Film festival wars, episode I: TIFF strikes back [from the November 2014 Buffalo Spree]

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I have written a Toronto International Film Festival piece for Buffalo Spree’s November issue for the last seven years, and it is always a joy to write. This year, sadly, my piece did not get posted on the Spree website, instead running only in the November 2014 print issue. So here is my TIFF14 feature, in full.

A random attendee of September’s 2014 Toronto International Film Festival might have taken a stroll down “Festival Street,” a new several-blocks-long area of food trucks, live performances, tables, and assorted cinephile delights, including Bill Murray masks and the twin girls from The Shining, and wondered how anyone besides those stuck in their car could see this year’sTIFF as anything but a resounding success. (The first Friday of the festival, in fact, was decalred “Bill Murray Day,” and featured screenings of three of his classics as well as the premiere of his latest, St. Vincent.) Festival Street closed down a significant stretch of King Street, royally messing up traffic, but for those wandering in front of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the vibe was utterly vibrant. So in many ways, that random festival attendee is correct. After all, festival venues were full, stars could be spotted in abundance, and there was even a hockey documentary, for goodness sake’s.

But behind-the-scenes, there was drama, drama, drama. TIFF takes place shortly after two of the world’s major film fests, in Venice and Telluride. In recent years, the latter fest has increasingly drawn the eyes of cine-media and the adoration of filmmakers. It has also premiered some major films (Gravity, 12 Years a Slave), just days before they were set to screen in Toronto. TIFF took action, allowing only films making their world or North American premieres to screen during the first four days of the festival. This meant that the festival’s prime timeframe did not feature some of this year’s biggest films—among them Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, Reese Witherspoon in Wild, Steve Carrel and Channing Tatum inFoxcatcher, and the Jon Stewart-directed Rosewater.

Despite the party-like atmosphere on Festival Street, then, among the assembled press corps there was some heavy grumbling. Due to the obligations of real life, I am only able to attend on the festival’s first Friday through Sunday, meaning many of the most high-profile entries unspooled long after I hit the QEW. A bummer? Certainly.

That was behind the scenes and beyond the screens, of course. When it comes to the actual movies, whether a world premiere or not, there was plenty to savor. There was Nightcrawler, a whip-smart media satire starring a creepily unhinged Jack Gyllenhaal. (And, it was a world premiere!) Several Cannes Film Festival favorites crossed the pond and blew minds, including Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, featuring awards-worthy work from Juliette Binoche and (especially) Kristen Stewart, as well as Russian tragedy Leviathan. Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, and Adam Driver was as well-received as his last TIFF entry, Frances Ha, and was smartly picked up for distribution by A24.The Duke of Burgundy was the surprise of the festival, an exquisite and darkly humorous story of sadomasochism and butterfly experts. (Seriously.) Eden told of the early days of groundbreaking, early-90s French techno, even featuring actors playing Daft Punk, sans robot masks. And in the conventional but undeniably powerful The Theory of Everything, Les Miserables star Eddie Redmayne stunningly portrays Stephen Hawking, and is matched by an excellent Felicity Jones as his first wife.

Those are just a few of the festival’s most well-received films. There were many others I missed, of course, including Chris Rock’s Top Five, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, Sundance smash Whiplash, and Mike Leigh’s J. M. W. Turner biopic, Mr. Turner. There were also some wonderful under-the-radar successes, including National Gallery, Spring, and In the Crosswind, as well lesser but still worthy fare like They Have Escaped, Life in a Fishbowl, The Wanted 18, and the slick but empty (and ludicrously titled) Who Am I—No System is Safe.

And of course, there were disasters, including both Adam Sandler vehicles (The Cobbler and Men, Women & Children) and the WTF? opening night premiere, The Judge, starring Robery Downey, Jr. As many have remarked, the festival’s recent opening night premieres have been, well, awful. Perhaps Bill Murray Day should have been on the day one, rather than day two.

At this point, there is no telling if TIFF’s world premiere policy is the new norm, or a one-year experiment. My loonie is on the latter. Even though I understand the rationale behind the policy, it’s a bit sad, really, that Oscar jockeying is seemingly considered more important than the goal of presenting great films to as wide an audience of attendees as possible. When theTIFF-going public voted 12 Years a Slave, The King’s Speech, and Slumdog Millionaire as the winners of the festival’s People’s Choice Award, they were not thinking about awards bloggers, studio PR flacks, or festival figureheads. They were thinking about what film hit them hardest. The experience of being enraptured by cinema is what I love most about TIFF, and no amount of backstage drama can erase that feeling. Premiere, sh-remiere. Okay, that was awkward, but you get it. See you on Festival Street in 2015.

 

Film critic Christopher Schobert covered TIFF14 for Spree and the Buffalo News, and also contributed to Indiewire’s The Playlist, The Film Stage, and his blog, FilmSwoon.com.

 

Festival Street, Kubrick Characters in celebration of the upcoming Stanley Kubrick exhibition at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Credit: George Pimentel, WireImage/Getty for TIFF

Clouds of Sils Maria: Juliette Binoche

Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

The exhilarating ‘Whiplash’ is not to be missed

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“Whiplash” is one of the most exhilarating films in years, and certainly one of the finest of 2014. It’s also one that may end up severely misunderstood. Many reviews are taking the theme as very direct: The only way to become a great artist is through merciless practice, preferably under the tutelage of a tyrant.

I’m not sure it is quite so clear cut. Yes, the movie ends — SPOILER — with Andrew finally winning the respect and approval of the drill sergeant-esque Fletcher. For a few moments, at least. It is a victory, to be sure, but not necessarily an indication of stardom, or even greatness. This success does not mean director Damien Chazelle necessarily believes it was all worth it, or that he agrees with Fletcher’s methods. It is an ending, period.

There is also the much-debated Charlie Parker story. In the film, Fletcher uses it to demonstrate that “Bird”’s genius would never have been apparent were it not for the violent cymbal toss from drummer Jo Jones. As many have since pointed out, the anecdote is apparently incorrect. But that, too, does not mean Chazelle’s “argument” is flawed. I think Fletcher’s incorrect interpretation is actually more interesting, and more befitting of the character. Of course he would have it wrong!

Above all else, “Whiplash” is an actor’s showcase, and stars Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are note-perfect. I cannot imagine anyone topping Simmons in this year’s Best Supporting Actor race, and Teller is deserving of a Best Actor. It is too bad that in a year filled with noteworthy lead performances, he is unlikely to snag a nomination.

Chazelle’s “Whiplash” is a four-star masterpiece, and will certainly end the year near the top of my 2014 10-best list. It is now playing in Buffalo, and is not to be missed.

Review: Juliette Binoche shines in the so-so ‘A Thousand Times Good Night’

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My main thought while watching the war-photographer drama “A Thousand Times Good Night” was how good Juliette Binoche is — always. Her performance in “Clouds of Sils Maria” was one of my TIFF favorites, and while her work in “A Thousand” is not quite as noteworthy, it is still strong, believable, compelling stuff.

Here is my three-star review from the Buffalo News. The film opened on Friday at the North Park.

Is there a more compelling actress than Juliette Binoche? Consider her résumé, one dotted with sterling performances in modern classics such as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blue,” Michael Haneke’s “Caché” and Leos Carax’s “Lovers on the Bridge.”

Those are but three examples. Binoche has worked with some of the world’s greatest filmmakers – not just Haneke and Carax but Jean-Luc Godard, Olivier Assayas and Abbas Kiarostami (to say nothing of the late Kieslowski).

Binoche is so good that she can elevate a so-so film single-handedly. Such is the case with “A Thousand Times Good Night,” a handsome, involving, unexceptional English-language debut for Norwegian director Erik Poppe.

It has the look and feel of a well-meaning made-for-HBO drama of the early ’90s, never quite becoming anything more than a respectful, character-driven look at what it means to work (but not live) in a war zone.

As “A Thousand Times” opens, Binoche’s Rebecca, a well-known photographer, shoots the preparations of a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. In the ensuing blast, she is physically and mentally injured.

Rebecca’s husband Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, “Game of Thrones”) comes to her aid, but there is clearly a divide in the marriage. While Rebecca “hangs around in war zones,” as one character puts it, her husband and two daughters are home in Ireland, expecting the worst.

Marcus wants Rebecca to give up her dangerous occupation and remain home, and it is nice to see the typical gender roles reversed – the wife the doer, the husband the spouse with the furrowed brow. Yet the film is a little too eager to paint Rebecca as the villain and Marcus as the heroic parent.

This feeling becomes even more pronounced as the film progresses. The couple’s oldest daughter, Steph (Lauryn Canny), grows interested in her mother’s work and soon accompanies her to an African refugee camp.

But when violence breaks out, Rebecca must make a quick decision whether to document the situation for the world, or leave safely with her daughter. Her choice affects the rest of the film, and, it is clear, the rest of her life.

After this fateful experience, “A Thousand Times Good Night” becomes saturated with melodrama, even concluding with a weepy class project – in front of the whole school – and lessons learned. Only in its final minutes do we return to the “passion” and “fire,” as Rebecca puts it to Marcus, that makes her such a bold character.

It’s a flawed but reasonably solid effort from director Poppe, who keeps the nearly two-hour film moving. He ends things on a smartly ambiguous note, accompanied by a lovely, Dido-ish closing credits song from Norwegian singer Ane Brun (called “Daring to Love”).

But the film belongs to Binoche, who gives an emotionally complex performance that is always believable. Her acting, in fact, is award-worthy, although this small film is unlikely to garner the necessary support for such a prize.

So “A Thousand Times Good Night” is eons away from Binoche’s greatest, but she brings to it the same level of emotion, candor and humanity that makes her consistently wonderful.

Now playing: ‘Nightcrawler’ is one of the year’s best

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One of my favorite films at TIFF14, “Nightcrawler,” is finally playing nationwide. Here are some thoughts I wrote for The Buffalo News during the festival.

After last year’s Toronto International Film Festival double-whammy of “Prisoners” and “Enemy,” and now TIFF14’s stunning “Nightcrawler,” Jake Gyllenhaal might be ready to wear the crown of festival king.

The latter, from director Dan Gilroy, is a TIFF smash, winning over critics and audiences with its piercing view of the creation of a monster — in this case, an amoral videographer with a lust for graphic violence he can sell to a TV news producer well-played by Rene Russo.

But this is Gyllenhaal’s show, and he gives an Oscar-worthy performance.

During a Q&A, the actor spoke of “falling in love” with the character, and it shows. It’s hard to say he brings humanity to the part, but he certainly brings believability.

“Nightcrawler” opens in October, and should shock and thrill mainstream audiences in equal measure — if they are not so disgusted that they walk out.

Stick with it. This is one of the year’s best films.