Toronto International Film Festival – Day One: Hockey and musicals don’t mix

One of the problems of facing 300 movies is that you are bound to miss some good ones. Also, you are likely to come across a few lemons.

My score today: One (depressing) triumph, three duds.

The TIFF kicked off with a complete rarity, a film from Kyrgyzstan, “The Light Thief”. With any luck, Kyrgyzstan produces one movie a year, and they normally involve actor-director Aktan Abdykalykov. The film begins promisingly, following the escapades of Svet-Ake, a Robin Hood of sorts who steals electricity for the homes that can’t afford it. Soon enough, “The Light Thief” abandons the charming, low-key adventures of Svet-Ake and his neighbours and becomes political. The endearing protagonist becomes a pawn in a struggle between the town elders and a hotshot politico who wants to sell the land to the Chinese.

The intrigue is poorly managed and leads towards an abrupt, unwieldy ending that left many people at the theatre scratching their heads. That being said, Abdykalykov has the potential to become the Kiarostami from Kyrgyzstan. Two Prairie Dogs.

“Score: A Hockey Musical” was the main course in this first day of TIFF. This well intentioned, ballsy effort from director Michael McGowan (“One Week”) wasn’t successful in its quest. “Score” is a film so earnest, so open in its intention to please, it becomes clingy. A home-schooled, pampered kid becomes Brampton hockey sensation, much to the chagrin of his granola-eating, NDP-voting intellectual parents. The gravy train comes to an end once is discover the kid can’t fight for the life of him. His pacifism puts him at odds with his teammates and the blood-thirsty fans.

McGowan, who seems to have the matter of Canadian identity pat down, dump too much sugar in this puppy: While the music is delectably pop, the lyrics are forced, needlessly peculiar. Even bringing Olivia Newton-John back to musicals after “Xanadu” can’t get “Score” a passing grade. With time, it could become a camp classic (plus, newcomer Allie McDonald is super cute.) Two Prairie Dogs.

If somebody invites you to see a movie by the director of “Babel” and “21 Grams”, you know already it won’t be a comedy. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu latest “Biutiful” (sic) is relentlessly grim. When you think nothing worse can possibly happen to the main character, all you have to do is wait a couple of minutes and BOOM!

Javier Bardem is totally game as Uxbal, a peddler who makes a living as a middle man between illegal immigrants and potential employers. Luck has it, Uxbal discovers vey late he suffers of prostate cancer, and only has a few more months to live. The protagonist main concerns are to accumulate enough money for his two kids and find somebody to take care of them. His manic depressive ex-wife is not an option, let alone his unscrupulous brother.

In a major departure from his previous films, Gonzalez Inarritu tells the story straightforwardly, as opposed to the jigsaw puzzles he used to craft. He is one of the very few filmmakers able to portrait poverty on screen in a believable manner. Bardem is brilliant balancing morally questionable behavior with likeability. My only beef with “Biutiful” is the pile of tragedies that fall upon Uxbal. One begins to wonder if the director is just doing it for sport. No matter. Gonzalez Inarritu knows gritty. Four Prairie Dogs.

The biggest lemon of the day was the Swedish movie “Bad Faith”, which in all likelihood won’t be coming to a multiplex near you ever. Think of a procedural in which nobody knows what’s happening, nobody is willing to communicate or explain their behavior, and all the characters are jerks. The painfully slow hunt of a serial killer at hands of a self-absorbed woman is so boring, the only moment of true tension is the murder of a cat. Many people walked out of this flick, not because the feline untimely demise, but the unbearable boredom surrounding it. Half a Prairie Dog. Or a full dead cat.

Tomorrow, Woody Allen latest, clones with feelings, and another look to the financial meltdown.

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.

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