Category Archives: TIFF 2010

Small Town Murder Songs

My first remarkable reaction during the opening credits Ed Glass-Donnelly’s Small Town Murder Songs was “hey it’s Peter Stormare, the silent wood chipper guy from Fargo!” He’s not so silent, so blonde, and so criminal. But he is still in a movie about a crime in a tiny rural community. Instead of Brainerd, North Dakota, we have Greyfork County, somewhere in Mennonite land, Ontario.

Stormare plays Walter, a police officer who has to deal with the community’s first murder. A stripper’s body is found by a lake, and the London, ON hotshots (yes, this is a very small town) move in to supervise the case.

Walter is an outcast from his Mennonite family, the target of the community’s snide remarks, and the errand boy for Detective Washington’s  (Ari Cohen) investigation. Despite an underwritten character, Stormare lets you see the bottled rage behind the thick moustache, the frustrations of a born-again Christian trying to be good and turn the other cheek. You see his self-delusion, his attempts to justify actions, and to forget the vague violence of his haunting past.

He is further tested when his ex-lover’s boyfriend emerges as the prime suspect. Though Rita (Jill Hennessey) is not exactly a classy dame, it is hard to divine what she sees in Steve (Stephen Eric McIntyre), a greasy waste of breath with bad teeth. Why does she so adamantly defend him? What did Walter have with her that draws him back to her house despite all the risks it carries for his job?

 

Ed Glass Donnelly: Rising talent?

While Glass-Donnelly ponders his characters, he does not shed a lot of light on them. Clocking in at a slim 75 minutes, the film hands out moments, some that capture relationships brilliantly – Martha Plimpton’s Sam telling Walter about her day at the diner – and others that leave more to be desired – Officer Jim’s teasing of his capital-r Rebellious teenage daughter. Like the beautiful shots of pastureland and migrating geese, these are postcards that make one sigh and think “aah, Ontario… aah, Canada.”

These moments would be served better as pauses to a gripping, hard-boiled narrative, which STMS is not. There are too many slow-motion montages and not enough personality-enhancing dialogue. We see Walter, badass that he is, mollify a guard dog with a branch as the indie folk of Bruce Peninsula says something about living the good life and having a wife and kids.

My impression is Glass-Donnelly treated this as an exercise, a stepping stone in his promising career. While there are the grains of depth and story, there is a little too much self-conscious style injected over so small a film – the inter titles quoting Mennonite proverbs come off as amateurish, not profound.

I think eastern Ontario is ready for a home-grown film noir, a brilliant crime drama that captures rural people, their accents and daily interactions. If you want a Gothic mood with not too much explanation, then STMS will be an hour well-spent. If you wanted something more, a Canadian Fargo or Dirty Harry, then, well, at least it is a little over an hour spent.

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The Last Trip

What better way to end my run of films at TIFF than to watch Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon do Michael Caine impressions? I wonder how much of their relentless banter was improvised in Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, a free-form cuisine tour of Northern England. The Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story actors continue to play themselves, blasting the screen with more British humour than I have seen in all of Richard Curtis’ films put together.

It does not matter than 80% of the movie is spent in restaurants, or the remaining 15% in Coogan’s Range Rover. The chemistry between Coogan and Brydon is the most dynamic in many years, on both emotional and comical levels. Coogan’s continual complaint is that he is not taken seriously as a dramatic actor; the world still sees him as Alan Partridge. Brydon is content with his BBC shows and argues that it’s better to be ‘warm’ than to be ‘hot’. That’s the tension between the friends: Coogan is desperate to have a second supernova moment and looks down on Brydon’s more modest celebrity; Brydon is stable, married, and disapproves of Coogan’s drug use and girl-chasing.

There is a tendency for this to be a little too narcissistic on Coogan’s part. Shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm have made their name on portraying an artist’s woes as art. Being funny helps though. As long as Brydon can grill Coogan for his ambitions (including explaining why Michael Sheen seems to get all his parts) than the self-pity is tolerable. The dream sequence in which Ben Stiller tells Coogan both Ridley and Tony Scott want to work with him also lightens the load.

The backdrop for this road trip is the beautiful North of England, populated by a high proportion of pretty East European waitresses (Brydon chides his friend for “cementing Anglo-Polish relations”). There is some time for touching reflection amid Brydon’s Hugh Grant phone sex impressions. The most moving is Coogan giving a mock-eulogy for Brydon’s imagined funeral. Though Coogan, king of understatement, never shows it, he does value Brydon and probably envies his happiness. Brydon, though overshadowed by Coogan’s popularity, comes through as an impressive actor able to portray natural sincerity.

Let’s hope that these two reunited on-screen, and I hope that Coogan does get some heavy art house roles in the future. But it would be nice, along the way, if he did some funny too.

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A Forgotten Night Out

Watching Wasted on the Young is like a less than exciting night out of club. It’s loud, crowded, full of exaggerated gestures and superficial interactions you will forget by the following (hazy) morning. There are a lot of bright lights and thundering beats but no thematic centre.

Ben C. Lucas’ debut has been described as an Australian cross between Gossip Girl and Elephant. It’s similarities to the two are obvious, but I can’t help feeling they are skin deep. Sure, Lucas plays the social commentary card by showing spoiled rich kids as, well, spoiled rich kids with no concern for others. He also brings in guns and anarchy as film becomes crazier and crazier with each passing minute. But this is only window dressing in a movie that seems to be nothing but window dressing.

If I’m going to diss the content I might as well praise the form. Cinematographer Dan Greene works with cool blues and greys that matches the stark minimalism of the large houses and private high school in Perth. Leanne Cole edits like an MTV assistant, cutting from slow motion to frenetic high speeds in swim races and copious coke-snorting scenes (I lost count after the fifth time). A pulsing electronic score makes everything colder and more Kubrickian without the intellectual payoff.

Lucas returns time and time again to the swimming pool, a competition zone where Zack (Alex Russel) and his friends earn their rights to dominate the school hierarchy. Lagging behind them in both speed time and social status is Darren (Oliver Ackland), Zack’s half-brother. Darren, a timid nerd who makes robotic arms in his free time, becomes attracted to mystical Xandrie (Adelaide Clemens). Clemens plays more of an idea than a character, dealing out such heavy-weight statements like “we’re stuck in a bubble while the world keeps turning.” At one of Zack’s drug-fuelled parties she passes out, gets raped by the swimming team, and is left on the beach. The whole event is filmed on one of boy’s cellphones.

This chillingly recalls past incidents of recorded rape among teens – even the recent Pitt Meadows rave. Even more disturbing is the complete alienation Xandrie faces when she returns to school. The double standard – shown through Facebook comments – defends Zacj and his mates as good guys and labels Xandrie as a drunk tramp. Good points made by Lucas, but the characters are one dimensional and his script does not get teenage dialogue, maybe the most difficult age to capture on film. Good direction and bad writing also made Miral a lopsided effort.

Also difficult is how to capture someone’s shift from harmless reject to gun-weilding anarchist. Darren fits the bill exceptionally well: he’s a computer nerd, he has personal grievances against Zack (who drops reminders that his father is screwing Darren’s mother a lot), and he has a woman to fight for. Nonetheless the film feels derailed when he dons a hoodie and gets escorted by tonal elektronica in his quest for vengeance. From then on Lucas works to shock us at every turn, creating multiple would-be cliffhangers and raising the stakes.

Xandrie's got a gun

Overblown yes, and sometimes entertaining. The technique stays interesting and even grows more impressionistic, dipping into subjective ghost visits in the spirit of Six Feet Under. Like The Women before it, Wasted on the Young leaves out the ‘other’ social group, in this case adults. That, I can safely say, is its only similarity to Peanuts.

The inclusion of Facebook and texting eventually becomes important to the film’s conflict. Nail-biting climax excepted, trying to tie in social networking comes across as an attempt at being contemporary. Sorry, but if I want to see a Facebook film I’ll see The Social Network in October. Hopefully Fincher will linger in my mind afterward and stir up some thought. When the credits started rolling for Lucas’s debut, I felt like I had been to a decent club, heard some good songs, but was ready to go out for a smoke without a look back.

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Peep World

In my viewing experience, indie comedies with strong casts can either be refreshingly quirky or redundantly quirky (What Just Happened, anyone?). I guess there’s a temptation to be more sloppy as well as more “risky” when writing and directing a film like Peep World, made under a million dollars and shot in just 24 days. Luckily for the crowd at the Winter Garden Theatre, Peep World was just as funny, nasty and quirky as it made itself out to be.

Writer/director Barry W. Blaustein is a funny guy. He introduced the screening by claiming how happy he was to be back in Toronto – “My ex-wife is from here. Fond memories.” He also proved to be a competent story-teller. Peep World begins at a dinner celebrating the birthday of patriarch of a dysfunctional family before backtracking 18 hours earlier. All the stereotypes are present: there’s the eldest son with a martyr’s sense of duty (Jack), the complete fuck-up (Joel), the failed female artist (Cheri), and the youngest (Nathan), a writer whose book Peep World exposes the family’s embarrassing secrets.

United They Fall

Nathan’s book has also topped the bestseller list, only making him more of a narcissist. Ben Shwarz is the personification of smug as Nathan, halfway through a book tour and deciding fix his, er, short-term endurance problem. He’s the type of person who would give his brother’s name to the doctor to deflect knowledge of his premature ejaculation – and he does. Jack is played by the typically drawn brow of Michael C. Hall, who is by far the film’s most dramatic character. There is a lot of David Fisher in the long-suffering and quiet Jack, on the  nervous cusp of fatherhood. There is not a lot Dwight Shrute in the hopeless Joel, played by Rainn Wilson with more sympathy than usual. And there is a lot of Sarah Silverman in Sarah Silverman’s Cheri, though she’s given enough good lines by writer Peter Himmelstein that her gatling gun irony and sarcasm works.Ironic is the overall tone of the movie, narrated by Lewis Black and spliced between four different narrative strands, one for each sibling. Notable in the supporting ranks is Taraji P. Henson as Joel’s loving girlfriend, a limited role she makes the most electrically funny (“All this fuss about a book? I have cousins who shot each other and got over it.”)

Blaustein moves the plot along these pathways, stopping along the way for situational mayhem. Nathan tries to do a book reading while nursing a throbbingly painful erection; Cheri seeks the comfort of a Jew for Jesus who wants to bed her; Jack’s wife Laura (Judy Greer) looks for him in the video booths of a porn shop – this last one is more heartbreaking than amusing. After an eventful day of disaster, the family sits down to dinner with father (Ron Rifkin). Nathan has not seen any of them since his book was published, making for perhaps the most awkward of awkward gatherings. Cheri sees to that pretty quickly, and before long “bitch” and “motherfucker” are hurled across the screen halfway through the opening toasts.

The scene is relentlessly funny and wounding as every grievance and issue is laid bare  by the cross-table sniping. To make matters worse, it turns out Dad is dating the actress who plays Cheri in the upcoming movie adaptation of Peep World. Sarah Silverman’s jaw drops in astonishment at this twist of Oedipal logic. Emerging from the debacle is the torturous state of all the siblings. They all hate their inconsiderate father, but, because of their shortcomings, need his financial support.

Somehow Mr. Asshole does bring his family together, though it is a very ironic path towards reconciliation. Blaustein also brings the film together at the end after a solid and sometimes exceptional 90 minutes of peeping into the timeless theme of broken kin.

Peep World premiered September 15th at Roy Thomson Hall. It also played September 16th at Ryerson Theatre and will play there Sunday September 19th.

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There’s No Dojo Like the Old Dojo

There is a double sadness in 13 Assassins, the latest film from Japanese director Takashi Miike. The group of warriors have a suicide mission against an army of hundreds; that is the first tragedy. The second is the nostalgia for the Golden Age of samurai pictures in the 1950s and 60s, a genre defined by directors like Akira Kurosawa and Hiroshi Inagaki. Ironically, these films were all about the decay of the samurai tradition, set in Japan on the verge of industrialization. The leaderless ronin were lonely wanderers, often picking up a cause and seeing it through with their lives. It is no wonder that John Sturges chose Seven Samurai as a base for his remake The Magnificent Seven; Westerns and Japanese swordplay films share a lot of the same mythological background.

Miike is clearly on the warpath to bring back those early days. He blocks his characters precisely against painted panels and candle light. Ozu is hailed with every 3-feet-above-the-ground shot. The free gravity fighting popularized by Woo-ping Yuen (The Matrix)and hectic action editing of Tony Scott  is shunned for more visceral combat captured in longer takes. Also nostalgic is the simple story of a ‘Dirty Dozen’ crew called upon the brass to rid the kingdom of a sadistic and destabilizing noble.

The psychopath in question is Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), adopted son of the Shogun (military dictator) who rapes and mutilates for pleasure. When it comes to violence Miike is a big believer of showing and not telling. An entire family pin-cushioned by arrows and a limbless but living victim are some of the earlier shocks in a first act dominated by sliding doors and political game-talking in the Shogun Council. Its leader, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), enlists Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) to assassinate Naritsugu as he travels to receive his promotion to first advisor.

Shinzaemon’s hands quiver when he hears his call; he calls it “battle shakes”. Miike takes his time building the tension as the 12 assassins gather and make their plans. This all stock adventure movie plotting, but somehow it feels fresh and taut under Yakusho’s stoic leadership. Lucky number thirteen is picked up along the way, and provides much of the comic relief. Yûsuke Iseya prances in rags as the hunter Koyata, a throwback to Toshiro Mifune’s jungle wanderer from Rashomon. You know you’re being guided by an expert director when the pacing is sublime. Miike is supremely, almost arrogantly, confident as he guides the ronin through the wilderness and to the lodging town where they make a stand. His experience is pretty amazing: 50 films in the last 20 years, the Japanese equivalent of Woody Allen.

All this pays off big time in the third act, perhaps the longest extended battle scene ever committed to screen. Over-extended is maybe a better word. The endless slaughter sucks the energy out of the final confrontation, one between Shinzaemon and Naritsugu’s captain, the honourable Henbai (Masachika Ichimura). Nevertheless it’s great fun to see the assassins rip apart the lord’s troops, first by Indiana Jones-style booby traps. The town becomes a labyrinth of death controlled by the ronin from the rooftops. The old school feel is briefly wrecked by some third-rate CGI bulls the samurai unleash in the town’s narrow aisles.

Finally the samurai descend from the roofs and unsheathe their katanas, an adrenaline rising moment if their ever was one. The political smoke and mirrors of the opening turn into mud, blood, smoke and fire. Crimson rains down from the sky during brutal melee combat, quiet unlike Donnie Yen’s acrobatic in Legend of the Fist. This is definitely the most violent film I have seen at this year’s TIFF so far, and the most entertaining. Spurting out as thick as the blood are the battle come-ons, including assassin Kuranaga (Hiroki Matsukata) declaring “we shall commemorate your way with arrows” before firing a volley into the trapped soldiers below.

All samurai films are essentially tragedies, and the sadness I mentioned before is clear from the beginning when Shinzaemon says “I might be remembered, when all this is over, after I die”. Honour runs deep in these men’s veins. Another assassin declares “ours is not to reason why, just to obey and die”. The Tennyson reference is another antiquarian touch to a very old-fashioned movie. Noble thirteen, and noble effort. The samurai film just rode out of the valley of death.

13 Assassins played Tuesday September 14th at Ryerson Theatre. It also plays September 16th and 19th. TIFF link.

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Miral

Early on into Julian Schnabel‘s Miral, Vanessa Redgrave toasts her Palestinian and Israeli guests at the American Colony Hotel’s Christmas party. She raises her glass and asks that there be no talk of politics, only merriment. This feels like a wink to the audience. Anyone sitting down to watch a film about fifty years of Palestinians living in Israel cannot kid themselves in expecting a deal without politics.

What Schnabel, innovative director of Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, offers is not really politics or art. It’s a strange hybrid of news footage and the skeletons of different stories strung together from 1947 to the early 90s. I say skeletons because the first three episodes only give broad strokes; we have to wait for infant Miral to grow into Freida Pinto before we get the beginnings (and maybe just the beginnings) of a fully fleshed narrative.

Take Hind Husseini‘s story. Played by Hiam Abbass, she is a rich Palestinian who schools child refugees fleeing from forces establishing Israel. Her tale is a compellingly factual one, but Schnabel does not explain her motivations or much of her past. I believe in a good heart as much as the next person, but altruism should be given a justification.

The following two segments follow erotic dancer Nadia and terrorist Fatima. Schnabel is still brilliant at fashioning subjective scenes, including mesmerizing closeups of Nadia belly dancing at a bar and cutting between Fatima carrying a bomb into a cinema and Catherine Deneuve being raped onscreen in Repulsion.

Whatever happens visually – the canted angles, spot focus, gentle over-exposure – is undercut by a terribly unimaginative script. Rula Jebreal is an excellent journalist but did a poor job adapting her childhood to film (Pinto plays her younger self). It’s as if the character’s speak their subtext instead of actual dialogue. Furthermore, most of the Palestinians speak accented English, drawing away from the authenticity Schnabel is good at crafting into every shot.

Nadia eventually marries a devout Muslim (Alexandre Siddig) and gives birth to Miral. The girl is schooled by Hind and becomes torn between revolution (an option symbolized by a boyfriend who works for Fatah) and picking up Hind’s torch. Along the way she braves riots, torture, at the hands of the authorities – chilling scenes but not anything we have not seen before.

Also disappointing about Miral is its lack of objectivity. Schnabel and Jebreal dedicated the film to those “who push for peace, on both sides” but demonize every Israeli soldier and officer. The film amounts to an angry series of Palestinian rants – some more justified than others – peppered with camera wizardry. And Vanessa said keep out the politics.

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Neither East nor West

East is East (1999) emerged as a domestic hit when released in the UK, one of the first ethnic comedies skewering interactions between immigrants and “residents” of Western countries. Its sequel West is West had its North American premier at TIFF yesterday and, as its title suggests, backtracks to Mr. George Khan’s (Om Puri) native Pakistan. The humour is still present, now tempered with cultural introspection and identity searching.

George’s son Sajid (Aqib Khan) is growing up in no-man’s-land, otherwise known as Manchester, England, 1975. Mr. Khan and his British wife Ella (Linda Bassett) own a chip shop and eke out a living while sending checks East to George’s first spouse and extended family, whom he left for a new life.

Bullied for being foreign at school and slapped about by his perpetually unsatisfied father, Sajid has no interest or knowledge of his background. Aqib is jaded with a squinted look and fast with the insults, but he struggles during the film’s more emotional scenes. He is a newcomer to acting, but I’m sure we’ll see more of him.

For Sajid, the suit doesn't fit.

Lamenting his son’s indifference, George hauls Sajid to Pakistan on a mission to relearn his roots. Soon George too is at school as the past he hasn’t seen for 30 years rears up in the form Mrs. Khan I (Ila Arun). Her appearance jolts the film out of its boisterous jokes and easy-going coming-of-age arc. It’s a good thing too, none the least for the acting. Arun is the picture of lost beauty and Puri’s face freezes in inertia at her sight.

For my money Puri is one of most natural actors ever on-screen, and one of the most revered. He can be pompous and curse Sajid like a broken record. Or he can pause, allow his eyes to wander over the dusty fields outside his village, letting the past overtake him.

While George re-acquaints himself with the community Sajid is taken under the wing of a wise old man (he is Rafiki down to the cane) whose parables start to widen Sajid’s squinted eyes. “I take the same path home every night,” he says, “But if one night I find a cobra lying in front of me, do I take a new path?” He nudges us towards the adaptation school of thought, suggesting immigrants should adapt to their new surroundings. This flexible attitude is behind West is West, but is not ham-fisted by producer Leslee Udwin or first-time director Antony DeEmmony.

Just as serious is George’s bigamy, made worse by the arrival of Ella. Bassett burns in her rage at being abandoned but is pulled aside by Mrs. Khan I. Neither character can understand each other’s language and yet it is the film’s most touching minute. Ella smiles and says “I don’t know what you’re saying but you sound kind.” Can we ask for more from two people from two worlds? In that scene is the complication of living multiculturally. They both say nice things, but are still, quite literally, talking past each other.

However, the dominant feeling of West is West is feel-good. These films, including Bend it Like Beckham and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, are predestined to end on a happy note. By the way, the previous sentence does not qualify as a spoiler. The homeward bound sequel reconciles pain and comfort with more aplomb than I expected (even critics (I should say wannabe critics) have expectations). Sajid comes out with the familiar but durable conclusion that he’s neither East nor West, but a little bit of both.

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