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TIFF 2009: Features Preview

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Creation

The Toronto International Film Festival begins tonight with opening-night gala Creation, a controversial choice not because of the subject matter (Charles Darwin) but because it’s only the third time a non-Canadian film has opened the festival. Surprising, but Festival Co-director Cameron Bailey stated that they “fell in love with this movie,” and we felt it was the one that set the tone to have the kind of conversations they “hope will happen around the film fest.”
So let the conversation begin! Today we preview eleven feature films from six programmes, admittedly a drop in the water compared to the hundreds of films across the ten days of the festival, but we’ll continue to review films daily until the festival ends or we drop dead from exhaustion. After the jump, reviews of Galas Cooking With Stella and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Special Presentations An Education (playing tonight with tickets still available if you’re looking to rush) and Cairo Time, Visions title Karaoke, Vanguard titles Carcasses and Leslie, My Name is Evil, Canada Firsts All Fall Down and The Wild Hunt, and Real to Reel documentaries Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould and The Sunshine Boy.



Cooking with Stella

Gala Presentations

Cooking With Stella (Dilip Mehta)
REVIEWED BY MATHEW KUMAR
It doesn’t really bode very well that we’d completely forgotten that we saw this film at a preview screening until we started placing our completed reviews in order of the programme they’re in. Indeed, Cooking With Stella is so light as to be, well, easily forgotten, quite unlike the generally heavy Indian food, so full of striking flavours, that serve as its basis. But this film isn’t really about cooking—it’s just sort of the (barely needed) backdrop to the story of Stella, whose easy life ripping off foreign diplomats as their housekeeper is complicated when diplomat “housewife” Michael (played with panache by Don McKellar) tries to be her friend, and the innocent, crime-adverse Tannu is added to the household as a nanny. Though it’s full of colourful details and occasionally funny—the introduction of Tannu’s suitor, for example—as the plot progresses it tries too hard to push away from the seemingly obvious course, becoming unbelievable and ultimately unsatisfying, with no judgment or moral code implied. Pleasant enough while it lasts, but don’t expect it to stick with you. 3/5
Cooking with Stella plays Roy Thomson Hall September 16 at 6:30 p.m. and Scotiabank 2 September 18 at 11:15 a.m.
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (Terry Gilliam)
REVIEWED BY MATHEW KUMAR
To fans, a new film from Terry Gilliam is something special, but The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is particularly special. Not—although he contributes to a lot of the film’s power—because it is Heath Ledger’s last, but because it’s arguably the purest “Gilliam-esque” film seen since 1988′s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Wholly about the power of the imagination—Gilliam’s strongest and dearest subject—The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus follows the thousand-year-old Parnassus (played by Christopher Plummer) as he attempts to work his way out of a deal with the devil (played—with a style quite unlike any other—by Tom Waits). What is astonishing is that Ledger’s appearance, supplemented by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, works so perfectly and turns the film into such an amazing ensemble piece that you could never tell that it wasn’t planned this way. As good as it is, though, the film is so purely Gilliam that it offers little to those who aren’t fans, and it is likely to completely confuse—even alienate—those only interested in it for Ledger. And “purest” doesn’t equal best, either—though it’s miles better than the nadir of The Brothers Grimm. 4/5
The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus plays Roy Thomson Hall September 18 at 6:30 p.m. and the Elgin September 19 at 2:30 p.m..

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Cairo Time

Special Presentations

Cairo Time (Ruba Nadda)
REVIEWED BY CHRISTOPHER BIRD
One would expect Cairo Time to be something out of the hackneyed “middle-aged lady travels to exotic location and has an affair that rejuvenates her life” genre. Luckily, it’s not that at all. Certainly it’s a romantic picture: cinematographer Luc Montpelier uses the hot Cairo daytime to good effect, offsetting large chunks of the film in a haze that accentuates the mutual attraction between Juliette and her husband’s friend Tareq. But it’s not a movie about a grand romantic adventure: it’s a movie about dealing with the gradual discomfort of not being home and how one deals with it—its chief emotion is restraint, not abandon. Juliette loves her husband and Tareq respects his friend; there is never a moment where the will-they-won’t-they battle is decisively won, one way or the other, until almost the very end. Patricia Clarkson as Juliette manages the rare trick of making a potential betrayal of a perfectly workable and solid marriage sympathetic, but Alexander Siddig as Tareq betters it—he adeptly captures every nuance of inner conflict. It’s just a staggeringly good performance, and it should make everybody wonder why Siddig doesn’t get more work. It’s a slight film in terms of plot, but as an actor’s showcase you can’t do much better. 4/5
Cairo Time plays the Winter Garden September 13 at 8:30 p.m. and Scotiabank 3 September 14 at 12:00 p.m..
An Education (Lone Scherfig)
REVIEWED BY STEVE KUPFERMAN
A nice little initiation story with an impeccable sense of time and place, An Education is set in suburban London in the early ’60s and follows sixteen-year-old Jenny—privately schooled, bored with Latin, and Oxford-bound—into the car, the confidence, and eventually the bed of David, a visibly wealthy charmer who is only slightly younger than Jenny’s strict softy of a father. The romance is sweet to begin with (watching David deploy his charm on Jenny’s parents to win a few extra post-bedtime hours with his way-too-young squeeze is great), but director Lone Scherfig skillfully ratchets up the creepiness (and the women’s studies subtext) by imperceptible increments—if the first couple reels are comparable to Woody Allen’s Manhattan, then the last couple are more reminiscent of Woody Allen’s actual love life. Even so, there’s more than enough humour and coming-of-age splendour here to excuse the ick-factor, and the movie manages, impressively, not to make a victim out of its underaged heroine. It drags towards the end, and there’s one particularly bothersome wardrobe decision at about seventy-five minutes in that stinks of heavy-handed symbolism; but what movie about a teenager would be complete without a little awkwardness? 4/5
An Education plays the Ryerson tonight at 6:00 p.m. and AMC 3 September 12 at 9:30 a.m..

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Karaoke

Visions

Karaoke (Chris Chong Chan Fui)
REVIEWED BY MATHEW KUMAR
Chris Chong Chan Fui’s first feature, Karaoke, is his latest film following short Block B, which played as part of the Wavelengths programme last year. Like Block B, it asks us to consider small details and the “big picture” in an interconnected fashion (though via different techniques) through the story of Betik, who has returned to his family’s karaoke bar since his father’s death only to find it’s not the home he imagined. Slow but deliberate in its investigation of the idealized concept of homecoming (juxtaposing the fantasy of karaoke videos versus the reality of the palm oil plantation where the karaoke bar lies), Karaoke requires the viewer’s attention and patience to get the most out of, and it lacks an emotional core (Betik’s hopes and dreams are as selfish as anyone else’s). As a result the conclusion is a little unsatisfying, but the imagery and themes that envelop the work will stick with you. A unique and strangely powerful film. 4/5
Karaoke plays AMC 6 September 14 at 5:30 p.m., AMC 5 September 16 at 3:00 p.m., and Jackman Hall September 19 at 6:30 p.m.

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Carcasses

Vanguard

Carcasses (Denis Côté)
REVIEWED BY MATHEW KUMAR
What to make of Carcasses? The beginning—indeed the majority—of the film is a gorgeously shot document of Jean-Paul Colmor, an obscure but captivating scrap yard owner/junk collector in Quebec who lives a quiet, simple, and seemingly fully satisfied life in near isolation. Towards the end of the film a new, fictional force is introduced—a group of teenage runaways (observably with Down’s syndrome, which seems to be the only reason such a peaceful film was placed in the “edgy” Vanguard programme). Unfortunately, this dual nature forms the film’s weakness—the constructed parts feel obvious and pointlessly forced in the face of as alluring a central subject as Colmor, and the descent into a wordless, near-slient play drains the film of all its carefully maintained energy. Carcasses is brilliant for long enough that it can almost completely be forgiven, but in overreaching for thematic completion it feels like it has been held back from perfection. 3.5/5
Carcasses plays Scotiabank 4 September 13 at 6:15 p.m., Varsity 4 September 17 at 9:00 p.m., and Varsity 1 September 18 at 3:00 p.m.
Leslie, My Name is Evil (Reginald Harkema)
REVIEWED BY MATHEW KUMAR
If there’s something that Leslie, My Name is Evil has helped Torontoist understand, it’s that being told things we already know—repeatedly—is something we have absolutely no patience for. But if the idea of the Manson Family trial and the Vietnam War as a watershed moment for America and its value system is news to you, and the idea of a comparison of the two as a critique of judgement of the individual versus judgement of the society that spawned them is novel, then Leslie, My Name is Evil will be less tiresome to you than us. But with the one note so relentlessly pounded on in the name of (we assume) satire, we imagine few will not grow bored towards the (inevitable) end, even though performances are strong and director Reg Harkema spices things up with some knowing tricks (some that work well, such as period-referencing artificiality in the sets, and some that don’t, such as the use of real footage). Ultimately, Leslie, My Name is Evil is too forcefully acerbic to be found funny, and better, more interesting, and more meaningful questions have been asked using the same springboard. 1.5/5
Leslie, My Name is Evil plays Varsity 8 September 14 at 6:30 p.m. and Scotiabank 4 September 16 at 9:15 a.m..

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All Fall Down

Canada First!

All Fall Down (Phillip Hoffman)
REVIEWED BY MATHEW KUMAR
At once too ambitious and underwhelming, All Fall Down attempts to intertwine several completely disparate threads into one coherent, meaningful whole and fails miserably, veering wildly from uneasy intrigue into abject boredom. As much as we wanted to take pleasure in the unravelling of a plot that includes a man narrating his struggles to his ex-wife through increasingly bitter phone messages, the history of a southern Ontario aboriginal figure and clips of a historical drama, only the former could hold our interest and would have felt better served presented as a radio play—the connections between the strands are so loose and open to interpretation that the interpretation that there are no connections is, arguably, the preferable option. Almost unbearably stretched out by the end, this film is a chore to get through. 1/5
All Fall Down plays AMC 10 September 12 at 2:15 p.m. and AMC 2 September 13 at 11:45 a.m..
The Wild Hunt (Alexandre Franchi)
REVIEWED BY STEVE KUPFERMAN
We’re conflicted about The Wild Hunt. A movie about Live-Action Role-Players (“LARPers”)—people who dress up in Renaissance-fair garb and enact a Dungeons and Dragons–style adventure—the movie takes place in a faux-medieval hamlet in Quebec where serious players can don their chainmail and wield their battleaxes in authentic surroundings. The thing about LARPers, as you can probably guess, is that they seem completely ridiculous to people who aren’t involved with them. From the outside, all the epic battles and intrigues players involve themselves in look like nothing more than a bunch of costumed geeks whaling on one another with fake weaponry. The Wild Hunt plays this disparity between these perceptions to great comic and dramatic effect for most of its running length, until, in the final act, the story takes a very, VERY dark turn, for which there is very little foreshadowing and no advance warning (consider this yours). As much as we’d like to give the movie credit for holding to its “fantasy versus cold, harsh reality” agenda until the bitter end, it must be said that there really would have been better, more merciful ways for co-writer/director Alexandre Franchi to explore his thematic terrain. 3/5
The Wild Hunt plays Varsity 3 September 11 at 4:15 p.m. and Scotiabank 4 September 13 at 1:00 p.m..

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Genius WIthin: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

Real to Reel

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould (Michèle Hozer, Peter Raymont)
REVIEWED BY MATHEW KUMAR
One of the best-known pianists of the twentieth century, Glenn Gould remains actively discussed as a Canadian cultural icon, but as a classical artist with more than twenty-five years since his last recording, it’s hard to think what makes him still vital for people who’ve never heard his music or know nothing about him. And indeed, Genius Within doesn’t do much to create any new converts, instead seemingly happy to expand on Gould’s life for those who already know if they’d like to see a documentary about him or not. Though it really doesn’t give you much more information than you’d get off, say, his Wikipedia page, Genius Within does at least give you the information with lots of illuminative interviews with people who knew him and a good selection of archival footage. If you like Glenn Gould enough that even the tiniest titbit of new information is enough to thrill, then this would be well worth it, but you’re this movie’s only audience. 2.5/5
Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould plays AMC 7 September 13 at 5:30 p.m., September 14 at 6:15 p.m., and September 19 at 10:30 a.m.
The Sunshine Boy(Fridrik Thor Fridriksson)
REVIEWED BY MATHEW KUMAR
An Icelandic film that opens with Sigur Rós soundtracking the image of an autistic boy probably makes you think you’re going to get a particular kind of work, which makes it quite a surprise when The Sunshine Boy turns out to be a very straightforward documentary, with little in the way of artistic flourish. Following the film’s producer, Margrét Dagmar Ericsdóttir, on a journey across the world to discover treatment for her severely autistic child, Keli, the film does a very valid job of exploring the different types of autism and their treatment, while pursuing the thought that different positions across the spectrum of autism require different treatment. If there’s a fault, it’s that the treatment seen as best for the non-verbal Keli, Soma Mukhopadhyay’s Rapid Prompting Technique, is presented in such an uncritically positive manner it begins to feel like a slightly clumsy advertisement. But for viewers dealing with autism or with merely an interest, this is an acceptable education in the subject. 3.5/5
The Sunshine Boy plays AMC 10 September 12 at 5:15 p.m., September 14 at 2:00 p.m., and AMC2 September 18 at 8:15 p.m.

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