Cementing its reputation as a new hub for filmic importance - Spielberg and Del Toro recently made films North of the Border - Canada can also champion a film festival second only to Cannes in industry importance. The Toronto International Film Festival is touted as the go-to-place for early Oscar indication having, in the past decade and a half, launched such hits as American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire and The King's Speech. Our resident film man, Owen Nicholls, gives his take on the first few days of the festival so far.
When Looper was announced as the Toronto International Film Festival's opening movie there were a few mutterings amongst a small quantity of the stuffed shirts that the “dreaded influence of mainstream Hollywood” was creeping over the festival. Film fans, however, simply screamed for joy. From the director of Brick, led by man of the moment Joseph Gordon-Levitt and based on a script recognised by The Blacklist (cinema insiders best unproduced screenplay) things looked pretty positive for Looper from the off. After the excellent trailer showed a glimpse of the finished product, way back in April, Looper became the film to look forward to.
We're happy to report it's as much a triumph as you could wish from a film capable of collapsing in on itself at the softest of touches. The time travel hook - and other distinctly fantastical elements best left unspoiled - give director/writer Rian Johnson the space to throw camera tricks that would best be described as overly indulgent were it not for the material. Full of invention and wit, there'll be many clambering to label it “This Year's The Matrix” or “A Sci-Fi as cool as Drive” but it's more accurate to simply call it “One Of This Year's Best”. Thankfully you won't have long to wait as it's released in the UK on September 28th. We'll have a full review then.
Gaining almost as much attention as Looper is Argo, the third directorial effort from Ben Affleck. Often ridiculed in front of the lens, due to a string of turn of the century duds in Gigli, Paycheck and Surviving Christmas, Affleck has learnt from his mistakes and learnt well. Stepping behind the camera for Gone Baby Gone he proved his ability to elicit a fine performance from a wide-ranging cast and The Town, despite a weak story end, showed his ability to construct a complex world and a decent set piece.
Argo, meanwhile, presents not only his ability to pick great subject matter, but also offers his best effort yet at making a complete film. The story of 6 Americans trapped in Iran and the bonkers method to get them out (make the authorities believe they're a Canadian film crew) is full of suspense, captivation and American heroics, meaning there's a good chance Argo will be there-or-there-about come Oscar Season. UK release November 9th.
The prize picks for Day Two of the festival offered a mix of political drama, comedy horror and feelgood fare. Already a success from Cannes, No, is the closing part of Pablo Larrain's trilogy concerning Chile under the dictatorship of General Pinochet. Filmed on analogue videotape, No is the story of an ad exec recruited to construct a series of Television programmes designed to make the Chilean audience get out and vote to oust their leader when the global community insist on a plebiscite. Reminiscent, in many ways, of George Clooney's best film thus far, Good Night, And Good Luck, No is anchored by a memorable performance from Gael Garcia Bernal, proving once again his pretty face is the least of his gifts.
Next on the agenda was Sightseers, the new film from Kill List director Ben Wheatly. Written by its two stars, Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, Sightseers is the tale of a “man with a ginger face and an angry women” who caravan across the dales offing anyone who they don't see eye to eye with. Which unfortunately for most people, is most people. Dubbed “Natural Born Killers off the A65”, by me, just now, if you have the stomach and the funny bone for pitch black humour keep an eye out for it come November 30th. Or try and catch it at the London Film Festival next month.
Also liable to make you vomit is The Sapphires, a feel good story of an Aboriginal Girl Group touring Vietnam. That regurgitation assessment might be a little unfair, the film does have its charms, but it's all played incredibly safe and a much too twee. Chris O'Dowd steals most of the non-singing scenes (although he too has a decent set of pipes) but the dialogue is painfully weak and painfully delivered. When everyone just shuts up and sings, however, there are certainly worse places to be. Its crowd pleasing nature means you'll probably hear far too much about this when its released in the UK on November 2.
Day Three kicked off with 90 Minutes, a Norwegian film that requires stiff drinks delivered at regular intervals throughout. 90 Minutes could more accurately be described using the original title of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Men Who Hate Women. From the Michael Haneke stable of distressing foreboding, the title ultimately becomes a gauntlet thrown down, can you endure a full hour and a half of domestic violence? Most of the audience couldn't. Those who could would have seen an affecting piece of work that shows how disturbingly quick moments of violence can be, especially those carried out by weak, bullying men. With Headhunters (which also features actor Aksel Hennie) and the aforementioned Millenium Trilogy also depicting violent Nordic types we reckon the Scandinavian Tourist Board won't be sending any Christmas cards to the Scandinavian Film Industry this year.
On a much, much lighter note the UK delivered Wasteland, best described as “Ocean's Eleven via Shane Meadows” but nowhere near as undignified as that sounds. Recently released from prison, Harvey Denton (Luke Treadaway) seeks revenge on the man who put him there, Northern gangster Steven Roper, and so hatches a plan to take him down with his three best friends. The kind of film the UK should have been making for years, Wasteland is clever and cool without ever being preoccupied with trying to be the latter. There's no obtrusive 'hip' soundtrack, no showy performances, just a decent script (by director Rowan Athale) and a fine quartet of performances from the four friends. Timothy Spall adds some clout as The Usual Suspects' Chazz Palminteri-esque interviewer trying to get the truth from Treadaway's Harvey.
Lastly, The Sessions sees Indie Darling John Hawkes (Winter's Bone) playing real-life poet Mark O'Brien, inflicted with polio as a child, left without the use of his muscles and reliant on an iron lung to breath. The plot centres around O'Brien attempting to lose his virginity and contains some well put commentary on sex and disability but as a life-affirming tale of an infirmity overcome it doesn't measure up to My Left Foot, The Diving Bell and The Butterfly or Inside I'm Dancing. It's clear the filmmakers weren't looking to make awards-bait, nevertheless, the distributors will be hoping it will be.
Tune in for TIFF Part Two later today including capsule reviews of Cloud Atlas, The Master, Greetings From Tim Buckley and Room 237. With the festival showing 289 features from 72 countries, the best may very well be yet to come...