Published on September 18th, 2014 | by Greg Payne


Dispatches From TIFF 2014 – Part 2

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My screening lineup at the Toronto International Film Festival this year was neatly divided right down the middle: while the first half of my schedule was all films by directors with whose work I was previously unfamiliar, the back nine was all returning champions. The final four movies I saw this year were the work of directors I’ve followed over the years, all of whom had films I’ve seen during previous TIFFs, in fact.

To be a fan of a specific director, particularly one who refuses to be shackled to one specific genre or style, is a tricky proposition. When an actor makes a career misstep, it’s easy to write it off as a mere glitch, a dip into being a paycheck player, or the folly of trying to stretch beyond the boundaries of what the public will accept from them and their image. When a director stumbles, bigger questions are called into play. A true auteur takes ownership of material in a way that those along for the ride don’t have to shoulder, and placing a new work that isn’t quite as successful along the spectrum of an otherwise superior filmography causes the fan to question the helmer’s change of direction, and wonder if their vision is one that’s worth continuing to follow.

Looking back, I’ve seen more films by prolific British director Michael Winterbottom at TIFF over the years than by anyone else. Averaging at least one movie a year over the past decade-plus, sometimes two, as well as excursions into television and producing, Winterbottom may well be the director I’d cite as my most admired if only because he genuinely doesn’t make the same film twice and challenges himself to follow his muse into almost-always intriguing places. Even subcategorizing his filmography into clusters such as The Political Polemics, The Thomas Hardy Adaptations, The Modern Kitchen-Sink Dramas and The Steve Coogan Semi-Documentaries leaves chunks of it by the wayside. Whenever TIFF announces that Winterbottom is on the docket in September, and that’s practically every year, I make a point of checking it out.

I missed the first screening of The Face of an Angel as, despite the film being in the Masters programme, it was Gala-priced (a bone of contention among several fans with whom I spoke this year was the price-creep in several screenings outside the red-carpet unveilings) and thus the Monday morning viewing I caught had neither the director nor the stars for a Q&A. Not sure if I would have had anything to ask, as the film, rare for Winterbottom, didn’t terribly move me either positively or negatively. A names-changed adaptation of the Amanda Knox murder trial from the perspective of the media covering it, the film doesn’t seem to take any particular stance on either the case or on the surrounding sensationalism. Starring Kate Beckinsale as an American reporter gone native in Italy, actually acquitting herself quite well in a non-genre outing, and Daniel Brühl as a screenwriter digging up dirt for his own adaptation in a nod towards meta that never really gets off the ground, Angel ultimately plays better as an Italian travelogue than a detective story or legal drama, and arriving a mere two weeks after A Trip To Italy hit Toronto theatres, there’s a bit of “been there, done that, and it was a lot more fun that other time”  to the proceedings. I guess I’m glad I saw it, and I’m still a fan, but “minor” is the adjective I’m most tempted to use when placing this film alongside the director’s previous TIFF offerings.

On first blush, Abel Ferrara directing a biopic of Pier Paolo Pasolini seems like a “well, duh!” proposition. In his seedy portrayals of crime, revenge and redemption in Manhattan in features stretching from the grindhouse-era Driller Killer through his religiously impassioned scorcher Bad Lieutenant, Ferrara may have come across as a No Wave younger cousin to Martin Scorsese, but his portrayals of urban decadence displayed a serious Pasolini influence.  Still, there was some reason to worry, at least for this long-time admirer.  Since his rise into the realms of credible arthouse helmer with the likes of The Addiction and The Funeral (not-so-coincidentally, the final feature of his penned by his longtime early collaborator Nicholas St. John), Ferrara’s grasp of narrative coherence has slipped more and more. The last two movies of his I’d seen at festivals, The Blackout and Mary, seemed more like sketches of films than anything that had a solid screenplay when the cameras started rolling; his William Gibson adaptation New Rose Hotel was utterly incomprehensible.

Abel Ferrara and Willem Dafoe at the premiere of "Pasolini"

Pasolini has a foot in both those camps. Starring Willem Dafoe in the title role, and who in a baffling artistic gambit makes no attempt to cover up his American accent even as the actors around him deliver their lines in Italian or French, the film covers the final days of the Italian provocateur in a series of interview re-enactments, dramatizations of some unfinished material by the eponymous filmmaker, and a stark cinema réalité imagining of his murder, shot in a moody murk and joined together seemingly haphazardly. If I were much more familiar with Pasolini’s oeuvre, maybe I would have found more to appreciate in the recreations. As it was, I felt lost and let down.

My final Midnight Madness screening of TIFF 2014 was my most-anticipated: the final part of Mark Hartley’s loose trilogy of documentaries on non-classic cinema, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. I saw the first instalment, the Ozploitation exploration Not Quite Hollywood, at the 2008 festival and had an utter blast. Hartley’s rapid-fire and hilarious overview of the less-than-dignified evolution of Australian cinema was a roller coaster ride of silliness and grotesquerie, and reaffirmed what was then a flagging faith in the joys of trash cinema. 2010’s Machete Maidens Unleashed!, about Filipino genre filmmaking and the experiences of American B-movie productions in southeast Asia, was also a lot of fun, even if the films that doc covered didn’t hold as much interest for me to seek out. But for anyone who grew up in the video-saturated eighties, Cannon Films is a touchstone of “oh my God, that was a ridiculous time” nostalgia, and to see the clips and interviews unspool  across the Ryerson screen that night was a glorious trip in the Wayback machine.

Producer Brett Ratner, programmer Colin Geddes and director Mark Hartley at the midnight screening of "Electric Boogaloo."

Hitting the ground running with stutter-gun crosscutting from the first frame, Electric Boogaloo covers the tumultuous career arc of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, two Israeli moguls who strove to bring their odd brand of populist fare to American cinemas and in the process arguably defined the North American action genre for the VCR generation.  It’s a paean, to be sure, to a style of studio and mogul that simply doesn’t exist any more in an era when all the distribution models have changed irrevocably, and when studio conglomeration has left the likes of Cannon even further out on the fringe. The doc is hilarious and loads of fun, but there’s a touch of sadness in the laughter. We yuk it up as the pastel-hued wardrobe of Breakin’ 2 sears into our eyeballs, or a past-his-prime Charles Bronson sleepwalks through yet another inane vigilante demolition derby. But that laughter  is tempered by the knowledge that for better or worse, we’re unlikely to see this type of movie today, as well as the slight embarrassment at the fact that what we view as camp silliness now was a passion project for someone way back then.

My final flick of the season, as the weather in Toronto turned on a dime from blazing summer to deep autumn (this is a city of extremes), was the latest offering from prolific enfant terrible Takashi Miike, Over Your Dead Body. With 94 directing credits to his name since 1991, a comprehensive undertaking of Miike’s filmography is well-night impossible in the west, and I imagine must be a challenge for completists even in Japan, what with his multitude of direct-to-video efforts and TV projects interspersed with big-screen insanity that straddles every conceivable genre, finding the extreme niches in every one. Like Michael Winterbottom, Takashi Miike is frequently showcased at TIFF; the last movie of his I caught at the festival was Sukiyaki Western Django, a psychotic western worth seeing not only for its utterly twisted editing style and English dialogue delivered entirely phonetically by the Japanese cast, but also the sight of Quentin Tarantino made up like Marlon Brando doing Dr. Moreau, intoning such brilliant lines as “Well, I guess I’m just an anime otaku at heart.”

Viewers trained in his perverse style by the gore-fest of Ichi The Killer or the taboo-shattering sexuality of Visitor Q might not find much to latch onto in this Masters programme backstage melodrama, the tale of a theatre troupe mounting a production of the classic ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan, at least at first. The first half hour’s languorous pace and stylized mounting of the play might lull you into thinking that the director has maybe mellowed but, come on, you should know better. When the offstage love life of actors Kô Shibasaki and Ebizô Ichikawa begins to drift into a supernatural parallel with the production, one’s skin begins to crawl. By the time the gory self-mutilation and cursed tumours begin to fill the screen, the slow burn is well and gone, and Over Your Dead Body begins to deliver in a big way. Despite how I’m making it sound, the film is far from being exploitation; Miike’s approach to body horror is far more Cronenbergian than his detractors might care to admit. The fact that he can deliver visceral jolts on this scale, under the cover of a theatrical drama, is testimony to his skills in playing on audience expectations.

Postscript: As I was writing this wrapup, the Toronto International Film Festival announced its audience award winners. There are some jury awards at TIFF, but the highest-profile prizes are audience-determined. The Grolsch People’s Choice Award for best picture went to the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring The Imitation Game, which gives it an early lead for Oscar consideration, given the festival’s recent record. As for Midnight Madness, I once again missed the winner, Taika Waitiki and Jermaine Clement’s What We Do In The Shadows.

Greg Payne
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