Thursday, October 01, 2009

TIFF 2009 Roundup - Pt. 2 of 3

Hey! This was supposed to go up almost a week ago, but since I'm a lazy, lazy man, I've tinkered and procrastinated. Oops. Anyway, here's some more of my exciting trip to TIFF, now two weeks late! Enjoy!

BEST TIFF GOOF-UP: Scotiabank plays opening of REC [2] instead of Les Herbes Folles

One of the nice things about digital distribution is the ease with which one can screen a film. Very no muss, no fuss. And one of the bad things about digital distribution is the ease with which one can screw this up. I saw this first-hand at TIFF this year when the 9:30 AM second screening of Les Herbes Folles began playing. The usual production credits came up and they seemed sort of odd--the sound of radio static, some panicked voices--but I thought, 'Well, I've heard the Resnais is pretty strange, so maybe this is just a weird start.' Then the first image comes up and it's of a woman, illuminated in night vision with a terrified, panicked expression on her face. And then I think 'Wow, this Resnais is even stranger than I imagined. He's starting it like a straight-up horror film!' And then it hits me. This is a straight-up horror movie. This is freakin' REC [2]! And this audience was definitely not prepared for REC [2]. Thankfully, my friend figured it out before I did and was already out the door and telling a volunteer before anyone was traumatized by the film. And oh dear lord, would these people have been traumatized by that film. I didn't even see it, but its reputation as a pants-wetter extraordinaire definitely preceded it.

In truth, while I'm mostly glad no one in that audience was subjected to REC [2], a small part of me wishes that at least one horrific image had hit the screen before they switched it over. A small, very nasty part of me.

WORST TIFF GOOF-UP: First five minutes of White Material out-of-sync.

Claire Denis is a filmmaker who does not screw around. She starts from frame one setting a mood and god forbid you miss any of it. Which is why I'm still a little pissed that the first five minutes of her latest, White Material, was out-of-sync. I know it was the last day of the festival and the volunteers were in short supply. But the sound was out-of-sync for all of the TIFF shorts and there were multiple volunteers walking up and down the aisles seating rush-line folk, so you would think one of them, any of them would catch the problem. But no, it didn't get fixed until several people in the theatre angrily explained the situation to the nearest volunteers they could find. The majority of the film played just fine, but I do wonder if some of the mood was killed by that false start.


I don't usually seek out celebrities at TIFF, nor do I usually care much if one crosses my path. But almost every year, there's something celebrity-related that amuses me a great deal. In 2006, I nearly got run over by Morgan Freeman, who was racing out of a screening of Shortbus as if to save his life. In 2007, the Brangelina train rolled into the Elgin and caused the most havoc I've ever seen at any TIFF (and also detained TIFF CEO Piers Handling at a roadblock at his own festival). And last year I almost got run over by Erik the Viking (aka, Tim Robbins).

This year's sighting wasn't quite as high-profile as those, but it was still unexpected. At my screening of Police, Adjective, the actor Michael Lerner (much beloved for his role in Barton Fink) was sitting just behind me in the reserved row, a bag with two foot-long Subway sandwiches at his feet. I don't know whether he liked the movie or not, but I sure hope he enjoyed his sandwiches. They looked and smelled delicious.


At last year's TIFF, the festival seemed to revolve around family, with nearly every film exploring the testing of familial bonds in trying times. At TIFF 2009, chaos reigned, and not just because an animatronic fox tearing away at its own flesh told me so. Chaos infected the family unit, romance, police officers, puritan warriors, mexican wrestlers, and Japanese men trapped inside white rooms. It's not hard to understand why--just one look at the news is enough to make most of us want to crawl into a bunker and wait out the next twenty years or so. I mean, a single father killed because he's a census worker? Calling for secession because the president wants to spend money? And what's up with the Obama pictures with the Hitler mustache? What the hell does that even mean? He's Hitler because he wants to make health care affordable for everyone? Holy hell in a handbasket, what is wrong with these people? anyway, it was a good year for chaos, that's what I'm trying to say, I think. Thanks.

REAL THEME FOR TIFF 2009: Year of the Penis

Penises were everywhere at TIFF '09, just hanging around, swinging to and fro, jutting out of walls, etc. It was a penistastic year, especially in the first few days, when we went from hardcore penetration (Antichrist) to mutual masturbation (Face) to the family perversities of Dogtooth. The opening penis salvo climaxed--pun definitely intended--with the enormous CGI penis at the conclusion of Enter the Void, an image likely to be forever emblazoned in my mind. The penis action was light for the next few days, but it hit a crescendo with Symbol, which is so penis-oriented, it makes every other penis-related movie seem downright G-rated. After that, I sort of lost track of the penises, but I'm sure there were some more. Bottom-line: TIFF 2009 was a total sausage-fest.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans was actually good

When the Bad Lieutenant: POCNO trailer came out this summer, it generated a fair amount of buzz, mostly of the "WTF" variety. The film looked like a direct-to-video effort with sub-par acting and cinematography, but with the bonus of a completely unhinged Nicolas Cage performance. It also was highly quotable, with such memorable lines as "Shoot him again. His soul is still dancing." and "You don't have a lucky crack pipe?" I pretty much assumed the film would be good, trashy fun, but about as substantial as pound cake. Add to that the insanity of re-making Abel Ferrara's most personal film in the first place and you have the ingredients for disaster (or at least so-bad-it's-good territory).

So imagine my surprise when the damn thing actually turned out to be pretty good. I haven't seen Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant in a long time, so I can't really compare the two, but Herzog's take on the material was a load of fun. It still looks like a direct-to-video movie at times, but in a weird way that actually makes it more, not less, subversive. Nicolas Cage's performance is unhinged at times, yes, but it's more controlled than it looks, especially the physical aspects of the performance, where he manages to elicit both sympathy and laughs from the pained way his character moves. There's a lot more to say about this one, but I'll wait for a later time for that.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)

I normally love Haneke's films, though "love" seems like a weird word to use for such grim, grim movies. His view of human nature is thoroughly pessimistic, yet in films like Code Unknown or Cache, he makes his case in a way that is hard to dismiss. His view of humans might be deeply unpleasant, but as much as I want to deny it, I have to admit it feels dead-on. Depressing, but dead-on. The White Ribbon is another in Haneke's "we're all screwed" filmography and its messages are the same as ever. So why does this one just not work for me? I haven't the slightest idea, frankly. While the film played, I remained engrossed by the story and the characters and thought the slowly developing "Village of the Damned" vibe it built from frame one was extremely effective. The acting was uniformly excellent and there was actual humor in it, a rarity for Haneke (at least of the non-pitch-black, skin-crawling variety). But for some reason, when it was all over, I didn't feel as though Haneke had actually made his points effectively. More to the point, I don't know why he needed to tell this story in particular. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for a slow-burn period piece, but there was nothing in the execution that chilled me, nothing that gave me pause, nothing that made me reflect on the world we live in now. And what good is a Haneke that doesn't crawl under your skin?


As someone who primarily loves Dante for his subversive take on American society, this one's a bit of a let-down. The story is Goosebumps-level horror for young kids, and nothing more. But it manages to be more fun than it should be due to Dante's high level of craftsmanship and keen sense of how to use 3-D wisely. There are plenty of "it's-so-close-I-think-I-can-touch-it" scenes, but only one is gratuitous (and I'm pretty sure it was deliberately so). Mostly, The Hole made me wish I was a 12 year-old again, watching it for the first time and discovering the pleasures of a well-tooled movie. Dante understands better than most that the best kids' films aren't the ones that pummel the audience into submission. Rather, they're the ones that activate the imagination and give a kid something more to think about than the usual pithy lessons.


I get it. I really do. It's billed as a viking movie and that sets up certain expectations: blood, disemboweling, rape, pillage, etc. So when said movie fails to deliver the goods (well, except the disemboweling and blood), it kinda upsets people. But I found the actual movie here really interesting--sort of like Terence Malick remaking Aguirre, the Wrath of God from a script by Joseph Campbell. It's pretentious as hell at times, but I found it to be bracing stuff, especially when the drone-metal soundtrack kicked in and tore through the Ryerson. Plus, I think there's actually some really interesting things going on here, ideas about the mysteries of mythology that really got me thinking. Plus, did I mention the drone-metal soundtrack? That kicked ass.

MOST BAFFLING MOVIE OF THE FESTVIAL: Les Herbes Folles (Alain Resnais)

In any normal year, Symbol would fill this category, since a movie about a man who strokes cherub penises to make things happen in the world seems like a shoo-in. But thinking back on Symbol, what resonates is how normal penis-stroking becomes once we've accepted the film's logic. It's bizarre, but nothing like the constantly shifting logic of Resnais' film. Les Herbes Folles looks and plays like a fairly straightforward comedy-romance, but something's a little off about it from the very beginning. Characters seem to change their behavior on a whim and what begins as a strange romantic comedy soon becomes...well, an even stranger romantic comedy. There's a false ending, out-of-place musical cues, a narrator who seems to be making the story up as he goes along, and a major character who is introduced about halfway through the film. On top of this are the Bunuelian touches--the 70-ish Andre Dussolier playing a man in his 50's, his wife of 30 years who is clearly in her 30's, an aviation team straight out of a cornball 40's war movie. And topping it off is an ending so out of left field I'm still laughing almost two weeks later. I'm not sure what all of it means, but it was certainly unlike anything else at the festival.


Castaway on the Moon was the most mainstream film I saw at TIFF this year, and since I often enjoy mainstream movies, this isn't necessarily a complaint. It has romance, a lightly absurd premise, some timely social commentary, and lots of big laughs. And if the screening I attended was any indication, it works its audience like crazy--it easily got the most joyous audience response I saw at TIFF this year. But it will sadly never be a big hit in North America. It probably won't even get distributed into theaters and a DVD is most likely a few years in the future, if ever. Why? It's Korean and it's not a genre film (misleading title to the contrary). And even then, it would never, ever be mainstream, especially in the US, where subtitles are the kiss of death at the box-office (this despite the recent success of Inglourious Basterds, which had subtitles galore).

Sorry for the rant. It's just that something as charming as Castaway on the Moon deserves better than to be shunted off to the margins. The story is simple: Kim, a young man in deep financial and personal straits, hurls himself off a bridge into the Han river in Seoul. When he regains consciousness, he finds himself stranded on a deserted island about a hundred feet from the shore. Surrounded by the city, yet completely isolated from it, he begins to rebuild his life from the debris around him. It's basically Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away recast as a weird, gentle comedy, but it works because the situation, as absurd as it is, is an immediate and affecting metaphor for modern living and the desire in all of us for meaning in our lives. Plus, it's very, very funny. As of right now, this has no distribution lined up, but keep an eye out for it just in case. It's highly recommended.

That's it for part 2. In my last installment, I'll lay down my favorites, least-favorites and everything else I couldn't fit into this one. Coming as soon as I can get my lazy ass to finish this...

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