TIFFist: Reviews Round-Up
Well, The Toronto International Film Festival is over for another year, and even the Torontoists who were deeply involved are breathing a sigh of relief, either getting back to normal life or letting themselves to finally succumb to stress based illnesses. Some final updates, however, with a round of reviews to let you know what you should or shouldn’t have missed, and what you should look out for in the future.
Evil Aliens is a difficult little film to review, as it sets out to be a very bad, low budget splatter flick, and manages to be a very bad, low budget splatter flick. Revolving around a TV crew who go to a remote island farm to investigate an alien pregnancy (and then have to deal with an alien invasion) Jake West’s film wears it’s heart and influences on it’s sleeves, and manages to create some genuinely disturbing horror sequences and some genuinely funny moments (everyone’s top pick being a sequence that turns famous farmer sing-a-long ‘I’ve Got a Brand New Combine Harvester’ into something much more sick) but the rapid changes in tone combined with mostly mundane direction (too obviously influenced by the likes of Shaun of the Dead’s Edgar Wright) and god awful acting (particular derision for British TV presenter Emily Booth’s inability to pull off a role as a British TV presenter) keep this far, far from cult classic status.
The second Midnight Madness film set on a farm where things have gone very, very wrong, it’s far to easy to label this as ‘alien on a farm’ with genetic modification leading to a cow giving birth to a calf already pregnant with monstrous, parasitic inside out cows, of which one survives to grow and terrorise the hard working, lonely farmer, the gypsies on the run in a caravan on his land, and a bonkers European scientist, who seems to be just as big a threat. While the film has some great camera work, a lot of the time the lighting obscures too much, as does the direction of the attack scenes leaving the look of the mutant cow a mystery mass of gooey flesh and bone. The plot’s twist is far, far too easy to see coming but the film manages some genuine jumps and scares, and is an enjoyable attempt at a film set in Ireland with none of the usual sterotypes attached.
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party
Torontoist had the good fortune to meet with Michel Gondry after the screening of this work in progress, where Torontoist asked him why he decided to make a documentary. He looked at me quite blankly and stated ‘Dave Chappelle.’ And it’s true that despite the fact that Dave Chappelle’s Block Party features absolutely storming performances from the likes of Mos Def, Kanye West, Talib Kweili (and an absolutely chilling set from Dead Prez) Chappelle is the heart and soul of the movie with his natural self depreciating but brash personality lighting up the screen. It has to have been a work of admiration from Gondry because there is very little scope in the documentary format for Gondry’s style to become apparent, leaving Dave Chappelle’s Block Party as little more than a concert film with some great jokes. There’s no deep insight into the artists or Chappelle himself, though the behind the scenes footage does make it a much greater work than the average filmed concert.
This year the People’s Choice Award went to Tsotsi, Gavin Hood’s film based on the novel by Athol Fugard tracing six days in the violent life of Tsotsi, a young gang leader. The best Canadian film went to Jean-Marc Vallee’s Quebecois coming of age drama C.R.A.Z.Y, and The FIPRESCI Prize, chosen by an international jury of film critics, went to South Korean Kang Yi-kwan’s Sa-Kwa.
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Winterbottom’s new film has already received a great deal of comparison to the work of Spike Jones (and to a lesser extent Takeshi Kitano’s Takeshis’, also screened at the Toronto Film Festival) as it melds footage of an imagined making of the film of Tristiam Shandy (a remarkable pre-modernism post-modernist book which weighs in at hundreds of pages and might only exist to stretch out one pun for the author’s amusement) with footage from the imagined film of Tristiam Shandy. The making of is filmed very much in the same satirical style as Tristiam Shandy, with no documentary like trappings, but in particular the life of Steve Coogan is quite surprisingly laid bare in the name of realism (trysts with lap dancers, sex acts too freaky for people to mention) but does end with a portrayal of a sympathetic, if weak, character. The interaction between the sections is fast and fluid, both are hilarious (with particular mention to be given to Rob Brydon’s break out role – his impression of Coogan is priceless) and while never quite as clever as Charlie Kaufman’s work, it’s far funnier.
At it’s absolute simplest the story of a female cop falling in love with her suspect in period Korea, what it actually is, is a complete mess. Twisting the tale of Detectives Ahn and Namsoon and their difficulties as they attempt to solve the appearance counterfeit money in their province, with the tale of Sad Eyes, henchman to the perpetrator (the Minister of Defense), The Duelist suffers some of the most bizarre an disconcerting switches in tone Torontoist can remember. One scene turns from a tense chase of Sad Eyes by Namsoon into an utterly bizarre, sped-up chase of a peripheral character that you would swear was set to a reverse engineered version of the Benny Hill theme. The fight scenes, usually the set pieces of wu xia films, here are messily shot and cut with action obscured either by scenery or the direction, with the final fight between Ahn and the Minister of Defense striking in it’s successful simplicity. However, the heart of the film, the love story, is destroyed by director Lee Myung-Se’s short attention span, with even the most meaningful and erotic set piece being ruined by one final, awful attempt at humor.
As shocking in content as it is amazing in execution, The District! uses a sophisticated combination of photography, traditional animation techniques and 3d animation with cel-shading to create a colourful, vibrant Hungarian district in which the characters live. The adults are a range of whoremongers, gang bosses and thugs, but the children remain curiously innocent (though not completely) with the main character, teenager Ricsi Lakatos deeply in love with Julika Csorba in a very rough approximation of the directly referenced Romeo and Juliet, attempting to allow his love to flourish in a rich, happy and friendly district by way of a plot involving time travel, mammoth genocide (using a bomb gifted by Osama Bin Laden) and oil refining, that naturally doesn’t work out the way anyone expects it to (though far better than you might expect). Though it is played straight enough to drag fairly extensively in the middle, The District!s adult content is paired with some brilliant Hungarian rock and rap music plus dance routines, that keep the film entertaining, along with some strong satire of western attitudes to Eastern Europe.
With Wisit Sasanatieng’s amazing technicolor Tears of the Black Tiger tragically locked away in Mirimax’s vaults, a viewer of Citizen Dog can only hope that such a fate does not befell Sasanatieng’s glorious, quirky love story Citizen Dog. Starring Pod, described by the extensive narration as a country bumpkin with no dreams, and describing his adventures in Bangkok as he falls in love with Jin, another country bumpkin with nothing but dreams. The majority of the story is told through the narration with a whimsy that could turn more cynical viewers off, but for anyone at least able to stomach Amile this film will spellbind them with it’s beautiful visual touches, strange little characters (including a wonderful digression into the world of a sweary, chain smoking teddy) and the lovely, fitting soundtrack from Thai band Modern Dog.
Pusher I, II, III
Far and away the best value ticket of the entire film festival, with 3 films for the price of one, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy centres on the seedy underbelly of the Danish drug trade. Pusher I features Frankie, the small time drug dealer on the run after a deal gone terribly wrong using the money of Serbian drug lord Milo, watching as his life falls apart over the space of a few days. Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands is set 8 years later with Frankie’s scorned ex-partner Tonny, recently released from prison, struggling with debt, finding himself with a new son unloved by his hateful mother and finding himself the unwanted son of his crime lord father. Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death, set a year later, centres around Milo as he attempt to fight his drug addiction while trying to prepare for his spoiled daughter’s birthday celebration and finding himself in very much the same situation he put Frankie through years earlier.
Each film in the pusher Trilogy is a tour de force of crime cinema with pumping rock soundtracks, artful cinematography and dense, layered storylines full of the darkness of humanity at it’s lowest. Not a set of films to see if you want to be uplifted, even though there are moments of lightness and humour in all of them (some might paint Pusher III as the blackest of comedies, though I see it as a portrait of a man watching his lifestyle disintegrate) The Pusher films are powerful character studies that fully deserve North American releases. I like Pusher I for it’s visceral introduction to the series, but many critics pick Pusher II as their favourite as Mads Mikkelsen’s characterization takes the film to a whole new level.
Torontoist caught this film at the Midnight Madness directly following a viewing of the Pusher Trilogy, which was a tight squeeze, and this film remains remarkable for still managing to be the grimmest film of the night, if not the entire festival. With only the barest sliver of plot, SPL (Sha Po Lang, the Chinese constellations of Destruction, Conflict and Greed) features Sammo Hung as an evil crime lord of some sort (it’s never really went into) being pursued doggedly by Simon Yam as the boss of the investigative task force determined to bring him down no matter what the cost (it’s all very, very personal) with the far, far too pretty Donnie Yen turning up to take over the team due to Yam’s retirement. The plot is enough to add an emotional charge to each fight scene that makes them crackle with intensity. With Yen behind the choreography and Wilson Yip behind the camera each fight scene (though there are surprisingly few in my opinion) is given a great deal of respect with no quick cuts or visual cheating, just brutal, visceral kung fu action. With one of the darkest resolutions of a Hong Kong actioner that I’ve seen, SPL is a rollercoaster ride with a sheer drop right at the end.
The Wayward Cloud
Beginning with the funniest and most interesting scene of the entire movie (here, the use of a watermelon (a repeating motif) as a metaphor for the female sex organ) at the beginning can either be a gamble that pays off (Takashii Miike’s Dead or Alive comes to mind) or doesn’t… As seen here. Tsai Ming-Liang makes a brave attempt to meld the lonely love story of Shiang-chyi, bored librarian trapped in a Taiwan suffering a surplus of watermelons but no water, and Hsiao-kang, bored low budget porn star, with bright, Technicolor song and dance routines featuring famous Chinese pop songs from the 50’s and scenes of graphic pornography. The musical sections are really the only part to hold a viewer’s interest, though due to the director’s intent that they be ‘surgical insertions’ they feel out of place even though they are the only things establishing characters emotions, with the rest of the film (including the pornography) an entirely flat, lifeless experience, right up until the final scene, which manages to be surprisingly erotic and meaningful. However, the wait is just not worth it.
Drawing Restraint 9
Matthew Barney’s collaboration with girlfriend Bjork was described by TIFF programmer Cameron Bailey before the showing as ‘the most beautiful love story of the entire festival’ which really makes me question what kind of relationships he’s been in. Treat a Matthew Barney film as a narrative and you are bound to be disappointed, with the story of two ‘Occidental Guests’ taking part in an elaborate wedding rite and tea ceremony before they rip each other apart, turning into whales, while a reservoir of Petrolium Jelly hardens and congeals as part of another elaborate ceremony. What surprises me is that over 2 hours and 15 minutes the experience does not manage to be particularly visually amazing, with many other more conventional films over the festival, such as Citizen Dog, offering a greater feast for the eyes, and that Bjork, who I usually hate, has managed to craft an beautiful and deep soundtrack that might be the only thing that is actually entertaining in the film, though the opening track, ‘Gratitude’ featuring Will Oldham is a far too early peak of excellence.
Anyone who has ever met or been privileged to see Eli Roth in the flesh doing what he does (being Eli Roth) will know that the majority of the hype about Eli is Eli– he’s a consummate professional and showman who knows exactly what he’s doing in front of an audience (his Midnight Madness appearance, when it wasn’t a tedious circle jerk of cast and crew love, was funny enough to have been worth the admission alone). Taken alone his breakthrough hit Cabin Fever was not exactly worth they hype attributed to it, being a quite mundane horror flick with a couple of nice twists at best.
And as it begins Hostel also feels utterly mundane, with a couple of loud, boorish American sex tourists (plus one loud, boorish Icelandic sex tourist) travelling from Amsterdam to Slovakia where they get involved with a hostel that simply seems too good to be true (it is). The beginning shot largely for laughs and titillation, could be intended to make the coming change in tone a greater shock, but only seems to undermine the horror when it appears. Roth has great skill in creating some truly horrific tension followed by terrifying situations (even if at points the horror you actually see looks terribly shlocky) but it’s unfortunate that tension isn’t kept up throughout the film (for a previous assistant director to David Lynch to be so free and easy with tone always surprised me). Hostel does not manage to reach the great heights of psychological horror set by the likes of Miike’s Audition (Takashii Miike, who features in an entirely pleasing cameo), even with an absolutely chilling idea at it’s core. Roth may be the creator of his own hype but his inability keep a straight face even in such a dark work might be his own undoing.