This week, instead of a DVD column (and since the only major new releases are The Hobbit and Les Miserables, both of which we will get to next week), we interrupt our usual Tuesday coverage to talk about the film festivals of Toronto. With the big announcements for the hotly anticipated Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival coming down later this morning (which we will have full coverage of this afternoon), it might be worth noting that this week brings a total of five smaller festivals to the city.
So before we get into Hot Docs or the Toronto Jewish Film Festival or CineFranco or TIFF Kids, let’s take a look at some of the offerings that officially kick the city’s nearly year long film festival mentality into high gear and what they have to offer to a wide selection of viewers:
Canadian Film Fest
Dates: March 20-23
Location: The Royal
Website and information: canfilmfest.ca
Now entering its seventh year with a mandate for highlighting little seen and often undistributed Canadian content, founder Bern Euler’s Canadian Film Fest once again skews a bit more towards genre efforts that have yet to find their way to local audiences.
The opening night film The Storm Within (Wednesday, March 20th, 7:00pm) isn’t much to write home about, sadly, as it’s a largely plodding and sometimes sleazy thriller dressed up as a low budget period piece. A woman living in 1799 Northern Quebec finds herself and her young children at the mercy of a group of boorish and loutish Red Coats while her husband is away. Things get pretty nasty, but they’re handled in that particularly Canadian way where the lack of gritty nastiness makes the subject matter almost more insulting. Far too late into the running time it actually becomes possibly the tamest rape revenge film ever made, but much like the film’s somewhat dubious, low budget period trappings, it’s all fairly unconvincing.
The pair of films showing on Friday, March 22nd are far more exciting and worthy of that opening night slot and make for a great night out at the movies. Author Shandi Micthell’s The Disappeared (7:00pm) is an excellent, tightly crafted tale of six fisherman set adrift aboard two lifeboats in the North Atlantic (600 miles or so from any land at all) after a shipwreck. There might not be enough for a full 90 minutes here, but it’s suspenseful and filled with a great sense of tension and mounting madness as the complex personalities of the men begin to clash in a fight for survival. There’s also two outstanding performances here from veteran actors Billy Campbell and Brian Downey here that make this one the most unmissable film of the series.
Following that is genre nut Justin McConnell’s return to documentary filmmaking, Skull World (9:15pm), a tale of friendship, metal, and just generally going out and fucking shit up in the name of fun. Following around one of his best buddies, Greg Sommer (a man in his early 30s who splits his day job time between graveyard ditch digging and film production), McConell takes a look at the labour of love that is Box Wars: an all out LARPing styled battle where people make elaborate armour, weapons, and costumes out of cardboard and battle it out in something that looks like a war breaking out at a GWAR mosh pit. Not only is a great and nerdy look at something that brings its main subject a lot of happiness, but it’s also a love letter to never growing up while having to deal with unexpectedly grown up responsibilities. Some of the film’s most interesting moments aren’t in the carnage, but in simple scenes where this metal dude has to look into getting liability insurance or when he gets bummed over how school kids gravitate more towards using the weapons than getting creative with their costumes. Box Wars might not be for everyone, but the film is definitely a crowd pleaser. It rocks hard as fuck, which Sommer would undoubtedly appreciate.
There are also two programmes of short films. The first (on Thursday, March 21st, 6:30pm) is a showcase of student made films, anchored by the stripped down and engaging documentary Dedication, the story of a young photographer with a son that’s a real testament of staying on the grind for a job that you love. The other batch of shorts is on Saturday, March 23rd at 3:45pm, and I can only hope that the shorts I didn’t see are better than the two that I did. The intriguing concept to Race of Life – about a reality show styled race where two couples have to spit out a newborn within a given time limit – gets bogged down in heinously unfunny one liners, unpolished satire, and no real sense of logic to even how such a show would work. And the less said about the leaden Ace of Spades – an overlong yarn about a group of door-to-door comedians who look like Mormons who try to pick the brain of a hot-headed Canadian actor – the better.
A couple of shorts that play before some of the features fare far better, especially Cicada, a hard to explain, wordless coming-of age tale that precedes The Disappeared. Honourable mentions go to the sci-fi tinged For Clearer Skies (showing before Skull World) and the dark comedy Counselling (screening prior to closing night film Mr. Viral on Saturday the 23rd at 8:30pm).
CMW Film Fest
Dates: March 21-23
Location: TIFF Bell Lightbox
Website and information: cmwfilmfest.com
Although CMW technically stands for Canadian Music Week – the largest music festival in Canada with over 1,000 musical acts playing across 60 venues in six days – they also dabble quite notably in film and comedy alongside their core mandate. This year’s film programme based out of the Lightbox looks to hold a few gems that will appeal to both hardcore music and film nerds alike.
Kicking off on the 21st at 7:00pm is Ain’t In It for My Health: A Film About Leon Helm, a disarming parable about the dangers of a rock star lifestyle and believing in your own bullshit. Following former member of The Band Leon Helm through his last days of trying to set things right, it’s a touching and gut wrenching look at a man who came to humility far too late in life for it to make a difference. It’s a heck of a documentary and Helm’s life is like a Johnny Cash song come to life.
The punk rockers of the city should rejoice at a pair of documentaries as a part of this year’s line-up. Bad Brains: A Band in DC (March 23rd, 7:00pm) comes fresh off a stint at SXSW and takes an insightful look into one of the most influential and controversial rock acts of all time across their 30 year, genre mashing career. Those more locally minded should find themselves flocking to The Last Pogo Jumps Again (March 23rd, 12:30pm), an epic look at the history of the Toronto punk scene (mostly between 1976 and ’78) and it’s place in the world over six years in the making that name drops possibly the greatest local punk documentary ever made in the title.
Then there’s this little movie called Spring Breakers (March 21st, 9:15pm) that you might have heard of by now, courtesy of cinematic enfant terrible Harmony Korine. Delivering his most “mainstream” film to date Korine enlists the likes of teen idols Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in his candy coated ode to the dark side of the American dream as four teenage BFFs get corrupted by a greezy and grody Florida drug pusher (an impeccable James Franco). It’s certainly not for everyone, but it wowed audiences at TIFF last year and it just made considerable waves in limited release last weekend south of the border. It opens here at the end of the month, but this is a great chance to see what everyone’s talking about. If you miss it now, don’t miss it later this month. Spring break foreeeeeeeeever…
Dates: March 21-24
Location: Jackman Hall AGO
Website and information: ecologos.ca/waterdocs
The name kind of says it all on this one as Canadian environmental group Ecologos brings together a festival of documentaries and talks all based around the common theme of water and all the terrible, horrible, and not-so-very-good ways that we are damaging or neglecting it.
Each night and programming block of the festival seems to have a unique theme to them. It kicks off at 7pm on the 21st at 7:00pm with a double bill of mid-ranged shorts focusing on South Asia: a region on the verge of devastation at the hands of melting Himalayan ice caps that few people are talking about. White Knight (which comes produced by Bollywood superstar Ashkay Kumar) tells the story of one 76 year old man from Ladakh in Northern India trying to fix things on his own by crafting artificial glaciers to slow the rising waters in his community. The second film, 86 Centimetres, takes an equally personal look at people in Bhutan that are so frightened for the future of their community that they will literally go out and dig and move massive boulders to create a ravine for run-off by hand in -5 degree weather. While 86 Centimetres is clearly the better of the two productions (White Knight just isn’t very subtle, a little amateurish and naive at times, and it suffers from an inappropriately bombastic musical score), both raise interesting points about a part of the world that deserves more attention from the ecological community and climate change advocates than it has been getting recently.
Friday night brings an urban focus on things with a repeat performance of Lost Rivers at 7:00pm, which played at The Bloor earlier this month, and a performance from local 9 piece group H2O (not the straightedge punk band of the same name from the states) doing a pre-show a capella performance. Sunday at 4:30pm, marks the return of Seeking the Current to the city as part of a Water and Power showcase following a screening at Planet in Focus last year.
The series closes out with the Robert Redford produced and narrated look at watersheds along the Colorado River, naturally titled Watershed (Sunday the 24th at 7:00pm) and there’s an intriguing look at the preservation of the Great Lakes from a native perspective in Water Journey (Saturday the 23rd at 7:00pm, focusing on the remarkable ten year journey undertaken by elder Josephine Mandamin to heighten ecological and spiritual awarness), but the most fun might be had from the family programmes here on Saturday afternoon.
Saturday at 1pm there will be a showcase of shorts courtesy of TVO’s The Water Brothers (Tyler and Alex Mifflin), one about the encroachment of flying Asian carp into the Great Lakes ecosystem (Carpageddon) and the other finds them exploring the Meso-American reef (Reefer Madness), the second largest coral reef on Earth. Later that day at 3pm is A Sea Change, a surprisingly sweet and genial documentary about a retired educator trying to find ways to make the world a better place for his grandson. It’s a hard documentary to make without being preachy or saccharine, but Barbara Ettinger’s film really tugs on the heartstrings and brainstems in all the right places.
aluCine Latin Film + Media Arts Festival
Dates: March 21-31
Website and information: alucinefestival.com
Now entering its 13th year, the celebration of Latin, Brazilian, and Afro-Latino culture focuses on way more than just films and prominently features some pretty great short filmmaking.
The festival kicks off with the feature La Playa D.C. (7:00pm Jackman Hall AGO, March 21st), the story of a young Afro-Columbian man trying to make it on his own in a tough area of the country amid a racist culture, but the various programmes of shorts hide some true gems on the festival scene this week.
In the From North to South: Linear or Loop programme (Friday, March 29th, 7:00pm, Jackman Hall AGO) there are a trio of real winners that should appeal to fans of the more experimental side of the short filmmaking form. Buenos Aires Recyclers and Luminaris (which played at the currently defunct CFC Worldwide Shorts festival last year) use stop motion animation to create fantastical worlds. In Recyclers, homemade monsters pop up out of cracks in the wall and sidewalks to delight and play. In Luminaris, a rogue worker at a light bulb factory decides he wants to start hording all the light for himself with strange consequences. Both films would appeal to viewers of any age, but given the adult nature of some of the shorts, it’s nice to see them both playing again as part of a Shorts for Shorties programme over the weekend (4pm on Saturday at Wychwood Barns Theatre).
Then there’s the matter of the fascinating and mind bending Tela from Carlos Nader that gets its inspiration from an already experimental film. Back in the 1970s, Brazilian law stated that all features needed to have Brazilian made shorts playing prior to the film. Exhibitors never really liked the idea, so they would often gravitate towards films that would purposefully annoy and enrage the audience so the law could be done away with. One of the best known filmmakers was the existentialist influenced Chris Teofilo, whose most controversial experiment, the Sartrean titled Hell, simply showed an audience watching a screen in a movie theatre for fifteen full minutes. Fictionally recreating one incredibly dark potential reaction to the film, it’s a thought provoking and unnerving piece that Teofilo would undoubtedly approve of.
A pair of shorts worth noting in the Short Films Big Drama programme (Thursday, 9:00pm, Jackman Hall AGO) are Which Cheese Do You Want? and Salon Royale, the former of which deals with an elderly married couple’s struggles to not slide into complacency, and the latter focusing on a trio of Argentinian female best friends in their early 30s going out to a party that gets somewhat ruined by the appearance of one of the girl’s exes. Both are relatively restrained character pieces with realistic dialogue and believable tension, with Cheese taking place almost entirely on a couch in a cluttered living room and Salon in a car both to and from the party. Both shorts prove that big emotions often don’t arise from the grandest of situations.
Creepy Christian Cinema
Date: Thursday, March 21st, 6:00pm
Location: Revue Cinema
From the man who brought you the infamous Shock and Awe all-night Grindhouse experience and the underground Hunka Junk compilations of random 16mm goodness, Dion Conflict, comes this night devoted entirely to some hopelessly misguided, but undoubtedly well intentioned religious trainwrecks.
Details of what the entire show entails are pretty sketchy at this time outside of knowing that absolutely all films are on 16mm (no DVDs here) and that the highlights are a Scooby-Doo knock off called Phantom Lake and NFL great Neal Lomax telling kids how to live their lives right in Champions, but the true joy of being at a screening of materials from the bountiful Conflict archives comes from the wonder of the unexpected and truly bizarre, and with a theme as on-point as this (which sold out screenings in Estonia and Finland!), it’s definitely a line-up that won’t soon be forgotten.