Thursday, September 25, 2008

C'est pas moi, je le jure!

Philippe Falardeau |2008 | 108 mins | Canada

I thought based on the incredible amount of hype this film received during the fest that it would either be the most hysterically funny comedy out of Quebec in years, or that it would be the world's most endearing story about a young boy's troubled childhood.

It's true, the film is funny and endearing, and the young actor who plays the central character, Léon Doré (Antoine L'Écuyer), is really great. Still, there was something about this film that didn't sit well with me.

Based on Bruno Hébert's critically-acclaimed novel, C'est pas moi, je le jure! takes place in the technicolour summer of 1968, and is essentially about a young boy whose family is so dysfunctional that he's got little choice but to try to hang himself in the front yard, or sneak into the vacationing neighbours' house and smash their stuff. His father is a successful, high profile human rights activist and his mother is frustrated that her husband's career dominates their family life. He drinks, she yells, and the boys act out.

Unfortunately, the film seemed undecided about whether it wanted to jovially make fun of the dysfunction or genuinely disturb the audience. Rather than creating a successful tension between these two tones and playing on the juxtaposition between the boy's funny actions and his actually sad reality, the film came off as kind of mean-spirited.

It felt a bit like listening to someone try to make a joke about something that they're actually angry about. That sort of thing feels awkward in real life, and it felt awkward in this film. Perhaps that awkwardness was the point, but I'm not sure it worked.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Three Wise Men

Mika Kaurismäki | 2008 | 98 mins | Finland

Three Wise Men had a lot of promise when it started, but unfortunately its tendency to be reeeeeally self indulgent won over its tendency to be poignant and cleverly observant.

Three men find themselves drinking together on Christmas Eve - Matti's wife has just had a baby, but he is convinced that his friend Erkki is actually the father. Meanwhile, Erkki is contemplating suicide because of a rapidly progressing illness. Old friend Raumo is in town to visit his estranged family only to find out that his ex wife has just killed herself and his grown son blames him.

Matti decides to invite Erkki out for a drink to celebrate the birth of his daughter, but secretly intends to murder the man who has cuckolded him. However, he runs into Raumo at the hospital and the third man ends up coming along, somewhat thwarting the original plan, but actually just adding more tension to the mix.

The Finns are good at a depressing set-up!

The three men end up at a karaoke joint (the only open bar on Christmas eve), having a long, drunken and at times philosophical conversation about their lives, their masculinity, their loves and regrets. Pretty good stuff, punctuated by overly lengthy karaoke numbers (perhaps the Finnish songs they sing have a significance that I couldn't grasp, but the scenes got dull quickly. Watching men tunelessly sing ENTIRE SONGS was a weird choice. Three and a half minutes (repeated four or five times) doesn't seem like much when you're drunk at a bar, but it's pretty tedious when you're watching a 90 minute movie.

In conclusion, Aki is the more talented brother, and the hotter Finnish pick of the year was definitely Sauna, if you'll pardon the pun.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Fear Me Not

Kristian Levring | 2008 | 95 mins | Denmark

Probably among the very best TIFF films I saw this year, but sadly I didn't actually get to it until the festival was over, so I couldn't include it in my top three, where it most definitely deserves to be.

Fear Me Not is the latest effort by Kristian Levring, one of the Dogme95 guys, whose last effort, 2002's The Intended I had intentionally skipped because his previous work, The King is Alive, left me somewhat cold in spite of the beautiful, sun-bleached cinematography and the presence of the ever-charming Jennifer Jason Leigh. But that's neither here nor there. This film is totally amazing.

It stars my favourite hot-but-severe-looking Dane, Ulrich Thomsen (of Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration, the first and to my mind only truly brilliant Dogme film), alongside the talented and ubiquitous (in Danish cinema, at least) Paprika Steen. The two play Mikael and Sigrid, a successful married couple whose comfortable existence (in an architectural wonder by an idyllic lake with their essentially-perfect teenage daughter) is about to be thrown off course when Mikael takes an abrupt leave of absence from work and decides, seemingly just out of boredom, to enter into a drug trial for a new anti-depressant at his brother in law's hospital.

Though the drug isn't supposed to have any effects, Mikael begins immediately noticing differences in his daily life, his interactions with his family, his relationship with the world itself. Becoming more introspective and more isolated, Mikael finds himself drifting away from his loved ones and into a world of total self-absorption and delusion.

A subtle and disquieting psychological study of alienation, Fear Me Not points a clinical eye at the disintegrating family. Incredible performances by all, especially Thomsen, who's got a driving scene in this film which absolutely chilled me to the bone for its ability to turn my sympathy for the character into a sort of blood curdling discomfort.

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29

Kevin Rafferty | 2008 | 105 mins | USA

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 takes us into a really neat world - that is, the world of American Ivy League university football during perhaps the most turbulent year of the revolutionary civil rights / Vietnam era - 1968. The doc centres around an unforgettable game with an incredible and unexpected outcome - the final match of the season between Harvard and Yale, both undefeated going into the game, for the first time since the early 1900s.

Great archival footage of the famous game accompanies the men's stories as they recount the events of that day. Players from both sides (including Tommy Lee Jones, who played for Harvard) are interviewed not only about the game, but about the fascinating socio-political backdrop against which the events were set. The testemonials paint a fascinating picture of ultra-privileged Yale with their top-notch team, pitted against scrappy upstart Harvard (if you can believe it) - a team filled with working class average joes which was essentially considered to be undefeated "by accident or surprise" all season.

At Yale, student comic strip Doonesbury jovially pokes fun at a jock named B.D., clearly modelled after the school's star quarterback, Brian Dowling. Anecdotes about roommates such as Al Gore (Harvard) and Gearge W. Bush (Yale) and girlfriends such as Meryl Streel (a Vasser girl, did you know?) are peppered throughout, giving a fascinating context for the elite world of future movers & shakers.

Really fun doc. Football fans will get a kick out of the compelling emotional rollercoaster of a story about the game itself, but there's enough social commentary in this to appeal to just about anyone interested in recent American history.

Edison & Leo

Neil Burns | 2008 | 79 mins | Canada

A truly bizarre animated feature from writers Daegan Fryklind + George Toles (the writer behind some of Guy Maddin's best films, from Archangel and Careful all the way to The Saddest Music in the World and Brand Upon the Brain!). I couldn't help but wonder, while I watched Edison & Leo, who the intended audience could possibly be for this dark, disturbing stop-motion animation that looks a lot more California Raisins than Tim Burton.

The answer is: who cares? Who's the audience for most of Guy Maddin's films, either? Weirdos is who, and god bless 'em for existing. Edison & Leo was amazing precisely because of the incredibly jarring and uncomfortable juxtaposition between the story and the way it is told. Watching a little clay man get decapitated, or carve a woman's lower lip right off her face is genuinely weird, but it's hard to feel as horrified by the content as you would be if it was live-action, or even if it was a "darker looking" animation style.

Set in a fantasy version of the 19th century, the story is about George T. Edison, an inventor who also happens to collect (perhaps steal) artifacts from around the world. When his wife is killed and his son (Leo) is permanently and tragically electrified in an accident of his own making, Edison sets about turning the woeful boy into his "greatest invention", attempting to improve his unfortunate life through wacky science.

When young Leo grows up and falls in love, the time comes for him to learn the disturbing truth about his mother's death, his own fate and of course, his father. Filled with more unnerving violence than your average animated feature, Edison & Leo was one of the great little surprises of TIFF this year. Good job on making me confused and upset, Neil Burns.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Wall-E

Andrew Stanton | 2008 | 97 min | USA

Here's how I want to imagine the genesis of Wall-E. Andrew Stanton sees An Inconvenient Truth, and leaving the theatre thinks, 'That movie was about a lot of important things that kids would really benefit from hearing. If only Al Gore wasn't so stiff and robotic... Waaaaait a second! We could use this movie as a springboard for a kid's film... We can make Al Gore a smaller, cuter robot, and then... Hmmmm. AND THEN we can set most of it in outer space with space ships and stuff! I better write this down.'

Humans no longer live on Earth. They now reside on a cruise spaceship, up in the stars. They're waited on hand-and-foot by robots, and hover around fat and mindless on futuristic lounge chairs. Back on Earth, the environment's been decimated, and the landscape covered in garbage. While we humans are living the "good life", a little robot called Wall-E diligently scoots around Earth, sweeping piles of junk into his belly, compressing it into a cube, and then stacking the cubes of refuse in an orderly fashion. Wall-E has a home filled with knickknacks that he's collected over the years while cleaning up our mess. Rubik's cubes, light bulbs, lighters, etc. His prized possession is a VHS copy of the musical, Hello, Dolly, which he watches at night, emulating, and recording sections of its songs to play back to himself as he works during the day. One day, while working, a space ship lands on Earth and drops off a shiny new robot that proceeds to fly around scanning everything it sees. After a bad first meeting, Wall-E manages to make friends with this new robot whose name is Eva, and then proceeds to woe her.

From there, the film becomes a story of robot romance, and an action movie about our responsibility to the environment. Think On Deadly Ground in space. Okay, not really. If only though.

Everyone seems to have fallen head over heels in love with the romance of Wall-E and Eva, but it struck me as kind of creepy. Wall-E and Eva don't speak the same language, and Wall-E continuously tries to win her affection by giving her presents (ie: the prettiest junk that he's collected) even though she at first doesn't accept his advances. He tries to hold her hand repeatedly until finally he succeeds one day while she's essentially unconscious. It all sort of reminded me of a mail-order bride arrangement.

Being creeped out by the film's ideas about romance aside, Wall-E delivers its environmental message within a really fun film that's full of great sequences, good voice performances, and above all else, some of the most stunning computer animation that's been produced.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Tokyo Sonata

Kiyoshi Kurosawa | 2008 | 119 mins | Japan

Tokyo Sonata is very nearly Kyoshi Kurosawa's perfect film. However, the man's only 53 years old. If he created a flawless masterpiece now, where would he go for the rest of what I hope will be a long and fruitful career? There was much hubbub about Kurosawa's departure from his earlier, scarier films (Cure or Pulse, for example) with 2003's Bright Future (the jellyfish one - which for the record, I loved) but he brought it all back to his usual creep-tastic tone in films like 2006's horror/thriller Retribution. I was on the edge of my seat to see what he'd do next.

What he did was create a stunning meditation on identity, belonging, solitude, love, loneliness and family. When loyal and hardworking administrator Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) loses his job to outsourcing, he can't face his new reality and begins the painful process of hiding his unemployment from his wife and two sons - rebellious teen Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) and the quiet Kenji (Kai Inowaki).

At home, the routines continue as normal, but it's clear that his wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) knows that something is deeply wrong, though the lines of communication between the four family members have been severed for so long that it is impossible for them to find each other now.

As the family slowly drifts apart, mom and dad find themselves on rocky, unfamiliar ground, Kenji secretly takes piano lessons while Takashi considers joining the US Army, now recruiting in Japan.

As each person embarks on their journey of self-discovery and is pulled along by a series of seemingly random events, the family unit nearly ceases to exist. Poignant, beautifully shot and acted with impeccable emotion, Tokyo Sonata is, as I've said, near-perfect. Unfortunately, I felt that Kurosawa veered slightly too far into 'wacky' territory during the film's moving climax, which seemed out of place given the heartbreaking subtlety of the film otherwise.

Still, one of the most gorgeous and moving films I saw at TIFF this year, and one of the best horror-to-drama transitions any director has ever made. I regret not putting this one into my top three picks of the fest! What was I thinking. I should have broken the rules like Jeff and handed in five.

A Film With Me In It

Ian Fitzgibbon | 2008 | 89 mins | Ireland

One of those what-the-fuck- just-happened / I-can't- imagine-what'll-happen-next dark comedies, A Film With Me In It is much fuller of unexpected surprises than most films that claim to be full of, well, unexpected surprises.

An aspiring actor named Mark (Mark Doherty, who also wrote the script) and his girlfriend Sally (Amy Huberman) are on the verge of breaking up and getting evicted from their rat-hole apartment. Mark's been so broke that he's been secretly withholding rent from their sleazy landlord, which of course Sally doesn't know, leading to many confusing exchanges about why repairs haven't been done.

Mark confides in his best friend, who happens to also be his broke, perpetually drunk upstairs neighbour, Pierce (Dylan Moran, a really funny guy you might remember from Shaun of the Dead).

While the two plot and scheme to get out of their rather pathetic circumstances, a series of increasingly unlikely, random, unforeseen and gruesome accidents and problems start piling up for the sorry pair to deal with. The more they try to fix things, the more of a mess they create.

Pretty funny and ironic in the true sense of the word, A Film With Me In It is reminiscent of the "We've gone on holiday by mistake", terror-stricken-actor vibe of Withnail and I (although I'm sorry to say not actually as funny as it).

Still, the very Irish sense of how truly hilarious it can be when everything's absolutely gone to shit (which, as an eastern European, I can really relate to) does make for some great comedy and genuinely bizarre, zany moments.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Best and Worst of TIFF!

Sunrise, sunset. I can barely choke back the tears as I think of waiting another whole darn year until I can enjoy the Four Movie A Day Lifestyle again. I really like that lifestyle, guys. And while this TIFF didn't enjoy the big break-outs or as many buzz films as last year, it still had many terrific films on offer. It also featured a number of great movies that could be described as genre pieces which made their way into the wider festival outside their usual home in the Midnight Madness program. Whether this is an indication of TIFF becoming more daring in it's programming, or that genre film is also enjoying a larger profile elsewhere I can't say, but I appreciate the shift, whatever the reason.

But enough of my prattling! Let's get on with each of our best and worst picks from this years Toronto International Film Festival.

Kat's Top Three
Sauna
Tony Manero
Vinyan


Kat's Bottom Three
In the Shadow of the Naga
Nothing but the Truth
Paris, Not France


Kat's Favourite Memory of TIFF
Riding with producer Peter Block, and actors Karl Geary and Clancy Brown to the Midnight Madness premiere of The Burrowers. To my great surprise, they spent the drive talking about live theatre. Clancy talked about the first time he saw A Streetcar Named Desire, and the great productions he'd seen at Soulpepper during his past visits to Toronto, and I got to tell him about bursting into tears while watching Alan Bates in a local production of Ibsen's The Master Builder.

Aaron's Top Three
Vinyan
Eden Log
Wendy and Lucy


Aaron's Bottom Three
Paris, Not France
Gigantic
The Brothers Bloom


Aaron's Favourite Memory of TIFF
Having a drink in the park with the Burrowers gang before the film's premiere and realizing halfway through a conversation about our love of proper theatre projection that I was speaking to (big time producer) Peter Block. Yes, this happened a few minutes before Kat's favourite memory. It was a swell night.

Hey, check it out, Jeff can't follow simple fucking instructions:

Jeff's Top Five
Gomorrah
Hunger
Still Walking
Not Quite Hollywood
Eden Log


Jeff's Bottom Three
I didn't see any total stinkers, so no need for a "worst of" list.

Jeff's Favourite Memory of TIFF
Meeting Grady Hendrix of Kaiju Shakedown after years of loving his blog, only to find out that I kind of love him too.

So Kat places last for talking about live theatre, and Jeff places second last for colouring outside the lines. I guess that makes me the winner. Big surprise.

While we may be done with attending fancy screenings and behaving like assholes at open bars, our film festival work is not yet done. OH NO. We will continue to review TIFF content over the coming week(s), so please check back regularly for more exclusive reviews. Keep an eye out for that handy TIFF 2008 label. A big thanks to all of you who have been reading our coverage over the last couple weeks. I hope you've enjoyed it and I hope you'll stick with us through the coming wretched non-festival times. Sniff.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sexykiller

Miguel Martí | 2008 | 100 mins | Spain

The "Hannibal Lecter's brain ... in Paris Hilton's wardrobe" tag of Sexykiller made me worry that I would find it too dumb and jokey to truly enjoy, but I was wrong. Sexykiller was exactly what I needed to propel me into the last day of TIFFing in a great mood!

Bárbara (the sassy Macarena Gómez) is a sexy co-ed who studies medicine by day and murders people indiscriminately by night. She's hated by the girls, loved by the boys, and willing to kill anyone who pisses her off even slightly.

While the cops start nosing around in their search for the "Campus Killer", Bárbara is busy wooing morgue employee Tomás (César Camino), who she mistakenly believes is a kindred spirit - a killer just like her. Meanwhile, Tomás is working on an invention that might capture the final memories of the recently deceased, in the hopes of catching the killer. Little does he know that his invention will do a lot more for the still-warm corpses than just extract a fleeting memory. And worse yet, little does he know that the killer is his hot new girlfriend!

The gory murders are inventive and hilariously yucky (a slow spiked heel through the temple was probably my favourite moment in the entire film), and the acting is just hammy and goofy enough. The film is campy, totally outlandish and really fun. Usually, rowdy audiences bug me, but with something this over the top, I got into the screams and squeals along with everyone else.

I heard someone complaining after the fact about how the film "didn't go far enough", citing specifically the lack of nudity so often seen in good sexy horror films, but as Bárbara says herself at the start (while carrying a classmate's severed head in her bag, no less) - if you're expecting a bunch of naked girls being chased by some creepy guy, you're watching the wrong film. This is like, tenth wave feminism, and it goes just far enough.

Nurse.Fighter.Boy

Charles Officer | 2008 | 93 mins | Canada

I was a bit suspicious when, during the intro to this film at TIFF, two producers came up to tell us what a special treat we were in for. The "I hope you like my film" crap that everyone usually repeats is usually falsely modest and disingenuous as well, but being told that the film is a "special treat" by the people who made it feels weird.

Nurse.Fighter.Boy is a CFC production (that's the Canadian Film Centre's new fancy abbreviation, for those of you who aren't in the Canadian film institutions loop), and according to the Feature Film Fund rep who spoke during the intro, it's exactly the kind of independent movie they want to help create. It made me long for the days when the Film Centre wanted to help make films like Cube, instead of syrupy, maudlin family dramas.

But that's neither here nor there.

Nurse.Figher.Boy
is about a single mom (the nurse) who is sick with some sort of fatal hereditary disease, her precocious son (the boy) who believes in magic, and a pit fighter who's recently taken over his mentor's old boxing gym and is trying to turn his life around (the fighter). Over the course of 93 minutes, their lives intersect in various touching ways, culminating in a predictable emotional climax and denouement.

Two things this movie has going for it are great cinematography with beautiful use of vivid colour and light, and great music. Otherwise, it's designed to tug at heart strings in a way that makes me breathe a sigh of sorrow for the fact that our national film industry is so dependent on government funding.

Cooper's Camera

Warren P. Sonoda | 2008 | 95 mins | Canada

This film is mostly funny because the actors (The Daily Show's Samantha Bee and Jason Jones, along with Mike Beaver, who also co-wrote the film with Jones and is the Canadian actor/writer behind Ham & Cheese). The script is funny, but it would have gotten stale at the 15 minute mark without these performances.

The premise of the film is that Bee and Jones are the Coopers, a married couple who get a video camera for Christmas in 1985 and proceed to film the entire day - what we're seeing is that footage, edited together over 20 years later. The 1985 look of the film was painstakingly detailed, from the VHS quality of the image to every outfit and hairstyle on screen.

Beaver is amazing as Uncle Nick, the party-guy who makes sex jokes in front of the kids and gets wasted by noon. His mustache, '80s mullet and Christmas sweater made him look very awkwardly familiar. I mean, my family moved to Canada in '88 from Europe, where Uncle Nicks don't exist, but I made friends here whose male relatives were exactly like this guy. The performance was eerily accurate.

Gord Cooper (Jones) gets the camera (a ludicrously expensive item on which he blew his wife's vacation fund) from Dave Foley, and there's a recurring joke about a sex tape that was left in the camera when the family started recording. You'll see more of Dave Foley's naked body in this film then you ever wanted to. Consider this fair warning, not a spoiler.

The film has some really funny and genuinely uncomfortable moments, but the video camera is a bit of a one-note gag, and after a while it devolves into such a frenzied level of dysfunctional family chaos that I couldn't decide whether I found it awesomely action packed or gimmicky and over the top.

The Brothers Bloom

Rian Johnson | 2008 | 109 min | US

This is my biggest disappointment of the film festival thus far. Not the worst I've seen, though not far off. Dammit, The Brothers Bloom should have been great. I am a big fan of all the leads (Adrian Brody, Rachel Weisz, and the underused Mark Ruffalo) and this was Rian Johnson's follow up to the highly inventive and entertaining neo-noir Brick. What wasn't there to love? Well, everything. This time around Johnson abandons the "inventive" angle in favour of becoming another Wes Anderson Lite. The same costumes, the same "clever" dialogue, the same obscure retro rock soundtrack, and fuck if he doesn't even include a mute, ethnic comic foil. All right out of the Anderson playbook and not half as pleasant in action here.

I understand that criticizing Johnson for lousy dialogue in this film after praising Brick may seem a bit odd to some folks, but I loved the world of Brick. I swallowed whole the idea that this world could exist, and while the dialogue was unusual, I never felt the characters were putting on airs. It seemed perfectly reasonable that everyone spoke that way in their cartoon noir world. But I digress.

Johnson's screenplay still stays in the world of noir, this time focusing in on a trio of smooth talking grifters, the brothers and their assistant, and their work on the long con game. Older brother Ruffalo is the brains of the operation, while young Brody is tired of feeling strung along and manipulated by his brother's scripts and plots. Brody agrees to play along for one more con: a guaranteed huge payday in the shape of lonely heiress Rachel Weisz. The film starts off looking sharp and playing with classic film conventions with a great sense of joy. Then that stops, and Johnson starts feeding you so many goddamn hints that you spend more than an hour just waiting for him to get to the obvious so you can enjoy some fresh air. Even the three leads seems to find their characters dull. Though each of them is capable of doing great things with not so great material, their sleepy delivery this time around doesn't help matters any.

Even for all its playfulness, Brick was at heart a good mystery. On the other hand, The Brothers Bloom is boring as all hell. I can't blame a young director for wanting to try something new, but its a shame that Johnson's something new was trying his hand at making shitty movies.

Tony Manero

Pablo Larrain | 2008 | 98 min | Chile, Brazil

How bizarre that the TIFF catalog almost makes this film sounds like Chilean Full Monty. I picture many upset people walking out of the theatre after taking a chance on a little comedy about a disco dance troupe in the seventies. On its face the premise does sound like a comedy: a middle-age is obsessed with Saturday Night Fever and John Travolta's character, Tony Manero. He goes to daily screenings, reciting near every line, and stages a dance homage to the movie at a local bar with friends. Funny stuff, right? Except this is all set against the backdrop of Pinochet's violent regime in the seventies and the lead character, Raul, reflects that violence in spades.

Raul is psychotically obsessed with Tony Manero and feels no compunction in killing to obtain whatever tools he feels bring him closer to the man and his "life." Sometimes that means fucking a guy up to collect glass blocks to build a dance floor in his tenement room, sometimes robbing a dead body of Manero-esque jewelry.

I was lucky enough to see this film with zero expectations, and was blown away. The story is compelling and Pablo Larrain has a unique style that works wonderfully here, even often experimenting with out of focus shots in a very impressive fashion. I was unfamiliar with actor Alfredo Castro, but he is truly chilling in the lead role. He pulls off not one, not two, but three of the most disturbing "love" scenes you are likely to ever see. So don't see it for Chilean Full Monty, see it for Chilean Nightmare Source Material (Nihilist sub-folder).

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Good, The Bad, The Weird

Kim Ji-woon | 2008 | 139 min | South Korea

In the ten years since making his amazing debut film, The Quiet Family (later remade by Takashi Miike as The Happiness of the Katakuris), Kim Ji-woon has given us the wrestling comedy, The Foul King and the K-Horror sensation, A Tale of Two Sisters, among other films (which I must admit to not having seen yet). Now he's made what is Korea's most expensive production to date. Not only that, but with that money, he's made a western. Far from the most popular genre of film at the moment, Ji-woon injects it with so much excess of style, action, and comedy that it's both a western for western-lovers and for your little sister who probably thinks Clint Eastwood looks like a creepy creep (which to be fair, he probably is).

Set in Manchria during the Japanese occupation, three Koreans (the titular Good, Bad, and Weird) are all involved in a train robbery. The Weird is on-board to rob its VIP passenger without knowing that he has an extremely valuable treasure map with him. The Bad and his gang stop the train with the sole intention of stealing said valuable map. The Good is there to foil The Bad's robbery. Once off the train, the map becomes sought after by not just the film's three leads, but also by the Japanese military and a good portion of the criminal underworld. Few know what the treasure is but figure that if so many people want it, it must be worth rising their lives and taking those of others.

Filled with ridiculously fun set piece after ridiculously fun set piece, great acting from its leads, and a script that keeps putting playful roadblocks in-front of its characters; the moments when I didn't have a smile on my face while watching The Good, The Bad, The Weird were rare. There's a bit of fat in some of the second half's action scenes, but it's a western, and that's how they're supposed to be. I'm not sure if I should use a steak metaphor or not...

L'instinct de mort (Public Enemy Number One: Part One) - Work in Progress

Jean-François Richet | 2008 | 114 min | France/Canada

Vincent Cassel stars as notorious French gangster, Jacques Mesrine in this action-biopic that is competent and entertaining enough but in no way original. It feels like a dozen other rise and fall mob movies, only it's in French.

Cassel is good as Mesrine but he's a much better actor than the performance he gives here. The big surprise of the film is Gerard Depardieu as an overweight Italian mob boss who Mesrine works for. Maybe his believability as an Italian could be challenged but not his believability as a weathered heavy who commands respect and who won't hesitate for a moment to get his hands dirty if blood needs to be shed.

L'instinct de Mort is a solid film that entertains, but at just under two hours long, and being only the first half of the story, let's hope that the rest of Mesrine's life is what warrants being made into a film (or two in this case).

Tears For Sale

Uroš Stojanović | 2008 | 86 mins | Serbia

It's hard to describe Tears for Sale, and I'm afraid that my status as a born & bred Serb doesn't really help much. Essentially a fairy tale set in post WWI rural Serbia, it tells the tale of a village of women whose husbands and sons have all been killed after years of war. The idyllic little mountain village is full of frustrated women who've gone so long without a man's touch that most of them have no idea what it even feels like anymore.

When sisters Boginja and Ognjenka are accused of killing the village's last man, they must leave the safety of their homes to find a replacement in just three days, or be cursed forever. The two venture out in good faith, but as soon as they catch a glimpse of the outside world and all the men in it, personal desires and jealousies take them off the righteous path.

The weird, disjointed fantasy/fable plot is really secondary to the lush, sumptuous visuals, gorgeous Serbian babes and heart-stopping score composed by longtime Wong Kar-wai collaborator Shigeru Umebayashi. There's a bit of political commentary here (not only about the WWI era, during which the country did lose more than two thirds of its male population, but also about more recent skirmishes), but I think we can safely just refer to this one as a "feast for the senses" and leave it at that.

Voy a Explotar

Gerardo Naranjo | 2008 | 106 mins | Mexico

Román Valdez is the rebellious son of a corrupt politician in the Mexican city of Guanajuato. He's been expelled from so many private schools that his father is forced to place him at a less prestigious institution, where he meets Maru, a cool, weird middle class girl who lives with a single mom and sister.

The two decide to run away from home together, vowing never to part and giggling their way through the early part of the film, while they are tricking their families into believing they've left for Mexico City even though they are actually camping on Román's roof, sneaking into the house for food while the family is out.

Watching the two young actors (obviously played by real teens and not 20somethings masquerading as such) awkwardly stumble through a passionate friendship and into their first romantic and sexual experiences seems almost uncomfortably real.

Of course, 15 year olds never understand the repercussions of their actions and it soon becomes clear that their adventurous swindle won't end well, but by that point it's too late to turn back. Incidentally, the phrase "voy a explotar" means "I'm gonna explode", which perfectly describes the passionate, headstrong and often totally irrational, fiery energy with which the would-be revolutionaries soldier on, hoping that love will be their guiding light and save them in the end.

The performances here are probably better than the film itself, which relies on a few "runaway teen" clichés and a fair bit of melodrama in the third act. Worth seeing just for the breakout performance by youngster Maria DesChamps as Maru, who is absolutely pitch-perfect from start to finish.

Everlasting Moments

Jan Troell | 2008 | 125 mins | Denmark + Sweden + Norway + Finland

A sweet little turn of the 20th century period piece from Swedish film veteran Jan Troell, Everlasting Moments is a family history narrated by the daughter of the two protagonists.

Maria (Maria Heiskanen) marries Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt, who is really terrific in his role) when they are both quite young. He seems like basically a good guy, but he keeps losing jobs, coming home roaring drunk and beating her and the kids, though usually only if he's feeling reeeeeally impotent outside the home.

The frustrated wife turns to photography (of all things), striking up a tender but platonic friendship with local photographer Mr. Petersson (Jesper Christensen) and recording the lives of her family and neighbours. For her, photographs provide a magical escape from her disappointing life and a view into another world, one far fuller of possibility than her own.

Troell creates multi-dimensional characters who are full of flaws but never beyond redemption. A film about seeing, observing and understanding, Everlasting Moments offers a tender, saccharine view of early 20th century life in Sweden, seen through the eyes of a camera, a woman and the little girl who carefully watches them both.

Paris, Not France

Adria Petty | 2008 | 68 min | US

After watching Paris, Not France I have little doubt that the controversy surrounding it was entirely cooked up by Hilton's people. Over the last couple weeks there has been much ballyhoo about her gang being enraged by this documentary, assembling an army of lawyers to prevent the Toronto Film Festival from showing it. But TIFF would not (entirely) back down! They compromised in cutting the number of screenings from three to one, but allowed the the first and largest venue screening to carry on. Piss poor ticket sales, however, resulted in many, many empty seats in the 900 seat Ryerson Theatre. And there were going to be two more screenings? I don't think so.

What is ostensibly an edgy, tell all, behind the facade portrait of Paris Hilton is nothing of the sort. There is absolutely NOTHING in this movie that Hilton could take offense to. It's a fucking love letter. So what better way for a lackluster star vehicle to get a little heat behind it than for the star to launch an assault-by-media on the supposedly sensational documentary? Maybe a little controversy was just what the accountant ordered. My conspiracy theory is somewhat backed up by Paris Hilton being in attendance for the screening. For a movie she doesn't want you to see? Surely she can't be quite as offended by the tell all as she claims. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I saw that little fraggle with my own eyes. Should anyone want to see through my eyes, a google image search of "TIFF" and "Paris" should reveal about one thousand images of said fraggle, judging by the number of flashes popping all around the theatre prior to showtime.

Here are the shocking revelations contained within Paris, Not France: Paris is actually very smart; she is a self made woman; she loves to shop; she loves her grandma; she doesn't need to go to college to learn how to be herself. Gritty material. Except that you could throw a rock and hit an entertainment show with more shocking news about her on a nightly basis.

Surely with a sixty-eight minute runtime there was room for something other than her family praising her. Camille Paglia has a couple interesting (if well tread) moments, as does the possibly undead crisis management specialist on Hilton's payroll, but it was not enough to keep me from looking at my watch half a dozen times.

Moreover, it is a mess even on a technical level. I would have to assume this is not a final cut (though no such mention was made), because the video was of such poor resolution in so many shots that I was surprised it was being shown at all. The audio design is of similar quality. If this is truly the last time anyone will see this version of the movie, as touted in the festival promotional material, then it is a blessing for all. The best thing about this doc is the title. Really good title, though.

Despite the tall tales weaved about the SHOCK HORROR that Paris, Not France was sure to deliver, the end result is so fawning that it may as well have been made by Hilton's best friend from summer camp.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Burrowers

J.T. Petty | 2008 | 96 mins | 2008

I’ve come to realize recently that a film needs only three basic elements in order to really satisfy me. It’s one of those simple, basic realizations that I’d never articulated to myself before, but here’s pretty much all I want:

1. A well written script. Clever writing can save a bad story and bad writing can ruin a good one. On the whole, I’d rather have a good script than a good plot. It helps to have both, but y’know, if I have to pick one.*

2. Good shootin’. A beautifully, smartly or interestingly composed shot is worth a thousand words, actually.

3. Good sound design. A great soundtrack is nice, but everything matters, from the score to the way the sound effects and even the actors’ voices themselves fit together. Sound can make or break the atmosphere in a film completely.

The Burrowers has all three in spades, AND it’s got Clancy Brown. Basically, JT Petty (Soft For Digging, S&MAN) had me at hello. I’m pretty sure I told him this while I was very drunk last night. I feel terribly jet-set this TIFF.

The western/horror blend relies heavily on slow building tension and suspense. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing that sneaks up on you very unnervingly indeed. The Burrowers feels uncanny, as well. It's like digging up something so terrifying that you have to cast it out because it's not only horrific but also so familiar. A terror from within.

The year is 1879, and the place is a gorgeously desolate stretch of the Dakota Plains. Coffey (Karl Geary, but let’s just call him Hot Irish) comes calling on his ladylove one morning, engagement ring in hand, only to find her family and their neighbours missing or murdered. Both distraught and bewildered, the young man joins a band of local ranchers and cavalrymen in search of the victims, assumed to be the captives of a rogue native tribe.

Of course, the reality of this murky situation is much more sinister than anyone can imagine, and soon Hot Irish is forced to split off from the search party and forge on with a couple of like-minded ranchers (William Mapother, and Clancy Brown – star of such classics as Highlander and Buckaroo Banzai). The air of dread and mounting tension is beautifully maintained between the men, their environment, and whatever it is that lurks in the shadows and tall grasses.

Catch the second screening of The Burrowers on Thursday September 11th at 3:30pm, and check here for more info.

*Note: #1 does not apply to films in languages I don't speak. With those, I just assume I'm not getting any of the nuances of the script in subtitles anyway, so why judge harshly?

Heaven on Earth

Deepa Mehta | 2008 | 106 mins | Canada

When I first heard the phrase “magic realism” bandied about in reference to Deepa Mehta’s latest film, I was a bit nervous. We all know only South Americans can do magic realism well, and besides, wasn’t this supposed to be a film about an abused wife?

As it turns out, the magical parts of Heaven on Earth were actually the best parts.

Married off to an Indian man who lives in Canada, Chand (Bollywood star Preity Zinta) has to trade in her warm community life in India for a bleak existence in Brampton. When new hubby Rocky (Vansh Bhardwaj) turns out to be a violent mama’s boy with an awful, manipulative mother, Chand retreats into herself, repeating a story her mother used to tell her about a young woman and a cobra. The scenes of abuse, while not particularly graphic, are made harder to watch by Rocky's family's silent acceptance of his behaviour.

After a botched plot to make Rocky fall for her with her by feeding him a supposedly magic root, a snake appears in the family’s back yard, and Chand’s deep desire for love is suddenly given form.

Heaven on Earth was beautifully shot, but it was sometimes hard to follow Mehta’s visual choices – occasional black and white sequences seemed scattered almost at random throughout, and some portions seemed to have been shot on video while others looked very much like film.

It's a very pretty fairytale, but as my viewing companion said, it feels "a bit CBC-ish".

Monday, September 08, 2008

Acolytes

Jon Hewitt | 2008 | 91 mins | Australia

Much like Deadgirl, Acolytes is about a group of teens who stumble accidentally onto something quite horrific, and then proceed to make a bunch of really bad decisions. That's where the similarities end.

In an idyllic Australian suburb paralyzed by the disappearance of a young woman, a teenager stumbles upon a guy burying something in the woods. Thinking it's probably little more than a dead animal or some trash, he brings two friends with him to dig it up. Just for fun, y'know?

When they discover something a bit more disturbing than a dead koala, the trio decide to try to track down the mysterious man who did the burying in the first place. Plagued by a former bully who's recently returned to town, pals Mark (Sebastian Gregory) James (Joshua Payne) decide that their discovery is going to allow them to masterfully turn the tables on all the sinister evildoers in their midst.

Unfortunately but predictably, the two friends (and the girl who constantly threatens to come between them, James' girlfriend Chasely) get in way over their heads. Before they know it, their spooky romp through the Australian countryside is no longer a lark, but has turned into a dark and dangerous adventure.

A really fun and tension-soaked horror thriller that effectively turns the tables on its characters and the audience, switching tone unexpectedly for a real sucker-punch of an intense final act. With this effort, director Jon Hewitt will surely be joining the ranks of Australia's great horror directors (as seen in the awesome "Ozploitation" documentary Not Quite Hollywood, also screening at TIFF this year).

Note to those who can make the remaining TIFF screenings on Wednesday the 10th at 6:45pm or Friday the 12th at 12:15pm - it's worth it for the incredible sound design alone.

Wendy and Lucy

Kelly Reichardt | 2008 | 80 min | US

This is a contemporary American take on the British Kitchen Sink movies of the late fifties and early sixties. And it is terrific. Michelle Williams is Wendy, a young woman traveling to Alaska for work with her dog, Lucy. Wendy and Lucy catches up with the pair during a stop-over of a few days in Oregan. Already very close to being penniless, when Wendy's car breaks down she finds all of her plans suddenly jeopardized.

It is a very quiet, thoughtful film. So quiet, in fact, that director Kelly Reichardt chastised someone in the crowd for bringing in nachos while she was standing on stage for the movie's intro. And rightfully so. I swear I heard every nacho enjoyed within three rows of me. The sound design is so slight as to barely even qualify as "minimal." Aside from a moment of ambient music in a supermarket, the soundtrack only consists of Wendy occasionally humming the same refrain, over and over, and the noise of freight trains chugging by. The quiet poetry of the movie is beautiful, though this is not quite an uplifting story. Ten minutes in I was definitely wondering if this was the best screening choice I could have made given my current tenuous financial position. Ahem.

Wendy and Lucy is unflinching in its look at how many, many people are living today: paycheck to paycheck, without any security, and constantly on the brink of real danger. It is moving and beautiful in its stark realism.

And Will Oldham fans: keep your eyes peeled for his hilarious bit part.

Deadgirl

Marcel Sarmiento + Gadi Harel | 2008 | 101 mins | USA

When I first heard about Deadgirl, it was described to me as “a coming of age story with a zombie sex slave ... but really tastefully done”. Deadgirl turned out to be more hilarious and more disturbing than that description, by far.

Teenage skids JT (Noah Segan) and Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) tool around drinking beers in an abandoned hospital, when they stumble upon a girl in the basement who's chained to a gurney. While Rickie sensibly thinks they should get the fuck out of there, JT's creepy suggestion is that they have a little "fun" with the incapacitated hot babe instead.

Things turn super creepy after JT realises that their captive is neither dead nor alive, and starts becoming increasingly obsessed with her, spending his nights in the dank basement and no longer turning up at school at all. Meanwhile, Rickie pines for his childhood crush JoAnn (now predictably a beautiful girl dating the school's most popular jock) and tries to keep the "dead girl" situation from spiraling out of control as more and more people hear about the dirty secret in the basement.

There are a lot of great, gross-out / creepy-as-fuck moments in Deadgirl that I don't want to give away, but hopefully young directors Gadi Harel and Marcel Sarmiento (the dude behind the dog-love romantic comedy Heavy Petting) will have some luck selling this one at TIFF, in spite of the controversial subject matter.

Detroit Metal City

Toshio Lee | 2008 | 104 mins | Japan

It would be easy to file Detroit Metal City under "Japan is weird" and enjoy it exclusively on that level, but it's actually better than that. Sure, at times it's over-the-top, and the jokes are a bit hammy and repetitive, but the film seems to be in on the joke about 90% of the time, and the metal soundtrack is actually really good.

Someone asked director Toshio Lee who did the music for DMC during the Midnight Madness Q&A on Friday, but I think he misunderstood the question to be about the performers in the film rather than the composers. Later, a Japanese-speaking friend told me that the translator failed to relay his mention of Marty Friedman (ex of Megadeth, a long-time resident of Japan). If he was responsible for the DMC sound, I send him my kudos. That band should tour. Who cares if it's fake? Worked for The Monkees!

Detroit Metal City is based on the manga of the same name, and the film is apparently a pretty faithful adaptation of the first two (of six or seven) volumes. It tells the story of Souichi, an idealistic country boy who just wants to be a trendy musician in trendy Tokyo. Alas, life doesn't always turn out the way we hope, and the poor boy ends up in one of Japan's heaviest death metal bands, Detroit Metal City, as frontman Johannes Klauser II. He screeches about rape and murder to an adoring throng of fans, and the band's success soon gets so out of control that they're scheduled to have a face-off with international metal king Jack Il Dark (played by Gene Simmons).

Thanks to his heavy makeup and outlandish costumes, he's able to keep his alter-ego a secret from his trendy would-be girlfriend for a while, but soon his two worlds begin to collide, and Souichi must come to terms with the fact that even though DMC wasn't his dream, it might be a dream worth pursuing.

In The Shadow of the Naga

Nasorn Panungkasiri | 2008 | 94 mins | Thailand

At first glance, the description of In The Shadow of the Naga makes it sound a lot like the Martin Lawrence joint Blue Streak. Somewhat unfortunately though, that's where the similarities end.

A trio of criminals - Parn, Por and Singh - return to the spot where one of them dumped their stash a few months before, only to find that a Buddhist temple has been rather hurriedly erected on the spot. The solution is obvious: they must coerce the elder monk into ordaining them so that they can stay in the nearby monastery while they dig for their money.

Parn and Singh are charismatic and masculine, dangerous criminals who wouldn't hesitate to besmirch the good name of the monkhood to get their way. Por, in contrast, is plagued with guilt over what they are doing and opts not to get ordained with his co-conspirators. While Por seeks some absolution in Buddhism, Parn and Singh become increasingly frustrated by the difficulties of finding their money. When Singh's sassy prostitute wife intrudes upon the scene, the undercurrents of tension and violence threaten to explode.

Parts of the plot of In the Shadow of the Naga are a bit difficult to piece together, but the moral lessons are pretty clear. Shady dealings and shocking secrets are hinted at, but so obscurely that by the dramatic climax it's a bit difficult to know who the good guys and bad guys really are. Interesting, but maybe not actually superior to Blue Streak.

Sounds Like Teen Spirit: A Popumentary

Jamie Jay Johnson | 2008 | 100 mins | USA

I have to admit that, being an expat-European and not too plugged into their TV offerings these days, I’d never heard of the “Junior Eurovision” contest until I stumbled upon this charming doc. The kid contestants are all between the ages of 10 and 15, and all have to write their own songs. National finalists are sent to a Europe-wide contest which is televised and very widely watched. These tiny hopefuls are no less weird than their adult Eurovision counterparts, but they’re a less polished, less privileged lot than the North American kids you might see in a doc about child beauty pagents or overly ambitious stage moms.

Belgian band Trust is made up of four grownup looking 15 year olds – they have the best song but probably won’t win because they’re not cute or little enough. An eleven year old Ukraininan girl’s “sexy librarian” routine is modified by judges because her dress is too revealing. An adorable boy from Cyprus who gets made fun of for “being gay” back home is poised to sing a power ballad that’s nowhere near as charming or charismatic as the boy himself. A hopeful girl from poverty-stricken Georgia feels the pressure of representing her nation, and a beautiful would-be photographer from Bulgaria hopes her estranged father is watching on TV because if he’s proud of her, he may come back home.

The music is so-so, but the stories are so heartbreakingly adorable that it’s hard not to be riveted. Sure, there can only be one winner, and hundreds of cute kids will go home disappointed, but that doesn’t really change the fact that this is one of the festival’s ultimate feel-good docs. Think Spellbound but with extroverted performers instead of weird nerds.

Witch Hunt

Don Hardy Jr. + Dana Nachman | 2008 | 91 mins | USA


A truly harrowing documentary because it shows just how incredibly easy it can be for an ordinary person's life to go from "normal" to "totally fuuuuuuucked" in no time at all. The story of John Stoll, and countless others from the community of Bakersfield, California, is mind-boggling. The quiet single dad was arrested in 1984 and charged with child molestation, first against his own son, and soon after a slew of other neighbourhood boys.

John Stoll knew he was innocent, but he didn't realise at first that he was just one part of a much larger and more sinister witch hunt. Over the course of a few years, dozens of working class moms and dads were arrested, charged and convicted. The allegations grew more and more implausible, by the end painting local families as satan worshipers who sacrificed children in bloody, secret rituals.

Most of those convicted spent a decade or longer in prison (in John Stoll’s case, twenty full years) before they were exonerated amid a flurry of witness recantations, charges of improper investigative techniques, badly conducted interviews with young alleged victims and concealing evidence that would have provided more than a reasonable doubt as to the accused citizens’ guilt.

The zealous and single minded district attorney behind the convictions remains in office to this day, still unwilling to accept that something truly went wrong in Bakersfield. Interviews with former inmates are emotional, but nothing is more heartbreaking than hearing the allegedly molested children (now adults with families of their own) talk about how they were coerced into lying about what happened, and how the episode has tainted their entire lives and hampered their ability to have normal, loving relationships with their own children.

Executive Producer Sean Penn narrates the hair-raising cautionary tale of how lives can be ruined with the most honourable of intentions. After all, who would argue that it's important to protect innocent children?

Nothing But The Truth

Rod Lurie | 2008 | 108 mins | USA

An American political drama starring Kate Beckinsale and David Schwimmer is pretty much the complete opposite of what I like to see at TIFF, but the screening I wanted to get into was sold out, so I decided to give Rod Lurie (Resurrecting the Champ, The Contender) a chance to not suck.

Very loosely based on the real case of Valerie Plame, whose status as a CIA agent was exposed in the media after her husband (a US Ambassador) wrote a New York Times piece charging the Bush administration with manipulating their intel to justify invading Iraq.

In the film, Iraq has been replaced with Venezuela, and reporter Rachel Armstrong (played by Kate Beckinsale) goes to prison to protect her source. Beckinsale’s efforts will undoubtedly be touted as a real ‘breakout performance’, but I actually preferred Vera Farmiga’s portrayal of CIA soccer mom Erica Van Doren.

Unfortunately, if you’re paying one iota of attention to anything happening on screen, you’ll figure out the identity of the mysterious source within the first 15 minutes, and the rest of the film will seem like a clumsy martyrdom story in which a principled woman is surrounded by cold hearted zealots who, if they only knew what she was doing it for …

Matt Dillon is actually pretty alright as the special prosecutor, but the real accolades belong to Alan Alda, the defense attorney whose absurd non-sequitur expressions are the only glimmers of true entertainment in the film.

David Schwimmer plays Beckinsale’s spineless disappointment of a husband. He’s perfect for the role. Wait for this one on DVD, if you're a Matt Dillon completist.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Pontypool

Bruce McDonald | 2008 | 95 min | Canada

DJ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), his producer Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly), and station manager Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) are all at work on a snowy Valentine's Day, putting on a talk radio show for smalltown Ontario. Mazzy's just been fired from his last DJing job and starts the show with some confrontational real talk to wake his listeners up. Soon though, reports start coming in about a mob of people attacking a doctor's office, a mere five kilometres from the church-cum-radio station. As more and more reports find their way on-air it becomes clear that the people are infected with some sort of word-virus that's driving them to violence.

After years of collecting dust, Bruce McDonald decided to pick up his apparently much more action oriented script based on Tony Burgess' Pontypool Changes Everything and write a new draft that he could make on-the-cheap with a small cast, and one location. The resulting script takes a lot of cues from Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio broadcast, and pulls it off really well.

If Pontypool had been played as straight horror it would've fallen flat, but fortunately it doesn't take itself too seriously. It's well aware that the idea of a virus transmitted through terms of endearment and other common words is not just really interesting but also really ridiculous and funny. What it lacks in action and horror sequences, it makes up for in fun dialogue scenes and solid performances from its cast (especially McHattie, and Hrant Alianak, who appears later in the film as a character I won't name just for the sake of it being a mild spoiler).

Aside from seeing him on College St. in his cowboy hat, Bruce McDonald sort of took himself off my radar with the projects he's been choosing since his live broadcast of Michael Turner's American Whiskey Bar, so I was hesitant going into Pontypool. I was pleasantly surprised though by a really good little movie and one of the most playfully inventive ones I've seen of late (Note: I'm not even using the 'Canadian' qualifier). When the film rolls into your city be sure to catch it, sweetheart.

White Night Wedding

Baltasar Kormákur | 2008 | 96 mins | Iceland

Strangely, both Icelandic films that made it into TIFF this year have "Wedding" in the title, and are dark comedies about couples who probably shouldn't be getting married. Maybe that's an Icelandic comedy trope that I'm not familiar with? Perhaps less strangely (given the size of Iceland) the two films share several cast members, which makes for a disorienting experience when they're viewed back to back.

White Night Wedding is definitely the darker of the two, and the better as well. Directed by the guy who brought the thriller Mýrin (Jar City) to TIFF in '06 and directed one of my favourite TIFF2000 films, the quirky comedy 101 Reykjavík, White Night Wedding is perhaps his most ambitious endeavour to date.

Kormákur adapts Anton Chekhov's Ivanov, a play about a government official with a tubercular wife who ultimately seduces and weds the young daughter of a man to whom he owes a large sum of money. In this version (transplanted to the miniscule island of Flatey, off the coast of Iceland), Jon (a professor) is poised to marry Thora, a former student. Slowly, we discover that Jon was once married to a beautiful but troubled artist named Anna. As the white, northern night before the wedding wears on, a slew of complications and misunderstandings test friendships and threaten the couple's union.

There's enough comic relief here for the film to be called a "comedy" but it's far more emotionally complex and disturbing than that. Kormákur doesn't tell his story chronologically, so past and present, desire and regret, foreshadowing and hindsight all blend into a beautifully composed, artfully shot collage. A damning indictment of the expectations and mores surrounding love and marriage, White Night Wedding keeps threatening to offer redemption only to snatch it away at the last moment.

Country Wedding

Valdís Óskarsdóttir | 2008 | 99 mins | Iceland

A directorial debut from the accomplished editor behind a slew of Scandinavian films (most notably a bunch of Dogme stuff, including my personal favourite: Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration), Country Wedding is a light hearted comedy about a totally dysfunctional family en route to a rustic, intimate wedding in the beautiful countryside of Iceland. The small wedding party is traveling in enormous his & hers buses (a booking mistake made by the unreliable best man, who is MIA with the rings at the start of the film).

The bride's parents are divorced, mom's new boyfriend seems to be a shady businessman (at best), and the maid of honour has brought a weird date and a senile grandma without consulting the horrified bride. Throw in a long lost gay uncle who's lived abroad for 25 years, a disgruntled sister, some drinking and some fist fights, and you've got yourself a wedding: Iceland style.

To add to the miserable mix of incompatible personalities, no one in the motley crew of celebrants knows where the church is, and country churches with red roofs are apparently a dime a dozen on the icy island nation.

It's easy to see the Dogme influence on Valdís Óskarsdóttir's hand-held, intimate shooting style and fast cuts. The tenuous peace between the young lovers is barely maintained as the group gets more and more lost. Somewhere between a charming cautionary tale and a clever satire of family relations and the notion that love always has to be perfect, Country Wedding manages to skillfully walk that fine, Scandinavian line between being hilarious and totally depressing.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

American Swing

Jon Hart, Matthew Kaufman | 2008 | 81 min | US

In the summer of 1977 a New York entrepreneur named Larry Levenson decided to take "the lifestyle" out of the shadows with the opening a Plato's Retreat: a swinger's club operating very publicly. American Swing chronicles the rise and fall of that club (and the death of the sexual revolution) through interviews with many of the club's frequenters themselves.

The first portion of the film feels light and amusing as the former Plato's Retreat clientele, now senior citizens, recount the heady days of the club's peak (among the glowing memories are those of the plentiful buffet). As the story of the club rolls on, however, its atmosphere grows far darker as jealousy, heavy drugs, and the spectre of AIDS begin to encroach on the scene. Larry Levenson clearly loved the spotlight and jumped into it every chance he had. Sadly, he was very reluctant to let that spotlight go and when AIDS began to threaten the life of his club Levenson took on a propagandist's role in underplaying its threat. Add to that the details of mob investors and marital revenge, and the story becomes very shady and very compelling.

Culled from a surprising amount of footage and photographs from inside Plato's Retreat, American Swing provides some remarkable visuals. There is some news program and talk show footage included, but most of the material is essentially filthy home movies. Peering into very private lives in an open club is a bizarre experience and provides more than a slight voyeuristic thrill. American Swing is an outstanding time capsule of a long gone era that is hard to imagine today.

Check out screening times for American Swing at TIFF here.

Gomorrah

Matteo Garrone | 2008 | 135 min | Italy

The Gomorrah are one of Italy's largest crime organizations, but until now, nobody has dared make a film about them. If they're really as dangerous as that suggests, I'm not quite sure why the makers of Gomorrah decided to use them as the subjects of their film. There is rarely mention of its characters' names, so it could just as well have been any crime organization. That said, Gomorrah is a near masterpiece.

The film bounces back and forth between different members of the Gomorrah without much connecting the characters (with some exceptions) or concern for plot. It's a day-in-the-life-of-mobsters style script that covers territory I've never seen in a gangster film before. Among the most interesting is the production of garments as a source of income, waste disposal, and an apartment project that's inhabited solely by members of the clan.

Taking its time to follow characters like a garment maker, a money delivery man, a young boy just getting his feet wet in the organization, a pair of men responsible for landfilling toxic waste, and a couple of ignorantly cocksure teenagers, Gomorrah paints one of the most complete and compelling portraits of mob life to be put on film. Everything is presented so matter of factly and without judgment. The film's best performances are by its confident teens who have aspirations of taking over. They're so good that they seem like actual stupid teenagers who want to be big time gangsters, that the filmmakers have given guns to and have encouraged to be as reckless as possible while they film it. They're beyond compelling. The acting in Gomorrah is all for the most part, extremely natural and believable. A very rare thing for a gangster film.

After ninety or so minutes of brilliantly executed character observation, Garonne decides to take the typical gangster film route and give each character a violent denouement that undoes a lot of what is special about the film that precedes it. Regardless, Gomorrah is an incredible film and will hopefully be recognized with time as one of the best gangster films ever made.

Food, Inc.

Robert Kenner | 2008 | 94 mins | USA

Food, Inc. is one of those documentaries that tells you something you already know (or should, in this day and age) but does it so eloquently that it seems worth hearing again. Food-activism stars such as authors Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) share the podium with farmers of all kinds and a woman whose son died after eating e coli tainted meat.

The documentary takes a journalistic approach to investigate why food safety legislation in the United States is so abysmal, and to shed some light on the increasingly mechanized oligarchy of meat (and other food) producers. The usual food conglomerate suspects (such as Monsanto - who over the past dozen years has inreased its control over soybeans from 2% of the market to 90%) are up for criticism, but the truly scary thing is the stories from the farmers who use their seeds - the scare tactics, visits from shady muscle men intended to intimidate, and the endless lawsuits brought against farmers who don't toe the line are so frequent you'd swear these were stories coming out of Stalinist Russia, not the present day USA.

Food, Inc. carefully examines the disturbingly chummy relations between big business and government (across both major parties). In opposition to these seemingly unstoppable and absurdly malevolent forces are a few rays of sunshine - organic farmers, concerned citizens and a hilarious yogurt mogul who's poised to conquer Wal Mart's shelves with his organic products. The organic cowboy farmer with the hipster-sized glasses (though I doubt he'd ever characterize them that way himself) who's pictured above was my favourite. His brand of green-tinted common sense is something everyone should hear. Like many of the organic farmers featured here, he's had to fight big meat corporations' attempts to shut him down. Thankfully (and unsurprisingly) for him, the claims that his open air pastures and chicken coops were "unsanitary" were disproved when his chickens tested hundreds of times safer and cleaner than their ammonia-sterilized poultry.

In conclusion: watch this if you've been thinking of going on a diet because you won't want to eat anything processed or anything found on the supermarket shelves ever again. Food, Inc. screens again on Saturday Sept 13th at 3:00pm. Check here for more info.

Sauna

Antti-Jussi Annila | 2008 | 83 mins | Finland

This historical epic cum existential nightmare is a perfect horror film for people who don't like horror films. Two Finnish brothers are charged with charting a new border between Sweden and Russia at the end of a long war. The year is 1595, and the northern swamps of then-nonexistent Finland provide a harsh and unforgiving backdrop for the tale.

The two brothers (one hardened by years of war, the other still naïve and hopeful) are haunted on their journey by an unnecessary act of cruelty they participated in before the beginning of their journey. When they arrive in a strange, near-childless village in the middle of the swamp, the Finns and Russians are all pulled into the orbit of the ominous, ancient sauna that looms in the murky waters on the edge of the gloomy outpost.

Building an oppressive atmosphere and dark, foreboding tone for the first half of the film, Sauna does provide some awesome payoff for the true horror fans toward the end, but truly this is a film for people who enjoy suspense, tension, and Tarkovski-esque slow pacing. Plus, bleak swampland is shot gorgeously and the actors are great.

Sauna screens again at 9:15am on Thursday September 11th. Check here for details.

O'Horten

Brent Hamer | 2008 | 90 mins | Norway

This film really exemplifies a particular type of oddball humour that only Scandinavians are truly capable of nailing. It's dry, deadpan, totally absurd and frequently surreal. It's actually a lot like really good Canadian comedy – the kind that occasionally makes it into our better sketch comedy shows.

Odd Horton (I don't know if the name's a pun in Norwegian, but it's certainly appropriate in English) is a reserved locomotive engineer who's retiring after nearly 40 years of service. When his colleagues try to take him to a party on the eve of his last working day, things start to get weird for the near-pensioner.

Slowly, over the course of the next few days, Horten comes closer and closer to correcting his greatest regret – that he never went ski jumping, even though his mother was one of the first female ski jumpers in Norway.

Gorgeous Nordic landscapes and beautiful shots of trains sliding in and out of mountainside tunnels frame this truly weird comedy.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Vinyan

Fabrice Du Welz | 2008 | 96 min | France, Belgium

One word: infuckingcredible. I don't know if that counts as one word, BUT IT STANDS. Six months after their young son Joshua was lost in the tsunami, a married couple (Emmanuelle Béart and Rufus Sewell) travels to Burma with a smuggler who promises he can find the boy. The smuggler plies them with stories of a white child having been seen in far flung villages, but it soon becomes evident that they are being exploited. As they are pushed deeper into the jungle, delirium begins to take over and everyone heads into Heart of Darkness territory.

Like Fabrice Du Welz's previous feature Calvaire, Vinyan looks at the horror of being lost in unfamiliar terrain, physically and emotionally. And like that first movie, I am sure that "haunting" is the word I will use most often to describe Vinyan. Du Welz again uses cinematographer Benoît Debie and Super 16mm film to great effect. Vinyan is stunning throughout. Even the abstracted opening sequence is so mesmerizing that I probably would have been happy to be submerged in those sights and sounds for the entire run of the film.

The film is loaded with moments that leave one feeling simultaneously shocked and disturbed. The sound design conspires in delivering several literally hair-raising sequences, and Béart and Sewell deliver perfect on-the-precipice performances. It is far more ambitious and genre-bending than one would expect from a director's second feature, but I think Vinyan pulls it off.

And good news for both Du Welz and audiences: As of yesterday, Sony Pictures has acquired the distribution rights to Vinyan. Hopefully this means we will be seeing a bit of a theatrical run prior to the DVD release. Until then, Vinyan is screening again this afternoon and next Friday evening at TIFF. Check the details here.

JCVD

Mabrouk El Mechri | 2008 | 96 min | Belgium, France

Imagine Jean-Claude Van Damme starring in a seventies Sidney Lumet crime film. Now imagine that Van Damme is excellent in this film. Try very, very hard. Got it? That's JCVD. For reals.

JCVD is essentially about a desperate man trapped in a heist gone wrong. That desperate man happens to be action star Jean-Claude Van Damme, played by the man himself. Perhaps interesting enough on its own, but on top of that premise director Mabrouk El Mechri layers material about Van Damme's custody battle with his wife, his financial troubles, and the nature of (fading) celebrity. The final product is as interesting an homage to fame you will get outside of Being John Malkovich.

There are plenty of mentions of Van Damme's drug use, his problems with women, his troubled past with his family, and his position as Belgium's only export to Hollywood. At times JCVD is very personal and as El Mechri stated at the screening, there is no way this film would have the same weight with any other star.

Van Damme is playing "himself" but it is a slightly fictionalized version, due in part to the intervention of lawyers and in part to Van Damme's need for some degree of privacy and separation. However, El Mechri does a wonderful job weaving in and out of the real and fictional lives to create a film that is highly entertaining and surprisingly moving. At one point Van Damme delivers a lengthy, one-take monologue that will surprise a lot of viewers.

Though it suffers a bit from numerous flashbacks and perspectives which unnecessarily repeat some information, for the most part JCVD is taut and striking, both visually and textually. This feature may be a bit too in-jokey for everyone to enjoy, but El Mechri will most definitely be delivering some great films in the future.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Passchendaele

Paul Gross | 2008 | 114 mins | Canada

This year’s TIFF opener is a sweeping war epic. I’m not big on war films, and after Paul Verhoeven’s Zwartboek (which I liked, for the record, but didn’t think went far enough into the world of Verhoeven-esque extreme abjection) I developed an incurable case of WWII-film-fatigue. So I guess even though I'm not a military history kinda girl, it was refreshing to see the muddy, rainy trenches of The Great War up on the big screen, rather than concentration camps, or god forbid, Baghdad.

The tale of Passchendaele itself is pretty depressing – the battle raged on for months with absolutely mind-boggling numbers of casualties, until the strategic point was won by the Canadians. A real symbol of the horrors of the war, the long battle of Passchendaele took about 600,000 lives from all sides.

The film version spends half its time in Calgary, Alberta, where Seargent Dunne (Paul Gross) has just been discharged from the military hospital after a long convalescence. Obviously shell shocked from his time in the trenches, the quiet soldier sets to work on wooing a beautiful nurse (Caroline Dhavernas). When her brother (a headstrong asthmatic) decides to go to war in spite of his health and inexperience, the protective Dunne follows the boy to Passchendaele, where all are destined to meet their fate.

It’s not a bad film. For a sweeping war epic, it’s pretty beautifully shot, and Paul Gross sure looks handsome and acts the hell out of some of those emotional scenes with his lady nurse so hard that I nearly shed a tear. It’s just that the whole thing feels like something they’d make you watch at a Remembrance Day assembly in school because it’s educational and good for you, which I’m pretty sure is the exact opposite of the note any Canadian filmmaker would ever want to strike.

Writer's note: after a day of thinking about it, it occurred to me that I always used to cry at Remembrance Day assemblies. So I guess the above isn't really so much of a criticism.