Saturday, October 10, 2009

2009 Toronto International Film Festival - Update Two

Phobidilia - ***1/2
Bunny and The Bull ****

September sixteenth, 2009. Today I saw two movies, “Phobidilia” (at the Varsity Cinemas at 2:30 PM) and “Bunny and the Bull” (at the Scotiabank Cinemas at 8:15 PM). The two films could not be further apart in tone, and outlook. But what unified them was their confidence and their singular high quality. Their craft. Each was a movie that looked as professionally well made as any I have seen. And both should put standard Hollywood fare to utter shame. I hope that there were Hollywood executives in the audience, who saw what these film-makers have accomplished with so little, and wept. Wept for the horrible squandering of money in typical Hollywood fare; and the poor quality of the product. When here were prime examples of inspired people making inspired movies, terribly good movies, with so little.

Before I comment on the two movies themselves, I did want to mention that by far the best thing about attending film festivals is the ability to see the director of the movies; nothing surpasses the experience of the Question and Answer session that follows after each movie has finished. I find these Q&A sessions more than a little moving. And inspiring. Here is the person who has been with the movie from the start and parented it from birth to graduation, and it is such an honor to see the parent(s) and hear them speak about their child at the end of the screening. In the case of ‘Phobidilia’, the two directors, Israeli brothers aged 30 and 32 years, talked to the audience at the end of the screening. And look what they have accomplished at such a young age – such a polished, uncompromising, reassured directorial debut. Right there, seeing those two talk and be humble and be real gives me hope for the future of cinema. [Incidentally, how do you avoid stating the banal, or invoking heavy-handed metaphors, or sounding trite during these Q&A sessions? Whatever the trick, these two had mastered it] For “Bunny and the Bull”, at the end of the screening, the British director too appeared on stage along with the funnier of the two main leads from the film and the producer. And they were all so droll, and humble, that if I had the power to grant success to their film - and - worldwide distribution - and - audience attendance I would do so in the blink of an eye.

“Phobidilia” (based on an Israeli book by the same name) is a hard examination of agoraphobia, the fear that prevents some individuals from leaving the safety of their homes. Ever. It is a story of a young man who seems remarkably unremarkable in how he lives his life, until it becomes eventually clear that he does not appear to be venturing out from within his home. He works as a programmer from home, orders everything he needs online and seems generally well settled. Until the landlord of the apartment he is renting, and a determined woman who works as a survey taker for television programs start to push at him to venture out of his cocoon, both for very different reasons.

As I was watching it, the movie started off seeming tentative and a little precious. But it quickly dropped that tone for a rapidly escalating pace  - all the way to the unyielding conclusion. This is a film with four, perhaps five characters and yet, it never feels structured, or formal, or like a play. This is where the movie wins; in a traditional film, perhaps one made in Hollywood, the movie would have wound its way toward ‘happy’ conclusions to meet with expected conventions. Phobidilia however goes to dark places undaunted and with confidence. It takes its subject matter to its logical conclusion and does not extract a single drop of unearned optimism. Wherever it dares to be positive it does so only by paying its price in kind for objectivity. It is a remarkably assured debut from the filmmakers, unshaken in its belief, uncompromising in its treatment. Also a word about the lead actor, apparently one of the more popular stars from Israel. He goes with this movie wherever it takes him, with no vanity and utter commitment. Other young actors could do well to emulate this fidelity to the craft.

Publicity shot from 'Phobidilia' used at TIFF 2009. 

“Bunny and the Bull” is a gem. A delight. A little piece of whimsy that floats about on its own silly gaseous energy. It is the story of a man (Edward Hogg) living a regimented life who seemingly has an aversion to leaving his home [curious I saw this movie the same day as ‘Phobidilia’]. One day he starts recalling events from his past including a wacky, odd and often hilarious road-trip taken around Europe with his best friend, Bunny (Simon Farnaby). All of these events come full circle of course but to say more about the plot would be a disservice to the film.

During the Q&A, the producer of the movie admitted (when pressed for details) that this movie was made for two million US dollars. See this movie please, and pay attention to its inspired and consistent use of animation and set construction, and see how much (and how lovely) two millions dollars worth of rightly used money can get you. The movie is resolutely inventive in its telling, almost militant in its creativity. And yet it never feels labored for doing so. This soufflé rises and stays put. Its good-heartedness, the loveliness of the script, and the great acting from the three main leads never once threatens to have the movie collapse on itself from all of its maverick stylings. How often can you say this about a movie. Nothing is told linear, and when a character travels to some new place, it is just as likely to be an animated background as an unrealistic set created out of shear insanity. How else to explain a giant crab that sits atop a car as it is being driven across Europe (replaced by a giant stuffed bear later in the film), a golden glowing matador uniform, a man who crosses the line in his attachment to his dogs, a bull fight with a giant orsine creature made from metal pieces….I could go on, but it all comes together beautifully, not just at the end, but from the very start. A tale about male bonding in its simplest common denominator, the movie is a set of wonderful anecdotes sewn together with affection. Even when it is foul and preposterous in its vulgarity, it has a sweetness to it – and all the criticism you can summon for its temporary crassness changes to smiling disbelief at the audacity of the filmmaker. The two male leads are so good at playing their characters convincingly, that I suspect that if I see them in another film I may resent them for playing different characters. From a script perspective, the movie is so consistently funny that most viewers who listen carefully will get their money’s worth for the dialog alone. But this movie is much less (yes, much less, because most of the scenes involving travel are done on an animated palette) and in doing so it becomes more. The director was asked why he made a conscious choice to film all of the outdoor scenes using artificial, animated, whimsical facades? And he answered that it was because they did not have the money for actual on location outdoor shooting. So most of the movie was shot in a little studio in UK. How serendipitous that what makes the movie unique is a by-product of being forced to being thrifty. I hope this movie gets wider distribution, because it could be a real audience pleaser. It may seem like I am piling on too much praise for this film, but it is because I have only high regard and sweet affection for this film.

Publicity shot for "Bunny And The Bull" used at TIFF 2009

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