What to watch at TIFF 2011
The Toronto International Film Festival published its 2011 programme guide on Tuesday, featuring a customarily byzantine matrix of films, venues and screening times. In total, TIFF 2011 (September 8 - 18) boasts 336 films from 65 countries, 249 of which are world, international, or North American premieres. With advance order books due by Monday evening, and with single tickets available to the public a week from today, local and far-flung film fans have been fashioning spreadsheets and taking to tiffr to plan their perfect festivals.
Meanwhile, to help wade through the madness, we've readied the first installment of our TIFF reviews. These are films we've seen so far, either at a screening at another festival (like Cannes) or via media screenings that have been taking place earlier this month. Also, as has been our annual tradition, Matt Brown and Mathew Price are back with a look at the TIFF programme guide. In this podcast, also available at mamo.ca, they're joined by Mr. Mike Cameron for a roundtable discussion of this year's offerings. Listen to the podcast below.
THE ARTIST (September 9, 6PM; September 10, 10AM)
To borrow a reference from TIFF invitee Mr. Brainwash, The Artist is the "Bat Papi" to Quentin Tarantino's cinematic homages. Where QT often fetes 70s grindhouse fare, French director Michel Hazanavicius has penned a love letter to Hollywood's silent heyday. In contrast to Brainwash's dubious credibility, however, there's nothing suspect about The Artist's craft. Painstakingly authentic and as lavishly mounted as any 20s epic, it's a ceaselessly charming marvel of gesture and spectacle, charting Tinseltown's seminal transition to the talking picture era. Jean Dujardin dazzles as the strapping, Fairbanks-inspired George Valentin, a waning star undone by hubris and a disdain for synchronized sound. Opposite, Bérénice Bejo is similarly enchanting as Peppy Miller, the fresh face who earns her big break thanks partly to Valentin, and who proceeds to become a leading light of the talkie revolution. Both warmly familiar and wittily inventive, and aided by a magnificent score, The Artist succeeds to an improbable degree. Postdating popular silent cinema by nearly a century, Hazanavicius gives new meaning to the notion of a late-period classic.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (September 11, 3PM; September 12, 10:15PM, September 17, 9:45PM)
With its tongue-twister of a title, one might feel the need to brace for another noxious dose of American indie quirk, but, boy, is this a refreshingly subtle and haunting film! Starring the other other Olsen sister, Elizabeth (read: the one with talent), first-timer Sean Durkin - of the NYU clique that brought us 2008's exceptional Afterschool - takes his lead through the ringer of two disparate lifestyles. Running away from a cult, Martha (or Marcy May, or Marlene... whichever you're in the mood for) finds solace in her sister's home on the lake. As we learn about her past, the present becomes more and more disorienting, mysterious, and malevolent: all because of its suffocating banality. With a folky vibe that lures us in just as it blinded-sided her, this is a film coming from the early stages of a promising, singular movement in independent filmmaking. Watch, and be deliriously swept away. (BW)
THE PATRON SAINTS (September 14, 5PM; September 15, 9:45PM, September 18, 9:30AM)
When I label The Patron Saints "a pitiful aggregation of geriatric decline", I mean it in the most complimentary terms. Shot on dreary-looking video in a dreary-looking facility for the aged and infirm, it's an unconventionally lyrical doc, confronting the stark realties of what it means to be old, lonely, and wholly dependent on others for one's most intimate needs. It's about the sorts of indignities we'd all rather pretend we'll never have to face, but which are, statistically, increasingly inevitable. Thankfully, co-directors Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky don't actually provide any stultifying statistics or captions of any kind, and forgo a traditional framework of interviews and narration. Instead, they present a series of arresting, impressionistic portraits - momentary glimpses at physical and psychological frailty, unadorned apart from the gossipy voiceover of Jim, a resident who is both surprisingly lucid and shockingly, hilariously candid. Most remarkably, the juxtaposition of his astonishing quips against images of desperation and dementia somehow isn't exploitative, but thoroughly and affirmingly human.
TAKE SHELTER (September 15, 6PM; September 16, 2:15PM)
Michael Shannon captivates as a portrait of paternal paranoia in Take Shelter, the terrifically affecting sophomore effort from Jeff Nichols, an apparent master in the making. When rural Ohio everyman Curtis LaForche (the typically indelible Shannon) is wracked by tempestuous dreams of his family's annihilation, his maternal history of schizophrenia makes the potential implications doubly ominous. Aware that he's predisposed to delusion, his visions are nonetheless so vivid and violent that he's compelled to act. Unbeknownst to his wife (Jessica Chastain, in the midst of a deservedly meteoric rise), he invests in costly renovations to a derelict backyard storm cellar, despite the impending expense of surgery to restore his daughter's hearing. That his frighteningly-realised hallucinations also begin to tax his workplace relations adds to the film's charged, foreboding air. Purely on the level of psycho-familial drama, award-worthy performances from Shannon and Chastain justify the price of admission. But it's Nichols' powerful allegory for contemporary economic and political uncertainty - punctuated by awesome evocations of natural fury - that girds Take Shelter with a timely, haunting resonance.
DRIVE (September 10, 9:15PM, September 11, 9AM)
For sheer testosterone-infused, blood-spattered badassery, few films at this year's fest will compete with Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive. Like Hazanavicius, the Danish directorial darling embraces the trappings of Hollywood homage, echoing the slick detachment of Michael Mann, and most conspicuously and directly, Walter Hill's 1978 chase thriller, The Driver. Via Hill, Winding Refn also channels Melville's Le samouraï: with tone and style calibrated for maximum cool, Drive is the story of a brooding, highly-skilled and honorable wheelman with a fateful weakness for women in peril. Despite his clean-cut look and disarmingly nasal drawl, Ryan Gosling achieves the requisite stoic magnetism, and crucially, is convincingly menacing when he needs to mean business. So too is the normally affable Albert Brooks, who, as an utterly ruthless LA crime boss, means some very nasty business indeed. Meanwhile, per the film's male-centric tradition, Carey Mulligan is asked only to look adorable and endangered, and is adept at both. As popcorn entertainment with an art house veneer, Drive satisfies immensely. Only its premium ticket price and imminent Cineplex arrival impede a higher recommendation.
THE KID WITH A BIKE (September 14, 4:30PM; September 7:45PM)
Same old, same old; but coming from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who have won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival twice now, that just means it's guaranteed a top-quality product. Employing, once again, their signature brand of realism and cathartic humanism, they track a young boy who searches high and low for his stolen bike...as well as his bastard father. The synopsis is typically simple while harnessing all kinds of careful observations and complexities about our developmental urges and forgiveness, and the performance by young Thomas Doret is ferociously realized (then again, the Dardenne brothers could get a wrenching performance out of a horny toad). Coming off of their relatively experimental Lorna's Silence, it's a bit of a bummer to see them take the safe route with their tried and true formula for suffering and redemption. When the results are this solid, though, it'll be a while before such complaints will hold any weight. (BW)
TAKE THIS WALTZ (September 10, 9:30PM; September 11, 12PM)
A TIFF sensation in 2000, Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love seems to have served as potent inspiration for two wunderkinds of Canadian filmmaking. Last year, Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats lovingly appropriated Wong's slow-mo tracking shots, while, with TIFF 11 gala selection Take this Waltz, Sarah Polley delivers a slow-burn infidelity drama that evokes Mood's lush palette and erotic restraint. Michelle Williams and Luke Kirby may not share the same smoldering magnetism as Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, but, apart from its forbidden-soulmate-nextdoor conceit, Waltz is more mumblecore than melodrama, and, above all, exudes an awkward honesty. That's not to say there aren't false moments (even allowing for Polley's creative reconfigurations of Toronto's West End streets). An audacious and variously climactic late film montage, in particular, beggars belief, but by and large Waltz is a sensitive, evidently heartfelt depiction of marital ennui, typified by Seth Rogen's sober, against-type turn as Williams' well-meaning husband.
AMY GEORGE (September 13, 6PM; September 15, 9:15PM; September 17, 12:30PM)
On the subject of Canadian wunderkinds, Amy George is the debut feature from Calvin Thomas, 24, and Yonah Lewis, 25, a writer-director partnership out of Oakville's Sheridan College. With just $10,000 at their disposal, the duo settled on a subject both intimately familiar and inexpensively explored: the peculiar perversities of adolescent boys. Their protagonist is Jesse, (the excellent Gabriel del Castillo Mullally, 13), a mopey Riverdale teen tasked with capturing a non-literal self-portrait. In search of inspiration, he happens upon an obscure quotation that asserts sexual experience as a prerequisite for "true" artistry, with the result that his creative aspirations and innate pubescent curiosity become purposefully entwined. His subsequent clumsy fixation with a high school-aged neighbour (the titular Amy) builds to an ingeniously organic exploratory exchange. Granted, Thomas and Lewis do venture on some less focused artistic sojourns of their own, but, inevitable rough edges aside, Amy George demonstrates considerable promise.
OUTSIDE SATAN (September 9, 6:15PM; September 10 9:15AM; September 16, 9:30AM)
If you're not a fan of the austere, rigorous films by French auteur Bruno Dumont, this isn't going to do much to convert you. Like the Dardenne brothers' new film, Outside Satan is a bit of a regression to an earlier, accomplished style that earned Dumont comparisons to Robert Bresson (which he seemed to have progressed to a new level in his previous film, Hadewijch). Here, we have perhaps his most damning view of spirituality and humanity yet. A man (angel? Satan himself?) in the rolling hills of a small French town befriends a young Goth girl (their names in the credits are minimally assigned as The Guy and The Girl), and the two begin a relationship that is essentially the definition of 'platonic'. The Guy commits a series of random acts of violence in the company of the girl, and it is perhaps the film's big payoff when we learn what all this depravity is for. Featuring a sex scene that is so ugly that it's actually kind of awesome, there is much food for thought, though not much else, in this film. Cerebral and tedious, it's a rewarding experience for only the most studied cinephiles. (BW)
LUCKY (September 11, 3PM; September 12, 8:15PM; September 17, 1PM)
As much as I'm reluctant to kick a doe-eyed orphan when he's down, Lucky is difficult to recommend because, for the majority of its running time, the South African production depicts a succession of scoundrels doing exactly that. Of course, as an ardent misery porn fanboy (I happily endured Biutiful at TIFF 10), it's not that I object to the mere fact of the ironically-named protagonist's misfortune. Rather, it's that Avie Lathura's feature adaptation of his own award-winning short doesn't so much tug at the heartstrings as subject them to repeated, calculated yanks. Lucky's uncle, most notably, is a transparently manipulative caricature, seemingly conjured of pure cruelty. He not only shuts his door to the destitute 10-year-old but also embezzles his meager inheritance, denying him his wish to go to school. And then there's the elderly Indian widow who first shuns Lucky, and then exploits him, before abruptly seeing the error of her lifelong prejudice. A unique look at South African social stratification, Lucky is by no means a bad film, but heaps early hardships on its young lead with slightly too heavy a hand.
THE ODDS (September 12, 8:45PM; September 14 5:30PM; September 17, 3PM)
TIFF's temptation to synopsize Simon Davidson's The Odds via a comparison to Rian Johnson's Brick is understandable. Both films are feature debuts, both are murder mysteries, and both star out-of-their-depth teen sleuth protagonists. Beyond these admitted similarities, though, references to Brick deal The Odds a losing hand. Davidson's screenplay is most harshly exposed, demonstrating neither the precocious wit nor the intricate plotting that earmarked Johnson as a noteworthy talent. And where Brick's dialogue made artful use of noir anachronisms, Davidson's script simply feels a tad out of touch. An early, non-ironic utterance of 90s relic "As if!" sets a try-hard tone, embodied throughout by Paul (Jaren Brant Bartlett), the tough-talking proprietor of a peewee gambling ring. He's putting the squeeze on our hero, Desson (Tyler Johnson), who, despite his grating self-satisfaction, is pretty poor at cards. He's a marginally better detective, at least, and scents foul play when a poker buddy turns up dead. Naturally, he's soon in over his head - a little bit like his director. The Odds is a serviceable first effort, but Brick it certainly ain't.
With contributions from Blake Williams (BW).
For detailed festival information, visit Tiff.net. Tickets and packages are available online, by phone: 416-599-TIFF, or in person: 225 King Street West, Concourse Level (Entrance at Duncan Street).