Over Your Dead Body
Today, any serious North American film festival is all about messages. (And that goes for the one on whose selection committee I have now served for two years, the New York Film Festival.) Whether or not the films at these festivals have any to impart, messages about mission and identity are unfailingly, and sometimes relentlessly, sent out through marketing campaigns that reinforce the festivals’ claims on your attention. They have become an integral part of the expanding field of today’s festival economy, which abhors blank surfaces and unbranded objects. If it moves, slap a sponsor’s name or the festival brand on it. And so, before each film at Toronto this year, the public got this message, among others:
TIFF is a charity
…that enriches film culture.
…that informs, inspires, and transforms.
…that brings the power of film to life 365 days a year.
…that changes lives in your community.
…that could use your help.
What face must a massive enterprise like TIFF or Sundance present to the world? In 21st-century film festivals, where it all comes down to money, it must be hard at times for Joe or Jane Public to reconcile the message that TIFF “could use your help” with the festival’s corporate style, red-carpet galas, luxury-goods sponsors, and seemingly limitless resources. At least from the outside, it would appear that TIFF is getting all the help that it needs, thank you very much. Does any festival have a larger army of volunteers? At Cannes, which has none, the staff keep the press under control with cool professional politeness. At TIFF’s main venue Scotiabank multiplex, the legions of pass holders are tirelessly greeted by ever-smiling volunteers. They seemed mainly female. They stand there, holding the doors open as we pass through. All. Bloody. Day. But at least they get a little taste of the glamour that goes with being a part of the world of movies.
This year, one way or another, I’d already seen 50 of the lineup’s 285 features, of which fully half were world premieres—which sounds very grand until you calculate the small number of films in the latter category of any real merit (perhaps a dozen). Still, with this head start and 20 of the festival’s highlights already behind me, I saw 35 features and 11 shorts that were new to me while still managing to miss a dozen or so seemingly worthwhile films, including titles by Krzysztof Zanussi and Hal Hartley.
Face of an Angel
It was a long drop from last year’s awards-season watershed. There was no comparable crop of potential Oscar contenders this time to create critical mass. Which goes to show that TIFF’s winning formula (and make no mistake, it has a formula, and when I figure out what it is, I’ll get back to you) is predicated, as with all other festivals, on having the right films in the right place at the right time.
Take the Masters section, composed of films by “the world’s most influential art-house filmmakers.” Godard? Indisputably. Ann Hui? I’m with you. Michael Winterbottom? Seriously? In Winterbottom’s The Face of an Angel, a German filmmaker (Daniel Brühl) with family troubles comes to Italy to write a screenplay about a real-life murder modeled closely on the Amanda Knox case, only to discover… that we can never be certain of the truth. No shit. Maybe Winterbottom thought he was making Zodiac, but that TIFF had to fill out this section with borderline hackwork came as a distinct shock.
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films
Last year I described the festival as a cornucopia. It still is, most of all for the local audience and the North American critics whose budgets sadly don’t stretch to a trip to Cannes. But amid this throng, I can’t be the only one who has the irresistible urge to mutter “less is more.” (A concept the ever-prolific Winterbottom should consider, by the way.)
On the night I arrived, the eve of the festival, I treated myself to an amuse-bouche by finally catching up with Guardians of the Galaxy. I came out convinced that I wouldn’t see anything more sheerly pleasurable over the next 10 days. The lack of excitement that pervaded the entire festival—if a lack of something can pervade, that is—seemed to confirm this, but finally I had to eat my words as I sat through a midnight screening of Mark Hartley’s long-awaited documentary, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. Cinephiles of a certain age will eat up this off-the-charts hilarious piece of film history, recounting the taste-challenged exploits of the Israeli producers Menahem Golan (the filmmaker-showman) and his cousin Yoram Globus (the money man), who stormed Hollywood in the early Eighties and produced epic amounts of schlock and (inadvertently, it must be said) half a dozen near-masterpieces. If you’ve never heard of Cannon, you’ll think you’re watching a movie-biz version of This Is Spinal Tap.
When all else fails at a megafestival like TIFF, you can always count on making some discoveries, and this year was no exception. But it’s telling that the discoveries tend to come from the wilder fringes of the festival. Among those that I made, only one actually hailed from the Discovery section, but that probably says more about me and my priorities than it does about the 40 filmmakers on offer, few of whose movies I managed to see, many of which sounded interesting. The find in question was Canadian writer-director Adam MacDonald’s tightly constructed and eventually terrifying Backcountry, in which a young couple’s would-be romantic camping trip in a national park goes from bad (they get hopelessly lost in the forest) to worse (bear attack). For those who find the great outdoors scary, this gory, gut-wrenching survival story has your name on it—or not.
TIFF’s 12-film Vanguard section yielded some strong films, most of them extreme in character. There was Tetsuya Nakashima’s lurid and excessive The World of Kanako, the fragmented and time-shifting story of an ex-cop (Koji Yakusho) investigating the disappearance of his teenage daughter, which reconfirms the filmmaker as someone taking cinema to new if morally questionable places. And there was English writer-director Gerard Johnson’s druggy, immersive Hyena, in which a deeply corrupt cop adept at playing off both sides realizes he’s being framed by a fellow officer bearing a grudge. Making ever more frantic moves to stay one step ahead of the internal affairs cop investigating him and the pair of ruthless Bulgarian gangsters he’s double-crossed, he also makes a bid for moral redemption by attempting to rescue a trafficked prostitute (rather improbably, under the circumstances). A dynamic new talent, Johnson renders this sleazy and brutal world with utter conviction, and sets a new standard for crime-movie authenticity, while giving his powerful lead actor Peter Ferdinando the kind of role that doesn’t grow on trees.
Meanwhile, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Spring strongly suggested that Vanguard is now something of a spillover from the Midnight Madness section. Genuinely original and semi-unclassifiable, Spring is set in a village on the Italian coast where a young American drifter (Lou Taylor Pucci) and a charming but strangely elusive woman fall in love—despite the fact that she suffers from a mysterious affliction that causes her body to mutate and drives her to feed off whoever’s unlucky enough to come her way. Defying run-of-the-mill genre expectations, the supernatural forces here are primordial and mythic in origin, and as unlikely as it sounds, try to imagine Before Sunrise redone as a horror film.
Final mention must be reserved for the Midnight Madness knockout Cub, in which a troop of Cub Scouts and their late-teen Scout Leaders embark on a forest camping trip only to fall victim to booby-traps and the savage attacks of a feral child and his crazy father. Inventive and skillful, it’s a film that consistently goes all the way, from its opening scene to its bleakly determinist conclusion, and heralds the discovery of an exciting new horror talent in Belgian writer-director Jonas Govaerts.