Each year it becomes more of a challenge to pick movies to see at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s not that there aren’t really good movies at the fest, it’s just that I don’t really see very many, so I have to use a set of criteria to choose what to see. I don’t want to pick anything that might be easily seen in the regular theatres later in the year (it’s just not worth it when a bit of patience will save me some bucks). Each year more and more of the festival films are showing up on the fall release slate for Cineplex as well. So basically, anything where I recognize the actor should probably be avoided at the fest. Also, maybe I’m just not as sunny a person as I once was, but I just don’t seem as interested in dark and depressing films anymore. Unfortunately for me, oppression, poverty, abuse, and urban psychoses are pretty popular in the kinds of foreign and alternative cinema featured at the fest. My picks for this year were moderately successful. A little bit of the downer, but mostly eye-opening, and even some fun.
I’m not much for comedic films normally, because I haven’t seen too many that I really thought were very funny in a long time. I picked Outsourced largely because it sounded non-depressing. What I got was a very charming and funny movie experience. Todd is a manager at an American novelty supply company whose boss tells him that his whole department is being laid off because the work is being outsourced to a call centre in India. Todd’s options are either to go to India to train his replacement, or be fired. What follows is the expected culture-clash comedy, but this one is full of good-natured wit and observational humour on both sides. The characters are drawn with broad strokes, but never in a mean-spirited way. Rather than getting its laughs from the stereotypes we may have about the “other side”, this movie tries to really bring out what’s universal about life in this day and age, regardless of culture. Mix that up with a bit of romance and the end result is sweet, thoughtful and hilarious. One priceless moment comes when the call centre is flooded and Todd saves the day by moving everything to the roof and getting his neighbour to patch all the wiring into a nearby lamp post. The sultry night air echoes with victorious applause as the staff hears the familiar chimes of Windows XP booting up—a priceless modern moment. (4.5 out of 5)
The social context of women dressing as men to sneak into football games in Iran is incredibly foreign to me, both because I don’t really enjoy soccer, and because I don’t live in a culture with such serious gender inequality. Nevertheless, one of the pleasures of foreign cinema is to briefly experience a cultural context that there’s no way you could experience in real life. Shot in a very realistic style during an actual soccer game, Offside unfortunately spends most of its time in the holding area outside the stadium with the women who were arrested before they could get in. The conversations are natural (and so is the acting—surprisingly good for a non-professional cast) but the movie kind of drags and there’s not much going on. The movie’s bittersweet ending expands a bit to the celebrations in the street after Iran wins the game, and adds a touch of meaning and relevance to the rest, but I think it missed the chance to be a lot more compelling and heartfelt. (3 out of 5)
Another movie set in India; Vanaja is a realistic tale with some melodramatic elements. The title character is a spirited teenage girl who works as a servant in the house of the landlady of a small town. With persistence she convinces the landlady to teach her to dance, but her life goes awry when the landlady’s son rapes her and she becomes pregnant. This movie was another where the cultural context was refreshing and interesting for me, but the story and characters just weren’t. Actually, in this case I found almost every character (including Vanaja herself) to be unlikable. There are some captivating dance scenes in the movie, but the plot and script could have used a bit more depth. (3.5 out of 5)