2012, Movies

Toronto International Film Festival 2012 Wrap Up

Here is my roundup for TIFF 2012. I managed to see 13 films this year, which is better than last year. Many of them managed to be documentaries, which Monique attributes to our constant attendance at the Bloor over the summer. (I guess, subconsciously, we have become documentary people.) I didn’t see a film that wholly blew me away, though I saw two that did at times. I think we did pretty well avoiding duds as I only saw one bad movie (which I overrated because I agree with the argument) and that’s pretty good, compared to some previous years. The reviews follow below.

Tabu (Miguel Gomes) 9/10

Tabu is a Portuguese “re-imagining” or “response” to FW Murnau’s 1931 Tabu: a Tale of the South Seas (as opposed to a remake, as it’s definitely not that). Though I am a huge Murnau fan (just ask me, I probably won’t shut up about him) I have actually never seen the original, Murnau’s last film. So I cannot comment on whether or not this new film improves on the original (and frankly I’m not sure that’s important).

This version flips the story’s two parts around in reverse sequence, and moves the location of “Paradise” from Bora Bora to one of Portugal’s African colonies. It starts with a semi-silent (no dialogue, but narration and sound) story which, for the first half of the film, feels totally out of place. The first major part concerns a retired woman and her aging neighbour who appears to be suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. Slowly, we learn that this is not the case, and that she has a story to tell, but she is unable to confide in anyone. Someone from her past shows up to the tell the story, which is the second major part. That second part is stylistically audacious: like the opening tale, it is semi-silent. There is no dialogue, only narration and an extraordinary use of sounds: there are very strong musical and non-musical motifs. This part is like listening to an older person telling a story, only this time the story is fleshed out with images. It is well-shot, gorgeous to look at and, as I said, the sound is pretty incredible. The story itself is heart-wrenching and moving (and free of the kind of hysterical-woman nonsense that we find in so many of these movies). Yet at the same time the movie manages to be quite funny (though more so in its opening and first parts than in the second half), a balance between humour and solemnity which is all the more remarkable given the story being told and quality of the acting. In short, it is an absolutely beautiful film and the only thing that keeps me from giving it full marks is one little scene that makes absolutely no sense to me.

Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley) 9/10

[SPOILERS!]

Note: See this movie, but if you haven’t yet, learn nothing about it beforehand. Nothing. That includes not reading the below review.

Polley’s documentary is a fascinating and provocative examination of her family and the nature of personal narratives. It is one of the best documentaries I have seen in recent years. But something about it bugs me and I’m not sure I can put my finger on it.

I am always sceptical when someone makes a documentary about or heavily involving his or herself, or their family, even when that documentary was very good. (See Stevie.) Certainly there is a definite presumption on the part of the filmmaker that “my life is more interesting” than another subject. And the filmmaker leaves his or herself open to charges of self-indulgence. This film seems to rise above such claims as it’s clearly honest, serious, resonant with others, and meta only because of the subject matter itself (the nature of personal truths).

But yet I still feel like I would welcome this even more had it been another filmmaker telling Polley’s story, or Polley telling someone else’s deep dark family secret. Perhaps it’s because of my desire for more objectivity (or remove) that I quibble with the re-shoots (mostly the ones with Polley herself, which feel phony, and not the re-shoots with the actors, who are all very, very convincing). I also quibble with how heavy handed the message becomes: both fathers outright state the theme of the movie at times, and as a director I certainly would have been tempted to cut such direct explanations of (one of) the theme of the movie.

All this is mere nitpicking, as the film is absolutely excellent, and a little gut-wrenching.

Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: the Tomi Ungerer Story (Brad Bernstein) 8/10

This film feels like it is heavily influenced by Tales of the Rat Fink and other attempts to put cartoonists on screen. At first that style really bugged me; I figure that it is appropriate very rarely and really only of interest as a novelty.

However, Tomi Ungerer is such a great subject that before long you don’t care about the CGI’ing of his cartoons. And though the style initially rubbed me the wrong way, the rest of the film didn’t. For example, it is rare for a portrait of an artist to avoid his personal life after childhood, and this film does, mostly, to the film’s success.

I didn’t know I knew Ungerer but I know that I now know I read at least two of his books as a child. (In Canada we were a little nicer to him than the Americans, I think, as those books were banned in the US at the time.)

Ungerer is a fascinating man who is as close to a good portrait of the artist as I can imagine. I am better off for being made aware of his existence.

The Gatekeepers (Dror Moreh) 8/10

This is an incredible documentary which is unfortunately marred by some pretty poor production design. Moreh interviews the last six heads of Israel’s Shin Bet (the defense equivalent of the Mossad) about their lives and they have all come to the same conclusion: the two state solution is the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The documentary seems to get near-complete candour from these people and though that candour is sometimes maddening or frustrating, it’s also illuminating and educational. The people most responsible for Israel’s security think that the only way it can be achieved is by recognizing Palestine. And they all feel (pretty much) the same way. It’s a powerful message.

Unfortunately the movie features an absolute ton of second- and third-rate CGI – and accompanying cliche sound effects – that really distract from the message and the interviews themselves (which would be compelling even if all interviewees didn’t all come to the same conclusion).

The Central Park Five (Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon)  8/10

This is yet another in the long line of wrongfully-convicted documentaries that are unfortunately necessary because people love to be outraged and outraged people love nothing better than a good witch hunt.

I was surprised to learn that Ken Burns made this movie. I saw The Civil War when I was too young too know whether or not it was a good “movie.” And the same is somewhat true with Baseball (and I never have seen the follow up movies). But I have seen The War as an adult and thought highly of it. But this new film of his doesn’t feel like an experienced documentarian such as himself made it.

And again I am left with a film where the material is strong enough to overcome some very strange filmmaking decisions. In this case, the most ridiculous one is to highlight (and even put up on the screen) text that doesn’t need to be highlighted (or even printed in the case of the opening). Is the audience dumb? Can we not parse the important information from the not so important information?

The opening also feels like it was made by somewhat amateur filmmakers, with a collision of found and new footage, and way, way too much music.

But that being said, the story is a powerful one, as is the case with these films. And the interviews are good enough to forgive the amateurish style.

I would like to take a moment to speak to the moral: the moral is, as always, that outrage and witch hunts don’t get to the truth, they only obscure it. I don’t believe I know anyone who belongs to the morally-outraged who lead or follow witch hunts, so in that sense I cannot speak to those who are outraged about everything, especially crime. But if I could I think I would make a list of movies they should watch as a course to educate them in the complete and utter uselessness of moral outrage, and this film would be on it.

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach) 7/10

I feel like this goes with the grain of Baumbach’s latest movies (though I have not seen Greemberg). Kicking and Screaming and The Squid and the Wale felt to me like significant moments in the movie world (the Graduate of the 90s and the best divorce movie I’ve seen, respectively) whereas Margot at the Wedding was great, but felt…less significant. Frances Ha feels like it’s less significant to me as well.

That’s not to say I didn’t like it: it was very funny, touching at times, and really nice to look at. It was hard to tell whether he was celebrating or mocking these people (always a good thing in my mind). But at the end of the day it is a black and white dramedy about hipsters (well one particular one) and it feels like I don’t necessarily need to remember it in, say, ten years. I mean, will people get it then?

The film is quite influenced by the French New Wave, as Baumbach acknowledged in the Q and A, and as such I think we can forgive the lack of narrative direction (if that is a problem for you). I for one was bothered by the lack of a “big moment of change” for some time after the film finished. But then I realized that the whole point of such New Wave films was to dispense with artificial signifiers like that. But even if we do accept the dramatic life reversal at the end without its usual conventions, I still think we don’t get something that meaningful beyond the humour.

So I have to say this is my least favourite of his films, even though I did enjoy it a lot.

(As an aside to demonstrate why IMDB has a number-of-votes qualifier for its ratings making it into the Top 100 movies: When I went to rate Frances Ha the morning after the world premiere, it was rated 9.9/10, i.e. the best movie ever made.)

John Dies at the End (John Coscarelli) 7/10

I wanted to love this movie. And for most of it, I did. It’s hilarious and clever and was shaping up to be the second best horror comedy of the year.

It still is, but it’s got some problems.

  • The biggest – or at least most glaring – problem is the quality of the effects, which are never A-grade, but which seem to get worse, as the movie rushes towards its conclusion. I guess what really happens is that there is more in the way of effects, and more opportunities for us to notice the rather low quality of those effects.
  • But more importantly, the film seems rushed: maybe the director was trying to keep it under 100 minutes but the somewhat leisurely pace of the movie (which seems appropriate) changes drastically and the finale rushes by, with much less of the humour from the early stages of the movie, worse effects – as I mentioned – and a feel of “we gotta get this done before they stop paying attention.”

It’s a shame, because for its first 3/4s it is awesome and, had the pacing been better handled and the budget a little larger, I probably would have ranked it the third best movie I saw during the festival. Certainly it was the most entertaining.

No Place on Earth (Janet Tobias) 7/10

This tells a very compelling story about a number of families of Jews in Ukraine who survived the holocaust by living in a previously undiscovered cave for a record-setting amount of time (511 days underground in total, and over 300 days straight, setting a new world record for human life underground).

Unfortunately, the film feels like it was made for the History Channel about 10 years ago (i.e. before they started focusing on pawn shops). Not coincidentally, it is distributed by History Films, their film distribution and production offshoot. The film features excessive reenactments – of the quality you might find on the History Channel and not of the quality you might find in a feature documentary – which are scored so heavily as to be distracting (and the scoring is as cliche as you can get).

Certainly this story deserves a feature film, or a more artfully-made documentary, rather than a tv-quality doc. It’s unfortunate, because it’s an incredible story.

Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta) 6/10

Like Greetings from Tim Buckley (see below), I saw this for the wrong reasons: Hannah Arendt is my favourite philosopher. Why she’s my favourite is another story (if you want to know, comment or send me an email) but it’s safe to say I know a fair amount about her as a result. And so that’s certainly one reason why I might be disappointed by something like this. Fortunately, I could only pinpoint two scenes in the movie that seem to have been completely manufactured, so that’s something.

Like Michael Mann’s Ali, Hannah Arendt is not about the life of the titular hero, but a period of her life. Right off the bat that pisses me off. Why can’t these filmmakers come up with alternate titles if they are only trying to tell part of the life story? The name of the person as the title immediately makes a claim to a complete biography.

Because the film is not about her complete life, there are many moments of pretty terrible expository dialogue, where characters who have supposedly known each other for decades are put in conversations that resemble “So tell me about a time in your life when…” People who know each other don’t talk like this. And the film suffers from it and the attempt to include Hannah Arendt’s popular reputation in the mouths of people she knew personally, which really doesn’t make sense.

On the other hand, the film handles ideas rather well, something that it needed to for such a person (Arendt’s work is dense) and that is probably in part due to the micro-focus that I criticize. Because they only focus on the creation of “the banality of evil” and the subsequent controversy (certainly the 2nd most interesting part of her life to moviegoers who don’t care about philosophy) they are able to explain it – and put it across as a valuable concept – better than I could have hoped. And I think there is real value in it, even if I find much of the dialogue cringe-worthy.

It’s fairly well acted (though there are a few people, including an anchor, a department head, and a student, who are pretty brutal) and when it focuses on the ideas, rather than attempt to include her biography in fake conversations, it is an effective portrait of one of the most underrated thinkers of the 20th century. I hope that, like Greetings from Tim Buckley, it brings people to her work in greater numbers. Just don’t start with The Life of the Mind.

The Color of the Chameleon (Emil Hristow) 6/10

This is an interesting and often entertaining attempt to create a spy comedy about the cold war which is simultaneously something more substantial.

However, the film is an absolute mess with plot holes galore, dream sequences that aren’t fully defined, and seemingly no desire to really explain itself or the motivations of its characters. It’s really, really funny at times, which is one reason why I rate it higher than it deserves, and it also has some pretty compelling individual moments.

But wow does this movie need an editor. And another go at the script, I think.

Le magasin des suicides [the Suicide Shop], in 3D (Patrice Leconte) 6/10

Now this is the kind of kids movie Tomi Ungerer might have made. It’s got (lots of) death; it’s got a suggestion of incest (just a suggestion). Suffice it to say, this is not a North American film.

The problem is that though it contains material that most hysterical Canadian and American parents would never let their children see, it is very much geared towards children in its plot and in its humour. I was vaguely amused at first and then generally bored by the end. The songs weren’t anything to write home about either.

But against this is the fact that it is an animated film in 3D, and what they do with that is sometimes very cool (but at other times you are left wondering why it is in 3D, like so many other 3D movies).

Since I’m not a prude – and I would like to think I would not be a prude as a parent – I can recommend this to open-minded parents and their children, but this is not one of those adult and child pleasing films. It’s too bad the description made us think we were going to see a dark comedy for adults.

Greetings from Tim Buckley (Daniel Algrant) 5/10

I saw this movie for the wrong reasons. Normally I see movies at TIFF because of a director I like, a blurb that peaks my interest, or a picture (yes, that seems silly, but otherwise I never would have seen Sauna). I chose to see this movie because I like Tim Buckley. A lot. In actual fact, I think Tim Buckley is one of the great rock singers of all-time. It’s between him and Captain Beefheart for who was the best American rock singer to emerge in the late 60s (that’s right Doors fans, I just said that). I have to use the qualifier “American” because Peters Gabriel and Hammill both started singing professionally in the late 60s too. Buckley did things with his voice that no rock singer had done before him (Julie Driscoll would do the same thing for women rock singers in England at around the same time) but more importantly he brought jazz into folk (rock). And when I say that, I don’t just mean jazz-style chords, which is often what is meant when someone discusses bringing “jazz” into something. He really did bring jazz into folk rock. A track on Lorca, for example, is pretty much just jazz, having no base in folk rock at all. Buckley’s bands played jazz instruments and they improvised constantly. So yeah, I am a fan.

I can’t say I really know Jeff Buckley. Years ago I gave Grace a chance but apparently didn’t like it (I was even more of a snob then) and so even though this film was ostensibly about Jeff, I saw it because of Tim. Oops.

The problems with this film are certainly in no way the fault of the lead actor. Though I know virtually nothing about Jeff, except how he died, the lead guy seems to embody Jeff Buckley as at least I’ve heard of him. The performance is fantastic. I can’t say the same for the guy who plays Tim. Not only does he not look like him (not so much of a problem really), he doesn’t sing in the right range. That’s a bit of an issue when your actor sings songs that were previously recorded, especially by a great singer.

But no, the acting is not the problem. There are actually two rather critical ones:

  • The first is a real no-no. This is ostensibly a documdrama about Jeff Buckley’s first major live performance at a tribute concert for his father. But because this is an American film, the likely compelling story of Jeff coming to term’s with Tim’s rather huge musical legacy is pushed aside about 1/3 of the time for a love story. Apparently we cannot get enough drama from the father-son dynamic. We need a love story. This felt phony to me so I looked into it. It appears to have been completely invented for the purposes of the film. Not cool.
  • Second, the filmmakers can’t decide if they are telling the story of Jeff Buckley coming to terms with his father’s legacy (or falling in love with an invented woman, depending on the scene), if they’re telling the story of his birth (which they do every once and a while: we get to see Tim seeing Mingus, which is cool, but totally irrelevant to the story as far as I can tell), or if they are merely trying to reproduce a concert they thought was awesome, but which nobody filmed to the world’s detriment. The film is torn between these three things (mostly the former and the latter) and as a result is a bit of a mess. But wow, did that guy ever convince me he was Jeff Buckley.

The one thing I can hope for is that this film – and its soundtrack which contains a lot of Tim Buckley songs – is that it gets people to pay more attention to Tim Buckley. In the theatre, when the audience was asked who they were fans of, the cheer was much louder for Jeff than for Tim. And something about that just doesn’t sit right with me. So yeah, here’s hoping if you see this movie it makes you go out and buy (or download) Happy / Sad.

How to Make Money Selling Drugs (Matthew Cooke) 4/10

In my case, this is preaching to the choir. I used to be an advocate of total legalization. I now favour total decriminalization and legalization of the less harmful substances. Really, I am in support of whatever is least harmful for users and society as a whole. So why did I dislike this so much?

This is a giant mess of a movie, there’s no other way to put it (it’s no surprise this is Cooke’s first feature).

  • First, there are two movies here: one is a mock corporate training film about the drug business, the other is an attack against US drug policy. Yes, they are interrelated, but they are two separate approaches. A documentary about US drug policy would have been well-served by a brief, jokey short somewhere in the middle mocking corporate training films. Didn’t work as the hook on which to build the whole film, however. Mostly because he kept forgetting about the concept in the second half (and also because of the effects, see below).
  • Second, the film features numerous quality interviews (though some don’t belong in this film…Susan Sarandon is an authority on drug policy???) and according to the guest at the Q&A there were other interviews that were left out that might also have been interesting, but these are mixed with downloaded crap, stuff that looks like it was taped (in 2012!!!) off of a TV, and bad graphics which all make it feel like it was assembled by some dude in his basement, with a teeny tiny budget. At least on the big screen, it looks terrible. (The Gatekeepers had second rate CGI, but this CGI makes The Gatekeepers’ CGI look A+ quality.)

The total lack of organization and poor editing, which stem from the problem of having two competing concepts, combined with the bad graphics and numerous interviews and video taken from other people (including wholly unnecessary clips from The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) make this whole thing a gigantic stinking piece of shit. But many of the interviews are interesting enough that, for brief periods of time, you forget that this guy couldn’t direct his way out of a paper bag. And it’s not like he is wrong. His point of view is indeed correct: US drug policy is an unmitigated disaster. It’s a shame for critics of that policy that he couldn’t make an actual, feature-quality film.

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