TIFF 2011 – The First Four Days: Ricky D’s Blog Plus 18 Reviews To Digest

We are now four days into the Toronto International Film Festival which runs a total of ten days so I felt it would be best to look back at some of the coverage we’ve posted thus far. Admittedly we are all a bit behind but we do intend on catching up before the fest if over. So far this year the festival hasn’t been as exciting for me as compared to previous years. Most of my time is spent running around from one cinema to the next, networking and trying to find some time to maintain the site and do some writing. The first day is usually a write off spent picking up tickets, finding a place to stay and meeting up with some old friends, so unfortunately my movie watching only began on Friday evening. So I’ve decided that in the future, I will arrive in Toronto on the Wednesday night before the festival starts to get a healthy head start.

What makes this year different, is the amount of Sound On Sight staff present. Sound On Sight radio host and regular critic Justine Smith traveled with me from Montreal, while Toronto correspondents Dave Robson, Michael Waldman and Julian Carrington are all doing their part to provide some form of coverage. Finally newbie Gregory Ashman of the CriticalMassCast and seasonal contributor Eduardo Lucatero will be flying in from Vancouver and Mexico to review some of the films the rest of us just don’t have time to watch. Sadly Simon Howell isn’t present this year since he opted (with good reason) to head to Telluride (see his coverage) last week instead.

Which brings me to my next topic: TIFF is simply too big a festival for a ten day run. There are too many movies I want to see and so little time. Personally it feels like critics and bloggers are in some sort of unspoken competition to see who can see the most movies during the week. Some I’ve spoken to have claimed to have seen 15 plus films in three short days. Personally my limit is three per day, with the occasional exception when I squeeze in a fourth film because there just isn’t any other screening date available. I feel that after three films, your body and mind are just not fully capable of honestly and properly experiencing the movies.

I’ve said this before time and time again, but I was taken back when Justine, making her first appearance at TIFF, quickly noted the difference in the TIFF audiences as compared to other film festivals. Without passing judgment, it is clear that a majority of moviegoers here in Toronto have no idea what it is they are seeing. Too many of them come out for the red carpets and the celebrities abroad. To be fair, this is the largest film festival in the world, and while other fests sell out cinemas with less then 800 seats, TIFF has theatres that hold up to 2000. So I guess when you take into account the numbers, you’re bound to have more causal moviegoers as appose to hardcore cinephiles. Still, I just wish I wasn’t always stuck sitting next to the valley girls, all dolled up, flashing their digital cameras, flicking on their cell phones during a movie and constantly saying, “Like oh my God… like he is so hot… OMG … like, I know!…”

As for celebrity stalking: Well I’m not one to be starstruck but I must admit I had my eye out for James Franco all week and have now twice come close to finally meeting the man. On my first night I started up a conversation with a gentleman at a bar after eavesdropping on his review of Gus Van Sant’s Restless. Thirty minutes later after admitting my admiration and love for the filmmaker, he (whose name I won’t mention), finally admitted to not only working with Mr. Van Sant but also producing James Franco’s short film My Own Private River, which is screening this year at TIFF. The film, for those unaware, is Franco’s study of River Phoenix’s performance in Van Sant’s original film. Van Sant apparently shot hours of footage of his actors doing little more than living out their characters’ lives, and thus this footage is what forms the backbone of Franco’s re-edit. My second sighting of Franco came during the gala screening of what I am now hailing as the best film of 2011, Steve McQueen’s Shame (I’ll get to that later). A perfect screening in my opinion, held at the beautiful Princess Whales Theatre, with McQueen, Michael Fassbinder present for a Q&A, and Franco, Van Sant and countless other celebs sitting amongst the audience. Seven more days to go, so here’s hoping that I will have a third opportunity to meet the star of such films as Milk, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and Howl.

Before leaving Montreal, Simon, Justine and I recorded episode 288 of the Sound On Sight podcast in which we counted down our favourite films of the year so far. Many people asked why we waited until August to accumulate our lists and not do it sooner in June, the midway point of the year. The answer is simple. There are five major film fests we cover before August and another fiver after. So we knew that heading into fests such as Telluride, TIFF, Festival Du Nouveau Cinema and not to mention Oscar season, our lists would dramatically change. So we basically wanted to have one last chance to promote those other fantastic films released earlier on before they got drowned out by the big guns. And I can tell you that in just three days of TIFF movie watching, half of my list has already changed.

If you’ve never been to TIFF and plan on it in the future, I have a bit of advice to give. The first piece of advice is to buy the TIFF ticket packages and purchase them quickly as they do sell out fast. A single ticket can run you anywhere from 25 – 50$, whereas if you bought the 50-pack, each ticket averages about 12$ instead. Also be prepared and study the map. If you have two films back to back, you must be aware that they might screen at different venues, and those venues might not necessarily be within reasonable distance. Finally don’t frown it your most anticipated film is sold out. Technically nothing is sold out until 5 minutes before the movies start. The festival always releases last minute tickets for what they call the rush line. All you need do is arrive early and wait and you have a pretty good chance of scoring a ticket for any film. In fact, Justine met someone today who only uses the rush line and was able to get into every film he wanted to see so far.

Anyone who knows me and regular listeners of the Sound On Sight podcast know very well that I always have strange stories to tell. I decided to keep them out of this blog and instead share them on the radio show. We should be recording our next podcast sometime on the weekend, and yes it will be dedicated solely to TIFF, so keep an eye out for it.

Finally I just want to remind everyone when traveling to not forget your cell phone charger, and a spare set of contact lenses, especially to those of you who did forget this year.

Here is a wrap up of some of the films our crew has seen so far. Enjoy!

The Artist

Directed by Michel Hazanavicius

Written by Michel Hazanavicius

2011, France

Hazanavicius took a big risk in realizing this dream project, but the results are remarkable, featuring plenty of great moments and occasionally stunning use of sound. The Artist is one of those rare features from a master craftsman early in his career but always in full control of his craft… (read the full review)

The Boy Who Was a King

Directed by Andrey Paounov

2011, Bulgaria/Germany, 90 mins.

Based on its subject alone, The Boy Who Was a King should be an interesting film. Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was a boy of only six when he became Tsar of Bulgaria in the middle of the Second World War. He was nine when he was deposed by the communists and exiled. Finally, he is one of few monarchs to regain power not through violence, but through the ballot box when he was elected Prime Minister of Bulgaria in 2001. His life is an incredible one; it is a shame that this film does not quite do it justice… (read the full review)


Directed by Ralph Fiennes

2010, UK, 122 minutes

Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut is a worthy attempt to adapt one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known tragedies, which features one of his most ambiguously-heroic heroes, to the screen. This film has a lot going for it. Fiennes’ modern rendition is not only true to the play but enhances its political themes. The cast is superb, led by Fiennes himself as Caius Martius and featuring excellent performances by Brian Cox as Menenius, Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia, and James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson as the suitably smarmy Tribunes Sicinius and Brutus. At times, the screenplay is fairly clever, especially considering that watching a film that based on a familiar play is like reading a foreign translation of a familiar tongue. However—and I am truly disappointed to write this—it doesn’t quite work out… (read the full review)
Dark Horse

Directed by Todd Solondz

Written by Todd Solondz

2011, USA

An intimate dark comedy, Dark Horse, by director Todd Solondz (Welcome To The Dollhouse, Happiness), is a surprise simply because it marks the filmmaker’s most heartwarming movie, making it a more mainstream-friendly affair than his other films. Unfortunately, it is also not as entertaining, shocking or insightful as his previous work. Don’t expect Solondz to simultaneously irritate audiences and provoke thought here, as his previous work has. There is no rape, no molestation, no masturbation, no pedophilia. Far gone are the twisted narratives and outrageous manifestations from his previous work. But thats not the pic’s handicap. The problem is, Dark Horse feels stunted early on, and never really goes anywhere, coming across as, at best, the missing pages of a previous screenplay… (read the full review)

Damsels in Distress

Written by Whit Stillman

Directed by Whit Stillman

USA, 2011

Chronicling the romantic misadventures of the odor-obsessed coeds who run an upper crust university’s suicide-prevention center, Whit Sitllman’s long-awaited Damsels in Distress is a wry, absurd delight. Indie darling Greta Gerwig is wonderfully deadpan as Violet, the verbose leader of a preening, pretentious, but well-intentioned pack, whose notion of philanthropy involves dating one of the school’s farcically simpleminded frat boys, and whose chief life ambition is to kick-start an international dance craze. Her priggish, privileged existence is thrown into disarray when her unsolicited relationship advice duly backfires, but tap choreography and sunshine-scented bar soap offer an unlikely path to redemption. Meanwhile, Violet’s transfer student protégé (Annaleigh Tipton) is torn between the sly, faux sophistication of a French post-grad (Hugo Becker) and Adam Brody, as a preppy, posturing playboy. All involved are perfectly cast and Gerwig shines, but it will come as little surprise to Stillman fans that it’s Damsels meticulously mordant dialogue that truly steals the show. Evidently, despite a 13-year hiatus, Stillman’s rapier wit and delicately skewed sensibilities remain firmly intact.


Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev

2011, Russia, 109 minutes

The opening shot of Elena is so atypical, director Andrey Zvyagintsev jokes, that some audiences think the film has run into technical issues and begin looking to the projectionist fix the problem. There aren’t any. The scene—which is three minutes of gentle wind, branches, birds, and sunrise outside an apartment window—establishes the glacial pace and committed realism of the film. This is the sort of thing that precludes broad appeal, but it also makes the film special for audiences looking for something bold.

First Position

Directed by Bess Kargman

2011, USA, 90 mins.

There are few joys in the world like watching someone who is extremely talented do what they love. This is the best thing First Position has to recommend it. The film follows a handful of ballet dancers, ages eleven through seventeen, as they train to compete in one of the most prestigious ballet competitions in the world: the Youth America Grand Prix in New York… (read the full review)

i am a good person / i am a bad person

Directed by Ingrid Veninger

2011, Canada, 82 minutes

When it comes to Ingrid Veninger, I suspect that the time has come to invoke that pesky little word ‘auteur’, despite all the baggage that comes along with it. Its use usually strikes me as bizarrely speculative—as if a critic can always reliably judge the degree of a filmmaker’s influence in what is essentially a collaborative creative process—but when it comes to this film and this filmmaker, the word is apt. Given that Veninger wrote, produced, directed, and starred in i am a good person / i am a bad person, it is safe to call her the film’s author. And thank goodness. Along with Xavier Dolan, Veninger is one of precious few Canadian directors guaranteed to give us something fascinating… (read the full review)

Into the Abyss

Directed by Werner Herzog

USA, 2011

In the context of a documentary that’s been billed as being about death row, “Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel” might seem like an entirely nonsensical interview demand. Yet, for the inimitably disarming Werner Herzog, it works like a charm, and succeeds in eliciting one of the many poignant moments that punctuate Into the Abyss. Actually less about death row than the general, fascinating fallout of a staggeringly senseless triple homicide, the film addresses all aspects of the event, from the initial investigation to the eventual execution of one of the young perpetrators, who is interviewed just days before he is scheduled to die. Herzog, certainly, is anti-capital punishment, but Into the Abyss is far from an “issue documentary” in the Michael Moore vein, and achieves a sensitive balance. This sensitivity, in turn, combined with Herzog’s ability to evoke humour and humanity even from deeply tragic subject matter, lends the film an implicitly life-affirming quality.


Written by Jonathan Sagall

Directed by Jonathan Sagall

Israel, 2011

Armed with understatement and nuance, director Jonathan Sagall has created in LIPSTIKKA the sort of film that demands a careful viewing and prolonged digestion. I find myself writing this review several days after having seen the film—not out of laziness, but because I required the time to think it over. It’s the type of thing that, once ended, demands to be experienced a second time in order to be properly understood… (read the full review)


Written by Steve Zailian and Aaron Sorkin

Directed by Bennett Miller

USA, 2011

In the end, Moneyball is a decent sports drama. Baseball fans will be into it, non-baseball fans can probably find something to enjoy about it, too.  But if you’re a fan or Aaron Sorkin, Steven Zaillian, or Bennett Miller, be warned: they do an admirable job with their respective duties but don’t quite go above and beyond.  It doesn’t do anything new, and it might not even be one that stays with you long after it’s over, but that’s not such a bad thing as long as it does its job… (read the full review)


Written by Jason Lew

Directed by Gus Van Sant

USA, 2011

Even accounting for the considerable diversity of his previous efforts, Restless is a curious addition to Gus Van Sant’s filmmography. Granted, as an evocation of adolescent uncertainty, its subject matter is of a piece with some of his most lauded work (Elephant, Paranoid Park), but in tone and style, Restless feels like the debut feature from an indie up-and-comer, rather than a filmmaker of Van Sant’s seasoned pedigree. (Indeed, as the first film from twentysomething screenwriter Jason Lew, that’s precisely what it is.) The problem is, Restless doesn’t feel like a debut in the sense that it’s uncommonly fresh or vibrant, but, on the contrary, gives the impression of a film that strives, a little too earnestly, to be “different” (Mia Wasikowska’s chosen term, as the terminally-ill Anabel, for Henry Hopper’s funeral-crashing protagonist). “Different”, in this case, means morbid and mawkish and quirky, but also a film that hews closely to indie romance formula, down to its invocation of a manic pixie (dying) girl. Wasikowska maintains her recent high standards, but struggles to elevate maudlin material that seems distinctly out of place in TIFF’s Masters programme.


Written by Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen

Directed by Steve McQueen

UK, 2011

It seems almost paradoxical that there appear to be so few films that successfully probe into the life of the contemporary male. That is to say: the great majority of filmmakers are male; male actors topline most movies; most successful screenwriters are male. Yet there is a distinct shortfall in the number of movies that directly tackle the question of manhood in the new century. Steve McQueen’s stunning follow-up to Hunger, which reunites him with that film’s star, Michael Fassbender, exploits what seems at first to be a straightforward – if unconventional – story of addiction in the ultimate service of exploring just what it is to be a man… (read the full review)

The Skin I Live In

Written by Pedro Almodóvar

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Spain, 2011

A debauched, high camp mashup of Face/Off, OldBoy, and the world’s glossiest telenovela, The Skin I Live In takes Pedro Almodóvar’s signature, soapy sensibility and applies an ingeniously effective genre (plot) twist. Antonio Banderas is terrifically deranged as Dr. Robert Ledgard, a world-renowned plastic surgeon capable of effecting the sort of fanciful transformation that turned John Travolta into Nicolas Cage. He’s likewise capable of acts of vengeance that are positively South Korean in their extremity, and, fittingly, also demonstrates a proclivity for sexual transgression that would make Chan-wook Park proud. Beyond these (hopefully) enticing teases, the less you know, the better, save that Almodóvar springs what would be a lesser film’s crowning reveal just past Skin’s midpoint. This paves the way for a superbly subversive third act, wherein the tropes of the rape-revenge fantasy are turned inside out. Almodóvar clearly delights in an unhinged exploration of his favored themes, including the consuming, self-destructive nature of passionate desire, and the malleability of sexual identity and orientation. I was cooler on his last film (Broken Embraces) than most, but The Skin I Live In is a thrilling surprise in more ways than one.

Think of Me

Written by Bryan Wizemann

Direted by Bryan Wizemann

USA, 2011

Though less masterful than either Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, or the Dardennes brothers’ L’Enfant, Bryan Wizemann’s Think of Me is a noteworthy thematic companion, and a compelling exercise in American neo-neo-realism. Lauren Ambrose – of Six Feet Under fame – delivers a formidable performance as Angela, a Las Vegas single mother on the margins, in both economic and geographic terms. The glittering decadence of the Strip is ever-present, albeit distant and intangible, reinforcing the precarious state of her personal finances. Serving a similar purpose (if rather more on-the-nose) is her baby’s literal need of a new pair of shoes. “Baby”, in this case, means the 8-year-old Sunny, played by newcomer Audrey Scott with a precocious, affecting naturalism. When a co-worker (Dylan Baker) notices that Angela has stretched herself desperately thin, he casually informs her that his sister, an affluent Torontonian, recently failed in an attempt to adopt a child. His implication escapes Angela at first, but Wizemann’s intentions are immediately clear. That Think of Me succeeds despite a predictable third act is testament to characters that are convincingly drawn and artfully performed, and its sensitive evocation of a struggle that is all too believable.

Where Do We Go Now?

Written by Nadine Labaki

Directed by Nadine Labaki

France, Lebanon, Italy, Egypt, 2011

Hash-laced baked goods are the opiate of the masses in Nadine Labaki’s cartoonishly overbroad quasi-musical, Where Do We Go Now? Religion, in contrast, is purely a potent irritant for the inhabitants of an isolated, unnamed Middle-Eastern village. Initially, the townspeople – all either devoutly Christian or Muslim – manage to cohabit in peace, until news of sectarian violence in surrounding regions provokes a series of farcical misunderstandings. Seemingly inspired by mutual religious intolerance, these events, in turn, give rise to increasingly sacrilegious reprisals among the suddenly senseless, belligerent menfolk. Possessed of cooler, more cunning heads, the women hatch a collective scheme to heal the widening rift, involving a troupe of Ukrainian showgirls and, yes, lots and lots of hash. While these ingredients might make for a dynamite half hour of South Park, at 100 minutes, Labaki’s feature begins to bludgeon you with its facile theses: religious violence is asinine, we’re all the same on the inside, men are hot-headed dumb-dumbs. Add problematic shifts in tone, flat characterization, and an aimless inter-faith romantic subplot, and you’ve got a muddled if well-meaning misfire.

Wuthering Heights (Review #1)

Directed by Andrea Arnold

2011, UK, 128 minutes

Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is an absolute gem of a film. Of all the adaptations I’ve seen of Emily Brontë’s masterpiece, this has come the closest to capturing the destructive passion and stark emotional cruelty of that novel, and perhaps the only to truly add to the experience in the course of adaptation. It is cinematic poetry. It is a visceral torment. It is not to be missed.

Wuthering Heights (review #2)

Directed by Andrea Arnold

Screenplay by Olivia Hetreed

2011, UK

Based on Emily Brontë’s gothic novel from over 160 years ago, Wuthering Heights is a surprising choice for Andrea Arnold’s third feature. Fans of previous film adaptations are most likely to be disappointed in the new big screen version, but this radical new take is refreshingly different: dark and twisted, peppered with profanity, brief moments of nudity and  animalistic sexual behaviour… (read the full review)

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