TIFF 2013: So… many…. subtitles!

Now, I don’t always seen foreign films at the Toronto International Film Fest.  I mean, the other year I was at the premiere of Goon at the Ryerson Theatre, where I also remember seeing a few other big-budget screenings.  For one, I was there for the Robert De Niro/Edward Norton vehicle Stone, where Dalton McGuinty was in attendance–but neither male lead.  I’ve also seen Darren Araonofsky’s The Wrestler (brilliant), Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla (forgettable), and a few other Hollywood films that eventually made their way to theatres.  Hell, the best movie I saw at last year’s festival, Disconnect, was Made-in-America, though it never got a widespread domestic release.  (I guess Hollywood just wasn’t ready for Jason Bateman in a dramatic role…)

But this year, I didn’t see one single Hollywood film.  From Arabic to Icelandic, Spanish to Finnish, Dutch to Japanese, there were a whole lotta words scrolling across the screen at my eight screenings.  Twas just as well that I attended Canadian indie film The Dick Knost Show at 9 am–I’m not sure my brain was ready to do much reading at that hour of the morning.  Anyways, you might not actually get a chance to see any of these movies again, but here’s what I thought of ‘em–from best to worst.

1. Heart of a Lion (Finland/Sweden, directed by Dome Karukoski): Much like Disconnect last year, this movie saw a stream of festival-goers stuffing the ballot boxes upon exiting the theatre.  So it didn’t win People’s Choice, but it certainly left an impression.  As I suspected, this was sorta like Finland’s answer to American History X–call it Finnish History X if you must–albeit with enough violence and brutality to make the former look like Driving Miss Daisy.  (Who knew those Finns were so feisty!?)  Heart of a Lion does take a similar approach in following a neo-Nazi skinhead who’s realized the errors of his ways, but while Edward Norton comes to his conclusions in prison, Karukoski’s character is placed in an awkward situation where his new girlfriend happens to have a black son.  So there’s a lot of humour amongst the violence, albeit of a decidedly dark nature.  It’s hard to walk away from this movie unmoved, put it that way.

2. The Dick Knost Show (Canada, directed by Bruce Sweeney): A clever take on concussions in sports, this Canadian film turns the issue on its head by following a radio shock-jock who suffers a severe head injury playing squash.  The titular character, who’s clearly patterned after Bob McCown–although the film’s set in Vancouver–must deal with the incessant urging of his colleagues to hurry back to work as an unqualified rube tries to run his show into the ground, much to the network’s delight.  I won’t spoil anything, but the closing scene had me laughing so hard I almost choked on vomit… and yes, that Spinal Tap reference is in the movie, too!

3. Metalhead (Iceland, directed by Ragnar Bragason): A heavy-metal coming of age tale in a far-off land, where I just happen to have ancestral ties.  I’ve never been to Iceland, but this movie could really have been set in rural Manitoba, or any other wintry farm country for that matter.  Alas, this movie’s not just about the rebellious girl who terrorizes the town, it’s also about dealing with loss.  The female lead only gets into metal after her older brother dies in a bizarre farming accident, and his memory still haunts her parents several years later.  Speaking of closings, this movie just might make the best use of Megadeth of any motion picture–including Last Action Hero!

4. Border (Italy, directed by Alessio Cremonini): Although it was set along the Syrian border and the dialogue is entirely in Arabic, this Italian-directed film almost has the feel of a gritty spaghetti western.  The anti-hero even looks a bit like Clint… well, he’s got the beard down, anyways.  Alas, this is another film too brutal for Hollywood, with hardly a happy ending.  But hey, it’s not like the Syrian conflict’s gonna end with flowers and valentines.  Though I think that was the plan in Iraq, wasn’t it? ;)

5. Unforgiven (Japan, directed by Lee Sang-il): Speaking of Eastwood, this Japanese remake of his Oscar-winning western is pretty epic.  Then again, so was the original.  And while there’s probably more swordplay than gunfights in this version–though there are plenty of guns, too–they otherwise remain pretty faithful to the original.  Though I hadn’t seen Clint’s film in a little while, I pretty much knew what was going to happen in this one.  What really sets this version apart is the scenery, with the ruggedly beautiful island of Hokkaido serving as an impressive backdrop.  But for my money’s worth, there shouldn’t be any guns in a samurai film.  That just didn’t seem right.

6. Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story (Canada, directed by Barry Avrich): Little did I know that this very film would be screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox shortly after the festival–but at least I got to see Bob Guccione Jr. in the flesh.  Turns out that rumour about his old man wanting to put Pia Zadora on the cover of Spin was true.  Anyways, suffice to say the elder Guccione led a fascinating life, and a 90-minute documentary isn’t going to adequately cover all of it.  But by only interviewing his friends and colleagues, we’re left with a rather one-sided account of this fairly controversial figure.  I mean, I would have loved to see what Jerry Falwell thinks of the publisher of Penthouse–had he not predeceased him by a couple years.  For the record, Hef still refuses to acknowledge his existence, unless Miss America’s on the cover…

7. Borgman (Netherlands, directed by Alex van Warmerdam): Another surprisingly violent foreign film, although this one presents violence in a fairytale kind of way that’s sometimes comes across as comical.  Tis an originally perverse concept that’s almost equal parts Peter Pan, Robin Hood and Tony Soprano, with the underlying message that capitalism is bad, and we should all just live in the woods and spike rich people’s drinks… or something.

8. El Mudo (Peru/France/Mexico, directed by Diego Vega and Daniel Vega): Now, I thought this Peruvian film had an interesting, if somewhat less original premise.  A hard-nosed judge is shot in the throat and left to find the attempted assassin on his own despite losing his ability to speak.  The film equally focuses on the family tensions surrounding not just his muteness, but his difficulty in providing for his family as a result.  There’s also the fact that he lost his mother, a female judge, in a car accident several years ago.  But what has the makings of a pretty decent movie completely falls apart in the end.  Would it be considered a spoiler to say that nothing gets resolved here?  While some low-budget films opt for a quickie ending knowing that they’re almost out of tape, El Mudo simply doesn’t bother to tie up any loose ends, leaving me puzzled and unfulfilled.  On a side note, while I couldn’t quite comprehend what the Peruvian equivalent of “fuck” is, I can tell you it’s not all that different from the Mexican chingar.  So at least I sorta got something outta this screening…

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TIFF 2013: Hey, this back-half pass ain’t so bad!

After yesterday, when I only got to buy tix for three of my six flick picks after spending four-and-a-half hours in the Virtual Waiting Room of Doom (and not even true doom–I’m talking like My Dying Bride or something), I was a little apprehensive about the availability of decent screenings for my back-half pack.  But much to my surprise, every single film I wanted to see after Tuesday still had tickets available–and I even had to make a couple tough choices in the process!  As a result, I won’t be catching the new Bruce McDonald flick until it hits (Canadian art-house) theatres, but I will be attending the following screenings:

El Mudo (Peru/France/Mexico, directed by Diego Vega and Daniel Vega)

I gotta say, I’m a big fan of the new FX drama The Bridge–or at least I was, until the super-lameo plot twist in last week’s episode.  That said, I sometimes feel that the show tends to offer an overly Americanized view of Mexico.  Enter El Mudo, a “black comedy and offbeat crime procedural” about a justice-driven judge with a whole lotta enemies.  And while it might be too soon to call the Vega brothers the Peruvian Coens, their first feature did win a jury prize at Cannes.  Hmm, so apparently the movie isn’t actually set in Mexico, but hey, as long as it doesn’t have some dead FBI agent who takes another man’s identity and goes around killing cops and hookers, it should still be good.  Erm, spoiler alert?

Borgman (Netherlands, directed by Alex van Warmerdam)

This Dutch film has been described as Kafkaesque and “somewhat related to the recent home invasion sub-genre,” which I didn’t even know was a thing.  It also features “a tribe of strange nomads,” the “psychosexual tensions” of the bourgeoisie and at least one senseless beating.  Sounds like the perfect date flick–if you enjoy drawing Richard Ramirez-inspired graffiti in your apartment elevator.

The Dick Knost Show (Canada, directed by Bruce Sweeney)

This domestic flick deals with a controversial sports radio host who takes an extended leave of absence after suffering an on-air concussion.  And here I was wondering what happened to Bob McCown…

Unforgiven (Japan, directed by Lee Sang-il)

When I read this synopsis, my jaw hit the floor.  A Japanese samurai flick based on the classic Clint Eastwood Oscar-winning Western!?  This could be the best thing since Sukiyaki Western Django!  (Saw that one at Midnight Madness back in ’07, BTW.)

Heart of a Lion (Finland/Sweden, directed by Dome Karukoski)

This was the most intriguing of my Saturday evening options.  A Finnish film in which a neo-Nazi skinhead falls for a woman with a black son.  Sorta like American History X, but without the curb-stomping.  The TIFF synopsis notes that director “Karukoski’s last film was the raucous hoser comedy Lapland Odyssey.”  Remind me to look for that one in Queen Video…

If you’re keeping track at home, I’m taking in films this year from Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan, Finland, Peru and a couple from Canada (which includes yesterday’s purchases).  I don’t wanna say that my experience with the screaming Johnny Depp fan-girls at last year’s fest ruined American cinema for me… but hey, I live a block away from a Cineplex now, so I can just wait till the Hollywood blockbusters hit regular theatres. ;)

TIFF 2013: And just as I was about to abandon all hope, the seas parted, and I was able to buy my festival tickets…

Don’t get me wrong, single-ticket-sale day for TIFF is always a gigantic clusterfuck, to the point where I finally decided to pick up a ticket pack this year.  But alas, twas the dreaded back-half pack, whose tickets aren’t made available for purchase until September 2nd, the day after non-pack-rats make their picks.  While looking at the schedule, I realized there were a few films that I just couldn’t wait to see, lest they sell out.  As it turns out, after four-and-a-half hours in the virtual waiting room, half of them were already off-sale.  *insert multilingual string of swear words here*

Now, I remember back in the good ol’ days, when the TIFF website would crash as soon as the box-office opened.  Somehow, by a stroke of beginner’s luck, I nabbed tix for Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey before their web infrastructure crumbled, going down for the next 24 hours.  Of course, they’ve made things a bit more robust since ’05, but they still seem incapable of containing the massive one-day surge in web traffic every year.  Case in point: despite joining the queue right at 9 am, I waited nearly four-and-a-half hours before getting in to make my ticket selections.  That’s 16,200 seconds, in case you were wondering. ;)

Now I dunno guy, but I don’t think these constantly-refreshing, to-the-second countdowns make matters any better.  Me, I’d much rather be told upfront I had a four-hour wait ahead than to be given the false impression that it was initially only 1800 seconds–speaking of which, what’s with keeping time in seconds, anyways?  So you figure, OK, I’ll get through in half an hour or so, but in reality, it took me the entire freakin’ morning, and a pretty decent chunk of the afternoon, to boot!

Now to be fair, I think I have waited in line for that amount of time a couple times in my life–but that was only because I wanted to be front-and-centre for Iron Maiden.  (Y’know, back in the day when gigs at the ACC had general-admission floors.)  And hey, when you’re physically standing in line, at least you can talk to people, pass a joint, pick up a bootlegged t-shirt–I actually have one that says Tony Iomi on it cuz I didn’t notice it was missing an “m” after all that, erm, second-hand smoke.  But when you’re in a virtual waiting room, you hafta find ways to keep yourself occupied… and that black screen with the white numbers isn’t much of a masturbatory aide.

At first, I was able to catch up on my emails, then my blog stats, and even my social media updates in a separate window, but after a couple hours, I was all caught up already.  I’d even adopted the habit of tweeting whenever my time-count got reset, which happened at least half-a-dozen times.  That’s when I stumbled across some success stories of people who got in after half an hour–because they had nine browser windows open.  Now, I figured that if TIFF really respected the line system, it shouldn’t matter how many windows you have, as long as you get there early.  But since these time-counts kept resetting to seemingly arbitrarily-assigned numbers, it appeared that it’s not about how long you’ve waited, but whether there’s an opening in the ticket booth when your clock ticks down to zero.  Imagine if you’d waited all afternoon to see Iron Maiden, but then the bouncer started randomly picking people out of the line and letting them in.  That’s kinda how I felt.

Thus, after three hours I opened a second window, and then a third.  By my fourth hour, I was up to six.  I even had them stacked on my screen so I could watch them all at once, rendering my computer otherwise useless.  To pass the time, I read a book, ran down to pay my rent and even made it across the street to pick up a burrito.  Of course, I timed said excursions to occur when each window had at least 600 seconds on the clock, so I wouldn’t miss any potential opportunity.

That said, once I scarfed down my burrito, I was starting to get a bit bummed out.  It was already after 1 pm, and I felt the day starting to slip away.  I even sent out a discouraged tweet, stating “Well, I don’t think it really matters anymore. After 4.5 hours in the #VirtualWaitingRoom, I don’t think I’m getting tix.:(”  But then, the moment I pressed “Tweet,” that’s when the magic happened.  I got in!  Honestly, I would have only given it another half-hour, tops, before I gave up.  But like I said, three of the six films I wanted to see on the opening weekend were already off-sale by then.  Here’s what I am seeing next week, though:

Border (Italy, directed by Alessio Cremonini)

With Obama preparing to go to war in Syria, and the British parliament narrowly voting against it (good thing our government is too busy raising fees on concert venues!), this topic couldn’t be more timely.  Set against the backdrop of the Syrian Civil War, tis a tale of two sisters who must escape to Turkey after their family switches sides.  And yes, this conflict’s been going on long enough already that movies about it are starting to hit the festival circuit…

Metalhead (Iceland, directed by Ragnar Bragason)

An Icelandic film called Metalhead!?  You had me at Halló!  Yes, I am part Icelandic, although the premise of a “darkly comic drama about a grief-stricken young woman who adopts the persona — and decibel-blasting predilections — of her deceased brother” sounds like it would be right up my alley, anyways.  Did I mention that the first TIFF screening I ever attended was Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey?  On that note, there’s no way in hell I’d shell out 25 bucks to see Metallica Through the Never, even if it is screening next Monday. ;)

Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story (Canada, directed by Barry Avrich)

A couple years back, I saw a fantastic two-hour documentary on Hugh Hefner at TIFF (I think it was 2010).  And yes, I’ve also watched The People vs. Larry Flynt a couple of times.  Thus, rounding out the trio of porno impresarios is Guccione, the former publisher of Penthouse.  Truth be told, I was slightly more interested in the Ralph Steadman bio-pic For No Good Reason, but some some (good?) reason, it’s only screening once–and, you guessed it, sold-out.  The two docs were both playing at the same time, anyways, so the virtual waiting room made up my mind on this one.

That being said, while I won’t be going for same-day seats For No Good Reason, there are a couple films that I might be queuing up at 7 am for.  Last year, I very nearly scored a same-day ticket for Spring Breakers, only to have it snatched from my hands before I could check out.  While the Harmony Korine flick did eventually make its way to theatres, I don’t think these two Canadian films will see such a widespread release… so if I can somehow see ‘em at the festival, that would be super:

The F Word (Canada/Ireland, directed by Michael Dowse)

What’s this, a romantic comedy directed by Michael Dowse of FUBAR, FUBAR II and Goon fame–starring Harry Fuckin’ Potter, of all people!?  This, I almost gotta see to believe!  (I presume there’s at least one scene where Daniel Radcliffe stabs a can of Old Style Pilsener with a knife and chugs it all down in one gulp, right?)  That being said, I’m not sure I wanna get up at 7 am on Saturday or Sunday for same-day tickets.  Hey, the guy directed the highest-grossing Canadian film of 2012–surely this one will eventually be showing at the Cineplex, eh?

All the Wrong Reasons (Canada, directed by Gia Milani)

This was the movie that killed Cory Monteith, so I can sorta see why it sold out.  Well okay, perhaps the shooting didn’t directly lead to his death, but methinks the former teen idol might have needed a whole lotta heroin to get into his character of a jilted department-store manager.  In any case, the Glee fan-girls know he won’t be showing up at the screening, right?

Putting the back (of the line) back in back-half pack…

It’s almost September, which means it’s totally TIFF time in Toronto.  They just unveiled the full film schedule yesterday, actually, although I haven’t had time to take a look yet.  (Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out when I can make it down to the Lightbox to see A Band Called Death–it’s only showing till next Thursday!)

This year, I decided to switch things up and purchase a ticket pack.  Never have before, but I figure I’d be good for at least six screenings anyways, so what the hey.  It just so happens that the back-half pack was offering six films for 68 bucks, which is actually cheaper than Cineplex.  And hey, I’ve done TIFF every year since I moved here in ’05, and I’ve had the odd occasion where I’ve been outta town for the first weekend, so I don’t really mind seeing movies on the backstretch.

Granted, most of the movie stars don’t stick around for the Q&As during the festival’s second week, and there might be less prestige in attending the third-ever screening of something instead of the premiere, but really, I’m just here for the movies.  Last year, I had to endure the whole media/fangirl circus when Johnny Depp made a token appearance when all I wanted to do was watch a documentary on the West Memphis Three.  Shouldda just waited till it hit Bloor Hot Docs, but anyhoo…

Alas, an added perk of the ticket packs is that you can make your selections before single tickets go on sale September 1st.  That is, unless you purchased–you guessed it–a back-half pack.  While I’m sure this was clearly stated when I bought the thing a couple months back, I had promptly forgotten about said sinister clause until the TIFF chatter recently began anew.

Can I just say this sucks more than a Dyson convention at the Hoover Dam?  I mean, I get that the second week isn’t the most popular part of the fest, but still, I’ve pre-committed to seeing (at least) six screenings this year.  How come I hafta wait until a full day after all the peons make their picks!?  Now, if there’s a movie I really, really, really wanna see, I’m gonna hafta join the crowds in the clusterfuck next Saturday to make sure I get a seat.  Let’s just hope their computer system doesn’t crash, or boot me to the back of the queue or something…

After all, it wouldn’t be the first time. :(

My take on TIFF 2012: The end of the world as we know it…

If the world does indeed come to an end in a couple months–provided there isn’t a rapture between now and December, that is–at least the Toronto International Film Festival will have gone out on top.  I’ve been going to TIFF for seven years, and this would hafta be the first time that I didn’t see one film I truly disliked.  I sure know how to pick ‘em, I guess.  That said, there were three other films on my hit list that completely sold out before I could get tickets through the much-improved online order system, so I’ll be marking at least a couple potential release dates on my calendar next year.  (Note to self: Spring Breakers, the new Harmony Korine film with a buncha Disney princesses doing very unprincessly things, is set to open March 5th.)  But of the seven movies I did see, here’s how I would rank them:

1. Disconnect (USA, directed by Henry Alex Rubin): Rubin was nominated for an Oscar in 2006–albeit in the documentary film category for Murderball.  That said, I would not be surprised to see this one up for Best Picture in 2014, based on artistic merit, anyways.  What 2006 Oscar-winner Crash did for racism, Disconnect does for the internet, and while some of the former’s scenes seemed a little over-dramatized (the burning car on the freeway, for instance), the latter feels very real.  I overheard several people muttering about how they were going to go home and change their passwords as they dropped their tickets in the People’s Choice ballot box.  Disconnect may lack the starpower of People’s Choice winner Silver Linings Playbook (starring a certain Mr. De Niro), but the ensemble cast does an excellent job here.  It likely won’t be a blockbuster, but I’d definitely suggest you see this movie.

2. West of Memphis (USA, directed by Amy Berg): Speaking of blockbusters, this one is set to hit theatres on Christmas Day.  But while people paid 40 bucks a pop to catch a glimpse of Johnny Depp, he only appears on screen for about a minute in this extensive documentary about the ongoing West Memphis Three murder case.  Berg, herself an Oscar-nominated documentarian (Deliver Us from Evil, 2007), followed the case for several years, capturing footage from outside the courtroom when the wrongfully-accused were set free–along with the three men’s separate reunions with their loved ones.  It’s pretty powerful stuff.  Alas, as the Three copped an Alford plea, they’re still considered guilty by the state of Arkansas, and the fight for a full exoneration continues.  Depp was just doing his part to help the cause by drawing so many people to this screening. ;)

3. Liverpool (Canada, directed by Manon Briand): This is one you won’t get to see in theatres–even if you live in Quebec, where its theatrical run is probably over, having been released August 3rd.  Though the Quebec press seemed pretty lukewarm on Liverpool, it received generally positive feedback from regular folks, and I’d have to side with them.  The story seems a little far-fetched at times, but it’s certainly an original tale blending romance and action with some charming young stars like the très cute Stéphanie Lapointe.  Overall, it’s an original take on an epic crime story, much like personal favourite Bon Cop, Bad Cop–though it doesn’t really have much in common with said film, aside from a slight scent of Canadiana.  On that note, I’ll definitely hafta rewatch Bon Cop a couple times over the NHL lockout, rewinding that scene where they lock Commissioner “Harry Buttman” in the trunk of a car a few times, at least…

4. 9.79* (UK, directed by Daniel Gordon): For a film loaded with Canadiana, look no further than this doc.  While directed by a Brit, the latest installment in ESPN’s 30 at 30 series focuses on one of our countries greatest athletic achievements–albeit one that’s forever tainted.  Usain Bolt may have shaved two-tenths of a second off Ben Johnson’s time at the ’88 Olympics, but Johnson was still incredibly fast.  Of course, he was also on drugs–but so were most of his competition.  While catching up with Johnson and all the other finalists from that race in Seoul, the film also sheds a new light on Golden Boy Carl Lewis, and it’s perhaps here that this doc benefits from a British–or at least, non-American–perspective.  If you walk away from 9.79* believing that Lewis never used PEDs, well, chances are you probably believe there were WMDs in Iraq, too.

5. Underground (Australia, directed by Robert Connolly): Albeit not a straight-up documentary film, Underground is certainly based on real-life events.  Following WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from his years as a teenage hacker up to his arrest by Australian police, the film seems to romanticize the actions of Assange while poking fun at the bumbling cops who tried to keep up with him.  It’s hard to believe now, but back in 1989 there were plenty of grown men who had never seen a computer before, whereas the 17-year-old hacker was already uncovering U.S. military targets through a dial-up modem.  On the other hand, it doesn’t paint Assange as a very good teenaged father; he knocked up his  girlfriend (apparently on their first roll in the hay), and clearly put family second to being a shit-disturber.  Yeah, I suppose that doesn’t surprise me…

6. A Liar’s Autobiography — The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman (UK, directed by Ben Timlett, Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson): This film being so low on my list shows that it was a bit of a disappointment.  Don’t get me wrong, the animation was awfully impressive, as they employed a dozen different studios and about as many different styles–albeit without making full use of the 3D technology.  (Neither do most 3D movies, mind you.)  However, the pervasive emotion here was sadness, not silliness, despite a few bursts of cheeky Python humour here and there.  Not only was this film a bit of a drag, it also seemed to drag on a bit, and I was starting to lose interest by the end of it.  Although it’s an ambitious effort to capture Chapman’s mockubiography on film, I think this might be another case where the book is better than the movie.

7. Wasteland (UK, directed by Roman Athale): Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a terrible film by any stretch–though it was hardly a ground-breaking cinematic effort, either.  Festival curator Cameron Bailey might have oversold it a bit as Ocean’s Eleven meets The Usual Suspects, though.  To me, it was more of a low-budget, less-action Guy Ritchie-type film; a less bloody Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels meets a less ambitious RocknRolla.  (For what it’s worth, I actually saw the latter at TIFF ’08, and didn’t find it particularly memorable.)  Though the young cast tackles the dark subject matter admirably–and, I gotta say, love interest Vanessa Kirby is a total knockout–the storyline seemed vaguely familiar, and I was able to foresee the dramatic twist a few minutes before it unfolded.  Not a bad directorial debut, but I’m not sure Athale is the next Guy Ritchie, either.

And there you have it, folks.  I’m already looking forward to TIFF 2013, as long as we’re not all underwater by then. ;)

My TIFF 2012 take on… the problem’s plain to see–too much technology!

Just got out of a screening of Underground a couple hours ago, an Australian docu-drama documenting the rise of Julian Assange.  Though the film doesn’t explain how he got into hacking in the first place, it does detail how he managed to cause quite a bit of trouble back when he was 17 to 19 years old by hacking into U.S. military databases at the onset of the Gulf War–and a couple years prior to the internet, at that.  It also depicts his first sexual encounter–and no, he didn’t use a condom then, either.  The film, set mostly in-between 1989 and 1991, is a nod to the vintage technology of the time; Commodore computers, dial-up modems and pay phones on every corner–to say nothing of the Adidas tracksuits and Midnight Oil.  The casting director was able to find a young actor who looks a lot like Assange, while TV vet Anthony LaPaglia (“Without a Trace”) returns to his native country to play the detective on his tail.  Obviously, they catch him in the end, but he’s let off with a slap on the wrist and a $2,100 fine because he and his family were chased across the country by a neo-nazi cult throughout his childhood.  I kid you not!

On that note, modern-day technology plays a crucial role in what were probably the two best films I’ve seen at the festival this year.  Both should be coming soon to a theatre near you–at least if you live in Quebec.

The one that will surely see a more widespread release is Disconnect, the first foray into directing fiction for Henry Alex Rubin, best known for the Oscar-nominated documentary Murderball.  He’s assembled a large, talented ensemble cast including Alexander Skarsgård and Jason Bateman, who shines in a rare dramatic role.  This film takes several narratives based on the real-life perils of the internet (cyber-bulling, credit-card fraud, webcams) and weaves them together, bringing everything to a head at the same time as the online world proves to have real-life consequences.  A gripping, riveting film with great acting and all-too-believable storylines; this is Crash for the cyber-generation.  Incidentally, Rubin was in attendance when that film won Best Picture in ’06.  If Disconnect gets the right distribution, I can see it being a contender next year.  According to IMDB, it opens April 12, 2013.

The other film might not win any awards (well, maybe a couple Jutras), but it won me over with its original, if somewhat implausible scenarios.  Liverpool has nothing to do with England; rather, it’s the name of a bar in Montreal that plays the Renée Martel hit from the 60′s like it’s going out of style.  (Suffice to say, the song features quite prominently in the movie’s soundtrack.)  The first feature film in a decade from Québecoise director Manon Briand, it introduces us to a pair of brilliant young actors in Charles-Alexandre Dubé and Stéphanie Lapointe.

He’s a shy social-media guru and technology expert who reminds me of a younger François Létourneau in his most famous role as P.A. in Les Invincibles.  (I think there’s even a bit of a resemblance between the two…)  She’s a naive coat-check girl from up north with a child-like voice and a heart of gold, kind of a cross between Amélie Poulain and Zooey Deschanel, who gets more than she bargains for when she decides to bring a dead girl’s jacket back to the deceased’s hotel room.  Together they stumble upon a vast international conspiracy that involves the Mafia, Big Business and even the Canadian government, but in the end, they show that social media can make a difference in this world, with a playful nod to Kony 2012.  A charming, well-written adventure, even if you do have to suspend disbelief at times.  Hopefully they’ll bring it back to the Lightbox or maybe the Cumberland sometime down the road…

My TIFF take on… the truth–stranger than fiction?

So, I saw a couple great docs back-to-back at my first day of the festival yesterday.  Was a little pressed for time getting from one to the other, especially with the subway being delayed (Who schedules track work during one of the city’s biggest events!?  Seriously…) but between frantically hailing a cab and straight-up sprinting, I made it to the back of the line in time for my second screening.  Ben Johnson would’ve been proud. ;)

In fact, the reason I was almost late was because the man himself showed up for a Q&A session after the world premiere of 9.79*, the latest ESPN 30 at 30 feature documentary.  That time, of course, was the world-record set by Johnson in ’88, which stood for, oh, about three days before he tested positive.  The doc interviews all eight of the finalists in that race–six of whom would eventually test positive, or be otherwise involved in drug-related incidents–including Carl Lewis, who never actually testing positive for PEDs, but the movie kinda makes you wonder.

Though eight runners all receive a certain amount of screentime, the focus was on the duel between Lewis and Johnson in the years leading up to the Olympics.  You can clearly see the contrast of personalities between the brash, overconfident American and the quiet, soft-spoken Canadian runner, even from interviews conducted all these years later–and from a Canadian viewpoint, it doesn’t paint Carl Lewis in a good light.  As it turns out, Johnson hasn’t spoken to his former rival since 1988, but mentioned that he’s developing a film about how stronger nations, like, say, America, are able to shield their athletes from drug testing.  I’m sure that’ll go over well in the States…

Almost 25 years later, Johnson seems like he isn’t as upset about cheating as he is about getting caught.  One thing that really jumped out at me, however, is that a young member of Lewis’ track club was actually inside the doping control room at the ’88 Games, and Johnson’s claim that he slipped something into his beer was given credence by the fact that the man in question refused to be interviewed on camera, but apparently told director Daniel Gordon that he “may or may not have” drugged Ben Johnson after the race.  Now that’s some crazy shit, right there!

Speaking of craziness, the excellent documentary West of Memphis certainly shines a light on the weird ways of the American justice system, particularly in the state of Arkansas, home of the notorious West Memphis 3 murder case.  Though the nationwide Satanic ritual scare has sort of subsided by 1993, local police decided to spin some crazy tale of Satanic slaughter instead of doing their job.  They forced a confession by putting words in the mouth of a mentally-handicapped boy, but didn’t even bother to interview the step-dad of one of the murder victims, who wasn’t brought in for informal questioning until several years later.  Director Amy Berg started filming well into the ongoing saga, but was able to get most of the key players on film, either herself or through news footage, and was there when the judge delivered the verdict that set the three falsely-accused men free, albeit via an “Alford plea” where they pleaded guilty but proclaimed their innocence.  (Yeah, I’m still scratching my head about that one, too…)

But the troubles don’t end there for the three men.  Damien Echols, the perceived ring-leader, had to fight tooth-and-nail to cross the border and attend this screening, as he’s still considered a criminal in the eyes of the United States.  Unable to hold down a “regular” job, he’s relying on the film, and an upcoming autobiography, to raise some money–but more importantly, to get the word out as he continues to fight for his full exoneration.  They plan on holding free screenings across the state of Arkansas in the next couple months, where some of the people who put the WM3 in prison happen to be up for reelection.  Otherwise, the movie hits theatres on Christmas Day, though you might not wanna take your kids to see it.

And yes, Johnny Depp was there, too.  Judging by the camera-flashes and hysterical screams, I’d say that more people paid 40 bucks to get a glimpse of him than to see Damien Echols in the flesh.  But hey, all those screaming fan-girls still had to sit through a nearly three-hour film about social injustice, so kudos to Depp for using his star power to help spread the word.  Whether or not the celeb-chasers will do anything to support the cause or simply return to their vapid lives is another story, mind you.

One person whose life was anything but dull was Graham Chapman, the British comedian and Monty Python cast-member who played a starring role in the Jesus-spoof Life of Brian, among many other colourful characters (he was also Biggus Dickus in the same film, for instance).  His 1980 mock-memoir “A Liar’s Autobiography: Volume VI” has been turned into a 3D film featuring contributions from the rest of the Python gang–though I’m told it’s not exactly, well,  historically accurate.  In any case, I can’t wait to see it tomorrow night. :)

My TIFF 2012 film list

I gotta say, while buying tickets for TIFF remains a pain in the ass, this year was less painful than most.  One thing to watch out for, however, is the SQL Server Errors. Once again, the website’s servers aren’t robust enough to handle the sudden influx of traffic, which tends to create a few problems along the way.  I discovered this myself when after some 1800 seconds (aka half an hour) spent in the virtual waiting room, I landed on a Server Error page as soon as I got through.  After getting back in line, I made it in the next time, but saw several more error screens when navigating through the schedule.

A word to the wise:  Don’t hit refresh or close your browser in anger.  The back button is your friend, and will keep your session intact, though you may need to hit it a couple times.  I had the misfortune of springing an error page when I went to pay for my tickets not once, not twice, but three times, though it seems that they only charged me once I finally got through, thankfully…

Another thing I’ve learned from my years attending TIFF (this will be my seventh festival; I moved here just in time for the ’05 edition) is that you can’t always get what you want to see.  If you’ve budgeted for five screenings, you’d better pick six or seven films, cuz a couple are bound to sell out–especially if you’re not the first in line.  I had nine movies on my radar screen this year, two of which managed to sell out three screenings each in less than an hour, so be forewarned…

That said, here are the seven films I’ll be seeing over the next couple weeks:

9.79* (UK, directed by Daniel Gordon)

About a month after Canada’s lukewarm performance at London 2012, this documentary looks back at what was then this country’s greatest Olympic triumph–and subsequently became our largest national sporting disgrace.  Though Donovan Bailey would eventually wash the taste of Ben Johnson out of our mouths, the fact remains that the first Canadian to become the World’s Fastest Man did so on PEDs.  But did you know that six of the eight runners in that final race in ’88 would later test positive, too?  This film is said to take a closer look, both at what happened in Seoul, and also at the greater impact of the steroid culture surrounding sports today.  No word as to whether Ben Johnson will be attending the Q&A session, but you might be able to spot him hawking Cheetah Energy Drinks on Bloor St. afterwards. ;)

West of Memphis (USA, directed by Amy Berg)

Though I usually avoid the gala events, I shelled out the extra bucks for this Premium screening at the Ryerson Theatre–and not because Johnny Depp and the Dixie Chicks will be in attendance.  When I was a teenager, I certainly could’ve been considered an “outsider with a taste for heavy metal music and the occult,” and thus the story of the West Memphis 3 really hits home for me.  Let’s just say that had I grown up in Tennessee, not Calgary, I might’ve ended up on death row with these guys.  Not only does the two-and-a-half hour documentary tell the story of the falsely-accused headbangers’ decade-plus prison stint, but Damien Echols, the man who was facing death for a crime he didn’t commit, will also be there for the Q&A.  Suffice to say this is a long more meaningful than some swanky Hollywood premiere, so I don’t mind paying roughly what it costs to see a big-name band at The Phoenix or The Opera House for this one.

A Liar’s Autobiography — The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman (UK, directed by Ben Timlett, Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson)

This is another screening I just had to see.  (Note that the Saturday showing is already sold-out.)  Graham Chapman’s 1980 mock-bio A Liar’s Autobiography (Volume VI) has been put to film, narrated by the man himself.  This one apparently features appearances by his surviving Monty Python castmates, though it also appears to be mostly animated.  Did I mention the film’s being shown in 3D?  It’s bound to be rather silly, I presume…

Disconnect (USA, directed by Henry Alex Rubin)

The closest thing to a major motion picture I’ll be taking in at TIFF, this is said to be a tale of multiple interwoven narratives portraying how the internet, social media and the like, is ruining our lives, with an ensemble cast featuring Jason Bateman and Michael Nyqvist among others.  Personally, I avoided Facebook for years until it finally sucked me in sometime last summer.  This topic is certainly of interest to me.

Liverpool (Canada, directed by Manon Briand)

I had three French-language films on my watch list, but this is the only one I could get tickets to, a tale of a naive young coat-check girl who unwittingly gets sucked into the Montreal underworld.  Stars Louis Morissette, who’s a bit of a big deal in Quebec.  Surprised to see that Véronique Cloutier isn’t on the cast list, though.  I thought those two were joined at the hip…

Wasteland (UK, directed by Roman Athale)

Interesting to note that I’m seeing three British films this year, although this is the only drama.  Described as a cross between Ocean’s Eleven and The Usual Suspects, albeit set in Northern England, it’s Athale’s feature-length directorial debut, and the only cast-member I recognize is the guy who played that weird invisible kid on the British TV show Misfits.  I suppose this one might be hit-or-miss, but chances are I wouldn’t get to see it in theatres otherwise–and that’s the main reason I go to TIFF.

Underground (Australia, directed by Robert Connolly)

Here’s another screening that’s premiering at the perfect time.  Underworld tells the true story of how Wikileaks alleged rapist Julian Assange got his start as an 18-year-old hacker in ’89, up to his first dramatic arrest by the Australian Federal Police.  I don’t suppose he holed himself up in the Ecuadorean Embassy back then though, did he?

My take on TIFF 2011: The Good, the Bad and the Zombies

Just got back from my final screening at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.  I saw six movies this year, which is maybe a bit more than usual; it seems I generally go to four or five.  As with past years, I hand-picked a handful of independent Canadian and foreign films, avoiding the premiere galas in the process.  I just don’t see the point in paying upwards of 40 bucks (once you add the tax) for a shitty seat off to the side of a theatre, where all the good ones are reserved, just to catch a glimpse of Brad Pitt–especially when his new movie opens next weekend.  That said, I kinda wanna see Moneyball, but I’ll wait till it’s out in theatres.

The six screenings I attended can be placed under three categories: The Good, the Bad and the Zombies.  Because everybody needs a little Sergio Leone in their lives from time to time… ;)

The Good

Sons of Norway.  A side-splitting Norwegian punk-rock coming-of-age story, featuring the music of the Sex Pistols and a cameo from Mr. Rotten himself, who also showed up at the screening.  Great stuff!

The Last Gladiators.  A gripping documentary about the hockey goon centred around ex-Habs star Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, but featuring candid interviews with other former fighters as well.  This one’s actually showing one last time tomorrow nite at 9:15.  Well worth the price of admission, if there are any tickets left.  Should win the People’s Choice Documentary award in my humble opinion.

Goon.  Although the sight of Seann William Scott on skates may seem a little strange, he stars in this Michael Dowse-directed film as a kind-hearted hockey scrapper who fights his way up to the top minor league.  I’d imagine this one will get some sort of theatrical run north of the border, but I didn’t mind paying a couple extra bucks to see the premiere–even if I was seated way off to the right of the screen.

The Bad

Play.  This Swedish film just didn’t resonate with me, for whatever reason.  A true-life tale of teenage bullying, it left me feeling cold and detached in spite of the subject matter.  There is a recurring scene with a crib on the train that, while mildly humourous, doesn’t add anything to the storyline, yet they kept going back to it for comic effect.  (A bit of levity, perhaps?)  The ending scene is also slightly strange, to say the least.

Hard Core Logo II.  My curiosity drove me to see this film, despite the strong belief that a sequel to Hard Core Logo should never have been produced.  An egotistical attempt at an art film with a tenuous connection to the original, bringing back the great Bucky Haight (played by Julian Richings) as a record producer and with Toronto band Die Mannequin replacing the Hardcores.  Bruce McDonald reprises his role as the documentary filmmaker while also casting himself as the ever-present narrator, unlike in the original, where his on-screen presence was minimal.  If McDonald really wanted to reuse the name, he should have called his last film, Trigger–which I quite liked, actually–Hard Core Logo II and renamed this one Die Mannequin!  Kill!  Kill! (or something like that), ditching the Joe Dick Exorcist bullshit in the process.

The Zombies

Juan of the Dead.  The first zombie film ever shot in Cuba, Juan is certainly more like Shaun, rather than Dawn of the Dead.  It follows two loveable losers and their offspring as a zombie outbreak strikes the communist country.  There is plenty of Cuban-spiced humour on tap, like the state TV news anchor who keeps referring to the zombies as political dissidents paid by the Americans, or the mass exodus of homemade rafts from the island.  An interesting new take on a classic horror theme.

My TIFF take on… Scandinavian cinema

Just got back from my second TIFF screening, where the man, the myth, the legend John Lydon was in attendance.  I knew he was an executive producer of the film Sons of Norway, but did not think he’d be making the trip to TO.  He pretty much stole the show during the Q&A session and was definitely worth the price of admission!

Last nite, I saw the Swedish film Play, which didn’t have any of the cast or crew in attendance.  It was a rather stark film, based on real-life events in Gothenburg, where a gang of immigrant youths would us an elaborate ruse to steal cell phones from young Swedish boys.  For me, it’s a little weird to see all these 10 year old kids with their own cell phones, but I guess that’s the world we live in today, eh?

I will say that the film wasn’t nearly as disturbing as the pre-screening press made it out to be.  Maybe it was a shock to the older members of the audience–and certainly to Swedish social-democrat sensibilities–but quite frankly, I could see a similar scene taking place here in Toronto–only the kids would not be speaking Swedish, that’s for sure!

On the other hand, Sønner av Norge (Sons of Norway) was a great, light-hearted film, despite dealing with some serious subject matter.  Early on, the main character’s mother dies in a violent car accident, and there is a disheartening scene in the hospital when the family decides to pull the plug.  That said, I wouldn’t hesitate to call this film a comedy.

Following his mother’s death, young Nikolas becomes a full-fledged punk after a friend brings him the Nevermind the Bollocks LP.  Despite his best efforts to rebel, which include tossing a bottle at the school headmaster during a Norwegian Independance Day celebration, he finds that his beatnik bohemian dad has his back every step of the way.  The old man even ends up on drums at his son’s punk band’s first gig after their drummer passes out backstage!

The music of the Pistols features prominently throughout the film, and Johnny Rotten even makes a brief appearance in a crucial scene near the end.  Did I mention that he was in attendance at the screening?

On my TIFF Festival Ballot, I gave Play a two and Sons of Norway a five.  I’m hoping this is the year I finally win that Cadillac…