In the Mix with TIFF

As a resident of Toronto I would be remiss not to comment about the recent Toronto International Film Festival, otherwise known as TIFF. My wife and I took in a small dose of five films this year, focusing on fare that would not otherwise find a large release in North American multiplexes. Having spent the last five years in cultural isolation, we weren’t sure we could handle many more — though my wife’s previous Festival record is twenty-two. We were initially baffled that we received all five of our “top five” picks despite being one of the last boxes in the festival lottery.

When it comes to TIFF, we are certainly not cinemaniacs, willing to endure three or four films a day. We’ll read up on many of the films in advance in order to gauge some level of interest, and we tend to avoid certain categories such as Wavelengths, which is devoted to experimental shorts and features. We also avoid more mainstream picks that tend to find theatrical releases within weeks of the Festival. Our logic: Why see the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading when we can avoid the lines and inflated ticket prices and see it next week? We were disappointed to learn that festival organizers have even separated certain acclaimed films from the regular lottery system, thereby allowing higher prices on selected works. In the past it was common for Gala premieres to be excluded, but now even the second and third screenings are off limits to standard buyers, unless you’ve paid extra.

Nevertheless, it is still possible to see a great many films at TIFF even without a press pass or an industry connection. This remains one of the joys of the Festival, in that it is open to anyone, no matter what the Canadian press says about the corporate takeover of the fest. Despite such hyperbole, it was obvious that festival turnout was very strong among cinephiles and cinemaniacs, as this lineup demonstrates.

The Movies

Among our favorite categories at TIFF include the Real to Reel documentaries, the world cinema picks, and the Midnight Madness selections. The first two are self explanatory, but the third remains one of the real gems of the entire Festival, a category devoted to midnight screenings of internationally marginalized or cult genre films. Here, enthusiastic crowds embrace the transgeneric as if they were works of high art. In past years there have been Japanese yakuza flicks, zombie horrors, rockumentaries, Borat, sexy killers, and other brands of the weird and crazy.

This year the best film we saw at TIFF came on the first night of the Madness screenings. In fact it was hard to top this pick, which slowly generated buzz among festival goers until its premiere. This was evidenced by the winding rush ticket line that was longer than the ticket holders line. The film was JCVD, which by now many people know as that “surprisingly good Jean Claude Van Damme” movie. I hate to sound like one of those surprised audience members, but yes…Van Damme can act. He gives what is probably his most personal and riskiest performance, playing a slightly fictionalized version of himself.

The self-reflexive nature of the film is the least interesting aspect of JCVD, since it has become a relatively common narrative device in film and television comedy. For example, Larry David does it on Curb Your Enthusiasm. JCVD is an accomplished work because it does not rely on this device to deliver the film’s key punchlines and narrative arc. We are instead invited to follow Van Damme as he deals with two overlapping crises: a personal meltdown due to a bitter divorce and child custody case, and a robbery in which he finds himself a hostage. After returning to Belgium to escape his personal turmoil in LA, Van Damme is the victim of bad timing when he walks in on a robbery of a small-town post office. The authorities, however, believe Van Damme to be the criminal, since he is forced by his captors to communicate with the lead investigator by telephone. While Van Damme is highly revered by the townspeople, he is also known to be rather unstable, which explains their willingness to believe that he would hold up a post office.

The film itself is highly stylized without becoming a distraction. What was most impressive was the degree to which the director, Mabrouk El Mechri, relies on complex long takes over rapid cutting and extreme close ups. El Mechri demonstrates that tension and speed can be conveyed through spacious framing and longer shot lenghts. The opening title sequence virtually sets up this stylistic thematic that will govern the rest of the film. Over the titles, we observe Van Damme acting out a complex action sequence that takes him to various areas of a rainy soundstage, where he punches and kicks his way through an army of goons. And it’s all done in one seamless take (unless, of course, there have been some CG transitions). By the end of the take, Van Damme completes the action and retires to his make-shift trailer and stares longingly into space. He’s older, slower, and the desire to be an action star has faded along with his popularity.

El Mechri balances the action set pieces with wit and irony that play well together, even as the film wants it both ways. We want to see Van Damme kick ass, but we’re forced to recognize that even if this is not the “real world,” Van Damme is only a guy in a post office, a recovering drug addict and worn Hollywood star. This synthesis reaches a climax during the film’s most profound and touching segments, a soliloquy from Van Damme who literally rises above the set to address the audience. Over an orchestra of mulling strings, he confesses to his drug addiction, his pursuit of fame, his dream of Hollywood stardom, his humble beginnings, his family meltdown, and his love of martial arts.

None of it may be true, but Van Damme convinces us with a heartfelt appeal. It’s one of those moments where you’re caught off guard by such a decision that initially leaves you wondering if it worked. In retrospect I believe it does work, not because El Mechri twists the genre to be provocative, but because it feels genuine and it grows organically from the rest of the film. Yes, Van Damme can act, but more importantly he is sincere. Which is something that most films lack.

Runners up

There were others…including The Real Shaolin, about the lives of four students of traditional kung fu in China. Worth a look if it is ever released. There’s nothing groundbreaking about its style or structure, but it fuses four very different stories with compassion and honesty.

Not Quite Hollywood, which documents the rise and fall of Australian “exploitation” films, had a lot of potential to tap into the social and cultural nuances of the Australian film industry in the 1970s, but it ended up being a rather benign love letter comprised of lengthy clips from some classic Ozploitation flicks such as Mad Max and Patrick and some forgotten gems such as Razerback and Roadgames. While the film gave me a shopping list of new films to search out, I don’t know if I learned anything about the state of the Australian industry or why these films were so popular at that time. Quentin Tarantino’s running commentary added a necessary dose of context, but like the filmmakers seemed to be on hand more as a fan than an expert.

There was also Restless, an Israeli co-production about a strained father-son relationship, that we found uneven but still engaging, even though it relied too heavily on extreme close ups that disrupted the spatial dynamics of several scenes. While emotion is often conveyed in the eyes of an actor, there’s no need to emphasize this with entire dialog sequences shot so tightly. The women seated behind me were also confused, since they kept asking each other which character was which. Never a good sign. However, these were also the same women who, at the sight of guns or blood, reacted as if they had never seen either before in a movie.

And finally there was The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World, a disappointing documentary about…you guessed it: the biggest Chinese restaurant in the world.

Close Encounters

Of course, with TIFF comes the ubiquitous star gazing in Yorkville, Toronto’s posh mini-neighborhood where Hollywood celebrities are more common than Starbucks locations. This year, prior to an afternoon screening, I was sitting in Starbucks and watched Brian De Palma walk in, order a coffee and sit at the window with what appeared to be his assistant. My wife and I passed Mark Ruffalo, who was having a conversation out front of Roots, and we nearly bumped into Ivan Reitman who was walking and talking on his phone about seeing Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno.

At Festival time Yorkville also swarms with paparazzi. They’re pretty obvious to spot: slouchy types with backpacks and digital cameras with long lenses hanging out in front of various mid-town hotels. With a chunky D-SLR camera around my neck I’ve even gotten some stares from people who might assume I’m hoping to sell some photos to TMZ.

So, another year at TIFF comes to a close. We missed several notable films that we’ll be sure to catch later this fall including Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, which was one of the films that had incredible word-of-mouth buzz, and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which received the People’s Choice Award. For us, the Festival belonged to Jean Claude Van Damme and next year we’ll double our efforts and try for ten films.

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~ by Benjamin Wright on September 18, 2008.

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