Saturday 20 September 2008

TIFF 2008 - Catching Up & Wrapping Up

After gorging on 30 films in 10 days, I've managed to write a post about 13 of them and still plan on cobbling my thoughts together on another 3 ("Tony Manero". "Cold Lunch", "Daytime Drinking"). So that leaves 14 lonely films with nowhere to go...With TIFF all tucked away for 2008, I figure I'll take a stab at a few pithy comments for each one of them. Even if I don't write a full post about some of these though, it doesn't mean they don't deserve one or weren't greatly enjoyed.

I had a terrific fest - I know prevailing opinion seems to be that this is an off year and some critics have mentioned other issues with the festival (becoming less of a "people's" festival, etc.), but I walked out happy from the vast majority of the films I saw. Even films that disappointed me kept me mostly engaged and provided reasonable entertainment (well OK, that's stretching it for the Work In Progress version of "New York I Love You", but at least those stories were short). Only a single film out of the entire batch was something I wish I hadn't picked, but I'll get to that at the end.

The Paranoids
Though quite slow, repetitive and sometimes frustrating, this tale of a nervous and emotionally confused young man with many quirks does have its moments. Luciano slowly becomes enamored of his "friend" Manuel's girlfriend Sofia, but things go off the rails for him a bit when he discovers that Manuel has created a TV character based on him and his issues. Moments of comedy are interspersed within the repeated framework of Luciano not being able to deal with confrontations and other things that scare him. It drags a bit as you realize you aren't getting much of a sense of enjoyment watching this paranoid's rather dull and mostly sad life, but it regains a great deal with a hopeful ending (and a terrific dance scene that happens in a single take with a great entrance by a third character).

Detroit Metal City
Absurdly funny story of a young Japanese singer who only wants to sing "trendy pop songs" (with frothy lyrics like "When I wake up she's making cheese biscuits" played by bands with names like Tetrapod Melon Tea). Instead he ends up as the singer for an anarchic death metal band called Detroit Metal City. To prove their ultimate superiority they duel against the reigning God of metal Jack Il Dark (played by Gene Simmons) who made the classic album "Fuckingham Palace" (oh come know you wish you had thought of that first). Director Toshio Lee was on hand for our screening and asked the audience during the Q&A what we thought the main differences were between Japanese and American comedies. Though there were some unfortunate generalizations given as answers, it's an interesting topic and this film could certainly be a jumping off point due to its mix of sweetness and over the top...well...everything.

Flame & Citron
"I know I'm doing the right thing" says Flame - one of a pair of the biggest national heroes Denmark had around the end of WWII. Nazi sympathizers and helpers in Denmark were, ahem, removed from society by the duo and the film shows that they wrestled with their actions and were actually complex characters and not simply infallible heroes. It's expertly made and has so far been a huge success in Denmark, but it's too long and isn't really anything overly ground breaking. But a solid thriller.

Faubourg 36
The main problem with "Faubourg 36", a musical about an old style review theatre in Paris, is that it could've been even better than it was. Though a bit longer than it needed to be and with a story that wasn't overly surprising, the music was bouncy and fun. But there just wasn't enough of it! Most of the songs came in 1 or 2 minute increments during rehearsals or were staged fairly straight up. Except, that is, for one number later in the film called "To The Sea". With full costumes and sets, it opened up beyond the stage like a Busby Berkeley number from "Footlight Parade" and gave an idea of how these simple review musicals could transport their audience to far away places. It was terrific and I had hoped at that point the film would continue down that path. But it didn't, so I was mildly disappointed that it decided not to hit those heights again. However, it did have the young Nora Arnezeder as the theatre's announcer/singer and she struck me as a potential future star...There's a certain presence about her on screen and she brought life and energy to every scene she was in.

Real Shaolin
This documentary covers a year in the life of 4 indivudals studying traditional kung fu in the Shaolin region of China. Two are Chinese (the most fascinating being a 9 year old boy) and the other two are foreigners (a 19 year old American and a 29 year old Frenchman). There's some great stuff here - the history of the Shaolin Temple, the current state of their schools, that 9 year old boy - but it gets stretched a bit thin with the 4 stories (since each of the four are in different schools they never interact). In particular the Frenchman's arc could've been dropped. But that's kind of nit-picking since it gives a look into a fascinating area, culture and art form rarely seen these days.

White Night Wedding
The second of the Icelandic wedding films I saw this year (along with the terrific Country Wedding). This is also great, though certainly a different beast. Funny, cynical, kinda heartbreaking and apparently based on the story of Ivanhoe, it flips between present day preparations for a wedding during the longest day of the year and events leading up it. Man, I gotta visit Iceland one day...

Fear Me Not
Ulrich Thomsen gives a great on the edge performance as a man who continues with anti-depressant pharmaceuticals after the scientific trial he's on gets cancelled. His behaviour begins to change, but as he becomes happier he also looks for more freedom from the family life he has and is willing to do just about anything on a whim. Some have compared it to Nicholas Ray's "Bigger Than Life", but I don't think the film is trying for anything that grand. It's a simple straight ahead tension-filled thriller with more glorious scenery of Scandinavia.

Slow, creepy and very dark is how I've described this unconventional horror film to several people. But it's no less rewarding than a more immediate visceral scarefest. At the end of the 16th century several men are tasked with marking out the new border between Russia and Finland after a long, difficult and bloody war. As they go through a patch of swampland they encounter a village that no one knew of before. Also of interest to the expedition is the nearby sauna which ends up not being your run of the mill relaxation spot. The film sets up a fairly hopeless world for the main characters and follows it through to the end.

Toronto Stories
Not quite Toronto's version of Paris Je T'aime, this set of 4 different short films set in Toronto (as well as filmed by local directors) has its ups and downs. The opening story, though wonderfully shot by Aaron Woodley, is a bit unfocused and contains elements that don't make a whole lot of sense unless you know where the story idea came from (which was described to the audience in the post-screening Q&A). The second one, Sook-Yin Lee's "The Brazilian", also has its moments - many due to Lee herself (I find she has a terribly interesting face and can be very charming and natural). But it also has some clunky pieces of scriptwriting and occasionally cringeworthy acting moments (many of those also due to Lee). I like the story line though and the use of her particular neighbourhood of Toronto was nicely done. The third story "Windows", by director David Sutherland, was probably the least impressive story (a window washer meets up with an old criminal friend who has just escaped from prison and now wants to find out why his girlfriend is engaged to be married to someone else), but it had one of the best performances by K.C. Collins as the window washer. The last story by David Weaver is certainly the most emotional and pulls in the young lost boy who wanders through all 4 of the stories. Toronto looks great and there's some good ideas here, but too many of the stories suffer from script and focus issues. It likely would've been more effective to have shorter stories - and possibly more directors - but obviously that's difficult to do when you have extreme budgetary constraints...

Cooper's Camera
The Cooper family get a video camera for Christmas 1985 and the youngest son goes about taping the entire range of family disfunction as relatives come for the holidays and secrets get revealed. Starring Jason Jones and Samantha Bee from "The Daily Show", the film does a great job not only in staging the scenes so that you can almost believe that someone could have videotaped everything going on, but also in making things look like they were taped by a video camera from 1985 (apparently a good deal of post processing was used on the initial footage). Reviews calling this a gross-out comedy are far too simplistic as the comedy ranges from subtler stuff to situational to physical and to the scatalogical. It's a mixed bag with some gags working well and some occasionally taking the easy joke. Indeed there was some gross-ish stuff that I could've done without (I got a bit tired of the fat, chain-smoking buffoon brother in-law), but then one of the other cast members would say or do something unexpected and I'd be reeled back in.

Better Things
A young girl dies of a heroin overdose and numerous friends and family affected by the death start to consider making choices to possibly improve their lives. Each seems affected by a disabling symptom (loneliness, drugs, phobias) and has been separated from someone they love. There was so much quiet despair on display that the munching of popcorn in the theatre was incredibly distracting at times. Similar to "Kisses", there is not a lot of dialog or plot developments in the film, but a great deal of lovely visuals that tell these people's stories. Each shot is very well composed and uses natural light to great effect. There are even glimmers of hope by the end for some of the characters...

Inju, The Beast In The Shadows
Based on an Edogawa Rampo story, Barbet Schroeder's film is a reasonably entertaining version that manages to make the viewer want to sit through it until the end - though only to see if you guessed the twist ending since you're likely to have given up caring for any of the characters by that point. One of the reasons for that is there are several moments in the movie that a character has a logical choice to make and then doesn't make it - seemingly only to allow the plot to continue. You can sometimes forgive gaping holes in a story if perhaps it deals with some greater themes or at least provides some interesting tension. But if it doesn't, it gets a bit frustrating.

All Around Us
I had questioned myself when I put together my schedule whether I should have finished it off with a slow 2 and a half hour Japanese drama about the progression of a young couple's life. It turns out it was a brillant stroke on my part because Ryosuke Hashiguchi's "All Around Us" provided a wealth of terrific stuff and a wide range of topics - very funny couple discussions (in particular those about the scheduling of sex days and the amount of snot that comes from a nose), complex changing characters, tragedy, social commentary, depression and the challenges/benefits of staying with a relationship. The film understands that people are complicated and you can't necessarily assume how they will react to things or events, so it progresses naturally through its sequence of events. So when something simple like a father's sketch of an infant child is found later in the story, it can pack a very real emotional punch.

Not all was glorious though...Even though several of the films above weren't overly successful, for the most part they kept me engaged and rarely did I look at my watch. Not so in the case of "Salamandra", the first film from Argentinian director Pablo Aguero. You could certainly praise him for delivering a gritty unflinching look at a lost segment of Argentina's society (free spirited hippies living in desolate communes) and talk about the cruelty of bringing children into that kind of life, but it didn't provide any further context or commentary or even artfulness to the story. From the Q&A afterwards, it appears that this was somewhat of an autobiographical tale and that Aguero's mother still lives like this. That's a frightening statement and you certainly have to hand it to Aguero for finding a way out for himself. But he doesn't provide any kind of empathy for his characters in the film. A young 6-7 year old boy is taken from what appears to be a loving life with his grandmother to go on a journey into the South of Argentina to live "free" with his mother. Within 5 minutes I couldn't stand the mother and as she sank lower and lower into continuous self-deception and craziness, I just wanted to leave.


Joe Baker said...

"Sauna" sounds very interesting. I'll look for it. Also, "Flame and Citron" has been very high on my list of must sees for several weeks now. Sounds like an updated World War 2 version of Alan Clarke's "Elephant".

Bob Turnbull said...

"Sauna" is certainly more eerie and creepy than scary - not that that is a bad thing. There was some comparisons to Tarkovsky even, which I can sort of see as there are similarities to "Stalker".

I think "Flame And Citron" could be popular, but I doubt it will knock anyone's socks off. Again, nothing wrong with that. It certainly at the very least gave me a wider scope on WW II actions in occupied countries.

Chet Mellema said...

Hey Bob...this is kind of a self-serving comment so sorry about that. And I apologize if you posted earlier about it...but did Che play at TIFF and did you see it? I've been hearing some quite mixed reactions to it. Just thought I'd see what you thought.

Bob Turnbull said...

I didn't get to see "Che", but I heard better than I expected. A couple of folks raved about it - said the >4 hours flew by. Others quite enjoyed it, but found the first part to be the tighter and more focused piece.

I don't think I heard any complaints about it being a love-in for the man or it being overly partisan to the causes. It struck me that the tone was sympathetic to the idea of revolution and then simply showed what happens - with obviously two different outcomes.

I'm biased towards Soderbergh myself even if I don't always love his films. I love the fact that he is always experimenting and willing to try different techniques. I find myself looking forward to seeing "Che" when initially I wasn't.

By the way, great to hear from you Chet!

Chet Mellema said...

I'm also a fan of Soderbergh and am looking forward to his latest. It seems to be a complete 180 from what he's been doing lately. I want the chance to see both films that make up Che together before they are inevitably broken up. Here's hoping. Much more difficult living in Des Moines, however, as opposed to the fertile film ground that is Toronto.