If you guys want a great read you should be keeping up with Simon Barrett’s ongoing “Festival Follies”, his recap of our epic weeklong adventure at the Toronto International Film Festivals. While I brought you reviews of the most anticipated horror films, Simon is tackling not only horror, but also all of the other films we saw at the fest. Beyond the break you can read “Film Festival Follies: Toronto International Film Festival – Day 3”, which cover the insane Symbol, this year’s Gran Turino, Harry Brown and the “Midnight Madness” award winning The Loved Ones.
Symbol, Harry Brown and The Loved Ones
I decided to go see the 10:30 a.m. screening of Hitoshi Matsumoto’s Symbol (aka Shinboru) instead of the 9:30 a.m. screening of The Invention of Lying for one reason: It was an hour later, which meant one more hour I could sleep after staying up for Survival of the Dead. I never did see The Invention of Lying, but since it opens in the U.S. shortly and Symbol proved to be completely amazing, this was probably the best decision I made during my time at the festival.
I had mixed feelings about Hitoshi Matsumoto’s previous film Dai-Nipponjin, which was released by Magnolia in the U.S. under the not-so-catchy title Big Man Japan. For everything it did that was awesome, it would do something that was simply inexplicable. And at nearly two hours, it simply wore out my patience. However, it was clearly the work of a unique and inspired filmmaker, and as I enjoyed Matsumoto’s acting in the film as well, I made a mental note to check out whatever he did next.
Symbol exceeded my expectations on every possible level. Nearly an experimental feature, it is both funnier and vastly more complex than Dai-Nipponjin, which was essentially a one-joke concept. Symbol is an awe-inspiring work of art that had me grinning for its entire running time. Plus, it was only 93 minutes. When you’re at a film festival, these things matter.
Essentially, Symbol tells two intertwined stories. The first involves an unnamed man (Hitoshi Matsumoto) who wakes up in a white room with no doors or windows, and begins to interact with the mysterious room. The second is that of a wrestler, Escargot Man, about to face two intimidating opponents in a small Mexican town.
It’s pointless to write any more about Symbol. Even if I had the words to describe it, I wouldn’t want to spoil anything. Just see it as soon as you get the chance.
I’d heard Harry Brown described as a “British Gran Torino” and that’s basically accurate, except Michael Caine’s Harry Brown isn’t an awesomely racist jerk like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, he’s a basically nice guy. And also, Harry Brown doesn’t have a pacifistic epiphany, he just goes around killing the shit out of people.
Opening with jolting, handheld footage of a gang initiation ritual, Harry Brown is a vicious little sucker punch of a film, and that’s a sincere compliment. Michael Caine, who has always been a great actor but somehow seems to get better every year, plays a retired ex-Marine living in a council slum who has little human contact following the death of his wife. When a friend is victimized, however, Caine takes to the streets to exact vengeance.
The problem I have with most recent revenge films is that the filmmakers seem to feel the need to apologize for any entertainment the film might provide. Thus, you get films like The Brave One and the vastly superior Death Sentence, which feature one-dimensional, evil villains, yet still try to be nuanced meditations on the futility of violence. Meanwhile, Park Chan-Wook nearly rendered the entire genre irrelevant with two perfect films, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, each of which deconstructed the concept of a revenge film in an entirely innovative manner.
What I appreciated about Harry Brown is that it doesn’t try to be self-righteous or even original like those films. It’s just a satisfying, old school vigilante movie. The bad guys are bad, the good guy wants to kill them, and you, the viewer, want him to succeed. Simple. Meanwhile, the writing, direction, acting and cinematography are all top-notch. I didn’t hear much praise for Harry Brown at the fest, but I dug it.
I’d been planning to catch the much-discussed French film A Prophet that evening, but movie started at 6 p.m., and Midnight Madness curator Colin Geddes was having a festival party at a west side bar from 5 to 8. The choice was obvious. “Screw you, A Prophet!” I cried, and once again went party-hopping with Mr. Disgusting, eating our dinners off of serving trays.
After that was the midnight show of The Loved Ones, a film I had already seen but was interested in catching again with the midnight crowd on 35mm, as I had originally viewed a DVD screener of the film under less than ideal circumstances. The Loved Ones is a terrific Australian thriller about two friends, one of whom has the best prom night possible, and his friend who, kidnapped and tortured by a girl he rejected, has the worst. It is funny, violent, original, and, unlike most films in the torture thriller vein, continually finds a way to escalate the proceedings until the film’s climax. It is also beautifully shot, with great performances, and has a cool garage score featuring artists like Andre Williams. The midnight audience loved it (it ended up winning the audience award for the midnight series, deservedly, in my opinion) and it was a great time. I’m sure it will be acquired for a U.S. release soon, and I recommend it to horror fans without reservation.
In retrospect, this was my favorite day at the festival. I saw three great movies and didn’t even exhaust or embarrass myself in the process.
It never got that good again.
Symbol – 9/10
Harry Brown – 9/10
The Loved Ones – 8/10
This also might a good time to point out that, along with The Loved Ones, I saw some other films that played at TIFF prior to the festival that I haven’t mentioned. For example, people kept asking me what I thought of Antichrist (meh), which I actually had the opportunity to see a few weeks before Toronto. So, since I’m getting into this whole “judging my betters” thing, here’s a ratings breakdown for the other four TIFF movies I skipped at the fest because I’d seen them already:
Antichrist – 6/10
The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans – 10/10 (you heard me)
Ong Bak 2 – 8/10
The Road (work print) – 6/10 (could be higher now since I’ve heard they’ve made it shorter and the version I saw was long as fuck)
(Full disclosure: Horror screenwriter Evan “E.L.” Katz is a friend of the author and it therefore appears unlikely that the Harry Brown screening anecdote actually occurred. E.L. Katz does not actually look or behave as described. Except when he does. Which is often.)