TIFFing the scales: What to see and what to miss at TIFF 10

by Christine Estima

Scott Speedman, Paul Giamatti, and Rachelle Lefevre in a scene from Barney's Version

Scott Speedman, Paul Giamatti, and Rachelle Lefevre in a scene from Barney's Version

There are approximately 300 films being screened over a 10 day period during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and just scrolling absentmindedly through the schedule at TIFF.net is more than just a little overwhelming. What to see? What looks good? And what looks like an utter train wreck?

Luckily, we here at The GATE see a lot of bad films so you don’t have… and a lot of gems that you cannot miss. Let this be your TIFF Bible; thou shalt not forsake it.

Tamara Drewe (Sony Pictures Classics)
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper

Behind The Scenes: Tamara Drewe is based on the eponymous graphic novel by Posey Simmonds that started in serialized form, then published in the Guardian online.

Story: Tamara Drewe returns to the rural English country home of her youth to sell it off after her mother’s death. Andy (“I’m not a gardener, I’m a horticulturist!”) her old flame has been maintaining it, and sparks fly. But the neighbouring writer’s retreat, where everyone eavesdrops on each others foibles and follies, boasts a crazy cast of characters that throw a spanner into the works.

Reality: Thigh-slapping funny with one liners like “Tamara’s pulled herself into hot pants. I hope they don’t give her thrush,” on-screen chemistry that positively sizzles, genuine heartfelt performances, brilliant buffoon characters romping absentmindedly through this yarn of errors, misunderstandings, and inappropriate social graces that turns an unassuming writer’s retreat into a soap opera.. Very cleverly written, with a bright directorial vision that is timed just perfectly to keep bums in seats.

Verdict: Don’t miss it!

The Illusionist (Mongrel Media)
Director: Sylvain Chomet

Behind The Scenes: Sylvain Chomet was nominated for an Oscar a few years ago for his first animated effort Les Triplet De Belleville, and the main titular character of this film is named after Jacques Tati (the creative force and star of classics Playtime and Mon Oncle). The script is also based on one of Tati’s unproduced efforts.

Story: Tati is an illusionist in 1950s Paris where the glory and magic of pulling rabbits out of hats and pulling coins from behind ears is slowly fading from grace as the rise of rockabilly superstars steals all the fandom. Travelling to London and then Edinburgh, he captures the awe-inspired attention of a young, impoverished hotel maid who is besotted with his slight of hand. But keeping up the illusions takes it’s toll on his wallet and his heart.

Reality: As in Les Triplet De Belleville, The Illusionist is sparse on dialogue and is all the better for it, relying on the skill of the animators pencil (yes this is old-fashioned animation, no Disney Pixar here) and Chomet’s vision to tell such a luminous and heartbreaking feast of love, loss, and moving on. Chomet builds the cityscapes of each European metropolis using a layered technique of shadows and lights that dazzles beyond what an ordinary camera lens could capture. And keep an eye out for the scene-stealing rabbit in the top-hat with a mean streak.

Verdict: Thou shalt not miss it!

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (Sony Pictures Classic)
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Lucy Punch

Behind The Scenes: Set in London, continuing Woody Allen’s filmic love affair with Europe. Freida Pinto was famously cast after the success of Slumdog Millionaire

Story: Beginning with the famous Macbeth quote “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” we are introduced to a cast of characters who are all, frankly, acting like idiots, trapped in their own illusions and half-realities. Anthony Hopkins is a vulnerable senior who leaves his wife Gemma Jones for blonde bimbo Lucy Punch. Gemma Jones begins seeing a psychic charlatan who tells her what she wants to hear. Their daughter Naomi Watts is married to Josh Brolin, who each respectively pine for their boss (Antonio Baderas) and neighbour (Freida Pinto), but fulfilling these desires proves cumbersome. Consumed with their own petty problems, this gang of lovertines will screw over their own mothers to maintain the illusion.

Reality: At one point, Naomi Watts describes Gemma Jones’ preference of the psychic over medication as “Sometimes the illusions work better than the medicine” and this proves to be the overall theme here. People only see things in their lives and relationships that they want to see, and not everyone needs a psychic for that. Woody Allen isn’t covering any new territory here, or branching out into unexpected arenas. This feels like a cross between Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Whatever Works, but that doesn’t negate the quality of the comedy, the crispness of the writing, or the freshness of the characters. Quick witted dialogue example, “He left me for another woman. A deceased one. They’re often the stiffest competition.”

Verdict: Good for a laugh, but don’t expect a groundbreaking cinematic experience.

Of Gods And Men (Mongrel Media)
Director: Xavier Beauvois
Starring: Michael Lonsdale

Behind The Scenes: It won the grand prix and the prix du jury at Cannes. Based on real life events of 1996 where 7 monks in Algeria were kidnapped and murdered.

Story: Trappist monks in Maghrebian Africa refuse to leave behind the village they care for in the face of rising attacks and terrorism from Islamic fundamentalists.

Reality: Director Beauvois crafts this film with long scenes of quiet stillness, building a scape of the village and how the monks positively affect their lives, then juxtaposes these with scenes of jarring noise, and violent clashes, in an effort to portray that God is in the details. This is not exactly an African mission, as the monks study in detail the Koran and respect the local customs, and their devotion to this type of martyrdom in the face of certain death is not tackled with bravado or machismo, but rather a contemplative resolve. The prayer and chanting sequences are luminous and arguably the most stirring moments of this unpredictable film.

Verdict: In a few months time, this film will be on everyone’s Films Of The Year lists. Don’t miss this!

Another Year (Mongrel)
Director: Mike Leigh
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Ruth Sheen, Leslie Manville

Behind The Scenes: Another Year is Mike Leigh’s eleventh feature film and marks his eighth collaboration with Lesley Manville, his seventh with Jim Broadbent and fifth with Ruth Sheen.

Story: Tom and Gerri are the subject of envy and jealousy of all their friends. Tom’s friend Ken is a fall down drunk who feels left out by youth culture, and is jealous of Tom’s happy life with Gerri. Gerri’s friend and coworker Mary is a hyper-antic cougar who, in a desperate attempt for company, attempts to seduce Gerri’s son Joe. Tom and Gerri’s family has it’s own problems, and nothing is exactly perfect, but for Ken and Mary, the grass is always greener on the other side.

Reality: Imelda Staunton’s cameo in the opening scenes of this film set the tone. She confesses to therapist Gerri (played by Ruth Sheen) that she just wants someone else’s life, not her own. That is the theme of this entire film which at first might seem like just a bunch of old friends pleasantly chatting over wine and dinner, but it’s the subtext to these kitchen table conversations where the conflict actually lies. Not much of importance is said between the friends, it’s more about the looks of envy, the pangs of hurt, the moments they realize that they’ve been acting like fools, and will always be fools. This is where the genius lies in this unassuming yet potent film. If you don’t leave the cinema feeling exactly like Mary, then you’re dead inside.

Verdict: Don’t miss it!

Oliver Sherman (Mongrel)
Director: Ryan Redford
Starring: Molly Parker, Garret Dillahunt, Donal Logue

Behind The Scenes: Based on Rachel Ingallss short story “Veterans” and filmed entirely in North Bay, Ontario

Story: Sherman is a war veteran with a long scar running down the length of his head. He’s arrived in small town Ontario to find Franklin, the man who saved his life during the war. But that war wound left more than a scar on Sherman’s head, and his increasingly cryptic, offensive, and confrontational behaviour around Franklin’s wife and children puts everyone at ill-ease. Franklin begins to wonder if saving Sherman’s life was actually the right thing to do.

Reality: Feeling like a fresh-outta-film-school project, Oliver Sherman is over-written with too much exposition, and hardly subtle metaphors. The cringe factor begins early on when Sherman and Franklin wax romantic with “They say everything bad takes seven years to come to terms with – illness, a broken heart,” and naturally the two haven’t seen each other for, you guessed it, seven years. The fact that such dense, simple, god-fearing country folk have such profound philosophical musings on life comes cross as a little too quaint. Coupled with an uninspired and derivative directorial vision, each scene is too perfect and overpolished without a hint of edge or straying outside the scripted box. Riveting actress Molly Parker does the best she can with her one-note character Irene, the wife and mother who is annoyed by everything and makes sure she whines incessantly. Predictable hardly memorable, this will fade to the back of the festival radar.

Verdict: This is 90 minutes I’ll never get back. Don’t suffer my fate. Run! Save yourselves!

Score: A Hockey Musical (Mongrel)
Director: Michael McGowan
Starring: Noah Reid, Allie Mcdonald, Stephen McHattie, Brandon Firla, Olivia Newton John

Behind The Scenes: Loaded with Canadian celebrities, homegrown talent, cameos, and inside jokes that no American will ever get. Keep an eye out for Nelly Furtado, Hawksley Workman, George Stroumboulopoulos, Evan Solomon, and Walter Gretzky (what, they didn’t have the budget for Wayne?). Shot in Toronto, this musical love letter to our city highlights the CN Tower, Nathan Phillips Square, Canadian Tire, Swiss Chalet, Kraft Dinner, the AGO, and the Hockey Hall of Fame. Many of the songs were penned by Hawksley Workman, Barenaked Ladies and Geddy Lee.

Story: A brainiac homeschooled teenager named Farley (named after Farley Mowatt?) with an aptitude for slapshots and a disdain for violence becomes a Canadian hockey sensation, much to the chagrin of his childhood bestie Eve, his poncy uppity parents, and the entire hockey team he joins.

Reality: This is what you would get if High School Musical took a slapshot to Don Cherry right in the ‘nads. Even the opening sequence, set to O Canada, with little kids playing hockey on frozen ponds, looks like the back of our $5 bill. It was only a matter of time before someone blended musicals and macho sporting events, and while the intention here was clearly to be very tongue-in-cheek and over-the-top camp, it just comes across as pure Velveeta… err, Kraft Dinner. The songs are cute, but not exactly catchy with stanzas like, “I could have been in the NHL!/ Like hell!/Are we supposed to believe that baloney/You’d be lucky to drive the zamboni!” To say nothing of the scripted dialogue that reeks of Dawson’s Creek ludicrousnes, à la “We’re teenagers Farley! We live on a whim and gorge on irrationality!” While the recent debate surrounding “The Code” in Hockey is interestingly explored here (aka the unwritten rule the requires players to throw down their gloves and engage in fisticuffs in order to win the game and save honour), this West Side Story on Ice ode to singing hockey players is laughable at best. The best part of this entire Canadian schmaltz was George Stroumboulopoulos as a small-time Brampton sports announcer. And boom goes the dynamite!

Verdict: Pure, unadulterated, smelly, fromage. See it only if you love Canada so much you’re willing to overlook the redonkulousness of the story.

Inside Job (Mongrel)
Director: Charles Ferguson

Behind The Scenes: Featuring illuminating interviews with Barney Frank, Eliot Spitzer, the Prime Minister of Singapore and the Finance Minister of France. Narrated by Matt Damon.

Story: This documentary explores the global financial crisis that occurred on September 15th, 2008, which left 30 million people unemployed and sent the United States (and the global economic markets) into collapse with a panic not seen since the Great Depression. Featuring interviews and feet-to-the-fire investigative journalism into the Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and AIG, how they created a bubble that the government refused to investigate, and how the bubble burst. Fraudulent mishandling of money by top executives includes cocaine, prostitutes, strip clubs, and drug paraphernalia, among others. Writer and director Ferguson asks why the Bush administration refused to call the banks on their bullshit, and demands accountability.

Reality: The most repeated subtitle in this film is “So-and-so declined to be interviewed for this film” and those few words say more about the decliners than any interview they give could ever explain. (We’re looking at you Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke!) The look on some of the pompous CEO’s faces who agreed to be interviewed when they realize they’ve been caught with their pants down and their ass handed to them is perhaps the most provocative and piss-your-pants-funny sequences throughout the documentary. Also archival footage of Goldman Sachs executives testifying before congress, squirming under the pressure in truly tie-pulling fashion is another amazing sequence. Ferguson provides greater depth and understanding of this crisis than Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. When you’ve trumped a great like that, you know you’re a talent to watch.

Verdict: You can bet the bank — don’t miss it!

Life Above All (Mongrel)
Director: Oliver Schmitz
Starring: Khomotso Manyaka, Harriet Lenabe, Lerato Mvelase

Behind The Scenes: Filmed entirely in South Africa, this film is dedicated to the 800,000 AIDS orphans of the continent

Story: A bright school girl Chanda is forced to care for her ailing family and friends in a community rife with gossip and hatred toward those suspected of HIV infection.

Reality: Actress Khomotso Manyaka, who plays Chanda is a revelation — a brave and daring young actress bound to turn heads and cause a ruckus come award season. Her portrayal of one young girls journey is ferocious, startlingly beautiful and powerful. The entire film is loaded with a hanging sense of sadness from the outset, beginning with the death of a child and framed by the gossiping, conservative neighbours who hide their prejudices behind the banner of concerned parents. The real scope of a South African rural village is built with the vibrant and real colours of the area, lush reds and greens and yellows, a cinematographers top effort. Paramount to this is the narrative, the beautiful mother and daughter bond that is bound by love and indestructible even in the face of expulsion and death. The power of love in a freefall society is at the heart of the story here, and one you won’t soon forget.

Verdict: Be prepared for the emotional impact before you go, but thou shalt not miss this!

Beginner’s Guide To Endings (Entertainment One)
Director: Jonathan Sobol
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Jason Jones, Scott Caan, Paulo Costanzo, Wendy Crewson, Stephen McHattie, Trisha Helfer

Behind The Scenes: Filmed and set entirely in Niagara Falls, Ontario

Story: Three brothers, coping with the suicide of their father, learn through his Last Will & Testament that they are also going to die as well, and set off to cross off everything on their Bucket List, the consequences of which may cause their demise much sooner than anticipated.

Reality: This Canadian version of a Guy-Ritchie-styled bravado film with traces of Soderbergh, Elvis Presley’s pelvis and Evil Knieval’s brainless stunts will probably be the first Canadian film that draws huge Canadian audiences into Canadian cinemas. Although the crossing-off-the-bucket-list scenes are somewhat derivative, as is the piggy-backed style and design of the film, it works. One cannot deny the balls-out hilarity, the amazing ensemble chemistry, the velvet-tongued & devilish dialogue, and the colourful costumes and sets designed like a rockabilly music video. There is a prevailing (and unfortunate) theme of misogyny and mile racism à la In Bruges that walks a fine line but shouldn’t be taken too seriously. One liners like “You run around like a bull in a vagina shop” will keep the men happy, while the sweetness of some bucket items such as “Stay overnight in a haunted house” will have the women awing and cooing. Standout performances include Jason Jones (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart), coiffured like a Jon Travolta gay icon, and Harvey Keitel as the heavy-hearted pop, but the entire cast is always on their game with this fast paced romp.

Verdict: Gamble the fort, you’ll want to see this!

Barney’s Version (Entertainment One)
Director: Richard J Lewis
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Bruce Greenwood, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Scott Speedman, Saul Rubinek

Behind The Scenes: Based on the much beloved novel by Canadian powerhouse Mordecai Richler, and dedicated to his memory. Keep a keen eye out for cheeky cameos by Paul Gross, Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, and Denys Arcand

Story: Tracking 30 years in the life of Barney Panofsky, a struggling writer-cum-TV broadcaster from Montreal as he stumbles through several marriages and divorces, and comes under fire for the death of his closest mate.

Reality: Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) is presented to us as an unsympathetic character who thinks he “deserves all the brisket and blowjobs,” according to his father (played by a luminous Dustin Hoffman). But when Panofsky’s memory starts to go, the retelling of his follies and vices through Montreal and Rome becomes skewed, and the people that peppered his life are seen through very tiny keyholes, hence the title of the film. Scott Speedman’s character Boogie is seen as a one-dimensional cavalier cad without many redeeming qualities, as is Panofsky’s second wife, played by Minnie Driver, who comes across as a superficial space cadet even with the admission that she holds an MA. Panofsky sees everyone as one-note, yet cannot fathom the flaws in his own character, and ends up hurting the one woman who can possibly save him from himself. Rosamund Pike, as Panofsky’s third wife Miriam, is ethereally beautiful, if somewhat aggravating at her insistence of non-agression. Paul Giamatti’s performance is what makes this film, he is brutal, raw, vulnerable, and seething with passion. Unfortunately he looks dreadful, as if someone stapled a minge onto a sausage roll, begging the question, “How does this guy end up getting so much hot action?!”

Verdict: Don’t miss it!

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