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TIFF 2014: The Cult of Personality with “Welcome to Me,” “While We’re Young”

Themes emerge on days two and three of a film festival, as the common issues that have fascinated filmmakers in 2014 become apparent: our modern need for attention, often via celebrity; our disconnect through technology that was designed to bring us together; a longing for an individual success in a world in which climbing any sort of ladder seems to get more and more difficult. Are these issues really there in the films of TIFF 2014 or does the art of seeing five or six movies a day force the brain to make connections that otherwise won’t be made? Who can say for sure? However, Lou Bloom’s sociopathic need for success in “Nightcrawler” on day two isn’t dissimilar from Alice Krieg’s more defined borderline personality disorder in Shira Piven’s “Welcome to Me.”

In Piven’s film, the increasingly interesting Kristen Wiig plays Alice, a woman who hasn’t turned off her TV in over a decade, spending most of her days and nights watching old VHS tapes of Oprah Winfrey’s show, and convincing herself that she’s a winner if she believes she is. Her doctor (Tim Robbins) doesn’t like the fact that Alice has gone off her meds, and her friends (including Linda Cardellini and Alan Tudyk) worry about Alice’s self-destructive behavior. What’s one of the most potentially dangerous things that could happen to someone who should arguably have round-the-clock care? Complete financial freedom.

Alice wins the lottery--$86 million. She decides that she wants to inspire others the same way that Oprah inspired her. Arriving on the set of a late-night infomercial, Alice convinces the team behind the program to launch “Welcome to Me with Alice Krieg,” by cutting the flailing network a giant check. James Marsden, Wes Bentley, Joan Cusack, and a tragically wasted Jennifer Jason Leigh play the people behind “Welcome to Me,” a collection of Alice’s rambling thoughts, reenactments of painful memories from her past, and even live pet surgeries for those looking to get their dogs neutered.

It’s undeniable that we live in an era that often takes people who need mental care and turns them into quasi-celebrities through the medium of reality TV. It’s plausible that an “emotional exhibitionist” like Alice Krieg would get a decent following in a culture that values oddity as much as humanity, and Piven’s film gets at the inherent selfishness of mental illness in interesting ways. Until it doesn’t. “Welcome to Me” is half a movie, a film with an interesting set-up but a shallow follow-through. It also falls into a sub-category of filmmaking that increasingly aggravates me in that it presents mental illness as something of a punchline instead of a reality.

If a line can be drawn from “Nightcrawler” to “Welcome to Me,” it certainly could stop at Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” along the way. Baumbach’s most easily accessible, commercial film produced big laughs at its world premiere on Saturday night, attended by stars Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried.

Reuniting with his “Greenberg” writer/director, Stiller plays a documentary filmmaker named Josh without the traditional, societal focuses of work or family. Oh, he works, but he’s been making the same film for ten years. And he tried to have kids with his wife Cornelia (Watts) but it didn’t work out and the two have decided to go on without children of their own, even if that’s the life path of all of their friends, including a close one played by Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys (complete with Khakis and gray hair that should make viewers of my generation feel their age).

Just as Josh and Cornelia are starting to notice that not having a family is giving them less in common with the people in their lives, they run into Jamie (Driver, who is easily the MVP of the film, doing possibly his best work to date) and Darby (Seyfried) after one of Josh’s documentary film classes. Jamie is a fan, which instantly intrigues Josh. And the fortysomething couple and the twentysomething couple begin to hang out, bringing cultural differences between the generations to the surface. The “hipster generation” has often been painted as one that has pushed away the technology with which they have grown up. And so Jamie and Darby work on a wood table that he made; he uses a typewriter; she makes her own ice cream, with flavors like avocado; they have a massive vinyl collection; you get the idea. Josh and Cornelia find themselves drawn to the energy of this youthful world, leaving their friends behind, buying new clothes and going to hip-hop workout classes.

At its core, “While We’re Young” is a relatively standard mid-life crisis movie. We’ve seen dozens of movies about men and women who reach a certain age and try to recapture youth, although Baumbach portrays that effort as more of a poisoned venture than you might first expect. Without spoiling the film, Baumbach seems to be saying that hipster-ism is a façade, but not in the judgmental manner you may expect. This is just the way it is. Sure, you may disconnect from Facebook and hold beach parties in the street, but you’re still an asshole.

There were BIG laughs at the Wales on Saturday night; “While We’re Young” is the kind of film that could easily break out of the independent film release pattern to find mainstream success. Almost too much so. Many of Baumbach’s targets here feel a bit too easy and the paint strokes a bit too broad. It’s shooting Kangol hat-wearing fish in a bourbon-soaked barrel. So, while it’s way more fun than Baumbach’s fans may expect, it’s also a bit easy, and I expect it will age poorly, being more of a commentary on our era than a timeless piece about generational rifts. It’s fun, but a bit flat, and it was interesting to hear the divided response to it immediately after the film as fans of Baumbach’s work, most notably “Frances Ha,” seemed disappointed, while those cold to him embraced something a bit more accessible. I’m in the middle.

There is no middle for Peter Strickland’s fascinating “The Duke of Burgundy,” the highly anticipated follow-up to 2012’s “Berberian Sound Studio,” which also premiered here. Strickland introduced the film at its Saturday night premiere with possibly the funniest bit of preface I’ve heard at a festival. First, he thanked people “Without whom, you’d be watching The Judge.” And then he made sure to ask if he forgot anyone, conveying the story of a fight over a football game that ended with “You didn’t thank me at the premiere!” Finally, he rattled off a list of supposed film errors he had caught at the P&I screening earlier that day, including a boom mic shadow at 3:27 and a compost heap continuity problem at 11:34. Funny guy.

NOT a funny movie. If “Berberian Sound Studio” featured Strickland playing with audio, “Duke” examines other senses, to the degree that it has a “Perfume by” in the opening credits and actually goes on to feel like it earned it. There’s a “Lingerie” credit too, and that definitely took some work as the film’s two leads are almost always in a state of undress. Paying homage (again) to Italian film of the ‘70s, Strickland has made a psychosexual drama about patterns, power, sex and degradation. It’s a fascinating experiment, one that produces a remarkable sense of unease and uncertainty despite its beautiful surface. Like one of the insects that serves as its thematic visual background, it features striking, refined beauty that hides the dirt and grime from which it comes and to which it returns.

In the film’s opening scene, a beautiful young woman named Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) bicycles to a home. She rings the bell, her employer Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) answers and tells her that she’s late, and that she should try not to take so much time cleaning this time. She verbally abuses a shaken Evelyn. And then, when Evelyn fails at getting the soap off her employer's panties, Cynthia has to punish her.

Of course, this relationship is not at all what it seems. Who has the power? What produces passion? “The Duke of Burgundy” is a film about a dominant-submissive sexual relationship that subverts the traditional role in that it is the more “cold” of the two that wants for more warmth. If a partner demands that her lover be dominant, who is really the submissive?

“The Duke of Burgundy” is a gorgeous film with the kind of attention to set design, costumes and refined detail that dazzles in every scene. And yet that beauty hides the kind of behavior that most people would call disgusting. It’s a film with perfume and lingerie budgets that also includes the line “Would a human toilet be a suitable compromise?” Strickland finds a way to blur the ugly and the elegant in a manner that has rarely been seen before, using the filmic language of Giallo and even Roman Polanski’s ‘70s works to tell a story that feels bizarre but relatable, and he draws genuine performances from his two leads. It’s definitely not a film for everyone—it’s even “stranger” than his last one—but it’s a remarkable accomplishment of form, as Evelyn & Cynthia’s patterns blur with the visual patterns of the filmmaker, which blur with the patterns of insect beauty created by Mother Nature.

The first act of Javier Fuentes-León’s “The Vanished Elephant” has a similarly unsettling tone, keeping viewers unsure of its final destination. Salvador del Solar stars as Edo Celeste, a world famous writer haunted by the loss of his fiancée Celia seven years earlier. As he’s finishing up what he plans to be his final novel featuring a detective named Felipe Aranda, he gets summoned by Mara (Angie Cepeda), a woman who lost her husband on the same day that Celia disappeared. She received an envelope with pictures that may explain what happened to their loved ones. Meanwhile, an artist making a production of Celeste’s work brings an actor into the writer’s life who looks disturbingly familiar. He’s the same man who Edo has pictured as Aranda as he’s written for years. He IS Aranda. Is he? Or is he someone else? And does he have a connection to what happened to Celia?

“The Vanished Elephant” starts as a traditional mystery/noir but develops beats of Kafka or Charlie Kaufmann as it unravels. Who is the writer? Who is the character? Who is the actor? It’s very confidently made and features a strong central performance from del Solar but it kind of comes apart as it progresses. Even as it goes off the rails narratively, it’s never boring. I wish it came together in a more satisfying way, but it falls apart in an interesting manner, which is more than can be said about some of TIFF 2014’s failures.

Finally, there’s Midnight Madness entry “Big Game,” a movie that perfectly illustrates the cycle of buzz at a festival like this one. Going into Friday night, there was little hype for a film in which Samuel L. Jackson plays the President of the United States, stuck in the Finnish wilderness after terrorists take his plane down, forced to fight for survival with only a 13-year-old kid as his companion. After the screening, Twitter and social media exploded, with many critics and viewers claiming adoration for it, and suddenly turning the next morning’s P&I into a hot ticket. I switched plans, jumped in, and realized that the general dismissal of the film pre-screening was wrong—it’s well made and often fun—but the rapturous Midnight Madness responses were a bit overblown as well.

“Big Game” is a nod to ‘80s Amblin action films, a movie with a small budget and obvious character motivations. Jackson is POTUS; talented newcomer Onni Tommila is the kid; Ray Stevenson is the traitor (no spoiler…it’s obvious early); Victor Garber, Ted Levine, Felicity Huffman and Jim Broadbent lead the high-powered cast back in D.C., basically watching the action unfold via satellite video. It’s a refreshingly simple action movie in the middle of films that seek to comment on the human condition, and it’s that lack of complication that I believe critics are embracing. I think, at home, away from the environment of a festival, it will be revealed to be a bit flat, almost too simple in its narrative and delivery. Here, as writers try to draw lines from film to film, it's a nice bit of film festival diversion.


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