TIFF REVIEWS: Day 2

My first full day of the festival! This was the only day in which I had to put in a literal filler into my lineup (Huacho) because of a less-than-amazing schedule. Solid day though – no film was terrible and quite a few were great.

My first morning screening was The Happiest Girl in the World. If you know me, you know that I have an obsession with Romanian New Wave, so this was quite high on my anticipation. It isn’t a fantastic feature, nor an incredibly creative one, but it does happen to be a delightful little film that aptly chronicles the teenage tragedy.

With a cute lead performance – as well as a crass supporting cast – The Happiest Girl in the World sports honesty above all else. The character interactions are meaningful and overtly sincere to both its teenage and adult viewers; hardly ever being a one-sided affair.

The script takes pride in making the making the parent/child dynamic as uncomfortable as possible: creating unparalleled tension with the wants and needs of the family’s lives through an assortment of awkward pauses that occur regularly and humorously.

Coating the heart of the story is the (overly) plain plot that is maintained in true Romanian New Wave fashion. Taking place within a single day, the story consists of a teenager on the verge of womanhood, but is already stuck in a tired routine, and therefore an early aged rut. The girl is Delia (Andreea Bosneag) and she has recently won a contest through an orange juice company – her prize: a new car. It wasn’t a difficult win – she sent in three bottle labels and by the luck of the draw won one of the many cars on display.

Throughout the story, our annoyingly immature protagonist whines and pleads with her parents for the car. She doesn’t care for their needs – their financial instability and worriment for the impending future – because her eyes are focused solely on obtaining an impressive little automobile. Her parents’ rational alternative to her inane want is for them to sell the car, get their small business off the ground, pay for Delia’s college tuition in a few months and then in two years, when she actually has her license and they’re well set economically, they’ll buy her a new car. She persists that she never got a fair shake in their home – that they never did anything expensive for her and focused on themselves. Here is where the audience has to take a side – the conflicting sides make for an interesting conversation with self and whose side you take depends entirely on your life experience/judge of character.

Later on her reasoning becomes about as asinine as one could imagine – she just wants the car to flaunt around with her friend and go to the beach. A very youthful notion and a fine one as well, but due to the recent economic fluctuation, its either sell now or sell never; driving it once would decrease the value significantly.

Outside this meandering, but honest take on contemporary issues there lays a preliminary plot – the contest regulations. Delia has to do a 35 second plug for the juice company which is found too difficult a task for the teen. She constantly messes up the simple line she has to speak – “my name is Delia Fratilia and I am the luckiest, happiest girl in the world” – which is easily attributed to the outward family breakdown. Every event becomes a mess which causes for humorous complications and where most of the comedy lays in this feature.

The conclusion/climax does well to justify Delia’s means; making the viewer at least a little bit sympathetic to her situation and a tad comprehensible to her actions.

All in all, The Happiest Girl in the World will have you emotionally invested from start to finish. Its dryly comical and unconventional take on what would be an uplifting and obvious Hollywood feature is refreshing, but hardly to any fan of the recent Romanian wave. It waddles around its importance a bit too much and the lead character is one of the most frustrating of the year. In fact almost all the characters are gnawing, but that’s when you know a cast has done its job effectively – when you feel passionately about their performances; even in a negative context. Its amusing; its refreshing; its Romanian. [7/10]

Next up is Huacho – a Chilean feature that wasn’t high on my radar and is the only film I’d call a filler in my lineup all festival. To be honest, I got exactly what I figured I would get, so it wasn’t too bad time spent, but certainly not ideal.

A decadent little feature, Huacho is composed of four stories spawning from each diverse member of a quaint little family in Huacho, Peru. The film aptly shows the distinctions between generations and sexes in this quiet country village; displaying that we in more fortunate society aren’t too different from the men, women and children across the border.

The film opens on the family of four preparing for their day by cherishing brief time with one and other around the breakfast table, prior to getting on with their daily routine.

The first story that stems from this humble abode is Clemira (Clemira Aguayo), who is the adhesive that holds this unconventional home (at least by North American standards) together; the grandmother. She works with a few other elderly women – making cheese in difficult and dirty conditions and selling the wrapped up dairy product on roadside to passersby. This is found difficult when the economic turmoil surrounding the village eventually collapses onto the earnest folk and is cause for a sad price increase for even the most ordinary products (milk, for example) which makes life difficult. Of course, you can’t make cheese without milk, so grandmother’s simple tasks now descry as more arduous. She never complains, decries or gives up because like stated earlier, she is the fundamental stone that keeps this home intact.

The next story follows the mother in an exhausted storyline. Alejandra (Alejandra Yanez) is Clemira’s daughter; a housemaid for a wealthier, whiter family than hers. The lady she works for is fair about the pay she gives Alejandra, so when she asks for pay in advance for the nth straight week and her employer declines, you don’t feel anything for the ‘protagonist’ in this situation. She comes off rather jejune and vapid – taking away from all the ardent intent that preceded in grandmother’s story.

We move onto Manuel’s (Manuel Hernandez) storyline. He’s your typical preteen; slightly angst-ridden, intelligent but wandering and a bit pathetic. His story is heartbreaking as you see the social distance between him and richer classmates being enforced by the air of superiority. When a classmate brings in a PSP, Manuel is very deterred and only wishes he could be as fortunate. This will be an emotional wallop to anyone who has been in a less fortunate financial situation as this peerless boy looks as if he is crying on the inside. He loves losing himself in a fantastical world – we learn this from his arcade adventures – so being denied a touch of the item does ring sincere and less infantile than one would expect. Not to say the story is a complete success as the child does hop on one’s nerves from time to time with his selfish behavior – distancing the connection.

The final story is very commonplace; very pedestrian. It tells the simple tale of Cornelio (Cornelio Villagran) the grandfather of the home. He’s worked onerously day in and day out for decades and doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon. He builds fences and appears to really enjoy his outdoor labor, even if it is a bit redundant. After work, he enjoys kicking back with old friends and regaling on the glory days. This was my favourite segment as it told so much about one character with very little exertion. Cornelio is one of the most genuine characters I’ve seen in quite some time, which can easily be attributed to many factors, but I like to think that it was the performer’s simplistic and humanistic portrayal that did the most good.

All in all, this film was a rather solid success. If not for the mother’s terribly obvious story and bits of the child’s this would’ve been one of, if not, the best feature I’d have seen at TIFF. Because of these flaws, I’ll map out my grade for this in the most straightforward way imaginable: 2.5/4: two points for the grandparents and half a point for the child. Perfect. [7/10]

Creation

TIFF’s opening night gala – and one of the most anticipated features of the year – is Creation. The thought of Paul Bettany in what could be his well-deserved first Oscar nominated role had me giddy with excitement and Darwin’s life sounded like a thoroughly interesting one, so this was quite high up on my list. Unfortunately, Creation isn’t as inspiring or, well, creative as the title indicates.

The film kicks off with Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) already in the latter stages of life. His marriage with first-cousin Emma (Jennifer Connelly) is slowly disintegrating as his boundless research has taken a stranglehold on Mr. Darwin’s life. So much that it is in fact killing the man. Instantly I have an issue with the formula of Jon Arniel’s view on Darwin’s way of living because he, like many other failed filmmakers, try to take the shock away from incestuous relations by presenting them as casual – as they of course were in previous centuries. This would be all fine and dandy if it wasn’t brought up as critical in later stages making the calmness of the love affair seem cynical and against the norm in then contemporary UK. In any mindset, you don’t go into a Darwin film expecting blatantly trite soap-opera affairs. This one misstep alone infuriated me because it deliberately took time away from telling the real story at hand in order to manifest some unwarranted animosity.

As expected, more of this becomes prevalent throughout the course of the feature (unnecessary drama, I mean) which spins what could have been an interesting scientific feature into your typical Hollywood melodrama vehicle that churns out more cheese than a pizzeria. All of this calculates itself into an unfortunately bland film because I can assure you that a film entirely about Darwin’s intellectual demeanor and studies would’ve fared sufficient enough in providing the viewer with drama, conflict and insight.

The story – no matter how fragmented in structure – remains tired and predictable without a dab of tension or truculent intent. Writer John Collee hardly ever tries to apply the understandings of Darwin much at all – leaving plentiful space void of any sincere characterization; displaying Darwin simply as a fatherly shell. Fortunately, Bettany’s ability to muster up sincerity is enough to save the role from being as disoriented as Collee’s scripture formula. He keeps Darwin from becoming too stiff – giving him an emotional core for all viewers to warm up to. He is indisputably the saving grace of this otherwise mediocre affair.

What will be found as most bothersome to viewers is the completely lacking integration of science into the film. Apart from a marvelous stop-motion segment judiciously boasting Darwin’s perception on the bleak circle of life, any scene concocted plays on the human condition and uses science solely as a backdrop for the main character.

There is a fair bit of interest that comes with the family dynamic that the feature presents. Looking at it as a regulated family drama, it’s decent. There are a fair few sentimental scenes between Charles and his daughter Annie (Martha West) that will keep those watching invested for at least a few minutes, even if Annie does come across as a sociopath. Then of course you have the country’s outlook on mischievous ‘ol Darwin that supplies an exhaustively pronounced perspective, as well as similar conflicts with Emma Darwin that result in the same detriment to the genius. All of this plays out as typically as one would expect – it isn’t terrible, but it is a far shot from being great.

More period-set soap opera than Blossoms in the Dust; more dulling than insightful; more Jane Austen than Charles Darwin, Creation is a rambling family drama that is happy to frolic in convention throughout its entirety. [5/10]

TGH

Dagur Kari’s latest film, The Good Heart is an ironic and uncomfortable fish out of water tale. Its about a bitter, lonely man taking a young, soft-spoken homeless man under his begrudged wing in hopes to keep the business thriving long after his ill-ridden body falls to its inevitable demise. The script (also hemmed by Kari) slowly reveals the traits that complete the two leads through slow and seamless craftsmanship. Very little seems false – plenty is wisely coalesced and serves as a great dish to ponder for the typical thinking man.

The two men – the crass, tawdry Jacques (Brian Cox) and giving, prudent Lucas (Paul Dano)  – begin an unlikely friendship when both are placed in the same critical care room at one of New York’s hospitals; one each has attended several times prior. Lucas’ case is that he tried to commit suicide – his life is impetuous and he was always oft on the verge of this fate. It’s not that he’s a supremely depressed man – he just holds no purpose in this cosmos. He is the single most selfless character I’ve seen displayed on film all decade – this thought is only cemented when, just prior to slitting his wrists, he gives his minuscule and dirty cardboard shack to a stray kitten. His kindness is limitless, so of course when he meets Jacques there’s an uneasy, but humorous tension that stems from their interaction.

Jacques on the other hand is antagonistic, foul-mouthed, selfish and above all, a deviant. He owns a local bar that he bought for cheap after the government seized the property a few years prior and drinks as much as you’d expect a lonely barkeep would. He’s on heart attack number five; one number higher than the amount of regular customers he has and a number infinitely larger than the amount of friends and family he has. All Jacques has going for him is a bad heart and a loyal dog that is as gloomy as the city surrounding them both.

Of course, when Jacques essentially forces Lucas to be son-like there’s a lot of humor involved. Dark humor, but humor nonetheless. Lucas’ blank expressions that resemble the words “what am I doing here?” after many of Jacques’ tirades are comical genius and it is a spectacle to watch Cox and Dano play off one and other once more, in a different light.

The only area where the film declines in the final 10 minutes or so. From the first encounter between the two characters, you have a strong inkling about how the film is going to end and you often wonder if Kari will take a different route to get across the message he so dearly wants to spread. Unlike Noi Albinoi, he doesn’t drop a bombshell on the viewers and force them to emotionally invest in the ending. Here it’s rather the opposite as he panders to his American crowd by giving them what they expect.

There are hints of genius, two great performances and a story that is meshed together by a safe balance of tension and humor. The Good Heart’s spreads across a message of peace and understanding and is only held back by its shying away from what our existence truly represents. [8/10]

FishTank

Andrea Arnold’s latest film about women finding themselves in dangerous situations is Fish Tank. Prior to seeing this feature, I was a bit skeptical. I really liked the synopsis, but Arnold’s last (and only feature to date) Red Road was far from my cup of tea. The pacing had a difficult groove to get into and the story was too emotionally enigmatic for me to enjoy. So while expecting a solid outing from this flick, I was able to keep my expectations from running wild with me.

The film, essentially a coming of age story, is masked by the environment in which Mia (Kate Jarvis) lives. She’s 15 and every bit as aggressive and bitter as the ghetto she lives in. Her only escape from this trapping existence is her dancing; break, mostly. For no apparent reason, she is left friendless when her best friend decides to shun her – and even though she puts forth a hardened shell, she is undeniably devastated and vulnerable. This is where we meet John (Michael Fassbinder), a handsome, kind man that is dating Mia’s mother; a foul, mean.spirited woman who lives her life more recklessly than Mia or her hilariously vulgar 9 year old sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). Slowly, but surely Mia begins to fall for John’s charm. At times it appears as if Mia’s mother can smell the slow-burning romance beneath her nose – at others she just seems vindictive against her offspring because they ruined her youth as it would only be logical to think that she gave birth to Mia as a teenager, as she looks no older than 30 herself.

In an additional segment about a chained up horse, we get to learn more about Mia’s personal code and a large amount of introspect into what characteristics define her as well. She, like the horse, feels trapped and affiliates her situation with the stallion so intensively that she feels in order for herself to be free, she must free the animal. Throw off the chains and saddle – that sort of mindset. Because of this, she finds herself in precarious positions that usually involve her safety being put on the line.

As the film progresses, you get quiet hints as to why Mia cares for John so severely. A few instances would be that he’s the only nice person to her, he has issues with a mother that rides his back constantly, he enjoys losing himself in music and he’s handsome. Of course, all of these positive traits are enhanced because of Mia’s current mindset and aching loneliness. All of this elevates to a point where Mia finds herself counteracting her own code to spend alone time with John. In this scene, she traps and abets the murder of a vastly free fish as opposed to releasing a life that’s captured.

Essentially you must be curious as to what Fish Tank can be interpreted as, so I’ll give you my interpretation. You see, Mia is trapped (effectively put forth by the 4:3 cropped cinematography – putting our heroine in a literal box) like a fish in its tank. She only ever feels free when she dances (swimming) and only ever dances in a vacant room that has a faded blue paint job. When someone apart from ragtag sex hounds in junkyards take interest to her, her tank expands and she’s allow a breath of fresh air. When she feels betrayed or anxious, she resorts to her typical state; closing herself off from others to take in the bass-booming waves within the confinements of her tank, swimming until she’s too tired to care any longer or until her hearts content.

The final act resembles, yet exceeds the realistic chase sequences found in Arnold’s Red Road. One of the most frenzied scenes of the year occurs near the end of the feature and invested in the prior 100 minutes or not, your heart will be beating as fast as the protagonist’s. It almost draws the entire feature afoul by taking it to untouched extremes.

What I took most from this minor masterpiece was Katie Jarvis’ divine leading performance. As a die-hard fan of youth performances, it should come as some honor for me to say that this is by far one of the best you’ll ever see and that she should take home some accolades for her stark and depressing portrayal as Mia. Her performance, like the film, is a true gritty work of art. [9/10]

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