Nearly a month has passed since I attended the Toronto International Film Festival, but I’ve been too busy (or lazy) to recap until now. I’ve been attending the fest pretty seriously for the past five years. (I think the first thing I saw at TIFF was Steve Martin’s Shopgirl, back when a friend and I planned to break up Zooey Deschanel and Jason Schwartzman, a plan that didn’t work until several years later.) Many people find the Festival difficult to participate in, and I understand. Its processes are arcane and, unless you have ample time to research and study, it can all be overwhelming.
Still, I think it remains a great showcase of movies that might never get theatrical release in Canada. Additionally, for about a week, people all over Toronto are talking about movies (and all sorts of movies), which I enjoy. This year I had a great lineup – nearly everything I saw was great or pretty good. A little recap follows:
MOVIES THAT SOUND SUSPICIOUSLY LIKE IDEAS I’D HAVE THOUGHT UP
Far and away one of the best things I viewed at TIFF was the supernatural Spanish comedy, Ghost Graduation. An unabashed crowd-pleaser and nostalgia fest, the movie hooked me from its write-up on the TIFF site, which made the movie sound like it had been directly downloaded from my brain. A teacher who can see dead people starts work at a troubled school that has been haunted by the ghosts of five teenagers who died in a library fire in 1986. The teacher realizes the ghosts’ unfinished business on earth is graduating high school, so he sets out to help the five teens pass senior year. Hilarity – and several ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ homages – ensues. The guide called it ‘part Breakfast Club and part Ghostbusters, a throwback to the golden age of teen movies with a decidedly Latin twist,’ which is a fair description. Naturally, I loved it. The tragic part is that it seems Will Smith’s production company has purchased rights to make an English-language remake, so the original will probably never be released in North America.
MOVIES ABOUT MOVIES
After this year’s festival, I realized that perhaps more than anything else, I like movies about movies. I had the pleasure of watching two such documentaries and am happy to report both of them were excellent. (But then again, I’m biased. Re-read that first sentence.
I had the honour of seeing Sophie Fiennes’ and Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, a sort-of sequel to their collaboration on the three-part The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. Like its predecessor, the new film puts the Slovenian psychoanalyst and philosopher into various films to describe the various mechanisms of ideology at work in culture. Basically, it’s like a long lecture by an extremely charismatic and animated professor, interspersed with clips from great and not-so-great films (They Live, The Sound of Music, the Soviet epic The Fall of Berlin). The screening was a one-time-only deal at TIFF, and Fiennes and Zizek did a Q&A following. Zizek had ranted for about fifteen minutes before the poor moderator even had a chance to introduce the two of them.
Later in the festival, I watched the documentary Room 237, a clever study of six obsessives’ take on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Using nothing but film clips and voiceover, the movie plumbs a variety of fairly outlandish interpretations of what The Shining really means. The catch is these theories have been carefully researched by our subjects, sometimes studying the movie frame-by-frame (or, in one case, projecting the movie backward and forward at the same time). The movie is enthralling and you find yourselves agreeing more and more with the various speakers in Room 237. (My one disappointment is that no one spoke about the ghostly couple in the pig-bear masks.)
Both movies did two of my favourite things: (1) look closely at popular culture for deeper and hidden meanings, and (2) give me more movies to seek out and watch. (John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, I’m looking at you.)
I was also lucky enough to see the second screening of Joss Whedon’s Shakespearean adaptation, Much Ado About Nothing. Knowing the story behind the movie’s genesis – Whedon filming it at his own house in about six days to take a break from editing The Avengers – I didn’t have the highest hopes, despite being a big fan of nearly everything Joss Whedon. The movie was a really pleasant surprise, faithful to the original text but with some added slapstick. Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker really held their own as Benedick and Beatrice, and there were great turns from Whedon regulars like Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Tom Lenk and even Ashley Johnson (‘Chrissy’ from Growing Pains!). Even better, nearly the entire cast of Much Ado About Nothing was in attendance for the second screening – nearly unheard of at festivals!
KOREAN HEIST MOVIES
The Thieves is apparently the current all-time box-office champ in South Korea, and it’s easy to see why. Directed by Dong-Hoon Choi, The Thieves is like a pan-Asian cross between Ocean’s 11 and The Usual Suspects. One South Korean group of thieves teams up with a Chinese crew to pull off a heist in Macau, but things go terribly wrong. Numerous aerial stunts and shootouts follow, with dialogue in at least four languages – it was a great action film, featuring performances by Gianna Jun (My Sassy Girl) and Dal-su Oh (Every Korean movie ever).
As much as it pains me to admit it, Midnight Madness, often the best program of the Film Festival, disappointed me this year. The experience was still great, replete with rowdy crowds, people bouncing around beach balls, the inexhaustible Colin Geddes shouting welcomes to the audience at midnight, but the actual films were a bit lacklustre. Hellbenders, billed as ‘The Exorcist meets Animal House’ and starring the always solid Clancy Brown and Clifton Collins, Jr., started out punchy but fizzled by the end. The ABCs of Death was uneven, but that’s to be expected in an anthology of 26 short films about death. But the directors I had the highest hopes for proved the most disappointing. Still, it wasn’t all bad. The ABCs of Death is watching for the ‘D,’ ‘Q’ and ‘Y’ segments alone. (And for people interested in CanCon, the ‘Y’ segment was from Canadian director Jason Eisener, the man behind Canadian trash modern classic Hobo with a Shotgun.)