Monday, September 20, 2010

TIFF 2010 reviews: Red Nights

Sigh...last one of the year. Another TIFF come and gone, closing it out this overcast Sunday with one last Midnight Madness escapade, the French/Cantonese Les Nuits Rouges du Bourreau de Jade (Red Nights). I suppose I could lay a lot of the same criticism at the feet of this flick that I did with The Butcher yadda yadda, as it does veer dangerously close to disorganized mashup territory, but Red Nights carries it off much better; you never feel as if the directors aren’t actually steering the ship. It’s a French film, really, it just happens to be set in Hong Kong, and stars Carrie Ng, who I somewhat remember from my years as a HK film fanatic, though she was a second-tier star whose work I didn’t pay as much attention to as I did, say, Maggie Cheung, and who did way too many sleazy Wong Jing comedies for my liking. Still, she does have an impressive screen presence here, as a femme fatale whose viciousness would put Bridget Gregory to shame.

The plot is ostensibly a thriller, a noirish tale of antique smuggling and competing mob bosses, but layered onto the action is a bizarre tale of a perverse sexual underground, with Ng as a black widow type who straddles the line between fetishistic kink games and the kind of bloody sadism that made me nearly throw up at Martyrs two years ago (what is it with French directors and their desire to see women skinned alive, anyway?). The scene in which she demonstrates the effectiveness of a paralyzing agent on a hapless underling by flaying her alive with a set of three inch jade fingernails is one for the MM record books, and did provoke more than a few walkouts. While I can’t quite recommend the film—its jumble is a little too unhinged for my liking—I will concede that it does deliver all it promises, which is the hallmark of a successful Midnight Madness festival pick. So I didn’t end the festival with a’s been a few years since my final film sent me out onto the autumn streets of Toronto with a film-lovin’ spring in my step, but overall this year is on an upward swing from 2009. Only fifty or so weeks to go until the fun starts again...(**1/2)

TIFF 2010 reviews: The Trip

As I’ve mentioned before, The Trip was the one big “I can’t miss this one” of the festival for which I came up short in the ticket draw. Michael Winterbottom is the kind of filmmaker that never makes the same movie twice, which can be a plus or a minus when it comes to being an audience member, but Winterbottom has followed his muse to quite a few very cool places of late. Plus, how could I resist the premise? Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon drive around the English countryside eating elaborate meals and bickering. For a fan of a certain kind of British comedy, this was the golden ticket. Alas, my order form was in the 35th bin processed and I didn’t get to go to the premiere. A spare ticket did turn up for the final day of the festival though, and though I had little hope of any of the principals still being in town (not a given: in 2007, Son of Rambow was the last screening I saw on the final Saturday, and Garth Jennings was still enjoying Toronto) I snapped it up.

So glad that I did. The Trip was just, to fall back on a hoary old cliché, a crowd-pleaser of the first order. It’s basically an hour and a half of two brilliant comedians playing vaguely fictionalized versions of themselves, driving each other up the walls, doing endless impressions, working out comedy bits, doing that British thing where they insult the other person but couch it in a way that it’s not meant to be an insult but the target really knows it is but neither will admit it and engaging in bizarre and ultimately (in the case of Coogan) heartbreaking introspection. I don’t think I’ve laughed as long or as hard in ages, and neither had the rest of the packed Ryerson auditorium, from the sounds of things.

Thing is, I don’t know if there’s more out there to enjoy. I looked The Trip up on, and it’s listed as a six-episode TV show. So possibly what I saw was an edited-down version of all the episodes stitched together (Millennium trilogy style), and maybe a full-length version is coming out on BBC DVD. Or maybe each episode was only twenty minutes long and used as filler for those oddly-timed British TV shows to keep the schedule vaguely hourly. At any rate, pity I didn’t get to witness what was no doubt one hell of a Q&A on the 11th, but I’m still glad I got to see the film. (****)

TIFF 2010 reviews: The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman

I’ve been thinking a lot about cinematic excess lately and how it’s almost become a thematically-varied genre unto itself, and specifically how that pertains to the Midnight Madness program. I suppose it’s one of the big draws for that section of the festival, the chance to watch something onscreen go Over The Top with an audience primed to totally lose their shit at the very prospect. There are degrees of course. On one level, you have the films that achieve their craziness (subjectively speaking) honestly. Think Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, or John Woo’s 1986-1991 output.. Jackson especially seems to revel in tossing viscera at the screen for no higher-minded reason that a desire to please both himself and a certain sympathetic type of audience member bound to scream in joy at the sensation. On a second level, you have the kind of excess that exists only for its own justification; a self-conscious craziness that exists because it’s expected, or because the writer and/or director have a desire for the sensation without earning the right to it with the surrounding story. This one’s often given away in the screenplay, with plenty of caps and exclamation points in the action descriptions.

And recently there’s emerged this bizarre third level, a cousin once removed that seems to actually be about the process of creating excess. Exhibit A is Robert Rodriguez, who teetered back and forth across the line between 2 and 3 with Rose McGowan’s machine gun leg in Planet Terror and then firmly planted his flag with Machete, something which barely qualifies as a movie but is rather a collection of “bet you can’t top this” moments in a simulacrum of a genre that, strictly speaking, has never existed in the form that Rodriguez thinks it did.

Anyway, all this comes up now partly because I’m delaying trying to write about my third MM movie of this year’s festival, The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman, about which I have virtually nothing to say except, huh? There’s a lot of talk in genre circles about that supposedly fun style called the mash-up. To bandy the word about is to offer a supposed explanation as to why some directors never settle on a tone within a movie, or it’s used as a cultural explanation for why Bollywood films will stick a musical number in the middle of a car chase in the middle of a family slapstick comedy in the middle of a horror movie. What it too often really means, though, is a headache-inducing collision of discordant elements with no rhyme or reason. Like, for example, in The Butcher, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover which throws loads of elements of Hong Kong and mainland China cinema into a messy unstirred stew. From wu xia pan to mo lei tau; from the cooking comedy to the Shaw Brothers chop socky; from the shameless, bellowing, mugging of repulsive bulbous characters with unfortunate facial hair to the ingénues in silk dresses coyly hiding behind fans; from deliberately-artificial soundstage work to Scott Pilgrim-style fight sequences...this flick has them all, just not in any understandable form. I have no idea how it played at midnight; I saw it at 3 in the afternoon and nodded off a couple of times, or I think I did.

Even more baffling, is that The Butcher and Carol and Ted and Alice is apparently going to get a mainstream release, four or five years after Kung Fu Hustle flukily put Steven Chow at number one in North America for a week. Doug Limon is credited as a producer, and not just on the English poster à la “Quentin Tarantino presents Hero” but within the opening Chinese credits. Not sure how the Bourne Identity director got mixed up in this mess, but he may want to rethink. (* 1/2)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

TIFF 2010 reviews: MODRA

At this point of the week there are relatively few non-gala premieres left on the schedule, so I imagine Ingrid Veninger's MODRA (all caps as per the Program Book for reasons I’m not quite sure of) will be my last for the year. I was downtown a bit early and dropped by the box office to see if any tickets had gone back on sale for the final showing of The Trip, or Jucy, or Good Neighbors, but no such luck. (UPDATE: over lunch on Thursday I bussed over to the box office again for one more stab, resigned to swapping my The Big Picture ticket for Cold Fish, which I did sort of want to see as a fourth choice, and managed to snag the very last The Trip ticket for Sunday. Sweeeeeeeet.) Heading back along King St past the Lightbox I passed John Sayles walking west; Amigo got a one-star review in the Eye this morning, I can’t help but wonder how the premiere went.

Anyway, I wound up being first in line for MODRA not by design. The only other time I’ve been first was for Lou Reed’s Berlin three years ago; that was definitely on purpose. I finished off the Ian Rankin novel I’d been plowing through and had cracked open a collection of Nick Hornby columns when we were finally let in, along with what seemed to be several dozen of the director’s family, in keeping with the spirit of the movie we were about to watch. From its opening shot of the Toronto skyline onwards, MODRA is the kind of film that sort of demands you like it, that it’s your patriotic duty as a Torontonian to sing its praises. Veninger seems pretty cool; I looked up her imdb page and she’s got the chops on both sides of the camera going back many years. Still, there’s a forced-cliquish Queen West feel to the whole affair that I know bugs me more than it does others. I guess I sort of feel that movies are to be made and then set loose on strangers rather than screened for family and friends. Even writing this the morning after the premiere I feel the tug of emotional blackmail, knowing that any complaints will only be seen as churlish and I should be celebrating its very existence. It’s a shot-on-HD, microbudget story of a girl’s trip to visit relatives in Slovakia, bringing along on a whim a slightly hyperactive dude she doesn’t know very well from her high school. The girl is played by Hallie Switzer, the director’s daughter, which could have been more than a little ick as far as the teen romance side of the equation goes (“A little less tongue on this take, honey.”) but MODRA is one of the most chaste teen movies I’ve ever seen (at least between the leads) so that wasn’t much of an issue.

As it stands, the film still plays somewhat like a home movie that found itself scripted; seemingly half the cast are relatives of the director and star, and sometimes the non-pro acting works in a vaguely Cassavettes kind of way (other times, it seems as if the non-English-speaking Slovaks are reading their lines phonetically off of cue cards), but far too much of the footage seems like she really wanted to give Eastern-Bloc small-town relations shining moments on the big screen, forward narrative momentum be damned. This is especially noticeable in a series of stare-straight-ahead full-on facial shots early in the movie as characters are introduced, a stylistic tic that thankfully doesn’t reoccur. Having dissed it thus far (I’m sorry! really!) I do have to say in MODRA’s defense that both the dialogue and the performances of the two lead actors never step wrong, not even once. Switzer and Alexander Gammai give two of the best performances I’ve seen at the festival, Unforced Naturalism division; there’s not a frame onscreen during which they lose character or act as anything even remotely unlike mixed-up, lonely seventeen-year-olds trying to puzzle out their attractions. So it’s a mixed bag. (**1/2 but what do I know, I suspect it’ll win best Canadian feature anyway)

My entire festival this year will have been spread across only three theatres—the Scotia, the Ryerson Auditorium and the AMC Yonge-Dundas—and I’ve been missing the geographic variety. Nothing at Isabel Bader or the Winter Garden, and nothing at the Varsity, which is down to just two devoted festival screens this week, which considering the great TIFF times I’ve had there in the past is a real heartbreak surpassed only by the complete elimination of the Cumberland as a venue. The AMC emerging as fest central is especially aggravating, and one of the main reasons was on display last night. Unless I’ve been misinformed, all the theatres at the AMC are digital projection—no celluloid. Which means that, sure, the Pixar and James Cameron movies look great, but everything else has a slightly unsettling clean look to it, and as an audience member you’re at the mercy of the bloody computer servers. The server crashed before the 22 Mei screening I was at, and Colin Geddes had to vamp with audience participation until it was rebooted. And MODRA, whose HD video limitations turned the AMC 3 into one big TV screen, kicked off with a DVD-skipping blip of static and misplaced frames (and a cry of “You didn’t just see that!” from the director). One would think a festival run by and for the true aficionados of this city would have better options.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

TIFF 2010 reviews: Insidious

As the Midnight Madness program this year seems, to my mind, to be a huge improvement over the ’09 fest, I upped the number of flicks from that section in my selections this year...and then suffered through Vanishing on 7th Street. Still, it had been nagging at me that despite the dozen or more MM movies I’ve seen at TIFF over the past few years, I’d still come up short on the full-on Ryerson-at-the-witching-hour experience, and with one more day off in my holiday, I decided to check out one of the premieres. And perhaps Insidious wouldn’t have been my first choice out of the ten, but that’s what was on at 11:59PM Tuesday night. I figured if nothing else it would be an experience. And it was, in a ganja-smelling, beachball-flying, 300-lb biker chicks in spandex kind of way. It was also one of the best horror film experiences I’ve had in a theatre in ages, from an unlikely source.

Toronto is where, as the story goes, a flick called Saw made its first big audience impression. It wasn’t the first torture porn movie, you can trace the theme back to the late fifties with Hershell Gordon Lewis and I remember seeing more than a few video sleeves at Suspect back in the day of European PAL dubs with cover art depicting some hapless soul strapped to a chair while a masked figure prepared to go to work on them with something burning or stabby. But Saw, sadly, kicked off the trend in horror that’s fortunately running on fumes these days, inspiring a franchise that few of even the hardcore followers give a crap about any more. Of all the TP movies that have been pinched out since 2004, I’ll stand by only the Hostels as genuinely solid movies. Still not actually scary in any way other than inspiring unease over violations of the flesh, but at least well-made and acted. So last night was a homecoming of sorts, as Leigh Whannell and James Wan arrived to the reception usually accorded, I dunno, writers and directors who don’t sound like overgrown and hypercaffeinated Australian frat boys, or rock stars, by an audience that probably 50% of whom had been in the very same room at that Saw premiere six years ago. This program does inspire loyalty; and it’s definitely a different crowd from any other screening at TIFF, despite the occasional “oh, people have been getting serious all day, then they unwind with something wild at midnight” claims that I’ve seen flogged.

I can lay a fair bit of blame on the Wan/Whannell team for what they started (and, seriously, I don’t think I’d ever want to hold a conversation with either of them) but I will say that Insidious is an utterly merciless scare ride. Which no doubt has plenty to do with a receptive audience: I’m sure if I saw this on some sunny afternoon at the Silvercity Eglinton in a half-empty theatre it wouldn’t have been a tenth as effective as it was in a packed, eager and (let’s face it) mildly toasted Ryerson auditorium. I haven’t heard screams like that in there since It Might Get Loud, and yes, they were earned. Insidious is one creepy-assed haunted house movie...sort of. It neatly veers off from the standard haunted house tropes so to say anymore would risk too many spoilers, but it’s definitely a white-knuckle ride. (***1/2)

Finally got to bed around 3:30, and I’ll fully admit that I was worried about being creeped out alone in my apartment, but general ingrained scepticism serves me well. I got maybe four hours of sleep: I had a last-minute early-morning dentist appointment and had to get up at an unfortunately reasonable hour. One more tonight on my last day off, then nothing until the weekend (hopefully I’ll be able to make one more ticket trade).

TIFF 2010 reviews: Womb

The Hungarian/German/French co-production of Womb was one of the few can’t-miss picks for which I actually got a ticket in the draw this year, so needless to say it was the only screening I’ve been to so far in which none of the stars, in this case the only reason I wanted to see it in the first place, made it to Toronto for the premiere. I gather they’ve already done their festival duties, as Womb has played various European festivals already. The print was even fairly scratched up all the way through the opening credits; it’s rare to see anything less than pristine pass through a projector at TIFF, this film had obviously seen its share of projection booths already. Oh right, the stars: Eva Green and Matt Smith. Which for a dual James Bond/Doctor Who geek was the cast of the festival. Not sure how many other Vesper Lynd aficionados were in the audience but there were definitely a few fans of the Doctor: I was right behind a woman in line who proclaimed “If they announce that Matt isn’t here, and you hear a ‘Son of a BITCH!’, that’s me.” and also saw a guy unfurl a twenty-foot (or as near as) knit scarf in line, only seven actors behind the curve.

So no stars to ogle, but that’s not what the festival’s about, right? (Right?) Which is okay in this case, because Womb is actually pretty damn good. I realize that I haven’t been summarizing movies in these blog posts because I figure anyone interested will read the blurbs on, but this one’s easy: a woman gives birth to the clone of her dead lover. I suppose the Hollywood studio pitch might be along the lines of “Spanking The Monkey as envisioned by Philip K. Dick,” and then you’d feel the kiss of concrete on your cheek as security flung you out the front gates onto Melrose. It’s not an easy movie to warm up to: it’s practically silent, I doubt there’s more than ten script pages of actual dialogue, though the resulting film doesn’t fall into the “Look at my potato” school of filmmaking trap that so much eastern European cinema succumbs to. Despite the subject matter, there’s remarkably little ick factor...I mean, think about it...there really isn’t any incest happening, and it’s shot so clinically as to make Dead Ringers seem positively loud and goopy by comparison. As for the two leads, even ostensibly aged to her late forties (the makeup effects in this movie give new meaning to the word “minimalist”) Eva Green on the big screen still has a smile that’s like standing a bit too close to the sun and remains one of the most captivating actresses working today. Once you get take in the fact that her character is most likely completely insane from about the half hour point onwards, it's a brave performance. This is the first non-Doctor thing I’ve seen Matt Smith in, and though the guy may not have a lot of arrows in his acting quiver that I can see—“gangly babbling genius” and a degree or two to each side of that seems to be his range—but it does suit the character here and he’s a surprisingly engaging big-screen presence. So if heady, realistic science fiction is your thing (if you liked Primer, you’d probably dig this), you could certainly do tons worse. (***1/2)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

TIFF 2010 reviews: Submarine

Not once have I actually gone to any of the festival screenings of films that have won awards at TIFF. Sometimes one can pick up on the buzz, the news of Slumdog Millionaire of Juno enrapturing audiences and getting a healthy shove towards award season spreads meme-like through the ticket holder and rush lines, but not once have I actually caught any of the festival hits during the run of TIFF. Today’s screening of Submarine made me think I was witnessing this year’s surprise in the making. Imagine a Wes Anderson re-imagining of the early Adrian Mole books and you’ve got the wonderfulness that is Richard Ayoade’s debut feature. Ayoade is probably best known to Anglophile hipsters from TV shows like “The Mighty Boosh” and “The IT Crowd,” on both sides of the camera; he’s your standard BBC-produced actor-writer-director. Submarine was one of my gotta-see picks, but I actually traded a premiere ticket for this second screening (damn Sunday night scheduling, with count ‘em FOUR flicks I wanted to see all playing simultaneously the other night). It made the list due to, well, being set in my beloved Wales. I’m a man of simple pleasures. Plus it stars Sally Hawkins, who’s rapidly becoming one of my absolute favourite British actresses.

The whole cast is stellar: Cymru native Craig Robinson stars as this year’s cinematic Holden Caulfield, and shares a scene with his Hawkins that’s a master class in whipcrack comic timing and reaction shots. Also on hand is Noah Taylor, all grown up from his earlier arthouse starmaking roles in The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting; Paddy Considine, an absolute riot as a bullshit-peddling self-help guru with the world’s reigning champion comedic mullet (Submarine is set in late 1986, so it’s not just an ironic affectation) and, though I hadn’t made the connection until she first appeared onscreen, Yasmin Paige from "The Sarah Jane Adventures" who, if Matt Smith shows up at the Womb premiere tonight, makes this quite the Russell T. Davies’ casting office day for me.

The main reason I was pissed for not getting the opening night of The Trip in the ticket draw was missing what I assumed would be the funniest Q&A of the festival. This one made up for it. Ayoade was already playing to an adoring crowd when he riffed on the various viewers sidling up the aisle and was typically British in his self-deprecating comments as to his directorial skills. In all honesty I don’t know if Submarine is bound for the Audience Award this year; the programming assistant who intro’d the screening did say that there had been a bit of a groundswell after opening night and the director and cast were suddenly finding themselves doing a fair bit of press, so maybe I’ll be cheerfully proven wrong. At any rate, it’s a complete gem, the best thing I’ve seen so far. (****)

I waited to say hello to Robinson and Paige afterwards, and they charmingly posed for a pic together. Turns out Robinson’s from just near Cardiff and seemed pleased when I mentioned that I was in love with the town and was looking forward to going back. I also think I surprised Paige by mentioning my Sarah Jane fandom; I actually just watched the ep. yesterday in which Maria and her dad move to America and I couldn’t resist asking if she returned later in Series 2. Sadly, no. Oh well. I parted with a “Croeso i Toronto,” which got a smile from Robinson, though I suspect I may have mutated the “T” a bit, dammit.

Okay, back out to grab an early dinner, hit the box office to see if I’ll be going to Midnight Madness tonight, and to the Scotia to get in line far too early for Womb.