The essence of the Toronto International Film Festival is debated by the vivacity of its films and the late nights of its parties. Like many festivals of its ilk, the Midnight selection seems to shine by knowing a balance between art and commerce. Of course, celebrating in the right way doesn’t hurt. while a limited amount was screened because of an influx of other pressing commitments, an interesting cross section was discovered, as always comes about.
Hardcore Anything that has Russian director Timor Bekmambetov’s name on it always deserves a second chance. He is very much behind trying to help establish a new Russian voice in action cinema. The thing with something like “Black Lightning” which I saw at Fantasia Film Festival a couple years back is that it was mostly in Russian. Unfortunately you need to have at least a balance of English to allow it to play worldwide or at least keep the dialogue to a minimum. Here different aspects up the ante. This is basically a live action, first person shooter…pretty much “Grand Theft Auto”. But here you never see our protagonist’s face except once…usually only his hands. It is non stop but sitting in the third row, the motion sickness of it all has possibility. That said, you couldn’t have made this film a few years ago but, using Go Pro technology, it has become an interactive possibility. The director Ilya Naishuller mentioned at the Q&A that they couldn’t shoot at 48fps because at the standard they needed the extra frames to add in CG. The acting though is interesting because it offers an interesting section of possibility. Sharlto Copley has started to distinctify taking chances on certain genre possibilities with first time directors which can go either way. He was part of the very interesting “Europa Report” and here he plays a mixture of characters that only become clear towards the final third of the film. At times it is a tour de force because it is very fluid and yet specifically on take. Tim Roth is credited in the film but unless he is the villain I can’t see him and, if that is true, his craft is only getting better. He was unbelievable in “Planet OF The Apes”. People talk about Andy Serkis and Serkis is great but he had CG. Roth only had prosthetics. Different processes and both brilliant. In terms of style, the use of some humor and music including a Queen song is placed well well but not to ultimate effect. That is a very small critique because this movie takes aspects of RPGs, “City Of Lost Children”, “Blade Runner” and anime to create a very visceral uninterrupted barrage of precise yet loose genre filmmaking. It took 147 days to film but looks like it took place in 2 hours…and that is the ultimate trick.
Office Director Johnnie To tries to find back doors of convention and usually it functions within the crime or action genre. Turning the view on the corporate structure of China per se in an interesting exercise. Now the actual space in the film is not really specified but the characters keep referring to the Mainland China. The actual structure and construct here as the basis is what is interesting. Akin to someone like Peter Greenaway, To does something different in creating a setting that is all an illusion and transparent literally in that function. The arrival to work on a train, the elevators, the offices, the roof…almost all of it is in a transparent, almost architectural baseline construct. Everything should be obvious but like many of To’s films, it is about power and betrayal. What is interesting even more so here is that it is built as a musical but one, despite having some pop sensibilities, that more has the identity of an understated rock opera. What works well is the level of relationships which only becomes clear now by reflection. The first is one of the older couple which is the CEO (played by Chow Yun Fat) and his first in charge (Sylvia Chang) who is also his mistress. The CEO’s wife is in a coma…possibility because of the shame of his infidelity. The betrayal is the game and they understand it. The couple at the end other end of the spectrum is two new brand new recruits in the office looking to make their bones. One is secretly the CEO’s daughter and he wants her to learn. The other is a bright fresh protege who loves his work but eventually loves her more. They don’t have the foresight to see what will entice and ultimately destroy them later in life. The middle couple is the most volatile. So obsessed with work. So obsessed with money. But unable to recognize what is important right in front of them. Not all of these metaphors and characterizations work all the time but it is an interesting experiment not just in acting approach but just in sheer staging. Ultimately it all comes undone in the aspect of Shakespeare. Plus add the fact that he shot it in 3D. “Office” is interesting on all counts but you must be open to the experience and interpret it in your own way.
Born To Dance Like “Step Up”, each country has the right to see their dance identity in their own way. This film does not take that structure any further but, in many ways, outdoes its predecessors on significantly smaller budget. The basis of the story is a worker who has his own local dance crew but after posting one of his videos on You Tube attracts the attention of a big time money crew with endorsement deals. Normal West Side Story set up without the violence, just stealing of creativity. There are some good dances and, of course, a morality play at stake but that is accepted and expected. However there are some points that the dance scenes just pop and show that adrenalin rush that some of these movies miss. One specifically is staged at this down and dirty club with eight female dancers led by a big boned blond haired African girl that is kinetic. They writhe their bodies but with a power and strength that is undeniable. I could watch a music based dance action movie with them as assassins all day. This is what Tarantino meant when he described Fox Force Force through Uma Thurman’s lips in “Pulp Fiction”. These are the girls he would have had in mind. Ultimately, the film turns in the end into a competition like “Glee’ or “Pitch Perfect”. It is expected but no less commercial. It just was an interesting selection for the festival but even independents want to make crowd pleasing movies. It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom.
The Girl In The Photograph This Midnight Madness selection uses the serial killer basis of a psychopath obsessed with his muse. What it tries to balance itself with is the narcissism of modern life. The metaphor here is the capture or diluting of self. A pretentious celebrated photographer played with annoying relevance by Kal Penn returns to his home town when a serial killer starts matching up his killings to photographs of modelsb that Penn’s character creates. So this photographer returns to his hometown in South Dakota where the killings are happening. He brings along his assistant, his model girlfriend and two other models to this nowhere town to discover creativity again and try to outdo the serial killer with his “vision”. Of course, it kicks them all in the ass and the slasher mayhem begins. It just ultimately feels like an exercise. This is all done for effect and, of course, the local sharp blonde, bushy tailed female lead who is the muse for the killers is the one we are supposed to identify with. The problem is that there lack of consequence and, by extension, sensibility that seems to be lost in the proceedings. The ode to John Carpenter in the music is distinctly noticeable and welcome. Wes Craven was an executive producer on the picture before he died so his touch is definitely on the film as well. But the movie is neither classic horror nor has a truly modern twist. The ending actually ends too late as one scene earlier would have effectively done the possibilities justice without spelling it out. That said, it is a perfectly interesting if not gothically gory approach to the genre but there is nothing really character wise to sustain it.
Toronto International Film Festival again allows your humble narrator a brief interaction of film aside from the general elements of press commitments and scheduling mayhem. But what this small selection of films shows is both the standard and experimental approach inherent n the current marketplace but the key is finding the one that exists in the middle for the greatest success, both creatively and monetarily.
By Tim Wassberg