Soulmining at TIFF '09, Day One - Accident, DogtoothJennifer's Body and Nymph
25th Sep 09
I'm delighted to be back in Toronto for TIFF 09 covering the festival on behalf of Eat My Brains and Chris And Phil Present. This is my third year here and I love the city and its people in addition to the extensive and diverse range of films which are screening over the ten day period that the festival runs for. Second only to Cannes in the festival calendar, TIFF showcases over 300 new films and is seen as a pivotal launch pad for distributors in the run up to awards season.
My treasured pass entitles me to attend any Press & Industry (P&I) screening, plus press conferences, red carpet events and a limited number of public screenings. With the P&I schedule not starting until midday I opt to spend the morning in the Screening Library at the Sutton Place Hotel, the base for all Press & Industry operations - and a mere five minute walk from my apartment in downtown Toronto.
Sat in a quiet room with a dozen other delegates, I make myself comfortable in front of my own personal screen and don the headphones ready for my selection. I've chosen Soi Cheang's Accident as it's one film likely to clash with other selections of mine in the screening schedule.
Produced by HK veteran Johnnie To (whose own Vengeance screens here) the film has a neat premise in which a group of individuals are killers for hire, but the murders they commit are elaborately staged to look like accidents. When their latest hit goes wrong and one of their own is targeted, Brain (Louis Koo) suspects there's a traitor in their midst - or was it really just an accident? Accident's strength is its tightly-plotted story but whilst the set pieces are clever, the momentum really ebbs in places, despite the brief 89min running time. The characters too are somewhat cold and distant and I never really got a hook into them. Nevertheless, Cheang's solid direction and the film's original subject matter should ensure that Accident becomes a favourite for fans of Asian crime thrillers.
With one film under my belt it's now time to stop by the Western Union in order to pick up some hastily arranged travel money (after the ATM had alarmingly swallowed my card the previous night) and then continue on to the Varsity where the majority of P&I screenings are again taking place, where I meet up with fellow festival delegates Paul McEvoy, Ian Rattray (FrightFest) and Todd Brown (Twitch) ready for our first proper screening of the day.
Tickets for the Midnight Madness world premiere of Jennifer's Body are the hottest in town, so we've decided to play safe and catch Karyn Kusama's smart horror/comedy earlier in the day. The attention of course is all down to the presence of one Megan Fox, voted FHM's 'Sexiest Woman of the Year' for the past two years. Fox plays Jennifer, a high school cheerleader who's extremely self-confident and only too aware of the power her good looks have over others. When a satanic indie band come to town and their singer (Adam Brody) seduces her, Jennifer turns into a man-hungry succubus after a sacrificial ritual backfires. It's up to shy best friend Needy (Amanda Seyfried) to save the day as the school prom approaches and Jennifer's appetite becomes insatiable.
With a script from the pen of Diablo Cody, the dialogue is as hip and witty as you'd expect from the writer of Juno - if anything, the film earns its R rating from its more colourful language as opposed to any overly graphic content. In fact it's the comedy that dominates proceedings, the horror elements surprisingly tame and although you might jump a couple of times it's certainly not a scary picture. Whilst much of the focus is on the ladies of the film, the male cast (especially Johnny Simmons who plays Needy's boyfriend Chip) are well served, and there's a great cameo from J.K. Simmons as a hook-handed teacher. Fox is perfectly suited to the role of the hot-bodied temptress but it's actually Seyfried who carries the film and gives a breakout performance here.
Waiting for my next film to start I bump into Bruce Fletcher (Idaho International Film Festival) who's feeling a little shellshocked after seeing Antichrist, which of course has already received a theatrical release in the UK. However, this pales in comparison to what we witness in Dogtooth, the sophomore feature from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos that follows a married couple who home-school their three children in unusual and extreme ways. Forbidden from leaving their home, the only contact they have with the outside world is in the shape of Christina, a colleague of their father who is employed to relieve the brother of his sexual urges. When Christina makes a bargain with the eldest daughter this sets in motion a chain of events that ultimately threatens the stability of the entire household.
Selecting Dogtooth on word-of-mouth alone pays off in spades as it proves to be a challenging, taboo-busting film full of genuinely jaw-dropping scenes. Suffice to say the family are so dysfunctional they might just as well be living on another planet! Played brilliantly in a matter-of-fact style it's shocking yet unashamedly comical too, although a lot of the time it's probably nervous laughter at the uncomfortable subject matter. And whilst determinedly not a genre film there are still a couple of moments here that will make you gasp in horror. As we leave the cinema Bruce comments that it's one of the sickest films that he's ever seen, and coming from a former Canadian film censor that's quite a compliment. Destined to enthrall some and offend many, it will be a brave distributor that attempts to bring Dogtooth to a wider audience, but for my money it's already an early highlight of the festival.
Different people have different approaches to getting the best from the fest. Some just pick and choose as they go along, others like myself plot a course through the schedule with a military like precision. Yet this is always in flux as you hear feedback on films, meet fellow delegates and your state of mind changes as you go through each day. My finely tuned schedule goes out the window mid-afternoon once I see the line for The Men Who Stare At Goats, the new Clooney film based on the book by Jon Ronson. Already snaking along the corridor, down the stairwell and into the street outside I decide not to bother with that one and instead share a well-earned break with Bruce.
Batteries recharged, we're back at the Varsity for Nymph, the latest film from Pen-ek Ratanaruang. I'm a big fan of the Thai director having met him during my first foreign festival assignment in Bangkok in 2006, and his previous film Ploy screened at TIFF two years ago. Arriving in its new Director's Cut, some 15mins shorter than the cut screened at Cannes earlier this year, Nymph is a supernatural tale about a couple in a loveless marriage. Nop (Nopachai Jayanama) is a wildlife photographer who disappears in the forest having become spellbound by a haunted tree, leaving May (Wanida Termthanaporn) to reflect on their relationship and the illicit affair that she's been having with her boss.
Continuing the director's passion for love triangles, this is a decidedly arthouse movie in which the issue of marriage is the main theme. Unlike a lot of Asian cinema that involves ghosts, Pen-ek is more concerned with spiritual issues, and the nymph (the tree's spirit - in female form) is not depicted as a threatening presence at all. The film looks fantastic with an amazing opening prologue filmed in one long take using a high crane shot, and Termthanaporn (better known as a member of Thai pop band Girly Berry) is impressive, but there's not enough substance to engage the mind. More of a mood piece, the endless woodland shots soon tire and even with its new shorter running time Nymph feels far too long and would have perhaps best been envisioned as a short film.
After a bite to eat and a welcome reunion with Mitch Davis (Fantasia) at the Foxes Den I was ready to enter the other Fox’s den down at the Ryerson Theatre, home to all of the Midnight Madness screenings. The late hour of these screenings normally ensures a minimal media presence, but of course with Megan Fox due to attend the world premiere of Jennifer’s Body it’s a circus down there, with film crews and photographers jostling for position on one side of the red carpet, screaming fans the other. Being an unashamed fan of Ms. Fox I’ve already informed Chris that I will be doing everything in my power to get up close and personal with the star. Rather than joining the photographers with my woefully inadequate compact camera like I did last year, this time I’m prepared with our portable digital recorder, ready to capture any soundbites that come my way. Having introduced myself to the press liaison officer I’m shepherded into the press scrum sandwiched somewhere between E! Entertainment and The Jay Leno Show.
Things are looking bleak for me as first Adam Brody and then Johnny Simmons and Amanda Seyfried are ushered swiftly past, but then my luck changes and I get some time with director Karyn Kusama and scribe Diablo Cody in quick succession. And then the noise level goes up a notch as Megan Fox arrives, working the line in her black Valentino cocktail dress and, to my great surprise, I’m granted one question with her. Wow. Less than a minute later and she’s moved on to Leno and my moment is over. It’s the first day of the festival and I’ve peaked too early – it’s all going to be downhill from here onwards! My confidence soaring, I grab a quick soundbite from local hero Jason Reitman (director of Juno and Clooney’s other new film, Up In The Air) who produced Jennifer’s Body and then my work here is over. Job done!