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.

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