TIFF ’14 – Day 1: Two Bangs, One Whimper

Juliette Binoche starts the festivities with a bang.
Clouds of Sils Maria: Juliette Binoche starts the festivities with a bang.

This is my fifth year covering TIFF and I must confess, it’s getting a bit old: The four hours of sleep, the rejections (few of my interview requests can ever be accommodated), the persistent hunger, the beyond-the-pale washrooms, the snobby journalists who eat all the food at catering before you can get a crack at it… It’s hard. But then you come across two superb films before the rest of the muggles and you forget the indignities. A few at least.

Whiplash (USA, 2014): The well-deserved winner of last Sundance Film Festival, Whiplash is a kick-ass film: Provocative, intelligent, so intense it could provoke anxiety by proxy. A never better Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) is Andrew, an eager music student at the best conservatory in New York. Andrew has drive and talent, so he is quickly scooped by Mr. Fletcher, the toughest instructor in the academy, for his jazz camera band. Tough is an understatement: In order for his students to achieve greatness, he’ll push his pupils beyond what’s proper, and even further than that.  Andrew is receptive to this methodology, thus ensuring his descent into hell. Private Gomer Pyle in Full Metal Jacket had it easier.

J.K. Simmons is phenomenal in this. He could scare the pants off Vern Schillinger, the neo-nazi character he played in Oz. A master manipulator, he can treat you like garbage, use personal information against you and you still would want his approval. Simmons deserves many awards for this. Whiplash is more than pitting student against teacher: The film wonders about the costs of greatness. Sure, Charlie Parker is still remembered today, but he died in his thirties, broke and full of heroin. Drive, hunger for becoming the best can wreak havoc in your personal life. Then again, is family and friends compensation enough to give up one’s dream? I loved this movie. I’ll write more about it when it opens in the Fall. For the moment, five prairie dogs in an obscure jazz joint.

Clouds of Sils Maria (France/USA, 2014): One of the meatiest dramas to pop up in this edition of TIFF is this film with superb work by Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart. La Binoche is Maria, an actress past her prime mourning the death of her mentor, an Ingmar Bergman-esque filmmaker. Maria gets the opportunity to revisit the film that launched her career, but now on stage and playing the “older woman” part. This trigger a fascinating introspective process in which she is forced to connect with a character she despised twenty years ago.

While this is Binoche’s movie (and how), Stewart’s role as Maria’s assistant and confidante is just as interesting. Even though their relationship is a good one, Maria’s empathy issues cause a rift between the women. Clouds of Sils Maria is the kind of film you have to watch a couple of times to fully captures all the nuances. Director Olivier Assayas composes two very rich female characters and the evolution of their rapport is not immediately apparent.

The third wheel in Clouds, Chloe Grace Moretz as a Lindsay Lohan-esque actress, is too broad to fit the tone of the movie. Thankfully, her role is fairly small, and Assayas is far more interested in what’s going on in María’s head. Even if film therapy is not your cup of tea, the inner workings of art-house European cinema is fascinating enough to keep you interested. Four self-involved prairie dogs.

Laggies (USA, 2014): I’m not a big fan of director Lynn Shelton. Her movies strike me as underwritten, shallow and overall insipid. Yet she is a favorite among actors because she lets them improvise. Somehow, that was enough for Keira Knightley and Sam Rockwell to agree to make this anodyne flick with her. Megan (Knightley) has a serious case of arrested development and when her boyfriend finally proposes, her reaction is to run away to a “seminar”. Actually, Megan is hiding at the house of a 16 year-old acquaintance (Chloe Grace Moretz, cornering the ‘troubled teenager’ market), whose dad (Rockwell) is easygoing and conveniently divorced.

Laggies is a one-note affair: Watch Megan behave inappropriately in adult circumstances. Watch Megan getting along better with teens than with her pretentious female friends. This alleged comedy only comes alive whenever Sam Rockwell is on screen and sadly, it’s not his movie. Two prairie dogs asking grown-ups to buy them booze.

It occurred to me that…

…the main film on display today at TIFF, The Judge, wouldn’t be any good. Sure, Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall star, but the director is David Dobkin, the guy who perpetrated Fred Claus and The Change-Up. I’ll catch it down the line.

…some serious crimes against fashion are being committed at the press and industry screenings.

Tomorrow, I’ll be interviewing Jason Reitman and Jennifer Garner. I hope he didn’t read my review of his peach cobbler movie. Also, Sydney Bristow!

Author: Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Journalist, film critic, documentary filmmaker, and sometimes nice guy. Member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Like horror flicks, long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners. Allergic to cats.

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