Travel on the Cheap: Toronto film festival reviews

Every year I travel on the cheap to TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival. Yes, I consider going to films from many different countries a form of travel.

This year, I only made it to 10 films as I only had 5 days to festival (yes, festival is now a verb). Fortunately, my film picks this year were pretty good. I can’t say there was a real dud in the group but they do require reviews and they do require classifying. Though good, not all will suit everyone’s taste.

Which leads me to my rating system. I made this one up last year to deal with the range of films being reviewed and the range of taste of Solo Traveler readers.  Each of the films below will get one of the following.

EHF – Excellent Hollywood Flick
MHF – Mediocre Hollywood Flick
LMS – Lousy Hollywood Flick
EIF – Excellent Independent Film
CIF – Creative Independent Film
UIF – Ugh Independent Film
EFL – Excellent Foreign Language
FFL – Fine Foreign Language
SFL – Sleepy Foreign Language

TRIGGER – Canada – EIF
Trigger is another film about the demise of real people amid the success of a rock band. But, unlike “The Runaways” that I saw at the Sundance Festival in January and considered to be very formulaic, Trigger has depth and real character development. This is a case where fiction can offer more truth than following the facts. Daniel MacIvor’s script is more about the wounds that people carry and how they can be overcome than about the rock scene –  however, the latter does provide a rich backdrop.

Special Treatment – France – EFL
The similarity between a psychoanalyst and a high-priced hooker is explored in this French film with the stunning Isabelle Huppert. We follow both characters independently as they negotiate and manage their clients – in similar fashions. Finally, their paths cross as each seeks more meaning in life. Beautifully shot, great performances and a script of depth and pacing that keeps you engaged.

I Am Slave – United Kingdom – EHF
This is an important film that I hope got picked up by a distributor at TIFF. As of the Q&A after my screening it hadn’t. It is estimated that there are over 5000 people living in slavery in London – many of them in diplomatic homes and therefore beyond the reach of the law. Extend these numbers to Washington, Ottawa, Paris… and one can only be horrified at the implications. Based on the book by Mende Nazer who was enslaved, this film tells a gripping story. This isn’t really a Hollywood flick but it has production quality at that level by the team behind The Last King of Scotland.

Pink Saris – India – FFL
I don’t see many docs at the festival. As I mentioned above, I love the way fiction can reveal truth about humanity. But docs play an important role too and this one revealed the power of one woman, flawed as she may be, in helping negotiate the divide between societal norms past and present.

How to describe Bunraku? Let’s try film noir meets graphic novel meets Cirque de Soleil meets classic western meets mixed martial arts, set in the future when no guns are allowed with a lots and lots of violence but, thanks to the CGI I only flinched my head away a couple of times. This is the type of film I would never see throughout the year but with Woody Harrelson playing a secondary role, I had to check in out. I wasn’t disappointed but it definitely wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story – US – EIF
It’s a high budget indie film, but it does have that indie feel all the same. This is the best psych ward flick I’ve seen since cukoo’s nest however it deals with more current issues around mental health. There’s no Nurse Ratchet. The staff are kind and doing their best.  The focus is on the patients. With humor and drama, the film deals with difference between existential angst (or in the case of the main character, teenage angst) and real  mental illness. In our world of lots of leisure and pharmaceutical advertising, are we too quick to self-identify with problems?

Rare Exports – A Christmas Tale – Finland – EFL
A horror flick from Finland about Santa Claus with comedic moments – who would have thought. It’s a very clever script and speaks to the CocaCola-izing of Santa Claus and our consumer society. Its going to be a tough sale for this film. Adults – maybe. Kids over 12 and under 14 are probably the market – pretty narrow. Very entertaining and lots of CGI at the end gives this film a very large feel.

Curling – Canada – SFL
Quebec is cold. Quebec is snowy. Quebec can be bleak. Quebec film can be fun, intelligent and well-paced. This film wasn’t.  It was bleak. Thank goodness the director was there for the Q&A.  His explanations made this long, sleepy film worthwhile.

Chico & Rita – Spain – FFL
An animated love story with the Havana music scene as the backdrop that travels to New York City, Paris and Las Vegas. The animation was beautiful but it didn’t carry the nuances of a love story that well. But the sound track? Amazing! Features legendary Cuban musician Bebo Valdés as well as Thelonious Monk, Cole Porter, Dizzy Gillespie Charlie Parker and Chucho Valdés.

No trailer for “At Ellen’s Age”

At Ellen’s Age – Germany – SFL
This could have been an FFL but it went on way too long. It meandered long after the point was taken – Ellen, when faced with tough adult stuff, decided to live the life of someone 20 years younger.  According to Manohola Dargis of the New York Times,  “As she moves Ellen into the world, the director Pia Marais creates an intimate character study that eventually and quite touchingly opens into a larger story about the pathos of our search for purpose.”

In planning my time at the festival I found this TOFilmFest to be more useful than the TIFF site.

  • solotraveler

    Yes, that’s the thing about going to festivals. I wouldn’t have gone to most of those films otherwise but every one was interesting for its own reasons.

  • Lynda Fraser

    Trigger and Special Treatment intrigue me…but not the others. Thanks for the reviews and will be interesting to see how many actually make it to mass market.

  • Meg Mitchell

    What a great post. I just love films and you picked out some great ones at TIFF. I was in Toronto last week just so I could walk around and notice the excitement of the city during the Festival. The retailers were doing their best to attract all the stars inside their stores and the windows were fun. Wrote about another free travel experience of enjoying a city in my last blog post.
    Thanks for sharing all these trailers.