TIFF ’12 – Day 8: The lightning round

Sridevi conquers America in English Vinglish.

Despite my best efforts, some decent films have fallen through the cracks. Today said flicks are rescued from that veritable Sarlack pit that is my festival notebook.

English Vinglish (India): Considering the efforts TIFF has gone to show the most cutting edge filmmakers currently at work in India, English Vinglish feels like a throwback. A very mild comedy, English Vinglish deals with a new phenomenon in the country: The pervasiveness of English. The matriarch of a traditionalist household (Bollywood star Sridevi) is derided for her shaky English skills. An invitation to New York serves as an opportunity to learn the language, and through it reassess her position in the family.

Wacky shenanigans and some cringe-worthy stereotypes populate English Vinglish (if it wasn’t because the film has such a good heart, we would be hearing from angry minorities by now). The production would be thoroughly dismissible if it wasn’t because of Sridevi. In her first starring role since retiring to raise her children in 1996, the Bollywood diva is disarmingly charming. I had never seen a Sridevi movie before and I was completely taken by her. She is approaching 50 and looks barely older than 20, even in person. Three prairie dogs mesmerized by Sridevi enormous brown eyes.

Casting By (United States): This delightful documentary about the unsung film profession has the endorsement of some heavyweights, namely Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Clint Eastwood. The heart of Casting By is Marion Dougherty, the woman who invented the position just as the studios started dumping their contract players. Dougherty put together some memorable teams. Her resume includes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy, Batman and Lethal Weapon.

Besides some terrific stories of how some classics got their leads (John Travolta was supposed to get his big break in Hal Ashby’ The Last Detail), the film reveals how the Director’s Guild of America has blocked attempts to create a category at the Academy Awards to recognize casting directors. The film is completely one-sided (poor Taylor Hackford is portrayed as the villain just for disagreeing with his colleagues), but the argument is strong. Three and a half prairie dogs. Not these dogs, those dogs.

White Elephant (Argentina): Director Pablo Trapero, responsible for the relentless Carancho (extreme ambulance-chasing practices) brings down the revolutions in White Elephant. Two priests in a shantytown, one with PTSD and the other with inoperable cancer, must deal with gang wars and generalized discontent over a halted housing project. A number of social issues are covered (it seems the Catholic Church has more pull than the police in Buenos Aires), but the movie is so predictable, it’s hard to care. Regardless, Trapero is a talent to watch. Two ordained prairie dogs who think celibacy and peacefulness are merely suggestions.

No Place on Earth (United States): Last year TIFF premiered In Darkness, a harrowing drama about a group of Polish Jews who found shelter in the sewers of Lvov during the Nazi occupation. This documentary No Place on Earth is extremely similar, only set in the Ukraine and instead of gutters, the persecuted used underground caves to hide. As compelling as the story is, the recreations pale next to In Darkness and feel somewhat repetitive, as the dramatic beats at almost the same. Only towards the end the film manages to differentiate itself by taken the survivors back to the grotto. Two and a half Prairie… Hey, where did they go?

Random notes:

* Public transportation in Toronto is a hassle, particularly early mornings (no room in the streetcars).

* Did I mention how cute Sridevi is?

Tomorrow, the thrilling conclusion of TIFF ’12. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter: @jicastillo

Author: Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Journalist, film critic, documentary filmmaker, and sometimes nice guy. Member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Like horror flicks, long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners. Allergic to cats.