TIFF: Reviewed - Part Five

Didn't get to catch any screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival over the first week? Looking for some tips on what to watch this week, or just want to know enough to impress your co-workers?

In this edition of TIFF: Reviewed, five very special reviews by Tim and special guest critic Matthew Price: Hunger, The Real Shaolin, Lymelife, Slumdog Millionaire, and Me and Orson Welles.



Bobby Sands 66 day hunger strike is a pivotal moment in the history of Irish independence. It deserves the dramatic treatment, obviously. The problem is always how to deal with the story without falling into sentiment, or becoming didactic. Straight linear storytelling would put this into movie of the week with better makeup effects and do no justice for the audience. Hunger takes a remarkably different tack and emerges as one of the best films of the year.

After a brief title card let's us know that IRA members are on a "blanket and no wash" protest, Margaret Thatcher's voice is heard describing the government's response to the "terrorists". From that moment on, director Steve McQueen escapes the narrative trap by structuring almost the entire script subjectively. It isn't just what we are allowed to see, like a prison guard checking under his car for bombs before going to work, or two prisoners being beaten and forcibly washed, or inmates pouring their piss under the doors of their cells and into the hallways. It's what we don't see that works on us twice as well. The movie chooses no big picture and no history lesson and it forces the audience to actively engage and think about what's going on outside of the protests without being shown any of it.

By the time the film gets to the hunger strike itself, we're past literal story and completely engaged on a subjective level in the lives of these men. Almost all of the script is economical with dialogue, showing wherever possible instead if telling. In sharp contrast, is a scene at it's centre, a ten minute plus single take discussion of the morality and practicality of the hunger strike between Sands and a priest that is verbose, articulate and stunning. It's the knockout punch. This is the movie I'll be rooting for to get traction coming out of TIFF, because movies like this are the reason for film festivals to exist in the first place. -MP

Real Shaolin

The Real Shaolin

A doc following four people attempting to be accepted as Shaolin monks. After a brief narration describing Shaolin's significance as the birthplace of Zen Buddhism and martial arts we are introduced to the principals. There's an American, a Frenchman and two Chinese - one adolescent and one young boy. They aren't really presented as characters, more types and none of them very interesting except the young boy. And we don't really see enough of him.

The whole thing fails in pretty much every way possible for a doc like this. Unimpressive photography and obvious editing choices aren't even the real problem here. The problem is that the director just simply did not get a story out of the footage he was able to take. When you make an investigative documentary, one where the outcome isn't known, you have to be ready to admit to yourself when the events that have unfolded haven't come together at the end. Three of the four subjects completely fail in their attempts at acceptance to the monastery. The fourth, the little orphan boy who may be accepted someday is the only one of the four worth spending time with and you'd need a lot more time before there was a story there either.

When the director was asked what drew him to the subject, he said he graduated from film school and was looking for something to do. Maybe you need a better reason to make a film than that. I certainly needed more of one to enjoy it. -MP



I had high expectations going into this film that it just might be this year's American Beauty but when I arrived at the Ryerson I started to have my doubts. A good half of the upper balcony was empty and Alec Baldwin, one of Lymelife's stars who was in Toronto earlier in the day, was a no show at the screening. Never a good sign.

Well, Baldwin and the rest of the TIFF crowd sure missed a good one. While it wasn't quite on par with 1999's Academy Award winning film, it delivered a fresh take on the lives of two dis-functional suburban families living in early 1980s Long Island. Cue the checklist: Guns, drugs, fights, teen sex, infidelity and, uh, deer?

Rory Culkin was the revelation here. While performances from Timothy Hutton, Cynthia Nixon and older brother Kieran were all stellar, Rory scooped the most screen time and will likely win accolades for his nuanced and ultimately believable performance. -TS

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire

This is my favourite film I've seen at TIFF so far and has serious potential to be the most buzzed about indie flick that comes out this year. Even before the screening, the film was getting glowing reviews from its screening at Telluride with some calling it groudbreaking and earth-shattering.

Directed by Danny Boyle, Slumdog takes place in the slums and streets of Mumbai and centers around a former "slumdog" named Jamal who finds himself in an unlikely position to clean up on India's version of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

Even with that as the central premise, this film is about way more than a gameshow and Boyle is the perfect director to take us on an illuminating and emotional ride. The packed house at the Ryerson gave him and the actors - all excellent - a well deserved standing ovation. -TS

Me and Orson Welles

Me and Orson Welles

I liked this film as much as I could probably have liked any period piece about the story of a high school kid and Orson Welles putting on a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in 1930's Manhattan.

Directed by Richard Linklater, the film is well crafted although I found the ending a little heavy on the fromage. Christian McKay is the real relevation here and delivers an Oscar worthy performance as the mercurial and bombastic Welles. Almost so that Claire Danes and Zac Efron seem merely along for the ride.

Post screening, with a packed house at the Ryerson (again), the director and actors were subject to a somewhat embarrassing Q&A as teen girls insisted on asking Efron a series of lame questions (he replied with lame answers) and asked Danes to reminisce about her experience on My So Called Life. -TS

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