Chris Kriofske's TIFF Reviews

I scheduled less films than usual this year to make time for some of Toronto’s more notable attractions (CN Tower, Casa Loma, and the Bata Shoe Museum, among others), but I did manage to see ten of the former.

In a London suburb in 1962, Jenny, (Carey Mulligan) a teenager preparing to apply to Oxford University meets and falls in love with a worldly, seductive man (Peter Sarsgaard) more than twice her age. With director Lone Scherfig (ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS), an adapted screenplay from novelist Nick Hornby (HIGH FIDELITY) and an excellent cast including Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Olivia Williams and a tart cameo from Emma Thompson, it’s no surprise that this film received a glowing reception at Sundance earlier this year. Although a little clichéd at times (especially when it cues the Serious Music) and verging-on-implausible at others (Jenny’s parents are wildly inconsistent in their behavior), this is still an enjoyable, bittersweet coming of age story and a likely indie hit to boot. Most exciting is how it recreates and examines a particular place and time—Britain just before the Beatles ushered in the swinging Sixties. Expect Mulligan’s whip-smart Jenny to be this year’s buzzed-about breakthrough performance. 4 cats

The latest from Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-Liang (WHAT TIME IS IT THERE?) plays like a greatest hits album. It’s brimming with all of his favorite obsessions: the prevalence of water (culminating in his most hilarious Buster Keaton homage to date), manipulation of time and space, delightfully absurd musical numbers and preferred actor Lee Kang-sheng in the lead. However, he also includes a few worthy new tracks to the playlist: most of the film is set in France, with such celebrated actors as Jean-Pierre Leaud, Fanny Ardant and Jeanne Moreau playing more or less versions of themselves (and don't miss Mathieu Almaric's cameo); additionally, the plot hinges on the making of a film within this one, encouraging viewers to question what’s real or a façade. Stunningly gorgeous (the mirror-filled forest sequences will take your breath away) but challenging, it may prove too obtuse for some viewers, but it was my favorite film of the festival. After seeing it, you will never look at crushed tomatoes the same way again. 5 cats

The arrival of an aristocratic Spaniard student upsets the delicate hierarchy of an elite, remote, all-female 1930s British boarding school. Eva Green stars as a flamboyant, idealistic, controlling teacher. A slightly overcooked directorial debut from Jordan Scott (daughter of Ridley), all this has to recommend it is lovely cinematography (packed with foreboding, nighttime lake shots) and the continuously shifting alliances among the characters in the film’s first two acts. A genuinely shocking twist then arrives, but it doesn’t prevent CRACKS from lapsing into a lesser version of HEAVENLY CREATURES; nor does it dissuade Green from ravenously chewing up the scenery. At least it was the only truly mediocre film I saw at TIFF this year. 2.5 cats

Director Andrea Arnold’s follow-up to RED ROAD is decidedly less ambitious but no less captivating, suggesting she could prove a female heir to Mike Leigh and his working class, actor-focused domestic dramas. Its tough teenage protagonist, Mia (impressive newcomer Katie Jarvis) uses her love of hip-hop dancing as a means of escape from her rough housing project home and also her young, immature, uninvolved mother and exceptionally foul-mouthed little sister. Tension mounts as Mia and her mother’s charming boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender) develop a mutual attraction. Arnold redeems this not entirely original plot with strong performances, a poetic pace and an inspired, dense visual composition (shot in TV-like 1.33 aspect ratio, which gives the film its immediacy). The penultimate scene is exquisite in its simplicity, resonating with movements rather than words. 4.5 cats

This comedy from Canadian media personality Sook-Yin Lee (best known in the States as the lead actress in SHORTBUS) lays bare its quirkiness from the opening shot of a clucking chicken alarm clock. Sammy (Cristen Milioti), a tomboyish grocery store detective in charge of exposing shoplifters is attracted to Eugene (Mark Rendall), a musician who busks in front of the florist next door. When inexperienced Sammy finds herself sexually incompatible with Eugene, she aims for carnal fluency with a variety of partners. If this all sounds insufferably precious, it’s not. Lee proves herself an adept writer/director, while Milioti is a real find, resembling a more likable, approachable Sarah Silverman. It’s also a treat to see Canadian comedic legends Kevin MacDonald and Sheila McCarthy show up as Sammy’s parents. Although not as novel, soulful or graphic as SHORTBUS, this is a better acted and at times, much funnier film. 4 cats

Gau Xiaolu’s film (a Golden Leopard winner at the Locarno International Film Festival) defies categorization. Markedly dissimilar from most contemporary Chinese cinema, it alternates between stylistic allusions to the French New Wave and a naturalistic, documentary like feel, with passages that conjure up states of mind rather than narrative momentum. It charts the journey of Mei (Huang Lu), a young provincial woman who moves to a large Chinese city and eventually ends up in London. She meets a series of men, all of whom add varying sorts of conflict into her life. Presented as a series of titled chapters, the film’s pace fluctuates, often deliberately jumping past a major plot point while occasionally stretching out time to an impressionistic degree. An intellectual and at times inscrutable work, but also an original, lyrical character study with a surging and wonderfully loud rock and roll soundtrack. 4 cats

The terrific Danish actress Paprika Steen (THE CELEBRATION) is absolutely harrowing and brilliant as Thea, an alcoholic actress in this intense drama from director Martin Pieter Zandvliet. Although John Cassavetes already covered this territory decades ago in his films which starred his wife, Gena Rowlands (particularly OPENING NIGHT), Steen is so riveting and her character’s persona so all encompassing that whether the story is second hand soon seems irrelevant. As the film follows Thea’s attempts at sobriety, it folds in scenes of her onstage (and backstage as well) as raucous, boozy Martha in a production of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF. Martha and Thea’s similarities are obvious, but Steen’s grasp on both roles lends depth to the connection. Throughout, Thea emerges as an intriguing (if deeply troubled) blend of personality tics, constantly speaking her mind only to immediately rescind. At one point, she nonchalantly blurts out, “I hate ordinary people,” and then quickly apologizes; it’s to Steen’s credit that you could spend an hour debating whether Thea is sincere or just merely defensive. 4.5 cats

For Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, this is certainly not an obvious follow-up to masterful familial drama STILL WALKING. After all, the main character here is an inflatable sex toy that one morning magically comes to life. It sounds incredibly silly on paper (and I dread any potential American remake), but Kore-eda is a serious filmmaker, and this foray into pure fantasy is affectionate and rather poignant. A lot of the credit goes to Korean actress Doona Bae (THE HOST), who is perfectly cast as the titular character. Cute as a button in her tentative movements and little maid’s uniform, she plays the role as an innocent discovering a strange new world, learning by mimicking everything around her. Kore-eda stretches the premise by introducing additional characters to symbolize the philosophical implications of what it’s like to be an air doll: isolated and expected to serve a function. As a result, for me, the film loses some of its mojo along the way; I would have almost preferred two hours of Bae just bouncing around Tokyo—in those moments, AIR DOLL is as light and graceful as a feather but compelling enough to hold your attention. 4 cats

Sometimes, an actor’s presence alone convinces me to check out a film and Patricia Clarkson is the main reason to see this one. She plays Juliette, an American magazine editor who arrives in Egypt hoping to meet up with her husband, a Canadian diplomat. Unfortunately, he’s held up in the Gaza Strip due to an escalating conflict, leaving her to wonder the streets by herself, where she’s seen as an oddity by the country’s Muslim men (and women). Tareq, a local man and an old friend of her husband reaches out to her, and they find themselves attracted to each other. Although not a towering performance by any means, Clarkson is charming and provides a good surrogate for the audience. To her credit, director Ruba Nedda is not afraid to build momentum with subtlety and silence, and the growing affection between Juliette and Tareq exudes class and restraint—perhaps almost too much, as CAIRO TIME is a perfectly affable film that could benefit from a bit more tension. 3.5 cats

LESLIE, MY NAME IS EVIL The Manson Family trial re-imagined as a farce? That’s the gist of Reg Harkema’s follow-up to his anarchic comedy MONKEY WARFARE. Here, he gives us the twin tales of Leslie, a runaway who falls under the wild influence of Charles Manson, and Perry, a young, sheltered chemist who becomes obsessed with her while serving on the jury for her trial. At the premiere, Harkema introduced the film as “anti-realist” and he wasn’t kidding: LESLIE plays like the love child of late John Waters and Charles Busch (minus the drag), gleefully sending up late-1960s America. While often crude and always over the top (don’t miss the ultra-groovy virgin sacrifice sequence!), the film is also a hoot in how it comically inverts a tragedy without managing to entirely trivialize it. Mostly avoiding garishness and almost approaching wit, Harkema’s palette is nonetheless an acquired taste, and this one could use more of the previous film’s discipline. Still, it’s hard for me to hate on a farce that’s actually quite sincere in how it secretly holds up a funhouse mirror to the real, modern day world. 4.5 cats

I definitely appreciated the sileneces and lack of histrionics in CAIRO TIME, but I felt sections of it were just a little dull.

Great reviews, Chris... thanks especially for doing such a good job crystallizing FACE for me! I disagree with your assessment of CAIRO TIME though. I liked the extended silences and lack of tension that so often leads to Hollywood-inspired dramatics.