Monday, September 23, 2013

Toronto Film Festival 2013: Week Two Round-Up

Festivals are traditionally front loaded affairs, and more than most, the Toronto International Film Festival concedes to early exits. Whether you’re here for Academy-geared or avant-garde films, the work most primed for audience acceptance and critical acclaim is more often than not programmed during the fest’s first half. So it goes that the second week of TIFF allowed for far more screenings but offered less overall satisfaction.

Setting the scattershot tone was Devil’s Knot, the latest in a long line of unfortunate films from the once-great Atom Egoyan. A dramatic retelling of the well documented West Memphis Three case, the film is a tonally awkward, badly acted, and utterly inept work of presumed ignorance and indecisive storytelling. Matching Devil’s Knot in both clumsy construction and redundant topicality was Ettore Scola’s expendable How Strange to Be Named Federico, a kind of hybrid work that fails as both biographical narrative and cinematic testimonial.

Nothing else quite reached those lows, but disappointments still abounded. Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan, comingi off his best flm, Laurence Anyways, takes a genre turn with his latest, Tom at the Farm, but has troubled handling the tone of material, which attempts dark comedy but mostly jars with offbeat humour and blunt symbolism.

Dolan was nice enough to keep things concise this time out, however, which is more than can be said for Philip Gröning, who’s latest narrative work, The Police Officer’s Wife, is a three-hour, 59-part tale of domestic violence that goes through much pain (on the part of its director and at the expense of his characters) to establish a certain atmosphere of staid dread only to leave it hanging with about the least amount of payoff acceptable for a work that asks so much of its audience (by contrast, another lengthy narrative, Edgar Reitz’s four-hour Home From Home — Chronicle of a Vision, rewards the investment with sensory as well as emotional comforts).

Meanwhile, Night Moves, one of the festival’s most anticipated titles, while not as crushing a letdown, is certainly a curious shift for director Kelly Reichardt. Like Dolan, Reichardt engages genre tropes with Night Moves, but sacrifices her expert construction to a story which starts compelling before hitting notes that hundreds of similar films about criminals on the lam and over their heads have tread for decades.

Similarly dedicated to its sparse aesthetic and, in much the same way as Reichardt, the work of an obvious talent burdened a bit by less interesting material than they’ve typically worked with, is Götz Spielmann’s October November. A Bergman-esque work from top (that title) to bottom (the characterisations which fuel the drama), the film, which deals with two sisters attempting to care for their ailing father as affairs and personal insecurities boil in the margins, maintains a flatlined mood, opting out of engaging the dynamism which made Revanche such an unexpectedly bracing arrival for the director.

It wasn’t all failures and setbacks, however. And indeed, two of the festival’s best films triumphed as both individual achievements and potential capstones to storied careers. Concurrent with its recent premiere in Venice, it was announced that The Wind Rises would be Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki’s final work, and whether that proves to be accurate or not, the film is a fitting compendium of the director’s preeminent style, themes, and concerns. A pointed engagement with the historical—specifically the life of Jiro Horikoshi, an engineer who designed WWII fighter planes—after decades of fantastical features and a far less allegorical work than many might expect, The Wind Rises is a nevertheless personal ode to creation and love in the face of atrocity—it is, in every sense, the work of a master.

Not as readily circulated but just as potentially crucial a loss to cinema, the rumours that Stray Dogs, the latest feat of formal intensity from Tsai Ming-liang, would be the Taiwanese festival favourite’s final effort lends the finished work an almost overwhelming sense of sorrow. Following a family of drifters navigating the economical nightmare of contemporary Taipei, the film charts, in typically daunting fashion, its characters’ futile pursuit of recovery and emotional reconciliation with only the most spartan of gestures. To say the final flourish—a wordless 20-odd minute static shot of barely repressed tears—is excessive is both accurate and appropriate: besides mirroring the finale of his breakthrough film, Vive L’amour, it’s also a single, sustained illustration of Tsai’s uncommon command and patience, two things which have marked his career.

Another contextual pairing could have easily been made between two of the festival’s Romanian entries, Corneliu Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls On Bucharest or Metabolism and Cristi Puiu’s Three Interpretation Exercises—and not simply because of their shared provenance or cheeky/literal titles. After arguably perfecting the extremes of the New Romanian Cinema with Police, Adjective and Aurora, respectively, Porumboiu and Puiu have taken an interesting turn inward with their new films, each a rather radical meta experiment in self-critique.

The former, a simultaneously funny and knowing indictment of Porumboiu and his contemporaries’ own process, is more outwardly playful, while the latter, an acting-workshop-turned-filmed-homage to improv and Eric Rohmer alike, is just as demanding (clocking in at nearly three hours once again) as Puiu’s prior work, but also evidences an interest in the art of acting that isn’t otherwise readily apparent amongst his corpus. Together they may just point the way forward for a movement many thought had run its course.

Far less conceptually and aesthetically rigorous, and thus something of a breather even at four hours (this year’s most popular running time it seems), is veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley. A sprawling, loosely structured report from the hallowed hallways of the famed California University, the film slowly evinces a pointed passion on the part of the filmmaker as he observes everything from classroom debates to campus protests while giving equal time (which is to say, lots of time) to the differing opinions of both the students and faculty. Not unlike college itself, At Berkeley is equal parts tedious and insightful.

And finally, there was Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, one of the only widely praised studio films to play the festival this year, and rightly so. Glazer’s first film since 2004s slow-simmering Birth, Under the Skin retains the director’s attention to evocative A/V elements while expanding his stylistic and philosophical scope. A self-consciously strange adaptation of Michael Faber’s science fiction novel of the same name, the film patiently follows an alien Scarlet Johansson as she descends to Earth to systematically recycle the bodies of male suitors in a series of hypnotic scenes meant to (no pun intended) alienate as much as involve. Like Birth, once its central conceit is disclosed, the film loses a bit of its intoxicating allure, but in its attempt to unite artistry and entertainment it becomes an all too appropriate metaphor for the ideals of a film festival, particularly one as unwieldy as TIFF. [LWL]

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