Dispatches from TIFF: Prestige Pictures and Grindhouse Flicks on the Festival Circuit

12 Years A Slave

The Toronto International Film Festival doesn’t have the same pedigree as Cannes, nor does it exclusively serve up-and-coming directors like Sundance. What does it have instead? Options. Pitched as a populist film festival, TIFF brings hundreds of different films together for a week and a half for press, industry types, film fanatics, and general moviegoers, who can see anything from the latest avant-garde opus to a future Oscar contender, from world cinema masters to first-time directors. It’s a wonderful smorgasbord for anyone with a ticket.

It’s also incredibly daunting. Again, there are hundreds of films playing, and only 11 days to see them. Even someone with a press badge doesn’t have the chance to see everything of note, let alone a lowly student journalist who’s only there for three days. But even a limited time in a festival environment gives a snapshot of the variety at Toronto. And while it’s easy to get caught up in the pomp and circumstance of a festival- celebrities! Major filmmakers! People asking Daniel Radcliffe inane Harry Potter questions!- TIFF is above all else a venue for important (and some not so important) films, be they major studio releases or the first signs of a burgeoning talent. With that in mind, here’s what I saw.

Friday, September 6

Around the Block
Director/Writer: Sarah Spillane
Starring: Christina Ricci, Hunter Page-Lochard
Program: Discovery (primarily new filmmakers)

THE LOWDOWN: American in Australia teaches Hamlet to Aborigine high school, boy with criminal family is inspired (Freedom Writers Down Under?). Spillane has no idea what to do with a camera, and she uses music as a crutch to the point where the film sometimes seems like an earnest, social-commentary oriented music video. Film can’t decide whether it’s about Ricci’s self-discovery (closeted lesbian) or Page-Lochard escaping criminal life, and Spillane’s writing is painful (“what is subtext?”, someone actually asks). Also, film defines “existentialism” as meaning “freedom”. Um, no.


Directors: Stephanie Spray/Pacho Velez
Program: Wavelengths (experimental)

THE LOWDOWN: Experimental documentary consists of 11 static shots in cable car in the Nepal Valley that transports people to a Hindu temple for a Goddess. It takes extraordinary patience to get into Manakamana (there’s no dialogue for the first 20 minutes, and even then it’s spare), but it’s a hypnotic, rewarding film. There’s something fascinating here about how technology makes a sacred pilgrimage easier, in a way that makes it accessible to tourists and sadly less meaningful for the believers.

The Station

The Station
Director: Marvin Kren
Writer: Benjamin Hessler
Stars: Gerhard Liebmann, Edita Malovcic, Brigitte Kren
Program: Midnight Madness (horror movies and such, play at midnight)

THE LOWDOWN: Remote weather research station encounters mutated local wildlife (e.g., wolf crossed with beetle). A major step-up from Kren’s tepid zombie film Rammbock, The Station is funnier, scarier, and actually has some real emotional heft (any dog lovers will likely be crushed by what Liebmann has to do to his trusted companion). Editing gets too jolty at times, and this is basically just an environmental horror version of The Thing, but it’s fun while it lasts.

Saturday, September 7

12 Years a Slave
Director: Steve McQueen
Writer: John Ridley, from Solomon Northup’s autobiography
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson
Program: Special Presentations (main program)

THE LOWDOWN: Free man Ejiofor is kidnapped and sold, first to kind but unrepentant slaver Cumberbatch, then cruel Fassbender. Spectacular performances all around, especially in Ejiofor’s reticent hero and Fassbender’s vicious slave-owner. This is another McQueen tale of determination vs. dehumanization (see: Hunger, Shame), and his unsparing aesthetic makes the brutality palpable rather than part of a musty past. Even an ostensibly uplifting ending is played more for melancholy. It’s a rare film about “important subject matter” that’s as formally thrilling as it is weighty, and that makes it all the more moving. The film just won the People’s Choice Award on Sunday, and it’s not a surprise- it’s the one film everyone is talking about.


Director/Writer: Charlie Stratton
Stars: Elizabeth Olsen, Oscar Isaac, Tom Felton, Jessica Lange
Program: Special Presentations

THE LOWDOWN: Adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel in which titular character starts affair with sickly husband’s strapping friend, plans his murder. Debut film from Stratton impresses by combining period costume drama with more florid influences (Stratton cited Polanski in Q&A after premiere) and dark comedy. Cast all strong, especially Lange as a stepmother who’s by turns overbearing or pitiable. Does get a bit repetitive and heavy in second half, and Stratton makes the mistake of showing the murder in flashback after a haunting scene that only shows its aftermath.

The F Word

The F Word
Director: Michael Dowse
Writer: Elan Mastai
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver
Program: Special Presentations

THE LOWDOWN: Radcliffe’s a Brit med-student dropout in England, befriends/falls for Kazan, finds out she’s taken. Great cast- Radcliffe and Kazan have a lot of chemistry, and Driver is fun as Radcliffe’s odd best friend- but the material is pretty lame, the banter forced. It’s essentially tries hard to be a broader, more precious When Harry Met Sally to irritating degrees. So forgettable that wait what was I talking about?

The Green Inferno

The Green Inferno
Director: Eli Roth
Writers: Eli Roth/Guillermo Amoedo
Stars: Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy
Program: Midnight Madness

THE LOWDOWN: Spoiled activists go to Peru to protect natives, find out they’re cannibals. Homage to the 1970s Italian cannibal movies (the despicable Cannibal Holocaust, most notably). Roth doesn’t get the credit he deserves for how darkly funny he can be (pot-addled cannibals get the munchies), and he balances the guiltily entertaining bloodshed with moments of real discomfort. Fits next to Cabin Fever/Hostel as one of his tales of youthful arrogance leading to disaster. Can’t quite subvert the queasy racial politics of the “natives eating white people” sub-genre, but it’s secondary to all of the sick fun.

Sunday, September 8

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Writers: Craig Borten/Melisa Wallack
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner
Program: Special Presentations

THE LOWDOWN: Homophobic womanizer contracts HIV, starts smuggling unapproved drugs to help save victims. The McConaussance continues- McConaughey is terrific, really sells an arc that could have been hoary, doesn’t try to sand off the character’s rough edges. Leto also surprisingly strong as McConaughey’s drag queen business partner. Garner wasted in nothing role. Goes exactly where you’d expect, with straw men FDA officials and McConaughey righteously fighting against the system. Vallée’s artier touches don’t hide that this is thoroughly middlebrow material. Still, a worthwhile showcase for the performers.


Max O’Connell

Max O’Connell is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University. When not watching films or reading/writing film criticism, Max enjoys arguing with people. Right at this moment, he is arguing that anyone who thinks E.T. is anything but a masterpiece is a low down dirty dog. He also bears a striking resemblance to one of the guitarists of the now defunct indie band Ponytail. Go read more of his other blatherings about film.

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