A veteran photojournalist on the Toronto arts and entertainment scene, Julian Bynoe is a Toronto-based cartoonist, artist and arts blogger. From 1996 to 2014, he was the arts/entertainment editor for the street publication The Outreach Connection, and has had articles featured in Realms Magazine, among others.

EDITION #14 - WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 8-14, 2014

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2014 REVIEWS

Part 1 of 2-part series

The Dead Lands

Revenge, survival and coming-of-age rolls into the Maori martial-arts adventure drama The Dead Lands set in pre-European arrival New Zealand for a young warrior Hongi (James Rolleston) set out to avenge his chieftain father Tane (George Henare) and the rampage of his village laid to waste by the amoral warrior Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka) and his horde pass through.

Just a novice, he seeks out a enigmatic hermit known as The Warrior (Lawrence Makoare), a masterful hunter with the mentality of a ravenous beast who reluctantly takes him on to hone his fighting skills to be able to confront Wirepa, much as Hongi is guided by his grandmother’s spirit against the haunts that eats The Warrior’s conscience in the quest.

The cinematography of Leon Narbey shows off luscious greens and earthy tones to compliment director Toa Fraser’s intense body language and action scenes mixing traditional Maori and basic martial arts moves acted out by a splendid cast with Rolleston looking for courage and honour, as Makoare’s demon-like warrior wrestles with his own personal demons is grevious and poetic at once.

Writer/co-producer Glenn Standing’s deft script reads wells and is an unwavering work of aboriginal cinema that hasn’t been seen since Apocalypto to qualify it as this year’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon minus the wire-fu. And where else can you find a cast that can pull a cool post-screening Maori tribal dance onstage anywhere at TIFF?

Cast of The Dead Lands performing a traditional Maori warrior dance at the post-screening at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, September 5

The Wanted 18

On the surface the Canadian/Palestinian production of The Wanted 18, based on the real-life group of cows that inadvertently became involved in the Arab-Israeli Conflict; may seem like an examination of David-versus-Goliath silliness on militaristic overkill but it tries in a way to focus on the topic of occupation and geopolitical dominance…with cows.

Reminisced on the memories of co-director/writer Amer Shomali when he was a Palestinian child refugee in Syria, it talks how the Arab Christian town of Beit Sahour in the West Bank bought 18 cows from a Haifa kibbutz at the height of the First Intifada in 1987 in order to be self-sufficient and engage an Israeli product boycott. Fearing that it would catch onto other Palestinian areas, the Israeli government tried to crackdown on the apparent tax revolt and independence from this dairy co-operative as “a threat to the national security” of their country (honest, that’s what they said) as being a revolutionary tactic.

From stop-motion animation, drawings, archival footage and historical enactments, The Wanted 18 has its inventive approach and modestly amusing moments on how the Israeli Army spent four years hunting down these bovine “terrorists” as an act of civil disobedience, yet it doesn’t garner enough enthusiasm on its concoction of fact, urban myth and fantasy from the co-op founders and former activists running on nostalgic perspective peppered with harsh realities of lives lost and what little was achieved in those years since.

The film does its best to connect the emotional dots between humans and animals and the animated parts are nice (if unassuming) but it’s a bit of a stretch to make a lengthy 75-minute documentary about…well, cows.

Murder in Pacot

Haitian documentarian Raoul Peck makes an impressive relationship drama debut for Murder in Pacot, a critical look at the social structure of his country at its most vulnerable point in recent history during the devastating 2010 earthquake from a more theatrical viewpoint and dispels how outsiders see the Caribbean island state that should open up some eyes.

A petty bourgeois couple (Alex Descas, Joy Olasunmibo Ogunmakin) try to rebuild their lives after the earthquake shatters their palatial mansion in the wealthy Port-au-Prince suburb of Pacot. Stuck in a “what now?” state of mind with the loss of their adopted son, the brief return of their servant looking to move on and facing a cash crunch in trying to fix their home or face having it razed to the ground, they rent out the habitable part of the place to French NGO relief worker Alex (Thibault Vinçon) to help pay for it over a nine-day period.

Not long afterwards Alex is shacking up with a young Haitian girlfriend Andrémise (Lovely Kermonde Fifi) who takes on the Western name Jennifer and dreams of leaving the country, as all parties try to make some kind of normalcy that briefly bridges barriers between the haves and have-nots of Haiti that eventually leads to tragedy.

Descas, looking like a African-French Danny Glover, plays his despondent businessman unable to grieve over his losses as does Ogunmakin looking to feel human again; Fifi’s worldly Andrémise represents the hungry generation looking to rise above their lot in life and Vinçon mainly pulls the self-proclaiming saviour who have so little knowledge of Haitian history and politics who later curses them for their ungratefulness as they so believe.

An interesting study on the complexity of class divisions and the bedfellows they produce, the film reconstructs these moments of grief, rage and helplessness Peck develops through his camera eye and humbling script co-written with Lyonel Trouillot and Pascal Bonitzer and Alexei Aigui’s mournful score. Murder in Pacot paints an unflinching, darker side of societal breakdown and loss among the rubble without it feeling bogged down.

Songs from The North

The South Korean capital Seoul may be the City to City focus at TIFF this year, but Soon-Mi Yoo’s narrative-free documentary Songs from The North is a non-partisan examination on North Korea on two levels: what we see from the repressive Stalinist nation seemingly frozen in its own past and cult of personality versus the personal perspective of the filmmaker’s rethinking of the divided Koreas.

Taking archival and recent propaganda film clips from North Korea’s YouTube channel (surprising, considering they have no internet there; yet true) cobbled with her own footage from her three trips into the country – both authorised and unauthorised – over snippets of white text-on-black commentaries, Songs from The North manages to strip away the basic stereotypes we’ve been subjected to about the Hermit Kingdom since the end of the Korean War, yet at the same time retains honest truths from obviously eye-rolling moments of a young boy denouncing his father’s “crimes to the state” during a teary-eye New Year’s TV show and some cheesy North Korean cinema to the quiet greyness of the barren countryside few ever see.

Credit’s got to be given to Yoo for keeping an open mind, even as her elderly father speaks of those days of civil war and dismisses the North’s brand of socialism as “practicing Communists” in contrast to the former East German state that at least developed some kind of economy prior to its collapse that they’ve yet to achieve, if reunification is something the Kim regime wants so badly.

From catching scenes at a desolate Pyongyang karaoke bar to the sweet innocence of orphaned schoolchildren at a playground sing-along, the avant-garde structure of Songs from The North is an unconventional if refreshing take on showing the people there really living ordinary lives in a country hardly known for being ordinary.

Short Cuts International Programme 3

Counterclockwise: Eye & Mermaid; Tricycle Thief and A Single Life

Pairing down 3,000 entries to make the cut for TIFF’s inaugural Short Cuts International programme probably wasn’t the easiest job in the fest. However, 36 of them did make to compliment the long-running Short Cuts Canada series in that otherwise ignored and undervalued category of today’s cinema, maybe accept around Oscars time.

From the third programme out of five, charging out the gate was the Netherlander animated gem A Single Life about Pia, a young woman who receives a 45 vinyl single record that magically runs through the stages and ages of her life, but tries to cheat by skipping the needle in a hilarious fashion while at the same time is a cautionary allegory of rushing through life itself was witty stuff.

Another Dutch film, The Last Days of Summer by Feike Santbergen ecks out the shattering of innocence between three teens at a day on the beach that turns into to personal tragedy for one of them through its silent nuances that touches, if muted in the pacing; while a disappearing Macao gets a film noir treatment in Maxim Bessmertnyi’s Tricycle Thief in the grainy cinematography as elderly pedicab driver Ah Leong (Sam Leung) goes through personal problems and a hectic night of searching the grimy back alleys of the tiny Chinese entrepôt for a Mainlander customer who absconded his vehicle with one misadventure after another as a likeable mini-drama on greed.

For the Qatari morality fantasy Eye & Mermaid from Shahad Ameen, young Hanan tries to come to terms about adult untruths when she discovers how her fisherman father manages to obtain precious black pearls for her that also turns out to be a moving and dramatic story about redemption and forgiveness; as the slickly-made bizarre sports doc An Immortal Man on baseball legend Ted Williams’ funeral arrangements that may (or may not) have been altered at the time of his 2002 death to by cryogenically-frozen over previous wishes, as manoeuvred by his manipulative son John Henry (who’d also die two years later and also frozen with his father). More than throwing around some conspiracy theories around over the morality behind the procedure or in fear of facing our inevitable mortality, it’s much like seeing the machinations of a dysfunctional father-son relationship analysis that’s more sad in nature rather than comical.

On-the-wall French photoplay Voila l’Enchainement has a good concept on the rise and fall of a married couple’s (Alex Descas, Norah Krief) racial and sexual politics brings some terse episodes in the several vignettes under Claire Denis’ helm, but the straining dialogue become derivative and drags halfway onward right to its anticlimactic ending, despite valiant performances.

Short Cuts Canada Programme 3

Clockwise: Indigo; Father and Luk’Luk’l: Mother

A bit of live action and digital animation comes together in the speculative-fiction noir The Weatherman and The Shadow Boxer of two brothers so close, yet so far from themselves about the predictability of future tenses and fractured memories, has excellent visual design to get its points across very vividly, as directed by Randall Okita; whereas cryptic messages about the narrative docudrama of sorts Luk’Luk’l: Mother by Wayne Wapeemukwa set during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics of two lost souls from the city’s infamous Downtown Eastside coping with addiction, HIV and the disappearance of First Nations women just as the Robert Picton case was about to blow wide open and shock the nation basking in Olympic glory. Gritty and shocking.

Light and Father provided both the agonizing choices brought on by parental relations as the former guided by Yassmina Karajah has a distraught man reluctantly preparing to give his stillborn son a Muslim pre-burial ritual achingly played by Ahmed Muslimani; while the latter goes into a role reversal of a young boy trying to help with his electrocuted father in a illegal copper-pulling scheme gone wrong, grippingly harrowing from the semi-claustrophobic shots and flashbacks done under Jordan Tannahill’s watch.

Loosely crafted on Native mythology, the stop-motion animated Indigo by Amanda Strong works its wonders of a marionette woman and her grandmother spider try to escape their tormentor with metaphors and references in several realms; Hole has a disabled man (Ken Harrower) leading a double life looking to sate his sexual urges in a documentary-stylish method from Martin Edralin, where one almost sympathises in his inability to connect and Chamber Drama could have been a good case on overambitious achievements about an anxious teen (Cassie Williams) looking to prove herself in an acoustics lab job that may cost her more than her hypersensitive hearing, seems very low-keyed in context and content.

TIFFing it to the Streets

Pictorial Essay

Doing the five-block crawl along King Street West for TIFF's first-ever Festival Street (September 4-7), making it a successful enough event (other than customer complaints from transit-goers bummed about the four-day shutdown in the area). Here's some of the highlights taken:

Strolling and resting along King Street West

Tickling the ol' ivories on the Festival Street Piano near Roy Thompson Hall

Making a move on the giant Check Mate street chessboard near Roy Thompson Hall

The festival hub itself, TIFF Lightbox

Maritime cult alt-rap star Buck 65 performing on the Steve & Rashmi Gupta Family Stage, September 6

A long line-up to get snapped by the super-huge HAL9000 on King West and John Streets

Getting the feeling TIFF Lightbox is promoting something here?...

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TIFF 2014 continues to this Sunday (September 14). Tickets/info: call 416-599-8433 or tiff.net/thefestival.

TRIBUTE: Joan Rivers (1933-2014)

This can also be seen on my editorial cartooning page, OP-EDitoons.