Great Expectations: TIFF 2011

By Daniel Luftspring

Mid-September can mean any number of things, but for thousands of common folk as well as art aficionados, film critics and Hollywood’s bona fide elite, it means the Toronto International Film Festival. Although I’d heard of this phenomenon since my early childhood, this year’s festival was the first I actually attend.

The Festival began quite obviously with the “ticket-getting” process. Being the TIFF virgin that I am, I was blissfully unaware of the difficulties I would encounter. The initial attempt happened on August 25th where the lovely people in the orange uniforms told us that we would have to come back for single tickets on September 3rd because all the packages were sold out. Fast forward to September 3rd; I was unable to line up for single tickets due to prior engagements. Fortunately I had a dedicated TIFF-going friend who was prepared to line up at ungodly hours in the morning to acquire what we so desperately desired. For me this included setting several alarms to try and beat the thousands of people who were going to crowd the online waiting room. Fortunately I was one of the select few privileged enough to beat the squabbling masses and get through to the ticket-purchasing screen. After much blood and sweat (and possibly a few tears), I got almost all of the movies I desired (9 or 10 in total). My friend, who, despite having stood in line for hours, was still hundreds of spots from a ticket booth, decided to abandon ship and settled for what we had.

On September 8th we scrambled around downtown, amidst the overly excited moviegoers, and made our way to the Ryerson University Theatre to see the world premiere of Gus Van Sant’s Restless. I didn’t really know what to expect, having seen neither Elephant nor Milk (the latter is probably his best known motion picture). I was pleasantly surprised as Restless took me on an emotional rollercoaster detailing the relationship between a distraught young man (Martin Hopper) who’d lost both his parents in a car accident and a girl (Mia Wasikowska) who has only three months to live. The paradox of the two characters (a man doomed to live yet obsessed with death and a girl doomed to die yet obsessed with life) is gripping to say the least. The incredibly heavy relationship is somewhat sidetracked by the dark humor of Hopper’s ghost friend, a kamikaze pilot (Ryo Kase) who is unbeatable at Battleship. The philosophy of the plotline, as stated by Van Sant in the Q & A, was an approach that “presented the events at the beginning and allowed the relationships and the characters to dictate the mood.” I found the story quite effective and instead of wondering what was going to happen to the girl in the end, I was aware of her impending demise and able to focus on what Van Sant was truly trying to accomplish. Beyond the response to that particular question, his other answers were all very pretentious and made little-to-no sense. Are people really such egomaniacs that they feel the need to ask questions they already know the answer to? I guess I found my answer but overall the world premiere of Restless was an undeniable success.

On to the infuriating evening of September the 9th,when we were set to bear witness to the world premier of Fernando Meirelles’ 360 starring Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, and Anthony Hopkins. I was expecting great things from the director of City of God. I wasn’t disappointed, although the apparently disjointed plot with a multitude of foreign actors seemed to throw some off the wagon. That said, Mereilles’ self-proclaimed exploration of the power of sexual urges and their ability to transgress social boundaries isn’t entirely successful. I enjoyed the allusion to Anna Karenina, a novel littered with adultery. Once that book was referenced, I knew right from the beginning there was going to be adultery and a lot of it. But there were a couple of things most people found fault with. First, the film jumped around too much and focused its attention on narratives and characters that weren’t all that interesting. Second, the script wasn’t earth shattering; there was the occasional clever moment, but nothing that was going to bring forth the emotion that is so distinctly Mereilles. And finally, the ending was a poor use of the cyclical ending tactic. The film was semi-clever, but overall it fell short of the mark. The main event took place afterwards during the Q & A where the writer was so bothered by a noise, which I hadn’t even noticed until he pointed it out, that he stormed off the stage and was never heard from. Amidst the flurry of pretentious questions I was hoping for some wisdom but sadly found none. However, I looked forward to what the next day held.

Moving forward to Saturday the 10th, we were scheduled for the 1:30 screening of Killer Elite. I by no means thought this one was going to be thought provoking, but after a heavy hearted first two films I felt I deserved a break. I should have known trouble was afoot when the co-director of the festival insisted on telling us how he genuinely believed “people who don’t like action movies are snobs,” which garnered much applause from the crowd. Now I am no snob, but there is a distinct difference between an action movie and a terrible action movie. Killer Elite, despite being equipped with the immense star power of Clive Owen, Robert De Niro, Jason Statham, and the ever-scrumptious Yvonne Strahovski, failed to entice my carnal appetite for destruction. I may have spent more time in that movie wondering how someone would proudly present it as their creation without paying attention to the finer or even coarse details.

Slightly disheartened, I really needed the two movies on tap for Sunday the 11th to be absolutely spectacular. McQueen and Almadovar did not let me down. Shame is the second work by director Steve McQueen who received great acclaim for his debut Hunger. He has reunited with his lead actor from Hunger (Michael Fassbender) to create a masterpiece that looks into the obsession of addiction. Fassbender plays a smooth talking sex addict with connection issues, which are made prevalent when his overly dependant semi-suicidal sister “Sissy” forces herself into his life. She disrupts his regime of carnal pleasure, which includes boatloads of pornographic material and a daily cycle of Manhattan’s finest hookers. In the closing Q & A McQueen said he wanted to “make a love story, but put down the gun,” suggesting that “Hollywood has lost sight of the individual character in its hunger for a spectacle.” Beyond accomplishing that, he, with the co-operation of a remarkable cast, accurately portrayed the access modern society has (in essence) to filth. This movie is a must see for all who can handle “a little” nudity and heavy subject matter.

Onward to a film I was unprepared for, to say the least. Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In was one of the most bizarre dramatic experiences I’ve ever been a part of. It follows the life a world-renowned surgeon (Antonio Banderas) who had recently pioneered a genetically engineered skin. The source of this skin is a transgenesis between a pig cell and a human cell, which outrages the medical community and they condemn his research. The movie is constructed to reveal the events of his life in continuum; we learn more about the doctor’s past as the film progresses. Philosophically, this film explores the obsession of love, the relationship between a scientist and his creation, and the fragile state of the human mind. Most importantly Almodovar is driving at the superficiality of the world and how our skin, and more specifically our face, defines our identity and how much must be changed before we cease to be identifiable. Not wanting to divulge too much I’ll cut this short and say this movie is a must-see if ever the opportunity presents itself. Speaking for myself, the experience inspired stirrings of the strangest kind.

One of the most publicized movies of the festival was a comedy starring Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anna Kendrick, and Bryce Howard. I had high hopes for this, considering my fondness for previous Seth Rogen comedies. An absolutely awful script betrayed my former affection for Rogen and Levitt. The title 50/50 describes the odds faced by Levitt’s character after he is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in his spine. Rogen plays his sex-addicted friend who is always good for inappropriate one-liners. The movie seemed to offset touching moments with inappropriate phallic humor. I was expecting a slightly more tasteful sense of humor and was thoroughly disappointed on all counts. The peak of this childishness is a scene between Kendrick and Levitt, where on his recovery bed she takes his hand gently in hers (the music builds to a romantic climax), when all of a sudden the morphine-injected Levitt bursts forth with “I just peed.” The audience erupted into furious applause. That outburst, and the fact that 50/50 was the only movie I attended which received a standing ovation, left me thoroughly displeased with my fellow TIFF goers. When this movie comes out next month I urge you to save your 20 dollars and not subject yourself to this vile form of torture.

After the cruel events of the 12th, I hoped Tuesday the 13th would leave me in better spirits. I was set to view the Belgian film The Kid With A Bike and the Jennifer Garner produced comedy Butter. The Kid With A Bike follows the life of a small child who has no family and is placed in an orphanage. It details his experiences there as well as his fruitless search for a deadbeat father who could care less about him. I hated his character for the entire film until the very end. It brought back emotions similar to when I was reading The Catcher In The Rye, as the reader is made to despise Holden until a life-altering event changes their perception. This was the case in The Kid With A Bike, where Cyril is reprehensible until his discourse at the film’s conclusion. The music cues were blaring and the French subtitles weren’t excellent, but it was overall a powerful movie and completely worth seeing.

My expectations were very low walking in to see Butter that Tuesday evening. Of course I was excited to see one of my many celebrity crushes, Olivia Wilde, however I was pleasantly surprised by the “not so little movie” that could. Amidst witty jests at the state of Iowa, more specifically at Republican leadership candidate Michelle Bachman, Butter proved to me that a comedy could entertain once again through hilarious situations and some very racy one-liners.

The second last movie of my TIFF 2011 experience, scheduled for Wednesday the 14th, was a complete shot in the dark. I read the premise and immediately fell in love with the film. Any movie that boasts a father of 544 children has immediately garnered my attention. It was, in short, the perfect comedy, and as such was rewarded with a second place finish in the TIFF Cadillac People’s Choice awards. Patrick Huard, the only Québécois actor I’m familiar with, was in every single scene of the movie and he never missed a beat. The movie ranged from heart-warming moments to emotional turmoil to one-liners that were too hilarious to be ignored. Starbuck singlehandedly resurrected my waning opinion of the comedy genre. Who knew the French had something so brilliant brewing just north of Ontario?

The finale of the festival for me was the semi-thriller Killer Joe. Having had (up to that point) a wonderful experience, I was praying that this last film wouldn’t leave me with a sour taste in my mouth. The movie boasts a cast including Mathew McConaughey and Emile Hirsche. The latter plays a kid involved with the wrong people when his senile mother steals his stash of cocaine leaving him $6,000 dollars in debt to the powers that be in Texas. Knowing that his mother has a $50,000 life insurance policy, he enlists the help of Killer Joe to execute his mother as swiftly as possible. But the catch is Joe only works with advanced payments so instead of taking his money in advance, he receives Hirsche’s little sister Dottie as a retainer. After this has all been set up, hilarity and extreme violence ensues. Upon further research I discovered that this movie was originally based on a play, leading to a better understanding of the climactic nature in the last scene as well as the surprisingly clever dialogue. I left with a bittersweet taste in my mouth: sweet because that’s a fitting adjective to describe what I felt in that theatre and bitter because my TIFF 2011 experience had come to its dramatic conclusion.

Looking back on the festival I must insist that all who can attend it at some point in their lives should definitely do so. TIFF 2011 was a cultural explosion and the movies were, for the most part, fantastic, but that wasn’t even half of the tremendous (dare I say) life-changing experience. It was the people who struck up a conversation with you in line because of the general excitement and love for the cinematic art form. It was the heroic adventures to Starbucks in between movies. It was the unbelievable raw emotion and energy that seemed to burst from every street corner. It was all of those things through which I laughed, I scoffed, I cheered, and yes I even shed a tear. If I had gone all my pre-university life without attending TIFF once that would have been a great shame for I will remember TIFF 2011 for the rest of my life.