Tuesday, September 27, 2011

TIFF - Final 3 Movies

For our final three movies of this year's TIFF, we picked what we thought were action thrillers from three different countries - Korea, USA and Hong Kong - this would go with the Norwegian movie "Headhunters" that we saw earlier.

The Korean movie "Countdown" deals with a ruthless, emotionless collections agent Tae Gun-Ho, who is extremely effective at his job and not shy about using violence to get his point across.  When he finds out that he has terminal liver cancer unless he can find a donor for a transplant, he goes on a personal collection mission to track down recipients of organs previously donated by his dead son.  He focuses on a female con artist named Cha Ha-Yeon, who is about to be released from jail, who received his son's heart.

Ha-Yeon agrees to be the donor on the condition that Gun-Ho finds the crime boss who set her up to take the fall for their last con.  What follows is a cat and mouse game between two, as Ha-Yeon tries to elude him to follow her own agenda, while Gun-Ho struggles to protect his liver donor from all the people trying to kill her including her old partner and all the other gangsters that she has conned.

While the movie is following this main plotline, it is fast paced, humourous and exciting, with car chases and fight sequences living up to the standards of the best action thrillers. Through it all, Gun-Ho is the cool, detached man of mystery with a squint that Clint Eastwood would be proud of.

Towards the end when two rival gangs converge looking for Ha-Yeon and the money with which she absconded, the scene was very reminiscent of Gangs of New York.

It seems to be typical of Korean movies (based on the three we've seen so far) to include a maudlin, overly sentimental storyline tacked on to any film genre, be it a comedy or an action movie like this one.  In the case of Countdown, the subplot dealt with how Gun-Ho's Downs Syndrome son died. It was as if we had moved onto a different movie without noticing. 

The Question and Answer session was interesting since the two main stars are apparently huge with the Korean crowd who squealed loudly and mobbed them as they took the stage.  One amusing tidbit arose when the director was asked why all the mobsters fought each other without the use of guns.  Apparently Korean gangsters don't carry guns since its "against the law".   This seemed so ironic when talking about gangsters!

Other culturally specific details in the movie involved a collection agent on his knees with his hands in the air to show shame for his bad collection results, and a huge gangster kowtowing to his boss when being being berated for not finding Ha-Yeon.  You don't find such details in Western films.

In our next film, Violet and Daisy are teenaged assassins for hire.  They are played respectively by former Gilmore Girl Alexis Bledel, and Saoirse Ronan who starred in the movies Atonement and Hanna.

The first scene parallels Pulp Fiction with Violet and Daisy carry on mundane, girlish chatter before jumping into killer mode to execute their latest hit.  The juxtaposition of the innocent, fresh-faced youths dressed up as nuns no less, firing automatic weapons with professional skill and detachment to massacre a gang of thugs twice their sizes, makes for a jarring yet hilarious scene.

But just as you settle in for what you think will be a Tarantino-like movie, this one makes an about face when Violet and Daisy take on a job to kill a man who has stolen from their boss.  When they fall asleep waiting for him to come home, they wake up to find he has tenderly covered them with a blanket and has baked cookies for them. James Gandofini plays the gentle, down-on-his-luck victim who wants to die and encourages the girls to finish him off, making it all the more difficult for them to do so.

At this point, the movie becomes more like a dialogue-driven stage play with the 3 main characters holding lengthy conversations that delve into each others psyches and motivations.  In between are various scenes of violence, such as when other gang members also show up to dispatch the man, leading to a gun battle with Violet and Daisy that results in the squeamishly funny "internal bleeding dance".

The entire movie has a surreal, fable-like aura.  Taken at face value it is very entertaining but you get the feeling that the director is trying to convey so much more, if you could only figure out what!

Which made it all the more frustrating during the "Q&A" that turned out to be all Q and not much A.  The audience obviously wanted the director's insight to figure out what he was going for and the significance or symbolism of various scenes and images.  He stubbornly refused to answer and gave the trite response that "it was better if the audience came to their own conclusions .. it's better not to ask questions".  This led to moderator Cameron Bailey saying in frustration, "that doesn't make for much of a question and answer session".

Our final film was "Living Without Principles" by Hong Kong director Johnny To, and starring Ritchie Ren.   We had seen these two before in previous TIFF movies like Accident and Fire of Conscience and based on those movies, we were looking forward to an action packed shoot 'em up, blow 'em up type of film.

What we got instead was a drama about the recent stock market crashes and how it affected the people of Hong Kong, as represented by a cop (Ritchie Ren) and his wife trying to buy a home outside of their price range, a mutual fund saleswoman (Denise Ho) desperate to make her quota and a mobster's lackey (Lau Ching-wan) trying to raise money to bail his gangster cohort out of jail.  Their stories converge when a loan shark is killed and robbed of a large sum of money that he had just withdrawn from the bank.

Some of the most interesting scenes involved the saleswoman fleecing a little old lady into investing her retirement savings in high risk emerging market BRIC funds and then going through the motions of "warning" her of the risks.  We wondered if the director was trying to draw parallels between the ethics of the banking industry and the gangsters. 

When it was all over, not a single gun was fired or bomb exploded.  Even the scene where the loan shark was killed was more a comedy of errors resulting in his death.  The only other violent scene was tinged with humour as a small time gangster gets his comeuppance when he tries to hack into his boss' computer systems to recover from a huge stock market loss.  In retribution, the boss stabs him with a fencing foil with a diamond encrusted flower shaped hilt.  The gangster trying to drive himself to the hospital with a flowered spike sticking out of his chest induced laughter from the crowd.

Richie Ren's policeman role and storyline was quite superfluous and did nothing to advance the plot.  It was like the role was tacked on so that the big named star could be attached to the movie.  Since we watched the last showing of this movie, the director had already returned to Hong Kong so there was no Q&A after the showing.

So of the four action movies that we watched, only Headhunters was a traditional thriller from start to finish.  The others all deviated from the genre's formula, to varying degrees of success.

All in all, it was a good TIFF for us this year with no really bad picks.  Looking forward to next year when we can do it again.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

TIFF - More Movies

On the 10th anniversary of  9/11, TIFF commemorated by showing a 4 minute documentary short before every feature film.  The short reflected on the thoughts and feelings of Piers Handling and other TIFF organizers and attendees as they had to deal with the tragedy that happened just as the 2001 festival was getting into full swing.

In interviews held at the time, they talked about debating whether or not to cancel the festival.  The decision to carry on, albeit without all the usual pomp and circumstance, showed the courage and resilience of all involved.  For many people stranded and unable to get home, watching movies provided a respite and helped them deal with the real life trauma happening before them.  Watching this short film brought back vivid memories of our own experiences that day and how it affected our TIFF experience for the rest of that festival.  This was a touching tribute that perfectly reflected the spirit of TIFF and everything it stands for.

For my next TIFF selection, rather than watching a movie, I attended a moderated conversation between director Deepa Mehta and author Salman Rushdie as they discussed the experience of turning his Booker Prize winning book Midnight's Children into a movie. Midnight's Children is about the trials and tribulations of a telepathic child born at the stroke of midnight on the day of India's independence from British rule and the Partition between India and Pakistan.

Deepa and Salman discussed their struggles to pick out the fundamental plot of the extremely lengthy and complicated book, trying to condense it to a viable movie length.  Deepa alluded to her political difficulties filming in India, leading her to make the movie in Sri Lanka.  They told amusing anecdotes about unsuccessfully trying to woo a famous Bollywood actress to the film, in an attempt at attracting a wider Indian audience.  She wanted them to rewrite her role, since she was far too young to play the mother of a 16 year old!  Salman talked about how the corrupt and cruel character General Zulfikar was based on an uncle that he didn't like.  He cackled as he gloated "Don't mess around with writers or they'll get their revenge."

They previewed a very rough montage of the movie, which is currently is in pre-production and will be released around Oct 2012.  It was beautifully shot and had that sweeping epic feel that is usually Oscar bait, but not my cup of tea.  Many devotees are skeptical about how their beloved "unfilmable" book can be made into a movie.  Deepa is out to prove them wrong.

This was an interesting experience to go to a talk rather than watch a movie.  I quite enjoyed hearing behind the scenes stories about the making of the movie, and would have appreciated it even more if the book/movie were more to my taste.  One unexpected  discovery was how Salman Rushdie looks exactly like a friend of ours. I spent much of the afternoon marveling at this.

Next up is a French/Belgium comedy called My Worst Nightmare about a middle aged, well-to-do Parisian couple (Agathe and Francois) in a comfortable if somewhat passionless relationship.  Their lives get turned upside down when they encounter a buffoonish, pushy, alcoholic but strangely charming handy man (Patrick) who insinuates himself into their lives.

Soon the couple has swapped partners. The initially icy Agathe (played by Isabelle Huppert) learns to loosen up and comes to appreciate the vibrance and joix de vivre of Patrick.  Meanwhile Francois has taken up with a much younger, tree hugging nature lover, a move he regrets a bit when she has him zip-lining from treetops.

Like many French movies, this comedy has a uniquely Gallic sense of humour and a blase attitude to sex and relationships.  There is no real drama regarding the breakup and the new couples are still able to interact amicably.

One of the funniest scenes in the movie involves a "babylicious" car wash run by Patrick's brother whose female employees could have come right out of Hooters restaurant.  The look on Agathe's face is priceless when her car goes through the wash and the soap on the windshield is wiped away by a pair of huge boobs and a bikini-clad bottom.

This was a mildly amusing pleasant comedy - not a stinker but nothing to rave about either.  The Q&A with the director and lead actress was not that interesting, due mainly to the language barrier.  In retrospect though, it was not so bad compared to upcoming Q&As from our next movies..

Monday, September 12, 2011

Toronto International Film Festival 2011 - First weekend

This year at TIFF, we watched 8 movies including a good mix of North American vs foreign films, little movies vs bigger named celebrity features.  We started off with 3 movies on the first weekend:

First up was the Canadian movie Barrymore starring Christopher Plummer playing stage and film star John Barrymore (grandfather of Drew Barrymore), in alcoholic decline towards the end of his career.

The movie is a filming of the Toronto revival of Plummer's Tony award winning play of the same name, intermixed with additional scenes that flush out Barrymore's character and state of mind at that time in his life.

It imagines a fictitious attempt at a stage comeback for Barrymore in 1942, mere months before his death at 60.  Barrymore is onstage rehearsing for his once famous role of Richard III, aided by Frank who attempts to prompt him with line after line that he no longer remembers.  Barrymore sways between pomposity and patheticness in the these scenes, barking at Frank  "Don't tell me .... tell me!!!".  At one point, he races around the stage in despair shouting "What's the line? What's the line? .. What's the play???".

The movie uses flashback scenes to depict Barrymore's memories of his youth and family life, with Christopher Plummer playing all roles including his father Maurice, brother Lionel, sister Ethel and grandmother.  Some of his funniest lines come when he describes his 4 marriages and divorces.  "My first wife and I were happy for 20 years .. and then we met".  "I don't have to tell you that divorces cost more than marriages, but god damn it, they're worth it!"

Christopher Plummer gives a commanding performance, embodying all aspects of Barrymore's traits, ranging from charm and wit, sardonic humour, arrogance, hubris  confusion caused by alcohol-induced memory loss and dementia, leading to frustration, self pity and rage. 

Following the movie, Christopher Plummer took to the stage to be interviewed by director Atom Egoyan.  He described the differences in performing in the play vs the movie - gestures and actions had to be bigger on stage in order to project to the audience, where the film performance could be more subtle.  This led to the play being more humourous while the movie closeups allowed Plummer to show more depth and pathos.

Although too young to have ever met John Barrymore, Plummer told a touching story about one of his idols, John's daughter Diana.  Like most of the rest of the Barrymore clan who were blessed with talent but cursed with addictions, Diana was also a down and out alcoholic towards the end of her career.  Assured that she was on the wagon, Plummer tried to get her an audition in a play he was in.  The director initially said "Not another Barrymore!" but relented after Plummer begged.  He later found out that she had showed up to the interview drunk and died shortly afterwards. 

The audience was full of Canadian "celebrities" including Brian and Mila Mulrony, Gordon Pinsent and Garth Drabinsky who was the executive producer of the production.  I remember wondering how Garth Drabinsky could still be so public and prolific when he had been convicted of fraud.. shouldn't he be in jail?  We heard a couple days later that he lost his appeal and is now back in jail. 

Our next movie was a Norwegian thriller called Headhunters, where the protagonist Roger Brown is a corporate headhunter who moonlights as an art thief in order to keep his trophy wife in the lap of luxury.  He uses his interviews of job candidates to find potential marks to steal from.

All goes awry when Roger tries to make the ultimate score by stealing a priceless painting from a former military tracking specialist.  Suddenly the headhunter becomes "head-hunted" leading to some wild and wacky action sequences that are both thrilling and extremely funny.

The plot is intricate and exciting with plot twists that require careful attention in the beginning to appreciate the payoff.  There movie has its share of blood and violence but the situations are set up in such an innovative and usually hilarious manner that they make you wince and then laugh out loud.  Memorable scenes involving a box of milk, a dog and a forklift, and an outhouse will stick in your mind for a long time.

The director and two main protagonists showed up for the screening and gave an excellent Q&A afterwards.  The height difference between them, which was a major plot point, was accentuated by seeing them stand side by side in person.

A good Q&A gives you extra insight into the making of the movie.  In this one, an anecdote was told about a scene where Roger was mauled by a vicious Russian attack dog.  The dog was trained to lunge for a rubber ball attached to Roger's shoulder, making the seemingly dangerous scene safe.  On the very first take, Aksel Hennie screamed and thrashed around so violently that it permanently scared the poor dog, who refused to try it again.  So the director was left with only one take of this scene.  I think it was a good one, but I watched most of it with my hands over my eyes ... this did nothing to help my fear of dogs!

The third movie "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen" was from the UK and starred Ewan McGregor as Alfred, a stodgy fisheries expert, Emily Blunt as Harriet, the glamorous liason to a wealthy sheik who wants to bring salmon fishing to his country and a hilarious scene stealing Kristen Scott Thomas as the press secretary for the Prime Minister.

This is a light romantic comedy that is also a geo-political satire.  Initially Alfred scoffs at the ludicrous idea of trying to keep 10,000 salmon alive in the Yemen desert in order to support sport fishing. However the press secretary latches onto this goodwill story of promoting Middle East-Western relationships, as a distraction from news stories of bombings and unrest.

The romantic storyline is bolstered by good chemistry between Ewan and Emily, and gives a new meaning to the term "fish out of water", as Alfred learns to loosen up and learns to appreciate both the project and the woman promoting it.  The gorgeous Amr Waked plays the sheik with a calm serenity.   Kristen Scott Thomas' strong-willed, foul mouthed press, haughty and sarcastic secretary pushes her agenda with a hilarious aplomb.

Since we watched the second showing and not the gala, there was no Q&A after the movie.  We were pleasantly surprised though that the director and stars did show up at the beginning for a quick thank you and wave to the audience.  For an early Sunday morning movie, this was quite the gesture and much appreciated.

So the festival was off to a good start for us with three diverse and entertaining movies and  great hopes for more to come.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Don Valley Brickworks Farmers Market

The Evergreen Brickworks (formerly Don Valley Brickworks) on 550 Bayview Ave is a community centre promoting environmental issues and sustainable living. In the summer, a large organic farmer's market is held on its premises on Saturday mornings, and a small antique market on Sundays.

In keeping with its mandate, the site encourages visitors to come by free shuttle bus from Broadview station, or by foot or bike rather than driving.  We like to access the Brickworks by bike, riding through the Mount Pleasant Cemetary to get to Moore Ave, where the entrance to Moore Ravine is found next to Moorevale Park.  This Ravine trail can be followed right to the Brickworks.  The entire ride from Yonge and St. Clair is about 5km.  Unfortunately the Ravine is uphill all the way home and being laden with farmer's market loot and full stomachs make it that much harder.

The farmer's market features all the traditional fare of local fruits and vegetables, breads and baked goods, cheeses, meats, candles, crafts.  We always look for harder to find produce and came home on a recent trip with heirloom tomatoes, purple beans, olive bread, zucchini blossoms and wild blueberries.

The zucchini blossoms were a special treat since they brought back memories of our trip to Rome where we went to the Jewish Quarter and ate deep fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with mozzarella and fresh unsalted anchovies.  Rich tried to reproduce this delicacy and was almost successful except that we could not find unsalted anchovies.

Our last trip to the Brickworks was for the annual wild blueberry festival in late August.  Large quantifies of wild blueberries were being sold by the pint, quart and basket and were the featured ingredient for many of the usual food stalls.  Blueberry smoothies, tarts, cookies, jam, crepes ... the list went on and on.

One of the most popular food vendors (judging from the perpetually long lineups) is Clement's Crepes.  I always feel sorry for the burrito guy in the next stall who has nowhere near as many customers and is actually blocked by the crowd waiting for the crepes.  This year Clement hired an assistant to make the orders go faster but that has not reduced the lineups.

It is so much fun watching him spin the crepe batter on the wheel and expertly flip the crepe.  You choose from various types of crepes that could contain fresh and grilled vegetables, meats and a generous heaping of cheese.  Clement lets the cheese flow beyond the edge of the crepe so that part of the cheese is crispy while the rest melts inside.

The result is delicious and worth the wait to try it at least once.  My usual crepe is the sauteed portobello and Cremini mushrooms (of course!) with organic spinach and mozzarella, fresh rosemary and roasted garlic sauce.

Rich is partial to another vendor called "Buddah Dog" who occasionally makes a deep fried poached egg with sauteed corn beef hash on a grilled bun.   To me, it sounds like something that should be found at the CNE along with the deep fried butter.


On a hot day, the stall selling exotic fruit juice and herb popsicles is a welcome sight.  Flavours include grapefruit/lime/ginger,  strawberry/lemon/basil, and the one we had, which was mandarin orange/ginger/lemon.

In the back of the building hosting the farmers market is a beautiful pond that contains large snapping turtles and other wildlife.  There is walking trail including paths up to a lookout with a spectacular view of the Toronto skyline.  In the autumn, this is great place to see the fall colours when the leaves are at their peak, without having to drive far outside of Toronto.


Koerner Gardens is a newly opened building that demonstrates planting and gardening tips and techniques in the summer.  The community and school groups are encouraged to help out in planting and maintaining gardens.

In the winter, it is transformed into a skating rink with a refrigeration system that will harness excess energy to be used to heat surrounding buildings.

The Kilns were the area for baking the bricks manufactured at the brick works.  It includes 3 long tunnel kilns and 6 single-track drying tunnels.  Historical plaques are displayed describing the past uses of the kilns.  Large portraits of past workers our painted on the brick walls.  This is a very cool space which will be a perfect location for future art exhibitions and other events.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Yorkville - Cork Exhibit & Liss Gallery

La Casa Del Habano, a cigar store in Yorkville, hosted a "cork art" exhibition.  Intricate village scenes and nature are created completely out of wine corks.  There was even a huge cigar made of corks hanging from the store window.

The Chilean artist, Nacho Cartegena, was giving a demonstration in front of the store, slicing parts of cork with his knife and pasting them onto his new work with his glue gun.  Entire corks still displaying the vineyard are used as building walls, while slivers of cork become everything from window frames and doors to grass and flower petals.

While I was inside inspecting the various cork pieces, I noticed that Rich had disappeared and was actually across the street.  He was admiring another type of "art" that obviously interested him much more.  Parked on the street was a shiny Porsche 356 Speedster.   

Across from the cigar store is Liss Gallery which often has very interesting art on display.  Recently they were showing paintings of board games like monopoly and scrabble.

The current exhibit is a series of black and white photos by Henry Benson, a celebrated photographer known for taking memorable and iconic photos of musicians, actors, sports and political figures.  He seems to have a knack of capturing his subjects at important moments in their lives, resulting in spontaneous, vibrant and engrossing photos.

What made these photos especially interesting were the short commentaries accompanying each one.  Benson describes his personal memories of the photos, detailing the circumstances that led to each shot, his inspirations and feelings while taking them.

We found out that we had missed the actual exhibit, which  had a lot more photos on display and included a visit by Harry Benson himself.  Not wanting to miss more interesting exhibitions from this gallery, I signed up to be on the email distribution list for upcoming events.

La Casa del Habano - 141 Yorkville Ave
Liss Gallery - 140 Yorkville Avenue