Screenwriter and lyricist Varun Grover‘s script Maa Bhagwatiya IIT Coaching was selected for NFDC-TIFF’s ScriptLab this year. He not only went to the lab but also managed to catch some of the interesting films at the fest. So over to him for all the dope on the fest and some film reccos.
Thanks to NFDC’s script lab in association with Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), I got to attend this year’s fest (from 5th to 15th September) in Toronto. Though the first 5 days were devoted mostly to the script lab sessions (with our excellent mentors – Marten Rabarts, Olivia Stewart, and Esther van Driesum – who got the nuances and layers of our scripts so bang-on in spite of being from a culture far removed from ours), I stayed for 5 more days to watch cinema. And I think Toronto has been getting the best line-up of films for the last few years. Oscar season is close-by, TIFF Director Cameron Bailey’s film-hunting/sourcing skills are legendary, and TIFF doesn’t shy away from seemingly non-festival stuff like Gravity and The F Word (on two ends of commercial spectrum) – resulting in a film fest with so many options (with ample repeat screenings) that out of the 16 films I could catch, at least 10 were absolutely stunning and another 3 in #MustWatch category. And I missed at least 7 big films, in addition to many small ones, that I so badly wanted to see. (People’s Choice winner ‘12 Years a Slave’, FIPRESCI winner ‘Ida’, Cannes winners ‘Blue is the warmest color’ and ‘A Touch of Sin’, Richard Ayoade’s ‘The Double’, Reitman’s ‘Labor Day’, and Miyazaki’s last ‘The Wind Rises’.)
But what a smooth fest it was. Never seen volunteers this organized, informed, helpful, cheerful, and above all passionate for cinema! Most of them were students who chose to volunteer because for every 6 hours of work they used to get one movie ticket free. And then there were some who had been doing it for many years – and some (like this 80-year old lady scanning barcodes on our cards outside the venue) who loved being part of the buzz. Every volunteer inside the venue I went to (Scotiabank) knew which movie was playing on which screen, who had directed it, and what was the duration. And they would make a human-chain in the theatre gallery for really crowded screenings (like Gravity’s) so that no one jumps the queue. Met two young filmmakers while waiting in a queue who had volunteered at the fest 3 years ago and they said the recruitment for next year’s volunteers will start soon after this is over, and they prepare for close to 10-months for this level of professionalism.
So here’s the list of films I watched and my 2-line reactions to them:
The Fifth Estate (Bill Condon): Hugely underwhelming. No insights into Assange’s mind or workings or flaws, and more like a Madhur Bhandarkar attempt at cashing-in on the hype around the man. Wannabe Social Network, but with writing so clichéd that even Cumberbatch couldn’t save this one. And later I realized the director, Bill Condon, had made 2 Twilight films before this. That figures.
Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve): Sirf naam hi kaafi hai. Villeneuve’s last (Incendies) was one of the best, most explosive film 2 years ago, and hence was really looking forward to this. Turned out it had (my fav) Paul Dano too in it, with (Prestige-faced) Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. And what a spine-chilling film it was! Definitely among the top 3 I saw at TIFF. Villeneuve (with his writer Aaron Guzikowski) enters a David Fincher world but brings much more art-house sensibility (with a Korean psycho fetish angle) and Roger Deakins’ absolutely gorgeous aesthetics to it. Won’t talk about the plot as this film is best savored with a blank slate mind. Doubt we will see a better thriller this year.
Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron): This one was a safe bet – and it still managed to exceed my expectations. By around a 100 light-years. I don’t think I breathed for the 90-minutes it played. Best use of 3-D, green-screen, Sandra Bullock, and space debris yet in cinemas. Watch it on the biggest screen in 3-D please.
The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (Helene Cattet, Bruno Forzani): I don’t really know what I saw. 4-5 people walked out every 5 minutes and by the time the film ended, only 30-35 of us were left. Something that would make the much acclaimed mad-duo of Belgian cinema happy. Weirdia of the highest order. Lots of blood, nudity, absurdism, zero narration or attempt at it, but everything done with so much class and aesthetic value that difficult to dismiss it. Colors, mood, performances – all screamed ‘installation art’ of highest order.
R100 (Hitoshi Matsumoto): One of the best discoveries at TIFF. Directed by Japan’s most absurdist filmmaker and leading comedian, this was weird, funny, cutting-edge satire, and sexual fantasy in equal measures. Brilliantly, genuinely subversive. (And he called it R100 to take a swipe at censor boards who’d give it a rating ‘suitable only for 100-years or older’). Wait for this one!
Enemy (Denis Villeneuve): Yup, DV had two films at the fest. Both with Jake Gyllenhaal in a major role. He apparently shot them back to back and then edited parallel – and seeing how different the genres and mood was, he has to be having two separate brains to do it with so much perfection. Enemy, based on a Jose Saramago novel (yup!) though reminding me of a Satyajit Ray short story ‘Ratan Babu’, has terrific Melanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon giving company to Jake finding his exact double accidently, and is so moody that it feels like a tarantula spider creeping up your back. Just a bit underwhelming when compared to ‘Prisoners’, but is comparison even valid?
Moebius (Kim ki Duk): You walk into a Kim ki Duk film expecting bizarre but this one, as far as I know, is bizarre level max he has ever reached. This one is bizarre level ‘eating a dick after cutting it’. This one is bizarre level ‘mom eating son’s dick after cutting it’. (No, it’s not a spoiler, just a warning. This particular sequence is right in the beginning of the film.) And it’s a silent film – completely silent. And it could have been called ‘Dick of Theseus’. And it was the funniest, goriest, sexiest, most disturbing, and thrilling, and taali-seeti worthy film I saw at TIFF. And somehow, Duk manages to push his Buddhist agenda through all this weirdness too. Takes a genius for that. Also among my top 3 there. Must watch if you can handle bleeding dicks.
Gopi Gawaiyya Bagha Bajaiyya (Shilpa Ranade): The only film at the fest that left me disappointed. Had high hopes with this one – and the art of the film is top-notch. Beautiful frames, decent level of animation, but where it faltered badly was in the dialogues and technicalities of animation. Lines written in clunky, orthodox Hindi and making the background out-of-focus to give depth (in a 2-D animation!) made the film look way tackier than it should have been.
Qissa (Anup Singh): A film based on partition, in Punjabi, starring Irrfan and Tillotama Shome and Rasika Duggal and Tisca Chopra! I was already sold. And though it deals with partition in a more symbolic, metaphoric, allegorical way – I was moved immensely by it. Many friends had issues with the logic and amount of suspension of disbelief it demands (basic premise of a father who brings up his daughter as a son without letting anybody else know is a bit of a stretch, yes) – but it still managed to disturb and involve me probably because of the magic realism zone it enters in the 2nd half. And also because of Rasika and Tillotama’s terrific performances. Probably it’s only me but I think the film gives a solid theory on why Punjab has the maximum cases of female foeticide/infanticide. (Qissa won the NETPAC Award at TIFF.)
Why Don’t You Play In Hell (Shion Sono): Shion Sono of Cold Fish fame is a rockstar already and this film (recommended strongly by my script lab friend Nikhil Mahajan who wanted to watch all the films in Midnight Madness section, a section devoted to all the mad-horror-slasher-campy films, with titles like ‘All Cheerleaders Die’) came with huge expectations. And the first 15-minutes just raise your expectations to the skies. A spoof on Yakuza cinema of Japan, film sags a bit in the middle with spoofs being so subtle that it starts looking serious, but the last 30-minutes or so Sono comes back full-steam and blows your head. And the very last shot adds another magical layer to the entire film! Super-ambitious and super-welldone. (WDYPIH won the best film in Midnight Madness section.)
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer): The creepiest film at TIFF, in spite of it being non-gory, non-gross. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien (nudity is there, perverts) and nothing much happens beyond a pattern (which may be a minor spoiler so avoiding), but the mood, location (cloudy, wet Scotland), Glazer’s solid craft, and Mica Levi’s trance-type BG score make it a super-juicy watch.
Half of a Yellow Sun (Biyi Bandele): Knew nothing about this film but then Aseem Chhabra recommended it and I found out it’s based on a novel by Chimamanda Adichie (always a big plus for me when a film is based on a book). And it was like a fulfilling novel – a sprawling, excellently recreated epic of 2 sisters and their 2 lovers in the middle of Nigeria-Biafra conflict of the late 60s. Would have been a strong Oscar contender in many categories if it didn’t have an all-black cast and ethos and history. And to make it even more worth it – Thandie Newton and flavor of the season Chiwetel Ejiofor (of 12 Years A Slave fame) hit it out of the park with their excellent performances.
Walesa: Man of Hope (Andrzej Wajda): Another of my favorite genres – biopics. And this one is as solid as any I’ve ever seen. Based on the life of Lech Walesa, a man I knew nothing about except vague memories from GK books that he won a Nobel Peace Prize, the film is a bit too political-jargon heavy, but none of it stops it from being a great, engaging film with some godlevel period-recreation detailing. And the use of Polish punk-rock music as a thematic narration device adds so much to the mood of the era. Plus the main lead Robert Wieckiewickz has the charm and power of early Robert De Niro and the actress playing his wife (Danuta Walesa), Agnieszka Grochowska, had a face with so much beauty, pain, and understanding ki mujhe us-se pyaar ho gaya. Triple Ace!
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby – Him and Her (Ned Benson): A mouthful of a title, a seemingly simple drama about a couple’s separation but dive into the film and realize it’s almost as ambitious as Gravity. Two films (of 90 mins each) showing the perception of events through husband’s and wife’s perspective – and so many layers added by just one more perspective to a particular event. And the best part – the film showed as Him-Her and then in another show as Her-Him (the order of perspectives reversed) and that changed the meaning of many scenes for viewers, including the climax. So in a way, it’s a film as well as a perception game! Interactive cinema done so simply. And I’ve not even started on how sensitive, brilliant, and insightful Ned Benson’s writing is. This one too, among my top 3 at TIFF.
Thou Gild’st The Even (Onur Unlu): Shot in crisp 35 mm black and white and great to look at, but kuchh samajh nahin aaya so walked out after 30 minutes. Read more about it here and go WTF.
The F Word (Michael Dowse): Don’t even ask me why I went to see this one. (There wasn’t anything else playing at that time, mainly that’s why. Also ‘cos Dowse made the terrific ‘It’s All Gone Pete Tong’.) A standard rom-com, most likely to make profit if it releases during Christmas or Valentine’s Day, with some very funny lines, and some very average clichés, but done well. Zoe Kazan is excellent, crush-worthy, yet again after Ruby Sparks (which she by the way wrote too), and Daniel Radcliffe is stuck in that odd place/age where Kunal Khemu and Jugal Hansraj have already been.