TIFF 08: Day 10

This one’s a couple days late, but I didn’t feel like lugging around the laptop one more day and didn’t feel like writing when we got home from our last screening. I’m home now, and ready to put the whole whirlwind trip behind me. It was a great time, but I’m glad to be home with my couch and my dog. So here’s one more day of TIFFing before I get back into the routine of the real world.

Read on for musings on Chocolate, The Real Shaolin, and Miracle at St. Anna, plus a couple of wrap-up thoughts…

Miracle at St. Anna

Miracle at St. Anna

Miracle at St. Anna
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Pierfrancesco Favino, Valentina Cervi, Matteo Sciabordi, Walton Goggins, John Turturro, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

We started the festival with a WWI epic, and ended with a WWII epic. I wrote earlier with my review of Good, “the last thing the world needs is another WWII Nazi movie, so if you’re going to produce one, it’s best to have something new to offer”. When it’s a WWII movie directed by Spike Lee, you expect a fresh take, and a film that covers the Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black 92nd Infantry Division used in the Italian campaign, is definitely covering fresh territory.

So for all the film’s flaws (and there are many), perhaps what’s most surprising is how typically most of the film plays out. The war scenes, even when infused with some of Spike Lee’s trademark visual cues, are so clichéd to the point of bordering on parody. Everything you’d expect to happen from watching other war movies happens, with most of the film being telegraphed in the first ten minutes through the framing device Lee employs.

Instead, what Lee offers is an overlong, overwrought story that is about an hour longer than the story justifies. But his worst transgressions are toward the Buffalo Soldiers themselves, with characterizations so stereotypical that were they presented by a white director, you’d expect Spike Lee to protest it. At one point in the film, a white commanding officer played by Walton Goggins asks if this is some kind of minstrel show, which oddly echoed the same question I had about Miracle at St. Anna.

Verdict: Fail – There was probably enough good scenes (one or two) to keep this from being the worst film I saw at TIFF, but it’s absolutely the biggest disaster I saw. Avoid this mess at all costs.

Chocolate

Chocolate

Chocolate
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Starring: Jija Yanin, Hiroshi Abe, Pongpat Wachirabanjong, Ammara Siripong

A few years ago, director Prachya Pinkaew debuted Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior at TIFF, making an international superstar out of Tony Jaa. This year, he’s back with Jija Yanin, a 22-year-old woman who does all her own stunts. She plays a young autistic girl who can master any fighting style she sees, and she watches a lot of kung-fu movies. When her mom needs money for cancer treatments, and her old gangster associates won’t pay their debts, its time to kick some ass. And kick ass she does.

What follows is a series of scenes with just enough plot to get from one big action piece to the next, with no more than necessary. And it is glorious. The action mostly proceeds like a video game, with Jija facing increasingly more difficult opponents in a variety of challenges, until finally moving on to the boss level. But Pinkaew manages to keep it all original, so the film never drags into repetition, remaining thrilling fun throughout, and I say this as someone who rarely ever watches kung-fu movies (we were looking for something different to break up all the indie melodrama).

Verdict: Awesome – A must-see if you like kung-fu action, and a strong recommendation even if you don’t. The most fun movie we saw at TIFF.

The Real Shaolin

The Real Shaolin

The Real Shaolin
Director: Alexander Sebastien Lee
Starring: Orion, Eric, Yuan Peng, Zhu

This documentary follows four students training to become Shaolin monks in China, and the realizations that their lives don’t resemble that which they saw in movies. Director Alexander Sebastien Lee did the training himself for a year, inspiring him to shoot this doc, which took over a year to film. Unfortunately, by peeling back the romanticism behind the Shaolin to reveal the harsh realities of modern kung-fu training (which has very little to do with fighting, as traditional Shaolin training was banned by Mao years ago), Lee also manages to produce a rather dry documentary. No strong characters or themes emerge, just a bland telling of four lives who train in harsh conditions, questioning their choices and not really achieving anything.

Verdict: Meh – A TV quality documentary that’s pretty lifeless. I dozed off a couple times.

All in all, a decent festival. I suppose on balance, I saw more bad-to-average films than I did great ones, but I still enjoyed myself quite a bit. For those of you wondering about the Oscar implications of what I saw, I’d say that I doubt I saw any Best Picture candidates, even though both The Wrestler and Slumdog Millionaire were great movies (just not the sort that gets the attention of Oscar voters). The Wrestler‘s Mickey Rourke should get some Best Actor consideration and Marissa Tomei could get some for Best Supporting Actress. Rachel Weisz could draw some Best Supporting Actress interest for The Brothers Bloom (as could Rian Johnson‘s script), while Philip Seymour Hoffman always contends and could again for Synedoche, New York (as could Charlie Kaufman‘s script).

Other than that (and some Costume, Art Direction, Documentary awards), it sounds like the bigger contenders were for two films I didn’t get to see (due to pass holder policies): The Duchess (both for Best Picture and Keira Knightley) and Rachel Getting Married (for Best Picture, director Jonathan Demme, and Anne Hathaway). It sounds like studios held out their big contenders so as to not expose films to criticism too early (after films like Elizabeth: The Golden Age and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford performed poorly after debuting to mixed reviews). But there were still some great movies on display, of which here were my top five:

  1. Slumdog Millionaire
  2. The Wrestler
  3. The Brothers Bloom
  4. Chocolate
  5. Food, Inc.

So keep an eye out for those, and see them when they come out. That’s all from me for now, but the Emmy’s are coming up this weekend, so keep an eye out for a post on that.

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