TIFF 2013: Final Recap
I’m home from the Toronto International Film Festival and managed to finish my reviews of Dallas Buyers Club, The Green Inferno and Devils Knot which took me all week because I kept piling on new movies in my memory and notes. I still have some interviews to transcribe and file, but I want to knock out the last batch of TIFF movies I saw for you, before I’m off to Fantastic Fest. Unfortunately, these include some of the bigger disappointments of TIFF, but that’s part of the deal.
All is By My Side
Writer/director John Ridley takes an interesting approach to the Jimi Hendrix story. Not that he sticks to one year of Hendrix’s life in the London music scene, that’s a reasonable angle to take. Ridley avoids the on the nose biopic by cutting scenes short and giving us this moment while depriving us of that moment. Phone calls intercut with music performances and cut off sentences. You have to work to follow this movie, in a good way.
It’s a little abstract and the conversations Hendrix have are more like impressions. Ridley has a few technical tricks too, like aging footage to look like ‘60s television. I really liked a shot where Ridley took out the sound of the strumming and we only hear the licks of Hendrix fingering the guitar.
We see Hendrix take a lot of drugs, but he’s flakey even when he’s sober. Very much a ‘60s hippie, Hendrix won’t commit to things, favoring more of a big picture philosophy. That gets him in a lot of trouble when he encounters some racist cops. Dude, that’s not the time to preach philosophy. Just cooperate and get home safely. He can be distracted, especially when businessmen are trying to talk about his career. Hendrix was abusive too and we see him hit his girlfriend.
Obviously I learned a lot about Hendrix from this movie, particularly the warts and all stuff, but also how he kind of stood in his own way before he hit it big. The soundtrack is minimal because it’s a lot of short jams or pieces of songs, but hopefully they recorded the whole thing for an album. Also, the title on screen is Jimi: All is By My Side. I kind of like that, let people know who the movie is about. I wonder if that’ll be the release title, but it was in the TIFF catalog without the Jimi.
This may have been my biggest disappointment of TIFF because I loved the movie Joel Edgerton wrote and Nash Edgerton directed, The Square, and was looking forward to seeing the new one one Joel wrote. Unfortunately, while Felony has its heart in the right place, it is a middling drama.
An Australian cop Mal (Edgerton) accidentally runs into a bicyclist on the road. He calls for an ambulance but doesn’t admit he was involved. While the boy lingers in the hospital, Mal debates coming all the way forward while his boss Carl (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Melissa George) tell him not to. Officer Melic (Jai Courtney) suspects Mal, but Carl really doesn’t like Melic looking into things.
It’s like Edgerton knows it’s supposed to be complicated but didn’t think about why, let alone about specific indicators of guilt and remorse. It’s a good moral question, but Felony is such a slow burn you don’t really feel like it’s dealing with anything. Mel really goes about his daily life. He’s sitting with it but it’s not propulsive or explosive.
On a basic level, I get it. Real people may not have dramatically satisfying arcs when they deal with complicated issues. I appreciate that Melic is more than just a by-the-books suit who insists on following the rules. He seems conflicted too, but there’s just no juicy drama in this morality play.
Half of a Yellow Sun
Half of a Yellow Sun is a true story about the fight for independence in Nigeria. It balances the political story with the way personal relationships develop through historical events. This was a period of history of which I was completely unaware, so it was informative while remaining dramatically satisfying, if sometimes feeling like the narrative is shoehorned around specific events to make sure to get them all in.
Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a womanizer, but with the country in conflict, Olanna (Thandie Newton) is more inclined to make the relationship work with him. These are “flawed” characters, I say in quotes because adultery and forgiveness are pretty basic stories. Maybe they didn’t want to dig deeper with all the historical stuff they had to address. Man, when did I get so numb that I need moral ambiguity bigger than the Ten Commandments? But here we are.
For those of us not familiar with the history, the film has a nice visual way of keeping us oriented. Text on the screen identifies the region, which is a good way to contextualize an evacuation. The scenes of war are harrowing with military violence and blatant shooting. This is a chronicle of people balancing a political situation, their own well-being and their feelings about an explosive tragedy. There are good, demonstrative details like when a village needs a doctor but misunderstands that Odenigbo has a doctorate, not a medical degree.
It’s a bit like “scenes from the Nigerian independence movement,” which is why I feel like sometimes they’re hitting the key points of big moments in the history, but spreading the narrative thin to include it all. Compare it to a historical drama like Hotel Rwanda that focused on a very contained situation; but to be fair, there was no contained situation like that in Nigerian independence, at least not a single moment in this film that could have been expanded into an entire film itself. It’s a portrait of the history and the struggles, with scarcity rearing its head. These are sobering incidents and the world needs to be informed, even if on film it feels like plot points.
Boy, for a movie about walking, Tracks really doesn’t go anywhere at all. The true story of Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska)’s trek across the Australian outback on foot sounded like an exciting real world adventure. The script seems to focus on all the boring parts of her journey, the times she stopped in a village rather than the thrill of the journey or dangers she faced.
We do see Davidson training, learning how to ride a camel, harden her feet and castrate camel balls. It pays off when she fends off a camel bull attack on the way, but then there are long stretches of standing around. Her photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver) and others keep trying to make Davidson take safety precautions and it’s overtly reinforced that Davidson doesn’t get along with people. Tourists disrespect her mission and her aboriginal guides, but those are all stagnant scenes. Yeah, she meets different people, both good and bad, on her journey. What else you got?
I suppose the third act gets into the danger. There are some interesting details like the way Davidson kept cool and then covered herself if anyone approached her. A lot of the potential dangers are only reminders of threats rather than palpable threats, as they don’t actually threaten her. We just know they’re dangerous so she should be careful. I don’t want to spoil it, but you see something that you think is going to hurt her, and then it doesn’t. Some bad stuff does happen, but it feels manipulative. I mean, if these are the facts of the history that Davidson wrote about in National Geographic and her book Tracks, what can you do? Maybe then make a movie about someone else, or at least do a better job finding the drama in the story.