One of my favourite mainstream American movies starred comedienne Melissa McCarty in her most poignant dramatic role in "Can You Ever Forgive Me", the true-story bio-pic about biographer Lee Israel, who resorted to forging correspondence from famous dead writers such as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward.  Israel was able to copy the style and wit of the writers that she was imitating, thereby generating gossipy correspondence that was of interest to buyers.  After coming under suspicion of creating forgeries, she took to stealing real letters from libraries and archives, then replacing them with her fakes.  In addition to being a fascinating story, what made the movie special was the amazing performance by McCarty, who was able to invoke sympathy and pathos for a frumpy, unpleasant and generally unlikable character.

Selecting and scheduling TIFF movies involves trade-offs and making tough decisions, since often several movies that you want to see are scheduled at the same time or overlap each other.  This year, I decided that rather than picking between two movies with conflicting schedules, I would try to see at least part of both of them.   I was ambivalent about whether I wanted to watch "A Star is Born" starring Bradley Cooper and Stefani Germanotti (aka Lady Gaga), since I have watched previous versions of this melodrama before and knew how depressing and maudlin it would get, as Cooper's character spirals into self-destruction in the second half of the movie.  After having watched an extremely sad Chinese movie called Baby, I really did not want to go through heartache again so soon.  On the other hand, I had heard such rave reviews on the acting ability of Lady Gaga that I wanted to experience this for myself.

Accordingly, I watched the first 45 minutes of A Star is Born (the happy, meet-cute, falling-in-love part) and then ducked out to watch the more lighthearted bio-pic called "The Old Man and the Gun", which has been rumoured to be Robert Redford's last acting role.  Redford plays the real-life Forrest Tucker, a charming career criminal who robbed banks for the fun of it, had been caught and escaped from prison 18 times, including his 1979 escape from San Quentin State Prison in California when he and two other inmates built a kayak and paddled away to freedom.  When the police interviewed the bank manager or teller of a bank that Tucker had robbed, they would always mention how polite he was and how he always smiled.  I enjoyed the parts that I watched of each of these films.  This might become a new trend for meto only watch the happy parts of movies!

Another scheduling decision that I had to make was between watching "The Front Runner", starring Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart, whose cheating scandal torpedoed his chances at the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, and a documentary enticingly titled "The Truth About Killer Robots".  The timing of the movies overlapped by less than 10 minutes, and even less than that when you account for closing credits.  So I decided that I would watch The Front Runner up to the last 10 minutes and then move on to the documentary.  As it turns out, The Front Runner was a very good movie with excellent performances by the entire cast. In addition to focusing on Hart, the film gave insight into the perspectives of his long-suffering wife Lee, his mistress Donna Rice, as well as his campaign team and the newspaper reporters chasing the story and dealing with the journalistic dilemma of whether his personal life was relevant to his candidacy.  It is interesting to note that in light of the dalliances of John F Kennedy who preceded Hart, as well Bill Clinton and Donald Trump who followed him, it seems like Gary Hart fell into a brief window of time where infidelity and adultery did make a difference, and candidates were judged based on their personal lives. Before him, the press didn't ask personal questions, and currently the public doesn't seem to care.  Unfortunately, The Truth About Killer Robots was not a very interesting movie and the title was misleading.  While it did spend some time on human deaths caused by manufacturing robots, self driving cars and drones used in wartime strikes, much of the film dealt with how robots affected jobs and daily life.  I'm glad I didn't miss much of the previous movie in order to watch this one.

On our last day of watching press screenings, Rich chose to watch Green Book, which started 45 minutes before my movie selection, the French film Mademoiselle de Joncquières.  While Green Book sounded very interesting, it was a mainstream movie that already had a scheduled theatrical release date of Nov. 21, while I might not have another chance to watch the French movie.  But I decided to watch the first 45 minutes of Green Book to find out whether I would want to watch the rest of the film when it comes to the theatre.

Based on a true story, Green Book explores the relationship between African-American jazz concert pianist Don Shirley and his bodyguard/driver, the Italian bouncer Anthony Vallelonga (aka Tony Lip), as they traveled through the USA deep south for Shirley's multi-city concert tour in the 1960s.  Over the course of the trip, the odd pair learn to understand, respect and even like each other.  The title of the film refers to the "Negro Motorist Green Book", a guide published from 1936-1966 in order to help blacks find safe lodgings in the south.  Tony Lip's real-life son Nick participated in writing the screen play and many of his actual relatives acted as family members in the movie.  I left before the pair had reached the south and things would get darker, but the part that I watched was such a feel-good movie, and so endearing and humorous that I almost gave up on my French film in order to finish watching it.  I slightly regretted not staying even more when I learned that this movie was chosen for the coveted Grolsch People's Choice Award.  I will definitely try to watch the rest of it when it comes to the theatres.

Luckily, Mademoiselle de Joncquières was also a good movie, although not quite as joyous as Green Book.  This is a dramedy of manners in the vein of Dangerous Liaisons.  Finally succumbing to the charms and declaration of affection from known rogue and ladies man Marquis des Arcis and then promptly being dumped by him once he loses interest, the bitter and spurned widow Madame de La Pommeraye plots her revenge.  La Pommeraye finds a mother and her beautiful daughter who have fallen on hard times and have resorted to prostitution to survive.  She dresses them up as the pious and respectable Madame and Mademoiselle de Jonquières, then dangles them in front of the Marquis, giving him the one thing that he cannot resistthe challenge of conquest over the breathtaking but seemingly unobtainable daughter.

We watched a few more main stream movies that were very enjoyable including Widows, The Hate U Know, Jeremiah Terminator Leroy and Red Joan, all of them scheduled to be released in the theatres before the end of the year.  I also watched several Canadian movies, a confusing Spanish thriller, a Mexican heist movie, a Danish dramedy about a dysfunctional family at Christmas, a French comedy that wasn't very funny and a German melodrama.  That's a wrap for TIFF 2018!  Looking forward to next year.