Toronto International Film Festival ’11 – Day Four: Sarah Polley and the Cuban Zombies

Due to a series of interviews with Agnieszka Holland, Holocaust survivor Krystyna Chiger, Sarah Polley, Seth Rogen, Sarah Silverman and Luke Kirby, I only had the chance to see two films in the last 24 hours. But what films they were.

Take this Waltz

Sarah Polley’ sophomore effort Take this Waltz is a superior –if flawed- film with a powerhouse performance by Michelle Williams. Her character is a beauty: Margo, a happily married woman develops a strong attraction for her neighbor, rickshaw driver and part-time artist Daniel (Luke Kirby). Her husband Lou (Seth Rogen) is a loving and attentive partner, adding to Margo’s dilemma.

At times, Polley ventures in Diablo Cody territory (a script so precious it becomes distracting), but the film is absorbing and soon enough you find yourself rooting for Rogen or Kirby. The question about leaving a reasonably happy relationship to pursue an infatuation is as compelling as ever. In her best work to date, Williams is truly haunting, lovely and exasperating at the same time.

Polley makes a series of brilliant decisions. Margo and Lou’s domestic life feels real, happy and relatable. The setting –Portugal village in Toronto- feels organic, lived in. For all the cutesy dialogue, some lines cut deep (“new things get old” comes to mind). Also, you can’t go wrong with a Leonard Cohen-heavy soundtrack.

Take this Waltz is the latest addition to a brand new canon in Canadian cinema: The prestige picture. Local filmmakers who have reached notoriety in foreign lands, bring back A-list talent to star in movies with a strong Canadian content. Here is hoping the trend continues. Four and a half heartbroken prairie dogs. Poor doggies.

One thing is certain in life: There is no such thing as a bad zombie movie. The hilarious Juan of the Dead ponders what would happen if the living dead take over La Habana? Castro would blame the Americans, obviously. The gimmick is reminiscent of Snakes on a Plane, but unlike the Sam Jackson vehicle, this Cuban flick actually delivers.

The Juan of the title is a happy-go-lucky hustler whose sole regret is his non-existent relationship with his daughter. He gets a chance to make amends when the locals start devouring each other. In any other film, Juan would look for a cure or a way out of the island. Instead, he starts a business with the catchphrase “we kill your loved ones”.

In the best tradition of Airplane and Top Secret, Juan of the Dead piles gag over gag over gag. Some of them fall flat, but they are vastly outnumbered by the ones that work (initially Juan and his gang treat zombies as vampires, with gut-busting results). The levels of self-deprecation are so high, you wonder if the Cuban regime will ever allow the film to screen in the country. In an odd display of restrain, there is no zombie Castro.

While the low-tech special effects are charming, the lack of restrain of the filmmakers leads to repetitiveness. That said, I wish I had seen Juan of the Dead after Take this Waltz, not before. Two vicious prairie dogs eating a third one.

About the interviews, you’ll have the chance to read them in Prairie Dog in the near future. A couple of tidbits of my conversation with Sarah Polley: She knows you think she is humorless. Also, she has never been in a threesome. Coming soon: Context.

Tomorrow, the director of The Blair Witch Project is back with Lovely Molly. My bet is that she is not that lovely. Also, the most controversial film of the fest, Shame (from the people who brought you Hunger).

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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