Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Toronto International Film Festival 2012: A great year
Ah, dear Brothers of the Order, a revelation occurred during my daily flagellation session, administered so graciously and zealously by my Redskin Brothers up here in the North Country of Our Great Dominion of Canada. After securing, at great savings (and in support of the entrepreneurial activities of our Noble Savage charges), a carton of contraband All Natural Native cigarettes at Bertha’s Smoke Tent, I ventured deep into the woods to meet my trustiest flagellator, John Ramsay.
He stripped me naked with considerable savagery, tossed my Black Robe into a bonfire, forced my legs apart and insisted my arms stretch to the Heavens. In an ‘‘X’’ stance, my hands and feet were brutishly tied twixt two Maple trees. My dear, loyal, and ever-so-willing John Ramsay began tearing flesh from my back with a switch fashioned from several bramble bushes. During the intensity of these Jesuit Relations (of a decidedly different brand), the streams of my blood, fertilizing the soil of the Niagara Escarpment, inspired additional notions to cascade along my fevered cerebellum.
With each stroke, with every new rivulet of blood formed, and every gnash of the teeth to stop me from betraying my inherent crying grandmother-hood of pain ready to pierce the quiet of the wilds, I began to formulate the opinion that this had indeed been a great year for cinema at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2012. One gem after another passed before my eyes.
Without further rumination, allow me to illuminate you with a clutch of encapsulated commentaries from one of the world’s largest film festivals. I indulged in several days of sweet cinephiliac flagellation. Here then, for your edification, are a few high and lows.
Let us pray…
ANTIVIRAL (dir. Brandon Cronenberg, 2012)
Accompanying me to the TIFF screening of this first feature from David Cronenberg’s son was Julia Klymkiw, my 11-year-old Cub Reporter at the Klymkiw Film Corner. Upon leaving the theatre, I asked what she thought about it. ‘Well, I kind of liked all the blood, but the movie itself was pretty fucking stupid.’ I couldn’t have said it better myself, so I’ll let the child’s summation stand. To elaborate, Antiviral was indeed one of the worst horror films I’d seen in quite a while. This moronically pretentious poppycock about a world where celebrity diseases are marketed to a public that can afford them plods along dourly with no evidence of panache, humour or filmmaking talent.
The picture has excellent production value (a no-brainer given that producer Niv ‘The Red Violin’ Fichman is Master of Canadian Eye Candy – nobody makes better-looking movies in the Dominion than Mr Fichman) and features a couple of amusing supporting performances from Malcolm McDowell and Nicholas Campbell, neither of whom seems at all embarrassed to be in this landfill site of a movie. The son of Canada’s True Master Filmmaker neglected to take a shot of his dad’s talent disease. Antiviral is the result.
Argo (dir. Ben Affleck, 2012)
Everybody at TIFF loved Argo and this adulation continued during its subsequent theatrical release. Directed by Ben Affleck, who affably plays CIA ‘extractor’ Tony Mendez, it’s a competent fictionalised portrait of the real-life rescue of American embassy workers in Iran, who were hidden in the home of the Canadian ambassador during the 1980 hostage crisis.
Alas, the film’s racism and ethnocentrism are both aimed squarely at Iranians with typical Hollywood vengeance. Representing the entire populace as savage, devious and, as a bonus, stupid grinning bozos, too enamoured with American popular culture to do their jobs properly, the picture made it impossible to succumb to its offerings. America’s greed, deception and need to control the rest of the world to serve its elite of corporate rulers is afforded a tiny mention at the beginning of the movie, then discarded. It’s as if this nod to the historical slow boil America instigated 30 years before the events depicted was disingenuously designed to please liberal audiences who could feel good about marching shoulder to shoulder with the right wing as they all commingled to worship America’s superiority. It’s time for Oscar to come calling.
Baby Blues (dir. Katarzyna Roslaniec, 2012)
Nobody makes movies quite like Katarzyna Roslaniec. In Baby Blues, the spirited Polish director tackles everyday challenges young teenage girls face in the modern world. Her touch is never juvenile, clichéd, didactic, humourless, nor rife with the dour bludgeon of political correctness, or worse, the moralistic, ultra-conservative, by-the-numbers-after-school-special-styled dreariness so prevalent in similarly themed works from North America. Her movies rock! Big time!
Baby Blues focuses on a teenager with a baby sired by her unwitting slacker boyfriend. She is bound and determined to keep it, but on her own steam, thank you very much. Roslaniec injects the picture with a verité nuttiness, allowing her to take a whole lot of stylistic chances, yielding one indelible moment after another. One of several sublime sequences is unveiled just after Natalia (Magdalena Berus) experiences a harrowing encounter with judgemental health care workers. Roslaniec holds on a shot of the teen, now looking more like a little girl than a burgeoning young woman, huddled on a metro train with her sick baby clutched tightly in her arms. She holds and holds and holds on the shot and when it feels like she’s going to finally cut out, the shot holds even longer.
Other moments are equally powerful, most often in scenes where Natalia and her amiably clueless dope-smoking boyfriend Kuba (Nikodem Rozbicki) are navigating the unfamiliar waters of domestic life and parenthood. Roslaniec so beautifully and truthfully captures how these two young people try adapting to the responsibilities that come from being parents. What she finally evokes is truthful – infused with life itself.
End of Watch (dir. David Ayer, 2012)
This surprise treat at TIFF turned out to be the best cop picture I’ve seen in years! Hanging by the slenderest of plot threads, this mostly episodic belly flop into the maw of every harrowing moment the brave boys in blue face daily made for an always-jolting ride. Writer-director David Ayer follows two loyal partners, beautifully rendered by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as they go about their daily grind in South Central Los Angeles. The close pals eventually stumble upon something much bigger, finding themselves on a drug cartel hit list.
The opening minutes are shot through a patrol car’s windshield-eye-view of the cops’ turf, accompanied by a portentous reality-TV-styled voice-over. At first you think Ayer’s gone nuts until he reveals that Gyllenhaal is a part-time law student putting himself through university as a cop and studying filmmaking as an elective. As such, he’s shooting everything on the job to make a documentary as a class project. When he’s not shooting, the rest of the film is mostly pieced together with a variety of surveillance views and hardware wielded by young digi-cam-obsessed villains. Add great dialogue, superb realist detail, actual locations plus magnificent performances and it adds up to harrowing slam-bang entertainment.
Krivina (dir. Igor Drljaca, 2012)
Not a single shot is fired in director Igor Drljaca’s stunning feature debut, but the horror of war – its legacy of pain, its futility and its evil – hang like a cloud over every frame of this powerful cinematic evocation of memory and loss. The film’s hypnotic rhythm plunges us into the inner landscape of lives irrevocably touched by inhumanity in a diaspora of suffering that shall never escape the fog of war.
Miro (Goran Slavkovic) lives in the New World. That is to say, he’s an immigrant to Canada. Having left the former Yugoslavia when civil war broke out, he’s moved from city to city, job to job and home to home. Hearing that his childhood friend Dado might be alive, Miro leaves the grey, lifeless Toronto – a world of cement and darkened office tower windows – a city so cold, so strangely inhospitable that a reconnection with his homeland, his past, his memories of a time when his own country was at peace is what grips him to embark upon an odyssey like no other. The land of his birth is rich with natural beauty, but also shrouded in mystery. It haunts Miro, as it haunts us. As he talks to one person after another, we see the toll of war etched into their ethos. This clearly affects Miro as it does us.
Director Drljaca uses the poetic qualities of cinema and plunges us into an experiential work of art that affords the unique opportunity to find within ourselves the sense of loss that war has instilled in the characters, the world at large and, in fact, all of us – whether we have experienced it or not. Supported by an evocative score, soundscape and cinematography, Drljaca is a filmmaker to watch. He will continue, no doubt, to deliver great work.
The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
I can’t ever recall the same electricity in any screening of any movie in the 25-or-so years I’ve been attending TIFF. Hundreds of scribes packed the hugest auditorium of TIFF’s Bell Lightbox complex. The pre-screening buzz in the cinema was low, not unlike the sounds emitted from a hive of happily prodigious bees. The lights went down and the house went completely and utterly silent. Then it began. Anderson’s insanely provocative exploration of post-war America reels you in. You feel a bit like ‘Bruce’ the shark in Spielberg’s Jaws, chomping on a sharp hook that Robert Shaw’s mad-eyed Quint keeps hitting, taunting, tugging, twisting and pulling. You try to escape, you fight madly not to succumb, but succumb you do.
Inspired by the mad Scientologist L. Ron Hubbard, Anderson weaves a hypnotic tale of a young veteran and his mentorship under a charismatic cult leader. If you are lucky enough to see the film as it’s meant to be seen in 70mm, you get the added bonus of diving into Anderson’s masterly use of the medium. It is an epic scope, but an intimate epic with Anderson’s eye examining the rich landscapes of the human face. And what faces! Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Laura Dern suck you deep into their eyes and, ultimately, their very souls.
When I left the cinema, I couldn’t explain to myself what I had just seen and why it so powerfully knocked me on my ass. What I can say is that I can count on one hand the number of films that were not only hypnotic, but in fact, seemed to place me in a literal state of hypnosis. The Master is one of these films. I saw it a second time – riveted, yet wondering if I still loved it. I queried George Toles, my old friend, mentor and screenwriter of Guy Maddin’s masterworks, about his experience, explaining, of course, my recent dilemma. His response was this: ‘The movie neither asks for my love, nor wants my love, but I give it my love anyway.’ A third viewing corroborated this for me.
Room 237 (dir. Rodney Ascher, 2012)
If you’re a movie geek, you’ll immediately get the significance of this engaging feature documentary’s title. If you aren’t, you’ll learn it refers to a room in an isolated old hotel where something horrific happened (and likely will again) in Stanley Kubrick’s crazy scary, creepy and hypnotic 1980 film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining.
A cool blend of cine-mania and conspiracy theory, Room 237 is not a traditional making-of documentary or even a critical appreciation in the usual sense. Using a treasure trove of clips and stills from all things Kubrick, director Rodney Ascher interviews five people who’ve spent an unhealthy number of waking hours over an ever MORE unhealthy number of years, dissecting hidden meanings they claim are buried within Kubrick’s scream-fest.
Whilst I’m a tad sceptical that The Shining is an apology to the world from Stan the Man for faking the entire Apollo moon programme, some of the other fruit-loopy theories (subliminal Holocaust allegory, anyone?) are not without interest. The most intriguing postulation (backed by its believer’s meticulous reconstructions) asserts that one specific room on the set could not exist within the architecture of the Overlook Hotel. Ascher never makes fun of the cinematic conspiracy theorists and, cleverly, they appear off camera in voice-over. The images are virtually all Kubrick all the time and provide visual evidence to bolster said theories. The movie also makes you ponder Calumet Baking Soda. Please discover that nugget on your own.
Stories We Tell (dir. Sarah Polley, 2012)
Nature, nurture and the manner in which their influence upon our lives inspires common threads in the telling of tales that are in turn relayed, processed and synthesized by what we think we see and what we want to see are the ingredients that make up Sarah Polley’s latest work as a director.
Her Oscar-nominated Away from Her was a well-crafted dramatic plunge into the effect of Alzheimer’s upon a married couple. Take this Waltz blasted a few light years forward, delivering a film that’s on one hand a wonky-plonky romantic comedy and on the other, a sad, devastating portrait of love gone awry, and all the while being perhaps one of the most progressive films about female passion and sexuality made in a modern, contemporary North American (though specifically Canadian) context.
Stories We Tell is something altogether different and, in fact, roots Polley ever so firmly in contemporary cinema history as someone who has generated a bona fide masterpiece. It is first and foremost a story of family – not just a family, or for that matter any family, but rather a mad, warm, brilliant, passionate family who expose their lives in the kind of raw no-guts-no-glory manner that only film can allow. Most importantly, the lives exposed are as individual as they are universal and ultimately it’s a film about all of us. It is a documentary with a compelling narrative arc, yet one that is as mysterious and provocative and profoundly moving as you’re likely to see.
Love permeates the entire film – the kind of consuming love that we’ve all felt at one point or another. We experience love within the context of relationships most of us are familiar with: a husband and wife, a mother and child, brothers and sisters (half and full), family and friends, and yes, ‘illicit love’ (at least within a specific context in a much different time and place). Mostly though, Stories We Tell expresses a love that goes even beyond our recognisable experiences of love and runs a gamut of emotions.
The film is often funny, to be sure. It is, after all, a film by Sarah Polley and is infused with her near-trademark sense of perverse, skewed, borderline darkly comedic, but ultimately amiable sense of humour. The great American author of Armenian heritage William Saroyan titled his episodic novel (and Oscar-nominated screen story) The Human Comedy, something that coursed through his entire canon and indeed is the best way to describe Polley’s approach to telling stories on film. She exposes truth and emotion, and all the while is not willing to abandon dollops of sentimental touches – the sort we can find ourselves relating to in life itself.
There is a unique sense of warmth that permeates Stories We Tell, and by so employing it, Polley doesn’t merely tug at our emotions: she slices them open, exposing raw nerve endings that would be far too painful if they were not tempered with an overall aura of unconditional love, not unlike that described by those who have survived a near-death experience. The emotions and deep feelings of love in Polley’s documentary are so enveloping, I personally have to admit to being reduced to a quivering, blubbering bowl of jelly each time I saw the film.
Four screenings later and her movie continues to move me unconditionally – on an aesthetic level, to be sure (her astonishing blend of interviews, archival footage and dramatic recreations so real that they all blend together seamlessly), but mostly on a deeply personal and emotional level.
At the heart of the film is a courageous, vibrant woman no longer with us. Polley guides us through this woman’s influence upon all those she touched. Throughout much of the film, one is reminded of Clarence Oddbody’s great line in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life: ‘Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?’ I try to imagine the lives of everyone Polley introduces us to and how if, like in the Capra film, this vibrant, almost saint-like woman had not been born. Most of those we meet in the film wouldn’t have been born either and the rest would have lived lives with a considerable loss of riches.
And I also think deeply on the fact that this woman was born and how we see her effect upon all those whose lives she touched. Then, most importantly, I think about Clarence Oddbody’s line with respect to the child that might not have been born to this glorious woman – a child who might have been aborted. I think about how this child has touched all the lives of those in the documentary. The possibility that this child might have never been born is, within the context of the story relayed, so utterly palpable that I can’t imagine audiences not breaking down.
I can’t imagine the loss to all those people whose lives this child touched. And the world? The world would genuinely be a less rich place without this child.
THEN, it gets really personal. I think about all those in MY life who could have NOT been born – people who are very close, people (two in particular) who have indelibly made a mark on my life – people whose non-existence would have rendered my life in ways I try to repress.
And I weep. Kind of like Brando says as Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now: ‘I … I … I cried. I wept like some grandmother.’
Most of all, my tears are reserved for the film’s aura of unconditional love, its incredible restorative power. Sarah Polley is often referred to in Canada as a ‘national treasure’. She’s far more than that.
She’s a treasure to the world – period.
And so, finally, is her film.
From the Dominion of Canada, I bid you: Bon Cinema!