Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Last Year's TIFF Quick(ish) Hits

Yah, I really DID look through the drafts folder. Here are quick hit reviews of what I didn't quite hit publish on last year:

The Illusionist

Yah, I saw this nearly a year ago, and Dawn wrote about it last month. That's shameful on my part.

A nearly silent animated film, The Illusionist brings the work of Jaques Tati to fruition. An aging magician, Tatischeff, is in the twilight of his career as the world moves on from simple magic shows to grander entertainments. A young, naive girl, Alice, sees his show and believes he is truly magical and forces her company upon him. Lonely, and with little to show for a life of performing, he reluctantly accepts her presence, rapidly developing a father-daughter relationship. In order to maintain his final illusion of magic, and being able to provide for her, he takes demeaning jobs and sells his few possessions to afford the meager lifestyle they live. Throughout this time he longingly stares at a photo, believed to be that of his own estranged daughter.

The film is about regret. Tatischeff, now believing himself to old to make amends, uses Alice a surrogate for his own daughter. While his life declines and he leaves all he has to her, the world he comes from declines as well. The performers he works with follow a similar path of deteriorating fortune and increasing depression. The world of vaudeville and live performance fades in the face of rock bands and modern entertainment. In the end, all he can truly hope to do is see that his new ward has a better chance than he does, while destroying the illusions around him.

You Are Here

This one is a bit of a mind trip. Disparate stories, all strange, come together in unexpected ways. There is no easy way to describe a film where an archivist picks up the pieces of a solitary man in a room translating Chinese without knowing the language while a group of men and women, all named "Alan" wander the streets of Toronto at the behest of people on phones in an office, constantly trying to avoid any of the "Alans" meeting one another. Or are we just watching a video of waves while pointedly trying NOT to look at the red laser pointer dot?

It's a twisted philosophical exercise on our place in the universe and elements of unseen control and coincidence in our lives. Maybe.

I really need to get me a copy of this and watch it again. Of course, it's also currently playing down the road from me, so I could wander there... if I'm given the proper directions.

Trigger

Bruce McDonald and Daniel MacIvor's My Dinner with Andre morphs into a night wandering the streets of Toronto for two women with a history. Seen as Tracey Wright's last film (she was also in You Are Here), her presence infuses every aspect of this film, which is, despite protestations of the filmmakers, as much about her as the story.

Kat (Molly Parker) and Vic (Wright) are former bandmates who fell out long ago. They reunite at a posh restaurant on the night of a local club show in their honour. The two women have obviously followed different paths, with Vic's face showing that her previous lifestyle, time, and illness have taken their toll. Kat is every inch the successful sell-out who moved to L.A. and abandoned her true roots. The two of them quickly put aside the pleasantries as past wounds open and the truth emerges. They move on, slowly making their way to their show, revealing bits and pieces of themselves as they go.

This is a conversation movie, but instead of a single room, it spans a city as it spans two lifetimes in a single night. We are drawn in to the story being told, an eavesdropper seeing painful truths and raw emotions being brought to bear. The fact that Wright was literally dying as this was filmed, as they raced to finish the film while she was still alive, only deepens the truth found within. It's a great piece from start to finish, and with the minor exception of a dream-like sequence near the beginning (which is used to give us a quick history of the main characters), the whole thing feels authentic. An easy favourite from last year's fest.

But then, I expected nothing less from the names in the credits.


Repeaters

I have to be honest, I had to look this one up, as I had NO recollection of what it was about. As soon as I did though, I remembered it.

It's Groundhog Day for psychos.

Three 20-somethings in rehab get a day pass to make amends with those they have wronged in their past. None of these attempts go well. In fact, they go as badly as possible, and all three just want the day to be over. Then it starts again. And again. And again.

So you're a young, recovering drug addict, with destructive tendencies, who has found themselves in a temporal loop where your actions have no consequences in the larger world. What would you do?

Yah...

Now make one of the three of them a developing psychopath. Who only gets worse with each iteration of the day.

Now have him realize the only people who he can really affect are the other two.

Have them develop a conscience.

Go.

The premise is good. The execution? Uneven. It's decidedly Canadian low-budget, which is somewhat distracting, but the trade-off being that it can be darker than a slick big-budget production would be allowed. In the hindsight of a year, I still recall walking out entertained but disappointed. It hit all the notes I had expected it to hit. The acting was good enough, there was tension and ridiculousness, and all that one would think they'd find. But it just felt like some polishing could be done.

Hey, I can't remember everything a year later, can I?

Monsters

This has popped back on the radar recently. I guess a recent dvd/blu release happened, or maybe HBO showings... I don't know. I do know that I saw it, and actually have notes!

First off, the director is a photographer, so they movie itself is beautifully shot. Which is good since it largely takes place in Mexican jungle near the US border. See, a little while back, some aliens crash landed on Earth. They started growing and becoming a menace, so a large swath of land (most of Northern Mexico) was abandoned and walled off to contain these giant monsters. Now, a very rich publisher has a very spoiled daughter on the wrong side of the border as they're doing a final evacuation of the area. He sends one of his photographers to escort her to the ferry that will bring her home. They do some stupid stuff and of course, missed ferry.

This leaves the option of... travelling through monster-land. What's that? Two attractive people going through dangerous territory together? I wonder if any feelings will emerge?

It's not a complicated movie by any means. Where one would normally expect a twist or backstabbing in modern films, this one goes straight through. Things are exactly as shown, the sketchy mercenaries are, in fact, just fine. The fear of bad things happening is misplaced. In short, it was somewhat refreshing to have a story go from A to B to C without taking detours. After all, it's a world inhabited by monsters, why should you need to worry about the humans?

Except the monsters don't really make that many appearances. A bump in the water, a rustle in the trees, some distant screaming, gunfire at the camera... but no monsters.

Until the bioluminescent cephalopods start floating around that is. They're beautiful creatures and suggest that, surprise surprise, these monsters may be somewhat misunderstood.

Monsters is a pretty film. It's a simple film. It's even a good film. But don't go in expecting a whole whack of excitement, or even much to keep it sticking around in your head. It's a romance wrapped up in a survival movie that takes a look at what happens long after the aliens get here.

Amigo

Nobody's ever accused John Sayles of being a-political. In Amigo, he uses the Philippine-American war as a means of commenting on the modern-day conflicts in the middle east. A small Barrio of rice farmers has become a makeshift prison for Spanish guardsman and Padre. The leader of the village, Rafael was given the task of holding them by his brother, the head of the local revolutionary guerrillas. Life continues on until a garrison of Americans show up en route to capturing Emilio Aguinaldo. They are left behind to "protect" the village, while trying to "win the hearts and minds" of the Filipino people. The Americans free the Spanish prisoners, who promptly turn on Rafael as a troublemaker. Rafael is dubbed "Amigo" by the Americans and finds himself answering to both the new occupiers and his people while trying to maintain some control over the situation. Things get worse as the Americans impose restrictions on the locals, slowly turning the village into a camp, and the guerrillas at the gates.

The movie strives for authenticity. Filmed in Filipino barrios, with locals cast in various roles, and Tagalog being the predominant language. There's also a valiant attempt at casting some grey into the various roles. The soldiers aren't generally bad guys, honestly believing they can help the locals. Some are racist bastards of course, but most are just kids trying to make it through. The villagers range from just accepting the situation and trying to get by to outright defiance. The guerrillas in the jungle are self-righteous and violent, but with a real cause. Where the black and white comes in is with the arrival of the American leadership. Chris Cooper riding in changes the tone from "hearts and minds" to "beat them down". There is no grey when you get higher up. It's obvious the American military leadership is not held in high regard. This of course turns things from middling to bad to terrible, all for naught. The message, while not reaching sledgehammer of subtlety levels, is nonetheless clear - war is hell, and America should stay at home, because the real victims are those who have nothing to do with grander political machinations.

It's a Sayles movie, so it's solid as usual. The message comes off as a bit heavy-handed, to the point where some lines and actions detract from the experience, pulling the viewer out of the movie entirely. On the whole, there's an earnestness to the film that is appealing. There's a fine job done showing both sides to the conflict. It isn't just troubled soldiers and cowering natives, as much time is spent on the villagers and their dialogue as on the Americans'.

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