Friday, September 01, 2017

TIFF 2017 - Advanced Screenings

This will be our most ambitious year yet in terms of total number of Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) movies that we plan to watch during the annual festival. Because of the level of TIFF membership that we purchased this year, my husband Rich and I are entitled to attend Press and Industry screenings of movies including advanced screenings that started a couple of weeks prior to the official start of the festival.  Taking full advantage of this, we plan to watch only press screenings for the most part, rather than buy tickets for public screenings like we used to do in previous years.

Other than the monetary savings of not buying tickets, the main advantage of this is time savings.  All the movies play at one venue (Scotiabank Theatre), the movies play without the 10+ minutes of the same ads shown at each public screening, and other than for the most popular movies, there will be no lineup to attend a press screening.  Unlike public screenings that often become delayed in start time due to waiting for special guests to arrive, or finish late due to an unusually long Q&A session, unless there is a technical issue, the press screenings always start and end precisely according to schedule.  Because of all this, we are able to pack movies more tightly into a schedule, being able to leave less than 15 minutes between movies as opposed to the 90+ minutes that we used to leave between each of our public screenings, to account for traveling between theatres and lining up early so that we were not stuck sitting in the front row.  It was a new experience trying to schedule press screenings instead of public screenings.  Where we usually would watch 2-3 movies a day, this year we will attempt to watch 4 (and once even 5) in one day!  Including 10 advanced screenings that we watched for 1.5 weeks prior to the start of the festival, our goal is to watch between 43-46 movies in 3 weeks.  Whether we actually succeed, or collapse in exhaustion and are forced to scale back, still remains to be seen.  The nice thing is that since we did not pay to watch any specific movie, we could cancel or switch to another movie at the last minute, or even walk out of movies that we do not enjoy, without feeling pressured to stay to make the cost of the ticket worthwhile.

The disadvantage of a press screening is the lack of any actors or directors appearing after the movie to hold a Q&A session.   Since this is part of the fun of watching movies at TIFF, we decided that we would buy tickets for one movie that featured big-named stars so that we could still have that celebrity experience.  Besides, it is fun to watch the new "Thank the Volunteers" ad once since it is usually very creative.  It just gets old when you have to watch it again and again through 30+ movies like we did in previous years.  I also want to see if festival sponsor RBC finally updates the ad that it has played 3 years in a row and caused derisive jeers whenever it aired last year.

For the actual dates of the festival, we picked and scheduled the movies that we wanted to watch, using our usual strategy of reading the synopsis, making a long list of potentials, then narrowing the list down depending on what fit in a schedule.  But for the advanced screenings, the movies are chosen by the festival organizers and you can decide to view them or not.  Rich watched 10 and I watched 8 advanced screenings and we have enjoyed most of them. And the nice thing is that we have been watching movies that we would not have picked ourselves based on the description, theme or subject matter.  Yet we ended up being very glad that we experienced films outside of our usual comfort zone.

The first two movies that we watched were foreign films that involved child actors who each gave stellar performances.  The French film Custody (Jusqu'à La Garde) deals with a bitter custody battle that pits an aggressive, jealous and possibly abusive father against his ex-wife over visitation rights of their son Julien.  The tension felt throughout the movie is made all the more intense due to the realistic and all-too-common occurrences that are depicted in this family drama.  The boy who plays Julien is able to convey so much emotion, including worry, dread and fear, just through the expressions on his face.

Three Peaks is an interesting German-Italian co-production that takes place mostly in the Italian Dolomites, giving the film its title.  Lea, her young son Tristan and her boyfriend Aaron take a vacation in a remote cabin up in mountains.  At the start of the movie, the boy seems to like Aaron, but as time goes by, Tristan’s progressively escalating passive-aggressive behaviour reveals a deep-seeded resentment and wish that his mother would get back together with his father.  The three central characters converse alternately in English, French and German with the latter two languages being subtitled.  But the dialogue flows so quickly between the languages that you become dependent on reading subtitles and sometimes miss listening to the un-subtitled English.  The gorgeous scenery plays a major role in what turns out to be another tense family drama.

Although it is one of the first films that we have watched this year, the Chinese film Dragonfly Eyes will undoubtedly be one of the most conceptually unique movies of the festival.  China is renowned for its extensive use of surveillance cameras and according to director Xu Bing, footage has recently been uploaded to the Cloud and is available for viewing by the general public.  Xu scoured through 10,000 hours of surveillance footage, picking out and stringing together various scenes which he incorporated into a story about a plain-looking girl named Qing Ting who leaves her peaceful existence in a remote Buddhist temple to experience life in a big city.  While there, Ting meets Ke Fan, who develops an obsessive romantic interest in her.  Ting tries her hand at various jobs including milking cows on a farm, working in a laundry mat and a restaurant.  Director Xu uses surveillance clips of various women to represent Qing Ting and different men to represent Ke Fan, using voice-over dialogues to narrate the story.  It is fascinating that a (sort-of) cohesive story can be pieced together using only surveillance footage and horrifying to realize the extent that the people of China are being monitored and recorded.  Much of the video footage is labelled with date/and running time stamps, constantly reminding you of the gimmick used to create the movie.  Amusingly, using many different Asians to represent the same character rather perpetuates the Western stereotype that “all Asians look the same”.

Euthanizer is a Finnish psychological thriller/drama with humorous undertones about a grumpy mechanic and animal lover named Veijo, who provides affordable and humane euthanasia services for unwanted pets, but not before first providing stern lectures about possible mistreatment of those animals.  He even stops and buries any roadkill that he finds while he is driving around.  Veijo is an interesting anti-hero with a staunch yet questionable moral code and a warped sense of justice, which he doles out in vigilante style against anyone who he perceives to be an animal abuser.  He has an ambiguous relationship with his elderly father who lives in a nursing home, which becomes clearer towards the end of the movie and provides clarity on Veijo’s actions.  Veijo also develops a romantic relationship with his father’s nurse, which leads to one of the few humorous moments that break the tension of this slow-burning movie.  It is the image of Veijo and the nurse giddily skipping through a field of wild flowers en route to their first sexual encounter.  The eccentric yet fascinating characters in this movie keep you captivated throughout.

Based on a 1971 French novel called Laissez Bronzer Les Cadavres by Jean-Patrick Machete and Jean-Pierre Bastid, Let the Corpses Tan has all the tropes of an old fashioned spaghetti western with enough over-the-top shoot-em-up carnage to match a Quentin Tarrantino movie, but with too many ultra-stylized gimmicks for its own good (or at least, for my taste).  Set in a remote, rocky, arid hamlet along the Mediterranean coast, a trio of robbers hijack a shipment of 250kg of gold bars, brutally dispatching the driver and guards.  They hide out in a cavernous island resort as guests of the eccentric Madame Luce, her former lover Bernier who is an artist, and her current lover, a shady lawyer who is actually in cahoots with the robbers.  When two police officers arrive on motorcycles looking for the bandits, a lengthy cat-and-mouse standoff and shootout of epic proportions ensues.  The team of husband and wife directors, Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet provide plenty of action, blood and gore.  They ratchet up the tension via an exciting musical score, intense sound effects including the wind blowing, chafing of leather and the cocking and spinning of a gun barrel, and extreme closeups of piercing, suspicious eyes.  Had the directors been satisfied with making a straight-forward but stylish shoot-em-up Western, this would have resulted in an extremely entertaining albeit conventional movie.  Instead the action is interspersed with perplexing scenes of a younger long-haired Luce being erotically tortured by various men including Bernier.  Is this a memory? A flashback? A fantasy?  And what does it have to do with the story?  I never figured this out and it was just distracting for me.  My other issue was with the constant use of extreme closeups in quick cuts, to the point where I could not tell whose eye or mouth or chin I was looking at and had a difficult time discerning who just shot whom?

The Journey is an extremely tense Iraqi-Dutch movie about a female suicide bomber named Sara, who enters a busy train station in Baghdad with the intent of blowing up herself and as many people as she can take with her.  As she surveys her surroundings and potential victims, the intensity in her eyes is chilling.  Sara’s mission is complicated by a smooth-talking hustler named Salem, who gets too close to her and detects her intentions, forcing her to take him hostage.  Her resolve is weakened when circumstances place a baby in their path and is further tested as she starts to interact with some of the people in the train station, including a runaway bride, an old man waiting for the coffin of his deceased son to arrive, and a pair of young orphaned siblings who sell flowers and shine shoes in order to survive.  Pulsating music accompanied with eerie Muslim/Arabic chanting adds to the non-stop pressure felt throughout this movie.   This was a very exciting film with an unexpected ending that left us discussing and debating long after it was over.

In the Norwegian/German movie What Will People Say, Nishi is a teenager from a traditional Pakistani family living in Norway.  At home, she dresses and acts conservatively as dictated by her family’s culture.  But when out with her friends, she leads the life of a typical Western teenager, wearing makeup, dressing more provocatively or grunge-like, dabbling in smoking and drinking, going to parties and flirting with boys.  These two worlds collide when a boy she likes sneaks up to her bedroom one night and Nisha’s father catches them kissing.  Horrified and humiliated, her parents will not believe that she has not had sex and brought shame to the family.  As punishment and to remove her “bad influence” from rubbing off on her young sister, the family forcibly relocates her to Pakistan to live with her aunt’s family.  There she experiences culture-shock, poverty, and corruption as she tries to adapt while still looking for opportunities to escape.  While you try to respect different traditions and cultures, it was very difficult to empathize when the parents seem more concerned about their social standing and “What people will say” than with their daughter’s happiness and welfare.  I felt quite depressed after watching this movie and actually cancelled my plans to watch Ava, another movie with a very similar theme. I could not bear to watch another movie about an oppressed child so soon after this one.

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