Toronto Trip: TIFF ’14

Late into my aestas horribilis, my lovely friend Mal Peters texted me to suggest I visit her in Toronto the week of the film festival, since she had inadvertently booked some time off. Being a diehard cinephile and in dire need of a holiday, my immediate answer was “Yes!” After creating an elaborate Venn diagram charting where the films I wanted to see and the dates I would be in town intersected, I decided on four films (I heart making schedules): That One With a Lot of Heat Out of Sundance; That One With the Danish Guy I Love; That One With the Other Danish Guy I Love; and That One With Sherlock as Alan Turing (AKA Maybe I’ll Get To See the Batch Kiss a Dude).

I am happy to report that there was not a stinker in the bunch. All of them are independent films with various levels of promotional support. Two of them are foreign-language films that will likely get a North American and European release, but still could benefit from a little extra push, so here are my capsule reviews.

WHIPLASH

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This is the film I was least excited to see. I had heard great things coming out of Sundance about it, but I really just picked it because it was the best-looking film that fit into an empty slot in our schedule.

It was the best film I saw. It. Is. Amazing. I am not overselling it. It’s about a jazz drummer (Miles Teller) at a music school who gets called up by the most renowned teacher at the school—perhaps in the world—to be a part of his class/ensemble (played by J.K. Simmons). The teacher is both inspiring and abusive. The driven student becomes more so under such a harrowing yet challenging influence. When these two forces collide, it is a clash of the titans. If you think you know where this story is headed, you are wrong.

All of the music was written for the film. The cinematography and the editing use it to punctuate the film language. The director (Damien Chazelle) used to be a jazz drummer himself, though he says it’s only inspired by his experiences and those of his fellow musicians, it’s not autobiographical. He imbues his film with the percussive rhythm of the music he loves; it pulses and pops and crashes like an extended drum solo.

It’s also a captivating meditation on what exactly it takes to make great art. If no one is there to push you, then how far can you really go? Is talent enough to make someone great? But if someone pushes you too far, doesn’t that risk not only your artistic spirit, but your life? Your ability to achieve greatness? These are the questions the film asks, brilliantly. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a mic drop. Go see it.

FAR FROM MEN (LOIN DES HOMMES)

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A morality play about the human cost of war paid by both sides, the first film from Viggo Mortensen’s Perceval Pictures stars the King of Men as a French school teacher living in the barren wilds of Algeria during its war with France. A former major in the Second World War who returned to the place of his birth in search of a more peaceful existence, he is forced by the French army to transport a dissident (Reda Kateb) to the nearest city for execution. Both men have a complicated history, with the country they call home and with the conflict its now enduring, and form a bond as they encounter various trials along their journey.

The stark Algerian landscape becomes a character itself, its rocky desert terrain almost impossible to cross. With nowhere to hide and even fewer options, the two men are forced to rely on each other. But even if they reach their destination, is there a way out for them? For Algeria? For France? When both sides have committed atrocities, when two divergent cultures clash, will there ever be a clear winner and a clear loser?

Far From Men is based on a short story by Franco-Algerian Albert Camus, and waves its philosophical colors with pride. I admired the way it allowed no easy answers, and never gave its characters an inch. It’s also liberally spiced with humor, a relief from the intensity of the life-or-death situations it depicts. It’s extremely well acted and made, but it was missing a little something for me. I should have been engrossed, transported, devastated. Instead, I was intrigued. It’s a beautiful intellectual exercise with a strong message, but I personally felt it lacked power. But worth seeing all the same.

A SECOND CHANCE

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Danish director Susanne Bier specializes in ethical dilemmas played out on the domestic front. Her latest film features a bravura performance by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (that’s Jaime Lannister to my fellow geeks) as a police detective who, in a moment of weakness, makes a questionable decision that quickly and vertiginously spirals out of control.

Warning: Personally, I think this magnificent movie is best enjoyed spoiler-free, so I would skip the next paragraphs if I were you, even though I won’t be getting into the film’s various twists and turns.

It could be the subject of a Lifetime movie: a couple suffers the loss of a child, so the cop father steals a baby from a junkie couple who neglect their own. But it is played so realistically, so emotionally, so compassionately that not a moment rings false. It is a shame that foreign-language performances don’t get nominated for Oscars, because NCW should be on the nominees list this year. His tender, devastating work here will cut you to the quick.

This is an adult movie of a kind that they don’t make anymore. Except, apparently, in Denmark.

THE IMITATION GAME

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As much as I enjoyed the heck out of this film—there’s something to be said for seeing a film with a festival audience in a theater as large as the Princess of Wales—I was surprised that it won the audience award. It was a lot of fun, a moving story told expertly, but I think the, er, Cumber Collective may have helped it along a smidge.

I am not damning with faint praise when I say it’s the kind of film I like to categorize as Elevated Masterpiece Theatre. To give context, I adore Masterpiece Theatre. That said, they’re not reinventing the wheel. It’s a compelling and relatively unknown story acted and directed by artists at the top of their game. Benedict Cumberbatch gives his all as Alan Turing, the genius who built the machine that cracked Enigma and helped win the war, also one of the grandfathers of modern computers.

I read one review that criticized his performance for not being far enough away from Sherlock, and while I don’t disagree, it is still a beautiful, affecting performance. My rule of thumb for judging performances is this: could another actor have done the part better? No, which excuses the typecasting. The same review goes on to praise Keira Knightly for yet another variation on the brainy, spunky chick she almost always plays. A similar charge could levelled at Charles Dance, who seems to have been cast as Tywin Lannister the WWII General. Just goes to show you how intimidating in his own right Cumberbatch is that his foil had to be one of the most skilled and ruthless players of the Game of Thrones.

The truth is, everyone in the ensemble is great. The film rises above its prestige Oscar-bait bio-pic status, but it doesn’t overleap it. Still, it’s a diverting night out at the cinema: a little drama, a little heartbreak, some witty banter, some scandalous cruelties. If I look a little too closely, I see a film trying much too hard to eek a traditional boy-meets-girl-under-harrowing-circumstances narrative out of a persecuted gay man’s story. What happened to Turing is horrifying. In remembering him, best not to forget that.

One of the fringe benefits of going to a popular festival like Toronto—along with having one of your dearest friends put you up for the week—is having the actors and directors do Q&As after the screenings. They smartly schedule the secondary screenings that the public can actually get tickets to the morning or day after the gala premieres, so that the stars are still in town and can attend. I was lucky enough that the filmmaking teams to three out of the four films I saw took time out of their busy promotional schedules to come and speak to the real fans—the paying audience. The only cast that didn’t? The Imitation Game. Bad form, chaps.

Coming later this week… a brief culinary tour of Toronto, with pics! Stay tuned!

-Selina

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On false idols (and why they will fuck you up)

Was sent this quote by the sage Jeff Moore. Probably as close to a personal life philosophy as I could get.

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”

– David Foster Wallace, This is Water