Sunday, September 18, 2011

The best of my fest: TIFF 2011

I caught five films this year at the Toronto International Film Festival, which wraps today. I purposely chose films which aren't on the verge of wide release and use TIFF as a launching pad (like Drive, Moneyball, The Ides of March, and many others, most of which I intend to watch in the months ahead in regular theatres.)

Of the five, only one was a disappointment. Here goes:

The Good Son, a Finnish film by director Zaida Bergroth, was the first film I took in. Haunting and subtle, it was a fascinating portrait of one young man's almost psychotically protective devotion to his self-involved mother. Ilmari (played by Samuli Niittymäki, pictured) is a dangerous teenager with more than typical family responsibility. His mother, the actress and tabloid target Leila (Elina Knihtilä), is an impressive whirlwind of fragility and vindictive vanity. This leaves Ilmari to raise his younger brother Unto (Eetu Julin) and guide his mother through career crises. The boys’ father is out of the picture and we are left to imagine why (although judging from mom's personality, it isn't too difficult.) Yet his absence leaves the family with at least a perceived opening for a new older man to interfere. Aimo (Eero Aho), one of Leila’s perpetually boozed up friends, sees that gap and tries to cut in.

The film centers around a family trip to a summer house after a disastrous premiere for the actress-mother. The adult partying begins as Leila invites several friends including Aimo to join them. Young Ilmari responds with shocking and increasing violence when he perceives any threat against his mother. At first it seems honorable, but quickly it becomes obviously dangerous. To make matters worse, Leila seems more than happy to exploit and manipulate her son's rage, sometimes just to cause a little trouble. As the story unfolds, Aimo becomes the victim of Ilmari's violence. As we reach the story's climax, mother Leila realizes almost too late she's allowed her son to turn into a bit of a monster and has lost control over him. While the final moments are ambiguous, leaving us only to imagine how this family can possibly evolve, The Good Son is fascinating viewing.

I Am A Good Person/I Am A Bad Person is the second feature film solely directed by Toronto filmmaker Ingrid Veninger (she co-directed a feature in 2006 before taking up full directing duties on Modra in 2010). I had never seen her work prior to this, but I must admit she will be a director I follow closely from now on.

I Am A Good Person profiles a mother-daughter relationship as the two embark for Europe to promote the mother's latest film. Veninger plays the mother, Ruby White, while her eighteen-year-old daughter Sara is played by Veninger’s real-life daughter, Hallie Switzer, who also starred in Modra. This movie was actually shot as the two toured with Modra earlier this year, a fabulous example of life imitating art. Little happens plot-wise, except to say that mother and daughter suffer somewhat typical struggles to communicate and get along. After a brief visit to Bradford, UK, daughter Sara departs for Paris to stay with a cousin, almost breaking her lonely mother's heart, who must then continue alone to Berlin for another screening. It's in Paris where we discover that daughter Sara is pregnant, something she's been keeping from everyone.

The movie has some quietly hilarious moments. The film within the film, 'Headshots', the film Ruby is ostensibly accompanying around the festival circuit, includes a bizarre series of close-up shots of men's penises just before the end credits. The character's eventual explanation for why she made the film provides great laughter long after I Am A Good Person ends. I loved the women-centric nature of this film. All of the male characters are perceived solely through female eyes and I must say most were awfully attractive. This was quite refreshing.

Beauty by South African director Oliver Hermanus will stay with me the longest of the five films I saw at TIFF. Quietly devastating, the film profiles a deeply closeted and macho Afrikaner named Francois (played by Deon Lotz), a successful family man who finds himself magnetically drawn to the beautiful 23-year-old son of a close friend (played by Charlie Keegan, pictured with Lotz). Lotz' Francois is the epitome of male repression, his entire married life a total lie. His fascination with Christian seems to be his undoing as his carefully constructed life begins to unravel.

At first, I thought the story was heading in the same direction as Death in Venice. How wrong I was! Francois becomes increasingly isolated as he struggles to deal with his infatuation. A violent scene in a hotel room near the end is utterly shocking and confirms the main character's downward spiral. In the end, we are left with great sadness as Francois slowly realizes the love he has denied himself through his sick choices. As he sits quietly at a table in a restaurant alone, he stares across at a lovely, young gay couple living the happy life he can no longer even imagine. The closet is a scary and lonely place.

Some commentary has stated that Beauty is also a scathing portrait of conflicted masculinity in post-Apartheid South Africa, with Francois's generation of hypocritically macho, Caucasian men contrasted with Christian's open and tolerant youth. This makes the violence in the hotel room all the more disturbing.

Touted as one of the first Vietnamese films to depict homosexuality both explicitly and positively, Ngoc Dang Vu’s Lost in Paradise is a contemporary tale of living on the margins of Vietnamese society. Khoi is a fresh-faced 20-year-old who makes his way to Saigon, where he befriends Dong and his boyfriend, Lam. They take the first opportunity to make off with Khoi’s cash and belongings. But when Dong is abandoned by his boyfriend and winds up on the streets hustling for money, he runs into Khoi again, and they strike up an unlikely romance.

While the actors were cute, I have to say Lost In Paradise was quite disappointing and unoriginal. We're never given any real reason to believe the romance between Khoi and Dong. The former seems to sit around home all day nursing injuries and doing little else, while the latter, Dong, continues his self-destructive hustling on the streets of Saigon. Dong's inability to leave behind prostitution is just one of many illogical plot developments. Worse, the dialogue is unbelievably on the nose. Why show a character's love when you can just say it? Queer film has evolved long past these feeble stereotypes in most parts of the world, but sadly not in Lost in Paradise.

Finally, I checked out Hysteria, the new film by director Tanya Wexler and starring hottie Hugh Dancy, the lovely Maggie Gyllenhaal (both pictured on the right) and the always-entertaining Jonathan Pryce. It was a delightful romantic comedy/period piece that profiled the invention of the vibrator in the 1880s. Dancy plays Doctor Mortimer Granville, who is recruited by Pryce's doctor character to assist female patients diagnosed with the catch-all and fictitious condition then known as 'hysteria.' The therapy: careful, manual stimulation of a certain female body part. Of course, at the time, the female orgasm was yet to be acknowledged by the medical establishment and it never occurs to Pryce's Doctor Dalrymple that these housewives are experiencing something more basic and natural than a mysterious epidemic of insanity: horniness.

Aided by a goofy pal with a fascination for gadgets and electricity (Rupert Everett, still looking a bit strange after his face lift a couple years ago), young Dancy comes to invent the first vibrator and begins testing it out on Pryce's patients, to their utter delight. The result is a revolution in women's medicine that precedes the time period's eventual women's liberation. To wrap these events into a charming romantic-comedy seems totally appropriate. Why can't the inventor of the vibrator look like Hugh Dancy and be caught in a love triangle between two sisters? Wonderful, all around.

1 comment:

Simon said...

hi Matt...thanks for helping narrow down my choices for future viewing, since I who have an aversion to screaming crowds...and Madonna... went nobody near the festival.
However, I must remind you that now that you too are a successful film maker, I'm still waiting for you to introduce me to James Franco... ;)