Saturday, September 6, 2014

2014 Toronto International Film Festival | Update One

You do not realize how much you have missed the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) until you settle down in the darkening theater just as your first film screening is about to begin and the title card warning against video recording pops up on the screen, and avid festival goers howl "aawrrr" at the screen. All at once. I have no idea as to what started this. Or what it means. It is an old TIFF tradition, present at least since the first time I started attending this most equitable of film festivals in 2006. But somehow the sound of all of us unknown movie lovers howling in unison at the screen like dogs at the moon, is unexpectedly comforting. 

The first day of screenings is a wet one, with rains pelting cinephiles waiting in lines snaking across multiple blocks ahead of each screening at each venue. The rains seem cruel, but this is a sturdy lot of moviegoers, unfazed by lightning and instantly soaked clothing and squishy shoes. Toronto, ordinarily a city of enviable infrastructure and efficiency, seems to have added its own impediment this year with road constructions on every other street in downtown area where the TIFF Lightbox headquarters and surrounding other festival venues are located. Add to that streets closed off to road traffic specifically for TIFF activities/premieres/red-carpets, and it makes for quite an obstacle course to get to the film venues on time for those who do not live in the immediate vicinity. But as I said, this is a town where cinema is religion, and the masses show up in hordes for the festival. 

TIFF 2014 publicity still for FORCE MAJEURE
The film FORCE MAJEURE arrived to TIFF already on the waft of rapturous reviews out of Cannes. And it did one of the more difficult thing for movies to do: live up to high expectations. What a film this is. First of all, it is majestic just from a technical standpoint. Conceptually, it is the examination of the consequences of a single act that plays out as a tightrope walk of grand suspense.  Some filmmakers have a spark to their work; you can sense a grandness, a flourish to every scene in their films. You can sense this in the films of Fincher, Nolan, the Coen brothers. Writer-director Ruben Ostlund is a master aesthetist and earns the right to be compared to those filmmakers. There is an obvious pivotal scene in FORCE MAJEURE around which the entire film pivots and that alone is worth the price of admission for its technical grandeur. But set that money shot aside; even then, the film is remarkable for how neatly and studiously the shots have been culled together, with beautiful long, long takes that both present as challenges to the actors (some of them kids) and allow them to do remarkable work. And the sound design! The sound design is pristine; the creaking of ski lifts, the vacuum cleaner in a hotel lobby, the roar of an avalanche - all add incomparably to the texture of this film.

I have deliberately not mentioned much about the plot. Not that this would be a terrible spoiler, and these days so much of a film's plot is generally known even before it is released. But I enjoyed this film as much as I did because I knew little about it going in. So I hope the principal moral inquiry at the center of this film is not given away by reviews. I will say this much though: the movie is set around the inhabitants of a ski resort in Sweden. And while the film proceeds about its business, it makes wry observations about relationships - the soft, vulnerable, unexamined, scrupulously ignored underbellies of relationships - as it focuses its gaze on several couples. And even when the gaze is terse, there is an intelligence to the examination that is exacting, precise. And lest this sound too lofty, I want to assure you that there is easily earned humor at every turn in this film. And wit. In one scene, two characters start to argue in the elevator of the ski resort, and their words are getting to an increasingly dangerous place. The elevator stops, and a hotel staff member steps into the elevator with a huge cart, forcing the characters to back all the way to the rear. The scene ends there. And you smile realizing that this couple has literally been pushed into a corner. At another point, a wife says the following words to her husband upon returning to their room after a testy dinner conversation: "What's wrong? That's not us!" It is a marvelous way to think of one's relationship. This is the quintessential film that will trigger intense debate upon viewing. 

The second film I watched today was MARY KOM, which is a biopic about India's first female Olympic boxing medalist. Mary Kom, born Chungneijang in a rural corner of northeastern India, rose to prominence in a sport dominated by men in a country where female athletes already have a tougher ride. Outspoken and spirited, she earned the ire of many within the Indian Boxing Federation by voicing her complaints about their abysmal lack of support for athletes. She stepped away from the sport at the peak of her popularity soon after she got married and had kids, only to return back and re-challenge her position as the most winning Indian female medalist in boxing. Her journey involved challenges with many: her parents who were justifiably concerned about her prospects, a hard-to-please boxing coach, as well as numerous adversaries in the professional matches.

When you have a story that is this strong, the best thing a director can do is to get out of its way. Unfortunately, this treatment relies too heavily on melodrama that mostly comes off as unearned. So that the true accomplishments of this individual appear depicted on screen as rote and shallow. Were this film not so bent on manipulating an emotional response from the audience at any cost, it could have been a quieter, more powerful endeavor. Mary Kom is played in the film by Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra, who in spite of having impressively worked on the physical transformation for the role, remained unconvincing to me. And unable to get behind the essence of this individual. Part of the problem may be a shallow, paint-by-the-numbers script that jumps from adversity to adversity, and has too few scenes that clamp down on the motivations of the central character. We have seen this story in any number of sports films, and when they work they can be remarkably potent; there is a reason the ROCKY films are so effective. 

There are a few pieces that work well in MARY KOM, including Mary's relationship with her husband, as well as scenes involving a farm cow.  But it comes off as a lost opportunity. The universal female struggle to find balance between career and family is so much more heightened when your career happens to be competive sports; that this film misses the chance to tap into this with respect and depth speaks to its failure. By the time the Indian National Anthem played in the last act in a shamelessly jingoistic attempt to further rouse audience fervor, I had had enough. 

Tomorrow will be another day at TIFF. Stay posted. 

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