TIFF 2014 Overview

Up the Scotiabank Theatres' massive escalator to movie heaven at TIFF.

Up the Scotiabank Theatres’ massive escalator to movie heaven at TIFF.

 

Here’s a rundown of what I saw at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, sorted by grade. Click on each title for my reviews:

A
The Look of Silence
Mommy
Songs She Wrote About People She Knows

A-
Leviathan
Goodbye To Language 3D
99 Homes

B+
A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence
Girlhood
Ned Rifle
Do I Sound Gay?

B
Elephant Song
Still Alice
Welcome To Me

B-
Big Muddy
Learning To Drive

You may think I’m a soft grader since there’s nothing below a B- and you’re partially right–I rarely give out anything below that, though I have at past TIFFs (at my first go-around in 2005, I bestowed something a rare, lowly F). Even though I saw 15 films, I feel unqualified to make some “state of the film industry” summation; hundreds of titles played the festival, and I purposely stayed away from those scheduled for release before year’s end (Leviathan, Still Alice and (god willing) Mommy will likely play Boston in early 2015). Perhaps if I had an industry pass and watched 4-5 features each day, I’d feel more comfortable making bold generalizations.

However, I will say this is the best time I’ve ever had at TIFF. That’s partially due to my accommodations and having a whole week to allow room for other diversions, but the festival feels a tad more organized than it has previously. The Bell Lightbox, TIFF’s HQ which opened in 2010 is a class act. Now that most of the festival is centered around King Street West (and almost entirely away from Yorkville), it feels more unified, and all the venues I attended offered a good-to-great moviegoing environment. (My sole complaint? The uncomfortable creaky seats at the Elgin.) TIFF remains an exceptionally user-friendly major film festival; I hope to return in at least another two years (if not sooner).

NED RIFLE

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Hal Hartley’s gotten the whole gang back together to complete a trilogy also comprised of HENRY FOOL (1997) and FAY GRIM (2006): Thomas Jay Ryan, Parker Posey and James Urbaniak all reprise their now iconic (in indie film circles, anyway) roles, while many past Hartley regulars (Martin Donovan, Karen Sillas, Robert John Burke) also appear. Fortunately, going back to the well has a positive effect, as this is probably the director’s best effort since HENRY FOOL.

The film’s title character is Fay (Posey) and Henry’s (Ryan) now 18-year-old son (played by Liam Aiken). With Fay in jail and Henry having long since disappeared, Ned lives with a foster parent, Rev. Daniel Gardner (Donovan) and his family. Following his release from a witness protection program, he sets out to find and murder Henry as revenge for his mother going to jail. After visiting his uncle Simon (Urbaniak), now a famous writer/aspiring comedian holed up in a New York City hotel, he meets Susan (Aubrey Plaza), a mentally unstable young woman who is stalking Simon. She uses Ned to get to his uncle, but it turns out she has ties to his parents as well. The mismatched pair end up on the other side of the country together, pursuing one common goal but with disparate motives.

NED RIFLE is a Hartley film through and through. It improves on FAY GRIM because he mostly emphasizes what we liked about these characters in HENRY FOOL instead of placing them in ever-more convoluted situations as the last film did. Ryan and Urbaniak clearly relish their characters, and even Posey, whose screen time is limited to phone calls from and visits in prison, makes a sparkling impression. However, the film’s real attraction is Plaza. Not only does she effortlessly fit into the Hartleyverse, she’s also a singular screwball heroine, immediately likable and always just a little bit off (and often more than that). It’s too bad, then, that Ned himself is such a sanctimonious dud. While Aiken tries hard, his part just isn’t as fleshed out as the rest of the cast. NED RIFLE is good enough to convince longtime Hartley fans that the director hasn’t entirely lost his mojo after all, but despite the title, there’s a reason (beyond star recognition) why the film’s poster features Plaza and not Aiken.  Grade: B+

GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE 3D

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You can’t say Jean-Luc Godard doesn’t give the viewer a lot of bang for his or her buck with his latest film—in just seventy minutes, he packs in enough imagery and information to sustain at least three or four features. Not much of a departure from his recent work, it has all the Godard-isms you’d expect: flashing intertitles, monotone narration, repetitive use of classical music pieces, clips from old Hollywood films, and an endless number of conversations between un homme et une femme. Every shot bears the stamp of its octogenarian iconoclast; cineastes that worship the man wouldn’t have it any other way.

Still, GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE 3D diverges somewhat from the usual template, most notably (and obviously) regarding the last word of that title. Godard utilizes 3D for the same simple reason directors from Martin Scorsese to Michael Bay have—to create cool, visually ravishing, how-did-they-do-that special effects. However, Godard takes it a step further, weaving this technology into one of the film’s multiple theses by questioning what we see and how we perceive it. In the most talked-about moment, he superimposes one image on top of another, but as the two images simultaneously occur, they also overlap at ever-shifting angles. On paper, it sounds like morphing, but it’s much harder to describe how it actually appears. I can best describe it as a cubist painting come to life, but even that doesn’t really suffice. It made my head hurt to think about it while watching it, and yet I wanted to see more of it.

You might as well apply that last sentence to the whole film. Godard’s “narrative” here is even more cryptic than usual, yet it moves at such a rapid pace I had trouble keeping up. Of all the dialogue spoken between two sets of male and female characters, it figures the one that stuck with me was, “I talk about equality and all you talk about is poop.” Perhaps that sentence is not so much an anomaly, as this is the most explicitly playful film Godard has made in ages. In its second half, the central focus moves from the couples to a (rather cute) dog named Roxy, whom Godard seems to be using as a catalyst for demonstrating why the spoken word is losing relevance in the modern age (or something). The problem with writing about a film so deliberately opaque (especially weeks after one has viewed it) is that you can only absorb and retain so much on a single viewing. For what it’s worth, although intellectually exhausting, it’s the first late-period Godard I anticipate seeing again (preferably on a large screen) as soon as possible.  Grade: A-

BIG MUDDY

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Saskatchewan neo-noir? Well, if Joel and Ethan Coen can turn Minnesota into a convincing genre locale, why not set one a few hundred miles Northwest? Of course, director Jefferson Moneo’s not as proficient as the Coens were at BLOOD SIMPLE (let alone FARGO), but his ace in the hole is a good one: a knockout, Faye Dunaway-esque lead turn from Nadia Litz (who’s best known from THE FIVE SENSES). Resembling a heroine one might imagine from a Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazelwood duet, Litz is Martha Barlow, a single mom raising her teenaged son Andy (Justin Kelly), procuring cash by robbing men she picks up at bars with the help of a ne’er-do-well boyfriend. When a meeting with a past lover goes awry, Martha and Andy are suddenly on the run, taking shelter in the rural titular town where her estranged father (Stephen McHattie) lives. Meanwhile, an escaped convict we first meet early in the film resurfaces and reveals ties with the three main characters.

BIG MUDDY is occasionally amateurish and often dumb but awfully fun if you’re a fan of the genre tropes Moneo favors: cartoonish B-movie opening credits, a soundtrack stuffed with cool obscurities, even a pretty fantastic freeze-frame action shot near the end. He also makes good use of real-life, lived-in locales such as a horse racing track, a thrift store and the sweeping prairie vistas Martha and Andy encounter on their way to her father’s home. Admittedly, without Litz’s commanding presence in the foreground (and perhaps McHattie’s as well), this movie would be a big mess–it’s the type of low-budget indie where the seams all too often show. But I’d just as soon watch a sequel if Litz ever wanted to play Martha again. Grade: B-

ELEPHANT SONG

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Nothing in the colorful, florid opening scene, set at an opera performance in postwar Cuba suggests that the bulk of ELEPHANT SONG will unfold at a visually drab, wintry mental hospital in mid-1960s Canada. Similarly, little in the film resolves itself according to expectations set up by the initial premise, where Dr. Toby Green (Bruce Greenwood), the hospital’s administrator and his ex-wife, nurse Susan Peterson (Catherine Keener), are cross-examined at length about their dealings with troubled patient Michael (Xavier Dolan). After Michael’s long-term psychiatrist Dr. Lawrence disappears, Green is called on to interview the patient at length. We never learn Michael’s exact diagnosis, but he clearly suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, among other things. Wiry and cunning, he continually manipulates Green (and to a greater extent, Peterson), and in turn, us as well. As details about his past and his relationship with Lawrence surface, other significant things comes to light about Green’s and Peterson’s former life together. The Big Reveals aren’t as interesting as the little ones, which accumulate and result in three satisfyingly multifaceted figures.

Three terrific performances as well. Although more commonly utilized as a character actor in films, Greenwood effortlessly steps into the anchor/audience surrogate position. Keener gets a rare opportunity to play someone softer and more vulnerable than usual, while Dolan, a Quebecois filmmaker acting in his first major English language role capably plays crazy without going over-the-top or turning Michael into a cartoon. Unfortunate, then, that the film as a whole never transcends its stage play origins, although director Charles Binamé tries hard to turn it into a visually interesting picture with all its period details and attention-drawing compositions. A little too hermetic for its own good, ELEPHANT SONG entertains but, unlike Dolan’s own films (to cite one somewhat-related example), it rarely enlightens.  Grade: B

STILL ALICE

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Destined to be remembered for its outstanding lead performance and little else, STILL ALICE is a competent literary adaptation about a Columbia University linguistics professor diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Alice Howland is a juicy role for any actress of a certain caliber, and Julianne Moore does not disappoint. Even with a developing narrative that now’s the time for Moore to finally get her Academy Award, if she does, she’ll fully deserve it. In a tour de force part she could easily showboat, Moore is suitably raw yet remains in control, plunging the depths of Alice’s mental and emotional states while playing her as a nuanced, complex figure—the illness takes over her life, but she works hard not to let it define the character. Between this and other recent films such as WHAT MAISIE KNEW or MAP TO THE STARS, Moore’s range continues to expand; here, the climactic scene where she delivers a speech on her illness (while greatly suffering it) is a master class in acting, serving the character (and the film) instead of her own ego.

As for the film itself, it’s better-than-average Movie of the Week stuff. Probably the best effort to date from co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (though if you’ve seen THE FLUFFER that’s not saying a whole lot), it doesn’t aim for an innovative artistic statement of any sort; the Upper West Side Manhattan privileged setting resembles a serious, less neurotic Woody Allen film. Moore gets sympathetic support from a restrained Alec Baldwin (as her husband) and Kristin Stewart, wooden as always but more likable than usual as her youngest daughter. The worst thing STILL ALICE does is manipulate the viewer into thinking the ending will be more of a downer than it actually is; the best thing, once again, is Moore and if you admire her work, this performance is not to be missed.  Grade: B

GIRLHOOD

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Obviously not a distaff take on Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOD—the French title is BANDE DE FILLES, which translates as “Group of Girls.” Marieme (Karidja Touré), a timid sixteen-year-old living in mostly black, housing project-heavy Parisian suburb, drops out of school and immediately falls in with a female trio of fellow dropouts. They spend their time taking the Metro into Paris to shop (and shoplift), go out clubbing and spend nights together in fancy hotels. Marieme’s rapidly forming bond with the girls is of an intensity especially particular to teenagers. They defend each other against attacks from rival girl groups and serve as a makeshift family, one Marieme increasingly values more than her actual family, which consists of a working, much-absent mother, an abusive older male sibling and two younger siblings whom she’s often a substitute parent towards.

GIRLHOOD has considerably less of a queer angle than director Céline Sciamma’s first two features, WATER LILLIES and TOMBOY. However, a subtext is definitely still present, from the opening, an exhilarating, techno music-scored, all-girl rugby match to Marieme’s somewhat butch appearance. At times, it’s reminiscent of Jim McKay’s great OUR SONG (2000), with Touré just as affecting (if less conventionally attractive) than that film’s breakout star, a young Kerry Washington. Watching it, one realizes how rarely teenage female friendship is subject matter for a film; the best scenes are often the simplest, observing the dynamic between the four girls as they “hang” together. In its last twenty minutes, Marieme makes a major choice than turns GIRLHOOD into more of a social-realist drama a la the Dardenne brothers. The tonal shift compels but the whole section coexists a little uneasily with what precedes it. While overall not as charming as Sciamma’s past works, it’s certainly more ambitious—she remains a filmmaker to watch.  Grade: B+