TIFF 2013: Focus On: Short Cuts Canada

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Every year across six separate programmes, the Toronto International Film festival shines a spotlight on the best in short Canadian filmmaking. Here now, in our spotlight, we take a look at all of the shorts across these programmes to give you all an idea of what to expect from some of Canada’s best up and coming talent and to tell you which programmes and films are the strongest. It’s a programme definitely worth checking out. You never know what you’ll find, and you could just be watching the next big Canadian talents making their presence known in short form before they make their feature debuts. It’s the perfect place to start if you want to have one of those “I told you so” moments further on down the road.

Also, for the added benefit of bringing these shorts to larger audiences, over 30 of these shorts will be available on TIFF’s YouTube channel 24 hours following their debuts. Not all of them will, sadly, so you should probably still make your way out to the theatre to ensure you see the best of them. Also because you would be supporting essentially the hardest, least profitable, most emotional driven, and lovingly crafted form of cinema possible. After all, shorts don’t play in multiplexes anymore, so this will be one of the few chances to make sure these artists get their due outside of Shorts Not Pants and the occasional Hot Docs short.

 Remember Me

Programme 1

SCC kicks off this year with an assortment of artful and mostly clever odds and ends comprised of a trio of animated selections and three other live action shorts.

The biggest stand out’s of the programme are a pair of blissfully dark comedies: Jean Francois Asselin’s Remember Me and Chris Landreth’s 3D surrealist oddity Subconscious Password. Both of them deal in similar ways about human arrogance and the inability to admit something is wrong, but they’re decidedly different in every other way.

In Asselin’s film a man named Mathieu (Emile Proulx-Cloutier, in a performance as funny as it is brave and devastating) thinks his body is slowly disappearing at the end of a harsh break-up, leading him to seek attention from everyone around him in the most outlandish and often self-destructive ways possible. It gets to a point where the film wouldn’t exactly be for the squeamish, but it’s certainly a bold and perceptive look at one man’s desire to never be forgotten.

Landreth takes a much simpler concept – the inability of one man to remember another man’s name at a party – and takes it to decidedly loopier heights. Going inside the mind of a forgetful writer, Landreth stages a version of the classic game show Password (hosted by the man’s own superego, played by Don McKellar) where his literary and pop cultural idols mix with his fears and neuroses all to figure out something as simple as a name. It pops visually and has a real go-for-broke comedic mentality that’s refreshing in how, well, cerebral it all manages to be.

Maciek Szczerbowski and Chris Lavis’ Cochemare starts off in a fantastical rainforest-like setting, examining chaos at the pace of a simple observing slug, before pulling back to a single woman asleep and dreaming on an orbiting spacecraft. It’s a stunning look at the place where the natural, the alien, and the erotic meet, and it’s a wonder to watch it all come together.

Also successful is the haunting and disorienting Pilgrims from Marie Clements. Focusing on a German tourist trying to learn about Aboriginal culture in a naive fashion, it’s a plea for understanding wrapped in the guise of an offbeat supernatural thriller.

Muddled theses mar the other two films of the programme. Theodore Ushev (who made the stunning Lipsett Diaries in 2010) animated and designed Gloria Victoria to capture a sense of Russian constructivism, but his images are too loaded to not have meaning and too all over the place to add up to much of anything cohesive.

And Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael’s The Sparkling River – which uses several languages and an inherently disjointed structure to tell the story of several people in and around a field with seemingly no connection at all – makes as little sense after several viewings as it does after one, which might be the point, but outside of the decent visuals there’s nothing all that interesting to think about. It’s just weird for the sake of being weird and not for the sake of being interesting.

Screens

Saturday, September 7th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2, 9:45pm

Sunday, September 8th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4, 10:45am

 Young Wonder

Programme 2

Inventiveness and clever storytelling are abundant in the second SCC programme with a majority of the shorts taking tried and true genre stories and turning them on their ear through clever gambits.

Youth factors heavily into the majority of the shorts. Ian Lagarde’s Daybreak is a no frills look at a bunch of tweens in Montreal acting out their frustrations like a roaming gang. Told through the eyes of a young man who might be getting too old for trashing people’s apartments, it’s a bracing look at the first moment someone thinks of leaving childhood behind.

James Wilkes’ Young Wonder combines clever visual effects, nostalgia, and a both literal and figurative sense of playfulness to bear witness to a young man’s overly active imagination when goofing around with his action figures. If nothing else it will make you think back to a time when it was cool and not in violation of any copyright laws to imagine how a battle between Link from the Zelda games and Darth Vader would go down.

Eva Cvijanovic brings the gorgeous handdrawn animation Seasick, which isn’t directly about youth, persay, but about a being that appears almost childlike who just happens to be hanging out at the beach and underwater. It’s a wordless fantasy set to Croatian standards, but the expressiveness of Cvijanovic’s subject informs the world around it. Sometimes he appears happy, sometimes sad, and often confused. It’s one to be puzzled over, but it’s rich and worth spending some time with.

The most inventive of the programme is easily Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg’s Noah, which takes place entirely on computer and cell phone screens while the titular teenager goes through a break-up entirely predicated on his own histrionic overreacting. Bouncing between Facebook, YouTube, YouPorn, Lolcats, Wikipedia, iPhones, iTunes, Skype, and more, it approximates digital age ADD perfectly, but stays on point and topic with laser-like precision. It’s also incredibly funny and bittersweet. It’s a dirge for our modern world and a darkly humorous reminder of those times we felt like every passing moment was the end of our world. It’s really smart stuff.

For the dysfunctional family comedy Out, Jeremy Lalonde takes a look at a man so deathly afraid of telling his parents that he’s gay that he brings over a date, starts looking like someone who would follow The Cure around on tour, and claims to be a vampire. Lalonde gets some great performances from his actors and it has a genuinely funny moment where someone has to work their way out of a lie following a brilliantly dark calling of someone’s bluff, but the ending feels a bit obvious from the start and the film’s final sting leaves a bit of a sour taste on this one.

The best of the programme overall, however, might be the oddest one out. Johnny Ma’s A Grand Canal (which it seems was made originally as his thesis film at Columbia University, and if he did, it deserves all the A’s in the world). A simple seaman in China is forced to confront his uncaring boss at a wedding when his crew doesn’t get paid for a shipment it took two weeks to deliver. It’s about a man reflecting on his life and the choices that led to this moment before leading to a satisfying conclusion, that might not necessarily be happy, but a “best case scenario” sort of thing. Full of life and human drama, it’s an overall standout of any film from any section of this year’s festival.

The only real disappointment of the bunch is Sol Friedman’s Beasts in the Real World, which starts out cleverly enough as a camera is placed onto a conveyor belt in a Japanese restaurant before going into a mish-mash of other all too brief stories about an overweight fish like creature from the woods, bickering chefs, a pissed off nature film host, and animated warring fast food. It sounds better in theory than it comes across in practice. None of the elements have their own throughline and it feels more like a clearinghouse for great ideas than one solid piece.

Screens

Sunday, September 8th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3, 2:30pm

Monday, September 9th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3, 3:00pm

 In Guns We Trust

Programme 3

Focusing largely on the often more violent aspects of human nature, the third programme of shorts in the festival is near perfection all around. There isn’t a bad or misguided one in the bunch. There isn’t even a mediocre one. It’s a stellar programme.

In Cassandra Cronenberg’s Candy the line that distinguishes the difference between love and sex gets clearly and somewhat graphically drawn in this tale of a hard working prostitute spending a long night at work while thinking about what/who she would rather be doing instead of the marks she sucks off in back alleys. It’s incredibly artful, exceptionally acted, and thoughtfully realized.

In the visceral and hypnotic dance film Der Untermensch from director Kays Mejiri and choreographer and performer Simon Vermeulen, a man dances for his very survival and identity amid a bombed out almost cliché looking, ornate indoor pool.  The dance and the musical score are commanding and powerful to behold, getting a lot of emotion across in an extremely short period of time.

Equally as artistic, brief, and successful is visual artist Randall Okita’s Portrait as a Random Act of Violence, where thousands of shard of broken glass come together in stunning fashion to create something new.

A harrowing piece of photojournalism set to haunting narration, Nicolas Levesque’s  documentary In Guns We Trust takes a look at the town of Kennesaw, Georgia, where all heads of households are required by law to own firearms. Espousing the “God given right to defend themselves,” chilling audio interactions play out over gorgeous looking black and white stills. The rationalizations of local residents are downright terrifying, and it’s guaranteed to get under the skin of many who watch it.

Ryan Flowers’ multilayered look at mental illness, friendship, and the power of cinephilia in the documentary Jimbo is as heartwarming as it is occasionally uncomfortable. Flowers follows Jimmy Leung through a single day in his life. Jimmy has schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, OCD, Asperger’s, ADD, and who knows what else. The hyperactive Leung calls Ryan constantly to collaborate on film projects (and as a kindred spirit as Flowers suffers from mental health issues, as well), idolizing James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and dreaming of making True Lies 2 and his own Total Recall remake (which he seems to keep getting confused with a Terminator remake). It treats mental illness with a realistic, but sometimes humorous sensibility that never judges its oddball subject.

Rookie Blue and Everwood actor Gregory Smith makes his short filmmaking debut with the darkly comedic Method, and one suspects he might be bringing a bit of his cop show experience into the equation. Taking place in and around the set of a police drama interrogation scene where the actor (Shawn Doyle) can’t seem to remember his lines, Smith’s story takes two very sharp and exciting twists that make for a satisfying bit of entertainment.

Last, but certainly not least to talk about, Stephen Dunn’s body horror and paranoid thriller We Wanted More feels like a classic Twilight Zone morality tale but looks like a piece of modern art. Christine Horne gives a magnificent and solemn performance as a touring singer losing her voice at first someone painfully, and then psychologically.

If you can absolutely only work one shorts package into your schedule, make sure this is the one.

Screens

Monday, September 9th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3, 10:00pm

Tuesday, September 10th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4, 2:45pm

 Paradise Falls

Programme 4

Almost equally as good as the previously stellar third programme, the films in programme 4 skew a bit closer to the humorous or humane.

The biggest standout marks the return of the wonderfully named Fantavious Fritz to Short Cuts Canada with the quirky, offbeat comedy Paradise Falls. Pitched somewhere between a Wes Anderson film and a Stephen King coming-of-age story, Fritz tells the story of two teenage boys who are dared by their peers to spend a week in the cursed mansion at the centre of town. They turn out to love the place so much that they couldn’t leave… even if they wanted to. Things get somewhat dark and a little bit morbid, but that’s part of the charm. It comes with mockumentary style narration and a message about suburban sprawl and decay, but it’s also an assured piece of short filmmaking that could be a feature if it wanted to be.

In Stephanie Moukarzel’s Time Flies (Nous avions) a Pakistani family sets out to go on their weekly picnic at the end of an airport runway, much to the chagrin of the stylish, eldest son who has grown fed up with the family’s complacency and boring lifestyle. Moukarzel creates a rich and lived in family dynamic with great performances all around.

Yael Staav’s Sam’s Formalwear has a little bit wonkier and under baked of a premise, but also bears some interesting family dynamics and an excellent leading performance from Judah Katz as a Brampton tailor about to lose his business and, he irrationally fears, his daughter. Staav sets up a lot of interesting things that could be followed through on a lot more clearly, but Katz puts in commanding work in this tragicomic portrait of a man desperately crying for help whether he realizes it or not.

There are a pair of slight, funny shorts in the package. Glen Johnson and Leslie Supnet’s animated fable A Time is a Terrible Thing to Waste is an amusing aside about a squirrel battling insomnia and problems with his wristwatch. Luke Higgson’s live action Relax, I’m From the Future is essentially a one joke bit about a man claiming to be from the future sent to stop another man from killing himself in a manner that he’s not supposed to. It’s a joke that’s well executed enough to deliver a pretty great punchline.

The oddest one out of the bunch is the slow burning drama Yellowhead, which is actually quite good, but it really sticks out when placed with the rest of the films in the programme. Director Kevan Funk’s tale of a safety inspector in Alberta with health and personal problems weighing on his psyche is more of a mood piece than a full story, but the mood and tone are potent and rife with melancholy. Compared to the rest it’s a bit of a downer, but then again, who wants to stay perfectly happy forever, right?

Screens

Tuesday, September 10th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2, 6:30pm

Wednesday, September 11th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4, 1:45pm

 An Extraordinary Person

Programme 5

Although I was unable to screen the 3D animated short The Chaperone (an animated documentary about a biker gang crashing a middle school dance), it sounds like the short could only help what’s definitely the weakest programme in this year’s festival, not because the majority of the shorts are bad – there are two definite gems – but the remainder are fairly slight and obvious.

Alexander Carlson’s Numbers and Friends finds a European becoming immersed in the world of American sports fantasy leagues, but the off kilter, halting style never matches up with the off beat characterization or the somewhat botched execution of a solid premise. It looks great, but it takes itself far too seriously. Shorts about guys in jean jackets and shaggy beards hanging out in bars and talking about the benefits of fantasy sports shouldn’t be this strangely sombre.

Trevor Cornish’s workplace comedy Roland has some great performances, but even at ten minutes its laboured punchline can be seen coming from far off. This story about an art supply store employee paranoid that an older man will come back to kick his ass for not letting him use the store’s private washroom has a couple of chuckles by way of incidental moments, but the actual follow through is pretty predictable.

There’s almost nothing to be said about the animated Crime: Joe Loya – The Beirut Bandit. It’s a two minute red, black, and white animated anecdote being passed on by a bank robber. It, again, looks great, but it’s clearly a teaser or a pilot for something bigger that feels like a dangling string more than a stand alone short.

Claire Blanchet’s gorgeously slick, rotoscope animated The End of Pinky has a great look and story about a career criminal out to settle a score, but the narration that makes the whole thing sound like a bedtime story is ill advised.

Thank goodness, however, for the exceptional work done by actress Monia Chokri, making her directorial debut with the dryly humorous, gleefully misanthropic An Extraordinary Person. After blacking out drunk and waking up in the home of a high schooler she might have had sex with the night before, Sarah (Magalie Lepine-Blondeau) gets goaded into going to a Bachelorette party by her motor mouth best friend full of people she can’t stand. It might seem like the film could stand to lose a little bit off the top (at nearly a full 30 minutes, it’s one of this year’s longest entries), but once Sarah starts laying into her Mean Girl, faux-friends, things get really interesting. And then it all comes together with an unexpectedly poignant and brilliant coda. It’s one of the best of the festival, but stuck in a kind of go-nowhere programme.

Also notable and worth watching is Bruce Alcock’s 3D animated Impromptu, the tale of a put upon husband who’s forced into making a simple meal at home (and a simple, long gestating talk about their relationship) into a three ring dinner party full of randoms, people he can’t stand, and family that put him in awkward situations. Made up of cleanly realized line drawings and sketches, the film will also be screened in 3D, which could only enhance how great this one looks.

Screens

Wednesday, September 11th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2, 9:15pm

Thursday, September 12th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4, 2:30pm

 Lay Over

Programme 6

SCC ends on a relatively strong package of shorts, many of which focus on the power of friendship and understanding.

In Cory Bowles’ Anatomy of Assistance, Talia, a hypocritical black teenager who thinks she’s a militant, but is really just a brat, turns down every opportunity handed to her, blowing her student aide on booze. It leads to a dark comedy of errors involving a Laundromat robbery, run-ins with the cops, and a homeless guy Talia spurned earlier. It’s one of those “circle of life” sort of stories, but also a pretty great lesson about what it means to grow up and how to never be too proud to accept help from people who care about your well being.

Actress Jordan Hayes and actor Noah Reid team up to star and write the simple, but charmingly unforced meet-cute romance Lay Over. Hayes (who also directs) plays a Montreal girl on an 8 hour break between flights in Los Angeles en route to Australia. She meets up with Reid’s accordion playing indie rocker local and they spend an evening on the town before she has to be back at the airport. Hayes and Reid have charisma in spades and the film never goes fully into Richard Linklater territory by keeping things brief, breezy, and always somewhat distant and hesitant. It feels real, and that’s what matters most.

Jasmin Mozaffari’s Firecrackers carries the emotional spark its title would suggest as two young female best friends, one of whom is a prostitute and the other the daughter of a drunk with an abusive boyfriend, trying to get out of their dead end town. It’s emotionally wrenching, but with a strangely optimistic ending that suggests hope for both of the girl’s futures. Shot with a gritty film aesthetic, Mozaffari stands out as one of this year’s talents to keep a close eye on to make the jump to making features soon. She seems to have the chops for it.

Those three shorts make up for the kind of middling quality of the remaining three shorts in the programme. Chris Goldade’s Drop takes an intriguing premise about a World War II paratrooper landing in the front yard of a confused dude living with his parents, but he never exploits the premise for anything more than the same repetitive jokes, and he’s never able to mask his obvious endgame. It still boasts a pair of great leading performances from Jan Bos and Peter Ciuffa.

Foreclosure is a bit of an oddity in this year’s line-up overall thanks to a great deal of nudity, but this Freudian tale of a young professional accounts manager trying to cope with everyone around him being naked and horny all the time. It goes somewhere interesting, but the nudity feels more like a gimmick almost immediately rather than something genuinely funny. It feels like something being underlined when it isn’t entirely needed.

Last, but not least, there’s Paradsio from Devan Scott, a clever tale set amid the second coming of Jesus involving one brother appealing to God to save the soul of his higher power denying sibling. There are some clever gags (Heaven is kind of like a golf course with Peter acting as Bill Murray from Caddyshack, people receive their final judgments via mail) and the hook is consistently interesting. Then it goes out on the sourest of notes in the final ten seconds when it pretty much betrays the audience’s trust and the very ideology it seemed to set up. Even though the last ten seconds are worth puzzling over for ten more seconds, it still feels like the wrong ending.

Screens

Thursday, September 12th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3, 7:00pm

Friday, September 13th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4, 12:15pm


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