Monday, September 15, 2008

TIFF 08 Recap Part 1

Another year at TIFF is in the books, and now time to get down to the recap. I am still going through film festival detox so I will be posting my thoughts in segments. Plus the only thing more time consuming than watching 32 films, is writing about those 32 films.


Edison & Leo

The first full-length stop motion animated film in Canadian history, is definitely a visual delight. Yet do not go into this film expecting entertainment on the same level, as say, “Wallace and Gromit”. “Edison & Leo” is a convoluted tale about a moral corrupt inventor named Edison and his son Leo. After years of inventing various items, and stealing numerous cultural artifacts, Edison’s past starts to catch up with him. When the moment comes for Edison to choose between saving his wife’s soul, and stealing a magical book from a tribe of gypsy women. Edison sets off a series of events that ultimately results in Leo getting electrified. Cursed with the power of electricity running through his veins, Leo grows up in a solitary life. When the gypsy women plot their revenge, Leo must not only question his purpose in life, but also all the story his father’s has told him about the nature of the gypsies.

While a visual treat for the eyes, “Edison and Leo” ultimately misses the mark because of the script. The story has problems on settling on what type of film it wants to be. Is it a dark comedy? Or is it a whimsical fantasy? How about a romantic film with elements of horror? At times it seems that “Edison and Leo” are all these things. While I often like stories that defy genres, the lack of focus really hurts this film. This is most evident in the film’s pacing. While it is fun to follow the hilariously corrupt Edison through the first half of the film, the second half is bogged down with too many threads that you do not care about (i.e. Leo’s love story, Leo’s conniving brothers, the gypsy women, etc.) There is also a level of gore in the film that really seems out of place. It is really tough to focus on what characters are saying when you have someone in the background repeatedly poking a headless body just to see the blood squirt out. While a huge step for the animation industry in Canada, “Edison and Leo” ultimately missed the mark.


Achilles and the Tortoise

Takeshi Kitano’s (Zatoichi) latest film is a meditation on the nature of art and those who create it. The film focuses on Machisu who, from a young age, longs to be a professional artist. Despite all the hardships that befall on Machisu, and those around him, he never loses sight of his goal. Eventually he encounters a woman who not only sees his potential, but fully assists in his creative process as well. Although the premise may seem like your typical rags to riches tale, this film is the stark opposite of that. “Achilles and the Tortoise” is as much about perpetual failure as it is about art.

The film’s bleak view on the merits of art is both engaging and very depressing. Takeshi pours so much sadness onto Machisu that the audience is practically begging for a Hollywood-style happy ending. Yet I guess that is point of the film, the romanticized ideology of “the big break” rarely comes for most artists. What is also startling is the fact that Kitano created all the paintings featured in the film. An avid painter, Takeshi Kitano’s bleak out look on his passion is truly thought provoking. In one great scene a chef asks Machisu “what would a poor person in Africa prefer? A ball of rice? Or a painting?” Kitano also takes aim at how people decide what is art. Showing that both the artists and the sellers are crooked. While “Achilles and the Tortoise” was easily one of the most depressing films I have watched in a while, I would still watch it again in a heartbeat.




RocknRolla

Herald as return to the world he knows best (it seems everyone has happily agreed that “Revolver” never happened), “RocknRolla” is Guy Ritchie’s latest London gangster opus. Featuring an all-star cast, the film is about a London crime boss (Tom Wilkinson) who tries to acquire some local real estate via an illegal deal with his Russian counterpart. When two local hoods (Gerard Butler and Idris Elba), with the assistance of a bored accountant (Thandie Newton), steal money from the Russian; they inadvertently set off a series of events that will have everyone, from a faded rock stars to crazed hitmen, double crossing each other.

While a fun movie “RocknRolla” is hardly anything new. Even by Guy Ritchie standards it pales in comparison to “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch”. All the typical Guy Ritchie elements are here: a convoluted plot, dark humour, violent shootouts, quick edits, chase scenes, monologues that give mundane things (such as cigarettes) philosophical importance, etc. The majority of the performances are over-the-top, especially Wilkinson, but you pretty much get the sense that the actors having a ball. Which leads me to a major complaint with the film, the cast is too big. A lot of the characters in the film serve no real purpose. As music producers, Jeremy Piven and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, basically walk around looking scared for most of their scenes. Their characters could have been cut completely. I also think it is a shame to have Piven was not given a better role. If anyone can let loose on screen it is Jeremy Piven, the fact that he is underused here is downright criminal. While “RocknRolla” is a mindlessly enjoyable movie, it by no means showcases Ritchie’s true potential as a filmmaker.




JCVD

Who knew Jean-Claude Van Damme still had a good movie left in him? Easily one of the biggest surprises at TIFF this year, “JCVD” is the film that may actually reinvent Van Damme as a comedic actor…or at least as a half decent actor. In the film, Van Damme plays…well Van Damme…an action star whose light no longer shines so bright. Not only is he strapped for cash, but he is also losing roles in straight to DVD films to Steven Segal of all people. To make matters worst, Jean-Claude is in the middle of a custody battle with one of his ex-wives for the rights to see his daughter. Just when you think life cannot get any worse for Van Damme, one day he finds himself in the middle of a hostage-taking situation at the local post office. As the police and the media surround the post office, Van Damme is mistakenly accused of the crime. Stuck between the criminals inside the post office and the police outside, Jean-Claude is forced to use what he learned from his previous films roles to defuse the situation.

Although the film is essentially an action-comedy, the film is not the usual “beat ‘em up” fare you expect from a Van Damme film. With the exception of one fantastic opening sequences, the martial arts are kept to a minimum. “JCVD” is more concerned with the comical story than it is with the violence. The main reason this film works is because of Van Damme’s performance. He commits fully to the role; openly taking comedic jabs at both himself and his body of work. He even opens up about the darker aspects of his life (i.e. drug abuse, his many wives, etc.) in one brilliantly improvised monologue. This film could have easily been a one-note gimmick; instead Jean-Claude, and director Mabrouk El Mechri, have crafted and entertaining film that is guaranteed to make you look at Jean-Claude Van Damme in a whole new light.




More Than A Game

First runner-up to “Slumdog Millionaire” for the “Peoples Choice Award”, TIFF’s highest award, “More Than A Game” is an uplifting tale about friendship, hardship, and determination. The documentary looks at how five friends growing up in Akron, Ohio defied all expectation and changed the way America looked at high school basketball. Through the help of Coach Dru, a businessman who knew little about the sport going in, the five young athletes are forced to overcome many obstacles on and off the court. Not only did four of the five men begin playing together in grade school; but one of them, a kid named LeBron James, would become the first high school student to be hand picked by Sports Illustrated as the next big thing. As the wins start to pile up and the media scrutiny become more rampant, egos arise, relationships become strained, and the adversities mount.

While LeBron James is the marquee name that will most likely bring people to the theatre; by the end the audience will be cheering Coach Dru and the other members of the aptly dubbed “Fab Five” (Little Dru, Sian, Willie, and Romeo) equally if not more than LeBron. Director Kristopher Belman skillfully gives enough weight to each person so that you really get a good sense of the boys bonds to each other and their coach. Belman could have easily just made film that was nothing more than a basketball highlight reel; instead Belman opts to have the actual basketball stuff a secondary aspect. The real story is how boys worked hard to achieve what they wanted. We see the damage that the sport brought on Coach Dru and his son Little Dru. The choices made by each player that they will drastically effect their lives. Uplifting without being sentimental, “More Than A Game” is definitely a crowd pleaser.


Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love

Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary looks at the controversy that arose when prominent African singer Youssou Ndour released a album, entitled “Egypt.” The album was Youssou’s love letter to his Muslim faith. Hoping to provide a new level of songs for his people to enjoy, Youssou is shocked when many in his home country of Senegal denounce the album. Not only do they reject his album but they also oppose to him touring during the sacred month of Ramadan. As album sales plummet at home, Youssou finds that the rest of the world is embracing his album with open arms. It is this contrast that forces Youssou to look at who has the authority to deem what religious material is appropriate.

Overall I was very disappointed with the film. While it was nice to hear Youssou’s music and see the various places he played (i.e. Ireland, Rome, etc.), I felt the film was missing one key thing…tension. Yes it is a shame that Senegal initially rejected the album, yet I never got the sense that Youssou’s career was ever in danger. He was still deemed a national treasure; they just rejected this one album. Unlike other artists who have spoken their mind, say “The Dixie Chicks” for example, there was never a moment where I thought his life was in danger, or that he would never record another album again. Youssou does raise some interesting questions about the nature of religious worship, but the film never goes deeper than the surface. This is a film mostly geared at highlighting Youssou’s music after all. Another thing I did not like was how the people of Senegal are portrayed in Vasarhelyi’s film. If you were to go by the films editing, Senegal only decided to accept Youssou’s album after he wins a Grammy award. This seems rather odd to me, one would think that America would be the last place to govern what is acceptable in the Muslim world. As a concert film “Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love” is adequate, just do not go in expecting anything deeper.

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