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Film Festival Follies: Toronto International Film Festival – Day 4,5 and 6!

We’ve got to move on, it’s October and Halloween is almost here, so beyond the break you’ll find the final three editions of Simon Barrett’s “Film Festival Follies: Toronto International Film Festival”, which cover all sorts of films including: Vengeance, Mother, The Horde, The Hole, Bitch Slap, Life During Wartime, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, My Dog Tulip, [Rec]2, Micmacs à Tire-Larigot, Soul Kitchen, and Valhalla Rising. These are greats read and I highly recommend taking some time to enjoy!

Film Festival Follies: Toronto International Film Festival – Day 4

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Vengeance, Mother, The Horde, The Hole and Bitch Slap

Before I attempt to clarify why I hated Vengeance more than any other film I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s important to say that I consider myself a serious fan of director Johnnie To and writer Wai Ka Fai. In my opinion, Johnnie To’s gory cop thriller The Big Heat, released in 1988, is a masterpiece that stands alongside the best of John Woo and Ringo Lam as a stellar example of the Hong Kong crime genre. Even better, as Woo and Lam moved to Hollywood and began making more conventional action films, Johnnie To stayed in Hong Kong and got weirder. His films started to play as postmodern parodies of the “Cops vs. Triads” thrillers they were marketed as. Stoic, cynical works like The Mission, Breaking News and Election suddenly made To an international star, as cinephiles all over the world became aware of the unassuming auteur who’d been producing violent morality tales in Hong Kong for over two decades. International financing rapidly followed, and To found himself aligned with French producers who gave him free reign over his films, which were finally recognized as art films rather than generic action movie product.

Then, of course, Johnnie To stopped making good movies.

His first film financed by the French, the 2006 spaghetti western homage Exiled, was really fucking bad, but it’s a goddamn masterpiece compared to the infuriatingly inane Vengeance, which made me want to rip my eyes out and fling them at the screen. At some point between Election 2 (aka Triad Election) and Exiled, Johnnie To went from making postmodern commentaries on action cinema to postmodern commentaries on his own postmodern commentaries. In other words, nobody in Vengeance ever behaves in a manner approximating that of an actual human being. They all speak in hard-boiled sentence fragments and are constantly waving guns around that they rarely use to do anything interesting. There are more Mexican standoffs in Vengeance than scenes without Mexican standoffs.

It’s all deeply dull. If you’ve seen any other Johnnie To movie, then you will know exactly where Vengeance is headed from the opening scene, but To draws every stagnant sequence out interminably. In fact, I can’t imagine Wai Ka Fai’s script was longer than twenty pages. I picture a bunch of stapled together cocktail napkins with “Characters stare significantly at each other for three minutes” and “Protagonist looks sadly at gun for two minutes” written on them in Chinese characters.

Basically, the plot is that elderly French actor Johnny Hallyday’s family is killed. He goes to Macau looking for their murderers, and fortuitously runs into a group of honorable hitmen led by Anthony Wong, who is always good but has little to do here. Wong and his cohorts agree to help Hallyday for basically no reason. Oh, and they happen to work for sleazy gangster Simon Yam, who is the only other recognizable actor in the film. One guess as to who the bad guy behind the deaths of Hallyday’s family turns out to be. My friend Mark put it best later, when he explained his decision to walk out of the film at about the halfway mark: “I got what it was doing, and I had to check my email.” (I actually walked out with him, but then walked back in because I felt like I had to see if it got better. It didn’t. It got worse.)

Johnnie To has pulled this shit before, not just with Exiled, but with Fulltime Killer (2001), another idiotic film where characters do ridiculous shit just to illustrate some clichéd notion of gangster movie honor that has no basis in reality. The critics loved that movie and they’re loving this one, but I think the only reason critics are rallying around Vengeance – and this happens often – is because they slept on To’s earlier, more interesting work, and now they have to pretend to understand what the hell he’s doing. But maybe I’m wrong. In the line to the men’s restroom after the film, the guy in front of me said to his friend, “I’ve seen three Johnnie To films, and that was definitely the best.”

I had to interrupt. “Have you seen The Mission?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“And you liked Vengeance better than The Mission?”

“Yes,” he said. “Did you?”

“No.”

And with that, the conversation was over, although it left me pondering. The guy I’d spoken with was clearly intelligent enough to walk upright and operate a bathroom sink, and yet his opinions differed from mine.

It was very odd.

Fortunately, right after Vengeance, I saw one of the best films of the fest, the Korean murder mystery Mother, which cleansed Vengeance from my memory. Mother is the latest film by Bong Joon-ho, whose last feature, The Host, was a worldwide hit that kicked off a new fad of monster movies. The somber, engrossing Mother more resembles Bong Joon-ho’s earlier work, especially his innovative procedural Memories of Murder, but in my opinion it surpasses all of his previous efforts in terms of quality.

The extraordinary Kim Hye-ja, who I guess is some kind of soap opera star in Korea, plays an impoverished woman whose mentally disabled adult son is arrested for the murder of a sexually promiscuous high school girl. Refusing to give up on the case long after the police have lost interest, Kim Hye-ja delves into the life of the victim, seeking the true identity of the killer.

Suspenseful and brilliant, Mother is reportedly going to be Korea’s submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, which it stands a good chance of winning. Magnolia has acquired the film for an early release next year. When that happens, don’t miss it. Even Mr. Disgusting loved it, and for a 129 minute Korean movie, that’s saying something.

After Mother, I thought I had a break, but Mr. Disgusting discovered that the French horror film The Horde was having a buyer screening away from the festival that we were pretty sure we could crash. Excited to see the latest hyped French gore flick, we promptly hopped on the subway, then a trolley, racing to catch the film’s 4 p.m. screening time at the great old Royal Theatre on the west side. Once we got there, we found that the screening of The Horde was indeed open only to accredited buyers.

I don’t know what’s going on with French horror cinema. After a run of stunning genre entries that put Hollywood and the rest of the world to shame (High Tension, Them, Inside, Martyrs), French filmmakers suddenly seem content to lazily rip off the worst of American B-movies. Possibly this is because all the brilliant French directors are promptly getting Hollywood deals, but The Horde is the second French film I’ve seen this year (the other being Mutants) that feels like the French dialogue is the only thing keeping it from being a generic Sci-Fi (SyFy?) Original.

The Horde has an okay premise, in which an unexplained zombie outbreak occurs while a group of cops are attempting to avenge the murder of a colleague by attacking a gang’s headquarters at the top of a high rise building. Suddenly surrounded by howling zombies, the cops and criminals are forced to work together to escape the building.

The problem I had with The Horde is the same problem I have with all these bad French thrillers, which is to say, 2% of the film is awesomely gory zombie mayhem, and the other 98% is intolerable, idiotic characters screaming hysterically at each other at the top of their lungs and occasionally bursting into tears. Within the first ten minutes, The Horde has introduced enough interpersonal character conflicts to last an entire season of 90210, none of which is even remotely compelling. Imagine the first twenty minutes of Frontier(s) drawn out to an entire film, except with no political relevance, and you’ve basically got the idea. In most horror movies, I don’t care if any of the characters live or die; in The Horde, I actively hoped for all the protagonists to die as quickly as possible, if only to silence their incessant whining.

When The Horde is concerned with zombie mayhem, it’s actually pretty fun. It’s the first zombie film I’ve seen in years where the characters actively go hand to hand with crazed zombies, and the resulting fight sequences are pretty entertaining. In fact, based on the quality of these scenes versus the rest of the film, I’m going to have to assume that the cast of The Horde was hired based solely on their martial arts abilities. Still, though, I find it difficult to believe there are no actors left in France who can both fight and act, so that’s no excuse.

Overall, The Horde offers absolutely nothing new to an already exhausted genre.

We then raced to catch a public screening of the new Joe Dante film, The Hole. The inimitable Colin Geddes hosted the screening and pointed out that The Hole was the first TIFF film ever to screen in 3-D, which was cool. I didn’t know quite what to expect from The Hole, but I was so enthused to see a new feature by Joe Dante that I deliberately went into the screening knowing as little as possible.

First of all, I discovered that The Hole is a family film. And it’s not a subversive family film like Gremlins, it’s a straight up movie for parents and kids. Like, it could get a PG rating. And I still loved it.

Plots don’t get much simpler than The Hole, which almost seems to be based on the Handsome Family song “The Bottomless Hole.” Two brothers (Chris Massoglia and Nathan Gamble, both far funnier here than most adolescent actors) move into a new house, only to discover a boarded up hole in their basement that seemingly has no end; objects thrown into it silently disappear. But at night, when the hole is left open, things start to get a little creepy, and the two brothers, with the assistance of a love interest neighbor girl (Haley Bennett, also delivering a more witty performance than I’d expected), begin to investigate the history of the house.

The Hole is a fun film that proves both that family entertainment can be scary and that child actors don’t have to be horribly annoying. The 3-D effects are stellar (the guy next to me in the theater kept freaking out when objects would fly at the screen) and the film is simply a class act from start to finish. With the right studio behind it, it could be quite profitable.

Weirdly, I wasn’t even tired after seeing four movies. I hit a couple of festival parties, then rushed to catch the Midnight Madness premiere of Bitch Slap.

I really wanted to like Bitch Slap. I had run into the filmmakers and cast at an earlier party, and they all seemed like cool, friendly people. However, in discussing my anticipation of their film, I had warned them that deliberately campy, pastiche cinema usually isn’t my thing. And indeed, Bitch Slap wasn’t.

Riffing on ’60s exploitation cinema (particularly Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, which is repeatedly referenced) but employing a green screen digital style for about half of its footage, Bitch Slap is about three tough, busty, scantily clad women who converge in the desert with a kidnapped man in their car trunk in search of a buried treasure. Through flashbacks, we see the events leading up to this scenario.

Bitch Slap has a few things going for it. The catty dialogue is often clever and the actresses are easy on the eyes (particularly America Olivo, coming off of another eye candy turn in the Friday the 13th remake, which is basically the only thing I remember about that movie). Best of all, the fight choreography by Zoe Bell is phenomenal. Catfight fetishists have a new favorite movie, as Bitch Slap is filled with terrific sequences of hot women very convincingly beating the crap out of each other. I know firsthand how difficult it can be to choreograph such sequences on a budget, and was impressed at how well these scenes held together; I didn’t see a single pulled punch or unconvincingly staged strike, which is more than I can say for even Kill Bill.

Unfortunately, my praise ends there, because even with those factors in place, Bitch Slap is nothing new. Mind you, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every film directed by Russ Meyer (which has a lot less to do with my appreciation of a true American auteur than it does my appreciation of big naked boobies) but even moviegoers with no knowledge of Bitch Slap‘s influences will likely find a good deal of it tedious.

And here’s another thing: Russ Meyer’s movies actually had nudity in them. Despite its marketing promises of boundless sleaze, during the entire running time of Bitch Slap, exactly two big naked boobies are shown, on a background player in a scene at a strip club. This character has no dialogue and is onscreen for perhaps ten seconds. Every other character is ogled by the camera relentlessly, but is never shown in anything more revealing than undergarments. As such, I found these leering sequences frankly somewhat soporific, especially at one in the morning. Basically, retro cheesecake fans who prefer their sleaze without, like, actual nudity will get a kick out of Bitch Slap, but I can’t imagine anyone else will be thrilled. The audience around me was actively groaning during the final act of the film, especially as it continued to return to its flashback structure.

Colin’s Q&A for Bitch Slap was better than the film itself, with all of the actresses on stage dazzling the audience. During this session, they announced Bitch Slap as the first part of a planned trilogy, information that left me baffled, as the ending of the film leaves absolutely no questions unanswered. In fact, the ending of Bitch Slap provided narrative resolution to subplots I’d forgotten existed. So, um… maybe the sequels will be better?

Vengeance – 0/10
Mother – 9/10
The Horde – 1/10
The Hole – 8/10
Bitch Slap – 3/10

Film Festival Follies: Toronto International Film Festival – Day 5

Life During Wartime, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, My Dog Tulip and [Rec]2

I consider myself pretty aware of what movies are on the horizon, and thus I was astonished to discover that not only did Todd Solondz have a new movie at the festival, Life During Wartime, that I’d never even heard of, but that it was a sequel to his seminal 1998 indie hit Happiness. I have fond memories of seeing Happiness; I was attending film school at the time, and to me, the film was validation that the nihilistic, gross-out cinema techniques I had dedicated my adolescence to studying could be used to make legitimate, mainstream art. I even loved Solondz’s compromised follow-up Storytelling, and although I couldn’t defend the shallow, alienating Palindromes, I was excited to see Solondz return to his best film for a career comeback. Thus, I was awake to join my small circle of festival pals at the 9 a.m. screening of Life During Wartime, which is really a fucking ungodly hour to be awake and watching a Todd Solondz movie.

Life During Wartime, I am sorry to report, is just okay. It is a vast improvement over Palindromes, but shrinks in comparison with the bracing, original Happiness. Furthermore, the main conceit of Life During Wartime, which features all of the characters from Happiness being played by different actors, forces constant, unflattering comparisons with the original. This casting technique probably developed from necessity, as getting the entire ensemble cast of Happiness to return to these repellant characters presumably wasn’t an option. Still, the new casting of these parts is distracting at best.

Life During Wartime picks up in real time from the ending of Happiness, ten years later. Bill Maplewood (previously played by Dylan Baker, now by Ciarán Hinds) has been paroled after his conviction for child molestation. His son, Timmy, has gone off to college, and his ex-wife, Trish (now played by Allison Janney), has moved on and is dating again. Her sisters are still doing the same miserable things they were basically doing in the first film. And that’s the main problem with Life During Wartime: It’s just more of the same, without taking any of the themes introduced by Happiness further. I mean, it’s pretty good, and Solondz’s brutal insights into his neurotic characters can be fascinating. But it feels like a completely unnecessary sequel. I can’t shake the feeling that Solondz only made a follow-up to Happiness because it was the only project he could get financed.

We then all wandered over to see a British kidnapping thriller that had been recommended to me, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, an object lesson in how to make a small scale thriller. The movie takes place almost entirely within two adjoining rooms and features only three actors during its whole running time, but the characters, performances, and narrative twists and turns, while not wholly original, keep things moving at a good clip. It could have been a bit shorter, but The Disappearance of Alice Creed held my interest even if I mostly remember it as the screening at which I witnessed Mr. Disgusting almost get in a fight with a boorish executive in our row who wouldn’t stop using his Blackberry during the film. That was awesome.

After The Disappearance of Alice Creed, it was time for another film I had high hopes for, Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. Herzog’s surprisingly breezy Bad Lieutenant non-remake is one of my favorite films of the year, and Michael Shannon, the star of My Son, is an actor that I would watch in anything.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is based on the true story of a San Diego graduate student who, obsessed with playing the character of Orestes in a theatre production of Sophocles’ Electra, emulated the character by stabbing his mother to death with a sword. The film basically operates as a loose collection of scenes in this character’s recent life intercut with his stand-off with the police immediately following the murder. Its story basically seems to exist as an excuse for Herzog to throw together odd, seemingly improvised scenes that mostly go nowhere.

Herzog is a savvy enough filmmaker that when he makes an audience-unfriendly film like this one, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. And there are some amazing moments in My Son, mostly featuring Michael Shannon or a scene-stealing Brad Dourif giving random, stream of consciousness monologues. Overall, however, whatever the intended effect of My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done was, I wasn’t feeling it. I was along for the ride (unlike about two-thirds of the audience at the industry screening, who walked out), but when it ended, I was just like, “Huh. Well. Whatever.” My filmmaker pal Josh has labeled this the best film of the year thus far, so I’ll acknowledge that there must be something accessible within its oddness, but it didn’t affect me one way or the other. As such, I’d have to label it an interesting failure.

I had some time after My Son, so I wandered around, waiting to join Mark at a screening of Hong Kong thriller Accident, only to arrive at the screening to find that the theater was full and they were no longer letting people in. Toronto is such a well-organized festival that I had frankly become spoiled and stopped showing up fifteen minutes in advance for screenings, as is advised. Cursing myself (and I heard Accident was a blast; fortunately, it has a U.S. distributor, so I’ll see it eventually), I headed over to another film that had been generating festival buzz, the animated feature My Dog Tulip.

Like falling asleep during films, I don’t walk out of movies no matter how much I’m hating them. I have walked out of three films in my life. The first was Small Soldiers, and that was mostly because my younger sister was falling asleep and I felt bad. The second was Woody Allen’s Celebrity; again, I was with my family, but my impression was that this film utterly merited a walk out. The third was My Dog Tulip.

Admittedly, a walk-out almost shouldn’t count at a film festival, when you’re seeing so many movies that you begin to prioritize things differently; id est, I could watch the rest of My Dog Tulip, or I could go get dinner and maybe take a nap before [Rec]2. That said, I hated My Dog Tulip. I understand that it was a surprise festival hit, but I despised everything about it. It wasn’t an incompetent film, just one I personally found deeply irritating. After I walked out of the movie after about an hour of suffering, I posted on Twitter, “I haven’t read the book My Dog Tulip, but if the film is to be believed its author is a repulsive dotard and his dog should be put to sleep.” Multiple people proceeded to chastise me for this post, which I’d thought to be one of my least offensive of the week. So I get that people like My Dog Tulip. But that just makes me dislike it more.

My Dog Tulip is based on the memoirs of an antisocial old man who adopted a badly behaved dog, an Alsatian named Tulip, that gave him a new lease on life. Or something. The film has no overarching plot but is structured as a series of supposedly humorous, charming anecdotes about this unpleasant old man and his dog having adventures, such as the dog shitting in front of a store and the old man feeling angry at a shopkeeper who asks him to clean it up. Oh, my sides.

My father had an Alsatian when I was growing up, a lovable, good-natured dog who passed away several years ago and is still dearly missed. In theory, this makes me the exact target audience for My Dog Tulip‘s brand of saccharine whimsy. Except I hated it. I hated the animation style, I hated the cloying score, and I especially loathed the fact that the film presented the antics of a rude, dull old man and his stupid dog as if they were inherently delightful.

But, like I said, I walked out, so I’m not qualified to write a real review of My Dog Tulip. Maybe something really awesome happened in the last twenty minutes. Like, maybe the old man fell down in the shower and broke his neck and had to lie awake as Tulip, driven mad with hunger after several days, turned feral and ate him. That would have been an interesting twist. Maybe it happened. I wouldn’t know, because I didn’t see it.

I had a little time before the Midnight Madness premiere of [Rec]2, so I crashed another industry party. However, after my sixth or so free drink, I started to let my nasal accent slip. A group of industry professionals seated at the bar immediately reacted with suspicion, gathering around me so that I could not escape…

On my list of films I’d hoped to see at TIFF, [Rec]2 was at the absolute top. I found Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s original [Rec] to be perfect horror entertainment and regretted not having had the chance, as a resident of the U.S., to see the film in a movie theater. Furthermore, I consider the rote remake Quarantine to be a curious example of how a remake can precisely imitate its source material without managing to capture anything that was good about it. Anyone who has only seen Quarantine and not [Rec] has done themselves a disservice. So I was glad that Balagueró and Plaza had returned to continue the story of their original film, one of the few recent horror films that invited a sequel.

[Rec]2 did not disappoint. I’d say the film overall isn’t as good as [Rec], if only because it no longer has the element of surprise on its side and has to do some expository heavy lifting in its first reel to justify its existence. From that point on, though, the film doesn’t stop for breath. By far the most entertaining film I saw at TIFF, [Rec]2 had the jaded horror fans I was seated with screaming, jumping out of their seats and covering their eyes. Not me, of course. But I still enjoyed it.

Much will probably be made of the filmmaker’s decision to convert the more scientific, disease-based horror premise of [Rec] to a potentially silly supernatural element in [Rec]2. To me, it seems like the only way they could really up the ante on the original and do something cool and new. And make no mistake, the focus in [Rec]2 is on doing cool shit rather than making any sort of sense. But that’s not the point. The point is, the [Rec] movies are scary fun, and at this, [Rec]2 is wildly successful. Seeing it at the giant, beautiful Ryerson theater is probably among the best moviegoing experiences of my life.

Afterward, Balagueró and Plaza were present for an affable Q&A with Colin, during which the possibility of [Rec]3 was discussed. Usually, I wish horror filmmakers would quit while they’re ahead, as few horror franchises are known for their continued quality. Coming out of the theater, however, I realized that I hope they do make a [Rec]3, and a [Rec]4 and [Rec]5. I hope [Rec] becomes the next endless sequel franchise. With [Rec]2, Balagueró and Plaza have shown themselves to be committed to delivering inventive entertainment over all other considerations, and as a fan, I just hope they continue to work in the same spirit.

Ratings:
Life During Wartime – 6/10
The Disappearance of Alice Creed – 7/10
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done – 5/10
My Dog Tulip – W/O
[Rec]2 – 9/10

Film Festival Follies: Toronto International Film Festival – Day 6

Micmacs à Tire-Larigot, Soul Kitchen, and Valhalla Rising

Well, it was bound to happen. After five days in a row of watching Midnight Madness movies and then waking up in time for 9 a.m. industry screenings of high profile films, I finally overslept and missed the first few minutes of one. Fortunately, it was Micmacs à Tire-Larigot, another vastly disappointing “comeback” film from a once-beloved director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, that I frankly wish I’d missed all of.

Jeunet, of course, is the maker, with Marc Caro, of the brilliant and innovative Delicatessen, as well as the writer and director of what might be the greatest romantic comedy ever made, Amélie. Since then, however, he’s only made one other film, the uninspired 2004 war romance A Very Long Engagement. Micmacs à Tire-Larigot was hyped as a return to his earlier, more overtly comedic work. And it is indeed overtly comedic. Unfortunately, I didn’t laugh once. I don’t think I even smiled.

Micmacs tells the story of Bazil (French comedian Dany Boon), a man whose father was killed by a land mine. Later, while fiddling with a gun, Bazil accidentally shoots himself in the head, causing him to act like an idiot. Or maybe those two things are unrelated; I don’t know. At any rate, Bazil is taken in by a fanciful group of street performers. When he discovers that the manufacturer of the land mine that killed his father and the manufacturer of the bullet that wounded him are rival companies located across the street from each other, Bazil develops a plan with his new friends to utilize the companies’ rivalry to destroy them both.

Mainly I disliked Micmacs because it’s annoying, stupid and not funny, but there was also something that I found deeply souring in its uneasy fusion of consequence-free slapstick and real world political commentary. The very premise of the film puts forward the notion that weapons manufacturers are implicitly responsible for the violent acts perpetrated by their products; hence, the companies are accountable for the death of Bazil’s father and Bazil’s wounding himself. Okay. I can accept that, even if incompetence was surely a factor in the latter instance. But in their plot against these weapons manufacturers, our heroes engage in all sorts of violent tomfoolery, such as launching a jar of bees at dockworkers in order to steal a missile. We even see that their actions lead to a building being destroyed with people inside of it; through a wacky contrivance, the people are unharmed, but still. And I guess we’re supposed to just laugh at those scenes, but when the movie provides us with information regarding the actual use of land mines in Afghanistan, we’re supposed to shake our fists at the evil weapons companies that profit off of death and destruction.

I’m all for turning off my brain and enjoying a silly comedy, but Micmacs wouldn’t let me. When, at the end of the film, the owners of the weapons companies are presented with photos of limbless North African children wounded by their products, I finally had to wonder, who the fuck is this movie for? It’s not funny. It’s not serious. It’s simultaneously preachy and daftly naive.

All the more frustratingly, I essentially share Micmacs‘s ideological viewpoint that defense manufacturers are, you know, not good. I was ready to agree with what the movie had to say and enjoy it. It’s a testament to how bad Micmacs is that it made me actually root for the weapons manufacturers; in a theater full of snickering liberals, I felt like a Republican for the first time in my life. Micmacs isn’t a total waste; it is a Jeunet film, so there’s a couple of neat visuals and a nice look to the film. But I can’t imagine it will find an audience in North America, where its fusion of mindless humor and political proselytizing will likely fail to amuse many viewers.

I had some time after Micmacs, so I grabbed a rare full meal, then headed to see Soul Kitchen, the new comedy from Turkish-German director Faith Akin, which I had heard a festival volunteer label the best movie at TIFF. I greatly enjoyed Akin’s last film, the international drama The Edge of Heaven, so I was up for Soul Kitchen, although I knew little about it. But once again, I found myself thoroughly unamused by a comedy.

Soul Kitchen is exactly the type of breezy, crowd-pleasing foreign film that tends to be a hit in America. I strongly anticipate that, when this movie opens here, it’s going to be a film that elderly people see and recommend to their friends. If I could buy stock in its U.S. release, I would. But I did not personally enjoy it.

Part of the reason I disliked Soul Kitchen is that I vaguely resent movies where I am called upon to be emotionally invested in characters who repeatedly do stupid things for the sole purpose of creating narrative conflict. This is an easy thing to do as a screenwriter, and it’s both condescending and manipulative. The protagonist of Soul Kitchen, Zinos, runs a barely successful restaurant based around soul food. Then a bunch of silly, completely unnecessary stuff happens, mostly because he makes some obviously poor decisions, and his restaurant begins to fail, and then he has to fight to turn it around. I didn’t like Zinos, a passive protagonist if there ever was one, and I didn’t like his stupid brother, and I didn’t like his wacky restaurant staff. I wanted them to all go away.

Overall, Soul Kitchen is not a bad film; it’s not as ambitious as Micmacs, for example, so it doesn’t fail as badly. It’s just a mediocre, forgettable comedy that didn’t make me laugh. I’m frankly a little confused as to why Faith Akin would follow up an ambitious project like The Edge of Heaven with an innocuous bit of fluff like Soul Kitchen, but heck, maybe the guy just needed a break. Okay, dude, break’s over. Can you make a good movie again now, please?

It was with a lump in my throat that I approached my next screening, as I realized it would be my last film of TIFF. I had to catch a train out of town early the next morning, and there were no other films before then that I wanted to see. However, I was also sort of glad, as I was exhausted, malnourished, and had developed the unfortunate habit of scratching at my face like a meth addict sometime during the past week. I was also glad that I’d saved for last a film that I truly wanted to see, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Viking saga Valhalla Rising. Refn, the Danish director of the excellent Pusher trilogy and the underrated, unfortunately titled English language thriller Fear X, is a filmmaker whose work consistently interests me, and the news that his latest film was a movie set in the year 1000 AD and starring Pusher‘s Mads Mikkelsen as a mute, one-eyed Viking named One Eye sounded to me like it could be the best movie ever made by anyone, ever.

And for the first 30 minutes of Valhalla Rising, I really thought I might be watching the best movie ever. I hadn’t been able to get anyone to join me for the screening, and as I watched Mads Mikkelsen, playing the warrior slave of a Norse chieftain, crush skulls and eviscerate his opponents in gory detail, I thought of how Mr. Disgusting would kick himself when I told him that he’d missed the goriest film of the fest.

Then nothing at all happened for the next 60 minutes. And then the movie ended.

After about minute 35 of Valhalla Rising, a steady stream of walk-outs began that continued, unabated, until the theater, once packed, was nearly empty. Even Enter the Void and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done hadn’t prompted such an exodus. I could kind of understand it, although I thought it was basically a good film. The first 30 minutes of Valhalla Rising are nonstop violent action, and then the following hour, in which One Eye and his boy companion join a group of Vikings intent upon bringing Christianity to North America, plays like a slow, experimental feature. More than anything else, Valhalla Rising reminded me of early Herzog films such as Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo in its portrayal of delusional travelers growing increasingly deranged in an unfamiliar land.

Seriously weird and often dull, Valhalla Rising definitely isn’t for everyone. But even if you can’t get into its more aimless second half, in which a group of hungry Vikings get strange with each other, it’s worth seeing for the first half, in which Mads Mikkelsen angrily smashes a bunch of people’s heads. And for fans of Viking cinema, I’ll personally take Valhalla Rising over the other 2009 experimental Viking feature, Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America, any day. Although admittedly, it is kind of annoying that the characters in Valhalla Rising speak English. Severed Ways at least got that right.

Ratings:
Micmacs à Tire-Larigot – 2/10
Soul Kitchen – 4/10
Valhalla Rising – 7/10

Final thoughts:

I have never been to Cannes or Sitges, but I find it difficult to believe that there is a better festival than TIFF anywhere in the world. Impeccably organized and staffed by well-informed, polite volunteers, TIFF is a sheer pleasure for movie fans, especially when compared to all other festivals I’ve been to (ahem, Sundance) in which just finding the right line to wait in to see a movie can be a baffling ordeal. At TIFF, the focus is on the films rather than industry machinations. Furthermore, TIFF always has a better selection than any of the major fests. Fans of weird cinema worldwide should look to Colin Geddes’ Midnight Madness series each year just to see what his picks are; the dude really does see it all, and basing my festival experience around his series was the best choice I could have made.

Beyond that, Toronto is a great, clean, friendly city filled with huge, beautiful movie theaters. This year, the festival gave a free transit pass to badge holders, and I made good use of it, taking the subway, buses or trolleys everywhere I wanted to go. I never once had to wait longer than three minutes for a train, and even the buses and trolleys were pretty awesome. Even Toronto’s crazy homeless people are cheerful and polite. At one point, as I was drunkenly leaving a bar before the screening of The Loved Ones, I got really good directions to the Ryerson from a passing transsexual prostitute.

In short: Toronto women, I will totally marry you just to move to your city. I don’t even care about the universal health care thing, that’s secondary. Your city is awesome. Let me know.

During my time at TIFF, I saw 26 movies in six days. That might not seem like such a huge amount, but you try it. My back is still kind of screwed up from slouching in theater seats for over ten hours a day. I blame Solomon Kane for starting that habit. Also, Mr. Disgusting might be a great guy, but he’s not the world’s best Posture Pal.

The best: Symbol, Mother, [Rec]2, Harry Brown
The worst: Solomon Kane, Vengeance, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The Horde

Surprisingly, my favorite film to play at TIFF was a film I saw before the festival began, Werner Herzog’s delightful The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans. But even the bad and mediocre films I saw were awesome in their own way, and I loved seeing them. The great thing about a festival like TIFF is that every film there has something distinctive about it to even be selected. With, of course, the exception of Solomon Kane. Screw you, Solomon Kane.