TIFF Reviews 2013: Part I

The Toronto International Film Festival was underway once again in early September, and transit matters on this site went into eclipse for a week or so.  Here is a capsule view of the films I saw during the first half of the fest:

  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • Southcliffe
  • Watermark
  • Triptych
  • Le Week-End
  • Philomena
  • Fading Gigolo
  • The Unknown Known
  • The Selfish Giant
  • The Lunchbox
  • The Double
  • The Invisible Woman

Festival Intros

Every screening starts with a series of promos for TIFF itself and for the major sponsors.  Oddly enough, the least effective this year was right at the start, the plug for the “Bell Lightbox” complex on King.  Guys, it’s open, get over it, and while you’re at it find a way to say “Shazam! It’s Another Great Film Festival!”

Next up came Bell Canada with a much improved spot over last year’s (which was itself recycled from 2011) featuring popcorn dancing to light opera music.

Third up was Royal Bank with a spot that stayed fresh right through the 29 times I saw it.  Based on the premise that the same line can be used in many ways, there were seven vignettes where a character says “We can get through this”.  A couple in a car in the rain.  A cowboy with his horse in the desert (possible fake cactus on the ridge in the background).  A man on an operating table with surgeons fully garbed in hazmat suits.  Two plastic robots heading toward a fire for recycling (with, as a nice touch, a voice sounding very much like Douglas Rain as HAL in 2001).  A sinkhole about to swallow two prospectors(?).  A crowd racing from an invisible menace a pack of zombies. Two castaways with long hair and beards who are only part way through sawing a log for a raft.  One of them has dozed off.  Congrats to RBC for a fun, memorable spot.  By day 8 or so, some TIFF staff were introducing films with variations on the line.  Easily the best spot.

Fourth was L’Oréal showing off new product but without the parade of hot babes with long, shiny hair.  A big improvement over 2012.

Vote for the Blackberry People’s Choice Award.  We can see Blackberry has fallen on hard times when there are only two variations on this spot.  Might be an historic win this year if it’s the last time we seem them as the sponsor.  As usual, TIFF doesn’t explain exactly how the voting works (it is impossible to rank films any more), and they seemed to get more desperate to have people vote as the week went on.

The tribute to the volunteers is a spot that always gets big applause.  Cineplex sponsors this, and the spot, using the song “Walking on Sunshine”, featured an array of dancers covering characters from movie musicals over the years.  They gather from many spots around the city and wind up dancing into the Elgin Theatre.  My runner-up award goes to this one.

Second last, with its music track almost always partly covered by the applause, was an ad for TIFF’s “Evolution” exhibit, part of the Cronenberg retrospective coming in November.

Finally, the copyright card saying please don’t record this film.  A few years ago, TIFF got rid of the word “Piracy” in this notice, but we diehards still give a throaty “Yarrrggghhhhh!!!”.  One can gauge the type of audience by how loud this is.  Newbie visitors are mystified and need explanations.  At least one visiting director, introducing his film at a second screening, was also new to TIFF and has adopted that word as a Canadianism.

At my last screening, after the pirates had quieted down, a voice up in the back called out “see you next year”

Only Lovers Left Alive **

Jim Jarmusch does vampires.  They are very elegant.  Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are somewhere in their 400s with the rather obvious names of Eve and Adam.  There is Eve’s sister, Eva (Mia Wasikowska), who more fits the role of a teenage brat with long suffering parents if she were not a few hundred years old herself.  Lovely cinematography.  Opening shot with the camera looking down on Eve and spinning slowly to show off her clothes and the bed she’s lying on.  This echoes shots of 45 RPM records (for those who remember what they are) that Adam is playing.  He collects guitars, and I felt at times like I was in an episode of Antiques Road Show.

They survive on only the best blood, something that’s getting harder and harder to find without resorting to, er, traditional methods.  Meanwhile, their good friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) (yes, that Kit Marlowe who claims to have, shall we say, ghost written Shakespeare and is still at it) is fatally ill thanks to a batch of bad blood.

Adam lives in an abandoned house in Detroit which stands in for desolation generally.  Eve lives in Hamburg.  Marlowe is in Tangiers.  Great moody locations all, mostly night shots especially in Detroit.

My problem with this film is that like so much Jarmusch it is slow, but the jokes, the good lines, seem to be far enough apart that the audience is desperate to laugh when one finally appears.  In the end, it’s about 40 minutes worth of material stretched out to two hours.  Some people loved it, and it came with a nomination (but not the prize) for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.  I had to fight to stay awake.

Sony and Mongrel Media are the US and Canadian distributors.

Southcliffe ***½

Directed by Sean Durkin.  BBC Worldwide.

TIFF is moving into long format TV series with Southcliffe and a few others in this year’s festival.  It’s a treat, if your butt can handle it, to watch TV work that is becoming more cinematic thanks to HD on a big screen.

Early in the story, Stephen Morton (Sean Harris), a British vet who is skating along the edge mentally, goes on a shooting spree in his otherwise quiet town.  This could be just another Brit police procedural, but that is not what Durkin has in mind.  His story is about grief and how each person or group reacts to it in different ways.  The four episodes have overlapping time periods and viewpoints, and we too are piecing the story together as we go along.

What the audience knows, but what is never acknowledged on screen, is that the shooting was triggered by two other characters who bullied and beat Morton for misrepresenting his army service, and for tricking one of them, Chris Cooper (Joe Dempsie) into practice exercises in the woods where Morton deliberately wounds him.  Cooper has to live with his role in Morton’s killings.

Stir into this a BBC reporter, David Whitehead (Rory Kinnear), who is dispatched to Southcliffe to cover the story.  Whitehead grew up there and has his own demons that come out as the series unfolds.

Much fine work all around as we see so often from character actors on British series.

There are no neat endings here, and the setting is almost universally bleak as befits the topic.  Oddly enough, there appears to be no attempt to set the stage for a “series 2, 3, etc” and these four programs are self-contained.

This is the sort of program we might see on TVO if they are feeling adventurous, but it’s certainly not “Masterpiece Mystery” material.

Watermark **

After the triumph of Manufactured Landscapes, I was hoping for great things from Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky as they tackle the uses and abuses of water around the world.

This is a doc that I wanted to enjoy, but could not help feeling that it was a poorly edited 90 minute promo for Burtynsky’s coming book of the same name.  There are beautiful images, some shot with a miniature helicopter carrying a 4K digital camera, but the series of locations and the thread of the film just don’t hang together.  Also, I had a sense that some locations got a lot of footage somebody didn’t want on the cutting room floor (figuratively speaking in this digital age), but also the sense that other locations were shy on good material.

In places, we can marvel at the scenery, the majesty of water in its natural state, and in others, notably in dammed and dried up rivers, we can mourn how mankind has selfishly exploits and damages huge natural systems.

Burtynsky himself shows up in the film, an absolute faux pas as he has nothing to contribute by his appearance.  Buy my book.  Buy my book.  Well, no.

Triptych/Tryptyque ****

Co-directors Robert Lepage and Pedro Pires have adapted three segments of Lepage’s epic stage production Lipsynch as an excellent film.  The original nine hour play had nine threads, but was a moving experience for those who sat through it.  In the film, three characters with overlapping stories each get their half hour, and there isn’t a wasted moment.

Michelle (Lise Castonguay) runs a bookshop in Québec.  She is a poet recovering from psychiatric problems and her “voices” still make occasional comebacks.  Thomas (Hans Piesbergen) is a German brain surgeon now working in London.  He is forced to retire because of a hand tremor, but one of his last patients was Marie (Frédérike Bédard), a singer who may lose her voice to surgery.

Communication, voices lost and found, the search for the right words in speech, song or poetry, these are all part of Lepage’s brew.

At the Q&A, Lepage joked that this could be the first part of a trilogy with future Tryptichs II and II to follow.  Part of me wants to see more of this fine work, and part wants to leave this beautiful miniature alone.  Definitely one of my early favourites for 2013.

Le Week-End ***

Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan play Meg and Nick, a long-married couple who have reached the point of living with each other, but each with their peculiarities and a growing distance, small annoyances, and an apartness they don’t seem to fully grasp.  It’s their 30th anniversary, and to celebrate, they’re off to Paris to relive their honeymoon despite the fact that Meg has tired of Nick and wants a divorce.

They arrive to find Nick has booked them into a walk-up hotel garret, a room that is relentlessly beige and without the charm it might have had decades ago.  The desk clerk, much younger, is only mildly helpful, but cannot possibly replace the lost ambiance and memories.  They decamp to the Athenée, an extremely expensive hotel, for a blowout in grand luxury.

Nick was an economics professor, but has been sacked for making politically incorrect remarks.  By chance, they run across an old student (Jeff Goldblum) who is stupendously successful as a writer, but sees through his own shallowness to his inspiration, Nick.  The encounter and the adulation prove their worth when credit cards run dry, and the couple face eviction from their hotel.  In the end, Meg and Nick find their love for each other again, and the film ends with a dance in a small café that is a direct quote from Godard.  The renaissance in their mutual regard seems to depend on being rather naughty, only to be rescued by a fairy godfather.

Roger Michel directs Hanif Kureshi’s script and if one takes it as a fairytale of true love lost and found, a mad fling, happiness ever-after, then it’s easy to ignore the cracks in the plot.  The credit must go to Broadbent and Duncan who work superbly together as a cranky older couple in roles that would not work without a perfectly match pair of actors.  They have beautiful scenes together as they wander through Paris reminiscing and growing close to each other again.  Goldblum oozes the superficiality needed for his role coupled with the vulnerability of the successful man who, under it all, isn’t quite sure he deserves it.

I knocked a star off what would otherwise be a four-star rating because for all it’s fun, Le Week-End depends heavily on its cast to keep the story’s implausibility from getting in the way.

Opens in the UK in October.

Philomena ***½

50s N ireland .. poor single pregnant women indentured to church .. children sold for adoption to rich foreigners .. Judy Dench as xx, a woman seeking her lost son .. Steve Coogan as reporter .. also writer .. change from comic (The Trip) .. Stephen Frears directs ..

Phil has sought her lost child for years, only to meet with kindly obfuscation from the Church.  The adoption records were lost in a fire, but strangely the contract P signed giving up her baby and relinquishing all claims has survived.  God works in mysterious ways indeed.  A friend makes a connection with Coogan/Sexsmith, a reporter whose previous work in foreign affairs makes him less than interested in “human interest” tales.  He takes on the project, reluctantly at first.

Dench/P is no storming upper class radical, but a woman with simple tastes and a dislike for making waves if she can avoid it.  This frustrates Sexsmith/Coogan who wants a roaring tale of Church exploitation and coverup.

Through a chance cross-check of US immigration records, Sexsmith manages to locate baby Andrew? and a young girl adopted by the same family.  Andrew, it turns out, was a senior advisor to President Reagan, but he was also gay and died of AIDS ten years before P & S tracked down his former partner.

Solid story based on true events, not played for maudlin effect.

Fading Gigolo ***

John Turturro wrote, directed and acts in a wonderful, almost fairy story about a bookshop owner turned pimp, and a florist who, reluctantly, adds a certain something to women’s lives.  Woody Allen, appearing as an actor, plays Murray, the owner of a specialty bookshop where business is not exactly booming.  His friend, Fioravante (Turturro), works in a flower shop.  Both have jobs that don’t pay their way full time.

The feel of Fading Gigolo is very New York, and it’s hard not to think of this as a “Woody Allen” film with favourite neighbourhoods and musical selections that perfectly underscore the action.

Murray gets an idea — there are women looking for a mature man, someone who knows how to treat women well, and they are prepared to pay for the privilege.  Yes, the premise feeds a male fantasy — this is Woody Allen we’re talking about, after all — but it makes an amusing tale.

Murray becomes Fioravante’s “agent” operating under the pseudonym of “Don Bongo”, and he arranges dates with the clients, sometimes hovering too close to the scene.  In a way, Turturro (with his own working name of “Virgil Howard”) becomes a younger stand-in for the character we think Allen always wanted to be.  Beautiful women come his way — Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara — but the real gem is Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), an orthodox Jew living a closeted life in Brooklyn.  The the scenes between Paradis and Turturro are quite delicate.

Unfortunately for Murray, Avigal has an admirer, Dovi (Liev Schrieber), who patrols for the Shomrim, a Jewish civilian group.  Dovi suspects that Murray is up to no good with  his intended, and Murray, plucked from the street, winds up before a Rabbinical court.

By the end of Fading Gigolo, Fioravante has had enough, but Murray’s not too sure, and we are left at the end credits wondering about the sales pitch he will make to keep the partnership alive.

During the Q&A, Turturro allowed as how, yes, Woody had a hand in the script and would make suggestions that might or might not find their way onto the screen.  All the same, it’s Turturro’s film and he deserves credit.  His last film at TIFF was Romance and Cigarettes which I much enjoyed, although it didn’t find an audience in general release, and I’m looking forward to his next feature.

The Unknown Known ***

Ten years ago, director Errol Morris brought us “The Fog of War”, an extended interview with Robert McNamara repenting his role and folly in the Viet Nam War.  Now Morris comes to Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense and a major player in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  The contrast could not possibly be stronger, and the two films would make good back-to-back viewing.

Morris began work on this documentary fearing that he would never get Rumsfeld on camera.  He couldn’t have been more wrong.  Rumsfeld loves to talk, and 38 hours later, Morris had an extended apologia, a self-justification, from a man many regard as a lead villains of the Bush era.

The Unknown Known traces Rumsfeld’s early career first as an Illinois Congressman, then an advisor to President Nixon and a succession of roles leading to Chief of Staff under President Ford.  When Ford nominated him as the youngest-ever Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld recommended one of his aides, Dick Cheney, to take over at the White House.  That duo goes back a long way.

The title is an example of Rumsfeld sophistry.  The “knowns” are the things you know that you know, or know that you don’t know.  The “unknowns” are murky territory, especially the things you think you know, but don’t really.  Both McNamara and Rumsfeld’s eras suffered greatly from overconfidence, a sense that what they knew was right, and their actions were justified.  Sadly, Rumsfeld ties himself in knots, eventually contradicting his own definition.

The man likes the sound of his own voice, but doesn’t always understand what he’s talking about.  In a powerful position, that voice could out-talk others, or simply ignore them.  There is no sense that Rumsfeld recognizes his own failure in serving the greater good of the nation or the world.

Morris had that 38 hours of footage, but there is probably less than an hour in this 96 minute film.  The historical background is useful, but I wish that Morris would give us less of the swelling, dramatic, manipulative underscoring, and more of the man himself.

I saw The Unknown Known within a week of Angels in America at the Soulpepper Theatre.  A major character is Roy Cohn, the infamous lawyer to Senator Joe McCarthy, and yet another right-wing manipulator of US politics whose career left his country worse off and created divisions from which the world is still recovering.

The Selfish Giant ***

Directed and written by Clio Barnard, loosely adapted from a story by Oscar Wilde.

Barnard sets her tale in Bradford, England, among a social group, the Travellers, who live somewhat apart from the main culture of the city.  According to Barnard at the Q&A, there is a well established tradition of scrap picking (and thievery of metals such as hydro and communication cabling) among this group.  The “giant” of the title, Kitten (Sean Gilder), runs a local scrapyard, and he’s much more interested in the profits to be had than the safety of those who filch material for him.

Two schoolboys start into the wire picking trade hoping to supplement their meagre family incomes.  Arbor (Connor Chapman) is all energy, unfocussed, and such a handful that he is expelled from school.  His older close friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas) is more reserved.  Oddly enough, the two actors appearing here in their first film, have off-screen personalities the reverse of their characters and Arbor’s high-energy behaviour was a stretch for Chapman.  Even so, they are both naturals for their roles.

Arbor, too clever by half, tries to up his take by stealing material from Kitten’s scrap yard for sale elsewhere only to be caught out by the men who stole it in the first place.

A final attempt at a particularly valuable haul ends in tragedy leaving Arbor alone, but haunted by memories of his friend.

A side plot turns on Kitten’s love for horses and the informal racing community among the Travellers.  Two horse-and-cart teams charge down a highway pursued by trucks and cars full of supporters for each side with less than sportsmanlike behaviour.  The people involved are all locals who do this sort of thing in their routine lives.

The plot, improbable though it may seem, is based in a real community, and Barnard handles the material well.  She grew up near Bradford, knows the community, and her film benefits from this familiarity.  Selfish Giant is her first feature, and it will be interesting to see her work when she moves away from home territory.

The Lunch Box *****

Ritesh Batra’s first feature was my favourite of TIFF13.  The premise and story are simple, but so well put together that we love the characters and come out of the cinema hoping for their future.

In Bombay, a small army of dabbawallas delivers over 100,000 lunch boxes with home cooked meals to men at work.  The system, which is over 100 years old, has an error rate under 1 in 1 million despite the complete absence of technology.  “Routing codes” using coloured letters and symbols get the boxes to and from their destinations, and were originally designed to be used by a largely illiterate work force.  The premise behind The Lunch Box is that deliveries almost never, ever go wrong, but what would happen if a fortuitous mixup brought an unlikely couple together.

Saajan (Irrfan Khan) is a long-serving bureaucrat in a government office.  He is a model of accuracy but somewhat aloof, and his retirement is near.  His lunch comes not from his wife, who died years earlier, but from a neighbourhood restaurant.  One day, the food arrives and it is particularly good, but a tad too salty.  Saajan sends a note back with the empty containers.  This mystifies Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a young housewife whose husband rarely comments on her food.  This begins a correspondence where, within days, each is clear that the intended meals are going astray, but neither wants to change the serendipitous link.

Saajan loves the food, and begins to share it with an overly eager new employee, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who is impressed that Saajan has such a good cook as a girlfriend.  The lunch is a step up from the banana and apple he normally gets.  Shaikh, however, is not what he seems.  As Saajan’s intended replacement, Shaikh is eager, yes, but clearly not as expert in his field as his credentials might claim, and me makes a hash of the normally perfect work.

Ila tires of her husband’s indifference, and discovers that he is having an affair.  Her cooking takes on a new meaning with someone who really cares about it.  A running joke in the kitchen scenes is an ongoing conversation with her upstairs neighbour (always addressed as “Auntie” and voiced by an actress who took similar roles in TV series).  She has suggestions about spices for the food (which she can smell as the aromas waft up from Ila’s kitchen) and acts an an unseen friend and advisor.

After many exchanges, Saajan and Ila decide to meet face-to-face for lunch, and this takes the story on an unhappy course when Saajan is a no-show, worried that the age difference might be his undoing.  An empty lunchbox the following day is Ila’s rebuke.

At this point in my screening, the projector died.  Ritesh Batra and Irrfan Khan entertained the audience for half an hour with stories about the film and the Indian movie industry, but refused to divulge the ending in hopes that the movie would resume.  It didn’t, but a make-up screening was arranged some days later which many from the first one attended.  The remaining seats were hot tickets as the film had received strong word-of-mouth around the festival.

I too will stay mute on the ending, and will say only that Batra wisely does not wrap everything up with a neatly happy (or sad) conclusion, and we are left to wonder whether Ila and Saajan will find a new life together.

One particularly striking point about the acting is that all the notes are done as voice-overs, and we see only changes in facial expressions as Ila and Saajan read them.  They never actually converse as two actors in a scene, and yet we see all we need to in their faces.

The Lunchbox is a beautiful film about an unlikely romance, and I hope that it finds a wide audience.  Mongrel Media is the Canadian distributor (press kit with more info), and Sony Pictures Classics is handling it in the USA where it opened on September 20.

The Double ***

Directed by Richard Ayoade, adapted from a story by Dostoevsky.

What would happen if you met yourself on the subway and discovered that this other-you had taken over your job?  Even worse, this alternate is your antithesis — self assured, cocky, dismissive and convincing in the worst empty-suit kind of way.  In an office full of timid, grey bureaucrats, he charms the boss.  In your personal life, your double sweeps away any potential romantic liaisons.  Why do you exist?

Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon, the man whose life is usurped by his worst nightmare, a despicable version of himself.  Wallace Shawn is the boss who thinks the new boy is just what the office needs.  Eisenberg is also, of course, “James” who elbows “Simon” aside.

Eisenberg is great in both roles, and Shawn has the idiotic but demanding “pointy headed boss” (with apoligies to Dilbert) down cold.

Ayoade makes this a dark comedy combining the paranoia of a man watching his life’s meaning slip away with the very recognizable world where the superficial trumps the genuine.  But is even “reality” real?  The subway train is obviously a stage concoction.  The grey office would be at home in “1984” even though its politics ring true today.  Does Simon even exist in some world outside of the story?

The Invisible Woman ***

Director Ralph Fiennes brings us an adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s biography of a little-known lover of Charles Dickens, Nelly Ternan.  Although I was initially impressed with this movie, writing a review at a few weeks remove reveals that little of it actually stuck to my conscience.  It’s a period piece (the Brits are so good at that sort of thing), but to what end?

Fiennes also plays Dickens and is certainly a good storyteller when the need arises, but he’s also rather full of himself.  When he sees the 17-year old Ternan (Felicity Jones) at a theatre, he is immediately smitten although the rest of her family are wary, and have doubts about her future as an actress.  Dickens throws over his wife of many years by way of a letter in The Times thereby establishing that sensitivity, whatever might appear in his novels, is not a strong point in his personal life.

Ternan becomes Dickens’ companion until death, and there’s a strong hint that she influenced characters in his novels.  I doubt she was the only person Dickens used as a model, but that’s beyond the scope of our story.  There is the requisite tut-tutting of a society faced with someone living beyond the then acceptable social pale, but a man of Dickens’ stature can afford to ignore Victorian standards.

Ternan talks about how Dickens changed the ending of Great Expectations ending it in sadness.  My English Lit scholar cousin Deb points out that this isn’t actually true.  The error is likely a bit of Fiennes’ dramatic license.  The actual text reads:

“We are friends,” said I, rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench.

“And will continue friends apart,” said Estella.

I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.

It’s a rather substantial change, reversing the meaning just for a good line.

And so, yes, go and enjoy the film for what it is, but don’t take every word as gospel.


2 thoughts on “TIFF Reviews 2013: Part I

  1. Erm, English Lit scholar here. In fact, Dickens did change his original ending at the urging of his publisher. Originally, Pip and Estella meet years later, and she is now married to a decent man (her nasty first husband having conveniently died). They part as friends, Pip feeling glad to have seen her once more.

    But in the movie, Ellen claims that Dickens had been urged to change his “too brutal” original ending. She complains that even his second ending of ‘Great Expectations’ concludes “in the shadows.” Well, the original ending was hardly brutal, and the second ended in tranquil light, so either Ellen is already going mad, like her father, or else Mr. Fiennes’ screenplay is as cavalier with the truth as ‘Argo’. Harumph!


  2. Thanks for this first batch of your TIFF 2013 reviews. It looks like there are a number of films I should put on my to-watch list.

    Regarding the RBC spot:

    A crowd racing from an invisible menace.

    After my numerous viewings, I finally twigged that this was a couple running from a bunch of rather quick-footed zombies (noting the zombies’ blackened eyes and blood-stained mouths).

    Steve: Aha! Yes! What compendium of movie cliches could there be without zombies!


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