TIFF really is a festival for film gourmands, and while it is an important tool of the industry (second only to Cannes and ahead of Venice and Berlin), it is first and foremost a public festival. Queues and waits in them are long, but the infectious excitement of thousands of enthusiasts gorging themselves on cinema somehow overcomes the boredom of waiting around, at least for the most part.
Toronto has deep Anglo roots, and its residents share the trepidation of speaking to strangers in public that is characteristic of Londoners, but the Festival fever that grips most of the cinemas in the city’s core also overcomes the normal social reticence in public.
As a Torontonian by birth who chose to leave the city in the ’80s, and returned for work reasons for most of the past decade, I have been highly critical of the city’s lack of vision coupled with its often misguidedly stubborn assertions that the city is ‘world class’; when stacked up against London, Rome, Chicago, Paris, NYC etc etc, it simply doesn’t measure up. However, I am always quick to assert that TIFF is one of the few truly world class cultural events that was born and developed in Toronto by people with real vision and an ability to follow through and make things happen.
Here’s my wrap up then of the films I saw at TIFF that I haven’t already reviewed for HeyUGuys, with apologies for the tardiness of its appearance!
Super: Another entry in the sub-genre of ‘hapless dorks who want to be superheroes and attempt to become same, but possess nothing whatsoever that qualifies them as super,’ a la last year’s Defendor and Kick Ass. Sad sack Rainn Wilson is a Detroit short order cook who loses his beautiful wife (Liv Tyler) when she falls off the wagon and takes up with a local crime boss (a delightfully sleazy Kevin Bacon).
Wilson runs amok bashing criminals and obnoxious queue jumpers alike with a pipe wrench, taking on an over-eager sidekick along the way (a deliberately over the top and very irritating Ellen Page) in his quest to deliver his wife from the clutches of the bad guys. It’s very violent and intermittently amusing, but both of the predecessors mentioned above do a better job with their material to tell this story.
Julia’s Eyes: A fun if over-wrought Hitchcockian Spanish thriller produced by Guillermo Del Toro and starring the lovely Belen Rueda (The Orphanage). Ms. Rueda stars as woman whose suspicions are aroused when her twin sister commits suicide at a time when she was filled with hope about the surgery she was about to have to restore her sight.
The film gallops along at a good clip, with a great Herrmann-esque score underpinning and accentuating the story’s twists and shock-tactic moments. The film isn’t original in concept and execution and is downright silly at times, but it’s entertaining and Ms. Rueda isn’t, uh, hard on the eyes.
The Debt: A botched Mossad abduction of a former concentration camp doctor in mid 1960s Berlin has far reaching consequences for the trio of Israeli agents involved.
This taut thriller had me on the edge of my seat very early on a Sunday morning, and features great performances from Helen Mirren and relative newcomer Jessica Chastain (portraying the younger Mirren) as the intelligence agent whose involvement in the plot makes her an Israeli national hero.
Stake Land: A tidy hybrid of the post-apocalyptic road movie (the plot bears a strong resemblance to the bleak The Road) and the all conquering vampire flick, with a dash of the Western for flavouring. A hard-boiled vampire slayer and his teenage protege embark on a journey to reach sanctuary in a place called New Eden, and as one does in the road movie, encounter various characters along the way including a brutalised nun (played by Top Gun’s Kelly McGillis) and a pregnant young woman, while dodging a murderous Christian cult. Loads of fun and played with conviction by a great cast, it won the TIFF People’s Choice Award for Best Film in the Midnight Madness programme.
13 Assassins: In the waning days of Japan’s Feudal era, a group of samurai take on a mission in the face of huge odds to assassinate a psychotic feudal lord before he can ascend to a position of further power. Takeshi Miike’s samurai film is a surprisingly subdued entry from the inventively perverse gonzo auteur. I anticipated much revelling in hacked off limbs, spilled guts and fountains of blood a la contemporary samurai films such as Azumi or Beat Takeshi’s retooling of the Zaitochi series, but it’s downright chaste by Miike’s usual standards, as he pays homage to the classic samurai films of Kurosawa and his peers (and specifically to Seven Samurai).
The Trip: Michael Winterbottom’s road movie (actually made as a series for the BBC) reunites him with the meta-fictional ‘Steve Coogan’ first seen in Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story. Coogan accepts an assignment from The Observer to travel the north for a week and sample its fine dining establishments, and when his foodie girlfriend can’t join him, he invites pal Rob Brydon along. This would certainly work better in more digestible broadcast chunks, but it does have very funny moments, many of them courtesy of Brydon and his spot on impressions of Michael Caine and others. The Toronto audience missed some of the jokes and British references, but the packed house laughed a lot, as did I. Here’s hoping for further servings of Winterbottom and Coogan, with a side of Brydon.
Beautiful Boy: A young man goes on a rampage and slaughters 21 people at his college before killing himself, leaving his parents, whose marriage has already broken down, to deal with the horrifying aftermath. Michael Sheen and Maria Bello are outstanding as the parents struggling to deal with the unthinkable, who initially can’t even bring themselves to find solace in each other.
First time director Shawn Ku simply points the camera and lets Bello and Sheen break our hearts with their anguish.
Passion Play: The worst film I saw at TIFF this year; Wim Wenders Lite with gangster film trappings thrown on top. Mickey Rourke is a reformed junkie trumpet player who escapes roadside execution for bonking a mobster’s moll and stumbles into a freak show in the middle of a desert, where he discovers a beautiful woman (Megan Fox) sporting real wings.
Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds, and if you haven’t figured out the twist just by reading that synopsis, shame on you. The film’s only (minor) saving grace is Bill Murray as the mob boss. The audience howled mercilessly. You have been warned.
Monsters: First time British director Gareth Edwards’ slow burn monster road movie (gosh, I saw of lot of road movies didn’t I?) bears a stylistic and thematic resemblance to the wilder and woollier District 9, but is a different kettle of beasts. A photographer is tasked with getting his publication owner’s pretty and intriguing daughter back to the U.S. before the annual rampage of the alien creatures that unhappily inhabit the ‘infected zone’ that lies between the U.S. and Mexican borders.
The creatures’ rampage makes passage around or through the zone time sensitive and decidedly problematic, and the two embark on a kind of reverse Conradian journey into the heart of lightness (with explicit Apocalypse Now references signposting this). Those hoping for a fast paced sci-fi action movie will be disappointed, but those who want something more thoughtful will be rewarded. It drags a bit in the third act but it marks Edwards as a talent to watch out for.