Illustration by Brian McLachlan/Torontoist.
TIFF 2010 is done. The celebrities have left; the red carpets have been rolled up; a few hundred people who work at theatres, in media, and in the film industry are catching up on their sleep; and those people who camp out on red carpets waiting for autographs have gone back to doing whatever it is that people who camp out on red carpets waiting for autographs do. Which leaves us with the post-mortem. From the Lightbox to the Spokeslizard, from Score to Buried, these were the best and worst things at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Score: A Hockey Musical. When this was first announced as the opening gala film for TIFF 2010, we thought it was some kind of crazy joke. It’s basically the same as Cannes opening their festival by screening an instructional VHS tape on how to make baguettes. But the gala came and went and, alas, it wasn’t just some sort of meta–Air Farce skit. (Roger Abbott’s no Joaquin Phoenix, it turns out.) It’s not that we’re against hockey. Hockey’s great. And it’s not that we think TIFF has to open with some super highbrow feature or something. But as a great doctor and psychoanalyst often said: “Oh really now. This is too much.”
Some people may say that Score is just harmless, innocuous fun. And they may be right. But who wants to open a film festival with harmless, innocuous fun that panders to the broadest characterizations about our national identity? Yup. We love some hockey here in Canada! Let’s gather arts administrators, filmmakers, and festival programmers from all over the globe and show them what a terrific sense of humour we have about it, by screening a film that has very little sense of humour about itself. I mean, there was always Curling. There’s a movie that touches on some national identity stuff (curling, winter, the popularity of five-pin bowling in Quebec) without literally turning it into a song-and-dance routine.
The Scotiabank. Like casinos and those big box stores you’ll find dotting the outer perimeter of urban sprawl, the Scotiabank Theatre at Richmond and John is designed to keep you in. First of all, you have to ascend an enormous escalator (or, if you’re some kind of superhero, a flight of stairs) like you’re scrambling to the top of some ancient Mesopotamian ziggurat. And exactly like Etemenanki of Babylon, there’s an overpriced Burger King and a Wetzel’s Pretzels at the top.
It’s pointless to bitch about overpriced movie theatre concessions fare (though really, what is the deal?), but it’s more than the $4.50 Coca-Colas that make the Scotiabank insufferable. It’s the way you feel trapped inside. It’s the dearth of healthy-ish food choices (the closest you’ll get is a bagel and a Caesar at the bar), and the ring-ding-ding of the adjacent arcade. We’re all for multiplex movie-going, and the ritual of going to see some summer blockbuster while munching on a four-pound bag of buttered popcorn and sipping on a gargantuan pop, but it doesn’t work in the festival format.
Sure, the theatres are nice. And most of all, they’re big. But if TIFF is going to shift the centre of festival activity closer towards the Lightbox, and thus continue using the Scotiabank to its capacity, they should seriously consider re-jigging some things for festivalgoers. It’s a lousy place to have to spend eight hours a day.
James Franco in 127 Hours. There’s no doubt that Ryan Reynolds was the trapped hunk to beat at TIFF 2010—James Franco as stranded mountaineer Aaron Ralston in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours didn’t even come close. In the opening scenes, when we get a sense of his character’s kookiness and genuine appetite for outdoorsmanship, Franco is great. But as soon as he gets trapped under a rock, we know we’re in for the long haul.
True, 127 Hours sees Franco trapped for, well, just over 125 hours, which is much longer than the few hours Ryan Reynolds has to bust out of a coffin in Buried. After a few days, Franco’s Ralston slips into sleep-deprived mania. But it’s not even scary. Franco (and especially Boyle) have too much fun with it, especially in a scene where Franco pretends he’s on a radio call-in show talking about his predicament. Yes, you probably have to leaven the situation of being stuck in a cave somehow. The problem is that 127 Hours moves along so briskly that we never feel trapped. As a result, Franco’s Aaron Ralston just comes off seeming like James Franco stuck under a prop rock.
The ticketing. To many hardcore festivalgoers, much of the experience is about routine—obligatory clapping for the volunteer plug, grumbling in rush lineups, even smirking at each round of piratical “arrr’s.” However, there’s one routine that’s far outstayed its welcome, and that is the early morning meltdown when the box office system collapses immediately upon opening for individual ticket sales.
Each year it happens like clockwork—the clock strikes seven in the morning, and across the city—nay, the world, judging from the surge of incensed tweets—the insidious body known as MaxWeb commits its annual act of failure. The struggle can last for hours, as false starts and error messages raise the collective blood pressure of film lovers everywhere. The phone option is no better, emitting a steady busy signal as an understaffed and beleaguered set of operators struggle to wrestle with the exact same system that is driving patrons into a fury. It’s no testament to pragmatism when the most efficient option is an overnight lineup for the actual box office, which even proved to be unreliable itself this year as server crashes slowed things to whatever’s slower than a crawl. User frustration is more evident than ever, with some diligent programmers concocting their own scheduling system to prove that alternatives are out there. Hot tip, TIFF: you’ve got a shiny new headquarters, it’s time to get some servers to match.
This promotion for Bell, which repeated at Roy Thomson Hall and Yonge-Dundas Square throughout the festival, and for which no additional words are needed.
The utter pointlessness of Let Me In. When film fans heard that Cloverfield director Matt Reeves was adapting Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, a perfect gem of genre filmmaking, the overwhelming question was “Why?”
The possibility of improving on the 2008 Swedish film about a bullied boy who befriends a child vampire seemed remote. And indeed, Reeve’s film turns out to be wholly unnecessary; while the on-screen talent (Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Moretz as the outcast friends, with Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas as pivotal supporting characters) are perhaps equal to their Swedish counterparts, and Reeves and his cinematographer do a serviceable job of transposing the film to New Mexico in the 1980’s, there’s no significant new aspect to the story to merit this adaptation. In other ways, it suffers in comparison to the Swedish version; the script shoehorns lines into characters’ mouths that were best left implied in Alfredson’s film, and action sequences are needlessly amped up with computer generated visual effects. There’s frankly nothing in the film for viewers that isn’t done as well or better in Let The Right One In; a side by side comparison of the two films’ titles proves most apt.
Edward Norton in Stone. So Edward Norton is one of those method actors, which means he gets into a role by trying to internalize the thoughts, feelings, and physical tics of his character. Considering his performance as convicted arsonist Gerald “Stone” Creeson in John Curran’s Stone, Norton probably went through fantastic lengths to learn how to act like a jive-talkin’, streetwise white dude. He may have rode the bus all the way to some mall in suburban midwest America to take notes on all the WASP kids in baggy pants sitting around in the food court, thinking they have street cred because they downloaded the new 50 Cent single on iTunes. He may even have had to rent, and maybe watch, an entire season of HBO’s The Wire.
There’s little doubt that Ed Norton is a talented actor—remember Primal Fear?—but he has a tendency to make silly choices. Stone is one of those choices. Norton slurs through street slang and X-rated sex talk, hitting notes that ring with all the truth of a kid doing a bad Ali G impression. And when Stone finds religion by way of a library pamphlet? Don’t get us started. Just hurry up and make Motherless Brooklyn and redeem yourself, Edward Norton.
The TIFF Cocktail. It’s hard to complain about free drinks, but we’ve managed to find a way! The festival’s wet opening gala offered plenty by way of libations, from vodka shots off of a scale ice rink to bottomless suds from sponsor Stella Artois. Unfortunately, though, there was a wince-worthy mixology faux pas amidst all the merriment, and it was a botched effort at collaboration between two of the festival’s other sponsors, and primary bar-stockers.
This year, Coke made a concerted push to slide their Diet variation into the spotlight, as you may have noticed from their numerous streetside promoters. As part of the initiative, they teamed up with spirits-sponsor SKYY Vodka, and the result was a highly touted cocktail that was essentially vodka, Diet Coke, and syrup. Many a pucker were pursed upon imbibing this travesty, made all the more unsavoury by the lack of any highball alternatives due to the two respective monopolies. Shame upon the mind that thought this combination would be wise.
The ugly nationalism in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen. Ostensibly a sequel to Fists of Fury (and a tribute to that film’s star Bruce Lee), Legend of the Fist is actually an overlong and jingoistic period film, with a few kung fu scenes grafted onto it, only one of which is any good. Action star Donnie Yen plays a World War I veteran modeled on a popular Chinese character, whose opening action sequence in the trenches of France to save his helpless Chinese countrymen is the sole highlight of the film. From there on in, it’s a muddled mess of political intrigue, in which hardworking Chinese nobly struggle against opportunistic Americans, rapacious British, and the great one-dimensional villains of the film, the sinister Japanese. It’s historical propaganda that does a great disservice to everyone involved, and it’s both boring and entirely unconvincing.
The Bell Lightbox. In the days before the Lightbox opened on September 12, there was a lot of talk about how TIFF’s new HQ was still a mess of exposed wiring and loose plaster. But regardless, they opened on time. It may have been by the skin of their teeth and the hairs on their chin, but by gum, they opened. Many still refused to allow the Lightbox to melt their hearts, with plenty of complaints rolling in over the course of the festival: gripes ranged from the overblown opening block party (apparently face-paint, bouncy castles, and K’naan have no business even rubbing elbows with “serious cinema”), to it looking too much “like the MoMA with a film fetish” (overheard), or not being as good as Cannes’ Palais des Festivals.
Sure, the Lightbox is kind of a goofy name. And yes, plopping an expensive condo project squarely on top of a proposed cultural hub may be a bit gauche, if entirely consistent with Toronto’s larger gentrification projects. But it’s still kind of great. The theatres are outstanding. The seats are really comfortable. And the Essential Cinema exhibition is a blast. It’s also bound to make the finer points of global film culture more accessible to Torontonians than the daunting, cathedral-like standing of Cinematheque Ontario. Who can have a problem with that? Just paint your face and join the party, already, because the Lightbox is here, it looks great, and its possibilities seem almost endless.
Ryan Reynolds in Buried. Whether or not you’d enjoy Buried depends entirely on how open you are to the idea of spending ninety minutes trapped in a box with home-gown handsome guy Ryan Reynolds. Considering his track record of layering on smirking smarm in forgettable rom-coms, we weren’t immediately convinced by the prospect. But Reynolds blew us away.
Director Rodrigo Cortés pushes Reynolds to the limit of his talents, and watching him squirm around claustrophobically and plead for help over his cell phone proves resoundingly terrifying. Reynolds hits heights of manic desperation, with his more recognizable smart-alecky talents being applied more sparingly. And when Reynolds does revert to wise-ass mode, it works just as well. Say what you will about the guy, but nobody delivers a “fuck you” with equal degrees of nastiness and flippant charm as Ryan Reynolds. There’s already some pretty loose talk of Reynolds earning a Best Actor nomination from the Toronto Film Critics Association. In past years, the TFCA’s recognition of the scraggly talents of actors like Nicolas Cage and Timothy Olyphant has proven the organization’s very much open to salute performances that elide the Oscar-baiting weepiness. With Buried, Reynolds proves himself more than worthy of joining such illustrious ranks.
Bromance. Two of the best-received films at this year’s festival focused on two men bonding (though the circumstances are wildly different), ably portrayed by actors at the top of their game. In Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, which just won the People’s Choice award, Colin Firth’s repressed George VI learns to work on his crippling speech impediment with Geoffrey Rush’s unorthodox tutor, who’s a commoner, and an Australian to boot. In Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play themselves, improvising their way through a five-day cuisine and tourism trip, sampling the inns and restaurants of England’s north country. Both films succeed mainly on the comic timing and exceptional reactive skills of the four veteran actors, whose chemistry is a delight to watch.
The Facial Hair. TIFF 2010 boasted an array of interesting facial hair configurations. There was Robert De Niro’s unkempt great uncle beard on the red carpet of Stone, Andy Lau’s stylish pseudo Van Dyke in Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, and Vincent Gallo’s unruly, Taliban-mandated scruff in Essential Killing.
But the beard to suffocate all lesser beards belonged to Bruce Greenwood’s mountain man Stephen Meek in Meek’s Cutoff. The wiry mess of grey helped distinguish the character from the more trim ‘n’ prim members of the wagon train he leads astray in the film. The hoary facial mane worked to hide Greenwood’s lips, adding a chilling ventriloquist quality to his many loopy monologues. And that it looked a bit like the kind of beard a grade-schooler would wear in a school play made it seems distinctly uncanny, an out-of-place flourish in a film that values verisimilitude above all else. Runner-up: stone-faced Emmanuel Bilodeau’s character-defining moustache in Curling.
The battle sequence in 13 Assassins. We’ve already praised Takashi Miike’s samurai film enthusiastically in our review, especially its climatic battle scene, which clocks in at more than three quarters of an hour. But we want to highlight both again, as they anoint Miike as a worthy heir to the crown Akira Kurosawa still holds for his sword fight epics. A fellow TIFF enthusiast remarked that he’d heard the battle sequence was “like the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi,” which is quite inaccurate: while the noble assassins of the title do indeed rig a number of ingenious devices, they’re mostly designed to trap the tyrant target and his small army in a village with them, where the samurai can fight and die by the sword. This they do with such vigour and determination that the creek through the town soon runs red, though the death and dismemberment is far more restrained than in Miike’s previous gorefests.
Photo by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.
The Spokeslizard. If you’re like us, then you probably played a lot of Soulcalibur on Sega Dreamcast, and spent a lot of time wondering what it would be like to be Lizardman, the game’s reptilian-humanoid warrior. TIFF 2010 answered many of those questions when Stri von Vectin hit the scene.
A half-human, half-lizard spokesperson for some sort of wrinkle cream (we were never really clear on that, and anyway who gives a shit, it’s a fucking lizardman, guys), von Vectin was spotted around TIFF, looking snazzy in his trademark blue suit and violet dress shirt. European film festivals may have celebrities dolled up in fancy-ass tuxedos, but TIFF attracts mutant spokes-creatures. And isn’t that way cooler? We never got a chance to greet Mr. von Vectin personally, but we’ll remember him fondly. Come back next year, wrinkle cream spokeslizard. TIFF won’t be the same without you.
ATTENBERG‘s soundtrack. M.I.A. may have kick-started a popular revival of NYC protopunkers Suicide when she sampled the driving synth riff from their jam “Ghost Rider” on that “Born Free” track, but Athina Rachel Tsangari’s ATTENBERG mines Alan Vega’s back catalogue for more than just hipster cool points. Though ATTENBERG also makes great use of “Ghost Rider” in its opening credits, it cuts abruptly right as the song enters its fuzzy apocalyptic peak, priming the viewer for the sundry ways in which Tsangari’s film will confound the expectations. ATTENBERG uses Suicide’s music extensively (the main character, Marina, is a big fan) and, as we noted in our review, does so in a way that deepens the emotional and aesthetic resonance of the film as a whole.
One of the saddest and strangest scenes in any film we saw during TIFF this year was Marina awkwardly intoning Suicide’s “Be Bop Kid” over her dying father, a beautiful shot that will stick with you long after the film’s more confrontational images have receded. And the lyrics: “He wrote a song / A song about life / Yeah real life / Be-bop-be-bop-bop-beeee-bop” may well be the Rosetta Stone for unlocking the splendours Tsangari’s film.
Carey Mulligan’s crying spells in Never Let Me Go. Crying on cue is notoriously difficult for actors, who have a number of different tricks to produce tears (dwelling on painful memories, say, or using glycerin, or pulling nose hairs). But we can’t recall an actress tearing up as stoically or with such volume as Carey Mulligan does in the dystopian Never Let Me Go. When she cries on screen, it’s like a tap has been turned on, and rivulets course down her cheeks, though all the other signs of a good cry—scrunched up face, blotchy complexion, heaving gasps—are absent. Her character, who gradually learns of and accepts a horrific fate, has plenty to cry about, but Mulligan’s ability to do so looking so composed and open-eyed invites comparison to the Madonna (the holy mother, not the pop star.)
TIFF’s big move south. Now that the festival has cut the ribbon on its shiny new Bell Lightbox HQ, things are going to be a little different regarding TIFF geography. In previous years the fest had been split between hoity-toity Yorkville and the Entertainment District, with the former being the prime turf for a bout of celeb spotting. But with the Cumberland quietly disappearing as a festival venue this year and both the AMC and Scotiabank upping their theatre availability, there has been a distinct and welcome shift south. The festival now revolves comfortably around the nucleus of the newly christened Reitman Square, with the bulk of the venues within a brisk walk of each other. The Varsity and Isabel Bader felt mildly vestigial this year, while the unsightly road construction along Bloor only enhanced the sense of forgotten desolation in the city’s northern strip. We’d almost be inclined towards pity, if we weren’t so distracted by the shininess of the Lightbox and the easy post-film access to Queen West bars and parties.
Ebert at the Twitter Showdown he hosted. Photo by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.
Roger Ebert. Even after he lost the ability to speak, Roger Ebert never really shut up—not about politics, not about film, and not about Toronto. Thank god. His Twitter and site have only more firmly established the Chicago Sun-Times reviewer as one of the most influential and trusted critics in the world—of movies, but also of stuff, in general. And when it comes to Toronto, he’s made up his mind. (Likes: Toronto in general, the Lightbox, the Toronto Underground Cinema, King Street, and Queen Street. Dislikes: big-box stores. Inconclusive: tweeting.)
“I love Chicago,” Ebert tweeted on September 14, “but, oh, you Toronto!” “I could live here,” he said later that day. That the praise came from a man whose job it is to not give out praise easily made it sweet; that it came from Roger Ebert made it even sweeter. If you ever get tired of the windy city, Roger, you know where to find us.
Intro by David Topping/Torontoist.
Images not otherwise credited are courtesy of TIFF.
Want more TIFF 2010? Torontoist’s complete coverage of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is all right here.