Saving Mr. Jonze: An question of Adaptation

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There were two, and only two transcendent Spike Jonze movie moments in the year 2013. The first was Matt Johnson’s wonderful impression of the lounge singer in  “Malcovich, Malcovich” scene from Being John Malcovich in The Dirties. (Do I remember that scene repeating unnecessarily though, somewhat diluting the effect?) The second, and probably best Spike Jonze moment was his role as penny-stock hawking Dwayne in The Wolf of Wall Street. I’ve always enjoyed Jonze’s acting, (though he was essentially playing a version of Richard Koufey).    

Am I forgetting anything? Was there a transcendent scene from her? (Waiting). Anything? One moment that stood above the rest? Not including the SexyKitten scene? (more of a Kristen Wiig moment than anything).

There were any number of interesting vignettes in the movie her, but in my opinion, the film on the whole was missing a crucial element. It seemed to stand outside of itself, not daring to put real heart, and of course, feeling into making an actual human connection with its audience. It wasn’t until I watched, of all films, Saving Mr. Banks,that I realized that reason why. It is because her suffers from a lack of adaptation.

Being John Malcovich, Adaptation, and even Where the Wild Things Are gave Spike Jonze a chance to fall back on previous material. Adaptation is about the very idea of bringing secondary material to screen, (and, to a degree, the puppets in Being John Malcovich serving as the precursor to the portal to John Malcovich’s head serving a similar purpose). For Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze had the beloved children’s book, (this should have been an early clue), as well as Dave Eggers as a co-writer. But in her, Jonze stands alone, as solo writer and director.

The idea that Jonze wrote and directed the film, using no previous source material, (not even Siri), gave him the chance to truly lay himself bare on the screen. He could have, and probably should have transofrmed himself into an auteur, giving rise to a Spike Jonze film being totally representative of the man himself. Was it him? No, it was her. 

Who is Theodore Twombly? Why is he given such a silly name, (and an alliterative one at that)? What time in the near-future does this film take place? What’s with Theodore’s mustache, (and Paul’s)? Why do people in this timeline wear high-waisted pants? What was going on with the colours of shirts, the bright yellows and reds favoured by Theodore? Is this Breaking Bad? Most importantly, what can we make of Theodore? Is he worthy of sympathy, or scorn? Is he a hero, an anti-hero, or hell-bent of self-destruction?

My suspicion is that Spike Jonze, (real name, Adam Spiegel), would ask us to make our own conclusions. But, in a sense, this is the failure of her. Every film is as much about the film-maker as the subject, and this proves even more vital when a director and writer are the same person. Though I enjoy it, I cannot abide by the theory that Jones is Twombly, and Sofia Coppola is Catherine. Because this theory forgets that the movie is about her, (and in my opinion, the “her” of the title is as much Amy as it is Samantha.)  

But let’s look at Saving Mr. Banks for an example of a successful adaptation. Is Saving Mr. Banks a good movie? Oh, Lord, no. The scene in which Emma Thompson’s P.L. Travers passes a list of handicapped people that succeeded to Paul Giamatti’s limo driver character was achingly sentimental. If Giamatti had extended his “My sentimentality stretches the length of a coin” line from 12 Years a Slave, I would have given the movie a standing ovation. In fact, the entire movie’s interchanges between Giamatti’s Ralph, (I guess), and Thompson’s Travers were joyless, (but not in the SadPaulGiamatti way), anachronistic, (it’s been pointed out that “No Problemo” was not spoken in the 1960’s), and above all, not actually true. So why bother? 

Oh, and the flashbacks. The film seemed to follow the philosophy that if you make a point once, make it another four or five times, (even though the reveal did surprise). However, somewhere in the muckity muck of sentimentality, there was a gem of a movie, and most importantly a successful adaptation of a successful adapation, (though I am fairly sure that P.L. Travers would not have approved). The issue at hand, of turning a popular series of books into a movie, was quite fascinating. Every time that we were in the room with Thompson, Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, and Jason Schwartzman, there was a kind of magic. Disney magic? The idea of appeasing an author vehemently opposed to deviating from the source material, and somehow creating a successful film presented layer upon layer of metatextuality. And Emma Thomson was simply outstanding.

Despite its massive flaws, the film knew what it was, (or at least, I read it that way), and stayed with me long after the inevitable decline, (Travers tearing up at the performance Let’s Go Fly a Kite, once again, overwhelmed with its sentimentality). But at least the audience on a weekday afternoon seemed to enjoy it, and I enjoyed watching them sing and sway to it). Oh, and we definitely did not need to Save Mr. Hanks, who was surprisingly heart-warming as Mr. Disney, (perhaps this was because the film left out his views on certain practices, and I am not talking about his smoking. I also would have loved to have seen the film explore P.L. Travers and her preference for revolutionary sexuality, but perhaps that would have been expecting too much. Not everything can be saved.

And yet, very little of her has saved in my memory. Despite this film’s honesty, I still could not keep up with the Jonze(s). I would have loved to see Spike Jonze enter his own portal. Mr. Jonze, according to me, could have been a big(ger) star.

 

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Farm Fresh

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This past Sunday, TIFF staged an event called “In Conversation with Jake Gyllenhaal and Denis Villeneuve” as part of Canada’s Top Ten. The purpose of the event was to promote their latest effort, Enemy, which happened to be showing in the theatre next door, and for which Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal provided an introduction, though Gyllenhaal was too sick to appear afterwards. I was in attendance for both, and I am thrilled to report that I had a tremendous experience watching a memorable, powerful psychological thriller by a Montreal director based on a fascinating interpretation of very different source material: The 9 p.m. screening of Tom at the Farm.

Of the two collaborations between Gyllenhaal and Villeneuve, Enemy was the one which I was anticipating. The combination of Jose Saramago’s novel The Double, and the warped direction of Villeneuve led me to believe that this was not a film to be missed. And, to a great degree, it still isn’t. There is much to recommend about Enemy, and it certainly held my attention during the screening. But for some reason, I felt that it just did not succeed as a “thriller”, mainly because it lacked thrills.

Perhaps this was the fault of casting Jake Gyllenhaal, the first choice of Villeneuve’s, but only in North American region, (he mentioned that he wanted to cast a European actor, and I speculated wildly about which one). There is nothing wrong with Gyllenhaal’s performance(s), but perhaps this other actor would have brought a level of explosiveness that seems to be out of character(s) for Gyllenhaal. In fact, during the In Conversation event, the sick Gyllenhaal, (Illenhaal?), came across as quite personable, (if a tad pretentious), justifying his leading actor status, at least in my mind. But in Enemy, eh. (Eh-nemy, more like it).

Maybe I should put the blame on Villeneuve, whose constant use of dreams and reality revealed a level of duplicity that I feel strayed from the source material, adding a layer of “irreality” or “surreality” that I feel was just not present in the original text. Part of the sense of urgency with this piece is the fact that the uncanny is real, that this is actually happening, and the dream element I felt created a sense of displacement that should not have permeated this piece.

Lastly, the use of concrete, ugly, Toronto (and Mississauga and Scarborough), took me out of a sense of “placenessless”, and instead, left me searching for recognizable buildings, and into a sense of reality blurring into irreality, such as the scene where Gyllenhaal rents a movie from Queen Video, but the oddest Queen Video I’ve ever seen, located next to the Philippine variety store, in a dowdy strip mall. This created a kind of two ways about the film, (which I guess was kind of point), but removed a sense of either “what is” or “what is not”. This duality is a difficult to project with a sense of wholeness.

But while Enemy mostly fizzled, Tom at the Farm sizzled. This was my second-go-round at Dolan’s film, and while one of the common critiques of Enemy was to see it a second time, I felt as though it was Tom at the Farm that lends itself best to a repeat performance, and I was able to glean much of what I missed the first time.

Through his interpretation of the French play Tom a la ferme, Dolan is able to very much capture the sense of place that is suggested by the title, but even more so, is able to capture Tom outside of the farm as well, (a better title may have been Tom, at the farm).

Dolan is fascinating here as a director and writer, (costume designer, scriptwriter, music supervisor etc. etc. etc.), but especially as an actor, because he is adapting somebody else’s material for the first time. There were far too many films last year, (the twins The World’s End and This is the End come to mind), that would have benefitted from the influence of an outside observer, or at least would have been based off of something. Surprisingly, it is Dolan’s triumph as the lead, as Tom, that makes this film so compelling. It is the slow burn, Dolan’s suggestion not to reveal too much about the inner Tom, (a lack of fever dreams about arachnids, par example), that make this character study so fascinating.

On a first viewing, I was distracted by the grand strokes of Dolan the director, (shrinking the screen during key moments of conflict, mirroring the shrunken screen of intimacy used throughout his previous film, Laurence Anyways), along with the offbeat musical selections and creative use of camera framing. Come for wunderkind Dolan’s use of staging that captures the essence of the play, but stay for the sense of remove, in which he is able to take his lead character out of the stifling environment of the main place, (a technique that was used to contradictory effect in August: Osage County, assuming that it has not been recut, revealing a sense of displacement that ruins the effect of the original work).

Dolan’s boldest stroke comes at the end of the film, during the final credits, in which a perfect musical choice, (look closely at the costume of Tom’s “captor” Francis, to fully appreciate the effect), but then see how Dolan, as Tom, shows a sense of anxiety that I would have loved to have seen from Julia Roberts’s Barbara Weston in A:OC). Tom is out, he’s away from the farm, in the city of Montreal, (Interestingly, Enemy makes the urban jungle of Toronto the final shots, yet devoid of citizens). Tom, in contrast, is alive in the city, a place that is not suggested by the tightness of the play. Yet, the suggestion, at least for me, is the “now what”? Dolan implies that the stifling sense of farmness remains with the heretofore urban Tom. It is fascinating that we pick up with Tom leaving his sham of a life for a new experience, and we end with the same. You can take the farm out of the boy, but you cannot take the boy out of the farm, at least without his new friend with whom to play. But, hey, with a friend like this, who needs Enemy?

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Stay – Taylor Schilling – Wiebke von Carolsfeld – Go (to) Stay

Stay is a film for restless hearts, those with the need to travel, and who enjoy the feeling of a romance played out in small gestures. In short, Stay is a charming film that does not demand to be seen, as much as felt and experienced.

Based on the book by Aislinn Hunter, but only slightly, at its heart, Stay is a story between two damaged souls. Abbey, played wonderfully by Taylor Schilling with passionate expressions, finds herself stuck between two worlds, those of her older lover Dermot in Galway, Ireland, and that of her troubled father back home in Montreal. The scenery in both locations is gorgeous, the greenery in Ireland so green, and even the bog played out in delicious colours. Montreal has never looked so vibrant, and Schilling seems a natural fit in both places, even though this Bostonian had never before been to either Ireland or Montreal before shooting the film. Schilling could, however, easily inhabit Abbey’s state of being at the crux of an important decision, ultimately one that is left open as to its resolution. As Schilling says, “I was really attracted to the idea of Abbey being at a crossroads in her life, of there being a conflict that she couldn’t go back to her old way of doing things, that in order to move forward, things had to change”, adding, “I’m curious about these moments in people’s lives”.

A major reason as to why Stay is so successful in making the viewer feel involved in the story is the dedication of Wiebke von Carolsfeld, a first-time screenwriter, and winner of best first Canadian film for her previous feature, and, as she stresses, a female filmmaker. Of the personal transformation in Stay, von Carolsfeld says that “I liked the idea of having a woman, a displaced woman, an immigrant woman. I am an immigrant myself. I came from a young adult from Germany to Canada.  Identifying major themes that attracted her to the project, von Carolsfeld thoughtfully reflects: “Obviously, I identify with that journey, and her journey to find a home…how do you deal with with your past, and how do you move into your future?” Stay is about the muck of our present lives, trapped in this conflict between past and future.

Set to a haunting score, especially a beautiful song by The Great Lake Swimmers, Stay shows Abbey’s displacement even within her hometown of Montreal. She returns finding friends, her father, and even the smallest of elements have not stayed, but shifted in her absence.

Schilling offers a telling interpretation of the title of the film and its representation in this sometimes troubling, and yet hopeful story: “For a lot of these characters, there are a lot of things that they would like to stay as they are, and even physically planted to just stay…They’re confronted again and again…with the truth that that’s not going to be the case…everything is in flux”.

Our Man in Tehran – Drew Taylor and Larry Weinstein, William Daugherty – Our(Man)

Drew Taylor wears a lot of hats: former baseball pitcher, PhD candidate in biomedical engineering, and now, documentary filmmaker. Taylor, along with co-director Larry Weinstein, certainly selected a timely and relevant topic to approach for a first-time documentary: that of Ken Taylor, former Canadian Ambassador to Iran in 1979, and a featured player in a film that received quite a great deal of attention in 2012, (and at this year’s Academy Awards), Argo.

The filmmakers responsible for Our Man in Tehran, Taylor and Weinstein, as well as former neophyte CIA agent Bill Daughtery, who was kept hostage in Iran for an astonishing 444 days, (he was portrayed in Argo as the man shredding papers) provide clarity and enlightenment about the differences between a Hollywood film, and the search for truth. Daughtery mentions that “Exfiltration is one of the most difficult things”, and indeed, the difficulty must be properly acknowledged.

Those involved with Our Man in Tehran do not go as far as to downgrade Argo, being very judicious by calling it an “entertaining film”. Certainly, though, they recognize that there was more to the story than Ken Taylor simply playing the role of innkeeper in the movie, and minimizing the role that the Canadians played, instead, giving much of the credit to the joint efforts of the CIA and Hollywood.

Our Man in Tehran uses a number of eyewitnesses and experts, (including Tony Mendez), to demonstrate that there was much more to the story of the “Canadian Caper” then that which was portrayed in Argo, and that Ken Taylor’s role was certainly more important, (and dangerous), than the little consideration that he was given in the Hollywood film.

Our Man in Tehran seeks to provide a counterargument to the story, with appearances from Ken Taylor, and former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark, (completely absent from Argo), and others that seek to restore a measure of truth to a thorny issue, (and certainly present more insight into the region than Argo’s simple storyboards).

One aspect of Our Man in Tehran that was extremely fascinating was the simple fact that Canada gave full documentation to the hostages: “Doing things like issuing false passports…it had never been done in history, and has never been done since. It was a big ethical question. As Tony Mendez says ‘You could never get this done in Congress in the (United) States’”, says Weinstein, pointedly. “I think that had the CIA not been involved, if the States said ‘you know what, Canada, you got this started, you get them out, they could have done it”.

Drew Taylor echoes these sentiments: “Nothing has happened, in equal and opposite magnitude as that takeover of the embassy, and hostage taking of American citizens for 444 days. Nothing has happened to oppose that with equal and opposite force”.

Ryan Kwanten, Catherine O’Hara, Sara Canning, Jeremiah S. Chechik – The Right Kind of Wrong – Let The Right Kind In

The Right Kind of Wrong has a backstory which fascinates and delights. The right book came along, one that producer Robert Lantos held on to for a while, and was just waiting for the right kind of moment to unleash. The book in question was Sex & Sunsets, a 1987 Tim Sandlin story about a man that meets his ideal mate on her, (but not his) wedding day.

The Right Kind of Wrong features the book of Sex & Sunsets in the movie, as having been written by its lead character, played by Aussie heartthrob Ryan Kwanten, and perversely, being a bit of a failure, (though Leo Palomino, as well as the book, is redeemed at the end). The successful author is Leo’s ex-wife Julie, who has written a wildly popular blog Why You Suck about the failed but kind-hearted Leo, and is in the process of having the blog adapted into a book.

So it is through this prism that Leo begins a new quest, to capture the heart of Colette, which seems slightly complicated by the whole ‘just having gotten married’ business. But Leo is dogged in his pursuit, and in the hands of a less charming lead, the film may have taken on a less noble quality. But in the lead role, Kwanten is too likeable as to stay on the side of right, rather than wrong. In fact, I compared Palomino’s quest to that of Don Quixote, and Kwanten seemed to agree: “I thought he was such a breath of fresh air…in his unabashed seeking of this woman, and bunting societal conventions…here was a guy who was…doing anything but that…he was living the impossible dream.” It helps that Kwanten’s co-star Sara Canning is such a worthy pursuit as Colette, and it is clear from talking with her how Canning is so canny as to inspire such an impossible dream as Leo’s.

A welcome presence in The Right Kind of Wrong is Colette’s mother, played by  Catherine O’Hara, Queen of Comedy. The actress is quick to note that her character of Tess does not appear in the book, calling herself a “device” and indeed, O’Hara is not featured prominently in the movie, but stays long enough to encourage Kwanten on his quest, like a bizarre Sancho Panza, bring her own clothing into the film for her character, and to inspire Colette to undergo her own narrative arc of redemption. “She says and does the most inappropriate things, and somehow, it’s the right kind of wrong”, O’Hara shared.

The film has some rogue elements not found in the book, including a pair of precocious children, and a subplot involving Palomino’s friend Neil, played by Will Sasso, that do seem to advance the heart of the story. But that heart, the right kind of impossible romance for which we cannot help but root, helps make Chechik’s vision of a “cynicism-free” film come into focus.

Eli Roth – The Green Inferno – Activists versus Advocates

Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno nicks its title from a translation of the Natura contro, perhaps better known as Cannibal Holocaust II. Wearing its lineage on its sleeve demonstrates that Roth’s version of the cannibal film, is, in a sense, a loving tribute to Italian cannibal movies from the early 1980s. However, the movie itself, despite borrowing the conceit of the cannibal movie from Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi, is given a wholly contemporary spin on the genre by Roth and his collaborators.

Despite landing in the Amazon in order to save the planet from corporate interest and being captured by a tribe of cannibals, star Lorenza Izzo’s character Justine slowly discovers that the villain may actually be one of her own. Roth illustrates that the movie is suffused with a dollop of modernity in the form of a burgeoning narcissism which he terms ‘slacktivism’, observing that “My film is just a comment on what’s happening. I think it’s just holding up a mirror (to society)”.

Indeed, Roth has much to say on the culture of privilege, noting that, quite unintentionally, his films have all involved children of wealth poking around the globe, sticking their noses where they do not belong, and discovering to their chagrin that locals and natives do not kowtow to their sense of entitlement.

Roth does not dismiss the concept of activism, but simply believes that is performed in the wrong way. Indeed, one of the ‘good guys’ in the film is revealed to be a classic narcissist, (though we have to wait until the sequel to see comeuppance), many other ‘heroes’ meet grisly fates, and only the naïve Justine, who ironically, comes from even greater privilege than the rest, manages to keep her dignity intact.

Roth unleashes his greatest vitriol for the holier-than-thou that try to lead a movement from behind a computer screen: “I believe that now, Twitter has become a place for people to be very sanctimonious because they have a voice, and want to show the world what good people they are. Kids just want to hit the ‘Retweet’ button. Everybody wants to be an activist, but really with a bare minimum effort”.

Despite his critique of those that activists from afar, Roth gets most animated when speaking to his legion of advocates, and with The Green Inferno, clearly seeks to find more: “I want people to watch the movie and be entertained…but first and foremost…I wanted to build the scariest roller coaster in the park. I wanted to outdo myself, top all my other movies, and have people go ‘wow, this guy’s for real. He’s made four movies, all of which kick my ass. I’ll see anything he does’. That’s what I want.”

Roth, while contemptuous towards the slacktivists, obviously still relishes online engagement from observers: “Now they can tell me whether I achieved (this) or not, instantly…@EliRoth, boom, there you go”.

#MadeinCanada

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The crack team of Best PR http://www.bestprboutique.com/ and designer Apartment 4 have gone and done it. Together, they have magically transformed the humble gifting suite into a completely captivating experience. A simple four wall space on the sixth floor of the CBC building has somehow transformed into the experience of being in a Canadian cabin in the woods, fireplace included. The place even manages to smell Canadian, appropriate, since the lounge is scented with Smells Like Canada candles, in this case, the fresh scent of Toronto Smoke, (sorry, Fraser Valley Wood and Saskatoon Wheat).

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And what would a good #MadeinCanada Lounge for George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight be without hockey? Fortunately, the Lounge features licensed sticks from each team, (I was told that the Ottawa Senators stick, strangely missing, was on its way. Perhaps the pièce de résistance is the TIFF 13 jersey, adorned in the style of the Toronto Maple Le… Les Canadiens de Montréal, remember, Strombo is a Habs fan, remember? This serves as a reminder that though the lounge is decked out to resemble Canada, that Canada is not Toronto. Even better is the sticks lining the centre  will signed by celebrities and auctioned off for charity. That’s a hat trick in my book.

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As always, the #MadeinCanada lounge features only the finest Canadian products, and Canadian products only. The earrings given to visitors of the lounge are by Toronto based designer Jenny Bird, http://jenny-bird.com/ who is truly local. Neal Brothers Foods nealbrothersfoods.com have been around since 1988, but recently launched Kettle chips in the truly Canadian flavour, maple bacon. And let me attest to the awesomeness that is Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers dillons.ca Unfiltered Gin 22 is a fine sipping drink, and the White Rye both tastes and smells delicious. Interestingly, the company is based out of Beamsville. Niagara is clearly for more than just wine.

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Though I could not wrest the line-up for the George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight TIFF line-up, I was informed that certain TV turned movie stars will be dropping by the lounge. So if you happen to pass a particularly Canadian smelling American during the Festival, you can guess that the star, though born in America, was just #MadeinCanada