TIFF 2011 – The extra delayed response

Despite being a full-time student this year and attending all my classes and staying on top of all my readings (post-graduate programs start day one, unlike University!) I managed to see an extremely generous amount of films at TIFF this year. I purchased a 10 pack for Midnight Madness, received some vouchers from friends and spent approximately $200 on 20 films! (Obviously this does not include extra sustenence required by all these screenings.) And NO TAXIS this year, the weather was permitting, so blue line TTC buses only.

On top of that I was lucky enough to see 6 preview films so all in all, I saw 26 films for $200 and I blew past my number for last year by 9 films! While I missed many major films and had a few stinkers, I have seen a great variety and can’t wait to see the ones I’ve missed in theatres!

Afghan Luke – Not Recommended
Freelance journalist Luke has just returned to Canada from his umpteenth visit to Afghanistan, following soldiers and researching potential war crimes to show the real grit and dark side of the peace-keeping mission that Canadians are engaged in overseas. After another failed attempt to document any sort of evidence of his allegations, he’s left high and dry back home, and that was where I wish he’d stayed. Afghan Luke has a disassociated narrative and our protagonists and antagonists are undefinable, which are usually strengths in a film with more substance. Every time I thought the film was approaching an interesting take or viewpoint on the ‘situation’ in Afghanistan, it turned a corner into highly ridiculous forced comedy that was almost offensive in its inability to make an audience connect and laugh in a natural way. This whole movie feels like a misstep and it’s a bit sad that nobody realized this sooner.

Arirang – Recommended..?
A highly personal self-documentary about Kim Kiduk, director of 3 Iron and blah about his self-imposed exile in a cabin in a small town. He resides without santitation but a tangled collection of electricity, building his own appliances and living inside a tent WITHIN the cabin. Kiduk has internalized his pain and confusion, spending so many years on the periphery of the film industry in Korea, only finding appreciation from his country once the world took notice instead. He spends most of the film talking and interviewing himself, it’s almost intrusive. He ends the film on a fictional level, but maybe it feels real in his head.

Cafe de Flore – Highly Recommended
Jean-Marc Vallee does it again, the director of C.R.A.Z.Y and The Young Victoria is a master at subverting your expectations with his films, making the programming folks scratch their heads as they attempt to create a concise description of his work. Cafe de Flore is no exception, we’re introduced to two seemingly unconnected storylines; a young mother in France in the late 60’s struggling with raising her son with Down’s Syndrome and a middle aged DJ in 2010 who is struggling with his conscience after leaving his wife of twenty years for a new love, his assumed soulmate. Music plays a key role in this film, precisely those songs that stick with you deep down in your bones and envoke pain, love, calm and adrenaline. The story ebbs and flows as characters have dream-like visions when they’re not careening against each other, struggling to control their own happiness and holding onto the people they love with all their might. The first hour of the film is a more whimsical and lovely tale of love and devotion but it’s the second hour, when love takes that obsessive turn, that darkens the mood. While I’m still questioning the sequence of events, I MUST implore you to stay through the credits.

Countdown – Recommended
Countdown is an interesting little film, one part hilarious action-filled caper and one part bogged-down melodrama. I obviously enjoyed the former, which had hints of the Ocean’s trilogy in the editing style, but was a bit bored by the latter. I’d recommend it however, because it is a good film, it could just have been more focused. The parts that are great comedy don’t tie in as well with some of the darker, depressing backstory.

Drive – Highly Recommended
It’s Drive, I love it. The hyper-stylized soundtrack, the quiet, stoic and slightly autistic lead, the obviously doomed romance, the focus on people who are trapped in lives they never imagined or desired. The entire movie is filled with desperation but also reeks of hope, for a time. You have this sinking feeling in your gut that nothing is going to end happily but you stick it out to the end regardless. You let your hope get the better of you, you’re fooled.

Fable of the Fish
Director Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr introduced his film as a tabloid story that attracted his attention as a child, the story of a woman who gave birth to a monkfish instead of a child and paraded it around on tabloid news shows. While the story was obviously a hoax, the seed of his film was there. Set in the garbage heap slums in Manila, middle aged couple Miguel and Lina move into a small shack and begin working as garbage sifters. When Lina finds herself pregnant, the two are overjoyed and make plans for the future. Unfortunately these plans are derailed when her child is born a fish. The struggle between faith and love comes to a climax in this film, as Lina’s husband, who didn’t witness the birth, does not believe her story and their once strong relationship begins to drift. The film has a very careful tone, it is never mocking or laughing at Lina, and gives the film a freshness that sticks with you.

God Bless America
Director Bobcat Goldthwait’s manifesto against contemporary American TV culture is one part scathing criticism, and one part bloody mess. His every-man is Frank (Joel Murray) a middle-aged office worker who has daily struggles with his consumerist child, vapid co-workers and dead-beat neighbours. After a particularly bad week, Frank snaps and decides to murder a reality show star for the betterment of America, and somehow attracts up a young, sociopathic and hateful teenager along the way. The first half of the film is much like other anti-status-quo films we’ve seen before (Office Space for example), with multiple montages of advertisements and tv spoofs, but the second half of the film veers into melodrama, stops being funny, and the message begins to fail. For a final verdict I’m torn, I agree with Bobcat on so many levels and I want the best parts of this film to get out there, but I dislike being preached to, especially when it’s been done more skillfully before.

The Incident
My only walk-out of the festival was unfortunately one that appeared promising, but after 70 minutes I decided that nothing could happen to alter my opinions toward this film. The incident in The Incident is a power outage that throws an asylum for the criminally insane into chaos once the inmates take advantage of the situation to maim and torture the staff. A story like that could be paced and maximized for extra thrills, but with a small lead cast we’re left waiting and WAITING for 60 minutes for action and then our ‘reward’ is a grisly and almost offensive and stupid onslaught of torture porn. There was nothing fun or shocking about the violence, it was typical and gratuitous. The film has absolutely no idea how to properly keep an audience invested in the situation at hand or give us that glimmer of hope. My walkout point was when it became clear that female background characters with no names or lines, were only bait for rape.

Livid – Recommended
If there’s anything I learned from Livid, it’s to never expect the same thing twice. By the directors who created Inside a few years ago, I thought I was going to be in for a ghastly violent time, but instead was presented with a different kind of horror film. The film follows a trio of would-be burglars who are interested in changing their lives by finding an old lady’s jewels or treasures and instead find something that nobody ever should have locked away in the first place. The film has some gory bits but focuses instead on creeping you from start to finish, a creepy mansion, a mysterious mirror and occult themes pervade. The ending is a bit strange, but with a few days to think about it, I like it better this way.

A Letter to Momo – Highly Recommended
A young girl loses her father and the last words she speak to them are childish and hateful. As she and her mother move their lives to get over the tragedy, she realizes her new house may be haunted by ancient spirits. Extremely touching and full of mirth, this film had me in fits of laughter and fighting back tears. Wonderful.

Lovely Molly – Recommended
By the director of the Blair Witch Project, this film is about demonic possession and it is terrifying. A woman, Molly, and her husband move into her family home and slowly discover that something is just not right there. As Molly takes a turn from terrified to worse, her husband and sister are charged with the grim task of keeping her from hurting herself or others, as she turns into a paranoid spectre of her former self, haunted by memories of her father, long dead, and possibly another entity as well.

Machine Gun Preacher – Recommended
Guaranteed to be some serious Oscar bait, Machine Gun Preacher is based on the real-life experiences of one Sam Childers, an ex-con-turned-preacher who went to Sudan as a church building missionary and ended up becoming involved in child welfare in the war-torn country. Gerard Butler does an interesting turn as a flawed man who through extremely strong faith, struggles with his new-found sobriety and moral code in a country ravaged by war and violence. Michelle Monaghan adds another ‘suffering wife/girlfriend’ role to her resume, but this is really Butler’s show. The film is surprisingly tight but does suffer from some scenes that really try to play on your sympathy, as if you didn’t think landmines and machine guns and child soldiers were bad enough they give you some unnecessary gore. On the flipside, there are some interesting juxtapositions with the American and Sudanese sequences that really emphasize how Childers found himself truly split on opposite sides of his psyche and the world.

Monster’s Club
Upon first glance, this film seems to be about a serial killer with an anti-establishment manifesto and may seem as if it is centered upon his most recent slayers. But that would be a wrong assumption, Monster’s Club is, if anything, a philosophical and cultural manifesto that is appropriately Japanese. There is quite a bit of navel-gazing in this film, as we watch Ryoichi, who has already removed himself from society, turn darker and deeper into himself and his misery, reminiscing about his dead brothers while alienating his last remaining family member, his younger sister. The film spends quite a bit of time talking at you and uses flowery language to get the point across, and contains some stunning imagery that is seared into my mind days later. Not for those who fall asleep easily, but it is rewarding if you pay attention.

Mr Tree – Recommended
A small-town simpleton, beloved by his family and friends, with always a smart word for everybody, is stuck reliving memories of his older brother and father, until the point where he becomes clairvoyant in the matters around him. As neighbours and family congregate and ask for his insight on things, his connection to the world around him becomes more strained and tenuous. Is he really a prophet come to life, or is it all a terrible coincidence?

The Raid – Highly Recommended
I don’t need to write too much about this, The Raid won the People’s Choice Midnight Madness award for a reason. An intense workout of martial arts and choreography, I was yelping and cheering along with the entire audience as a swat team attempts to make it’s way out of a drug dealers den. Bone crunching, wall climbing, eye gouging all come guaranteed!

Sleeping Beauty – Not Recommended
Waif-like Lucy is a lovely yet dissatisfied university student down on her luck and desperate for cash she works as a filing clerk in an office, a server at a restaurant and a clinical trial participant. When she answers an ad for what seems like an escort business she’s so seemingly disillusioned and accustomed to being exploited for labour she takes the invasive interview in stride as well as the subsequent tasks asked of her. Julia Leigh paints a bleak, dull world for Lucy, she’s an emotionless drone throughout the film and the few times she shows any particular interest in another person it’s selfish and off-putting. You don’t LIKE her and as the film meanders on, one begins anticipating chaos at every corner and almost wishing some sort of menace to propel the plot further. All in all, the film mimics reality in the way that sometimes situations don’t really go awry and just unfold naturally with no fanfare or excitement. Unfortunately this makes a drab, dull story but at least the set design was lovely.

Sleepless Night – Recommended
Sleepless Night takes the classic story of a good-cop-doing bad, throws in a half dozen chase scenes and double crossings and serves it on a platter in a giant warehouse-style-club. The French crime thriller has some experience at its back to cover all that madness as the cinematographer is Tom Stern, the cinematographer who has worked with Clint Eastwood for decades and is currently shooting The Hunger Games. The story follows Vincent, a morally ambiguous cop who finds himself in the worst situation imaginable when his son is kidnapped by an angry mobster. Why is the mobster angry? Vincent and his partner stole his drugs, that’s why. With nowhere to turn, the only way for him to get his son back is to deliver the drugs directly to the mobster at his glitzy club, but unfortunately for Vincent, there are other players in the game. With all the odds mounting against him, the film is a frenetic chase after chase in an enclosed space as Vincent continues pulling any punch possible to save his son.

Tyrannosaur – Highly Recommended
A dark, haunting tale of two broken people who meet under extenuating circumstances, Tyrannosaur is a film that hits you to the bone. Personal demons are the main characters in this exploration of civilized culture gone terribly wrong. But for a film that starts dark and gets worse, somehow a happy ending is found and it’s neither cheesy nor surreal.

Undefeated – Recommended
Manassas High School is an inner-city school in Memphis, Tennessee that doesn’t have much going for it. The surrounding area is depressed, plants have closed and businesses and jobs have never quite moved back. But thanks to volunteer football coach Bill Courtney, some things are going to change. This is Courtney’s 6th year coaching the football team which has never won a playoff game in its 110 year history, but this year he believes things will be different. With a strong squad comprising of some talented seniors, Courtney trains and teaches his players what it is to play for a team and for the betterment of yourself and other people. His line has some rather spectacular players such as O.C., a 300lb player who has no right being as fast as he is, Money a tiny right tackle who is on the honor roll and looking for a scholarship and Chavis, a juvenile delinquent back on team after spending a year in a youth penitentiary. With starting players as diverse as this, things aren’t easy and throughout the year Courtney is challenged time and again, pushed to his breaking point to help this team. A riveting sports documentary that puts emphasis on character building more than playbooks, and support and courtesy rather than brute strength, it’s an extremely moving story that’s worth every minute.

TIFF 2011 - You're Next
You’re Next – Highly Recommended
From the creators who brought A Horrible Way to Die to the festival last year (one of my favourites) comes You’re Next, a locked-house cat and mouse game set during an awkward family dinner. The film begins with a fantastically large cast of characters, which is always fun in a horror film because it results in a more carnage. The directors have quite a bit of fun with this and don’t waste any time upping the stakes. Our heroine is the savvy and resourceful Erin, a guest in the house who turns out to be a whole lot more than the killers were expecting. Despite a mounting body count, she outwits the intruders in creative and gutsy ways and had the audience cheering to the rafters for her during my screening. High tension aside, the film maintains it’s humour right up until the last scene, I don’t remember the last time a horror film had me so terrified yet so amused for all the right reasons.

Some of the films didn’t get the summary they deserved, I’ve put this post off too long to correct it now. Hopefully this will give some insight into these films as they slowly roll out into theatres, and now I can look ahead to more films to come.

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