2011, Movies

Toronto International Film Festival 2011

Fatherland (9/10)

Remember those TVO Canadian history docs where they had c-list Canadian actors dressed in costume and reading the letters of dead Canadians and Americans to recreate history? Well, that’s what Fatherland is, only it is much, much, much better.

Beginning with the Argentinian national anthem over filmstock of protesters and rebels being beaten and killed, this film attacks what must be passing for established history in Argentina. It is mostly a series of readings from letters and books by famous Argentinians performed from atop or next to their graves in Buenos Aires’ beautiful necropolis. The concept would seem obvious if it had actually ever been done before: passages that horribly incriminate Argentina’s heroes (in their own words) in deeds of genocide are read next to and atop statues of themselves. It works wonderfully and is at times horribly ironic (and sometimes funny in a very dark way). The only issue with the film is it’s length: this is something that doesn’t move forward at all and so it should be shorter. Actually, one other issue: I don’t quite get the last shot, though it is beautiful.

Into the Abyss (8/10)

Unlike most films about murder and capital punishment, Herzog’s latest doesn’t try to convince you the killers are innocent. He accepts at face values both the story of the police (which is supported by confessions and some pretty damning physical evidence) that the murderers are guilty, and the claims of both murderers that they are innocent. I think he does this because the point of the film is that capital punishment is wrong regardless of what happened (and to that point, we can never know exactly what happened in any murder that isn’t caught on tape, even if there is a ton of evidence suggesting what happened).

It’s an interesting approach that I must say threw me at first. As usual, Herzog has found fascinating human beings who cannot fit into the normal world (in this case because of bad childhoods, drugs, alcohol, etc) and there are some real moments of emotional power, pathos and humour. Herzog also lets the faith of all the different interviewees sit there as they all (well, most of them) try to excuse their actions / consequences in the name of destiny. My only real quibble is with the chapter headings (a real nitpick of mine this year it seems) as they kind of add a pseudo-philosophical pomposity to the film that isn’t necessary.

The Hunter (8/10)

This is the second year in a row I have seen a film called the Hunter and the second time I have rated such a film 8/10. I guess it’s a title that grabs me. They are very different films just so you know.

Though this is a story-line that has been seen time and again it is done very well: the acting is great, the story keeps you guessing enough even though the theme is so familiar, there are multiple moments of genuine tension and the cinematography is spectacularly beautiful.

The only objection I had to the film as a whole was the score, which I found heavy-handed and overdone. This is funny because during the Q and A a guy asked a question to the effect of “how did you get a such a great score?” Trust me, the score sucked: tt was pounding drums in the tense moments (never heard that before…) and soaring string quartets at emotionally poignant moments (again, that’s new…).

The other quibble, which I am slowly getting over, is the ending. I don’t like it. But I’m asking myself the Ebert question, ‘how else could it have ended?’ and I am having a hard time coming up with one that is as apt (there are other possibilities but they don’t work with the story, they would just satisfy my need for unnecessary ambiguity).

Which was the better Hunter? Probably this one. This one was at least more quickly paced as the other was (deliberately) slow.

Crazy Horse (7/10)

I knew nothing about this place going in, so I was a little bit surprised by the content.

The problem with fly on the wall documentaries is they cannot usually stand long running times and the biggest knock against this film is that it is far too long for its subject matter. Without giving us much in the way of characters (though far more than in the other Wiesman film I’ve seen) it is tough to sustain interest through over two hours just of footage of a high end nude dancing establishment (yes, I just said that). Fortunately, he shoots people interviewing some of the people and he shoots production meetings, so we do get to know some of the major players at least a little. This results in most of the films best moments. It is certainly an interesting film, I now never need to go to Crazy Horse, and I discovered at least one subject for a future documentary all his own, but this is way, way too long.

PS: This film may contain the single greatest cover of a Britney Spears song ever, if it is even possible to have something like a “single greatest cover of a Britney Spears song ever.”

The Last Gladiators (7/10)

A pretty clunky style and a complete lack of big-picture focus is saved by Chris Nilan. Now I didn’t pay attention to hockey in his prime. And I only cared about the Leafs in the early ’90s, so I had no idea who he was. But he is a hell of a documentary subject (as the producers stressed in the Q and A). I may disagree with much of what he says, but he is a great interview; unflinchingly honest, which is rare. He is the centre of the film (they decided they should do that in the editing room it seems) and it’s the way it should be.

Unfortunately the film is marred by two big issues. The first is stylistic: it is unbelievably episodic, especially for a film that is only about 1 hr 40. There are numerous chapters (15? more?). I have no idea why. All it adds it run-time. Nothing else. Some of these ‘chapters’ are five minutes long. I have no idea why they are there. It’s a bizarre decision, unless without them the film is so short that it is not a feature (I highly doubt that).

The second problem is that the filmmakers are either fans of hockey fighting or got to know the enforcers so much that they felt they couldn’t in any way commit to some kind of condemnation of this. I have a huge problem with this, especially given what we are learning about the relationship between concussions, drugs and suicide / accidental death. Now Chris Nilan, Terry O’Reilly, Tony Twist etc. can argue until they are blue in the fact that they never sustained concussions but the fact is that concussions were rarely diagnosed (if ever) when they played. The head trauma, in addition to the other physical trauma, and the drastic career change in their 30s must have a huge impact on most goons, whether they could play a little or barely skate. The filmmakers don’t really take a position on this (well they do, seeing it as entertainment), and as a result I am hugely disappointed.

Those two criticisms aside, this is worth watching especially for Nilan.

Juan of the Dead (6/10)

This is basically a Cuban remake of Shaun of the Dead with enough differences (and enough crasser humour) to at least make it unique.

This isn’t like an American remake of a British film, where they merely iron out anything foreign. This is actually a pretty distinct little movie, with plenty of gore (though much of it is off-screen because of the budget), plenty of laughs and some truly terrible CGI.

The biggest problem is consistency of tone, as the film careens between really funny and not at all funny and sometimes serious way too often. Some of the jokes just didn’t work (though subtitles can hurt timing) and there were at least two too many montages.

But it was extremely entertaining in fits and starts, and it certainly was the most fun I had this year, even if it was far from the best film I watched.

Where do We Go Now? (5/10)

Ah the TIFF crowd-pleaser.

This is a mildly funny movie (I laughed a few times, Monique is not sure if she even laughed) that had most of the audience roaring: very safe jokes mostly along the lines of ‘tehehe, Christianity and Islam are different but the same, tehehe.’ In that sense it is like the Lebanese version of Bon Cop, Bad Cop, only with songs.

That’s right: it’s a musical. Only it’s not. There are three (?) songs in the entire movie.

Which leads me to it’s biggest problem (beyond the overly safe humour for the subject matter): the tone. There are long stretches where it is a comedy, there are moments when it is a not particularly funny musical, and there are stretches when it is very much a serious drama (at one point the director – yes, she cast herself – is screaming at all the men in her life for causing all this suffering).

I get that as men we are expected to take at least some reverse sexism as atonement for he 1000s of years of sexism, but the idea that women want religious and ethnic conflict to stop but cannot stop it because of the hot-headed men is as simplistic as it gets. It adds nothing to any conversation about how to move forward from these seemingly intractable conflicts (and honesty  if every mother felt the way these mothers do, why would there be war in the world?). This would be excusable if the film were funny, but despite the audience roaring and clapping throughout, I did not find it so.

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