Telluride trouble makes NA’s biggest film fest bland

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

filmWell, that was a tad worrisome.

It feels like the Toronto International Film Festival isn’t dealing well with competition. Telluride (the Colorado equivalent) is scheduling almost all the same titles as TIFF these days, and stealing its thunder consistently. And it’s working, in spite of a TIFF decision for this year to consign movies screened at Telluride to the later days of the Toronto festival, where they’d receive less buzz and media attention.

That plan proved to be pretty much ineffective — and kind of petty, to boot. The People’s Choice Awards (TIFF’s most coveted prize) went to a movie that premiered in Colorado, The Imitation Game.

Not everything was bad news for the biggest festival in North America. Its signature genre program, Midnight Madness, had it best selection in years, including highly effective thrillers (The Guest, Cub), inventive horror films (It Follows) and even a documentary on the trashiest studio in Hollywood (Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannes Films).

I can’t claim I saw everything, but these are the most noteworthy of the 60-plus films I sat through.

Best Film: Whiplash

The winner of the last Sundance Film Festival, Whiplash is provocative, intelligent and so intense it could provoke anxiety by proxy. A brilliant Miles Teller is Andrew, an eager music student at the best conservatory in New York. Andrew has drive and talent, so he’s quickly scooped by Mr. Fletcher, the toughest instructor in the academy. But in order for his students to achieve greatness, Fletcher pushes them beyond what’s proper. Private Gomer Pyle in Full Metal Jacket had it easier than Andrew.

J.K. Simmons is phenomenal as Fletcher. A master manipulator, he can treat you like garbage and use personal information against you, and you’d still want his approval. But Whiplash is more than just a film about a student against a teacher: it also wonders about the costs of greatness, as the hunger to become the best wreaks havoc. Not sure about the Oscars (they’re too stuffy for this movie), but it should clean up at the Independent Spirit Awards.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS The Imitation Game, the story of Alan Turing, the Cambridge mathematician who broke the Nazi encrypting machine during WWII and was later chemically castrated after being prosecuted for homosexuality; the meaty Clouds of Sils Maria, with Juliette Binoche confronting aging and irrelevance; The Riot Club, a fictionalization of the shenanigans of the Bullingdon Club in Oxford where director Lone Scherfig (An Education) puts entitlement on trial (the results aren’t pretty).

Most Overrated: The Theory of Everything

Even though reviews have been positive, I have serious problems with the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything. The physicist’s astonishing contributions to science are barely mentioned and the whitewashing of Hawking’s personal life is borderline ridiculous. (According to the movie, Hawking and wife were white doves who simply stumbled upon new lovers, and there’s nothing they could have done about it.) At least Eddie Redmayne is great as the scientist, and his performance elevates this very mild film.

Crushing Disappointment: Maps to the Stars

David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars was the biggest letdown, since we’ve grown to expect greatness from him. The plot itself is riddled with Hollywood clichés, but Cronenberg knows that: his interest lies in the empty souls of the characters. The problem is that there’s no moral here. It feels like Cronenberg just wants to watch them squirm while their attempts at personal fulfillment fail. Maps to the Stars is surreal, but not particularly insightful or funny.

Worst Film: Pasolini

It’s been a while since Abel Ferrara has done anything interesting (The Funeral was 18 years ago), but Pasolini is a singularly egregious offence. Considering the source of inspiration is the quintessential modern Italian filmmaker, Ferrara could have done more than repeat abstract ideas in the most anti-cinematic way possible. The movie only comes alive when Pasolini is killed, which defeats the purpose of a celebration of his life. Also, Willem Dafoe couldn’t be bothered to fake an Italian accent.

DISHONOURABLE MENTION The Duke of Burgundy isn’t much better than Pasolini — because it’s the least sexy movie about sex imaginable. Two women engage in a sadomasochistic relationship, and the one who pretends to be dominant is actually submissive. That’s it. Snore.

Best Interviews

The great thing about film festivals is that almost everybody’s willing to talk about their movies at length. J.K. Simmons is hysterical in person and doesn’t need much prodding to recreate some scenes from his films, while Jemaine Clement is very pleasant and quite versed on film. Dan Stevens (of Downton Abbey fame) is infallibly polite and all too willing to discuss his days on the British soap, and I learned more about the benefits of working with trained actors from Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard (The Guest) than I did in a full year of film school.

Worst Interview: Steve Carell

It’s not like he was hostile or standoffish, but Steve Carell wasn’t all that engaged while promoting Foxcatcher: he wouldn’t discuss how he connected with his character, the multimillionaire sociopath John DuPont. Thankfully, fellow cast-members Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum picked up the slack.

Beavers Be Sad

It was a pretty terrible year for Canadian films at TIFF. Two of them are downright appalling (the Satanist-cult “comedy” Teen Lust and the hipster overload of Heartbeat), while another two got a bit further just by trying something different, though they failed at it (the mutant musical Bang Bang Baby and the actually funny, but visually crummy, Guidance).

The best Canadian flick at TIFF turned out to be the Winnipeg-made oddity The Editor, an homage to the giallo films Mario Bava and Dario Argento made popular three decades ago. Writers/directors/stars Adam Brooks and Matthew Kennedy know the original material inside-out, and they’re savvy enough to mock it to great effect: the terrible ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement), the questionable acting, the hardboiled yet painfully earnest dialogue. Fun stuff.

The “Thanks For Coming Out!” Award

Many actors had more than one film at TIFF (Al Pacino, Reese Witherspoon, Keira Knightley, to name three), but few were trying to reinvent themselves like Adam Sandler seems to be. The SNL alum gave drama another shot as an unlikeable sex addict in Men, Women and Children and dipped his toe into a more gentle kind of comedy in The Cobbler. He’s still a very limited actor, but kudos for trying.

That’s Seriously Your Question?

Some seriously unprofessional behavior was spotted at TIFF this year — and I’m not even talking about the sad spectacle of dozens of journos launching themselves towards a sandwich tray before it was even placed on a table. Some of the queries at press conferences and round tables were pitiful: if you’re talking to British legend and seven-time Academy Award nominee Mike Leigh, you probably shouldn’t start a question with, “As a filmmaker just like you…” And here’s betting Steve Carell has answered the question, “How much of a departure was it for you to star in a drama?” about a thousand times, so why waste your limited interview time asking it yet again? Dumb.