There were a surprising number of good British films that played at TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival) this year, but they tended to fall on two sides of a great divide. On one side is the palatable, Masterpiece Theatre-type England, nicely doled up for North American sensibilities, with its crowned heads, palatial estates, tally-ho, ta-ta, Shakespeare, umbrellas, Churchill, and crisp enunciation fit for television. You’re likely to see Hugh Grant or Colin Firth or Ralph Feinnes. It’s like the future described in Julian Barnes’ satirical novel England, England, where the whole country, including members of the royal family, are replicated on a small island and reduced to a mini-theme park built for foreign visitors.
On the other side is a grimier, grittier UK, where people speak in gruff regional accents and dialects, get in fights, do unfortunate things, try to get rich, and get caught up in problems they don’t know how to solve. I tend to like this version better than the pasteurized one.
The winner of this year’s People’s Choice award at TIFF is
Dir: Tom Hooper
This movie falls neatly into the first category.
Lionel (Geoffrey Rush) is an Australian speech therapist who invented techniques for returned soldiers from WWI. He’s hired, in great secrecy, to help a man (Colin Firth) — known to his friends as Bertie, and who later becomes King George VI — because he has a terrible stutter. With the advent of radio, he needs to fix his speech to stop freezing up whenever he’s asked to make an announcement. The meeting is arranged by his wife. Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother).
But Lionel is a commoner, the first Bertie has ever met, and he is used to being addressed as his “Royal Highness”, or just “Sir”. Lionel works in a dirty, broken-down basement while Bertie lives in a palace. But Lionel insists they talk to each other as regular people do. He decides Berties problems are psychological – he’s intimidated by his father the King, and his brother, the Prince of Wales. So through the use of his experimental and amusing methods, he tries to get him comfortable pronouncing words without a stammer.
Now this is based on a true story, and Canadians I’ve talked to who lived through that era all remember that the King did indeed have a stutter. So it’s interesting to watch his speech improve. And the acting was all credible, with Derek Jacobi (I Claudius) as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the frowzy, redoubtable actress with the double-barrelled name, Helena Bonham Carter, as the future Queen Elizabeth, mother of the current Queen.
But… this movie rubbed me the wrong way. Everything is so homogenized that the accents of the working-class Aussie therapist and the King aren’t really that different. And the history had such a story-book feel to it: Here’s Winston Churchill harrumphing about this, and there’s Wallis Simpson, whingeing about that…
The whole movie felt like an American TV view of what England was like, made only to attract more Oscar votes. It was even visually tiresome, with its constant, awful use of a wide-angle lens (where characters lean forward into the camera at a distorted angle, like in a bad 80’s TV commercial) giving the whole movie a sort of a geddit? geddit? tone…
I can tell this movie’s going to be popular, but it didn’t do much for me.
More to my taste was the excellent
Dir: Ken Loach
Wri: Paul Laverty
Fergus and Frankie are lifelong best buddies from northern England — almost like brothers. They’ve even shared girlfriends. So when he’s told Frankie was ambushed by unnamed terrorists in Iraq, on that dangerous stretch of road to the Green Zone known as Route Irish, Fergus is crushed. He is sure that something bad happened to him, that it was someone’s fault. Frankie was born lucky, he says; he can’t have died just by chance. So Fergus decides to investigate. They were both working as well-paid mercenaries for a shady security firm, and it was Fergus who got him the job. So he feels guilty and responsible for his death. He also receives the celphone Frankie had sent him before he dies, complete with photos and video footage. For his sake, (and that of his widow) Fergus decides to investigate the case to uncover the truth and bring whoever was responsible to justice.
This is an amazing war movie, the best so far about the Iraq war, even though it mainly takes place back in England. It brings up the issues of torture, terrorism, interrogation, and cover-ups – not as something to be feared of an unknown, al-Qaeda middle-eastern enemy, but more by how all this has changed the attitudes and practices of “Us”, of the west. It also works as a very engrossing drama, with great characters you care about. Most surprisingly, Ken Loach has directed a genuine thriller, as the exciting secret events are gradually revealed.
Ken Loach is the director of great movies like “It’s a Free World…”; “Bread and Roses;” “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” (about the Irish revolution); and “Land and Freedom” (about the Spanish Civil War). I remember his movies as politically progressive, but sometimes bogged down when long discussions would trump the plot. But he’s just gotten better and better. This one is the best he’s ever done, that functions both as a politically astute view of the war in Iraq, and as just a really good movie. There is some rough violence, but it’s not gratuitous. I really recommend this one and hope it’ll be widely released.
Finally, a surprise movie at TIFF was
Dir: Peter Mullan
John McGill is a good boy in 70’s Glasgow, Scotland. His aunt says he can do anything he wants: He reads so much… he should be a journalist! But from day one at school, he’s streamed into the “Neds” category — that’s Non-Educated Delinquent – because his big brother Bennie is in a local gang. So on his first day of class he’s told he’s a loser and is put on the lowest rung. And it’s horribly competitive: Every semester the top two in each form move up to a better class, and the bottom two move down. And if any kid is late or talks out of line, he has to hold his hands, palms up, in front of him, to be flogged! These are little kids.
The story progresses as he grows older, and despite his efforts he gradually, fatalistically, falls in with the bad crowd and becomes a juvenile delinquent. As his anger builds, and his behaviour worsens, he turns into a bit of a street-savvy monster. But guilt also steps in, when he has to face what he’s done.
Anyway, I don’t want to give it away, but it’s quite a cathartic movie, and though long, it gets more extreme but also more interesting, until there’s a completely unexpected, shocking, and then oddly touching, ending. It was a great movie.
I should also mention, unlike “The King’s Speech”, both “Route Irish” and “Neds” were subtitled, since the accents of Glasgow and Liverpool are not as plummy and smooth as the palatable, made-for-TV-style accents usually shown on this side of the Atlantic.
Well, the Toronto Film Festival is in full swing, and there’s still time – this Friday, Saturday and Sunday — to catch some really great movies, surrounded by other people who also love movies. It’s not everyday you get to ask a director questions about a movie right after you see it, or know that the person sitting beside you definitely has an opinion too, and is willing to share it with you – whether you like it or not. In fact, it’s one of the few times when semi-straight-laced Toronto sheds its inhibitions and throws aside the childhood warning: Don’t talk to strangers.
Now is also the time to check out the Tiff Light Box at the corner of John and King in downtown Toronto. Just this past weekend they’ve opened up a brand-spanking new headquarters for the film festival to function as a full-year event. There’s a restaurant and café with huge glass walls downstairs, and upstairs are some really nice looking movie theatres, that seat up to 500 people. It feels like you’re entering a museum or an international exhibition. Very impressive, very exciting experience.
If you listen to my reviews regularly you might remember my lament over the death of the velvet curtain, the dramatic opening and closing that used to mark every movie. To paraphrase Mark Twain, news of its death has been greatly exaggerated. And evidence of this is right there at the Light Box. Huge red curtains part to start each show, and rows of neat red seats arc out in the theatre. My only complaint is they sacrificed looks for comfort. There are impressive, minimalist, row after row of little square fold-down seats… but no arm rests. What are they thinking? I guess they figure people who like movies all wear black turtlenecks and have tiny bums and straight backs and will sit for hours with their hands neatly folded in their laps, calmly contemplating Fassbinder and their next fix of heroin.
We’ll see how that pans out…
CORRECTION: I have since discovered that, while the seats in my row at the Light Box had flip-up seats with no arm rests, most of the other rows had regular, comfortable seats. So I just lucked into that one special row for the Fassbinder fans in black turtlenecks… or maybe people who use wheelchairs.
The Light Box also has a series of galleries-cum-movie theatres that straddle the space in between art and cinema – movies projected as art; video art using cinematic narratives. There are shows and installations on right now by Canadian directors Atom Egoyan and the amazing Guy Maddin, as well as Singapore-born artist Ming Wong’s show in which he plays all the characters, male and female, in a Berlin soap opera.
Now let me talk about a few of the films I found interesting at this year’s festival.
Dir: Benoit Jacquot
Timothee, a kid, a ruffian, really, in torn clothes with matted hair appears in a small town in France in the 1850’s – he can barely speak, and has filthy teeth and black hands. But he makes eye contact with Josephine (Isild Le Besco), the well-educated daughter of the town doctor, and proceeds to study her, climbing trees, peering through her windows, and hiding in the bushes as she fends off a boring suitor trying to impress her with his poetry.
She is straight laced and wears a bodice, but Timothee (Argentine actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) sees her true self yearning to be free, standing at the edge of steep cliffs daring herself to fly away.
So he insinuates himself into her life, and soon impresses the family with his seemingly magical skills in magnetism, prestidigitation, fortune telling, and hypnotism. When they are alone together, Josephine is quick to strip off her clothes and have sex with Timothee. Has he forced her using hypnotism?
Soon she follows him deep into the woods where they live a random, itinerant life, encountering people and events as they travel down a road. Their relationship – a sort of a marriage is constantly evolving; and the power dynamics – a rich educated woman living with a destitute man with survival skills and perhaps magical powers – gradually shifting from him to her.
This is a powerful and strange movie, unlike any I’ve even seen. Maybe it’s closest to the great movie “The Lovers on the Bridge” / “Les Amants du Pont Neuf”, (dir: Leos Carax) but different. It’s not for everyone, but I really liked it, especially the two main actors who are captivating in their roles.
Another movie that I really liked is
Dir: Avi Nesher
Arik, a kid in Haifa, Israel in the late 1960’s, is hanging out with his friends playing soccer when a man with a cane and huge scar across his face, and a mysterious past, arrives on their block. He’s Yankele Bride (Adir Miller), and he’s a matchmaker from Romania who’s there to find husbands and wives for unusual people with peculiarities who haven’t had any luck on their own. He says, he’ll find them the match they need, but not necessarily the one they want.
So after Arik’s prank misfires, he hires him to come work for him in the wrong side of town where he lives. His office is right beside a movie theatre that only plays movies with happy endings, run by a family of little people, dwarves who had survived concentration camp experiments by the notorious Dr Mengele, and near to an elegant woman Clara, who runs a late night speak-easy. The Matchmaker also earns his money in a shady occupation, but his vocation – matching up people who truly love each other – is his mission. None of the characters dare to bring up the concentration camps; in the 1960’s it was still considered taboo to talk about. They refer to it only as “there”.
Meanwhile, young Arik is falling for his neighbour, a tempestuous Iraqi girl, Tamara (Neta Porat), who has rejected her family’s conservatism and embraced the American youth culture of psychedelic music and the sexual revolution.
If this sounds like a complicated plot… it is, but it’s a fantastic story with compelling, captivating, and unusual characters – not all loveable, but you really want to find out what happens to them. Nesher is a not just a great director, but also an amazing storyteller. This is the kind of movie, one with a great story – with comedy, passion, romance, intrigue, betrayal, and truly memorable characters — that you rarely encounter anymore. Look out for this movie – the Matchmaker — hopefully it will be released after the festival.
Another movie, and one that definitely will be released, is
dir: Daren Aronofsky.
Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina, pure of heart, who wants the lead role in Swan Lake. She’s been raised to reach perfection, en pointe, by her relentless stage mother who was also in the ballet, but never made it big. Nina doesn’t drink or smoke or have sex – she still lives at home, she’s bullemic, plays with stuffed animals, wears a fuzzy pink coat, and listens to her little music box with a dancing ballerina by her bed.
But the ballet director, played Vincent Cassel, wants to put new life into the that cliched old ballet. He pushes her to also play the role of the Black Swan, the sinister evil twin of the Swan Queen. For this, he wants her to abandon her remaining childhood and purity and to become angry, passionate and sexual. He’s exploitative and cruel. Meanwhile, Beth the former diva at this ballet, (Winona Ryder) is forced to retire, and a new competitor, Lily (Mila Kunis) is also trying for the role, and trying everything she can to take it from Nina. Sophisticated Lily is Nina’s opposite – sex, drugs, smoking, and backstabbing all come as second nature to her. Nina has to hold on to her role in the ballet, as well as her tenuous grip on reality.
OK: does Aronofsky’s latest venture work or not. I have to admit, at times, this movie drifted into high camp, was unintentionally hilarious, and felt like nothing more than a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls”, another movie about backstabbing dancers. Who knows, maybe “Black Swan” and “Showgirls” will still be double-billing it at rep cinemas 50 years from now.
That said, I think it’s a totally watchable classic melodrama and psychological thriller, with great acting by the two main women, plus very enjoyable overacting by Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey (as the over-the-top stage mom). The movie’s also stunning on the eyes and ears, with great production values.
I think Aronofsky knows exactly what he’s doing, neatly alternating super-real, documentary-like footage just like in The Wrestler – behind the scenes bone-cracking, massages, rehearsals, warm-ups and make-ups – with equal parts scenery-chewing soap and surreal, drug-induced psychological fantasies (like in his great “Requiem for a Dream”). For me, this balanced worked.
What’s going on around here? Toronto looks different. The atmosphere has changed. Something feels… cooler, buzzier.
Why are all these people marching down Yonge street in matching baggy, coloured T-shirts, shouting some unintelligible slogan? Are they religious cults or political parties? I’m not really sure… Do the ugly yellow-shirt marchers belong to the same political party as the silly purple jumpsuit marchers? Or are they enemies? And are they all going to pull out there weapons soon?
Oh, wait… never mind. They’re not political at all. They’re freshers, newly-arrived students at the downtown universities, getting used to the big city, and bonding with their dorm-mates so they can feel patriotic toward one building over another.
But that’s not all. There are guys in po-boy caps with bad complexions and three cameras around their necks, lurking in hotel doorways. Wait – are there paparazzi In Toronto? That only happens once a year, when the Toronto Film Festival, (now known affectionately as TIFF) blows into town. Noooww I get it.
What is TIFF?
TIFF is one of the top-ranked festivals in the world now, up there with Cannes, Sundance, and Venice, and usually considered the most accessible of any of those, with numerous public screenings for every film. There are mainstream movies, soon to be released, that have big galas with the stars. There are drive-in or genre movies, filled with gore, zombies, or explicit sex. There are unusual movies chosen by festival programmers in various categories, there to get some buzz, and, ideally, to get sold to distributors. And then there are a whole lot of others, which, even though they may be amazing, or warm or original, are not considered commercial enough to release.
So every which way you look you’re bound to see some deal being made, and idea being pitched or a nascent story gelling inside a writer’s mind.
Where is it playing? It’s at all the downtown theatres, especially AMC Dundas, The Scotiabank Theatre aka the Paramount, at John and Richmond st., the Varsity at Bay and Bloor, and the brand-spanking new theatre complex called the The Light Box which was built especially for this film festival.
How do you get tickets? There are tickets still available at lots of movies – there are over 300 movies and they run through the next week. It’s easier to get a seat if you try for a daytime screening, rather than a nighttime one, and weekdays are better than weekends.
Do you have to stand in line for hours? Not really. Once you have a ticket to a movie, you’re guaranteed a seat as long as you show up on time – 15 minutes before the movie starts. They release new tickets at the box office each morning at 7 am. Or you can take your chances with a rush ticket – so even if a show is sold out, there may be some empty seats left, but they only determine that right before the movie starts – and rush seats are first come first served.
So check it out on-line at tiff.net for the right info.
What about Canadian movies? Well, this year there’re a lot to choose from, in both French and English. Bruce McDonald, who’s been making movies that premier at TIFF since it was still called the Festival of Festivals, has directed Trigger, about two female rockers who reunite ten years after their band called it a day. It’s starring the amazing Tracy Wright in one of her last roles. Incidentally, there’s a free public screening of one of his first film, Roadkill, at TIFF. If you’ve never seen it you should definitely catch that one.
Score (the Hockey Musical) – yeah you heard me right, it’s a musical about hockey – opened the festival last night.
Bruce LaBruce, the always controversial, always surprising, and always interesting, gay/punk/independent director, is showing his movie L.A, Zombie, about a dead homeless man, played, of course,by an actual porno star. There are no lines in the movie, but lots of sex and lots of blood and gore.
Other Canadian movies with big expectations include Barney’s Version, from Mordechai Richler’s last novel; 20-year old Montreal director Xavier Donat’s Heartbeats;
Repeaters, dir by Carl Bessai, about 3 young guys in a drug rehab centre; A follow-up to the amazing mockumentary FUBAR, called FUBAR II, about the two longhaired rockers in their lumberjack jackets; Patrick Demers’ Jaloux – an improvised thriller; and Jacob Tierney’s Good Neighbours – about the odd people living in a montreal apartment building – (Tierney’s the guy who directed the Trotsky last year).
Here are some short reviews of three more Canadian movies playing at TIFF:
Dir Ingrid Veninger
Modra is about a 17 year old girl named Lina (Hallie Switzer). She breaks up with her boyfriend just before they were supposed to fly to visit her relatives in Slovakia. On an impulse she invites a guy, Leco (Alexander Gammal) from her high school to go with her instead. So they land in this very small town, with orange rooftiles in a green valley. And Leco, who speaks no Slovakian, is introduced as her boyfriend – they’re given a room to share.
Lina and Leco’s – who make a very cute couple – relationship shifts gradually from non-existent to estranged, to warm, and back again over the course of their week long visit. This is not a conventional, mainstream boy-meets-girl drama, with revealed secrets, and big plot turns. And Slovakia is not thought of as a cool or trendy place, just the opposite. It’s rustic. The locals wear their traditional costumes for special occasions – embroidered dresses, men with black feather plumes on their hats as they sing or dance folk songs. There’s the town mute, the local ranch, the local hood who hits on Lina. Loudspeakers on poles make echoey announcements harkening back to Stalinist precedents.
“Modra” is a very sweet, low-key, naturalistic film, with first-time actors – and non-actors – experiencing things on camera at the same time as the audience. It’s a gentle, verite travelogue of two kids on the cusp of adulthood. I like this kind of almost-documentary film when it works — and in Modra, it really works. It had the same great feel as those other Toronto summer movies, like “No Heart Feelings”, and “This Movie is Broken”.
Dir: Mike Goldbach
In this movie, another 17 year-old girl, Caroline (played by the appealing Kat Dennings) moves to a small town. She finds it boring and stupid so she seduces her young teacher (Josh Lucas). Uh, oh. And there’s a also a kid in her class who likes her. And maybe his mother will like her father? Meanwhile, there’s a serial killer going around the town leaving bodies. And a little girl who loves to scream when she finds them. Seems like you can’t do anything in this burg before someone finds out…
Who’s the killer? Will her secret relationship be exposed? Who does Kat like more, her sleazy teacher or the brooding adolescent in her class? And what about the smokestack in the town?
Who cares? Caroline is alienated, I get that. But the story keeps wavering between serious, and flippant, from edgy, experimental ideas, to conventional TV sitcom-style plot-turns… This movie just doesn’t do it for me. Too muddled. (The title BTW, comes from the Sonic Youth album from the 80’s.)
“You Are Here”
This ones a real gem. Confusing as all get out, but a great movie. I reviewed this about 5 months ago, and finally it’s at this year’s TIFF. The movie is like a series of matrushka dolls dancing on a moebius strip, being fed through a reel to reel tape recorder. Each plot turns is revealed to be connected to an earlier scene, but if you look to closely you miss the connection with the other story-streams. OK here goes:
On a You are Here sign on a map, wherever you are should appear as a red dot. But how does anyone know where they really are? What if there were people who made it their job to keep track of your red dot?
And then there’s the question of how do you know who you are? When you’re working at a desk job with no real point, how do you know what you’re saying makes any sense at all? How do you know you’re not a cog in a vast machine that takes in and spews out information, like an old mega computer.
Anyway, you really should check out this abstract, and at the same time totally watchable, narrative of linked plot threads, interwoven into a seamless bolt of shimmering whole cloth. (Read the full review here.)
I’ll be posting frequently during TIFF.
Most genre movies follow very fixed patterns, sometimes even down to the order of scenes, the introduction of characters, the sort of lines they say… But sometimes you run across mainstream movies that are a little bit off beat, a little bit mashed-up. Here are three somewhat strange movie mash-ups.
Dir: Daniel Stamm
As the name suggests, this is a horror movie, but it’s style is that of a TV documentary, or even a reality show.
Cotton is a great evangelical preacher, he’s been up on the pulpit since he was a child and has been doing exorcisms — sometimes though as simple as Out Posion!– for many years. It’s how he earns a living. He’s so good he can preach his mother’s recipe and have the flock shouting Amen! and Hallelujah! His father is a Jimmy Carter doppelganger.
But somewhere along the way he lost his faith. He still goes through the motions, but he doesn’t believe a word of it any more. In fact, he thinks the whole exorcism thing is nothing ore than a Dr Phil psychological ttool that he can use to get the mental spooks out of the patients’ heads.
So he goes out to a country home in the deep south to do his final exorcism before a camera crew. They’re making a doc about Cotton — and the whole exorcism scam. With his full cooperation, he reveals for the camera all his secrets – the sound effects and smoke and mirrors he uses to scare the god-fearing parishioners.
But this rural outpost – complete with all the Deliverance-style references to home-schooling, incest, superstition, violence and deeply hidden family secrets – what city dwellers picture when they hear Sarah Palin talking about Real Americans – this rural outpost may be Cotton’s last exorcism.
The daughter, Nell, is possessed. The family thinks she’s getting up in the middle of the night and slaughtering animals in the barn – but she has of memory of doing it. IS she nuts from being locked up in her home away from the rest of the world? Or is the devil inside of her?
This is a good, scary movie, that also avoided what I was least interested in seeing – the extreme pornographic slashing and blood that producer Eli Roth throws at you in his Hostel movies. There’s a bit of nasty blood, but much more scariness.
It also keeps you guessing till the end whether the girl’s possession is better explained rationally by psychiatric jargon, or by mysticism, religion and the supernatural. And all the acting, (especially Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell as the exorcist and the possessed girl, and Caleb Landry Jones as her creepy brother), is much better than you’d expect in a cheese-ball horror flick. Throw in some Blair Witchery and you’ve got a much-better-than-usual scary horror movie.
Dir: Anton Corbijn
This one’s an interesting concept: a drama in the guise of a mystery thriller.
Jack, aka Edward, is an American tucked into an apartment in the picturesque, hilly Abruzzo region in Italy. He’s there on business, to provide his boss’s client with a weapon, a gun you can shoot from far away, with a high grade of accuracy, and no noise that would give away where the shooter is hiding.
Is he a CIA agent? A terrorist? A spy? An assassin-for-hire? A special ops military guy on assignment? A political activist? A mafia hire? A cop under deep cover? Who knows. He ain’t talking, and the audience isn‘t finding out anytime soon. And, actually, this is all just background fluff from the story of an alienated American who enjoys the machine-tinkering aspect of his job, but is less fond of one if its fringe benefits: guilt.
So if it’s not actually a mystery thriller waiting to be solved what is this movie? Well, it’s actually about the relationships he has with the various women he in his life – an assassin, a prostitute, a Swedish women, each more beautiful than the one before – and how he can’t fully trust them – they’re all suspect. They all might be out to get him. They all might have ratted him out, other might be killers sent to throw him off his track.
His boss tells him: “Don’t make any friends – you used to know that Jack”. But what else is there? Lying in bed fully dressed waiting for an unknown killer? Drinking americanos in a greasy café? George Clooney showing off his skill at chin-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups?
And then there’s the blond, bearded man – his cover is made the first time Jack sees him, but he doesn’t disappear – and he seems to be out to get him. But who doesn’ he work for? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Who cares?
The other plot is about guilt and forgiveness. He meets an older priest (with a small secret) who wants Jack to confess his sins. Jack would rather not tell him anything.
So, while there are a few chase scenes, a few tense shooting scenes, it’s mainly a barren, hardscrabble life in rocky Abbruzzo, Jack’s alienated and empty life broken up only with periodic passionate soft-core sex with Clara (played by the beautiful Violante Placido, what a wonderful name!).
This is one strange movie – it’s one of very few so-called thrillers that aren’t mystery thrillers. There’s no actual mystery that the movie explains or reveals. This is really a drama of a middle-aged, single guy (Divorced? Widowed? Bachelor?) taking stock of his life, his business, his relationships, and finding them lacking. It’s a male chick flick.
(And do you ever get the feeling that George Clooney doesn’t want to be in a movie with a competitor? So there’s only one leading man, but three beautiful women for him to spend time with.)
Anyway, The American is an airplane movie, maybe a late-night video store movie, but definitely not the popcorn thriller it pretends to be.
Dir: Todd Solondz
(I saw this movie a year ago at last year’s TIFF, but it stayed with me. It’s a good, dark comedy, but with absurdly sad scenes more moving than the average drama.)
Todd Solondz’s dark comedies alternate between two New Jersey families, the Weiners (Welcome to the Dollhouse, 1995; Palindromes, 2004) and the Jordans (Happiness, 1998, Life During Wartime, 2009). The characters continue their depressing lives, while the actors who play them come and go. In this movie we join the three new Jordan sisters, ten years later.
Weepy, hippy Joy (Shirley Henderson) loves helping the most needy, but this has landed her an unbearable fiance. He asks for her forgiveness for his latest transgression, so Joy seeks out her family for advice. Her mother Mona in Miami is no help, so she moves on to suburban Trish (Allison Janney) who is dating again. But Trish discovers her pedophile husband has been released from prison and is also seeking forgiveness from their kids. Sister Helen (Ally Sheedy), a Hollywood star, is bossy and self absorbed and not much help either. Poor Joy resorts to asking advice from ex-boyfriends from her past, like Andy (Paul Reubens).
The cast is as uniformly excellent as the story is relentlessly, painfully sad. Solondz is an expert at inflicting the unvarnished cruelty of family dynamics on his moviegoers. While there is nothing earth-shattering or different in this movie, it still holds its own as a funnily sympathetic (and pathetic) black comedy in his distinctive, ongoing saga.
Rom Com Glom. Films Reviewed: The Switch, Going the Distance, No Heart Feelings plus: Types of movies to avoid; and A New Toronto Movement?
Have you ever walked into a multiplex and discovered you’re too late for the movie you planned to see? But since you’re already there…How do you know what to go to, and what to avoid at all costs? Are there any clues?
Well, no rule is steadfast, but here are a few types of movies that you should not go to:
Don’t go to movies directed by bad actors
Don’t go to live-action movies where the main character is a talking animal
Don’t go to movies without a single positive review quoted in the ad
And never, ever go to movies with two directors!
And then there’s types of movie.
Why is it, that so many comedies, especially romantic comedies, suck? I’m going to look at three of them now, some of which worked better than others… I’ll do them in ascending order, by number of directors.
Dir: Nanette Burstein
Garret (Justin Long) goes off to a bar to get sheet-faced drunk after his girlfriend dumps him for ordering take out and not giving her a present. “But you said no presents”. “Because you’re supposed to want to give me one…” At the bar he meets Erin (Drew Barrymore), a vintage arcade game champ. She’s in New York in an internship at a newspaper – she’s 31. Times are tough. So they end up in bed together, even after seeing his Top Gun movie poster-themed apartment. In fact his eccentric roommate plays background music through the thin walls whenever their whispered pillow talk inspires him.
But at the end of the summer, she’s back in San Francisco, and he’s in Manhattan. Life is tough. Should they stay together? Will their relationship endure in two coastal cities? Or will one of them take the plunge and move..?
The boyfriend has two goofy hipster sidekick friends, one of whom has the world’s worst douche-stache on his upper lip. The girlfriend lives with her sister and brother-in-law, who make weird sexual references, and give her humorously uptight advice.
This is an ok comedy. They’re a nice couple, who obviously are in love. In fact Drew Barrymore and Justin Long are a couple in real life as well as in the movie. She’s always a great actress. He’s just OK. He’s mainly known as the I’m Mac, I’m PC guy from the commercials, and you may have seen him this year as the boyfriend in Sam Raimi’s funny horror movie Drag me to Hell. The sister character played by Christina Applegate is very funny. Not too bad a movie, but not very good.
Dir: Josh Gordon and Will Speck
In this movie, Kassie (Jennifer Anniston) decides it’s time to have a kid. She goes the self-insemination route, and holds a big sperm party for her friends. But her neurotic friend Wally (Jason Bateman) has a crush on her and feels rejected. He gets drunk and finds, in the bathroom, a little jar lying around. What’s that? It’s the sperm. Why’s it just lying there? Who knows? Oops! He spills it. Better replace it…
Naturally, that one switch, means she gets inseminated not by the blond mountain-climbing Columbia prof of feminist theory, but rather old pal neurotic Wally. And she moves to Minnesota, where, apparently, they live in cabins without phones. So when she decides to move back to NY, 7 years later, she lets Wally know she has a 7 year-old son! And she’s letting the kid meet his biological father, the now divorced prof. Will Wally tell her he’s the baby’s father? And will he tell her he still has a crush on her? And will he get along with the genetically neurotic son?
So this is still the beginning of the movie. Basically there’s nothing left to happen in terms of the plot. They hang out, they get to know each other, he competes with the supposed donor, he helps the kid with his headlice, blah blah blah.
The thing is – it’s not funny. It has a unbelievably weak plot. It’s not consistent, the actors — and they’re all good, Anniston, Bateman, jeff Goldblum, and long-time-no-see Juliette Lewis – look like they’re reading lines that were written on a napkin. And the characters don’t make sense. The mother has no real backstory — you don’t know who she is or what she does, or even what interests her – she’s a baby vessel. Jason Bateman’s character is supposed to be neurotic… except he’s not. He’s just a mildly depressed guy. Everythng about this movie is stupid. The feminist theory professor is a dumb jock, while the wall street trader is deeply intellectual. You even get a bruise on the kid’s face migrating around his cheek from scene to scene.
So if you’re on an airplane or an all-night bus ride, sure, watch it. Otherwise… why not go to the Kids are All Right instead, to see a much better insemination comedy. Or just check out the next movie I’m reviewing…
Dir: Sarah Lazarovic, Geoff Morrison, Ryan J. Noth
Here’s a movie with not two, but three director/writers! Uh-oh… does that mean it’s even worse than “The Switch”? No! Just the opposite.
Mel (Rebecca Kohler) dumps her long-distance boyfriend by telephone. (At least she didn’t do it by texting.) Even though she did the dumping, she feels like crap so her friend gets her drunk so she can vent and recover. And in her bounce-back semi-inebriated state, she meets Lewis, (Dustin Parkes)
a nice guy, who’s just returned to Toronto after a while away. They have sex, and sorta hit it off… kinda. Mel’s a bit awkward about the whole thing. And Lewis isn’t sure. They both, separately, decide to keep it “super caj” – no commitments or anything. But there’s definitely a spark.
The movie’s super casual too – it’s the exact opposite of a high concept movie. It reminds me of Bruce McDonald’s movie, a few months back, This Movie is Broken. People in their 20’s or 30’s, hanging out in downtown Toronto and just living the life… in the nice, green summertime.
Some people are losing their jobs or working at ridiculous ones that have no meaning beyond forwarding PDFs or watching lolcats all day. It can be frustrating. One character says “I have five bosses — altogether they have one sense of humour.
But they all have people around them in widening ripples: best friends, groups of buddies, party acquaintances, the people they say hi to on the street.
Mel and Lewis run into friends on Spadina, and talk about work, condos, food…they wander around dollar stores in Chinatown, the wading pool in Kensington Market, 401 Richmond building, hotdog stand at Queen and Spadina, College Street, breakfast at Aunties and Uncles, badminton in what looks like Trinity Bellwoods Park, a garage sale, a gallery opening, and biking everywhere in the streets alleys and the bike paths in the ravines.
They finally all end up at one of the friends’ cottage for an awkward reunion. Will they end up together?
Well, it’s not that kind of a romantic comedy. The comedy is mainly in the comments of all the wise-cracking group of friend, not the “awkward situations” you usually get stuck with. This one is just a very low-key, nice slice of downtown Toronto life. It’s what a reality show should look like, but never does. And it proves that three directors can put together a sweet and coherent story, about people you wouldn’t mind hanging out with.
I get the impression that there’s a new Toronto film movement forming right around now. Movies where the city plays itself instead of other places; where there’s a laid back vibe, and where there’s a lot of recognizable landmarks — movies like Scott Pilgrim, This Movie is Broken, and now No Heart Feelings.
I hope it continues to flourish.
(More on the Toronto Movement to come….)