Tag: Toronto International Film Festival

A Galloping Genesis

(photo via)

Many beautiful things have screened over the years at the Toronto International Film Festival, and many of the works I’ve enjoyed most didn’t involve famous people or the related screaming-fan hype. Good storytelling still matters a lot in my world. This year, I made a conscious effort to attend the kind of fascinating movies that made me love TIFF in the first place.

I’d heard very good things about The Dark Horse from its premiere at the New Zealand International Film Festival back in July. The subject matter intrigued because it hit on my interest (if not talent) in chess. I grew up with a chess-mad friend and knew the names of many greats, including Kiwi champ Genesis Potini, the so-called “dark horse” of the New Zealand chess world. Now I don’t played chess myself, but I appreciate the elegance of the game and the depth of passion that comes with it, to say nothing of its many committed players. The Dark Horse, based on a 2005 documentary about Potini, chronicles his efforts in founding the Gisborne-based Eastern Knights chess club as he simultaneously attempts to deal with his mental illness and help his nephew escape a nightmarish home life.

Rather than The Dark Horse being a trite, cutesy melodrama about mental illness, it offers a refreshing, unflinching look at a complex man, his realities, and the community he inspired. The film opens with Genesis (played with magical intensity by Cliff Curtis) walking through a downpour, amidst busy traffic, a colorful quilt draped over his shoulders, speaking a mix of Maori and English, manically repeating words and phrases. In real life, Potini worked hard to make peace with his illness while working to give disadvantaged youth a sense of hope, despite incredible odds at both macro and micro levels. These mix of challenges are reflected in simple, effective ways throughout the film (the anxious pill-taking, the terrifying nosebleed, his sleeping rough in a rainstorm) though perhaps nowhere more strongly than in the scenes between Genesis (“Gen”) and his troubled brother, Ariki (Wayne Hapi, in a heartbreaking performance). His house is a party headquarters for thuggish fellow gang members, not a proper environment in which to raise his sensitive teenaged son, Mana (played with searing vulnerability by James Rolleston). When Ariki angrily shouts at Gen that “The world doesn’t want him!” (about Mana), we suspect he could be speaking about any number of the kids we’ve seen Gen work with. There’s an ugly if necessary subtext here, one that gives important pause.

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However, far from giving in to despair, we see how the kids are able to flower, with diligence, discipline, patience, and kindness. Gen cultivates a deep sense of pride in their culture while fostering a true sense of self-worth and innate purpose. The scenes of the kids picking various chess pieces that represent who they are, and relating that to Maori mythology, is positively lyrical, but done in the most simple and elegant of ways. There is no soaring orchestral score, there are no cutesy quirks from any of the kids. Playing chess is not mere strategy on the board but necessary methodology in life; are you a Queen, a King, a pawn, a rook? The Dark Horse asks us to consider these questions not only of ourselves, but about those whom we might not think twice about, those whom we might write off, point fingers at, ostracize, ignore. Is there possibility? Can we guide them to “the center” as Gen is always urging his students to do on the board? Is there a better way to checkmate? The game’s mix of methodical and precise, of individual and community, is nicely realized onscreen, with scenes that alternate between Gen’s gentle engagements with the community, his difficult dealings with family, and his passionate, frequently tormented solo endeavors.

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Director James Napier Robertson has done a masterful job in painting a mesmerizing portrait of a talented, troubled man who wanted to make a difference in the lives of those around him. He wisely lingers on faces and uses many long shots, silently observing the world of gangs, violence, and abuse without judgment or patronage. The audience is watching pure being unfold, whether it’s Genesis contemplating his next move (in life and/or on the board), a good friend expressing silent worry, a father letting go of the son he knows he can’t take care of, a teenager too scared to go home. Curtis is particularly moving in expressing the challenges Genesis faces in attempting to ride the waves of his mental state while processing the desperation around him. This is an Oscar-worthy performance, one that mixes pathos, anger, fear, pain, and a deep, extraordinary beauty. There’s something very soulful about the way Curtis uses his eyes, capturing with riveting stillness a touching vulnerability and intense knowingness, all at once.

Knowing the events and people in the movie are real imbues The Dark Horse with an automatic sense of humanity, but Robertson smartly avoids any kind of Hollywood-hokey tone. His smart, sensitive script, creative cinematography (with liberal use of documentary-style hand-held filming), and clearly trusting relationship with his actors touches at the heart of something beautiful but rare in film these days: grace. It’s a feeling I couldn’t help but experience as I looked out at the movie’s cast and crew Saturday afternoon. As was expressed, making a film is an act of faith, just as seeing one is; the glory and the genius of The Dark Horse is how much that faith is so beautifully expressed, and so authentically rewarded. We come away blessed, strategizing next moves, entirely in the presence of the divine. To quote the film’s tagline, bravery is contagious — but indeed, it turns out, so is grace. Burn down the school!

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You’re Where?

I like being challenged in cinema -confused, even. Daniel Cockburn‘s You Are Here fits the bill beautifully. Part detective-story, part Borgesian puzzle, the work draws on a number of influences, from Dali to Phillip K. Dick to steampunk. Cockburn has concocted a tale that will furrow your brow even as it opens your heart.

I had the opportunity of speaking with actor-filmmaker Nadia Litz about the film -and her own work -as part of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It was illuminating to glean her insights, as well as her thoughts around acting with fellow Canadian thespian Tracy Wright, whose final onscreen appearance in the movie is as much about the heart as it is the head. Wright waas beloved by many in the Canadian arts world; she tragically passed away earlier this year, leaving a gaping hole in the theatre and film worlds here. Ergo, the meeting of emotional and intellectual couldn’t be made more plain than in the many close-ups Cockburn has of her face. Litz is eloquent in speaking about not only a great actor, but a great personal friend.

Nadia Litz on You Are Here by CateKusti

Equally, the actor also witty and wise in chatting up her own short that screened at TIFF. With the intriguing title of “How To Rid Your Lover Of A Negative Emotion Caused By You”, the work is a zesty mix of macabre humor and ugly truth. Like, literally pulling-stuff-out-of-yours-and-your-loved-ones-guts truth. Ouch.

I really felt Litz really hit on a piece of honesty in this film, in a much more bold, if equally compelling way, to You Are Here. Both works are, at their essence, about the importance of connection; even fraught with peril, upheaval and discomfort, human connection is perhaps the most valuable thing we have -and the thing we most often take for granted, that passes us by, flickering, dying, and finding manifestation in something -anything -else, even its reverse. Ugly truths indeed.

Amazon Rising

Long after I’d seen Amazon Falls I was thinking about it, about how we perceive celebrities, and about how far I’d go to chase my dreams. I was also thinking about how incredible it was that this movie, shown as part of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, got made in such a short space of time.

Director Katrin Bowen had originally planned on making another feature, but when that fell through, having already assembled a team, decided -bang -to make Amazon Falls, which explores the dreams and painful realities of being an aged-40 female actor in Hollywood. Partly based on her own time as a Troma performer, Bowen astutely cast former beauty queen April Telek as her leading lady, and fills the screen with all manner of creep and player, including a memorable turn from former X-Files baddie William B. Davis as a predatory producer. Also notable is the gorgeous, sparse score from Step Carruthers that nicely compliments the main character’s harrowing experiences without ever imposing saccharine emotion. Though the tale of broken Hollywood dreams is common, there’s nothing saccharine, or predictable about “Amazon Falls” or its characters.

Indeed, it isn’t incidental that the film is dedicated to Lana Clarkson, the female B-movie actor who became tragically mainstream-famous only in death; legendary music producer Phil Spector was sentenced for second-degree murder in 2009. If ever there was a perfect distillation of the Hollywood dream gone bad, that sad situation had to be it. The connection to Clarkson, and the thousands like her, is felt all through the movie, and not just via the similar names. Even days after viewing the film I was still thinking about Jana (played by April Telek), and the thousands like her who sacrifice everything -home, family, dignity, sanity -in the name of getting that one dream part that will (or, more than likely, won’t) change everything. In a broader sense, Amazon Falls poses some tough questions: how often do we tell ourselves lies -about career, relationship, strengths, weaknesses – and how damaging are they in the long run?

Katrin Bowen and I talked about this and more during our interview amidst the madness of TIFF; she’s enthusiastic, passionate, and, like the many filmmakers I interviewed this year, really articulate about not only her own work but the themes she deals with, notably the way women are treated in Hollywood. We spoke on September 13th, just days after the film’s premiere, when “Amazon Falls” was receiving a boatload of buzz:

Katrin Bowen & Amazon Falls by CateKusti

The movie screens one more time as part of TIFF, at the Yonge-Dundas AMC at 9:15pm. The fest -indeed, the entire film industry -might look a little less glam afterwards, but any dearth of faith in the power of film will be swiftly, powerfully restored. Thank you Katrin, and thank you to all the Janas out there, toiling, fierce, and ever-glamorous.

Magical Modra


Modra was among the many movies I screened during the 2010 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

It tells a simple story of two teenagers on holiday in Slovakia and features members of director Ingrid Veninger‘s own family, including her daughter (Hallie Switzer) who plays the lead, Lina. I adored the movie for a few reasons: its clean style, its intriguing story, and its strong, natural performances. No sappy, swelling score or predictable outcomes here; this is an honest, honestly-told tale about intimacy, family, and the stretching, flexible nature of identity. No wonder it generated so much buzz at the fest, and received such positive reviews.

I really enjoyed my interview with Veninger (audio below), originally broadcast on CIUT’s morning show as part of my TIFF coverage. It was truly fantastic learning earlier today that she’d struck a deal with Mongrel Media for Canadian distribution rights. Yay! Today Canada, tomorrow the world!

Ingrid Veninger And Modra by CateKusti

If you happen to be in the Toronto area, you can see it one more time as part of TIFF; it’s screening tomorrow at the Yonge-Dundas AMC. If you’re not in the city, look out for Modra at a cinema near you soon. It’s a gem.

Action

I always feel like the calamitous meets the surreal this time of year. Maybe it’s seasonal, what with the changing over from summer to autumn. Transformation and transfiguration are afoot. There’s a strange energy of walking through the threshold of something vaguely important, especially for me this time of year. Early September comes and goes and I always feel like something has totally shifted.

The terrorist attacks of 2001 irrevocably underlined, on a personal level, this profound sense of shifting from one mode into another. And yet, along with sadness and fear, there’s also a mountain of excitement that comes with this change. The annual Toronto International Film Festival is on and the city goes mad for movies. Sure there are the “stars” but people are also interested, I believe, in seeing something new, unique, and unusual. It was this promise -this encapsulation of strange, surreal, and transformative -that propelled me to start attending the film festival so many moons ago. Now, as a journalist covering the fest (my second year), I’m finding myself wistful for the old days, if also equally inspired by the way the event brings the city together and makes people excited about Toronto. Sure, there are foreigners everywhere, and it’s usually the celebs getting the flashbulbs, but people are still out and about, curious to be a part of a larger event, and taking a chance they might see something special at the multiplex.

I’m only covering a handful of things, but they’re goodies. I’ve already done a story on two of the Bravo!FACT shorts, a piece on the National Film Board of Canada’s animated works, and a feature interview with director Guy Maddin. While they’re smaller works, I kind of feel it’s the spirit of these quiet, poetic works that still nicely encapsulates the original feeling of the TIFF -back when it was called the Festival of Festivals. I still have programs from that time on bookshelves in my basement, and every time I see their aging spines, flecked with creases and scratches, I harken back to all those times I lined up in the rain, or the wind, or the heat, just to catch that exact “something special.” The Toronto International Film Festival was a big reason why I went on to film school long ago. I loved the movies. Lately I’ve been re-examining that time in detail, examining my motivations, my choices, and the eventual outcomes that lead me here, now. It makes for heavy thought (if equally boring reading, ha) but it also gives me a unique perspective on the fest, and my own personal memories.

Without going into a laundry-list of moments and meetings, I’ll just share a few special TIFF-going experiences. The first was meeting Nigel Hawthorne, who is perhaps best-known to North American audiences as poor mad King George in The Madness of King George. (He was here at the time for Twelfth Night.) He was warm, funny, and very sincere. Once he gleaned that he had a true theatre afficionado stood before him, he really opened up, whence a stream of lovely conversation between us poured forth. In a similar vein, I remember seeing the premiere screening of Al Pacino‘s Looking For Richard. I know a lot of critics -theatre and film -balked, but I loved the energy of his work, and I still really adore his huge, vocal passion for Shakespeare and theatre in general. During the screening, Pacino was seated a mere two rows behind me and I recall turning around to observe him watching, to see if there was any kind of rise -or if he was even still sitting there. Indeed he was, furiously gnawing on his nails, eyes like saucers, a knee against his chest. I’ve never seen anyone look so nervous. I actually felt sorry for him. Then there was a Dutch film called De vliegende Hollander; it took the mythic roots of the flying Dutchman and combined it with elements of history, fantasy, and other European folklore (mainly central and Eastern), fashioning a surreal, deeply poetic, and utterly moving piece of cinema. To my knowledge, it never got a North American release, and yet it was easily one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen at the TIFF (yes, ever). I remember returning to film school the week after, re-energized and re-inspired for the year ahead.

And though I’m not working in film now but covering its artists instead, it’s moments such as these that make me glad to have been part of this event, and at such an important, seminal time of year. Today is grave for so many people (and let’s not forget Chile, please) but in Toronto at least, there is a symbol that embraces these contradictions of life experience, balancing them with the magic of light and dark, to show us something beautiful, important, and perhaps most importantly, connecting. We may sit in cinemas, not talking, staring at a dance of shadows and projected light -but we’re all together, in the magic of the dark, creating our own shared world. That has to count.

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