September 06, 2013

TIFF Day One: Bruising MMA, Wrenching Slice-of-Life

The gamerific exhaustions of convention season have at least slightly ebbed, and for this humble correspondent that can mean only one thing—the cinematic exhaustions of another full-bore assault on the Toronto International Film Festival. For this, my 27th foray, TIFF programmers have served up an especially promising year of Asian cinema. Hong Kong arrives with its biggest slate in years. And across the world, genre continues its inroads into the precincts of world cinema. So this year’s slate takes the familiar feeling that I’m only scratching the surface of what’s available and cranks it up even further. Documentaries? Couldn’t fit ‘em in. Cinema of the developing world? Didn’t make the cut. I console myself with the thought that anything great will come around again, but that isn’t always the case.

Logistically, the change this year comes with a compression of venues.  Now that one chain owns both of the big downtown multiplexes, which used to each be half given over to the festival each year, all those screenings have been moved to a single house, the Scotiabank. This will make it easier to move between screenings, freeing up time to eat that otherwise would have been spent on the subway loop between Dundas and Osgoode stations. How the heck they’ll manage the line-ups in the Scotiabank remains to be seen.

Here’s the standard drill, if you’ve forgotten how it works around the Cinema Hut at TIFF time or are joining the festivities for the first time:

I’ll be writing capsule reviews of everything I see, and then gathering them up in order of preference in the festival’s aftermath. Until then, I’ll be giving provisional ratings to the films, which are bound to change as they settle into memory. Ratings range from 0 to 5, with 0 arousing my active ire and 5 ascending to rarefied heights of masterpiece-dom.

Interspersed between the capsules will be expansions on the reviews, stray observations, and whatever logistical complaining I fail to suppress.

If you’ve heard of a release that’s playing TIFF, chances are that it’s because the film will be coming out shortly and is getting a big PR push. I tend to skip films that have distribution in place in favor of those I might never get another shot at. So I’m not the one to ask about the Oscar-bait movies with the big stars in attendance.

Do you want to see these movies right away? Well, these titles are beginning their long journey through the distribution chain. Many will continue to appear on the film festival circuit over the next year or so. The high profile releases I tend not to schedule at the fest may appear in theaters as early as next week. Indies and foreign titles will score theatrical releases over the next year or so, and streaming/DVD releases after that. Some may appear only on home video/streaming, or vanish completely.

While a few of last year’s films still await theatrical release, most have made it through the chain. So if you want to enjoy some fine cinema right away, track down my top picks from last year’s extravaganza.

And now, let's start the capsule reviews rolling, with the two films I caught on opening night:

Unbeatable [HK, Dante Lam, 4] Disgraced former boxing champion forms an unlikely surrogate family and trains a determined young underdog for an MMA tournament. Brings charm, color, humor and nail-biting ring action to the classic beats of the fight melodrama.

An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker [Bosnia-Herzegovina, Danis Tanovic, 4] Roma scrap metal salvager runs out of options when the hospital demands payment he can't afford before performing life-saving post-miscarriage surgery for his wife. Rarely has the matter-of-fact slice-of-life style been deployed to such gut-wrenching effect.