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The Balanced Equation: TIFF 2008 (Part 1)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008
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It’s been real hard, this total drought of culture we’ve all had to endure these past couple of months. Absolutely nothing to do, nothing to see and certainly nothing to write about. But finally, it is over. Another Toronto International Film Festival means a return to the glamorous world of unedited, unconsidered, sleep-deprived and consciousness-streamed film reviewership. It’s what I do best, because it’s what I do most easily.

This go-’round won’t be matching last year’s tally of eighteen movies; the foul responsibility of work prevents me from seeing any more than ten or eleven, alas. And the foul responsibility of havin’ other shit to do prevents me from taking up too much time discussing those ten or eleven films.

Because of this, and because I need a new damn gimmick for every film fest I write about, this time it’ll be done ‘pros and cons’ style. What’s good about this movie? What’s not so good? It’s as thorough a reviewing system as you’ll find in point form. Here’s an example:

Rumble in the Bronx
Hong Kong/Canada
Director: Stanley Tong
Writers: Edward Tang, Fibe Ma

Pros: Everything.

Cons: Nothing.

This list of each film’s positives and negatives should, if I’ve done my math correctly, add up to zero. This is how you know a reviewer is using the scientific method of film criticism. And I will also include with each write-up my People’s Choice vote. I can’t, however, provide a sample of this here, as I don’t know what scale that vote will be based on this year. Will it be Cadillacs again? Perhaps BMWs? Kias? laebmadas?

It starts Thursday with JCVD. Prepare thyself.

IT STARTS NOW!

JCVD
Belgium/Luxembourg/France
Director: Mabrouk El Mechri
Writers: Frédéric Bénudis, Christophe Turpin

Pros:

  • They found a perfect balance of sad and funny, a perfect overall tone, to make JCVD an actual, serious movie, enjoyable but with real depth. Despite its witching hour start time, this isn’t really a Midnight Madness movie; if it weren’t Van Damme, if it were a made-up faded action star played by Ralph Fiennes, it would play among the norms without any suspicion.
  • There’s a pretty amazing monologue in the latter half: Jean-Claude’s hit a low point, may be killed as a real-life hostage, and he looks deep into the camera and delivers a long confessional, both to God and to us, where he apologizes for living his dream while others don’t get to, and for doing nothing with it. It’s the only fourth wall-breaking moment in the film, and it’s great.
  • JCVD himself — the boy really acts, and does it well. I don’t think the “he’s playing himself” dismissal works here (actually, I think that’s a ridiculous argument regardless of who it’s lobbed at), as he takes himself through a range of emotions. In the abovementioned monologue alone he gets in four or five. And not a one of them is the roundhouse-kick emotion.

Cons:

  • The plot doesn’t support the theme as well as it could. “Van Damme stuck in the middle of a robbery” could’ve been made fundamental; instead it’s just an appendage, an excuse.
  • And the perpetrators of that robbery don’t help — the best of them is a fan who provides both some humour and a few minor connections between plot and theme; the worst is a fairly run-of-the-mill psycho, scary because who-knows-what-he’s-capable-of. Seems pretty obvious to me how to tie the crooks to the real concept: Van Damme starts the movie pretty desperate, why not have the robbery be done out of desperation instead of out of … well, they never really explained why these guys were doing it. Making them even more generic and uninteresting.

And, as promised, I did vote for the People’s Choice award. Like last year, they’ve ranked them in 0 to 4 Cadillacs, and I for one am glad they did. It truly is the Cadillac of People’s Choice voting systems.

JCVD: 3 out of 4 Cadillacs

Tomorrow we’ve got Vinyan and Religulous. Remember Religulous? Sure you do!

Tomorrow is today!!

Vinyan
France/United Kingdom/Belgium
Director: Fabrice Du Welz
Writer: Fabrice Du Welz

Pros:

  • It starts off with an intense, building soundscape over a visual of bubbles. I don’t think I’ve ever been this shaken from five minutes of film that didn’t feature any characters or events. And it was very loud, an example of something that would lose a lot of its impact on a home theatre sound system.
  • The lead actors, Emmanuelle Béart and Rufus Sewell, both do great work as a couple obsessing over their child, killed six months ago in the big Thailand tsunami. OR WAS HE?
  • It takes some stones to set up the film’s final shot, of Beart having her bare breasts fondled by two dozen little boys. Yeah, it started serious, but went kinda strange.

Cons:

  • That strange wasn’t really that strange. Truth is, it was pretty cliché; the horror aspect of the film combines two of modern cinema’s easy creepouts — tribals and kids. And pretty much every little horror beat hit I’ve seen all too much. Decrepid old people!! Violence and cruelty is joyful play to these children!! People have their faces caked in spooky white mud!! OMG!!
  • There’s a drunken/drugged hallucination when the film turns from plausible to not so much, and I don’t know where it came from or why it was there. There are actually quite a few moments in the latter half that made no sense. Maybe if I’d realized this was a ghost story, I’d have been more primed for nonsensical randomness.
  • Me. As I just said, I didn’t realize this was a ghost story. The director said so in his Q&A; otherwise I’d still be wondering how there came to be so many evil, tribal little boys on that tiny Thai island. So I guess I just didn’t get it. I also know I’m not getting the layers of metaphor jammed into this puppy — stuff about the force of a mother’s grief, the wide cultural impact of a massive natural disaster, the terror of ten-year-olds in loincloths, etc. It’s all in there, and I’m not saying the director failed to explore them fully, I’m saying he failed to get me interested enough to ponder his exploration.

I almost felt bad for the poor guy, standing up there after his movie received what can generously be called a “polite” round of applause, answering questions from the few who didn’t take part in the massive exodus his film provoked immediately upon completion. I say I almost feel bad for him because during the Q&A he said that his original inspiration that lead him to put Vinyan together was a desire to do something with scary kids. So instead, fuck this guy. Your first half gets 3 Caddies, guy, but your second half and that statment get -1.

Vinyan: 2 out of 4 Cadillacs

Religulous
U.S.A.
Director: Larry Charles
Writer: Bill Maher

Pros:

  • Well, I mean I kinda agree with it’s basic premise, so that’s good for it. But that would suggest that Religulous is — say it with me — preaching to the converted!! In a surprise, last-minute revelation, though, it declares that not to be the case. Yes, for the most part only heathens will be seeing the film, but after 80 minutes of reassuring and congratulating them (us), Maher turns them (me) over on their (my) smug asses. It’s for us, it’s urging us to cease being so complacent and allowing religion to lord over international politics.
  • The film’s very funny, with more surprise moments and tidbits of info than I’d been expecting; and while you go in anticipating an onslaught of interview subjects saying insane shit, you also get a few great subjects (whom you completely disagree with nonetheless). There’s a high-ranking priest guy they talk to outside the Vatican who is insane, but in a totally kick-ass kind of way.
  • There were protesters this year. They weren’t going at it all that hard, just a dozen or so folks with signs walking in a small circle. An occasional polite chant. But that one sign said “Make Peace, Not Maher,” so they get a few points for that.
  • Another great Q&A after the show. Normally I’d feel I’d wasted my festival ticket, going to see something that has its release so soon, but these guys made up for it with their presence. Wouldn’t it be great if one of the many people with the digital devices posted that Q&A on YouTube?

It sure would. But they haven’t yet. This’ll have to do for now. It’s the short intro from before the movie:

Cons:

  • There are some problems with that surprise finger-pointing: it’s kind of tacked-on at the end; aside from a few statistics here and there showing how the numbers of non-religious people outweigh several other groups that have more pull, it isn’t addressed much in the rest of the film.
  • Furthermore, it comes in a final speech that’s meant to be joke-free and super-dramatic, but the music is bombastic to the point of parody and Maher’s smarmy, sarcastic voice doesn’t fit it at all.
  • It’s too short. And I don’t mean in the I-want-more-of-the-goodness way that Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey is too short, I mean in that every topic and every interview subject gets the underdeveloped shaft. But Larry Charles did declare they had something like 40 hours (or was it 80?) of good, edited material they excluded. That’s why God made DVDs, Larry.

Last year I was incapable of providing a quantity of Cadillacs to Religulous, as it wasn’t a movie at that point in time, and I simply refuse to give Cadillacs to anything but movies. So the completed film’s inclusion this year is a real blessing, a destiny fulfulled. And maybe I’m biased, but it was too much fun and too smart to give it anything less than the full Quad Caddy. God won’t be pleased with me.

Religulous: 4 out of 4 Cadillacs

On Tuesday, the witching hour brings The Burrowers!!

Like I said!!

The Burrowers
U.S.A.
Director: J.T. Petty
Writer: J.T. Petty

Pros:

Cons:

  • He didn’t really set out to do much. It’s pretty much a competent delivery of exactly what you’d expect from a western-horror hybrid that isn’t interested in pushing any limits. Nicely shot, decent monsters, some creepy moments, and a hint of the ol’ social commentary. But there’s nothing special here; no crime if it doesn’t make it to general theatres, it’ll be an acceptable DTV rental for the regular horror viewer. Not a wasted ticket, but one of those inevitable films that fall by the memory’s wayside in the face of better things crammed into the ten day session.
  • The westernness of it doesn’t feel particularly authentic, though I can’t place my finger on why. There aren’t any glaring anachronisms, no cowboys consulting their iPhone GPS systems to track the murderous Indians. Maybe the clothes were too clean, the accents or dialogue not twangy enough. Or maybe it was perfect and all the other westerns I’ve seen have led me to false assumptions.

Not much more to say about that one, except that it’s a good illustration of how charismatic actors can make a no-big-deal into something reasonably enjoyable.

The Burrowers: 2 out of 4 Cadillacs

The next night means Martys!!

Except that since I didn’t have time before the next night to write, you get them both now!!

Martyrs
France/Canada
Director: Pascal Laugier
Writer: Pascal Laugier

Pros:

  • The first two-thirds of the film has a great momentum — every scene felt like a climactic final scene, I was perpetually wondering “How can this story possibly continue?” And those not-quite-concluding events are filled with the kind of visceral brutality you’d expect from a Midnight Madness movie, but with the strength of purpose behind them, as well as enough great acting from the two lead French hotties, to make the brutality worthwhile beyond easy thrills.
  • This French horror film gave me one of the finest audiences I think I’ve ever been a part of. Which I also said about last year’s Midnight Madness audience for the French horror film Inside. But this time I mean it. Before it started, the beach ball action from last year’s best-ever-audience returned — only with two balls!! That’s twice as best!! Gasp and chuckle reactions during the film were solid and appropriate, but it was during the Q&A that they sealed the deal — really it was just the one question-asker, the dissenter who stated his disgust for the film in a way that was respectful (and just a wee bit snobby), and the way the rest of us didn’t attack him. I was expecting people to yell at him to shut the hell, or possibly the fuck, up. But no, we let him speak. Also, someone apparently fled the theatre towards the end of the movie and wretched.
  • And one of those abovementioned French hotties was Mylène Jampanoï. My Lord. Not only that, but she too expressed dissent — when asked during the Q&A what they thought about the film, she said that she didn’t really like it, but was pleased to see that the crowd did. She actually admitted to not liking the film she’s in to the public. That is great.

Cons:

  • Truth be told, the audience wasn’t 100% best-ever. There was one person in particular, a Midnight Madness regular, who ruins every moment that her presence is made apparent. Drew knows who I’m talking about. She kills hummingbirds with her voice. She reacts to the movie and to the people on stage loudly, as though she were part of their gang, hanging out with her buddies Colin Geddes and the suffering girls. She asked a question during The Burrowers’ Q&A, and while I’ve successfully blocked its content from my memory, you better believe it was more her blabbing than question. We do not have a name yet for what she is, but someday we will; but I fear it will be the day that the world crumbles as one of her wretched pirate Yarrrs brings about Ragnarök.
  • That loss of momentum I alluded to earlier was replaced with an relentless sequence of repeated violence, the same basic series of cruel events again and again; it went on for a really long time before its purpose was given. The director actually said he was going for “boring” with that section, and based on the endgame, that actually makes perfect thematic sense. But there’s the question you’ve gotta ask yourself as an artist: if the story demands a section that isn’t watchable, is that a story anyone wants told?

Undecided:

  • I am actually torn on that last section of the movie. It was dull, it was distasteful, it was horribly cruel. But it did go somewhere, positing a semi-trippy idea in its final moments that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else, and I’m not sure could’ve been effectively reached by any other means. Now I just need to decide if I think it was effectively reached, because I’m not convinced yet. I also need to consider if that final little idea is worth the business that lead up to it. At this point, I just don’t know. Another viewing would probably help me decide, but man, I don’t think I want to watch Martyrs ever again.

Even now, less than 24 hours after walking out of the theatre, I think I may have short-changed the film, Cadillac-wise. My gut reaction was to penalize its better first half for its nasty second, so I dropped it down to 2. Plus I knew I couldn’t give this as high a score as I gave JCVD. Funny thing is, these are the movies I’ve dwelled most on post-viewing, and my current stage of retrospect tells me they should both be one Cadillac higher. But the deed is done, the ballot has been cast.

Martyrs: 2 out of 4 Cadillacs

Friday definitely leads to Not Quite Hollywood and may or may not lead to Blood Trail. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. Frenchie permalink
    Wednesday, September 3, 2008 5:12 pm

    JCVD???? WTF??? Can’t say I had heard about this one, but I’m really intrigued. Can’t wait to read the reviews.

  2. Wednesday, September 3, 2008 6:51 pm

    You gonna be seeing anything there this year, Frenchie? Midnight shows don’t tend to sell out, so I’d bet there are still JCVD tickets available…

    POSTMODERN VAN DAMMAGE!

  3. James17930 permalink
    Thursday, September 4, 2008 10:47 am

    Is this gonna be the new trend now? Aging, unimportant actors making ironically self-deprecating movies to make everyone feel sorry for them?

  4. Frenchie permalink
    Thursday, September 4, 2008 11:25 am

    I’m leaving town this weekend, I need to use my dad’s workshop, to help my girlfriend work on her Nuit Blanche exhibit.

    Unfortunately, I just now got invites to two of the parties, and to tonight’s opening gala film Passchendaele, and I can’t go to any of it.

    At least I’m sacrificing art for art. With any luck I will have time next week to see something.

  5. Friday, September 5, 2008 3:42 am

    Just got back from JCVD. Not gonna write it up tonight, but I will say you’re way, way off there, James.

  6. Saturday, September 6, 2008 9:11 am

    UPDATED! JCVD!

  7. James17930 permalink
    Saturday, September 6, 2008 9:08 pm

    In that it won’t be a trend?

  8. Sunday, September 7, 2008 12:31 am

    More like the “ironically self-deprecating” part. If this thing isn’t honest, Van Damme’s performance is even better than I’m giving him credit for. Though yeah, I don’t expect Michael Dudikoff to be turning in his version to next year’s festivals.

    Plus, I don’t actually feel sorry for Van Damme after JCVD; it has earned him respect.

    And “unimportant actors” is flat-out redundant.

  9. Monday, September 8, 2008 1:41 pm

    I just skimmed Mr. Van Damme’s filmography on IMDB, and I realized with a shock that I haven’t seen any of his movies. Well, I think I saw part of Time Cop on TV one Saturday afternoon, a long time ago.

    Don’t really have much more to add on this one. One wonders why I even bothered to post a comment in the first place. Or now, why I would even bother to hit ‘Submit Comment’.

  10. Monday, September 8, 2008 6:46 pm

    See Hard Target and … Yeah, Hard Target is enough. Actually, Sudden Death is decent, in that he fights a guy in a big penguin suit.

  11. Monday, September 8, 2008 8:00 pm

    DO THE MATH!!

    Vinyan + Religulous = UPDATE #2!!

  12. James17930 permalink
    Tuesday, September 9, 2008 12:43 am

    Hard Target had a gun that shoots arrows. That’s just cool.

    But how is the phrase ‘unimportant actors’ redundant?

  13. Thursday, September 11, 2008 10:06 pm

    Don’t make me explain my snark, James.

    Also: UPDATE!!!!!

    THE BURROWERS!!!!!!!!!!!

    AND!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    MARTYRS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  14. James17930 permalink
    Friday, September 12, 2008 2:14 am

    You’ve certainly tantalized with your review of Martyrs.

    And your link to Ms. Jampanoi. Lord, indeed.

    [Editor’s Note: Umlaut that shit, James!]

  15. tgjkennedy permalink
    Saturday, September 13, 2008 1:12 pm

    Ya’ll need to see the footage of JCVD defending himself in court… he uses ninja style kicks in his defense arguments… I saw it on one of the TV Carnage Dvds a long time ago.

  16. Saturday, September 13, 2008 6:54 pm

    The link to IMDB? I do not know of what you speak of, James. I do not.

    And “TV Carnage DVDs”? This sounds like something I would want to be made aware of. Make me made aware!

  17. Sunday, September 14, 2008 12:42 pm

    UPDATED YET AGAIN!!

    BUT OVER HERE!!

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