This is part two in a series of four summaries of what I saw at TIFF 2012. Personal favorites from TIFF 2012 are marked with an asterisk (*).
Tiff 2012 - Literally Fantastic
There is more to fantasy than unicorns and dragons. Look back to The Twilight Zone and you’ll see plenty of inspiration for movies that played at TIFF such as Fin (The End), The Brass Teapot, or Come Out and Play. You don’t even have to go that far to make an interesting fantasy. Sometimes changing a single parameter, as in I Declare War, can yield something entirely unexpected.
Here are seven fantasies I saw at TIFF.
Comrade Kim Goes Flying *
Raise your hand if you have seen a North Korean feature film. I’m not talking about Seoul Train or other bleak documentaries about escaping the repressive regime. I’m talking about a feature film made for and by North Koreans, with the approval of their government. Anyone? Comrade Kim almost seems like a normal, formulaic sports movie. It’s pretty corny — think Amy Adams in Enchanted — but recognizably normal. Kim has always loved acrobatics, but she was born a coal miner, just like her father. One day she wins a trip to the city and she decides to go to the open tryouts for the state circus. She fails, and is ridiculed by the male trapeze artist, which makes Kim all the more determined to succeed. There are many setbacks and many triumphs as Kim works through her demons in pursuit of her dreams. But there’s really no escaping the fact that this is a North Korean movie. Establishing shots of a pristine Pyongyang look like Technicolor footage of a visit to 1950s Disneyland. The occasional tin-eared line of dialogue or motivation changer will remind you, too, as when Kim has a good day because she surpassed her production quota by 120%, or when her mentor lifts her spirits by reminding her when their dear leader visited and offered advice to the troupe. On its own merits, Comrade Kim Goes Flying is no great shakes. But as a product of North Korea, I find it fascinating.
Also formulaic, but quite a bit better polished is Spain’s comedy Ghost Graduation. As we all know, ghosts stick around after they die because they left unfinished business. Five teens who died in a high school fire in the ’80s are haunting their school. Modesto (Raúl Arévalo) sees dead people, which makes him a freak and a loser (see also ParaNorman); ordinarily, he has a hard time holding down teaching jobs, but the lovely principal realizes he’s the perfect fit. The movie earns its laughs with jabs at the 80s. The ghosts’ musical tastes have never progressed past Michael Jackson and Madonna. One of the teens was drunk when he died, and so he remains to this day. Another was pregnant when she died. There are also some jokes at Modesto’s therapy; he sees the dead father of his psychologist, who doesn’t believe in ghosts. Sometimes it’s refreshing to see such a polished (yet unknown) movie at TIFF. Then again, it would be easy to see something of this caliber at the multiplex just about any day of the week.
The Brass Teapot
The Brass Teapot, an American film, is also polished, also formulaic, and also a comedy. It could have come from Rod Serling on one of his happy days: a young, struggling couple, Alice and John (Juno Temple and Michael Angarano), find a teapot that fills with money anytime they get hurt. Their story arc is absolutely predictable, but it can be fun to watch. S&M anyone? The couple’s naïve and cheery goodness makes them the ideal foils for this cursed blessing. They are slow to learn about causing pain (which also fills the teapot), and they always understand that what they have is ultimately a bad thing. I really liked the moral component to this film. I’ll be the first to admit that its overly simplistic, but I liked that the characters were good at heart, and when they have to make the ultimate decision, they base it on what kind of people they want to be — not on some external motivating force.
Speaking of pain (but radically changing tone)... a new Spanish film has a radically different take. It’s set in the modern day, and also during World War II, when Spain remained officially neutral while fascists and anti-fascists fought for control of their country. The title refers to a real condition where some people are incapable of feeling pain. In the movie, children with this condition are kept in a separate hospital in 1930s Spain, where they are kept in straightjackets in cells away from other children. The movie blurs the real condition with supernatural powers (which I found confusing at first). The most “gifted” of the painless children is apparently able to intuit what would and would not cause pain in others. The modern protagonist is obviously searching for survivors of the institution, though his connection remains unclear until the end. An interesting idea and a rich visual palette spiral out of control as the film gets grander and more fantastic. It ends on a conclusion that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But the dark and fantastic tone might be enough to please an audience looking for a reply of Pan’s Labyrinth.
Fin (The End) *
Spain seemed to send a lot of movies to TIFF this year. Fin is another movie that could have been a Twilight Zone episode, though without the clever explanation at the end. In this supernatural thriller, a group of friends gather at a cabin where they had met 20 years ago. The first character we meet has hired a woman to pose as his girlfriend, and this newcomer becomes the audience’s surrogate as the other characters are introduced. After the film makes its introductions, the supernatural event happens: all electronics and electrical devices die, including anything operated by a battery. We never really find out what the event was, but it spurs our protagonists to seek civilization, hiking through the Pyrenees to find humanity, and to find their friend who disappeared without a trace that night. The event is never explained, but we learn more and more about its troubling effect. Many creepy scenes show animals asserting themselves in the world of men. The phenomenon is never explained, and that’s not the point; the point is to look inside, to see what we’re made of, and to see if we could really survive on our own.
Come Out and Play
Another Twilight Zone candidate, and another with a one-time supernatural event, is Come Out and Play. Do you remember the Star Trek episode where with the planet populated entirely by children who called Kirk and Spock “gr’ups”? It was a creepy episode with Lord of the Flies overtones. Come Out and Play has a similar concept, but I don’t think its consequences are quite as interesting. Two adults, one a pregnant woman, the other her husband, arrive at a little island called Punta Hueca (“Hollow Point”, ha ha) where almost all the adults are gone or dead. Something supernatural happened the night before, something unexplained, and suddenly all the children are adult-killing automatons. The setup justifies some deeply troubling imagery, such as a harrowing scene with the man in a Mexican standoff with a child. A scene late in the film shows our white European protagonist beating to death a brown child of poverty, and disturbingly earning our sympathy as he does it. The movie takes a while to get going, which seems like a good way to build suspense, but unfortunately, it uses music (almost exclusively) to set the tone of dread. The film also earns a few inappropriate laughs in some rough spots, and one scene in particular doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. I can see this film earning a cult following, but it mostly feels like a really good idea that wasn’t executed well enough.
I Declare War
Another film that features children shooting real guns is the Canadian kid drama I Declare War. A group of Canadian kids play Capture the Flag (or “War” as they call it). The only actors are children — there are no adults. The only cinematic gimmick is that the wire-and-stick guns and water-balloon grenades are represented on film as genuine, authentic weapons of war. The real weapons always left me a little uneasy because I wasn’t sure if they were the filmmaker’s way of saying: “this could get real.” Or perhaps they just illustrated how seriously the kids the game — after all, they are learning how to cooperate and compete, how to win and lose, how to get along as human being. The film has some surprisingly memorable personalities. PK (Gage Munroe) is a small general who takes the game seriously; he always wins, and he invites his lieutenant to come over after the game for pizza and to watch Patton. Skinner (Michael Friend) is a hothead driven by jealousy. He doesn’t want to follow orders and is willing to kill his commander to have his way.