TIFF Talk: Five Films I Can’t Wait To See

The first time I attended the Toronto International Film Festival was when I was sixteen years old. My family and I had received tickets to attend a special gala screening of this Hindi movie called Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, which was a landmark film in the Bollywood industry because it explored concepts of infidelity and divorce, topics which were pretty much taboo in commercial Indian cinema. Prior to sitting down, we somehow managed to secure a great spot inside the Roy Thompson Hall, right next to the red carpet entrance where stars Shah Ru Khan and Amitabh Bachan would stroll on in for the event.

It is difficult to explain the intense fan culture surrounding Bollywood, specifically for these two stars, because it is not manifested in cosplaying or merchandising or conventions. It is probably the purest form of idolization and devotion, to the point where if Amitabh Bachan is hospitalized, there are people who would take time off work to go stand outside of his hospital with supportive signs or go to temples to pray for their recovery. Perhaps that is due to the integral role Indian cinema has played in the country, not just as an industry and economic contributor or as a class in itself but as a focal point for communities, regardless of economic standing. I never really saw this intense passion come into play until the gala screening at TIFF, where my own mother and aunt were in absolute awe that they were standing just a few feet away from two of the biggest stars in India. Surrounding them were several aunties (what I call every other Indian woman who is older than me and someone I don’t know/am not related to/do not work with), their children and a few stray husbands who decided to forgo saving seats and scream and geek out in ways that I didn’t think people above the age of twenty would do. I think I may have even seen tears.

That was my first brush with fan culture outside of the music and live entertainment industries. I never had the chance to attend the festival again as I got older, mainly because it always clashed with the first week of school. I definitely paid attention to TIFF film announcements, kept track of which stars and industry professionals were in town, the glitzy parties and fundraisers and was aware of the growing buzz for the festival while making pre-TIFF trips to Yorkville and the Entertainment District, but did not get to experience the real thrill of it all again until last year.

When I did, I saw how truly beautiful Toronto is as a city. I mean, it’s beautiful throughout the year and pretty much any time there is a huge public festival or large-scale event, but there is an extremely unique energy that runs throughout the entire city during the Toronto International Film Festival. Everyone becomes really conscious of the fact that they are engaging in something that is big, bold, and for many, life-changing. Between the fans clinging onto barricades outside festival venues, dedicated film enthusiasts standing in rush lines for hours on end, the friendliest volunteers and a rally of the international film community, there are so many individuals bound together by the passion for film, arts and culture, celebrity and the city itself. You feel the excitement in the air just by standing nearby these individuals and people watching. I love seeing people from all walks of life coming together to celebrate all of these things and connecting with people they may have never spoken to before. It drives crowds out to late night screenings (Midnight Madness) and encourages them to seize the night with extended last calls. They debate over what they’ve seen, vote for what they love, and are, in a sense, tastemakers for the months to come.

TIFF is a great way to expand your horizons. It’s one of the handful of premier film festivals where you can see practically anything, including  documentaries, Canadian films, and potential award-winning films first. Their categories are crafted by TIFF programmers who aim to bring a wide range of films to the attention of the global community. TIFF Industry curates events, panels, and interactive sessions for industry professionals, aspiring filmmakers and students, facilitates conversations with some of the most creative minds in the film community and offers a great networking opportunity for all involved. This year, TIFF is bringing the festival to pedestrians and will be taking over King Street West with all sorts of entertainment, art, and celebrations for all.

I am really excited about TIFF 14 because I will be volunteering at the festival for the first time, but between my shifts I hope to catch a few flicks. For those of you who are interested in doing the same, here are five of the many films and documentaries I am excited to see at this year’s festival:

Whiplash stars Miles Teller as an aspiring musician who is taken under the wing of a brash and highly critical band conductor played by J.K. Simmons. I primarily want to see this because of the headlining cast, but I also read a lot of great reviews of the film when it premiered at the Sundance film festival earlier this year. Miles Teller has been popping up everywhere in the last two years and with a lead role as Mr.Fantastic in Fox’s upcoming reboot of Fantastic Four, an expanded role in Insurgent, and co-starring in the upcoming comedy Get A Job with the likes of Anna Kendrick and Bryan Cranston, he is well on his way to taking over Hollywood. If you can’t catch it at TIFF, don’t worry. Whiplash will be released on October 18th. Screenings are on September 8th at the Ryerson Theatre (3:15pm) and September 9th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (12:15pm). 

Jean-Marc Vallée’s directorial follow-up to 2013’s massive award hit, Dallas Buyers Club, is Wild, based on author and essayist Cheryl Strayed’s memor Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. It recounts Strayed’s 1,100 mile backpacking trip which she took while dealing with a series of personal tragedies and heroin addiction. While I haven’t read the memoir yet, I generally enjoy self-discovery stories and the trailer reminds me a lot of Into the Wild, which I loved. TIFF is home to Wild’s International Premiere. It’s a great opportunity to catch a potential Oscar-buzz film early, since the film won’t have its wide released until December 5th.  Screenings are on September 8th at Roy Thomson Hall (9:00pm), September 9th at the Elgin Winter Garden Theatre (11:30am) and on September 12th at the Princess of Wales Theatre (3:00pm). 

As someone who comes from an Indian background, I am forever curious about my heritage and the country that is home to many of my family members. I touched upon that curiosity briefly when I returned from my trip to India earlier this year, but I did not mention that my interest also extended to the subject of many essays that I wrote in my undergraduate career for political science courses and how it is read and portrayed in various forms of mass media. Monsoon focuses on the rainy, thunderous season in India which brings both prosperity and doom to people of all walks of life. Although I have never been in India during monsoon season, I look forward to seeing how director Sturla Gunnarsson (who also directed Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie) captured the beauty of the people and land and seeing another facet to my multi-dimensional culture through the lens of film. Screenings are on September 7th at the Scotiabank Theatre (6:30pm) and on September 9th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (9:45am).

One of the lessons I took from this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival is that I need to take advantage of the opportunity to see foreign films so that I can get a more well-rounded experience at festivals and increase my exposure to international filmmakers and art. I am trying to be conscious of this at TIFF this year and I am hoping to see France’s Bird People amongst some of the other foreign films being showcased at the festival. Bird People tells the tale of an American businessman and a French maid who cross paths at the same hotel where he is staying and she works. I know the premise sounds bland, but I read some good things about it after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, particularly due to its third act. It will receive its North American premiere under the Contemporary World Cinema programme at TIFF 14. Screenings will take place at the Scotiabank Theatre on September 5th (5:45pm), September 7th (8:30pm), and September 13th (8:30pm).

I have followed Foxcatcher‘s production for quite some time. I am almost afraid that with the amount of time I have spent reading about the film, its positive reviews and the actual story, I have built up my excitement for this film to a point where I also set myself up for severe disappointment. I am also very curious to see how Steve Carell and Channing Tatum take on a true drama film, and whether or not this film lives up to the extremely early Oscar buzz its received since its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Directed by Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball), Foxcatcher tells the true story of businessman John du Pont, who invested in training American wrestling athletes for the Olympics and ended up murdering Dave Schultz, the brother of one of his prodigies, Mark Schultz. Foxcatcher will be released across North America on November 14th. Screenings will take places on September 8th at Roy Thomson Hall (6:00pm) and September 9th at The Princess of Wales theatre (12:00pm).

I also look forward to potentially seeing films like NightcrawlerBefore We GoInfinitely Polar Bear and Rosewater, but first, I need to get my tickets. In case you are interested in attending TIFF, note that single tickets go on sale on Sunday, August 31st. Its a bit of a challenge to get your first picks, so read through TIFF’s schedule and make sure you have tons of options ready because screenings do sell out (but don’t worry, rushing a film is fun too – we can hang out!) Make sure to stay tuned to my blog because I’ll be updating from TIFF and posting reviews of the films that I end up seeing!

The Toronto International Film Festival kicks off on Thursday, September 4th with Robert Downey Jr.’s film The Judge opening this year’s festival, which will end on September 14th. Hope to see you there!

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Book Review: “Virgin” by Radhika Sanghani

In a time where hyper sexualization is not only a fixture in media, marketing and popular culture, but also central to ongoing conversations and movements surrounding self-love, body image, health and development, things are a tad confusing. Socially speaking. Politically, psychologically, physically, and culturally speaking. And yes, sexually speaking as well. Radhika Sanghani tackles many of these varying contexts in her debut novel Virgin, which follows twenty-one year old English student Ellie who has one major objective: to lose her virginity as soon as possible.

Ellie’s approach to her virginity is not representative of all virgins, but it is a pretty common mentality. Ellie is not tied down by any personal belief regarding sex other than the fact that she is ashamed that she is still has her “v-plates” and simply wants to have it, but has not due to the cumulative impact of early physical encounters, upbringing, and lack of experience in the art of attracting. She is funny, intelligent, occasionally socially inept, curvy with bushy hair, insecure but determined to get what she wants, and it’s pretty inspiring . It’s important to keep this characterization in mind while reading, because there are times when Ellie’s determination to lose her virginity borders an annoying obsession. Some readers may struggle identifying with her relentless pursuit, especially when she devalues her wonderful self because of her lack of experience.

But within Ellie’s at-times superficial journey to achieve this milestone is a series of awkward, humorous, and horrifying experiences that makes Virgin a very real story about women. Between Ellie’s sex-shaming Greek mother, uncomfortable encounters with the opposite sex at bars, independent education, physical preparation and the solidarity Ellie finds with her girlfriends, Sanghani has captured many elements common to women’s experiences when it comes to thinking, learning, talking about and having sex in such a wonderfully real and relatable way. By addressing the various complex intersections between self-perception, relationship expectations, desire and external influences through Ellie’s journey, Sanghani suggests that the actual valuation of sex should not be based on the act itself, but on a personal valuation of yourself. When Ellie actually realizes this, it does not come across as fulfilling as the actual story itself.

Although Sanghani certainly has a knack for comedic writing, Virgin would have been an even better read if she had taken the time to develop some of the secondary characters better, as many tend to be reduced to be advisors and spectators rather than characters who drive the plot forward. Perhaps this is intentional given Sanghani’s focus on presenting a main character who needs to truly realize their power, beauty and worth as an individual first and foremost. It is an empowering message that readers will surely pass along as they share this novel and story with their friends. I imagine it will inspire a lot of great conversations over wine and cheese – at least, it will for me.

I received an ARC of this novel from Penguin Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Film Review: Let’s Be Cops

Let’s Be Cops is the second buddy cop film to hit theatres this summer, and while the boys in its counterpart, 22 Jump Street, were all about the phrase “fake it til’ you make it”, this movie is a lot more true to those words. Jake Johnson and Damon Waynes Jr. (of New Girl fame) star as Ryan and David, two friends who are going nowhere in their Los Angeles lives as a has-been college football player and a video game designer, respectively. When they get invited to a costume-themed college reunion party, the boys dress up as police officers, and end up taking their game of pretend to the streets, just because they can. When their fun takes them deep into a mob plot that threatens the city, suddenly the game becomes a bit more real than their dollar store badges.

The film explores this child-like fantasy of becoming a police officer through the eyes of Ryan and David, who are completely unsatisfied with the way their lives are going. Ryan has no idea what to do with his life, and David’s creative spirit is undermined by his boss and mindless coworkers. When they realize not only how much fun it is to play dress up, but how convincing they are while doing so, their adventures are both amusing and endearing, reminding viewers that it’s okay to take a step back and live a dream, even if it means you’re just abusing the privileges that come with the territory. A lot of audience members have seen how well Johnson and Waynes Jr. work together on New Girl, and their chemistry carries over into Let’s Be Cops, which is an integral part to a film inspired by the buddy cop genre. It’s not necessarily because of the similarities between Ryan and Johnson’s character on New Girl, but more due to his ability to be shameless and unapologetic in his joke delivery, which goes for Waynes Jr. as well.

While the pair definitely enjoy the various perks associated with their “job”, Ryan decides to fully invest himself into the role. Much of that is spoiled in the trailers, but as he slowly gets involved in a mob plot affecting his local bar, he begins to hold stake-outs, go on undercover missions, and investigate, just like a real cop would, dragging a reluctant David along the way. Their play on buddy cop tropes are pretty funny in many instances and there are some pop-culture inspired moments that play out as either crude or goofy.

Unfortunately, the laughs are not good nor frequent enough to make this film a quality comedy, especially since they hinge upon what turns out to be a pretty bland plot that hold the movie back from being entertaining as it could be. It’s disappointing that that’s the case, given that the director behind this movie is Luke Greenfield, who also directed The Girl Next Door and is produced by Simon Kinberg (X-Men series). Nina Dobrev (The Vampire DiariesThe Perks of Being a Wallflower)’s role is minimal and nearly pointless, acting as a love interest and accidental assistant to the boys, and has little impact on the overall story. While Andy Garcia is as intimidating as ever, his place in the movie is one of the many reasons that there are so many tonal shifts in Let’s Be Cops, making for an uneven viewing experience that will barely satisfy any dreamer or moviegoer heading to the theatre this week.

I won tickets to an early screening of Let’s Be Cops in Toronto last week, courtesy of 20th Century Fox. 

Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

When Guardians of the Galaxy was first announced in 2012, there were equal amounts of confusion as there were fan cheers for Marvel’s decision to bring this oddball group of renegades to the big screen. Strategically, it fell completely out of line with their previous choices of popular characters like Captain America and Thor, all of whom were carefully selected to slowly but surely make dreams come true with The Avengers assembled in a live action film. Since that first phase of filmmaking, Marvel has really delved deep into world building and storytelling to intensify the emotional undertones and implications for core characters and future plotlines.

My impression is that Guardians of the Galaxy, while certainly a known comic book series featuring a group of revered characters, is more on the obscure side compared to some of the other titles Marvel could have chosen to adapt. It completely shifts Marvel’s storytelling into a sci-fi setting and unlike the rest of their films, gives viewers no time to become acquainted with it and the inhabiting characters. It’s a risky move, but with director James Gunn (SuperSlither, Movie 43) helming and a cast that is as interesting and weird as their onscreen counterparts, it’s the right move. Guardians of the Galaxy adds a much needed dose of levity to the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also expanding it in a completely new direction that is accessible, refreshing, incredibly humorous, and endearing.

The film initially centers around Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, Parks and Recreation, Jurassic World), a space-pirate of sorts who was abducted from Earth as a child, as he collects a spherical artifact to sell to a broker, much to the disdain of the main villain of the film, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug). Ronan is a fanatical member of the Kree race who requires the orb for a deal with his associates, a deal that will equip him with enough resources to destroy all of his enemies. One of Ronan’s allies, Gamora (Zoe Saldana, Avatar, Star Trek) trails Quill to the planet Xandar to retrieve the orb, only to eventually land in jail alongside Quill, an alien tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, The Fast and the Furious) and a genetically modified raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle). The group, including fellow inmate Drax the Destroyer (former wrestling professional Dave Bautista, WWE), become united by the mysterious orb and seek to escape, only to realize that they have a much bigger problem literally in their hands, which, if placed in Ronan’s, will have terrifying consequences for the entire galaxy.

Guardians of the Galaxy is very, very fun, largely due to the main characters. They are appropriately described as “a bunch of a-holes” in the film (and the first teaser trailer, above), and they hold up to the insult pretty well. Collectively, they are self-righteous, self-centered, gutsy, criminal in nature and really just don’t give a damn, leaving room for plenty of wit, sarcasm, in-group quarrels and well-timed comedic moments in their interactions. Unlike other Marvel characters, the fact that they are so likeable does not fall on their perfections or image (save for maybe Groot, who is just plain adorable, has that Bumblebee type of charm and is a very visual-based character), but on their outlaw attitude and street mentality which kind of makes them the crazy Marvel rock stars. Although Dave Bautista does a fine job with bringing a certain humanity to Drax’s vengeful tendencies, Rocket Raccoon easily comes out on top in the personality category. Between Gunn and fellow screenwriter Nicole Perlman’s dialogue and Bradley Cooper’s voice, both screen and comic book fans will be very satisfied with how they have personified this character in the film. He’s tough, mischievous, blunt and isn’t above any rascal tactic to achieve his goals (or just make himself laugh), but he’s also got a lot of heart.

There are a lot of eyes on Chris Pratt because this is his first leading role. The sort of playful innocence that Pratt possesses in other roles, even going all the way back to his work on Everwood and The O.C., continues to be an integral part of his acting ability. It works in Guardians because of Quill (who also likes to be called Star Lord)’s human roots as a child growing up on Earth in the 80s. The things that he loved then, specifically his Sony Walkman with a mixtape called Awesome Mix Vol. 1, are still very much a part of his space pirate life, which, amidst changing planets, people with pink skin and gambling games where lizard-like creatures race to eat smaller lizard-like creatures, helps to ground the film in a more contemporary atmosphere and prevent alienating (pun not really intended) audiences from the new galactic worlds. What is surprising about his performance is how well that aspect to his acting fuses with his ability to actually be a leader. Maybe that’s due to the nature of Quill’s character, but Pratt does a really great job at playing up a combination of his at times laissez-faire attitude, vulnerability, and kick-ass style, all of which is layered with Footloose references and classic tunes.

One of the biggest hurdles in the film is to ensure that each of these individuals, who have competing personalities and are fairly unknown to the general public, have their character moments that will allow audiences to briefly familiarize themselves with their stories. While there is enough information provided on each of the Guardians for the purpose of this movie and each individual gets their screen time, the amount of plot seeds blatantly planted for the sequel will easily leave viewers wanting to know more, especially for Gamora and Quill. In fact, Gamora’s storyline becomes unsatisfying in this movie since we encounter people directly involved in her story, but their roles are very streamlined for the plot of this film. It helps focus the story, which is great, but it also leaves a lot of questions which Gunn will surely seek to answer in the next instalment (and perhaps even explore in other MCU films.) This is probably most obvious with Nebula (Karen Gillan, Doctor Who), another one of Ronan’s associates and Gamora’s sister. She has this fantastic cyborg aesthetic and plays up her jealous tendencies in a way that leaves you wanting to learn more about their family history. One of the best fight scenes involves the two sisters going up against one another and it’s one of the highlights of both Gillan and Saldana’s performances in the film. Hopefully Gunn and some of the other creative minds behind future Marvel films will play up their relationships and histories in sub-plots at a later point.

There is just not enough of Ronan to make him a satisfying nemesis. Although Lee Pace brings an intense nature to the character and is  quite menacing, he would have benefited from more of a background story. He is also quickly overshadowed by a second overarching enemy who will inevitably play a larger role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in years to come (but I won’t divulge more details until you see who that is for yourself.) It was also odd seeing familiar faces like John C. Reilly, Glenn Close and Djimon Hounsou but with relatively minor roles. Again, it’s good because Gunn really wanted to focus this space opera on its principles, but one could not help but feel like there were some talents either underused or misused completely.

None of these criticisms really detract from The Guardians of the Galaxy viewing experience because Gunn, Perlman and the cast make it so easy to get on board with the entire wild ride. Amidst all of the futuristic sets, carefully constructed visuals and out-of-this-world settings, there is an underlying sense of humanity and self-awareness that makes Guardians completely dorky and entertaining, but also very genuine. The Guardians of the Galaxy is a strong entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a great starting point for what will hopefully be the best franchise out of all of their offerings. For this reviewer, who has never wanted to see a Marvel film twice in theatres, she is off to see it again tonight. I guess I’m just hooked on their feelings (and humor. They’re just so funny.)

I attended an advanced screening of Guardians of the Galaxy in Toronto and won tickets through a giveaway courtesy of Marvel Entertainment Canada.