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…