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Millersville student travels to prestigious film festival

Adam Driver stars in acclaimed film from TIFF, "Marriage Story." (Photo Courtesy of YouTube.com).

Jacob Dickens

Staff Writer

For two weeks in the cool air of Toronto, Canada, some of the biggest names in American and foreign films gathered to show off their newest works. In total, I managed to catch about fourteen films during my trip there. I had made over 70 thousand steps in the four days the Millersville Study Abroad group was at the festival while walking back and forth between two theatres that were almost thirty minutes apart. 

Perhaps the biggest obstacle of the journey was the box office, which was limited to same-day tickets; which meant a lot of big showings were well past sold out by the time we wandered in. We managed to be lucky with some screenings, however, with our industry passes we were able to see a lot of spectacular (and some not-so-spectacular) films. Many of these screenings were attended by the cast or director of the film, marking the only time I have ever been within a hundred feet of Scarlett Johansson or Adam Driver. 

I also made a personal achievement at the festival when I met director Mark Cousins, whose 2011 documentary “The Story of Film” was instrumental in my love of film during my early teen years. His newest documentary, “Women Make Film,” is an invaluable fourteen-hour tome of the forgotten women directors of the world. Watching it on the big screen was a magical moment, yet sadly one I may never have again.

Feelings such as that while viewing films truly illustrate a double-edged sword about festival screenings. More obscure films like Abba Makamba’s “The Last Okoroshi,” a Nigerian comedy about a worker who becomes possessed by an ancient spirit, or Makoto Shinkai’s “Weathering with You, an emotional and magical anime about a girl who can control the weather, may be near impossible to track down in theaters or haven’t announced release dates. Luckily, some of the biggest streaming services debuted and acquired a bounty of films, which are much easier to recommend to viewers. These three films in particular are coming to a streaming service near you soon, so you’d do well to keep your eyes out for them.

Among the most important presences at the festival was Netflix, which debuted nine films at the festival. Perhaps the service’s leading awards contender is Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” starring Driver and Johansson as a husband and wife grappling with the internal and external pressures of divorce. The film marks Baumbach’s second film about the strains of divorce, his first being 2005’s excellent “The Squid and the Whale.” 

However, while that first film was told through its child characters and their cries for help, “Marriage Story” focuses almost wholly on its husband and wife characters. Driver plays Charlie, a successful, though controlling, director of a successful theatre company, who is married to one of the company’s most popular actresses, Nicole, played by Johansson. Though the film opens with both sides painting flattering portraits of the other throughout their marriage, we are soon thrown into their cold reality through their couple’s therapy session. From there, Baumbach crafts a masterclass of acting and narrative that touches on all the uncomfortable nitty-gritty of divorce, of looking back on your wrongdoings in a relationship, on moving past a person who was so integral to your stability for so long that it doesn’t feel right to not have them anymore. 

Despite this seemingly dour and dramatic description, I have to say this was also one of the funniest films in the festival. There are certain impactful scenes which ratchet up the comedic tension before delivering great punchlines from both our lead actors and a surprisingly loaded supporting cast. Driver and Johansson deliver some of the best performances of their career, imbuing their characters with a raw honesty and vulnerability that puts you right in the middle of their divorce tug-of-war.  The film never gives you an easy way to look at their marriage. Not one side is obviously better than the other and they’ve both made mistakes. It’s that emotional reality that Baumbach draws from his actors and his script which makes the film such an easy recommendation. This was my favorite film of the festival by far and you should catch it when it premieres on Netflix on December 6.     

While not premiering from the Netflix roster per se, Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s debut film “The Platform” was recently acquired by the streaming service. Winner of the coveted Midnight Madness award, the film is a socially conscious Spanish dystopia about class. In the Pit, hundreds of two-person cells are vertically stacked as a table full of food slowly passes downward cell by cell. Those below any given cell must eat the leftovers of the cell above. Though this set-up will instantly remind fans of other interior dystopias, such as “Cube” or “Snowpiercer,” Gaztelu-Urrutia’s set-up is the most direct and simple approach to displaying class dynamics.The film is rated R and certainly reminds you about it. The bloodiness of certain scenes was incredibly brutal, though none of it was gratuitous or without purpose. 

Some scenes echo the hopelessness of those much lower down in the Pit by displaying depraved acts of violence and cannibalism as people merely try to survive. Characters appear and reappear throughout the Pit, like one woman who rides the table in search of her lost son or an officer who interviews those entering the Pit. All of them are indicative of different politics, different personalities, and all trying to survive in the Pit. The film creates moments of edge of your seat tension through its close framings and industrial soundtrack which serve to drive you mad like the characters in the Pit. Even with all this dark edge around it, “The Platform” can pull out some moments of brilliant comic timing and some interactions have real wit behind them. It’s the best social commentary action-horror we’ve had in years and it’s truly a delight to see something so deliciously wicked. If you’re looking for a great midnight movie, you can catch “The Platform” whenever it premieres on Netflix.

Finally, Netflix was not the only streaming service playing at TIFF. Amazon played their Sundance hit, “The Report,” starring Driver, Annette Bening, and Jon Hamm. In the vein of movies like “Spotlight,” “The Report” is a stripped-down political thriller about the hunt for the truth of the CIA’s torture of terror suspects following 9/11. Driver plays Daniel Jones, a real Senate staffer who leads the Senate investigation under Senator Dianne Feinstein, played by Bening. If films like “Spotlight” or “The Big Short” frustrated you with the brutality and incompetence of our political and social institutions, “The Report” will leave you with much the same feeling. As new information is discovered through Jones’ long, sleepless nights, we piece together the truly terrifying scope of just how negligent and disturbing the CIA’s practices were. The first half of the film is intercut with flashbacks to a detention facility where we witness firsthand scenes of waterboarding, psychological torture, and other so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Once Jones begins to investigate, the CIA begins to cover up their trail and insist there was no wrongdoing. 

The cat-and-mouse nature of the movie makes it feel almost impossibly scripted, like a thriller straight from the 70s. The second half follows Jones fighting the Senate, the CIA, and the White House, to get the report published–all 7,000 pages of it. Driver feels almost like a new Mr. Smith as he is driven only to deliver the unadulterated truth to the American people, even as he begins to take a physical toll. The rest of the supporting cast are also on their A-game, especially Bening who is almost unrecognizable playing Senator Feinstein. The film is a stark reminder of the things our country was (and still is) willing to do in the name of our security. At the end of the screening, the real Daniel Jones appeared on stage and received a standing ovation of four or five minutes. The film is razor-sharp from its script to its cast to its message and it really is not a film to miss. You can catch it on Amazon on November 29.

These films and many others made my TIFF experience incredibly enlightening and exciting as a massive fan of film. It wasn’t always a perfect trip. The sadness at finding out a highly anticipated film sold out just ten minutes before you arrive, the exhaustion of watching five films in a single day, the tedium of waiting for over an hour in a line on the off-chance there are extra seats available for a screening, the sour taste of watching a truly terrible movie that you swear to never watch again. But these were opportunities for discovery, for connection, and for experiences. At the end of our journey, the Study Abroad group mostly gathered in a small French restaurant to eat and discuss a bad film we had all just watched. We discussed the film, our trip, and our experiences in film and theatre over dishes of duck, prawns, and lamb. Even in this restaurant, at the end of our journey, I still had an opportunity to explore and explore I did. Even all the way in Toronto, it seemed, we couldn’t escape the grasp of the Millersville area.