Trying to take the works programmed at a film festival and fit them into neat little boxes like period pieces, foreign films, horror, documentaries or films with obvious narrative commonalities always leaves a few movies without a category. Consider this the "Catch-All Dispatch," finding a place to pick up titles I haven’t mentioned yet, one of which you absolutely, undeniably have to see as soon as possible, and two more with big stars trying their best to salvage mediocre scripts. All five played at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, and that’s about all they have in common.
The best American film of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival also happened to be the best American film of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. That’s how strongly I feel about Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” a riveting portrait of two people working out the theory that pressure turns coal into a diamond. How do we take raw talent and turn it into timeless artistic genius? There are plenty of talented writers, musicians, filmmakers, etc. But why do some triumph while others languish?
Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is the most notable teacher at the most notable music school in New York City. When he enters a room, everything stops. Getting into his jazz band is like being asked to try out for the Yankees. And drumming prodigy Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) catches Fletcher’s ear while he’s practicing late one night. He decides to bring in Neyman as an alternate, but even the back-ups in Fletcher’s band have to endure his brutal practice techniques. You will play it again and again until you get the tempo right. Your hands will bleed. Your arms will ache. You will be covered in sweat. And you will be verbally abused the entire time. It’s “Full Metal Drumkit.”
Fletcher isn’t merely a cartoonish villain. As perfectly portrayed by Simmons, who has never been better in a career of underrated supporting performances, this is a man who honestly believes it when he says, “There are no two words more harmful than ‘good job.’” His argument is that encouragement breeds complacency. If you think you did a good job, why practice? Why push yourself harder? Why move to the next level? Fletcher argues that Charlie Parker never would have become Charlie Parker if he hadn’t had a cymbal thrown at his head when he got the beat wrong. And Fletcher might be right.
The problem is that this abusive technique discounts basic human decency. And rather than slink off into the shadows, Andrew fights back. “Whiplash” becomes a music movie that plays like a thriller as Andrew finds new depths of competitive fury, which, yes, he may not have found without the abuse in the first place. “Whiplash” is a challenging film thematically—a great conversation starter—but it’s also just remarkably entertaining as it unfolds. Tom Cross’s editing deserves all the trophies for which it qualifies as “Whiplash” moves with the rhythm of an award-winning drummer. There are several scenes of band performances that wouldn’t be anywhere near the same without Cross’s perfect timing.
And then there are the performances. Teller could have played this role in a similar key to his teen alcoholic in “The Spectacular Now,” but Andrew Neyman feels like a different, well-rounded character from scene one. It’s his best work, ever, never allowing the more explosive Simmons to steal the show, as he easily could have from a lesser actor. As much as the film is a story of two people who push each other to greater heights, Teller and Simmons do the same as actors. You’ll be reading a lot about “Whiplash” in the next few months during awards season. Don’t miss it.
You probably haven’t been able to miss the ads for Antoine Fuqua’s “The Equalizer,” which premiered here at the Princess of Wales Theatre under a giant banner of its theatrical poster. The premiere here earlier this week seemed to unleash a wave of critical slams from writers who had seen it before coming to Toronto. I’m a little surprised at the vitriol. It’s far from a great film, especially in its ludicrous climactic action scene, but its ambitions are low and it works as a solid, old-fashioned cable offering, a diversion on a Saturday night that hums more than it fails. It’s well-constructed, and notable for what it doesn’t do, including foisting a romantic relationship on its lead or rushing its set-up.
That set-up is the best thing about “The Equalizer,” as we meet Robert McCall, a kindly worker at a Home Depot-esque mega-store who claims to have been one of the Pips and offers inspirational life advice to those around him. He spends his nights in a diner, reading classic (if a BIT on-the-nose thematically) books like “Old Man and the Sea.” That’s where he often sees Elina (Chloe Grace Moretz), a prostitute near the end of her rope. When she’s beaten nearly to death, Bob decides he can no longer keep his lethal training as a part of his past. It’s time to equalize.
There are scenes in that diner between Moretz and Washington that are allowed to play out with a surprising degree of restraint. We’ve seen so many action movies lately that get right down to it, kidnapping Liam Neeson’s daughter or strapping a bomb to Jason Statham before the credits have ended. I liked the set-up of “The Equalizer.” And the action ain’t half-bad either. When McCall goes into action, it’s not unlike Sherlock assessing a situation. He literally times out how long it will take him to eliminate his threats. A cheesy device, for sure, but so is the movie. It has no aspirations to be thematically dense or narratively challenging. It’s escapism, and it works when judged on that level.
Judged on any level, “Hyena” is a vile, grim, gross film, a piece of work that ostensibly tries to take us on a trip through the dark underbelly of London but just ends up getting us dirty along the way. Films like “Bad Lieutenant” demand a deep understanding of how to present something horrible in an artistic manner. That’s why “Hyena” loses its way. Director Gerard Johnson never justifies the illegal behavior or human atrocities on a character or thematic level. It’s not worth the grime you’ll feel on your eyes just from having watched it.
With a narrative that feels awfully similar to a few seasons of FX’s “The Shield,” “Hyena” is the story of corrupt cop Michael Logan (Peter Ferdinando), the head of a vice squad with three other guys who cuts his own deals and actually helps keep the criminal underworld alive. Logan has close ties with a Turkish crime family but the arrival of Albanian thugs threatens to expose the entire operation, forcing the bad cop to clean up a mess he helped create. Stephen Graham and MyAnna Buring co-star in underwritten roles.
All of “Hyena” is underwritten. Johnson is too in love with his journey to remember to craft anything interesting to see along the way. So we get long tracking shots from behind Ferdinando (I swear you see the back of his head more than the front) as he moves through clubs, criminal headquarters, the police station, etc. It’s a film in love with its style more than its characters. And who can really blame it?
Finnish filmmaker J.P. Valkeapää runs into similar style over substance with the better but still frustrating “They Have Escaped.” Teppo Manner stars as Joni, a young man assigned to a halfway house for troubled youth who has trouble making friends and withstanding bullying from his peers. Joni meets Raisa (Roosa Söderholm), the polar opposite of him socially. Where he stutters, she screams. Where he shrivels from social interaction, she practically leaps through the world. And yet she hides her own inner turmoil. The two escape from their halfway home and head off on a road trip to Raisa’s home.
The initial journey of Joni and Raisa has notable energy as Valkeapää practically turns the piece into a fantasy—Hansel and Gretel on the road again. They are experiencing the world, and helping each other deal with pain in ways that the system designed to protect them couldn’t provide. The film gets a bit weighed down by narrative and melodrama as it goes along, as Valkeapää turns the narrative darker when they get to Raisa’s home, but it never fails entirely. The saga of Joni and Raisa was one of the earlier adventures in my TIFF 2014 experience—I’ve seen dozens of films since it—and I still remember these two characters, trying desperately to flee from a society that has no idea what to do with them.
Character is exactly what’s missing from Andrew Niccol’s “Good Kill,” one of the bigger disappointments of TIFF 2014. The narrative attempt here is an interesting one—make a war movie about PTSD in which the hero never leaves Las Vegas. This is war in the ‘10s, a time when Air Force officers commanding drones overseas from the Vegas desert can commit war atrocities and go home and BBQ. I believe there’s a really good documentary on this subject that will someday come out. Drone technology has taken away the humanity of being in combat, making war truly feel like a video game. And how does one go from bombing civilians in the morning to grocery shopping in the afternoon? It has to be literally breaking the men and women involved.
It sure breaks Major Thomas Egan (Hawke), a decorated Air Force officer at the forefront of our drone program. Working on the orders of the men above him, often conveyed coldly over speakerphone, Egan is pushed through an escalation of the drone attacks in the Middle East, knowingly forced to “double tap” bomb sites, killing the people who rush to rescue after the first attack, and being ordered to destroy homes that he knows are filled with innocent people. The PTSD escalates as the attacks escalate, until Egan’s home life has been destroyed, his alcoholism has amplified, and he’s on the verge of collapse.
Again, this is all clearly narratively interesting and timely. However, the script comes from a place of theme and political commentary instead of character. Nearly every line of dialogue comes out of a mouthpiece, not a human being. When they drop a drone strike and a soldier notes the 68k of tax-payer dollars it costs, that’s a screenwriter pushing through the storytelling instead of a character. And that happens THROUGHOUT “Good Kill,” a film that is constantly reminding you it’s an important movie. It’s an important subject; it’s not an important movie.