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TIFF 2017 Round Up

September 20, 2017

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Another Toronto International Festival (TIFF) has come and gone, this time with fanfare about the films themselves equal to the criticism leveled at the Festival’s organisational structure. Whether it was the love-it-or-hate-it reaction to pedestrian-only Festival Street, aggro celebrity security, concerns over high prices and low attendance, a poorly-designed online ticketing system, or the nightmare of navigating long lines and late start times, people had strong feelings all-around.

There did seem to be a fair amount of growing pains as the newly-downsized festival adjusted to more limited venues from previous years. The decision to reduce the festival’s size may arguably have been necessary, but it also felt poorly-executed. This year’s Midnight Madness programme seemed tailored as a peace offering to those missing the now-defunt Vanguard slate, which produced such weird and wonderful films as last year’s “Colossal”. I saw the slow yet hypnotic art-horror film “The Crescent”, at 6 pm, and I couldn’t imagine having slogged through it at midnight the night before.

Axing the uptown venues meant increasing the density of festival-goers within a few blocks downtown and resulting in chaos for overwhelmed volunteers and viewers. But, hey, at least the Scotiabank Theatre escalators were working. Even TIFF audiences couldn’t muster too much enthusiasm for the ritualistic aspects, as evidenced by the all but silenced familiar pirate growl reaction to the pre-show anti-piracy warnings.

But TIFF remains a great place to seek out and see films one might otherwise not have the opportunity to see, at least not for a while. Of course, there were the big gala films from Hollywood’s elite, some of which (Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water”) went over like gangbusters while others (George Clooney’s “Suburbicon”) were derided.  Of the Midnight Madness programme, James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” came away the clear favourite. Critics also raved about the Tonya Harding biopic “I, Tonya” (starring Margot Robbie), Paul Schrader’s religious drama “First Reformed” (starring Ethan Hawke), and Greta Gerwig’s debut directorial feature “Ladybird”. Documentary love went to new films from Agnes Varda (“Faces Places”, co-directed with J.R.) and Frederick Wiseman (“Ex Libris: The New York Public Library”). Big winners with both critics and audiences included the queer romance “Call Me by Your Name” and the People’s Choice winner, Martin Mcdonough’s “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”. Darren Aronofsky’s mysterious “mother!” was the most polarizing, drawing ire and confusion as well as praise from critics, while most filmgoers seemed turned off by it.

But, as usual, the majority of the titles in the festival were smaller indie, experimental, or foreign films. Most of what I saw was Canadian. So this piece will act as a sort of supplement to many of the bigger TIFF round ups that include the films mentioned above. Read on for highlights from some of the more unsung films of the fest, and check out my full reviews over on Letterboxd.

On the closing day of the festival, I got the chance to see IMAX co-creator Graeme Ferguson’s 1971 short, “North of Superior”. If you aren’t aware, IMAX (then called the Multi-Screen Corporation) is a Canadian invention, and the first permanent IMAX cinema in the world was right here in Toronto. TIFF and the province worked together to reopen the Cinesphere – closed down since 2012 – specifically for this festival, where they showed some classic IMAX shorts as well as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, with Nolan in attendance. However during the screening I attended, they made the exciting announcement that the Cinesphere would permanently reopen this fall for regular programming!

 

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NORTH OF SUPERIOR (1971)
(Canada)
directed by: Graeme Ferguson

“North of Superior” is a dazzling trip through North Ontario. From its percussive, explosive introduction that sends the audience hurtling through the air, the film’s director Graeme Ferguson was changing film in ways even he probably didn’t understand, as we marvel almost 50 years later at the ways Christopher Nolan is using and the places he’s fitting IMAX cameras. Here, Ferguson shoots from helicopters, flips a canoe with the camera inside, and gets uncomfortably close to a forest fire. It all feels like a love letter to the more forgotten places and people who live in the shadow of South Ontario’s cities, but whose efforts nevertheless sustain those cities.

RATING : ****

 

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BlACK COP
(Canada)
directed by: Corey Bowles

There is a tension at the heart of Corey Bowles’ “Black Cop”, an ambivalence that runs through its unnamed protagonist. His eyes hidden behind dark glasses and a smirk, he shoves a protester who gets in his face. He likes the power. But he is at once empowered and trapped by the badge. We watch him don his uniform with a sense of almost self-loathing weariness. The uniform doesn’t protect him as a black man in society when he’s not wearing it.

There’s a lot going on in “Black Cop”, a film that feels understandably confused, frustrated, helpless, and angry. It tells the story of a day in the life of a protagonist who enacts revenge against white citizens by treating them in the way black people are frequently treated for the same non-crimes. This is a protagonist who is a trickster, an oppressor, a protector, a victim, and, by his own admission, an asshole. But he’s never a hero.

The film is kind of all over the place, but it an utterly captivating way. I appreciated and respected this film a lot for its brazenness of style and the way it evokes complicated feelings of conflict and important conversations without making airs about the impossibility of trying to resolve them.

RATING: **1/2


Release date: October 3, 2017 (Vancouver, Vancouver International Film Festival); October 6, 2017 (Edmonton, Edmonton International Film Festival); October 17, 2017 (Chicago, Chicago International Film Festival)  

 

 

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CARDINALS
(Canada)
directed by: Grayson Moore & Aidan Shipley

This debut feature from two Toronto filmmakers is a confident and idiosyncratic effort, a thriller dressed as an art film. It stars Sheila McCarthy as Valerie Walker, a factory worker and mother whose reintegration into the neighbourhood after a prison sentence for a drunk driving death is complicated by tensions that run hot between Valerie and the son of the man she killed.

So much of “Cardinals” lives in the unspoken words that could change everything for these characters. Often in films the withholding of information from characters feels like a narrative cheat, a way to create tension just by having people not talk to each other when they reasonably should. Here, those unspoken truths simmer, and there are good reasons why they’re left unsaid. We understand the consequences and the reluctance that keep every conversation tinged with uncertainty.

This is a pressure cooker of a psychological drama, rich with tense situations, surprising and wry humour, and questions that become clearer as the film provides context. Imagery given to us early on comes back with more detail later on as the film’s jumble of disorienting flashbacks, edits, and elegant sound design creates a constantly shifting perspective about what is true.

RATING: ***

Release date: no release date set

 

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THE CARTER EFFECT
(Canada/USA)
directed by: Sean Menard

Basketball was everywhere in the mid-90s. Between Space Jam and the NBA expansion into Canada, every kid had suddenly (or again) fallen in love with the NBA. That was a new thing for a country that grew up on hockey. Suddenly basketball was exciting, edgy, fresh. “The Carter Effect”, with a mix of archival footage and interviews, chronicles Vince Carter’s emergence as a hero in Toronto, one who helped put the city on the map. Not only did he turn the struggling Toronto Raptors—at that point a joke in the league—around, but he turned Toronto around, bringing cultural cache and a new sense of identity to the city.

“The Carter Effect” is full of great moments, showcasing both Carter’s athletic skills (the All Star dunk contest in 2000 is a particular highlight), his outsized personality, and his personal triumphs and tribulations. It is fairly surface level in its aims, and suffers at times from a lack of narrative cohesion or chronology, but I can’t imagine those with an interest in basketball or Toronto would come away disappointed. At a slight 60 minutes, it’s breezy, but I found myself wishing for a bit more, just one deeper level of exploration of the role of basketball in Canada, of Vince Carter’s troubled exit from Toronto, anything to really complicate the film’s modest intentions.

But it does add to the conversation happening right now about representation, and the way it is important for young people of all kinds to see themselves represented in the world. This film shows us how Vince Carter, despite being American, turned Toronto basketball into something Canadians could be proud of and invested in. Walk through Toronto today and you see that Raptors basketball rivals hockey in popularity, which is no easy feat in a city as die-hard as the home of the Maple Leafs. The doc shows the ways Carter’s Raptors instilled that sense of pride in young people like Cory Joseph, like Drake, people who grew up to inherit that cultural legacy, one defined by diversity that continues to awaken in kids growing up on Raptors basketball today. “Vince Carter’s jersey is one of the top five best sellers,” says a Mitchell & Ness sportswear rep in the film.

Representation creates opportunity, and opportunity creates a sense of purpose.

RATING: **1/2

Release date: no release date set

 

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THE CRESCENT
(Canada)
directed by: Seth A. Smith

This pretty delightful little micro-budget genre flick got under my skin. There’s no question director Seth A. Smith has a knack for creating toe-curling atmospherics. His use of sound is oppressive, his framing unsettlingly centred. A lot of “The Crescent” feels, visually and narratively, like a pastiche of elements we’ve seen before in other films, but as a whole it manages to draw the viewer into a dreamlike state between ultra-realism and a surrealist nightmare, where everything hovers just on the unnerving edge of normal, until it tips off.

The narrative keeps you hooked as it takes its time to change in ways that are surprising even as they’re familiar. It includes an ending that subverts the film’s own seeming adherence to formula. But the film is so dreamlike part of me feels like it is almost over-explained, like that last shot (as good as it is), leaves things a little too tidy. But that quibble is a more minor one than the inclusion of a character who takes the film from psychological horror to body/creature horror in a most unwelcome and, frankly, laughable fashion that works against a movie that otherwise feels so contained.

I don’t know if Seth A. Smith is quite the next David Cronenberg; it’s too early in his career to tell. But he’s probably at least the next Vincenzo Natali.

RATING: **1/2
Release date: October 6, 2017 (Vancouver, Vancouver International Film Festival); October 10, 2017 (Barcelona, Sitges Film Festival);  October 14, 2017 (Brooklyn, Brooklyn Horror Film Festival); no release date set

 

 

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Downsizing
(USA)
directed by: Alexander Payne

It’s starting to feel like Alexander Payne is incapable of making a bad film. While “Downsizing” is arguably Payne’s first “misfire,” it’s still a film that’s enjoyable for pretty big chunks of it.

The film is based on a premise in which the future of sustainability relies on technology that allows people to shrink to a size of five inches. The biggest implication, the film suggests, is how reducing one’s size and therefore one’s rate of consumption, conversely increases one’s own comparative net worth. A middle class person in our world can suddenly be an extremely wealthy one in a downsized world, as we see pitched to the central couple, played by Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig. The film touches on the social and economic implications on a broader scale, such as how much influenced the downsized deserve in a world where they’re arguably contributing less to the economy.

And even working inside a much bigger sandbox than Payne is used to, he is attuned to the absurdities of human interaction and existence that are ripe for gentle (and always humane) mockery. The performances and the pleasant score, along with Payne’s eye for visual and verbal gags, make Downsizing a frequently laugh-out-loud funny film. It has a warmth to it that I appreciated, and a really excellent performance from Hong Chau, who plays a Vietnamese political refugee who has been downsized against her will.

The biggest problem with “Downsizing” is that over its 135 minutes it loses track of who is the subject of the film. It seems at times to be both Damon’s and Chau’s story (and sometimes both together), but it also seems to want to be a larger parable about human consumption and environmental catastrophe. In that respect, it sort of squanders the potential to be a big existential sci-fi meditation in favour of being a watered down and more conventional version of the personal stories Alexander Payne is so great at telling. Its climax feels way too much like a film you’ve seen dozens of times before, and leaves the movie feeling too small to justify its own big premise. Enjoy the moments in between, though. Payne’s greatness works its way through even a flawed film like this.

RATING: **1/2


Release date: September 28, 2017 (Austin, Fantastic Fest); September 29, 2017 (Zurich, Zurich Film Festival); October 13, 2017 (London, UK, London Film Festival); December 22, 2017 (USA, wide release)

 

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INDIAN HORSE
(Canada)
directed by: Stephen Campanelli

“Indian Horse” – the movie – does a pretty decent job doing justice to Richard Wagamese’s elegant and heartbreaking novel about Canada’s Indian Residential Schools system, while still paling in comparison to the novel itself. It uses the same structure as the novel, opening with an adult Saul Indian Horse in a recovery program narrating the story, which is then told through a series of flashbacks. The character of Saul is played remarkably well and consistently by three different actors across the film (a la “Moonlight“), the youngest of whom, Sladen Peltier, is acting for the first time. These performances are really the backbone of the film, as we see the tension between Saul becoming free through his love of hockey yet hardened by his experiences. The older two actors, especially, are great at capturing this bottled-up trauma that sits behind Saul’s eyes.

But while director Stephen Campanelli is a great cameraman who has worked for Clint Eastwood for decades—and naturally this film looks gorgeous—, he is inexperienced and somewhat shallow as a director. This is such a powerful story but, but something gets lost in the translation. No doubt that’s party due to mostly losing the novel’s first-person narrative voice, but the stark simplicity of Wagamese’s prose is here rendered in such heavy theatrics it sometimes borders on tacky. That’s not to say the film isn’t affecting. It frequently is, especially when it relies on its actors. I just wish Campanelli wasn’t getting in the way of it so much. It’s a good movie, but it should have been a great one.

RATING: **1/2


Release date: September 24, 2017 (Calgary, Calgary International Film Festival); September 30, 2017 (Vancouver, Vancouver International Film Festival); October 1, 2017 (Edmonton, Edmonton International Film Festival); no release date set

 

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KODACHROME
(USA/Canada)
directed by: Mark Raso

What better place than the open road is there to reconcile old grievances and repair broken relationships? “Kodachrome” is part of a long tradition of father/son stories about reconciliation. The two men hate each other, though it’s hardly a spoiler to say they won’t by the end of the movie. In fact, there’s really not much unsurprising about the movie in general. It plays out entirely as you would expect, but goes to show you that a film can follow a narrative formula and still be satisfying if it has heart, a quality soundtrack, and a great cast. Kodachrome is the kind of movie you can feel comfortable telling your parents to watch, and without the guilt of enabling their bad taste in movies. This is far from a bad movie, but they’ll probably still like it, and they’ll probably cry. Better yet: watch it with your parents.

The first third of the film finds the two protagonists (played by Jason Sudeikis and Ed Harris) at each other’s throats in a way that borders on too much. The pair is initially so unlikable and the film’s stakes so low that it’s hard to be invested in its characters, so the film becomes better around two thirds of the way through when it abandons the stakes almost entirely and focuses on the relationships. The last scene of the film is a tad too nostalgic, and exactly what you’d expect, but damn if it isn’t affecting as hell because it touches in a very genuine, relatable manner on the way we try to make intangible memories last.

RATING: **1/2


Release date: no release date set

 

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LONG TIME RUNNING
(Canada)
directed by: Jennifer Baichwal & Nicholas de Pencier

The country wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Gord Downie, but when his cancer diagnosis was made public in early 2016, that’s what Canada was forced to do. In a way it felt like the band’s summer tour, their last, which culminated in a televised concert in the band’s hometown of Kingston watched by over 11 million people, functioned as a sort of living wake for fans of a band who has helped define Canadiana. “Long Time Running” helps ensure that The Tragically Hip remain not just a relic, but a vibrant and living contribution to Canadian culture.

The film wisely doesn’t try to encompass the entire history of the band, but drops in on them at the point of the cancer diagnosis and follows them over the next several months as they prepare for a seemingly quixotic final tour. But what the film documents is not just a farewell tour, but an incredible story of perseverance. It’s heartbreaking to watch Downie, post-surgery, as he struggles to relearn the words he wrote. From the nervousness of the days leading up to the tour’s first show in Victoria to the increasingly emboldened performances across the country, this is the story of a band finding understanding with their fanbase one last time. In the grand resilient spirit so fundamental to the character of this country, Downie gave Canada a collective force of hope.

During the climactic final concert in Kingston, we see a country come together to share the experience, from parks to bars to those thousands packed into the Kingston square. It’s bigger than hockey. It’s essentially about family. And Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier make the fans part of this family, as they cheer, dance, cry, mourn, and celebrate. I don’t know whether this will play outside Canada at all, or whether anyone without knowledge of the Hip or their role in this country will connect with it. But it’s so human, so loving, and I think there’s room for documentaries to act as a means to preserve and contextualize artists’ work as a form of appreciation. In the case of The Tragically Hip and what they’ve meant to Canada, there’s a country’s worth of room.

RATING: ***1/2


Release date: Limited Canadian theatrical release has ended. Long Time Running will air on CTV in Canada on November 12, 2017. It will be available to stream on CraveTV in Canada starting November 13, 2017, and on Netflix internationally starting on November 29, 2017.

 

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TULIPANI, LOVE, HONOUR AND A BICYCLE
(Netherlands/Italy/Canada)
directed by: Mike van Diem

This labouriously-titled film is a fairy tale-like story of a Dutch farmer who meets a woman in a refugee camp and promises to come back for her when he’s made a new life in Italy. It’s a fairly charming comic drama for much of its run-time, beautifully shot and flirting with magic realism. I particularly liked the central performance from Dutch actor Gijs Naber as Gauke, a hulking blonde workhorse who enters Italy on a bicycle and a mission. With his stoic physicality and piercing blue eyes, Naber commands the screen like a warmer Mads Mikkelsen. “Tulipani” feels clearly inspired by films like “Amélie”, “Life Is Beautiful”, and “Bicycle Thieves”. It’s quirky and often very funny, with a low-key warmth to its tale of passion and love, and a rather elegant nesting structure to the narrative.

But the third act made me actively hate the screenwriter. It’s a film that feels set to balance tones when the stakes are raised, and then careens into an inconsistent stew of flatulence and extreme violence. There was never much depth to the film before that, but there was a fairy tale’s heart. The climax of “Tulipani” goes from weighty and disturbing to full-on farce in a matter of seconds. If the central conflict of your movie is going to hinge on a lot of farting, you owe it to your audience to introduce farting early so it’s clear what kind of film you’re presenting. This one is just baffling.

RATING: *1/2

Release date: no release date set

 

 

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A WORTHY COMPANION
(Canada)
directed by: Carlos Sanchez & Jason Sanchez

There are films that tread a fine line between discomfort and distaste, between exploration and exploitation; “A Worthy Companion” is as good an example of that kind of high wire act as you’re likely to see. Its portrayal of an abusive relationship between an adult woman, Laura (Evan Rachel Wood), and a 16-year-old girl, Eva (Julia Sarah Stone), is all kinds of disturbing and murky in the same way the film as a whole is.

This first feature by brother pair Carlos and Jason Sanchez is sophisticated in the way it doles out information with subtle visual cues and blurs the line between victimhood and abuse, in a way that keeps the audience constantly on edge. The film is almost impenetrably dark, challenging but rewarding for its portrayal of how complicated cycles of abuse and manipulation can be. There’s a scene in a swimming pool near the end of this film that will be among the most memorable few moments of film I’ll have seen all year.

RATING: ***


Release date: October 13, 2017 (Hamburg, Germany, Hamburg International Film Festival); no release date set

 

And that’s all for my TIFF experience this year. If you’re in Chicago, be sure to check out the Chicago International Film Festival from October 12 – 26, 2017, where you can find some of the buzzed about films from TIFF, including “Borg/McEnroe”, “Call Me by Your Name”, “Faces Places”, “Lady Bird”, “Mudbound”, “The Shape of Water”, and more. CIFF will also be showing “The Other Side of the Wall”, which I wrote about way back in May as part of my Hot Docs round up.

 

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