I’m no journalist.
I mean, I have an English degree and boundless curiosity (before 7pm), but I don’t know the ins and outs and machinations of what it means to, uh, journal. So, when it comes to attending the Toronto International Film Festival I have to do it the old fashioned way: spending literally every cent I have to earn the right to attend screenings of semi-released movies that may or may not be any good.
And it’s fun! In fact, it’s the thing I look forward to most every year. An opportunity to escape from my dull life and be part of a massive celebration of film, film-makers, celebrities and lines. So many lines.
Usually I’d write up small capsule reviews of the notable films I saw at the festival, but this year I decided to combine the whole kit and kaboodle into a single article for easy consumption. I should note that I intentionally avoided some of the bigger films of the festival: BLACK MASS, THE MARTIAN, ROOM, THE DANISH GIRL, etc., since I figured they would be getting wide releases sooner rather than later, and what’s the point of paying twice as much to see a movie that will be at my multiplex in a month or two? Also, I’m cheap.
These are in no particular order, except the first one listed is the best film I saw at the festival. So, I guess that one IS ordered particularly.
1) SHERPA — Directed by Jennifer Peedom | Australia/United Kingdom | 96 minutes
The word SHERPA brings to mind the grinning, subservient men who dutifully accompany mountaineers as they travel up Everest, and I’m ashamed to say that I never really gave much of a thought to how condescending and — let’s face it — racist such a caricature of the ethnic group could be. Jennifer Peedom’s beautiful, thought-provoking documentary explores the complex relationship between the Sherpas and Everest, which has become such a cash-cow for Nepal that there have been “traffic jams” as foreigners try to race up the mountain. The first half of the film showcases the history of the people and their peerless bravery as they work towards creating luxurious conditions for the visitors paying big bucks (up to $100,000!) to get to the peak. At the film’s half-way mark, tragedy strikes and the story becomes much more universal as we see the group band together against their own exploitation, even while glory-hungry travelers label them selfish and “terrorists”. Incredibly well made doc, and one that must be seen on as big a screen as possible. I haven’t yet seen the recent Hollywood EVEREST film, but I can’t imagine it approaching the emotional complexity on display here.
2) ANOMALISA — Directed by Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson | USA | 90 minutes
ANOMALISA began as a play written by Charlie Kaufman and performed by David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan — who all reprise their, uh, roles for the film version. Continuing with the themes of alienation, mortality and mundanity featured in most of Kaufman’s work, the play followed a short period in the life of customer service guru Michael Stone as he finds himself drowning in the sameness of his existance and desperately attempts to reach into his past to find solace. For the theatrical version, Kaufman teamed with MORAL OREL veteran Duke Johnson to turn this rather banal (though intriguing) material into a stop motion film. The result is occasionally hilarious, often awkward, and totally like no other animated film I’ve seen. Kaufman seems disinterested in fantastical visuals, instead staging the action in a series of drab, scarily familiar, hotel rooms. While I wasn’t as entranced by the final product as some, it’s still a mesmerizing accomplishment that I’ve been thinking about on a daily basis since its debut.
Ok, let’s get this out of the way immediately. THE MIND’S EYE references SCANNERS deeply. I mean, it’s about people with telepathic and telekinetic powers battling it out and making heads explode and what-not, and they even have Larry Fessenden in it looking as Michael Ironside-y as possible. But I see it more as an affectionate homage rather than a rip-off, and as a homage it’s a ton of fun with some surprisingly effective gore. While obviously working with a limited budget, director Joe Begos confirms much of the promise hinted at in his earlier film ALMOST HUMAN, though the film is occasionally sunk by its performances; particularly Graham Skipper’s charismaless lead (which, hey, is ALSO like SCANNERS) and John Speredakos piling the ham on a little too thick as the villain. Still, you have great supporting work from Noah Segan and THE BATTERY‘s Jeremy Gardner, so it all evens out. If you’re on a site called Daily Grindhouse, then it’s definitely worth your time.
4) BASKIN — Directed by Can Evrenol |Turkey | 97 minutes
Look, it’s hard to film a convincing descent into hell. Fulci – who is referenced visually several times in BASKIN — did it, and BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY did it, but it’s just really tough to pull off. Kudos, then, to Turkish director Can Evrenol for coming awfully close despite what was clearly a miniscule budget. Expanding on the short film of the same name, BASKIN centers on a squad of policemen who find themselves stumbling towards hell after investigating an abandoned building. The film is actually most impressive in its first half, which is really effective at showing the comradery (and dickishness) of the officers. Once we start our descent, there is plenty of disturbing gyrations and exposed, bloody skin, but it starts to get a bit samey. There’s certainly plenty of disturbing imagery, but once it becomes clear that the characters are pretty much screwed, the torture doesn’t have much impact. Still, it’s plenty violent and there are some stunning visuals — particularly in the film’s dream sequences. Hopefully this is just a hint at the depravity that is to arise from modern Turkish horror (and Can Evrenol).
5) HARDCORE — Directed by Ilya Naishuller | Russia/USA | 90 minutes
Count me in among the people skeptical that the GoPro-heavy POV gimmick of HARDCORE would be able to sustain itself over 90 minutes. Sure, I loved director Ilya Naishuller’s music video for “BAD MOTHERFUCKER,” which relied on the same idea, but trying to keep that pace up for the duration seemed impossible — particularly for a first time feature made on a miniscule budget.
But he pulled it off. And then some. Tapping into the rich vein of visceral nuttiness mined by the CRANK films, HARDCORE starts off running and never slows down. Its definitely a pastiche of familiar science fiction (and — notably — videogame) tropes, but it’s also shockingly funny, with Sharlto Copley coming very close to wiping away the stench of some of his recent performances. Of course it’s extremely violent and coarse and all that, but it delivers everything it promises, which can’t be said for every movie on this list. It sparked an immediate bidding war at TIFF so you might eventually get to see this one at your local multiplex. Bring a barf bag.
6) SPL 2: A TIME FOR CONSEQUENCES — Directed by Soi Cheang | Hong Kong | 120 minutes
I’m the guy who doesn’t like SPL (aka KILLZONE in the U.S.). I mean.. it’s fine. There are some fun Donnie Yen MMA-influenced action scenes, and you have Simon Yam sleepwalking through a half-baked Johnnie To-ish plot, but it was so obviously retrofitted to be a martial arts film that it just feels slap-dash and lame. I re-watched it just before TIFF to confirm my feelings and.. yeah.. it really dulled my interest in the sequel. Even my excitement for a Hong Kong martial arts film starring Tony Jaa was muted by him not making a decent film for about a decade AND possibly being insane.
But it’s terrific. Smartly jettisoning everything about the original aside from some actors (playing different roles) and some themes, it’s the best kung-fu (and muay thai!) movie I’ve seen in recent memory, and has one blow-away prison riot action scene that might be the single best thing I’ve seen this year. Wu Jing graduates from supporting bad-ass to the main stage, playing an undercover cop who gets squirreled away in a Thailand prison by a delightfully dickish crime boss (Louis Koo) and eventually befriends a security guard (TONY JAA) who has a sick daughter who requires a bone marrow transplant and.. uh.. Ok. The plot is absolutely ludicrious and melodramatic as shit, but it makes for a fine clothesline on which to hang a ton of great action.
7) COLLECTIVE INVENTION — Directed by Kwon Oh-Kwang | South Korea | 92 minutes
I had no idea what to expect with COLLECTIVE INVENTION. I knew it was South Korean, and was about a guy who was turned into a fish, and that was pretty much enough to get me into the cinema. What I wasn’t expecting was a sharp satire about the fickle nature of celebrity, which enthusiastically skewers the public, the media, lawyers, and the culture of cynicism that surrounds them all. It’s not exactly hilarious, and is occasionally straight up maudlin, but it’s sweet and rarely takes itself too seriously (which is a must when it comes to movies featuring a mutant fish-man). There were a few films at the festival examining the fleeting nature of fame and the unreasonable expectations we put on public figures, but this is the only one featuring a fish-dude so it wins.
8) YAKUZA APOCALYPSE — Directed by Takashi Miike | Japan | 115 minutes
Takashi Miike has made more than his fair share of crazy Yakuza films, so when he decides to make a movie called YAKUZA APOCALYPSE, it’s probably a good idea to sit up and pay attention. Very much a throwback to his mid-90s “throw everything at the wall and see if it sticks and, if not, throw some more” period of gonzo filmmaking, it’s deliriously entertainining even if it eventually — gloriously — goes off the rails. In his post-screening Q&A, Miike stated that the reason actors like working with him is that he lets them do things they would never have the opportunity to try in their more mainstream work, and I think it’s fair to say that Yayan Ruhian (MAD DOG from THE RAID) didn’t expect to play an anime obsessed, blood-loving asskicker who gets in the longest cinematic fist-fight since THEY LIVE. Sadly, aside from that there are not really any notable action sequences, but when you have a guy in a frog mascot costume kicking ass… who cares? Mid-level Miike, which is higher than most filmmakers ever approach.
9) VETERAN — Directed by Seung-wan Ryoo | South Korea | 124 minutes
Already a box-office sensation in Korea (with multiple sequels on the way), VETERAN was definitely the most crowd-pleasing film I saw at the festival, and the familiar mix of comedy and thriller elements will play well with international audience. Admittedly, seeing a film that embraces — and even celebrates — illicit police violence in 2015 is pretty damn problematic, but VETERAN exists in a world where the spoiled 1% are not just self-interested and callous, but actively forcing hardworking Joes into spur-of-the-moment MMA matches in their offices. Seo Do-cheol (who was also in Ryoo Seung-wan’s UNJUST) is incredible in the lead, bringing a wonderful mix of humor and machismo that is as effective in the lovingly choreographed action scenes as it is in the many moments of broad comedy. Incredibly entertaining.
Not to end on a downer, but I hated THE GIRL IN THE PHOTOGRAPHS. It might be the first Midnight Madness film that — while watching — had me daydreaming about the better films that could have been showing in its place. Stiff and lazily plotted with bland performances and blander violence, it’s just a mess of a film that even manages to waste Dean Cundey’s usually reliable photography. The only moments of life come from Kal Penn’s mocking impression of fashion photographer Terry Richardson, but even that quickly gets tiresome and things predictably fizzle out well before the climax. Executive produced by Wes Craven, it’s entirely missing the cleverness and intelligence that typified the horror master’s best work. If you love slasher films (which, admittedly, I don’t), there are countless better, and more interesting, variations out there.