Archives For TIFF 2011

TIFF’11: The Great Wrap-Up!

September 23, 2011 — 4 Comments

Well, after about a week’s distance, I think it’s time to take stock of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. There were highs and lows; there was a lack of sleep; there were friends and beers; there was plenty of malnutrition; there was a ton of waiting in line-ups.

All in all TIFF’11 was the best TIFF year for me so far. The primary reason for this was not the films, though there were a few good ones, it was the friends. Prior to the festival, Courtney Small, from Big Thoughts From a Small Mind, invited me to a monthly Toronto film bloggers meet-up. Through that meet-up, and another during the festival, I got to enjoy drinks with a ton of really awesome film bloggers. The result was that, other than a couple of screenings, I did not see any movies by myself. Many of the people I met were actually at several of my screenings. Here’s a list of some of the people I got to hang out with:

Ryan McNeil, from The Matinee (@matinee_ca)

Bob Turnbull, from Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind (@TheLogicalMind)

Shannon the Movie Moxie (@MovieMoxie)

Sasha James, from Final Girl Project (@FinalGirlProj)

Matt Brown (@tederick) and Matthew Price (@mattmovies), from the wonderful Mamo Podcast

Julian Carrington, from a Healthy Disdain (@aHealthyDisdain)

James McNally, from Toronto Screenshots (@toscreenshots)

Leora Heilbronn (@leoraheilbronn)

Shane McNeil (@come_back_shane)

Andrew Parker, from Criticize This! (@AndrewJParker)

Titania Plant, from Classic Flick Chick (@classicflikchik)

Danielle D’Ornellas, from blogTO (@ellstar)

That’s quite a list of people. I might have missed a few names—I probably did—so if you feel slighted, just leave a comment and I’ll add you. And to all of you, I say thank you. Sincerely, I mean it. Thanks for making this my first real social TIFF experience. It was a lot of fun, and I cannot wait to do it again next year, along with all the monthly meet-ups in between.

As for the festival itself, the movies are the movies. Some were great, some were terrible. C’est la vie.

I’d like to do a list of Best and Worst from TIFF’11, but first I will simply list off all the movies I saw, with links to my reviews.

A fair number of films and one heck of a festival.

Continue to the next page to read my choice for the TIFF’11 justAtad Awards!

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TIFF’11 Review: Kill List

September 22, 2011 — 3 Comments

I have had a hard time coming to terms with Kill List. It’s a very well made film, with great production values and some very good acting. But for the majority of the film it is also fairly inert. There is little to attach to emotionally, the plot is mostly uninteresting, and the hints at something larger going on get mostly lost in the shuffle. That is, until the last act of the film, which is a piece of bravura horror filmmaking. If only the rest of the film held that level entertainment.

The main plot of Kill List follows two hitmen taking on a job, whacking a list of terrible people. This section of the film, as I’ve said, is fairly well made in every way, except for the fact that it’s quite boring. The two actors have a good rapport, but nothing is really added to the film because of it. It’s all just stale, to the point where I had trouble staying awake.

And then the last act comes in. I won’t begin to spoil what happens, except to say that it’s scary and fucked up. The ending of the film left me reeling, and momentarily I actually thought the film was kind of brilliant.

I quickly came to my senses and realized that Kill List as a whole is problemati. Most of it is simply not engaging at all. That last act is amazing, but it also comes about with almost no relation to the rest of the film, save for a few clues throughout. I would say that the film is worth watching if only to get to that ending, but it’s a tough call. Is the slow burn really worth the trouble? Only barely.

Carré blanc follows in the footsteps of some of the great experimental utopian sci-fi, most notably THX 1138. The comparison to that George Lucas film is definitely apt. Carré blanc plays very much like a tonal experiment, with a spare plot, little dialogue, striking imagery and repetitious music and voice over. The film lulls you into a mood of cold horror, and it packs quite a lot of social commentary into a fairly brief running time.

The world of the film is fascinating. Carré blanc shows us a “futue” in which people are constantly committing suicide. Government, corporations and the wealthy control everything and make life for others a living hell. Those higher up fall into horrific sadistic tendencies, playing torture games with their underlings and often beating or killing them.

There is a plot to the film, and in some ways it’s kind of a romance, or at least a look at a troubled marriage. We follow two kids who started with nothing, and as adults, the man is now one of those top level people, torturing others, being a terrible human being. This puts a strain on their marriage, but slowly his wife manages to get through to him, and they end up rebelling against the system.

Carré blanc also has a wonderfully dry sense of humour. There is a lot of talk about croquet being a family sport… and it’s very physical, too. The use of elevator music is annoyingly hilarious. Even some of the darker, more sadistic stuff ends up being quite funny, even if it makes you feel bad to laugh.

All in all, Carré blanc is a kind of sci-fi I very much enjoy. It presents us with a sharply crafted world, defined primarily through great imagery. The story is slight, but is actually quite powerful in conjunction with the rest of the film. And most of all, the mood of it all is oppressive, but endlessly intriguing. Even after the film was over, I was wishing I could spend more time in that world to learn as much as possible about it. That’s a very good sign for this sort of film.

TIFF’11 Review: Tyrannosaur

September 22, 2011 — 8 Comments

Tyrannosaur is proof positive that you can make a film too dark, too depressing, too bleak. Director Paddy Considine introduced the screening by saying that Tyrannosaur is a film to endure more than enjoy. He was exactly right. There was almost nothing to enjoy in the film, and for the most part it played as a terrible endurance test, both of my ability to withstand overwhelmingly trite bleakness as well as my patience for boring cliche.

Tyrannosaur tells the story of a very violent man forming a bond with a woman stuck in an incredibly psychopathic, abusive marriage. Considine doesn’t hold back. He fills the film with as much dark, awful material as possible. Yelling, insults, dog-killing, urinating on people, severe beatings, the mauling of a child, rape, murder. There’s no end to it, and I could not stand it.

That’s not to say that I can’t handle such material. I love dark movies, and often the darker the better. But the darkness must have a purpose. If all we get from Tyrannosaur is a guy learning to be less angry and a woman learning she doesn’t have to put up with abuse, then the level of violence and horror does little more than blunt the impact of those themes. It’s a bad movie, with little to say, and content that is so hard to stomach that it almost becomes laughable.

There are a lot of parallels between Take Shelter and the Coen Brothers’ dark comedy, A Serious Man. Both have a lead male character who feels like he’s losing his grip on life. Both men feel a sense of impending doom. And both have weird nightmares that haunt them throughout. But, where A Serious Man is a wry look at the impossibility of controlling the ways of the universe, Take Shelter is an incredibly dark and emotional look at mental illness.

Take Shelter stars Michael Shannon as a working class family man who begins having ominous dreams about storms and animals and people attacking him and his daughter. These dreams begin to take a toll on his mental state, until it’s revealed that he has a family history of paranoid schizophrenia. As the film goes on, he starts working to expand his backyard storm shelter to protect him from the storm in his dreams. All the while, he is trying to get psychological help and keep his family from falling into disarray.

Everything in the film hinges on Michael Shannon’s absolutely spectacular performance. He is incredibly quiet, but also seething with anger and frustration and fear. At one point he has a huge outburst, and the power in his performance and dialogue was so intense that a member of the audience audibly gasped. Watching Shannon succumb to mental illness is truly stunning.

Director Jeff Nichols also does the material right by building that sense of dread and paranoia to an extremely uncomfortable degree. Throughout it all, though, Nichols still keeps a focused eye on the real effects of Shannon’s actions, making us feel for this working guy who is throwing his family into emotional and financial turmoil. Jessica Chastain, who plays his wife in the film, does an excellent job of grounding the sad reality of the situation.

Take Shelter is an amazing film. It basically took my breath away, with an ending that had me practically hyperventilating. Michael Shannon is amazing, in a role that deserves to win every award possible, and the film overall is carefully and perfectly directed for maximum effectiveness.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is the most mainstream offering yet from the brothers Duplass. Let no one ever tell you that mainstream inherently means less worthy. Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a simple comedy, but it’s very funny and rather poignant, surprisingly so. The film also completely justifies the existence of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, which instantly makes it great.

The film begins with Jason Segal’s character, Jeff, talking about how he just watched the movie, Signs. It seems the theme of simple destiny in that movie has had a profound effect on Jeff. He has come to approach life as a sequence of events that will all work out in the end, with signs and direction to guide him along the way. Things get kicked off when Jeff gets a phone call from a man looking for somebody named Kevin. Jeff begins to fixate on the name Kevin, and then goes out, following that name wherever he sees it.

Along the way he meets up with his brother Pat, played by Ed Helms. Pat is an asshole. There’s not two ways about it. He’s an asshole, and he’s killing his marriage from the inside out. Jeff and Pat are out in the town when they notice Pat’s wife out with another man. Pat gets Jeff to help him spy on her. Hilarity, of course, ensues.

Meanwhile, the guys’ mother, Sharon, played by Susan Sarandon, is at work, frustrated with her sons and her life, and she starts getting IMs on her computer from somebody claiming to be a secret admirer. Through the day she tries to figure out who the admirer is.

Everything comes together in a nicely perfect way, confirming Jeff’s feeling about the movie, Signs. But all three characters come to understand that they cannot simply let life lead them on random paths. They need to take action. This all happens in a fairly beautiful scene that could be seen by some as too pat, but then, that’s kind of the point.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a very funny movie. It’s got great characters, all acted very well by an able cast. And the film is actually very moving as well. What more could you ask for in a small modern comedy?

TIFF’11 Review: Like Crazy

September 21, 2011 — 1 Comment

Like Crazy is a nice film. If that sounds like dryly damning praise, then I guess that would be my general feeling toward the film. It really is nice. It’s got some beautiful moments, a tender romance, some sad heartbreak, and generally it’s very well shot and put together. And that’s about it. There is little power in the film beyond being quite nice.

The main reason Like Crazy doesn’t become transcendent is that it feels wholly constructed. The film moves from one plot point to the next, not only in obvious ways, but without much genuine feeling. Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones play the couple in the film, and throughout the course of their journey they get together in a ridiculously idealized whirlwind of romance, and then they are split apart due to issues with student visas, and then they  get back together and split apart again and get back together again. And then it’s over.

Nothing in the film is particularly surprising, but worse than that, by the end of the story I’m not sure I even cared for these two people or their coupling. In fact, of all the characters in the film, I felt the most for the two people they date when they aren’t together. Jennifer Lawrence’s character in particular gets jerked around by Yelchin in such a way that I kind of resented everything about him. It plays out like a classic case of “fool me once, fool me twice”, but I could not help feeling badly for Lawrence.

Yelchin and Jones are both very good in Like Crazy, but the film does little more than play like a full-length, and somehow less emotive version of its trailer. In fact, the trailer did, and still does, make me want to cry. By the end of the actual movie I really didn’t feel much of anything at all. Like I said, it’s a nice film, but not much more.

TIFF’11 Review: Shame

September 21, 2011 — 1 Comment

Maybe it was unreasonable to expect so much from director Steve McQueen’s sophomore feature film, but then, Hunger is one of the best art-house films of the last decade. Yet, with Shame, a decidedly more accessible film than Hunger, McQueen somehow lost his insightful edge. What we get instead is a film that tries so hard to say so much, but ultimately says very little, and says even less effectively.

Shame tells the story of Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender, a man with some form of sexual addiction. This gives way to the first problem, which is that the film never really presents him as much more than a guy who likes having non-committal sex and masturbates maybe a little too much. Brandon’s life is given a bit of a shake-up when his sister, Sissy, played by the great Carey Mulligan, shows up at his apartment. This leads to the one thing about the film that really does work: the relationship between Brandon and Sissy.

It’s not entirely clear what went on in their past, though there are some hints of bad things, and maybe even incest. The upshot of this is that their scenes together are amazing. First of all, we are talking about a couple of the best actors to come about in recent years. The tension between them is amazing, and it makes every interaction between them weirdly touching and suspenseful.

I also think McQueen managed to build on some themes of private shame. Brandon is clearly ashamed of his addiction, but he also seems to be ashamed of his life in general. Again, it’s not clear what went on in the character’s past, but it is very obvious that nothing was peaches and cream. Brandon has an inability to connect properly with women, and he keeps his apartment like something of a private prison. When Sissy comes into the picture, his level of discomfort with her being there, living off his things, getting closer to him, skyrockets.

But that’s about all that works well. I suppose it would be inaccurate to label a film ‘pretentious’, but Shame does fit the bill. Scenes like a five-minute blues rendition of “New York, New York” or epically scored sex scenes seem to be there to add meaning and pathos, but end up feeling completely forced and meaningless. Whatever meaning might have been held is lost in a sea of self-indulgence. The majority of the film plays out this way, and yeah, it’s quite a shame.

I wouldn’t call Shame a bad film. There are certainly great aspects, the performances being a good example. But Shame is definitely a big disappointment. It does not work on the whole, and worse still, the air of high-mindedness betrays any real exploration of the issue of sex addiction or even the complexity of the lead character. It’s paint-by-numbers “art”, and that’s not something I can get behind.

You can listen to me discussing Shame with TheMatinee’s Ryan McNeil in his Matineecast TIFF dispatch series here.

TIFF’11 Review: I Wish

September 21, 2011 — 3 Comments

Going into I Wish, I had never seen any films by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Coming out of it, I swore to try and watch as many of his films as I could get my hands on. I Wish is one of the most beautifully heartfelt films dealing with the topic of children and divorce I have ever seen. Kore-eda brings reality to the film, but not in a needlessly stark fashion. Instead, I Wish is a celebration of children and family, even while it mourns the troubles of parenthood and marriage.

The optimistic viewpoint of the film no doubt comes from its focus on children. The main characters are two young brothers who now each live with one parent in different cities. Their greatest wish is for their family to be reunited and live together once more. Kore-eda does not indulge this fantasy, or even romanticize it. Instead, he shows us the reality of their lives for a number of months as the kids cope with their new lives.

The main plot of the film has the brothers making a plan to meet each other along the new bullet train line and make a wish as two of the trains pass each other. But through the film they also make new friends, learn lessons from their parents and grandparents, and we even get a glimpse at the lives of some of the other children. The relationships between the kids and the adults in the film is wonderfully rendered. The children don’t know much about life, but in some ways, neither do the parents and other authority figures around them. What Kore-eda shows us in I Wish is that in the end we are all just trying to find the best way to cope with life, and the most valuable thing of all is the families of people we create around us.

This could not be more clear than in the last half-hour or so of the film. The brothers, and a bunch of their friends, do meet up in a small town to wish on the passing trains. Through some very funny circumstances, they end up staying with an elderly couple who are very happy to have the company. As we see the bond re-form between the brothers, between their friends, between them and the older couple, and even later, between the kids and their parents, the messages of the film take hold powerfully. So powerfully, in fact, that I spent that last section of the film in various states of emotional wreck. Not because it was sad, but because the sense of loving melancholy Kore-eda crafts in those scenes was palpable. Even writing about it right now I am beginning to be overcome with emotion.

That’s the power of I Wish, and I could not recommend it enough. The love of humanity present in the film is as strong as in any I’ve ever seen. Kore-eda has made a masterpiece of a film, and I don’t say that lightly.

Vigalondo’s last film, Timecrimes, was one of the very best time travel films ever made. It was weird, and clever, and suspenseful, and it featured some extremely intricate time travel mechanics. Naturally, I was very much looking forward to his new film, Extraterrestrial, which promised to bring Vigalondo’s wild vision to the topic of aliens. What I got was completely unexpected, but much more than I ever could have hoped.

As it turns out, Extraterrestrial is not a science fiction film, it’s a comedy! Well, there is a bit of sci-fi. As the story begins, a guy awkwardly wakes up in a bed inside a girl’s apartment. They are quite awkward around each other and things already start to get funny, but before anything else can happen they realize that the city has been almost entirely cleared of its population and hanging in the sky is a giant UFO. And that’s basically the extent of the actual sci-fi in the film. The rest of it is filled with personal relationships, awkwardness, lies and tennis balls.

Extraterrestrial is basically set out to prove that even in the face of amazing events, like contact with aliens, people will still find a way to be concerned mostly with their own petty problems. In this case, the problems are romantic. The girl’s actual boyfriend shows up after a while, as does her stalker neighbour. All three guys pine for her, and they all end up trying to mess with each other, often by lying about encounters with the aliens that we never actually see. It’s all just comedy of errors.

But that comedy is wonderful. Vigalondo has a wonderful wit, and he fills the film with that witty awkwardness. I laughed all the way through the film, and even the more poignant moments manage to be effective without ever losing that light comedic touch. Every little twist in the plot just adds layers to the comedy, and the film actually grows funnier as it goes along.

Going into Extraterrestrial, I expected some complex, high-minded, clever science-fiction. Instead, I was greeted with the best comedy of the year. It’s got a wonderful premise, blisteringly funny writing, great acting to carry it, and the vision of Nacho Vigalondo to bring it all together and make it sing. I loved Extraterrestrial through and through, and I can’t wait to see what else Vigalondo has up his sleeves.