Toronto International Film Festival

Episode 244 – Calvary / A Most Wanted Man

In this week’s Moviewallas Podcast, Yazdi gives us a couple of his favorite picks from the Toronto International Film Festival.  We also review Calvary and A Most Wanted Man.

calvary most wanted man

 

– Calvary

– A Most Wanted Man

From TIFF 2014

last 5 years margarita force cart

– Force Majeure
– Margarita with a Straw
– The Last Five Years
– Love & Mercy
– Cart 

Play

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2014 Toronto International Film Festival | Update Two

images-9The man ahead of me in the line has just arrived from the Telluride Film Festival. While you wait to get into a film screening, you strike up all sorts of conversations. And this man gives me his opinion of what cinema will be celebrated at year’s end. BIRDMAN, the latest from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a wonder he says. Adding that it is about a filmmaker trying to take control of the world around him. That sounds a bit like Fellini’s 8 ½, I offer, and he says no, no BIRDMAN is far more serious than that. The entire film has been shot to simulate a single continuous take, so it gets high marks just for that he further explains. And Michael Keaton is Oscar bound he prognosticates. As is Steve Carrel, for FOXCATCHER he says, another film bound for Academy awards honors. The biggest disappointment for him has been WILD in which he complains that Reese Witherspoon is horribly miscast. I mention that I am part of that small minority that believes that Jean-Marc Vallee’s previous effort DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB was a terrible film. Then WILD is not going to change your mind about this director, he says. What was his best film he saw at Telluride, I ask? Oh, it’s the Argentine film WILD TALES he says with much excitement, and it is playing at Toronto and I must buy a ticket. And then we get into the cinema, leaving my head spinning. And that is the opinion of just one person at the festival. Throw together all the world’s cinephiles and you wouldn’t sleep for fear of missing an important film at the festival.

TIFF 2014 publicity still for THE NEW GIRLFRIEND

TIFF 2014 publicity still for THE NEW GIRLFRIEND

THE NEW GIRLFRIEND is the latest film from Francois Ozon. It wasn’t so long ago that Ozon was the reigning enfant terrible of French cinema, having helmed movies that gleefully crossed the line. But with wit that went beyond the shock value; SWIMMING POOL, WATER FALLING ON BURNING ROCKS, and CRIMINAL LOVERS were the films that put him on the map. Then he turned respectable with UNDER THE SUN, 8 WOMEN and POTICHE. How curious that in what seems like only a matter of years, Xavier Dolan (who is not even 25 years old) has taken over the enfant terrible title, bringing into question Ozon’s ability to still rock the boat by making films that simultaneously provoke and impress. THE NEW GIRLFRIEND is not going to change Ozon’s calling card, not least because this film has the unfortunate timing of coming out on the heels of the somewhat similarly themed LAURENCE ANYWAYS from Xavier Dolan last year. No matter how you cut it, Dolan’s a superior film.

With THE NEW GIRLFRIEND Ozon is clearly paying homage to the films of Douglas Sirk (with a dash of Almodovar, for good measure). So it is necessarily a melodrama, which is not a liability if handled well (Todd Haynes did an admirable job doing just that with FAR FROM HEAVEN). But THE NEW GIRLFRIEND, through most of its running time, feels like a helicopter trying to land in gusty winds; it keeps circling and circling, but is unable to settle on ground.

The film tells the story of Claire (Anais Demoustier) who is trying to shake off the sorrow following the death of her best friend Laura, who has also left behind a bereft husband David (Romain Duris) and infant child. Trying to deal with her grief and offer comfort to David, Claire walks into his home unannounced, to find him dressed in women’s clothing. David explains that he wants to be both father and mother to his child, and while Claire fails to understand this at first, she eventually becomes David’s accomplice in exploring his feminine sensibility. Much to the dismay of Claire’s husband who begins to suspect Claire’s time spent away from work. This can play as a light-hearted farce, as a serious look at the fluidity of sexuality and identity, or even as bitter satire of the overzealousness of political correctness in contemporary mores. But to play this material as a Douglas Sirk melodrama presents with inherent issues. For one thing Ozon over-commits to the Sirk sensibility to the extent that David’s home has furnishings reminiscent of sixties décor. It is difficult to shoehorn this visual palette into a story set in contemporary times without coming off jarringly anachronistic. And what should have been frothy and giddy comes off labored, and worse, dated. The film suffers as a whole from seeming like something that was made at least a couple of decades ago, not least from the way certain characters react to situations. I wish that Ozon’s desire to do Sirk had led to him setting this story in the sixties, which would make the look, and more critically, the behavior of the characters in this story a lot more believable.

 

2014 TIFF publicity still for TOKYO FIANCEE

2014 TIFF publicity still for TOKYO FIANCEE

TOKYO FIANCEE is first-time director Stefan Liberski contribution to all the stories in all the films about star-crossed lovers. It is based on a popular European novel by Amelie Nothomb about a French-speaking Belgian girl (Pauline Etienne) obsessed with Japan who happens to go to Japan and fall in love with a local Japanese boy (Taichi Inoue) who is obsessed with France. There have been many films about this sort of cultural dislocation. In particular such films that are also wittingly or otherwise romantic, tend to have a way of getting twee. TOKYO FIANCEE is very much a film about cultural dislocation, but it keeps the whimsy somewhat in check, doling out only homeopathic doses of it, for the most part. These are individuals you enjoy spending time with, even as you wonder why your own life did not come pre-filled with this sort of charm offensive. Heck, the lead is even named Amelie which should remind of you a certain Audrey Tatou confection that is much beloved but extra-frosted all the same. While the film spends the first half by playing with the mores of this sort of cinema (honest, if a little indulgent look, at the fish out of water), the latter part of the movie ultimately finds a defiantly unique voice. About being dispossessed in youth, and trying to locate a sense of self in a scary uncontrollable world.

Films like this live or die by their lead actors. Who have to carry the entire film, convincing every audience member that their company is worth having. And this film is worth watching, and you must do so, for Pauline Etienne. Looking uncannily like a young(er) Carey Mulligan, Etienne grounds the film with an openness that is disarming. Even when the plot calls on her to be charming beyond reason, she makes us believe that this person would indeed have this effect on these other individuals. Fragile, irrational, lost, impetuous, and searching, Etienne’s Amelie seems to convey these all with enviable flair. Even in the Q&A session after the end of the film, Etienne came across as effortlessly disarming. Discover this actor before the world catches up to her wonders. I cannot wait to see what she does next.

 

2014 TIFF publicity still for CART

2014 TIFF publicity still for CART

CART is a South Korean film loosely based on true events in which female workers at a supermarket who were abruptly notified of being laid off prior to the expiration of their contracts went on a strike to protest. What initially started as a frightening but also empowering stance to take on the system, eventually led to grave and worsening outcomes. What starts out seeming like a feel-good David vs. Goliath tale descends into a reckoning with reality in which corporations almost always prevail over workers. There is no doubt this film has a sincere focus, and it spends a fair bit of time investing in the individual lives of several of the key characters, if only to make clear the cascaded effect of social injustice on those beyond the direct victims. All of which is almost undone by a shrill background score that cues up every scene with the exact sentiment that the audience member is supposed to be filming. This very nearly destroys the film, but unlike say the nakedly melodramatic MARY KOM, this film makes it clear that hope may be the most elusive currency when a group of individuals decide to take on those who control them. This is an angry film, and necessarily so. And it is acted with honest conviction by a group of persuasive screen presences. Even with its flaws, including an over-eagerness to elicit sympathy, the cinema of the disenfranchised is essential. And CART is a good entry in this genre.

 

2014 Toronto International Film Festival | Update One

images-8You do not realize how much you have missed the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) until you settle down in the darkening theater just as your first film screening is about to begin and the title card warning against video recording pops up on the screen, and avid festival goers howl “aawrrr” at the screen. All at once. I have no idea as to what started this. Or what it means. It is an old TIFF tradition, present at least since the first time I started attending this most equitable of film festivals in 2006. But somehow the sound of all of us unknown movie lovers howling in unison at the screen like dogs at the moon, is unexpectedly comforting.

The first day of screenings is a wet one, with rains pelting cinephiles waiting in lines snaking across multiple blocks ahead of each screening at each venue. The rains seem cruel, but this is a sturdy lot of moviegoers, unfazed by lightning and instantly soaked clothing and squishy shoes. Toronto, ordinarily a city of enviable infrastructure and efficiency, seems to have added its own impediment this year with road constructions on every other street in downtown area where the TIFF Lightbox headquarters and surrounding other festival venues are located. Add to that streets closed off to road traffic specifically for TIFF activities/premieres/red-carpets, and it makes for quite an obstacle course to get to the film venues on time for those who do not live in the immediate vicinity. But as I said, this is a town where cinema is religion, and the masses show up in hordes for the festival.

2014 TIFF publicity still for FORCE MAJEURE

2014 TIFF publicity still for FORCE MAJEURE

The film FORCE MAJEURE arrived to TIFF already on the waft of rapturous reviews out of Cannes. And it did one of the more difficult thing for movies to do: live up to high expectations. What a film this is. First of all, it is majestic just from a technical standpoint. Conceptually, it is the examination of the consequences of a single act that plays out as a tightrope walk of grand suspense. Some filmmakers have a spark to their work; you can sense a grandness, a flourish to every scene in their films. You can sense this in the films of Fincher, Nolan, the Coen brothers. Writer-director Ruben Ostlund is a master aesthetist. There is an obvious pivotal scene in FORCE MAJEURE around which the entire film pivots and that alone is worth the price of admission for its technical grandeur. But set that money shot aside; even then, the film is remarkable for how neatly and studiously the shots have been culled together, with beautiful long, long takes that both present as challenges to the actors, some of them kids, and allow them to do remarkable work. And the sound design is pristine; the creaking of ski lift bars, the vacuum cleaner in a hotel lobby, the roar of an avalanche – all enhance the film.

I have deliberately not mentioned8 the plot. Not that this would be a terrible spoiler, and these days so much of a film’s plot are generally known even before release. But I enjoyed this film as much as I did because I knew little about it going in. Even so, I hope the principal moral inquiry at the center of this film is not given away by reviews. I will say this much though: the movie is set around the inhabitants of a ski resort in Sweden. And as the film proceeds about its business, it makes wry observations about relationships – the soft, vulnerable, scrupulously ignored underbellies of relationships – as it focuses its gaze on several couples. And even when the gaze is terse, there is an intelligence to the examination that is exacting, precise. And lest this sound too lofty, I want to assure you that there is easily earned humor at every turn in this film. And wit. In one scene, two characters start to argue in the elevator of the ski resort, and their words are getting to an increasingly dangerous place. The elevator stops, and a hotel staff member steps in with a large cart, forcing the characters to back all the way to the rear. The scene ends there. And you smile realizing that this couple is getting literally pushed into a corner. At another point, a wife asks this of her husband upon returning to their room after a testy dinner conversation: “What’s wrong? That’s not us.” It is a marvelous way to think of one’s relationship.

This is the quintessential film that will trigger intense debate following its viewing.

 

images-9The second film I watched today was MARY KOM, which is a biopic of India’s first female Olympic boxing medalist. Mary Kom, born Chungneijang in a rural corner of northeastern India, rose to prominence in a sport dominated by men in a country where female athletes already have a tougher ride. Outspoken and spirited, she earned the ire of many within the Indian Boxing Federation by voicing her complaints about the abysmal lack of support for athletes. She stepped away from the sport at the peak of her popularity after she was married and had kids, only to return back and re-challenge her position as the most winning female medalist in boxing. Her journey involved challenges with her parents who were justifiably concerned about her prospects, a hard to please boxing coach, as well as numerous adversaries in the professional matches.

When you have a true story that is this strong, the best thing a director can do is to get out of its way. Unfortunately, this treatment relies too heavily on melodrama that comes of as mostly unearned. So that the true accomplishments of this individual come off rote and shallow. Were this film not so bent on manipulating the audience into an emotional response, it could have been a quieter, more powerful endeavor. Mary Kom is played in the film by Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra, who in spite of having impressively worked on the physical transformation for the role is unable to capture the essence of this individual. Part of the problem may be with a superficial, paint-by-the-numbers script that jumps from adversity to adversity, and has too few scenes that clamp down on the motivations of the central character. We have seen this story in any number of sports films, and there is a reason the ROCKY films are so effective. There are a few parts that work well in MARY KOM, including Mary’s relationship with her husband. The universal female struggle to find balance between career and family is so much more heightened when your career happens to be competitive sports; that the film misses the opportunity to tap into this respectfully and with depth speaks to its failure. By the time the Indian National Anthem played in the last act in a shamelessly jingoistic attempt to rouse audience fervor, I had had enough.

Tomorrow will be another day at TIFF. Stay posted.

 

EVERYBODY HAS A PLAN: all about Viggo

My most surreal experience at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival occurred during the screening of EVERYBODY HAS A PLAN.

Everybody Has A Plan

Everybody Has A Plan

At one point in this movie, there are two Viggo Mortensens on the screen; he plays twin brothers. And the actual Viggo Mortensen, who was attending the Toronto premiere of the movie, was in the seat directly behind me. There were literally Viggo Mortensens everywhere I looked. Two full-screen Viggos in front of me, and the real-life one behind me. Mortensen is somebody I have long respected as an actor, from his The Indian Runner days in the early nineties, through his remarkable run of David Cronenberg films (A History Of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method) and of course his most visible turn in the Lord of the Rings franchise. Is there such a thing as too much Viggo? Based on that surreal moment at the Toronto screening, I am happy to report, the answer is ‘no’.

EVERYBODY HAS A PLAN (Todos Tenemos Un Plan),  an Argentinian film, takes film noir and carries it through its fullest possibilities.

Mortensen plays the dual roles of Agustin, a well to do Buenos Aires pediatrician who is coming untethered from his wife, and Pedro, the far less fortunate twin brother living in the impoverished water-logged islands of El Tigre delta who has his hands dirty with involvement with the local crime leader. The swampy islands in the movie bear a striking resemblance to the setting of the recent Beasts Of The Southern Wild.

Throw into this story Pedro’s younger lover, hard-scrabble criminals who will stop at nothing to recover lost money, switched identities, and bee-keeping as a metaphor for the perils of getting too close to something dangerous – and you have a viscous, steaming brew of film noir set in South America. To reveal too much more about the plot is to take away from its pleasures. Suffice it to say that after one brother is forced to take on the identity of the other, he momentously fails to appreciate the nightmare he is walking into. The film has a brooding slow burn that makes the sporadic, sudden bursts of brutal violence that much more effective when they occur. Rigidly realistic with the look of the region where the story is set, the cinematography of the scenes in the El Tigre islands in particular are effective; the film has a very definite sense of geography. There is also a studied realism to the emotional connections between the main characters – who are complex, irrational and damaged, and all the more believable because of that; this film is miles away from the traditional movie experience. All of which is surprising considering that this is only the first film from the young director Ana Piterbarg.

Mortensen has to do much of the heavy-lifting here, being in practically every scene, and in this Spanish-language movie he demonstrates that he is just as compelling an actor in any language. Just like in the film, during the Q and A session after the screening, Mortensen performed double-duty. While on stage he translated audience questions into Spanish for his director. And then translated what she had to say back into English for the audience. Lets see some other actors who claim versatility match that.

Using the familiar premise of mixed-identity as only the springboard to tell a complex, violent, obsessive crime story, this film will particularly resonate for those seeking respite from the bland Hollywood fare. EVERYBODY HAS A PLAN opens in New York City and Los Angeles this Friday, March 22, 2013 with wider national release in the following weeks.

Revisiting John Hughes; the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival

Hello everyone, Yazdi here. If you are based in Canada, and specifically a Toronto denizen, you are in for a treat.

Starting this Friday, February 15th, the good people at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) have organized the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival. And the theme for the fest is young movie lovers. It includes an enviably well curated selection of movies about the young in cinema.  The full schedule for the films can be found at http://tiff.net/nextwave. All films will be playing February 15-17th at the festival flagship venue, the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

In addition to the film screenings, there is even a 24-hour film. According to the website, “TIFF Next Wave challenges teams of high-school-aged youth to make an original short film in just 24 hours, from 6pm on Thursday, February 14 to 6pm on Friday, February 15, just in time for Battle of the Scores. All films that meet the competition criteria will be screened at TIFF Bell Lightbox on the closing day of the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival, Sunday, February 17.” 

No festival of films about the young can be complete without screenings from the John Hughes pantheon. And the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival has one-upped the stakes by a full on John Hughes Film Marathon as part of the fest. Even better, high school students can attend the Hughes marathon free! It does not get better than this.

One of the films I viewed at the 2012 TIFF was the Spanish language movie Promocion Fantasma (Ghost Graduation).  A half-hour into the movie, I stopped analyzing the film and surrendered to its silly, giddy charms. Clearly an homage to the John Hughes films from the 80s, Ghost Graduation is one of the featured films at TIFF Next Wave Film Festival and worth exploring.Here is what I wrote about Ghost Graduation in my 2012 TIFF write-up:
“If your list of comfort-food movies invariably includes films from the eighties, you will be sure to love Ghost Graduation (Promocion Fantasma). This is a light-hearted piffle of a film that only exists to get as many laughs as possible as it (re)visits the John Hughes universe. The director of this Spanish-language film, Javier Ruiz Caldera, mentioned in the Q and A after the film that the plot emerged from the premise of what might have happened if the characters from The Breakfast Club never got out of detention but died and were stuck as ghosts in their high school for the next twenty years. In this film, a school teacher who can see the dead has to help these ghosts resolve unfinished business so they can move on and stop haunting the school. The reason why Joss Whedon was the apt choice to make The Avengers is because he is a geek about the universe of these comic books and he gets these characters. A filmmaker who taps into his own outsized love for a particular story or genre will always do a better job than another who does not have that love, no matter how technically accomplished the latter may be. Well, here is a filmmaker who gets those seminal films from the eighties and he nails that sensibility in his own directorial debut. At the TIFF screening, he got a long round of applause at the end of the film. Sometimes all you need to do is make a film about something you love, and the rest takes care of itself. Incidentally, I wonder if John Hughes will be someone whose cache will continue to grow in the coming decades. He is not typically invoked during mention of the cinema greats. We will find out, but I suspect time will be kind to the legacy of John Hughes films”.

I am glad to see that the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival is already doing its part to keep the Hughes legacy relevant to a new generation of film lovers.

2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) – Update Five

Hello everyone, Yazdi here. Here’s my final update from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. You arrive eagerly in Toronto one Friday night, you watch three to four films a day, and before you know it, the last movie on your list is rolling its end credits. And its time to say goodbye to the festival, and get on a plane and head back home. There could have been a hundred other combination of films I could have picked to watch during my time in Toronto (there are more than 400 films screening this year at TIFF). But by all accounts, the ones I chose left me fully sated and then some.

There are three TIFF offerings to discuss in this final update. One greatly anticipated film that did not live up to expectations. One relatively unknown film that knocked my socks (and my shoes, and my shirt, and my pants…) off. And a program of short films whose quality covered the spectrum of everything in between.

2012 TIFF still, ‘7 Boxes’

Almost every year, a movie comes out of nowhere, and becomes part of the popular consciousness. If there is justice in the world, 7 Boxes will be that film this year. TIFF prides itself on discovering what it calls ‘the next big film’, citing Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech as examples. The kind of movie that gains traction through word of mouth, opens in arthouse cinemas, and then rapidly expands to mainstream theaters. 7 Boxes more than deserves this fate.

Here is the premise of 7 Boxes (directed by Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori): in a teeming shanty market in Paraguay, seventeen year old Victor is one of many people making a living by carting merchandise on wheelbarrows through the maze of busy streets. One evening he is asked to deliver 7 wooden boxes to a location he will be informed of at a later time. Hoping to finally be able to afford the used cell-phone he has been lusting after, he accepts the task. And thus begins what will be the breathless remainder of the film as Victor realizes that there are many who will go to any extreme to get their hands on the 7 boxes. If this film sounds like a Premium Rush knock-off, let me assure you this is a far smarter, grittier, layered movie that is as close to the ground unpolished and hard-scrabble as they get. The more relevant comparison would be with Run Lola Run which also featured a protagonist persistently on the run against time. 7 Boxes features an ingenious plot (wait till you find out what’s in the boxes) that expertly weaves together more than a dozen characters who interact in unexpected ways in a story that is as labyrinthine as the market streets through which Victor dashes with the seven wooden crates tethered to his wheelbarrow. Every actor here achieves a reality to their character that makes it impossible to imagine them in other roles.

2012 TIFF still, “7 Boxes”

We have seen movies like this before, but ultimately what elevates this film is the notes of cleverness that are liberally scattered throughout; this is the work of unquestionable talent. To give an example, there is a scene in the film where in the middle of his running, running, running, Victor stops outside an electronics shop to catch a breath. There are multiple televisions in the storewindow, each fitted to a camera. He sees his face projected through multiple perspectives and can’t help but stare, probably seeing his face from so many angles for the first time in his life. Something terrible has happened immediately before this scene, but Victor stops for a moment to stare. To be a kid. To be a human being, suddenly fascinated by something simple. It is touches such as this which demonstrate that this is the work of a particularly gifted filmmaker. All of the pieces of the plot ultimately snap together with a pleasing click, and the movie has a final scene so perfectly rendered it had me cheering at the screen. To discover a movie like this is the reason why most people go to film festivals. Unpredictable, frenetic and utterly entertaining, this folks, is how you do it.

2012 TIFF still, ‘Arthur Newman’

If the idea of a film with Colin Firth and Emily Blunt excites you (and it should) then it may be best to skip to the next paragraph in this post, because there is no way to talk about the film Arthur Newman without giving away key plot elements. Okay, consider yourself warned with the requisite Spoiler Alert. Arthur Newman is a film about two disaffected souls who bond. With the hazy, occult, undefinable connection between two strangers as its main focus, Arthur Newman evokes Lost In Translation set in small town southern america. But this film has an even more melancholic tone, if that’s possible. In A Ladder Of Years, an Anne Tyler novel, one day, a woman leaves her family, drives to a new town, and sets up a completely new life there. The movie starts with the Colin Firth character, a one-time accomplished professional golf player, doing something similar, i.e., he devises a plan that would lead the world to believe that he may have taken his life and drives off to another town after taking on a new name: Arthur J. Newman. We find out as the film progresses as to what might lead a person to abandon their existing identity and willfully take on a new one. Blunt plays a woman coming undone; she has a car crash while drunk, is arrested and then needs to be hospitalized to be revived. She joins the Firth character on a road trip to Texas where he is headed to set up a new life. We will find more details about their lives as the film progresses. I thought I would never see the day but Emily Blunt is miscast in this role. I realize that she cannot always play the adorable ingénue in film after film and her risky, brittle, broken performance here is commendable, but the deliberate dimming of the considerable charms of this actor somehow seems wrong. This is a fairly dark film, and even its moments of levity are tinged with bitterness. I admired the meditative, despondent feel of much of the movie but the pervasive grimness of tone may make the film a hard sell. I was also disconcerted by the fact that even the most basic information about the lead characters is withheld through much of the first half of the film. The deliberate choice to only slowly reveal more information about them, may come at the cost of the audience’s patience. Overall I realize this is a brave film with a unique voice and resolute tone but it came across as a slight disappointment.

2012 TIFF still, ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’, short film

Planning to attend the Short Films program at a film festival is always a smart choice because you get the buffet experience: one gets to taste a little bit of everything. The short film compilation program I attended (Short Cuts Canada Programme #2) included seven short films. Hmong Sisters (13 minutes) focuses on an American tourist visiting rural Vietnam and comments on the adaptation and abuse of cross-cultural interactions. Struggle (Faillir, 24 minutes) brings honesty, an admirable lack of judgment, and clear-mindedness to a difficult subject matter: the sexual tension between two siblings. I was impressed by the naturalness of the performances, and the maturity in dealing with a topic that is frequently treated as untouchable. Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (14 minutes) about the coming of age of a young girl who lives at home with her grandfather (played by the invaluable Gordon Pinsent) is effortlessly heartfelt, and was hands down the best short in the collection. The difficulty of doing a lesson-of-life type of film without coming off trite or obvious or fake or sentimental cannot be overstated. There are two moments in the film that pack a powerful emotional punch and the fact that this is achieved with remarkable economy of time speaks to everything that this short gets right. Asian Gangs (9 minutes) is a faux-documentary that hits every one of its funny marks. It works wonderfully (the audience was doubled over with laughter) because of the disarming sincerity of the lead actor (and co-director). The premise, to be seen to be believed, must have seemed so slight, so silly on paper, but what is captured on film comes out a winner. Tuesday (14 minutes) is a cute short about a young girl who is getting gypped in life at every corner, but her love of dogs will ultimately save her. Vive La Canadienne (3 minutes) is wordless and frothy and delightful in its simplicity. I have great fondness for films that play like the silents, and do not need dialog or cultural context to make their point and this film of barely a few minutes achieves that. Nostradamos (9 minutes), about a small Canadian town believed to potentially survive the end of the world, uses the same faux-documentary tone as Asian Gangs, but with a far more straight-faced tone.

And so comes an end to the films I watched at TIFF 2012, and I am already counting the days until next year.

2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) – Update Four

The Toronto International Film Festival was in progress when 9/11 happened. TIFF takes place in the first two weeks of September, and since 2001 the festival has showed a short two minute memorial prior to every feature screened on September 11th. Over the years, the short has changed, but it has always been a well crafted piece consisting of reactions to 9/11 from the film community. And 2012 was the first year that the festival chose not to show a 9/11 tribute. There was some curiosity around this amongst a few people I spoke with today.  Most individuals, including myself, believe this was a deliberate decision, to demonstrate a small manner of healing that has occurred since the events of 2001. And that while 9/11 can never be forgotten, the world has learned to move on a little bit. This is oddly comforting.

All of the films I saw today seemed to deal with matters of the flesh in some form or another.

2012 TIFF still, ‘Byzantium’

Byzantium, the latest from director Neil Jordan (The Company Of Wolves, The Crying Game, Interview With A Vampire, The End Of The Affair) stars Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Atherton as contemporary blood-suckers. For a film about vampires, I found the movie oddly bloodless. To be clear, there is a surfeit of blood and gore on screen, but the film seemed to me lacking in dramatic tension. I respect the decision to have the movie be as much about atmosphere as the plot, but the terminally sluggish placing seemed a peculiar choice. The movie dips back periodically to a back-story set two hundred years in the past, but the back and forth in chronology isn’t effective since that origin story about the two vampires is not particularly compelling. I am hardly an expert on the mythology of vampires, but I am fascinated by the belief that vampires in literature have always been a metaphor for all those in the world who are patently different. And therefore subject to scorn and hatred. This theory also explains the need for vampires to stay in dark. It has been suggested that vampires in early literature were meant to represent lepers. There has been discussion that the vampires in Anne Rice’s books represent homosexual repression. Others have suggested that the reaction to vampires has long represented racism in the world.  Considering that the director of Interview With A Vampire is returning 20 years later with Byzantium, I was hoping he had something more to add to the mythology of blood-suckers. But I struggled to find any meaningful insight in Byzantium and surprised to see it be so toothless. Yes, he comments on how vampires have traditionally been male and the two female protagonists in this film are pariahs even within the vampire clan. But even that protest comes across a bit outdated. Saoirse Ronan is one of the more intriguing screen presences in current cinema and does a very able job here but even so seems underused. This is a technically accomplished film, but considering that it is presented as more than just pure entertainment, it was a bit of head-scratcher for me.

2012 TIFF still, ‘The Sessions’

The Sessions comes to TIFF already having gathered buzz at prior film festivals as the movie guaranteed to earn acting nominations for John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. I am not going to argue about that having seen the film. In fact, it is best if this film is seen with the minimum of expectations. This is a small-scale film that evokes some big issues. The movie is based on the real-life story of Mark O’Brian, a Berkeley area poet / journalist, who after being afflicted with childhood polio, needed to live in an iron lung and had no useable motor movements below his neck. Confined to a stretcher all his adult life, and with caretakers around him to help him with everyday activities, Mark O’Brian went on to obtain his degree. Obviously unable to do many things that others can, he realized in his mid-thirties that the one thing he could not live without having accomplished in his life was to have a physical relationship. The movie begins at this point in his life, and covers his relationships with those around him,  chiefly with the sex-therapist who tries to assist him with fulfilling his desire to lose his virginity. Helen Hunt plays the therapist in a fearless performance, depicting the complexities of a woman with a husband and son who, as part of her professional career is required to get physically intimate with others. John Hawkes, that menacing and charismatic actor from Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene is unrecognizable here in the lead role as a man constantly  shrunk down to size in the presence of the medical equipment around him. The film features some stellar writing, especially when it gets into decidedly unchartered territories, and performances that make you forget that you are watching actors. What I liked most about the film though was how it successfully makes the case, on multiple occasions, that many issues that we may consider as being uniquely specific to the physically disabled are actually remarkably universal; the impediments we face in life are not that different regardless of our physical status. This story is also rife for assessing the particular considerations of a professional sex-therapist. What are the ethics, motivations and conflicts associated with a person whose trained work involves having sex with clients and who receives monetary compensation for it  (Hunt’s character makes it clear, repeatedly, that she is a therapist, not a prostitute)? And when a sex-therapist builds necessarily difficult relationships with the person being treated, how can the physicality of it not bleed over into emotional dependencies? The film explores this to some extent – notably with the shifting attitude of Hunt’s husband who initially believes his wife is a saint for what she does to help people, but over a period of time starts resenting her for the same thing – but I wished it had plumbed this further. After all is said and done though, this is an original, intimate, and affecting film.

2012 TIFF still, ‘My Awkward Sexual Adventure’

Truth in advertising! The movie, My Awkward Sexual Adventure, is exactly what the title indicates. This is a silly little sex-comedy, which can sit in your Netflix queue along with the American Pie films. Did I laugh during this film? Yes, many times. And it is perhaps a notch above the sort of teenage raunchfests thrown at us from time to time. In this genre, nobody is looking for high art, or even exceptional insight, and as long as the film isn’t inept or does not insult the audience, it is already ahead of the others in the race.  The plot involves a man whose girlfriend declines his marriage proposal claiming she finds him boring and his physical skills in bed severely lacking. Through a turn of circumstances, he strikes a deal with a stripper (with a heart of gold? what do you think?) who promises him education with lovemaking in return for him assisting with her failing finances. A homegrown Canadian effort that took almost a decade to bring to the screen, the film is harmless fun. Although the movie does up the ante substantially in the raunch department, the writer and lead actor Jonas Chernick and director Sean Garrity keep things energetic, and the committed actors make this not an unworthy entry in this genre.

Sadly, I have only one more day left at TIFF and will be filing in my final report tomorrow.

2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) – Update Three

My third day at TIFF 2012 involved the watching of three films, all of them rewarding in their own way.

2012 TIFF still, ‘The Impossible’

The Impossible, starring Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts and the impressive young actor Tom Holland, is the sort of movie that gives melodrama a good name. The film is a harrowing account of a family’s experiences during the South Asian tsunami that occurred several years ago. It is based on the true story of these individuals vacationing at a resort in Thailand when the tsunami hit. While the film is majestic in its scope, by choosing to stick close to this one family during the aftermath of the tsunami, it invites the audience to be more internally involved with the things enfolding on the screen. For sure the film ought to win awards considerations for Sound Design. Perhaps it was the magnificent Princess of Wales theatre in which I saw the movie, but I experienced some of the best sound in film; each shake, each vibration, each rumble in the movie was perfectly captured and rendered without distortion, further personalizing – and intensifying – the experience.

What I meant by melodrama earlier is that this movie is not scared of going big with its emotions. In fact it relies on them. And while this approach fails in most movies (we are told subtlety should be the mantra for every filmmaker) this film achieves such an unquestionable sense of authenticity with the main characters that it earns the right to draw on grand-scale emotionality. While a film such as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close came off seeming insincere using 9/11 as its premise, The Impossible, because of its honesty, stays clear of such concerns. In the screening I attended, this wrenching and raw film brought most audience members to tears and many left the cinema feeling sore. I know this film is being written off in some circles as being manipulative and overwrought, but then so was Gone With The Wind, and so was Schindler’s List. This is the best film I have seen at TIFF so far.

2012 TIFF still, ‘Thanks For Sharing’

Thanks for Sharing, tells a story of recovering sex-addicts living in Manhattan. This is a premise that we have not seen explored much on the screen, and there is a lightness of touch to how it is handled here, avoiding moralizing or judgment. To be sure this is not Shame, but the movie feels honest even when some of the stories do not work as well as others. With an enviable cast consisting of Mark Ruffalo, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim Robbins, Natasha Richardson, Josh Gad, Alicia Moore and Patrick Fugit, the film circles around three prior addicts (Ruffalo, Robbins and Gad) and the people in their lives.  Stuart Blumberg, making his directorial debut with this film is an accomplished writer, having penned The Kids Are Alright, a movie that could be used to teach scriptwriting in Film School. And expectedly, the writing in this film dazzles with funny stingers that always make a good landing, particularly coming from Tim Robbins’ character. There are parts of the film that get dangerously close to contrivance, and not all of the pieces fit together perfectly. However I believe the film’s greatest strength is in its ensemble cast. These are all steadfast actors, who know how to get the job done. Mark Ruffalo always brings a low-key authenticity to his roles. Gwyneth Paltrow is warm, believable, conflicted and real. Alicia Moore (Pink) makes an auspicious film debut with an impressive monologue early in the movie. And Patrick Fugit and Tim Robbins, playing son and father, take a slightly overused story arc and relieve it entirely from cliché. This could have been a great film, but for what it is, good is good enough.

2012 TIFF still, ‘Ghost Graduation’.

If your list of comfort-food movies invariably includes films from the eighties, you will be sure to love Ghost Graduation (Promocion Fantasma). This is a light-hearted piffle of a film that only exists to get as many laughs as possible as it (re)visits the John Hughes universe. The director of this Spanish-language film, Javier Ruiz Caldera, mentioned in the Q & A after the film that the plot emerged from the premise of what might have happened if the characters from The Breakfast Club never got out of detention but died and were stuck as ghosts in their high school for the next twenty years. A school teacher who can see the dead has to help the ghosts  resolve any unfinished business so they can move on and stop haunting the school. The reason why Joss Whedon was the apt choice to make The Avengers is because he is a geek about the universe of these comic books and he gets these characters. A filmmaker who taps into his own outsized love for a particular story or genre, will always do a better job than someone who does not have that love, no matter how technically accomplished the latter may be. Well, here is a filmmaker who gets those seminal films from the eighties and he nails the sensibility of those films in his own directorial debut. At the TIFF screening, he got a long round of applause from the audience at the end of the film. Sometimes all you need to do is make a film about something you love, and the rest takes care of itself. Incidentally, I wonder if John Hughes will be someone whose cache will continue to grow in the coming decades. He is not typically invoked during mention of the greats from the last few decades or even within the names of more regarded contemporary filmmakers. We will find out, but I suspect time will be kind to the legacy of John Hughes films.

2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) – Update Two

Immediately prior to the showing of any film at TIFF there is a notification that comes up on the screen warning viewers that the illegal recording or any other form of reproduction of the movie they are about to see is subject to criminal prosecution. And at that precise moment, someone in the audience inevitably always yells “Arrrwff”. I am not making this up. Of course all festival attendees are staunch supporters of anti-piracy measures, and hence the guttural canine utterance is not a sign of protest. Rather it is just a vestigial TIFF legend passed on from year to year since who knows how long. The sound of the “Arrrwff” always brings me comfort because it reminds me that I am doing one my favorite things in the world: about to start watching a new film at TIFF.

TIFF 2012 still, ‘Love Is All You Need’

Not all movies need to be high art. Sometimes putting a film together is like organizing an event. If your guests leave having had a good time and having eaten well, and if they speak fondly afterward about it, then it has been a job well done.  This is the case with Love is All You Need , the latest film from Susanne Bier (After The Wedding, In A Better World) which stars Pierce Brosnan, Trine Dyerholm and Paprika Steen. The plot involves extended families getting together for a wedding. Pierce Brosnan plays the groom’s father  who has immersed himself completely into work since his wife’s death. Trine Dyerholm plays the bride’s mother, who has recently come off chemotherapy treatment. The wedding, scheduled in an old villa in Italy that is owned by Brosnan’s character, brings members of the two families together.  And the plot writes itself. This is a full-bodied, well-constructed film that respects its characters; the kind of mainstream film that is increasingly rare these days. Yes a person can be cynical and find this movie rote and unoriginal and complain that they have seen it all before. And yes the movie is predictable from the turn of the first reel. But that does not take away from it being a thoroughly enjoyable ride all the same. I bought into this movie from the start, found it  genuine, and believed in these characters. And I was within the movie through its running time instead of watching it from the outside. I suspect many will find it a piffle, a distraction, but this is the kind of film that resonates with me. Its a highlight of my TIFF experience. [By the way, I wish the original Danish title of the film, The Bald Hair-Dresser, had been retained as the English title too].

2012 TIFF still, ‘Out In The Dark’

If one purpose of film (or any art form, for that matter) is to depict our greater contemporary conflicts, the movie Out In the Dark provides a striking example of what separates us now as human beings. Director Michael Mayer sets his story at the crossfire of one of the more unresolvable political impasses of our time, the Israeli-Palastinian conflict. What are the repercussions of the bonding between two people, one from Israel, and the other from Palestine? The filmmakers add an additional dimension to this conflict by  layering it with something else that has the contemporary world currently divided: same-sex relationships. What if the bond in question was between two men who deeply love each other, but are from opposing sides of the geopolitical border?  Nimr (Nicholas Jacob) is a Palestinian student who is granted a permit to travel daily to a Tel Aviv college in order to study with a noted professor. Roy (Michael Aloni) is a successful lawyer living a comfortable, affluent life in Israel. Both are surprised at the strength of their affinity for each other when they meet. Against their judgment, and knowledge of the imminent danger, both fall in love. As unplanned but all consuming as their bond is, how are the two to find a tenable logistical solution for them to co-exist. So repellant does Nimr’s Islamic family find the concept of homosexuality that they lack the ability to understand his dilemma. And Roy is having to contend with the Israeli Secret Service nipping at his heels with the knowledge of his association with a Palestinian man. Although the film occasionally gets heavy-handed with its approach, and weaves its narrative thread across too many secondary characters, I liked the matter-of-fact, unfussy handling of this material. And the urgency and barely restrained anger simmering under the telling of this story. Ultimately I admired most how the movie telescopes the current Middle-Eastern situation through the lens of these two individuals.

2012 TIFF still, ‘Thermae Romae’

The film, Thermae Romae was the most profitable film of the year in Japan, the TIFF program informs us. And I can see why; it is a goofy, big-budget, time-travel adventure that is single-minded in its aim to entertain the audience. And indeed it was a crowd pleaser at the TIFF screening I attended. The movie plays with particularly broad humor, done with so much greater zest and wit in Mel Brooks’ History Of The World, Part I. The movie, based on a rabidly popular comic book of the same name, tells the story of an architect in ancient Rome with a special acumen for  building bathhouses intended to comfort the Roman emperor and army generals. Having lost enthusiasm with his job, he one day slips underwater and gets sucked, literally, through the space-time continuum to arrive in modern day Japan. Marveling at the inventions of contemporary Japan, he brings the modern inventions back to ancient Rome to achieve much acclaim. Much of the film’s humor is derived from the fish out of water situation each time the protagonist travels to the modern day Japan. The audience I was watching this film with enjoyed the film a lot more than I did. Maybe it was because I kept trying to see past the moment by moment gags in the film. And after a while the back and forth travel in time got tiresome. The lead actor, Hiroshi Abe, so nuanced and finely tuned in Still Walking, is asked here to play the character so broadly that he is left with doing not much more than providing exaggerated reaction shots of surprise. This is the kind of film that may go best combined with a beer on a Friday or Saturday night.

2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)- Update One

The 2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is off to a great start. The usual cinema venues, the usual running from one screening to the next, the usual sprints along the familiar blocks of Yonge Street and King Street with stops for caffeine on the way, the usual enthused audience members eager to tell others about what amazing films they have just seen – is what makes TIFF what it has always been: one of the most accessible and well programmed film festivals. In a perfect world, TIFF would be on every day of the year. But while being in Toronto for the few days that I am, I am determined to make the most of it.

TIFF 2012 still, ‘Frances Ha’

The first film I saw, Frances Ha, is delight manifest on the cinema screen. The movie is written and directed by Noah Baumbach, he of the dark, aching ‘comedies’ Greenberg, Margot at the Wedding, and The Squid and The Whale. His latest effort carries an entirely different blueprint. For one thing the movie is shot in gorgeous black and white, which renders Brooklyn and Paris that much more romantic. An audience member at the Q and A after the film asked Baumbach as to what besides The French New Wave and Woody Allen were his inspirations for this film. “Those two pretty much sum it up”, he replied. The movie is also co-written by the gamine Greta Gerwig who plays the lead role. Maybe its because of her greater investment in this film with her contribution to the script, but Gerwig is the most delightful she has ever been on camera – and this means something considering that here is an actor who has made a name for herself by being delightful in films. It would be reductive to call this simply a coming of age film. As Gerwig mentioned during her response to a question, this film interested her because it is based on something seldom seen in movies: unrequited love between two people who have a relationship that is not sexual. The film is of course nothing if not a showcase for exceptional writing. The dialog here is pitch-perfect. Laugh too loud at a line and you will miss the next piece of dialog. The completely spontaneous feeling of the movie, we learn from the director and cast, came from tedious repetition of takes based on a tightly scripted story. You will also have to see this film to find out the explanation for the title of the movie in the last scene. This is an immeasurably witty and wise film.

TIFF 2012 still, ‘Everybody Has A Plan’

Everybody Has A Plan (Todos Tenemos Un Plan), is an Argentine film that takes film noir and carries it through its fullest possibilities. Viggo Mortensen demonstrates that he is just as compelling an actor when he is speaking in another language. He plays the dual roles of Agustin, a well to do Buenos Aires pediatrician coming undone from his wife, and Pedro, his far less fortunate twin brother who lives in the impoverished water-logged islands (El Tigre delta) away from the city and who has his hands dirty with involvement with the local crime leader. The poverty-stricken islands in the movie bear a strong resemblance to the setting of the recent Beasts Of The Southern Wild. Throw in a younger lover, hard-scrabble criminals who will stop at nothing to recover their money, switched identities, and bee-keeping as a metaphor for the perils of getting too close to something dangerous. And you have a sticky, steaming brew of noir set in South America. What is surprising is to find that this accomplished film is made by a first time director, the young Ana Piterbarg.

TIFF 2012 still, ’90 Minutes’

The last film I saw in the day was the Scandinavian production 90 Minutes. It came advertised as a movie that tries to understand the possible pathology behind the 2011 mass shootings in Norway. The film toggles between three seemingly unrelated fictional stories, which start off from a place of the abjectly mundane, but only gradually reveal the undercurrent of impending malefic forces: a wealthy businessman who is having to make some major adjustments in his life, a police officer spending an evening with his family and starting to sense the displeasure from the mother of his children, and finally a third man watching television in a seemingly empty apartment before we are suddenly faced with the unthinkable horror around his existence. The movie depicts literally, the last 90 minutes in the lives of three individuals. And makes a case for the often very unremarkable basis for the genesis of terrible violence. This is technically an accomplished film, with masterful shot compositions. And heightened, crystalline sound that effortlessly makes the amplification of everyday noises (a dishwasher being loaded, a baby crying) summon anxiety and impending doom. For all its merits, the movie was ultimately, for me, impossible to watch. And there were steady walkouts during the screening, starting from almost the first half hour. I recognize the choice of a filmmaker to take a brutal, in your face, approach to depicting the horrific. But at what point does the end stop justifying the means? In its effort to drive home its (what seemed to me, somewhat oversimplified) tenet about what leads individuals into doing the unthinkable, the movie is willing to cross any line. As inured as we are to seeing the shocking and the violent in cinema, I still could not stomach this film. Perhaps the very fact that this film has engendered this much discussion within my head may speak to its potency. I need to continue to consider this film in the coming days.

Another three films on the schedule for tomorrow; other movies to revel in. Until the next update, then.