TIFF 2016

TIFF 2016 Diary: Day 5 - A Sexual Rebalance

 Jackie (Courtesy of TIFF)

Jackie (Courtesy of TIFF)

BY THOMAS BREEN

Jackie Onassis (Natalie Portman) takes a long drag on a cigarette, exhales, and looks her interviewer right in the eye as she says, "And by the way, I don't smoke." Una (Rooney Mara), her head in her hands, weeping half way through sex with a guy she barely knows, asks him to take her to his boss's place ... a ploy to find out where a troubled man from her youth now lives, with a new family and a new identity. A Korean jewel thief (Kim tae-ri), pretending to be a courtly handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, unwittingly seduces her mistress while trying to explain just what to expect from her male suitor's sexual advances.

These are a few scenes from movies at this year's Toronto International Film Festival that sought to complicate, if not undermine entirely, the traditional balance of sexual power in the movies, with men seemingly in positions of authority and women seemingly in positions of submission. A First Lady dismissed as shallow and decadent, a young woman living in the long shadow of childhood sexual abuse, a petty criminal working through layers of male deception and lust in order to betray her betrayers: Jackie, Una, and The Handmaiden all offer female perspectives on how to upset the traditional apple cart of misogynistic cinema. 

JACKIE

Pablo Larraín's Jackie focuses on the former First Lady Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy's grief, confusion and pride in the days following the assassination of her husband on November 22, 1963. Natalie Portman plays the recently widowed Jackie as a woman who, to quote Walt Whitman, contains multitudes: she is an accidental political figure deeply concerned with her husband's legacy; she is a mother determined to protect her two young children but defiant in the face of intimidation; she is a widow humiliated by her husband's infidelity, but undeterred in her mission to bring arts, refinement, dignity and tradition to the culture of the White House.

After the assassination, Jackie finds herself struggling with a number of crises of self: who is she, a woman who has been so defined in the public eye by her relationship to her husband, now that that husband is gone? How will she be remembered? How will her husband's legacy affect her own? 

But, of course, those questions are not new to the morning of November 23rd: amplified by loss, these are questions of identity and autonomy that have bedeviled Jackie since well before the Dallas shooting. For, as the movie implies through its focused examination of a single woman over the course of just a few days in 1963, these questions are latent to every marriage, and are particularly difficult to work through when weighed down by the stereotypes of the era. Women are frivolous, decadent, superficial, dependent, sexual but disposable, while men determine the path forward, for their families and for their country. Once the latter ceases to exist, what path forward for the former? 

These are the stereotypes that Jackie struggles with, and Larraín's savvy direction and Portman's complex performance give substance to a Jackie Kennedy who's strength and vulnerability lie in her attempts to exert some kind of authority over her own being. Portman plays the First Lady as someone cannily aware of her surroundings, concerned with appearance but also able to read a room and play off of her audience. Alone with a reporter, she is confident and authoritative; in front of a cellist, elegant and demure; with her brother-in-law, stern and unabashed.

Throughout the movie, Jackie questions again and again the state of herself, her family, and her prospective position in future history books. And, through that questioning, through the action she takes to understand past, present and future, she sheds any veneer of shallowness and emerges as a sad, strong, complex, complete human being.

UNA

 Una (Courtesy of TIFF)

Una (Courtesy of TIFF)

Una, a new psychological drama from director Benedict Andrews and based on the play "Blackbird" by David Harrower, follows a 28-year-old woman named Una (Rooney Mara) on her quest to find and confront Ray (Ben Mendelssohn), an older man who had an extended sexual relationship with her when she was 13 years old. Ray has moved on to a new job, a new name, and a new family after 4 years in jail for child sex abuse, while Una continues to be haunted by the past, longing for some revelation that will relieve her of her hatred and obsession. 

On the one hand, Una explores the harrowing psychological trauma of being abused as a child. The adult Una seems to be trapped in the self-destructive recklessness of her pre-teen self, desperate for validation but unable to accept it from anyone but Ray. The movie also derives much of its suspense from the way that it slowly unspools the subtle, insidious, manipulative psychology of the child abuser. Ben Mendelssohn's Ray is meek, deferential, wary of confrontation, characteristics which only serve to mask each lie that he tells, hidden beneath words of gentle affection. He is not a child molester, he asserts, he only fell in love with her. Someone unique, someone willing and equally complicit, not just any 13-year-old girl.

But the movie's greatest strength comes from Rooney Mara's performance as Una, a troubled woman with great determination but uncertain of exactly what she wants. She knows how to wield her sexuality as a way to get information, to control younger and more vulnerable men. But when it comes to her relationship with Ray, she is motivated as much by a yearning for reconciliation as for revenge. Which only adds to the horror, for Mara's performance never seeks to hide that unsealing pain and that struggle for self-control at her character's core. No longer a child, Una tries to figure out if she is still a victim. Or, at least, the same victim as she was at 13. Her pursuit of Ray, though far from cathartic, hints at a faint chance for a shift in that sexual power dynamic, however delayed and however bleak.

The Handmaiden

 The Handmaiden (Courtesy of TIFF)

The Handmaiden (Courtesy of TIFF)

Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden follows a young Korean girl (Kim tae-ri) from a family of thieves who is roped into a con job that has her acting as a courtly handmaiden to a secluded Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) who is on the brink of insanity.

Part of the joy of the movie is trying to keep up with its various plot twists and turns, so I'm reluctant to say too much more about the story itself. But the movie explores with great verve and intensity the idea that initial impressions of people almost always miss the complexity of their personalities, backgrounds, and motivations. When you are a con artist, that type of misapprehension is more than just unprofessional. It's fatal.

Like Park's 2003 feature OldboyThe Handmaiden can be motivated by sexual manipulation and control. But the women in this story are not just more clever than the men (in fact, everyone comes off as a bit of a buffoon at one point or another). The difference is that the sexual mockery and humiliation and exploitation that the women have had to endure over the course of their lives has inspired a desperate but controlled determination of which the indolent men are completely lacking. While the latter think that they are in control, deciding who is getting played and who will end up on top, they are merely the unwitting stooges for a long con perpetrated by two women who have shed those shackles and cannot be stopped. 

TIFF 2016 Diary: Day 4 - Moonlight

 Moonlight (Courtesy of TIFF)

Moonlight (Courtesy of TIFF)

BY THOMAS BREEN

During the first chapter of Barry Jenkins's coming-of-age drama Moonlight, a black child nicknamed Little (Alex R. Hibbert) learns how to swim. He's fled the home of a loving but narcissistic mother, and found unlikely refuge with the drug dealer who enables his mom's addiction. The dealer is gentle with Little: he wades into the ocean water with him, leaning him back into the waves as if conducting a baptism. The two are softened by the blue darkness, a rare moment of peace and connection for a man and a boy hardened by street life.

Every important moment in Little's life takes place on the beach: learning to swim, his first sexual encounter, a re-connection with a long, lost love. The sand, waves, and moonlight transform each slice-of-life experience into one of lyrical transcendence. 

Moonlight is first and foremost a movie about a young, gay black man growing up in Miami, Florida. Jenkins follows Little through three chapters of his young adulthood: as a child caught between two co-dependent families; as a teenager, now known by his birth name Chiron (Ashton Sanders), brooding and confused and angry over what makes him different from other high school students; and as a hardened Atlanta drug dealer, known by his street name Black (Trevante Rhodes), who abruptly decides to drive back to Florida to re-connect with the only man who's ever touched him. 

Jenkins provides a phenomenal texture to each extended moment in Little's life, allowing the audience to experience the same physical sensations felt by our acutely sensitive protagonist (the lapping of the water, the ocean breeze in his face, the sand between his fingers). Jenkins's will occasionally circle around a scene, or track patiently from behind, underscoring just how many little details make up the world immediately around us. For a young man like Chiron, so attuned to his surroundings and in such turmoil over who he is at his core, every one of those details matter.

For Moonlight is also a study of double consciousness, such a fundamental experience for many minorities in America, in which someone is required to live two lives at once: one for yourself and one for everyone around you. The scenes by the beach chronicle those rare moments when the two identities merge, when who you are elides with who you present as, when vulnerability leads to connection instead of to abuse. They are moments captured in and illuminated by moonlight, strange and safe and nonjudgmental. For Little, the turbulent times outside of that moonlight, when those two personae are in such violent conflict, are almost forgotten in the nighttime breeze. 

But they are not a bad dream. Nor are the scenes in the moonlight a good dream. They are all real, all part of this young man's life, and Moonlight captures those moments in all of their lyrical honesty better than just about any other movie this year.

TIFF 2016 Diary: Day 3 - The Birth of a Nation

 The Birth of a Nation (Courtesy of TIFF)

The Birth of a Nation (Courtesy of TIFF)

BY THOMAS BREEN

The Birth of a Nation is a serviceable biopic rendered extraordinary, controversial, and unsavory by circumstances seemingly unrelated to the movie itself. 

On the one hand, the movie offers an ambitious and much needed counterpoint to Hollywood's sordid history of stripping black voices from black stories. The movie follows the origin, realization, and aftermath of a slave rebellion in 1830s Virginia led by Nat Turner, a slave who learned to read, became a preacher, and found in the Bible ample justification for the overthrow of Southern plantation society. Nate Parker, the movie's young writer / director / star, tells the story from the perspective of the slaves themselves,  charting the abuse, resilience, and solidarity that culminated in the righteous uprising. 

Furthermore, the movie's title is an explicit homage to (or, rather, re-appropriation of) one of the most influential and racist movies of all time: D. W. Griffith's 1915 The Birth of a Nation, a pioneering work in cinematic storytelling that fondly recalls the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. In Nate Parker's hands, the title of the 2016 movie points towards the origin of a different nation: not the racist white America that legitimized lynching and codified racial discrimination in post-Civil War America, but an insurgent black civil rights movement that refused to kowtow to even the most violent of oppressors.

On the unsavory and unsettling side, the movie and its director have been the subject of heated debate over the past month after the revelation of a rape accusation against Parker from when he was a student at Penn State in 1999. Parker was acquitted of the charge, and the victim wound up committing suicide in 2012. 

While Parker has oscillated between defiant, penitent, and contemplative in various interviews he's given about the alleged rape (as well as about his male privilege and its accompanying attitude of indifference), the conversation about on-campus sexual violence perpetrated by the young filmmaker has followed closely in the wake of any conversation around the film itself.

Many film critics are reluctant to judge a movie based on such "extra-textual" concerns, and understandably so. The movie as a self-contained work of art is open to a variety of interpretations once it makes the transition from being just in the head of its creator(s) to being available on screens for audiences to grapple with. After a movie has been created and been made available to watch, it belongs as much to the audience as it does to the director. The Birth of a Nation is a movie, like any other movie, that can be watched and thought about and appreciated and fought over without any knowledge of the roiling debate around it.

So, what about the movie itself? The Birth of a Nation is an affecting, uneven, and relatively conventional biopic. Nate Parker as writer, director and actor carves out a narrative arc for Nat Turner that contains little surprise but brims with ambition, emotion, and inspiration. Turner and his fellow slaves suffer tremendous injustice at the hands of rapacious slave owners; his heroic leadership emerges inevitably from his birthright, but only after a revelation that lets him shake his own complacency; his righteous self-sacrifice transcends the brutality of the moment, and ensures a legacy of emancipation. He is a Jesus-like figure chosen from birth to help lead his people from physical and spiritual bondage, and he does not disappointment.

Although there is plenty of violence in The Birth of a Nation, the movie is surprisingly conservative (sometimes even thoughtless) in its depiction and consideration of said brutality. The rape of black women by white men plays an important role in the narrative, and yet Parker offers little reflection on these moments other than that they are painful for the women who suffer it and emasculating for the men who love them. 12 Years a Slave, which also explored the relationship between slavery and sexual violence, brought an honesty and intense psychological realism to each scene of sexual abuse. That movie challenge the audience to grapple with rape as a vicious exertion of power, and therefore a terrifying technique of subjugation and control, as opposed to simply non-consensual sex. 

A first time filmmaker, Parker is eager to imbue each frame of The Birth of a Nation with symbolic resonance: an ear of corn overflowing with blood, an iridescent butterfly on the breast of a lynched black body. Much like the narrative arc of Nat Turner himself, this penchant for sudden, miraculous and sorrowful images seems to be of a piece with a reverence for biblical storytelling. 

And yet, Parker lacks the patience and compositional eye to give these images the richness to convey multiple meanings at once, let alone the power to stick with an audience after they have left the theater. One need only look at a single, extended long shot from 12 Years a Slave, of Solomon Northup half-lynched and struggling as life passes as usual around him on the plantation, to understand all of the horror made mundane under slavery. 

With all of that said, I do think it is important (or, at least, inevitable) to bring some of the Nate Parker story and some of the history of racism in Hollywood to the theater with you when you watch The Birth of a Nation. Just as a movie is a self-contained work of art that can be judged on its own, it is also a product of a specific historical-cultural moment as well as of a specific group of creative people. Just as the 1915 The Birth of a Nation came at a time of nostalgia for the genteel white privilege of the antebellum South, with many white Americans yearning for reconciliation between the North and the South at the expense of truly grappling with the horrid racism perpetrated against African-Americans throughout American history, the 2016 The Birth of a Nation comes at a time when Americans of all different types are acutely aware of the persistence of racial discrimination as well as the oft-overlooked silencing of women who have been victims of sexual assault. This movie is a mediocre though promising work of cinema, but it has also come out right at a time when its themes and its history are not just relevant, but critical for everyone in this country to think about. And as a piece of that conversation alone, I am glad this movie is getting all of the attention it has been getting, extra-textual or not.

TIFF 2016 Diary: Day 2 - Rob Lawinsky

 Rob Lawinsky (left) and Arnold Gorlick (Thomas Breen photo)

Rob Lawinsky (left) and Arnold Gorlick (Thomas Breen photo)

BY THOMAS BREEN

The second day of the Toronto International Film Festival saw a number of highly anticipated screenings, including Tom Ford's NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, Denis Villeneuve's ARRIVAL, and J. A. Bayona's A MONSTER CALLS. Although each merits its own full review (particularly the heady linguistics-and-sci-fi ARRIVAL), I want to turn today's post slightly away from the movies themselves and towards a man who plays a critical role in bringing those movies to theaters across the country. 

I spent most of Friday morning and afternoon hopping from theater to theater with Rob Lawinsky and Arnold Gorlick. Arnold is the owner and operator of the Madison Art Cinemas in Madison, Connecticut, and has been on Deep Focus a number of times. We'll be catching up with him about his experience at TIFF 2016 on a future episode of the show.

Rob Lawinsky, a New Jersey native who has been a close friend and a trusted business partner of Arnold's for almost 20 years, is the head of Brielle Cinemas, where he acts as a film buyer and a film contract negotiator for small theaters across New England and the Mid Atlantic. 

While waiting on line for our third screening of the day, I spoke with Rob about what a film buyer does and what brought him to this year's TIFF. See below for an edited transcript of the interview, and click on the audio player at the bottom of the post to listen to the complete conversation.

Deep Focus: What does a film buyer do?

Rob Lawinsky: As a film buyer for movie theaters around the United States, I help decide what films those theaters play over the course of the year. I work with mom-and-pop owned theaters: twins, triples, quads. They're not big 14 or 16-screen plexes, where you can just book a film and not worry about what you're playing because you can never be wrong. My job as a film buyer is to try to see every film that's out there so that people at my organization can have a discussion with our clients, explaining to them what we thought of the film and giving them input on what to bring to their theaters. There's so much information out there on the Internet, so clients know what movies are coming up and they can see what the projected grosses are. But sometimes you just need to be there in the theater to see a film and really get a feel for it, and that's what my organization does.

Deep Focus: How many theaters do you work with? And where are they located?

Rob Lawinsky: I program 45 different locations, which is about 190 screens across the United States. I work with theaters in Florida, Iowa, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. But we're pretty much doing business with all of the different studio offices. Most studios have only two branches in the United States now: one in New York and one in Los Angeles. Whereas when I first started in the business 40 years ago, there were branches in almost every city in almost every state. But now with the Internet and computers, the studios don't need all of these offices, they don't need all of these people. However, you can really do business anywhere, book any theater, as long as you have the right knowledge about what you're doing.

Deep Focus: Tell me a bit about your relationship with Arnold Gorlick and the Madison Art Cinemas.

Rob Lawinsky: Over 17 years ago, Arnold reached out through a friend of his and asked if we'd be interested in booking his theater. I never turn down an account! But from there, we've become personal friends. And the unique thing about Arnold is that he's a real showman. Not a lot of people will do what he does in the business, such as get up before the audience and announce the film. He has a cinema club. He's a throwback to the old days of being a real showman, and he has such a passion for this business. 

Deep Focus: How has your work as a film buyer changed over the years?

Rob Lawinsky: One issue I encounter now is, even with the conversion of most theaters' projection from film to digital, the studios have so much access to grosses and to seeing the potential of theaters that they can be very reluctant to partner with low grossing theaters. On a 3,300 print run in the United States, they'll say, that theater doesn't gross, so let's not send them the film. My job is to fight for these smaller theaters, to put the pressure on the studios, even though they're showing comparable grosses of other pictures. Because these smaller theaters need to survive. They've spent so much money on digital equipment, and they need every possible picture. They've installed this digital, it doesn't cost the studios that much to make a hard drive. And it's a relationship. When they need theaters from me, I deliver. And when I need for these little guys, I expect the same thing from them. But it's an ongoing fight. That's my job, representing these guys. And I do take it personally. I treat each deal as if it were for my own theater.

Deep Focus: Why do you come to TIFF?

Rob Lawinsky: I'm here to see all of the upcoming art product, and the studio product too. I'll get a leg up on this, and will go back to my clients and talk about what I've seen that hasn't been released yet and what they're going to possibly be playing in their theaters over the next few months. Plus, I just love movies.

TIFF 2016 Diary: Day 1 - Fathers and Mothers, Sons and Daughters

 AFTER THE STORM (Courtesy of TIFF)

AFTER THE STORM (Courtesy of TIFF)

BY THOMAS BREEN

The 41st annual Toronto International Film Festival kicked off its first day of screenings yesterday with a slate of films that explored the endlessly complicated, joyful, and emotionally gut-wrenching relationship that exists between parents and children.

A perennial topic of artistic angst and inspiration, generational conflict and its tragic inevitability are defining elements of everything from Oedipus Rex to American Pastoral. A few of the movies that played at TIFF on Thursday, from Hirokazu Kore-eda's AFTER THE STORM to Maren Ade's TONI ERDMANN to Stella Meghie's JEAN OF THE JONESES, picked up on this theme, offering a unique vantage on the familiar question of familial inheritance.

These movies went beyond merely showing how the sins of the parent are passed on to the child. They took that extra step towards evaluating the consequences of that transference, and tentatively offering a solution (as challenging and painful as it may be) towards some kind of filial acceptance and reconciliation. 

AFTER THE STORM

 AFTER THE STORM (Courtesy of TIFF)

AFTER THE STORM (Courtesy of TIFF)

Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda is no stranger to movies about the subtle but painful miscommunication between parents and children. In his 2013 film LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON, Kore-eda followed a father so convinced of the superiority of his bloodline that he trades the 10-year-old son he has raised as his own in exchange for a biological son accidentally placed with another family at birth. Needless to say, neither son is thrilled with the swap, and the father soon recognizes that a child's personality, abilities, and happiness are determined by more than just biology.

In his latest film, AFTER THE STORM, which played at TIFF on Thursday morning, Kore-eda tells the story of a writer-turned-private detective with a serious gambling habit who yearns to win back the love of an estranged ex-wife and a confused young son.

At first glance, Hiroshi Abe's Shinoda Ryota is a variation on the private detective character type that has been so central to the movies for well over half a century. Perceptive, disheveled, and altruistic against his better judgment, Ryota has just enough wits to think he's one step ahead of his mark ... until he realizes that the roles are, and perhaps have always been, reversed. He is the vulnerable one, not just because of the unfairness and indifference of his environment, but because of his inability to recognize his own shortcomings.

But AFTER THE STORM, an understated and heartfelt movie, is much closer to an Ozu family drama then it is to a Bogart film noir. The camera is still and low to the ground; each image is composed with clarity and sensitivity to the rectangular framing of domestic settings; and every emotion, every painful revelation, is filtered through the slowest of burns, making its impact, when discovered, all the more profound. 

Ryota's skills as a writer and detective, as well as the depths of his gambling addiction and paranoia, all find their way into a complicated psychological portrait of a loving father unable to take care of himself, let alone an entire family. And yet, his character arc is not one of penitence and reform.

Rather, he and his family come to an understanding that Ryota can only change himself so much. His good humor and self-destructive habits, inherited squarely from his estranged and recently deceased father and encouraged in his soft-spoken but wide-eyed son, can only be changed so much. As Ryota and his family lovingly chase after lotto tickets during a typhoon in a heartwarming and heartbreaking scene towards the end of the movie, Kore-eda seems to suggest that the most potent tool for familial reconciliation is loving yourself, accepting yourself, appreciating those around you, while still trying to be the best version of who you inevitably are.

TONI ERDMANN

 TONI ERDMANN (Courtesy of TIFF)

TONI ERDMANN (Courtesy of TIFF)

The second masterpiece of the day that offered as unflinching and thorough an examination of a parent-child relationship as any movie in recent memory was Maren Ade's TONI ERDMANN.

In this nearly 3-hour long German-language film, Sandra Hüller plays Ines Conradi, an ambitious and overworked consultant for an oil company who lives in Bucharest, Romania, and Peter Simonischeck plays her father, Winfried Conradi, a schlubby, good-natured middle school teacher from Aachen, Germany who loves to play practical jokes. Sensing that his daughter is not nearly as happy in her inscrutable white-collar workplace as she claims to be, Winfried spontaneously pays her an extended visit in Bucharest, unleashing a string of practical jokes that go from harmless to deeply uncomfortable to surprisingly revelatory.

Much like AFTER THE STORM, TONI ERDMANN identifies an inability to live in and appreciate the present moment as one of the chief ills of modern life. But that impatience and myopia do not manifest themselves in some purely abstract or even social or economic way. They are rooted in the most intimate of relationships, between father and daughter, and drive the two apart in a way that workplace successes and frustrations could never approach.

Humor, TONI ERDMANN suggests, is one key that may allow a parent and child to reclaim some of that perspective that leads to understanding and love. Humor allows these characters to take a step back, to take a step out of their lives and into a moment disconnected from the pressures of customs, codes, workplace discrimination and filial miscommunication. 

As Hüller's and Simonischeck's fearless acting and Ade's assured directing help achieve a near-perfect balance of comedy and pathos, TONI ERDMANN returns to humor again and again as more than just a vehicle for laughter. It is a balm for a relationship previously frayed by distance and neglect, now connected through some kind of understanding (achieved through the most uncomfortable and hilarious of pursuits).

JEAN OF THE JONESES

 JEAN OF THE JONESES (Courtesy of TIFF)

JEAN OF THE JONESES (Courtesy of TIFF)

Stella Meghie's JEAN OF THE JONESES, one of the last films to play on TIFF's first day of screenings, follows a similar theme as AFTER THE STORM and TONI ERDMANN in its pursuit to understand the root causes of, and ultimate remedies for, filial discord and chaos in a specific family.

Taylour Paige plays Jean Jones, a young African-American writer from Brooklyn who has stalled out in her life. Two years after publishing her first book to wide acclaim, she seems to have squandered her artistic promise (and its accompanying monetary advances) on clothes, booze, self-hatred, and familial squabbling. When her long lost grandfather suddenly appears and then just as suddenly disappears, she tries to redirect her flailing energy to navigating her dysfunctional family and various neuroses with some hope of getting closure for both.

Unlike Kore-eda's and Ade's near-perfect films, JEAN OF THE JONESES suffers from one too many cinematic stumbling blocks, from its overwritten screenplay and meandering scenes to a distractingly fluffy score. But one of its great strengths is its exploration of the frenzied dynamic of a family that is simultaneously secretive and gregarious. Each generation, from grandmother to aunts and mother to Jean herself, possesses a self-loathing and distrust of others that inevitably results in further personal and interpersonal chaos. As Meghie and Jean steer the family away from duplicity and towards honesty, however painful that may be, the Joneses come to embrace one another as they begin to accept and love themselves.