Published on September 11th, 2014 | by Greg Payne


Dispatches From TIFF 2014 – Part 1

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Attempting any kind of comprehensive overview of the Toronto International Film Festival is a fool’s errand for any one person. Each year TIFF screens in the neighborhood of 350 feature films. As scheduling allows for maybe a maximum of five per day, assuming you’ve got an IV drip of caffeine trailing you around to make it through Midnight Madness for ten straight nights, a die-hard could in some frenzied state see fifty or more over the course of the fest. Thankfully, few are that crazy. More common is the ten- or thirty-pack of tickets. In recent years I’ve been just getting one ten-pack and some strays. I never bother with Gala screenings, as those are the awards-bait fare that will get a release soon anyway. My festival experience is usually limited to documentaries and foreign films, with some Midnight Madness thrown in for variety and an occasional star-studded splurge so I can feel at one with my TIFF peeps for whom the celebrity spotting is as much a September rite of passage as the longer nights and a lame new TV season. This year my program leans pretty foreign, which means I won’t see anything that will go on to win any Academy Awards, but at the same time, I’ll have watched movies for which domestic distribution is unlikely and which I’ll thus never get the chance to see again, and hopefully will have had some enduring experiences in the process. The critics who attend the press screenings of the Gala selections are ultimately the ones who can trumpet to the world entertainment press what to look for in Oscar season, and it’s the donors who attend the Galas and Special Presentations who vote those same films into wining the People’s Choice Award. Which is fine, to each their own. I’ll stick with my German techno-thrillers and bizarre musicals, and I’ll probably pick up scuttlebutt about what’s on track to win by the time the second weekend rolls around anyway.

So with a set schedule of films to see, everyone’s festival experience is going to be unique. This is my twelfth year attending TIFF, long enough to have seen changes both superficial and deep within the festival. With the unveiling in 2010 of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the festival has moved south almost entirely: when I started attending, screenings were largely concentrated in the posh Yorkville area of Toronto, and now all but a few of the participating theatres are within a fifteen minute walk of the Entertainment District in the heart of downtown. Most of those theatres have actually been demolished by now, sadly bringing a twinge to the heart when reminiscing on great festival experiences like Mayor of the Sunset Strip at the Uptown or Son of Rambow at the Cumberland. Every year has brought some winners and some dross, some gems that sneaked through without hype and some major studio awards bait that landed with a splat.

"Come and play with us..." Promoting the TIFF Bell Lightbox's upcoming Kubrick retrospective during the Festival's street party. Over opening weekend this year, the festival took over several blocks of King Street in front of the Lightbox for a street festival. Restaurants extended their patios out into the road, performance artists did their incomprehensible thing along the streetcar tracks, models dressed as characters from The Shining posed with visitors to promote the upcoming Kubrick retrospective, and fans lined the barricades in front of the Princess of Wales Theatre, hoping to spot celebs working the crowd on their way into their premieres. Toronto likes to pretend it’s jaded enough not to get excited about movie stars; our city has been used as a stand-in for Chicago or New York often enough onscreen that eleven months of the year we’ll put on a blasé front. For a week and a half in September, though, we let our fandom hang out. I have to admit…I get pretty jazzed by the whole thing too, even after all these years.

My first day of screenings at TIFF 2014 was a musical one that left my head reeling. First up was the world premiere of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden, an intimately epic, twenty-year overview of a community of aspiring DJs in the Parisian electronic music scene, co-scripted with Hansen-Løve’s brother Sven, who himself was deeply immersed in the real-life events depicted onscreen and who during the Q&A vouched for their accuracy. The film starts in 1992, an era of underground raves, with high schoolers meeting clandestinely in the boonies to dance the night away to the hypnotic pulse of imported 12-inchers. At this point the film feels like it’s trending towards Agnès Varda neo-realism, but then for just a moment, a burst of E-fueled hallucination streaks across the screen and something much more engrossing is revealed. Over 131 minutes we follow the struggles of Paul (Felix de Givry) as he and his small community of artists, DJs and promoters struggle to reach the masses with their own continental take on Garage beats. Along for the ride in extended cameos are American indie it-girl Greta Gerwig as Paul’s expat girlfriend and Canadian movie icon Arsinée Khanjian as his long-suffering mother, forever writing him checks to tide him over until the inevitable big breakthrough.

Financial realities cast a pall over the proceedings: Paul spends the better part of two decades living in a tiny one-room apartment, racking up bigger and bigger debts, chasing popular success beyond the reach of his talents. A trip to America, to DJ a huge MOMA gathering in New York and a pilgrimage to Chicago, birthplace of Garage, is an artistic success, but a sobering one as no big payoff arrives. Hansen-Løve jokingly warned the audience before the screening that we weren’t in for the Daft Punk story, and she was half right. If anything, Eden is like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to that duo’s Hamlet; that other hitmaking duo flit in and out of the action throughout the years, achieving what Paul and his cronies are unable to do. A Halloween party early in the film, at which the two skinny nondescript mixmasters drop the needle on a disc and the familiar thump of “Da Funk” fills the theatre, is both thrilling and foreboding. The 2014 viewer knows how that song is going to spread across the globe, and even Paul might realize that he’s already been fatally outgunned. The scene has the same impact as the one in Inside Llewyn Davis when a certain scruffy Minnesotan takes the stage in Greenwich Village and we clue in to something seismic happening on the fringes of our protagonist’s world, and how he won’t be partaking in that success.

Eden could have been about any music scene: a similar story could be told about punk, disco, grunge, rap or nu-country. Perhaps the swirling soulful beats of twenty years of Euro-Garage rendered it more hypnotic than a similar tale of one of those other moments in music history. The nostalgia that permeates the film, even for someone like myself who was neither a raver nor a Frenchman during the period covered, at times passes right through wist and plants a flag in sadness; a story that covers lives this intimately over such a period is ultimately about how we live with the ghosts of our own youth. Though a tad overlong, Eden is a powerful, immersive experience, not unlike the scene it documents.

If the sight of a Japanese teenage girl beatboxing like an old-school pro while half-naked bodybuilders slice-and-dice gangsters with blinged-out samurai swords is your cup of tea, my first Midnight Madness offering of the year is probably right up your alley.  Next up on my schedule was Tokyo Tribe, Sion Sono’s follow-up to last year’s Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award winner Why Don’t You Play In Hell? This is a film that basically defies critical analysis, a phantasmagorical yakuza hip-hop musical. Try to imagine The Warriors as re-imagined by the RZA and helmed by late-period Ken Russell, and you’re in the ballpark. In a futuristic Tokyo divided into gang-ruled districts, big boss Riki Takeuchi sets rival factions at each other’s throats in a nearly impenetrable plan for a massive power grab, and the city erupts into gonzo martial arts and gun fu lunacy. For me, genre mash-ups tend to fly off the rails fairly quickly, with directors trying on too many stylistic hats for the centre to hold. Tokyo Tribe, for all its visual anarchy, is surprisingly controlled, building in intensity as it creates its bloody, pulpy world. One of its most surprising elements is the rap soundtrack, which takes up nearly all of the film’s running time (there’s about as much spoken dialogue as there was in Les Misérables). Non-English rap has always seemed to me like a near-miss simulacrum rather than a success in its own right, but Tokyo Tribe’s libretto is a stylistically varied, fully realized appropriation of hip-hop forms into the Japanese idiom. Including, sadly, more than its share of misogyny and “no homo” boasting.

Tokyo Tribe may not be perfect, particularly the ending, which drags out a series of tiny-dick jokes until you want to yell at the screen to stop, as well as the aforementioned treatment of women. One scene of a cartoonish villain tracing a knife along a pinned woman’s naked torso gets the message across; three seems like going back to the well a few too many times. But it’s a kind of perfect Midnight Madness movie, wall-to-wall sensation and giddy thrills and an assault on the sense both aural and visual. Sion Sono may well pull off his second win in a row at TIFF with his latest bit of cinematic mischief.Director David Robert Mitchell and star Malika Monroe at the Midnight Madness premiere of "It Follows."

Usually by movie three, the festival tends to throw a dud my way. Not so this year: Saturday night was the world premiere of Baran bo Odar’s ungainly-titled Who Am I – No System Is Safe, a German cybercrime thriller that nicks from a lot of plainly evident sources, but is still a propulsive and relentless white-knuckler. It serves almost as a fictional analogue to last year’s Assange biopic The Fifth Estate, echoing its stylistic fireworks that sex up the inherently uncinematic visuals of people Typing Really Fast. Aesthetically, it’s also a kind of perfect movie for September. Set almost entirely at night on the cold and bleak streets of a Berlin seemingly still caked in post-war and post-wall grime, the film is a bracing reminder of the seasons sneaking up on us. Beyond that, I really can’t say much. Seriously: I’d warn you away from even reading a summary, because I could write two single words in this review that would give away the penultimate twist to Who Am I, and even though there’s actually a quite brilliant double fake-out that pulls it back from the brink of pure knockoff, I can’t bring myself to spoil.

My first proper (i.e.: actually at the witching hour and not a follow-up screening) Midnight Madness show of the year was David Robert Mitchell’s sublimely creepy and effective It Follows.  With a pitch that’s pretty much “a sexually transmitted haunting,” (truth in advertising….it’s like The Grudge but passed along through doing the nasty) one would expect a sleazy exploitation flick, but It Follows is anything but.  Instead, it’s actually a quite touching portrayal of teenaged sexuality, with characters both inexperienced and worldly, making choices about their bodies for both good and bad reasons. Adding to the evocative realism is the setting in the suburbs of a contemporary, seemingly abandoned Detroit, the aesthetic entropy of which achieves the odd effect of turning back the clock visually. If not for the presence of one supporting character’s oyster-shaped eBook reader, one could be forgiven for thinking the story unfolds in 1978, with the late show monster movies playing on rabbit-eared TVs and somber earth tones on all the walls and floors. Halloween was obviously a huge influence on Mitchell, not in the plot so much as the pacing, all long takes and steadicam, as well as the score, which wisely avoids giveaway stings but could still pass for Carpenter synths nonetheless.

It Follows could well make a star out of lead actress Maika Monroe, though an uncanny resemblance to Reese Witherspoon in some shots may work against her in the “Sorry, we’ve already got one,”  world of Hollywood casting. Neither Monroe nor any of the other young actors take a single faulty step performance-wise, infusing genre material with lived-in performances that never descend to shrieking last-girl cliché. I really hope this film finds a distributor willing to give it a thoughtful release; I’d hate to see it get Mandy Lane’d and vanish, taking a lot of impressive talent with it.

Next: More Midnight Madness, as well as some serious arthouse explorations with Abel Ferrara and Michael Winterbottom.

Greg Payne
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