The Limehouse Golem [2016]

Detective Inspector John Kildare [Bill Nighy] is thrown under the bus by Scotland Yard – assigned an unsolvable serial killing at the last minute to save the reputation of a distinguished colleague. Faced with certain failure, the inspector nevertheless begins his investigation, which effectively works as a framing device for a second narrative strand told in flashback. The film was visually stunning, the production design was stylish and original, with great performances from absolutely everyone in the cast.

The queuing for this film was out of control – I mean, literally that the volunteers didn’t coral the crowd into the right space and in the right order – which was all the marginal disturbance I needed to break the ice with some of my fellow attendees. I spent the 45 minutes or so chatting with a lovely local and her daughter, and sat next to them in the film, quite a lot higher and more centrally than I’d been typically aiming for on my own. As a result I saw, up close, with my own eyes, perhaps for the first time, a truly American portion of cinema snacks – a giant platter of nachos, and two bucket-sized popcorns, with drinks to match. One of the reasons I know the film is good is because this mountain of food was consumed without me even noticing – either a herculean effort of disciplined eating, or a powerful distracting force.

The only possible negative comment I could make is that the eventual solution was apparent to me from about 10 minutes in; but I am far from sure that was accidental. A production designed with this level of sophistication and control doesn’t accidentally reveal its central killer in the first reel – so a spoilerific treatment to try and understand why will be forthcoming when it gets its mainstream release and wins all those awards for everything.

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Planetarium [2016]

Set in the late 1930s, it is a snapshot in the life of a pair of American sisters and their encounter with the French film industry. It touches on film-making, on the role of the spirit medium, of the lifestyle of the rich and famous in 1930s Paris, the transient nature of love, and the effects of loss.

I think this film could most fairly be called a melange of interesting elements – that unfortunately doesn’t coalesce into something complete and interesting. I think the most interesting threat wasn’t the heroines, but the story of their patron and benefactor, a Polish Jew whose career suffers reversals as a result of his reliance on the sisters’ psychic abilities in confluence with a groundswell of anti-semitic sentiment pre-WWII.

This is one of those very frustrating films where the screenplay is packed full of interesting nuggets, where it seems like just one more draft with some little greater narrative thrust could have resulted in a very good film.

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Birth of the Dragon [2016]

This was nothing short of a wholesale cultural appropriation, a colonial appropriation of Kung Fu and its most important proponent in The West, Bruce Lee. It was so good-natured, predictable, clean-cut, and all-American – a Kung Fu film without a single Chinese name in the production credits – I fucking hated it.

That said, I knew all that when I purchased the ticket, and I enjoyed pretty much every minute of what I’m sure will be a mainstream blockbuster that makes tonnes of money. I mean, I should have fucking hated it – but I kinda liked it. And actually, it wasn’t a bad film, all things considered. The charm and appeal of the three main characters was very beneficial, but I think what I ended up liking about it was that it did what I think good martial-arts films should do, which is express character and resolve emotional story arcs through the choreography of the fight scenes.

This isn’t going to make anyone’s list of classic cinema, but what I hear most from most people is that they want a “popcorn film” that they can “just enjoy” – and this is the film for those people.

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General Report 2: the New Abduction of Europe [2016]

This isn’t so much a documentary as a curation of a series of discussions between various kinds of big thinkers on issues of interest to contemporary Spain. There’s a huge amount of interesting thought expressed in an intelligent way by intelligent people covering everything: art, museums, education, the environment, science research funding, social structures, economics. It really is a general report – but it does absolutely nothing to help the audience understand any of the content displayed. There were large chunks of the film that were completely beyond my comprehension because I don’t know enough about Spain to fill in the blanks. I wondered if someone who knew a bit more than me might have then found the rest of it a bit tediously obvious.

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All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception and the Spirit of I.F. Stone [2016]

This was a braided-stream of a documentary, cutting between several major threads: a mass grave in Texas, the effect of I.F. Stone on various journalists, the Iraq War and a few other minor threads. I had never heard of I.F. Stone and the film made that seem pretty astonishing in terms of his accomplishments, and the fact I’d missed him entirely was simultaneously good evidence about the many failings of the “Main Stream Media”.

The key conclusion of the film was depressingly foregrounded – it’s right there in the title. Governments lie, and the main stream media doesn’t call them on it. It was made at the outset of the current US Presidential cycle, so given the cavalcade of lies on both sides of the aisle this time I can only shudder at what the sequel might reveal. The key point that the film makes again and again is the deleterious effect this has on the political discourse, and on the public in general. What it doesn’t do is dig into a deeper causation – it constantly laments that ratings drive content to the lowest common denominator without offering any structural view on why trivial things get good ratings, or how editorial controls work. A more technological forward-looking documentary on this topic might also have tackled the echo-chamber effect of “likes” and “+1s” that cause you to only see things that reinforce your own view.

Unfortunately in a way, this documentary suffered intensively from the same echo-chamber effect for the Toronto audience: preaching to the choir. I already feel disconnected from all of the major news agencies it discusses. It didn’t touch on anything really outside of the USA, so no real commentary on Al Jazeera or the BBC, who must surely count amongst the big news players in English. It very briefly discusses Snowden, but not Assange. It doesn’t tackle alternative strategies, but most damningly, it doesn’t tackle the question of why governments should feel the need to lie.

Ultimately I found every bit of this interesting, without feeling like it came together as a holistic statement of, about, or for anything. The big take-away from me is to look up I.F. Stone and see whether he belongs in my pantheon of reporters with H.L. Mencken, Alistair Cooke and Hunter S. Thompson.

An introduction from the director:

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The War Show [2016]

This isn’t so much a documentary in the classic sense as a memoir by someone of the life of their friends amongst the Syrian conflict. As the film moves forwards in time and the characters become more active in the conflict the emphasis broadens a little, but always remains intensively personal. It’s a film designed to really elicit an emotional response to what is just the most recent in a slew of 21st Century tragedies. Like most of the other documentaries I’ve seen at TIFF, this film gives no thought to trying to explain the bigger picture driving its story, but it’s affecting enough that this strategy more-or-less works.

Robin Laws’ capsule review.

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Guilty Men [2016]

This is a film set in a tiny village in Colombia in the last days of the Paramilitary force, which was one half of a political struggle. It’s a very small film, focusing on just a couple of characters in the lead-up to a marriage in the village. The director is deft and confident in using small gestures, long takes, and naturalistic performances to tell an elliptical story. I really admired the way the director eschewed almost all exposition while still showing a complex situation filled with people with complex backgrounds and suppressed emotions.

This was one of the better fictions from the festival.

Below is the Spanish-language trailer, if that helps any. I couldn’t find this on IMDb, and it seems very unlikely to get any kind of release anywhere in the English world, which in one view makes it the poster-child for going to these kinds of festivals.

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