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.

Monday, September 13, 2010

TIFF 2010 reviews: Vanishing on 7th Street

Oh well, first dud of the festival, and it always seems to happen around flick four for me. Had my first mid-day Midnight Madness screening today, Brad Anderson’s Vanishing on 7th Street. MM has long been one of my favourite programs of TIFF; I’ve seen at least one of its shows every year since ’05, peaking two years ago when I saw six out of the ten, the heaviest concentration of any fest program. That burned me out a bit, especially a certain French torture-porn experience I won’t rehash, so last year I dialled it back to two, and wound up batting .500 on my picks. I’ve got three on my docket currently, though I’m debating cranking the caffeine and actually going to a proper 11:59 PM tomorrow night if tix are still available, after all I do have Wednesday off work.

But enough OCD trivia. Anderson’s probably best known for The Machinist, which was an earlier entry at Midnight Madness that was notorious for Christian Bale starving himself down to 110 pounds for the shoot, and then having to bulk back up again to play Batman immediately afterwards. I haven’t seen that one, but I’ve heard such good things that I was willing to give this one a shot, as the synopsis had a certain creepy Omega Man read to it, and sounded like my favourite type of horror movie, an atmospheric cranking up of tension in a surreal cityscape. In his introduction, Colin Geddes mentioned that Anderson had flown back to L.A. immediately after the midnight screening the other night and was in fact on the set of his new film as he spoke, but...a couple of the stars were in the house (just for an intro, not hanging around for a Q&A). And out came Toronto’s own Hayden Christensen and the always lovely Thandie Newton. I’d make “Mannequin Skywalker” jokes but, in all honesty, I re-watched the prequels again recently and can’t really blame Christensen for his performances, there’s really nothing the greatest thespians in the world could do with Lucas’ dialogue.

Anyhow. Creepy atmospheric end-of-world eternal night horror flick, right? Sure, except for the horror part. Though it starts off strong, with some genuinely memorable set pieces—a suddenly pilotless airliner crashing into the Detroit skyline in the far background is particularly effective—things go south in a hurry as the four main characters (our two guests plus John Leguizamo and 14-year-old first-timer Jacob Latimore) hole up in a bar and freak out every time the lights dim. I hate to say it, shadows just aren’t scary unto themselves, and an hour and a half of “Stay in the light! Oh no, my flashlight’s dying!” gets really repetitive. “Silence In The Library” did this so much better; the Vashta Nerada put these darkness monsters to shame. And while I hate to whine about a movie for not serving everything up neatly on a platter, there’s never any resolution or explanation as to why nearly everyone on earth went poof when the power went out, and by the time the end credits rolled that payoff is about all that would have made up for the preceding hour and a bit of tedium. Might be the Rapture, might be a cosmic reset button was pressed, there are references to the “vanished” Roanoke colony but that’s left only vaguely resolved.

At any rate, I know I wasn’t the only one disappointed. Not once did I hear a sharp intake of breath indicating fright in the audience; I heard one oddly curious “Oh!” (and one might even drop the exclamation point from that word) at the initial mass vanishing and then near-silence for the rest of the screening. Maybe it was more effective at midnight. (*1/2)

My day, sadly, did not get better. I’d like to be blogging about 22nd of May , the first Belgian film I’ve seen since Man Bites Dog, but I had some bad food court Thai for dinner and the first half hour of the movie was hand-held shakeycam so I had to leave the theatre and get some air to head off the potential peristalsis. When I got home I re-read the synopsis in the Program Book and decided that it had possibly not been the wisest choice after all; as I’ll be in Belgium eight weeks from tomorrow I wanted to see something in Flemish but a surreal Rashomon-like philosophical thriller done entirely in nausea-inducing whip-pans wasn’t the ideal vacation preview.

Two more tomorrow (possibly three if I can score a ticket to Insidious), including a Welsh comedy—sadly not in Welsh—and that Hungarian science fiction flick starring Vesper Lynd and the eleventh Doctor. So I’m psyched.

TIFF 2010 reviews: Machete Maidens Unleashed!

Two years ago one of my absolute favourite films of the festival was this documentary called Not Quite Hollywood, a whiplash-inducing tour through the glory days of Australian exploitation cinema. A rare Midnight Madness doc, it was as wild a ride as any other flick I saw that year, and (temporarily, at least) renewed my love of great trash cinema, which had been waning in a morass of semi-respectable mainstream viewing habits and the death of VHS. Plus, I won a copy of the companion guide to Ozploitation when director Mark Hartley liked my Q during the Q&A following the screening, so I was actually pretty psyched to catch the Aussie director’s latest exploration of the world’s cinematic underbelly, Machete Maidens Unleashed!, a survey of the glory days of Filipino trash cinema. Which is, when all is said and done, really only part of the story. What the doc is truly about is the American style, specifically the Roger Corman school, of low-budget filmmaking, specifically as it applied to shooting in cheap locations, even in a country under a fascist dictatorship such as the Philippines.

And it was, as you can imagine, a great ride once again. I can’t rave quite as much about this one as I did about Not Quite Hollywood, I suppose because there were fewer films on display here that I’d be curious to actually see. I rambled on in my 2008 review about how I didn’t leave trash cinema, it left me, so I won’t rehash it here, but the flicks excerpted in this year’s montages are more the type of junk I’d rather see Mike Nelson and the ‘bots decimate verbally than actually sit through myself, though the record-setting abundance of T&A in the clips would no doubt disqualify most of these movies from SOL screenings. What really stuck with me from this screening was, once again, a sad sense of a bygone era the likes of which we’ll never see again, when one could rise through the filmmaking ranks of Hollywood by starting off sweeping floors at New World pictures and moving up to a director’s chair in a few months. Or when a word like “exploitation” hadn’t been Dworkin’d to death and could be used in the spirit of fun and daringness. The drive-in era was already winding down when I became a movie viewer, and the death of VHS and straight-to-video cheapshit actioners sealed shut forever a certain brand of filmmaking for which I have completely unearned affection. Much more than a tour through the wacky cinema stylings of southeast Asia, Machete Maidens Unleashed! is much more elegiac and melancholy than I think Hartley intended it to be. When I spoke to him after the show and commented that I wish I’d gotten to L.A. twenty years earlier because of the opportunities that were simply not there anymore by the time I arrived, he laughed and said “Well, imagine being born twenty years too late on the other side of the world!” Point taken. (***1/2)

Two movies to look forward to on my first official vacation day: a Midnight Madness creepy sci-fi flick and a Belgian crime drama. That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

TIFF 2010 reviews: Beginners

You know that whole “feels like” concept that everyone’s always on about at work, that thing that kind of feels like air-filling chatter to mask existential unsettledness? “I can’t believe this is Tuesday, it feels like a Friday already!” “Oh my god, it’s only 11? It feels like lunchtime!” I had that vibe for about half of today. I suppose it’s because, as the TIFF begins every year the Thursday after an always-shifting Labour Day, it kind of slides around the month of September from year to year. It’s already the twelfth, and despite having been to only one of my eleven planned screenings, the overcast skies and blustery breezes that signal the official start of autumn in this city, some part of my brain kept telling me that the festival was in winding down mode.

And maybe it was, sort of. The opening of the Bell Lightbox, a gargantuan fiveplex cinema and gallery with unfathomably expensive condos attached, that has been talked about endlessly for the past few years of the festival, finally came to pass with a ribbon-cutting and block party, and the doors were flung open for the public to explore. Not sure exactly what one expects from a building that’s supposed to celebrate Canadian film by bringing it to the masses right’s not like film fans are going to be able to walk in off the street and chat up David Cronenberg in the bookstore or get popcorn refills served by Bruce McDonald (well, maybe they will at that...). When all is said and done, it is a mighty impressive building, but still one that comes off as a big, clean, movie theatre with a moderately academic feel. The initial programs already feel a bit too indebted to The Canon Of Great Cinema—round-the-clock Rules Of The Game screenings to begin immediately and coming soon, the moderated debate “Citizen Kane: best movie of all time or the greatest film ever? Discuss!”—but I don’t know, maybe the staidness will dissipate in time. Right now the whole thing seems a bit anticlimactic.

Anyway, I only stayed long enough to catch a glimpse of Jason Reitman in the press gaggle, check out the bookstore, collect my free thumb-sized cupcake and hear some band from Quebec with an unclear connection to the whole affair rocking out on an adjacent stage. Fortunately, I had a screening at three so I was unavailable to hear the Surprise Special Guest, smug and annoying rapper K’Naan (What? You were expecting Springsteen?) and the inevitable performance of his metaphor-mangling flag song.

That screening was of Beginners, a touching and subtle dramedy by Mike “not the guy in REM, the other one, dammit!” Mills and I really wish I hadn’t made that connection because I’ve been humming “Texarcana” ever since I did. The film, somewhat autobiographical apparently, stars Ewan McGregor as a Los Angeles graphic artist mourning the death of his father, who had outed himself in his seventies and is played in flashbacks by Christopher Plummer. While grappling with his emotional upheaval, he finds himself involved with a visiting French actress played by Mélanie Laurent, which is exactly how I hope I’ll be able to get through the loss of my parents, with a gamine-like European woman dropping into my life and shagging me silly in a five-star hotel for a few weeks.

Actually...that’s undeserved snark. The movie is really an incisive exploration of the themes of grief and healing, of children coming to terms with the fact that their parents had rich inner lives of their own, all set in the nooks and crannies of L.A. that don’t get seen on the big screen that often. The movie never becomes a Gay Film; that aspect of the father’s life is a dominant theme, but despite plenty of Dolby-loud smooches between Plummer and a creepily youthful-looking Goran Visnjic, Mills simply presents it as an honest and important part of a well-lived life. The title is a bit of a misnomer: the film isn’t so much about beginnings at all, but about endings, of letting things go...and then moving on so I guess it is about beginnings in an ourobouros kind of way, but the film maintains such a fantastic mood of final steps into maturity and understanding that it’s much more a sunset film than a sunrise one, if you know what I mean. (***1/2)

Good Q&A afterwards: McGregor is sadly in Scotland on another shoot so he couldn’t make it and Plummer was also MIA at least for this screening (it premiered last night) but the luminous Mélanie Laurent was on hand as well as a couple of supporting players, all heaping praise on Mills, who absolutely deserves it. I ran into him near the limousine pickup spot as I was heading to dinner and we chatted a bit; I was wondering if a bookstore that makes a few appearances in the movie is the one I loved when I lived in L.A., not too far from Hollywood and Highland (it wasn’t, but he knows the one I was talking about). Off to Zyng for some Szechuan noodles and then some crazy Filipino exploitation fun.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

TIFF 2010 reviews: Daydream Nation

As it’s been for the past couple of years, my personal TIFF experience started off a bit anticlimactic this year, as I had no screenings on night 1 of the festival. So once again I bolted from work at quitting time, wolfed down just enough nosh to stay awake and landed a decent spot in line outside the Ryerson, which is usually an uneventful tradition, however Brian DePalma happened to walk by at one point. I called out a happy early birthday to him, which earned what may have been a slightly nervous laugh. DePalma doesn’t have a movie in the festival this year; coincidentally I was at the premiere of his last movie at the very same theatre at the 2007 fest (Redacted, which at the time I thought was a decent throwback to his early guerrilla-style political comedy work but upon reflection was more like being trapped in dinner theatre improv hell in the Iraqi desert).

Anyway, my first movie of TIFF ’10 was Mike Goldbach’s Daydream Nation, part of the Canada First! program. And it was…a very frustrating film. I really wanted to love it: so much about it seemed to be on my wavelength, from the millennial adolescent themes to the stellar casting--more on Kat Dennings in a moment--to the fact that it’s named after a Sonic Youth album (Goldbach also named his lead male character Thurston…dude’s a serious fan). And parts of the movie do attain a certain transcendence: Daydream Nation has so many haunting visuals it achieves a near dreamlike sense of sadness and surrealism. Its sense of apocalyptic dread is much more finely attuned than even, say, Donnie Darko; it evokes a sense of psychic pain and adolescent anguish like little else I’ve seen of late. And the dialogue glows with wit in a manner that sidesteps the cloying trap of post-Diablo fest fare, except for an odd moment where Dennings’s character Caroline repeats one of her screw-the-world diatribes verbatim to no registered effect. Killer TIFF-centered moment: Caroline insults her new small town home as having “more incest than an Atom Egoyan movie,” which is the kind of line that at this festival earns wincing, laughing “ooooohhhhhs” followed by glances around to see if Egoyan happens to be in the audience. I’ll state for the record that he wasn’t, which I know because ten minutes after the screening let out I passed him on Yonge Street heading in the other direction. It’s that kind of week in Toronto.

Unfortunately, the oppressive (and once again, I’m saying that as a compliment) atmosphere of the visuals can’t cover up the somewhat patchwork nature of the script. I got a sense of a bit too much scattershot spitballing, that Goldbach fell into the trap of putting every idea he had onscreen in case he didn’t get a chance to use it in a second film. I had enough caffeine in my system that I know I didn’t nod off, yet on several occasions I felt lost, like scenes had been excised from a longer cut with less grace than was needed. Flashbacks are bungled just enough to cause temporal confusion; onscreen titles are used, but so sparingly that they seem like an aesthetic choice he couldn’t bring himself to totally commit to; there’s a serial killer subplot that comes and goes with little enough comment that it feels like it’s only there for atmosphere; a Taxi Driver homage pops up confusingly and then vanishes again. For all the many producers involved, what Goldbach needed was someone to tell him “You’re almost there. Just one more tightening-up pass through the screenplay and it’ll be on much more solid ground.” He didn’t have that producer.

What he did have, however, is Kat Dennings, who was the perfect choice for Caroline, embodying too-much-too-soon voluptuous adolescent sensuality crossed with an anarchic spirit and hard-shelled wit. Dennings follows through on the promise of earlier roles in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist; this could be her Ellen Page-style breakout role, though Daydream Nation betrays its Canadian origins much more than Juno did and I have my doubts about American audiences so quickly embracing an inky-black comedy that namechecks Egoyan in its punchlines. Casting all around is impressive, it should be noted; she’s been MIA from mainstream screens for so long I’d forgotten what a vibrant screen presence Andie MacDowell can be with the right material. Josh Lucas also strikes the right notes as a teacher with boundary issues that he makes the excesses of his character more plausible, and Rachel Blanchard has somehow grown out of teen comedy nitwit roles into deeper-than-she’s-letting-on supporting player status.

So it’s a mixed bag. But still a decent opener for the festival this year, and deserving for the most part of the critical praise it’s been getting. (***)

No screenings today unless I score a ticket for Lapland Odyssey in the rush line, then two tomorrow plus the Bell Lightbox opening street party.

Monday, September 6, 2010

TIFF '10 - The mixed bag results of the ticket draw

Apparently it’s a bit harder this year to keep the blogging momentum going. I suspect that in previous years I’ve nattered on far too much and no longer feel the need to chronicle every last firing of the synapses as pertains to the festival. As well, this year has gotten off to a bit of a rocky start in terms of the ticket draw, and my heart’s in it all maybe 15% or so less than usual.

So I’ve got my schedule worked out for the most part. Bad news first: I rolled snake eyes in the draw again this year. My form was in box 3 and it was box 9 that was chosen to start the processing. I still had hope for a while, though, considering that in 2008 I was in the dead-last bin to be worked on and still had a pretty stellar year. And who knows, I could well look back on TIFF ’10 on the evening of the 19th pleasantly surprised at some unexpected treasures that fell into my lap. Thing was, the festival two years ago had a couple of things going for it. First off, aside from Adam Resurrected, there were no absolute must-see screenings that year (and that one was more for the presence of Paul Schrader than the film itself; the fact that the movie was terrific was a bonus) so among my 18 picks (two 10-packs and two tix for a pair of titles) there was little heartbreak ultimately even with my lousy positioning. Plus, as is no doubt often the case, some of my second picks wound up knocking my socks off. To this day I have no idea how It Might Get Loud wasn’t completely sold out in the first round of picks.

This year, I only bought one ten-pack so the margin of error was a bit slimmer. And I must say I’m sorta glad I did because even if I had twenty slots to play with, I seriously don’t know if I could have banged together a screening schedule. Are there twenty movies at TIFF ’10 I’d love to see? Easily. Do half of them all seem to be screening simultaneously? Yup. Sunday at 8PM there were four movies for which I wanted tickets. So I got six out of my top ten picks, and due to the backups I was forced to settle for, the volunteer ticketers gave me overlapping screenings, so I was making trades the next evening. And worst of all, my absolute top pick of the year, Winterbottom’s The Trip, was not one of the ones I got. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon onstage for a Q&A (I imagine) would be the funniest evening of the festival. Keep your Springsteen, this is one I would have camped out for. And it was going to be on my birthday, no less, almost as fortuitous as the Lou Reed concert movie being the bestest present ever at the 2007 fest. I also didn’t get Brighton Rock or the opening night of the new Mike Leigh. I know the latter will inevitably play the Cumberland this fall (if the theatre is still standing by then) but on the off chance Leigh, one of the reigning masters of the form, would be in town, opening night was worth shelling out for.

Sigh. So the only Can’t-Miss I did get was the premiere screening of Womb, which I’m intrigued about for casting reasons only: Eva Green and Matt Smith. Considering I’m proudly both a James Bond geek and a Doctor Who nerd, the merest possibility of Vesper and/or the Eleventh showing up for a Q&A makes me all Quigley down under. What weekend kicks off with Daydream Nation, which is apparently a bit more press-worthy than I’d figured, as Kat Dennings is on the cover of both Now and the TIFF Now insert this week. Then I’ve got nothing on my b-day for the first time since, I think, 2003, and though I’m being taken dancing at Synthpop Saturday that night, I’m still going to check in at the box office off and on in case any Trip tix get released. Beginners (Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer); Machete Maidens Unleashed! which I’m actually quite looking forward to as I saw Mark Hartley’s earlier appearance at TIFF two years ago and Not Quite Hollywood was one of my favourite movies of that fest; three Midnight Madness flicks this year as, like I’ve mentioned, it’s a much better crop in that program than there was last year; and I went by the BO this morning and picked one up for The Big Picture which brings my total to eleven, unless tix for Jucy, Brighton Rock, Lapland Odyssey or Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame come back into availability.

So that’s where it stands right now. Three days until TIFF ’10 begins, four days until my first screening. Come on Festival...there’s an uphill climb ahead to win my heart back, but I have faith.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

TIFF '10 - choices, choices...

Man, was it hard this year.

I really hope this residual lack of enthusiasm on my part dissipates soon. Waking up this morning (hell, yesterday for that matter) I felt some of the old TIFF giddiness, that sense that Program Book Day is like my Christmas and Birthday wrapped up in one, that the Highlight Of My Fall was fast approaching and the textbook-sized book that seems to retain that fresh ink smell through years of sitting on my bookshelf (except for last year’s, which still has the faint aroma of paint as it spent enough time in The Tent at Nathan Philips Square) was just waiting for my annual excited lunchtime pilgrimage and “oh, is that my phone?” afternoon perusal. Note to the organizers: when the Bell Lightbox is fully open and serving as TIFF HQ, will we once again have more than one year in a row where the box office is at the same location? Anyway, 12 noon hit and I was racing down King St. to the corner of Peter, already seeing the crowds perched on planters filling out their ticket forms. I turned over my tickets and was handed the Program Book and form. No swag bag this year? September 2nd apparently. Hmm. And tradition takes another whack in the nads.

Anyway, the afternoon passed as it does every year, scanning the book, highlighting potential titles in the index and cross-referencing with the schedule. I have to say, there are a few Absolute Can’t Miss titles this year. I already mentioned The Trip, which has its first screening the evening of my birthday. Womb stars both Eva Green and Matt Smith and seems like a creepy, vaguely science fiction experience but with that cast I’d be all over it no matter the genre. Submarine: set in Wales and starring Sally Hawkins and Patty Considine? Sold. Dialogues this year? Shame. Bruce freaking Springsteen is a Maverick guest? Y’know, tempting, but I know that’ll be the hot ticket of the fest, no sense getting excited about it. So I won’t see any up-close-and-personals this year. Oh well. There are actually a few Midnight Madness titles I’m into this year, Colin Geddes really turned it around after last year’s sequel- and Megan Fox-heavy program. It’s also cool to see directors like Mark Hartley and Takashi Miike in the supposedly more reputable programs after tenures in MM.

Then comee the evening, and my usual joyous playing with spreadsheets to plot out a schedule. I’m only taking three days off this year rather than six, but with the TIFF going to eleven days for 2010 I figured I would still have a sked with plenty of gaps. I’ve got my book of ten and I’ll try and pick up two or three more once the individual tix go on sale. And then the gambling comes in. I’m thinking I will probably be able to score a ticket for a later screening of Machete Maidens Unleashed! so I shouldn’t waste a draw choice on that one, right? And I run into a fairly big hurdle...I can’t make what I want to see fit! I’ve got all these days with two movies eight hours apart, or there’s an evening with four movies all at once I want to check out and I can’t decide which one is least likely to play the Varsity in October. Worst of all, on one of the days I’m taking as vacation, I’ve got one screening, in the evening! I might as well go to the office and bank my holidays.

Crap. Oh well. I’ve pounded out a top ten picks and ten backups. Here we go, top ten picks:
Daydream Nation
Bad Faith
The Trip
Vanishing on 7th Street
Another Year
Brighton Rock
Red Nights

And my 2nd choices:
Easy Money
Machete Maidens Unleashed!
Client 9
The Big Picture
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
22nd of May
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
Dhobi Ghat
13 Assassins

Some of my backups really should have been among my main picks. If I don’t get into Dhobi Ghat that’ll be the umpteenth year I haven’t caught an Indian movie. And Herzog in 3-D? Meh, who knows, two years ago I wound up with opening night of It Might Get Loud as a fallback pick, so I could well be surprised. So of my main Canadian film, only one (!) with subtitles, two MM, no documentaries, and a Mike Leigh film which I know will play in the fall but part of my resolution list for this year is to catch at least one high-profile big-name director and I am a huge Leigh fan so if he shows for a Q&A and Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent join him onstage I’ll have had a great night.

Cross your fingers for a fortuitous bin number, and away we go.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

TIFF 2010...the early days

It’s been far too long. Last November is when I updated this blog, and that was about the trip to Britain rather than strictly cinematic ponderings (gotta say, I was surprised when Harry Brown finally came out theatrically here and was greeted with critical dislike-up-to-indifference and commercial meh), and as I guess is appropriate for someone who’d essentially thrown in the towel when it comes to pursuing writing as a career, I’m worried about the “use it or lose it” mental muscle atrophy. So, with a bit over six weeks to go before TIFF, a whack of titles for the Galas and Special Presentations have been released and the slow rev up into pants-wetting celeb worship as practiced by our supposedly savvy and jaded local media can begin in earnest.

There’s also, on my part, a bit of an emotional reticence to dive right in to festival raves. As both my faithful readers know, last year was my first time at the Toronto International Film Festival where I sorta, well, had a lousy time. Of my fourteen presentations, only one was an unqualified knock-my-socks-off rave, and that was a Q&A rather than a screening (In conversation with...Michael Caine). I did see a couple of terrific films that I’d unhesitatingly recommend: the awesome Aussie horror flick The Loved Ones and the Israeli thriller Kirot which, oddly enough, the distributor of apparently read this blog and emailed to ask if a line of my rave could be quoted on the domestic release DVD case, which blew my mind, but after assenting, I never heard another word..but nothing that just set my brain afire the way some previous years’ screenings had. I also saw a whole lot of “well, okay, I guess...” and even one that I actively hated, another Australian movie, the screen adaptation of the musical Bran Nue Dae, which to me rang of minstrelry. Add to that a gap-filled schedule, insomnia, scorching weather and far too many screenings in the loathed AMC Yonge-Dundas Square googolplex, and I was actively pissed off by the end of the week.

At any rate, my co-workers know that I always book off six days, Friday to Friday, for the fest in September, and since I don’t ask for much when it comes to holidays they cut me the slack. One approached me in January this year with some news...she’s gotta go to a wedding in Russia the first week or so of September. Which pooched at least some of my planned days off. And the thing is , I didn’t respond with a “well, I might just have to quit” terror like I might have in previous years but a sigh of acquiescence...which should really tell you how bummed I was after TIFF ’09. As it worked out, she’s coming back during the first weekend of the festival, so I would only be kept from late screenings on opening night or daytime shows on the Friday, but even still...this year I’m only taking three days off, Monday through Wednesday. I mean, by that point all the stars have gone home anyway, and once you’re past the mid-point, there’s a lazy coasting vibe that settles in and the lack of urgency makes for a certain sadness in the screening lines.

So I’m approaching this year with a different attitude. I’m changing my game plan a bit: probably limiting myself to twelve shows but we’ll see for sure once the entire schedule is posted on August 24th; going to try and focus on screenings that look like fun rather than “I really oughta...”; might even try and spot a genuine movie star or two instead of gooning over Antipodean directors who are more starstruck at their surroundings than I am. I’ll maybe dive back into Midnight Madness: in 2008 I saw six screenings in Geddes’ program and am still reeling over Martyrs (last time I mention it! promise!) so I dialled it back last year and only batted .500 in my picks (but still? Jennifer’s Body as the opening night MM flick? I know the festival has a strong Juno connection, but seriously, dude...).

Enough out of me for now. The Gala/SP lists went up, plus some of the Masters program, and even though I don’t go to galas and I skip Special Presentations if they’re the upper-tier priced ones at the Visa Screening Room (that price hike, dating back to TIFF ’08, still smarts as that’s by far my favourite place in Canada to watch a movie), but I still might try and catch a few Winter Garden SP screenings and it’s always worth previewing my autumn viewing plans.

So of the Galas, there are a few I know fer shurr I’ll be catching when they hit theatres later one: the new Aronofsky, Black Swan; Barney’s Version because was there ever anyone more needed to star in a Mordechai Richler adaptation than Dustin Hoffman?; Casino Jack, starring Kevin Spacey as Jack it just me or are film biographies being churned out far too close to the events portrayed these days? Maybe Oliver Stone started it with W., but we’ve also got Fincher’s upcoming Mark Zuckerman biopic which was announced even before the latest round of privacy indignation. Look for the G20 docudrama Rubber Bullet starring Ellen Page as Kelly Pflug-Back and John Travolta in a grey wig as David Miller, as the opening night gala film for TIFF ’11. Right, sorry...The King’s Speech and The Town are also must-sees.

As for the SP’s, there are a few I’m really hoping are Winter Garden bound. Winterbottom (appropriately enough) is back, and while I didn’t think Genova was his greatest work, he’s re-teamed with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon for The Trip and that’s one I’ll pay scalper prices to see if the three of them are onstage together for a Q&A. Mike Leigh is (inevitably, one might say) coming with his latest, and considering how much I loved Happy Go Lucky from a couple of years back, it would be great to hear a true master present his work. This is the year, I promise (and I know this is violating my “I’m not going to see a movie because I really should see it” rule) that I check out a genuine Indian film, and Dhobi Ghat sounds pretty sweet for that exploration. Made In Dagenham, Never Let Me Go, Outside The Law, the new one from John Cameron Mitchell (from Shortbus to Nicole Kidman in one movie? Right on, dude.), Tamara Drewe from Stephen Frears...shit, there’s A LOT that I want to see this year, and they haven’t even announced anything for Canada First! or Contemporary World Cinema yet.

So this could be a good year, the kind of redemption I need from the festival. As long as this bloody heat wave breaks before then...