James Evans gives his take on TIFF 2010.
Hard to believe a year has passed since ES last reported on the Leviathan that is the Toronto International Film Festival. This year, a very different festival was experienced as the entire venue, from screens to press offices, from communications centres to hotels and hospitality – moved from its old uptown locale to its new home downtown near the lake. The reason for this move was the glittering new star of the festival, the purpose-built Bell Lighthouse, which now serves as the festival’s year-round HQ and new home. This state-of-the-art architectural monument to cinema has been years in the building and was officially opened during the festival this year. Sure to be the envy of many other film fests, the Bell Lighthouse houses six spanking new cinemas, cafes, exhibition spaces, offices and an exceptionally well-stocked library that will prove a boon to cinema researchers, students and writers. Also worth a mention was the fantastically organised and superbly run Filmmakers Lounge, which ran the course of the festival in a converted brick-built downtown loft space. Within days, the Lounge became the place for industry and press to meet and mingle and many a networking and friend-making evening was had – much aided by the sponsored free bar that ran every day. In previous years, the industry and press had been separated and both groups agreed that this year’s innovation was terrific.
Cinematically speaking, there were a few treasures to be found, and here is an overview of some of the best, worst and most interesting that this ES writer viewed.
First to impress – in the Contemporary World Cinema strand – was the Finnish film Lapland Odyssey (Napapiirin sankarit) directed by Dome Karukoski (who gave us Forbidden Fruit, The Home of Dark Butterflies and Beauty and the Bastard) and written by Pekko Pesonen. What can only be described as a freezing cold slacker road movie is the 34-year-old director’s fourth feature film and his first comedy. Downbeat and low-key with some absurdist elements, Lapland Odyssey clearly has it roots in the same ground as those other oddball Finnish masters of the deadpan, Aki and Mika Kaurismä;ki. In fact, one character even sports a mad waxed hair-do resembling the style sported by the Leningrad Cowboys. It is set in the Lapland area where, as the director notes: ‘the unemployment rate is over 40%. In the winter you barely see the sun. In the summer it doesn’t go down, so people can’t sleep and go crazy. I always questioned how one can live in these areas. But when you meet the locals, you understand. It’s because of the Finnish â€œperkeleâ€. Perkele has no translation. Sometimes it’s used as a curse word but it actually means something between stamina, willpower and damning the gods. That perkele is what the people of Lapland have. Inside the biggest loser, a hero can be found. Inside the biggest cynic you can still find hope.’ Lapland Odyssey displays a lot of perkele.
Anurag Kashyap’s That Girl in Yellow Boots was about as far emotionally and climatically as you could get from Karukoski’s. Filmed and set in the underbelly of Mumbai’s ‘massage’ district, the film follows the trials and tribulations of a bi-racial young woman, Ruth (Kalki Koechlin), who works at a massage parlour in a job procured by her boyfriend – she has no work permit – trying to earn enough to take care of herself while having to support her boyfriend’s drug habit. She is also on a quest to re-unite with her father whom she cannot forget although she has few memories of him. With the rougher side of Mumbai as the narrative’s backdrop, Ruth tries to find her independence, her roots and her self-respect as she gets sucked deeper and deeper into the darker recesses of the city’s hidden and unpleasant underworld. What she finally discovers is a devastating truth about her life, which is perhaps a little over-egged as a psychological concern in the narrative, but still makes the film an engaging experience. Kashyap’s previous six films – especially Dev. D and Gulaal – herald the movement towards a contemporary, edgy and critical filmmaking in India, far removed from the polished genres of Bollywood and the received images of Indian cinema that persist in many minds. That Girl in Yellow Boots continues that new spirit of Hindi independent cinema in both style and subject. His next two projects are eagerly anticipated: Bombay Velvet, a 1960s thriller to be produced by Danny Boyle, and Doga, based on the comic book super-hero.
Mamma Gogo is a film by the Icelandic director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, who was nominated for a best foreign language film in the 1992 Academy Awards for his second feature, Children of Nature. Mamma Gogo is his ninth cinematic excursion and is a deeply touching, extremely even-handed and sensitive evocation of a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s and the effects it has on her children and extended family – especially her favourite son, an unnamed film director played by Hilmir Snaer Gudnason who is having his own crisis, caused by the poor reception of his latest film. A moving meditation with a terrific performance by Kristjorg Kjeld as Mamma Gogo, this beautifully paced and thoughtful film will stay with you long after you have left the cinema and will be especially poignant if it has ever happened in your own family. A brave film that needed to be made about a subject that few want to deal with.
Among the films that opened in the Special Presentations strand were two American pieces directed by contrasting cinematic icons now both well into their 70s: Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger and Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter. The former is an enjoyable enough bit of entertainment – and considering late Allen films, a decent effort – which follows an ensemble group through their various life and emotional crises. But stop me if this sounds familiar – one of the stories concerns the wealthy Alfie (played by Anthony Hopkins), who abandons his wife of 40 years for… how did you guess? A buxom blonde gal decades his junior. Another story follows a frustrated writer, Roy (Josh Brolin), whose eye wanders from his long-suffering wife to a beautiful young guitar player (Freida Pinto) with whom he falls madly in love. Not one, but two amours fous of older men for younger women – Woody, get over it! This is an undeniably charming, but ultimately lightweight tale about fate, existence, randomness and chance – which are hardly thematic departures for Allen. You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger ends (defensively?) where it began: all sound and (some) fury; signifying nothing.
By contrast, Eastwood’s Hereafter is a meditation on the anxieties and insecurities of contemporary life – and death. It is an engaging, and slow-burning tale with three parallel strands that serve to develop a narrative around the theme of the after-life and its ultimate unknowability. Eastwood sets the various stories in locales as disparate as London, Chamonix, Hawaii and San Francisco. All the characters have been deeply affected by death in some form or another and it has significantly taken their lives in various directions. At the beginning of the film, a French television reporter has a near-death experience as a freak tsunami hits her idyllic beach resort. This scene, like the rest of the film, is shot with impressive economy, conviction and assurance. This is a fine film by a filmmaker at the height of his powers and who, at age 79, is still taking risks with the material he chooses to film – a rather far cry from his compatriot Mr Allen.
Other American films that caught the eye were John Turturro’s documentary love paean to Naples, Passione, which guides the viewer through the life and times of this ancient and beloved city through one of its cultural gifts to the world, its music. The songs, stylists and performers of this music of passion, anger, hatred, social outrage, love, loss, jealousy and death provide striking examples of the huge gamut of Neapolitan music. Passione aims to do for the music of Naples what Buena Vista Social Club did for the music of Cuba, and while not succeeding as well, certainly persuades. Buried (dir. Rodrigo Cortes) is one of a recent cycle of films (Saw, Iron Doors) that position the protagonist in an unknown, confined and inescapable space – a contemporary Kafkaesque situation without benefit of The Trial. One wonders if the new world of the individual, non-communal interior capitalist space of mobile phones, iPods, and gaming is really the anxious subtext of these films. A surprisingly well-cast Ryan Reynolds does a bravura one-man Beckett-like show and carries the film, which is saying plenty as the whole movie is set in a coffin. The lighting and cinematography are to be given a standing ovation for the very ingenious way they are used in such a restrictive setting. A clever twist at the end makes for a very engaging film.
The USA also produced a music documentary: Thom Zimny’s near-hagiographic documentary of Bruce Springsteen circa 1976-1978, recording – no, building – his opus, Darkness on the Edge of Town. The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town is one and a half hours of intimate detail and parallel editing of the original black and white footage interspersed with contemporary colour footage of the band reflecting on the album some 33 years on. Insightful, inspiring and at times, moving, this portrait of Springsteen and the making of the album is terrific, if over-long for non-fans. It is certain to turn up on BBC 4 soon on a Springsteen-themed night! A real labour of love – be sure to stick around as the credits roll for a very special band reunion and performance.
Finally, two highly contrasting international films are worth mentioning. The Last Circus (Balada Triste) is a wild and woolly film set in 1937 (shades of the Spanish Civil War), in the surreal and unsettling world of a circus. It fast-forwards to 1973 where the saddest clown, Javier (Carlos Areces), begins a hostile working relationship with a silly, and nasty, clown (Santiago Segura), with whom he later battles for the love of the dancer Natalia (Carolina Bang). The sure direction of Alex de la Iglesia and the black humour and set-pieces bring to mind a weird mix of Jodorowsky, Fellini, Buñuel, Argento and Almodóvar. The ending climaxes in a battle of wills at the Valley of the Fallen, a memorial that General Franco had built to honour the soldiers who died in the Civil War. The Last Circus is a sometimes absurd and over-the-top spectacle and is not without its problems, but is nonetheless well worth catching. By contrast, the understated and slow-burning Pelin Esmer film, 10 to 11 (11’e 10 Kala) is an honest and charming story of an elderly man (actually played by the director’s father) who obsessively collects the detritus and ephemera of his life in Istanbul, including countless audio tapes. He lives alone in his small apartment in a building about to be demolished and from which he does not want to move. He strikes up an acquaintance with the young caretaker of the building and the two become dependent upon each other for negotiating life in the contemporary city. A turn of events pointedly, but poignantly, ends the story. This is a beautifully paced film about time, memory, life and our own inevitable deaths.
All in all, a landmark year for TIFF.