The screenings of Day Eleven of TIFF provided a great way to end the festival. After the awards baity viewings of Shame, The Descendants, and Alert Nobbs, my final three films showed what the festival should be all about. My final films were all fun, yet they were also substantial, well-crafted pieces that prove that film can be art as well as entertainment. Moreover, all three are relatively small-scale films that might not receive as wide a release as they deserve. The last day of TIFF therefore yielded some of the festival’s hidden treasures.
The first gem to be uncovered was Violet & Daisy, the directorial debut by Geoffrey Fletcher, screenwriter of Precious. I was especially excited to see this film because the first TIFF Gala I ever attended was the 2009 screening of Precious. Never have I been in a room with the same level of energy that filled Roy Thomson Hall on the night that Oprah introduced Precious to the festival, where it then went on to claim the People’s Choice Award.
The screening room for Violet & Daisy was admittedly more subdued (what film wouldn’t be at nine in the morning). However, the film marks a pleasant start for Fletcher in the director’s seat, as he moves in a wholly different direction than Precious and offers something fresh and fun. Violet & Daisy is a farcical romp of girls and guns, with Saoirse Ronan and Alexis Bledel starring as a pair of hip young assassin chicks. Violet and Daisy take a seemingly simple hit on an unknown subject; however, when the man (James Gandolfini) becomes a willing accomplice in his own death, Violet and Daisy see both their work and their relationship enter territory for which they are unprepared. Think of a twin version of Hanna but without the transnational theme and the pulsating score of the Chemical Brothers.
Violet & Daisy is a stylish homage to the B-level action flicks of the 1970s, and Fletcher whips his butt-kicking femmes into delightfully convoluted situations, which he makes all the more enjoyable through some arresting visual work and snappy dialogue. Wonderfully preposterous in all regards, Violet & Daisy is pure unadulterated escapism.
While Violet & Daisy evokes the wham, bam, thank you ma’am breeziness of campy crowd pleasers, the day’s second film, Page Eight, recalls superbly crafted political thrillers such as 3 Days of the Condor. (The film should immediately appeal to fans of Ghost Writer or State of Play.) Making his return to the director’s seat after a twenty-year hiatus, David Hare (screenwriter of The Hours and The Reader), assembles a taut, sophisticated, and classically made thriller. Driven by character, plot, and timely political intrigue, Page Eight follows MI5 agent Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy) as he navigates a murky scandal within his own government.
Johnny receives an important file from his boss, Benedict (Michael Gambon), who also happens to be his old college buddy. Ben’s file suggests that the British government knew of American covert activities and training camps among other secret operations in the Middle East. Accepting Ben’s proposal with the unwavering conviction of an English gentleman, Johnny resolves to solve the mystery of his government’s own collusion.
Johnny is motivated to do so by his sultry neighbour, Nancy (Rachel Weisz), who, in addition to being an inquisitive reporter, is mourning the mysterious death of her brother in Afghanistan. As Jonny looks further into Benedict’s allegations and Nancy’s fears, his lifelong devotion to Her Majesty’s government is put to the test by evidence of collusion and extortion. As played by Nighy, Johnny is as suave as the double-o, “shaken not stirred” variety of British agent. Moreover, he is flawed and fallible, and an impeccably good and quick-witted sport on the allegations brought forth by doubters of Benedict’s queries.
Hare and his producers should be applauded for delivering a thriller as smart and seamless as Page Eight. As mentioned by Hare during the post-screening question and answer period, Page Eight was shot on a small budget of three million dollars, and it was done for the fast track of television production. Despite its origins, Page Eight has excellent production value and it boasts a terrific cast from Nighy’s lead to the supporting work by Weisz and Gambon, as well as other players such as Ralph Fiennes and Judy Davis. Moreover, the timely analysis on America’s encroachment upon Britain’s foreign policy elevates the lessons of Page Eight, thus raising the film above the likes of mindless thrillers or other televisual renderings of contemporary politics. Regardless of the format in which Page Eight debuts in North America, audiences will surely deliver confidence to director David Hare and his agent Mr. Nighy. Like Violet and Daisy, the two are a complimentary pair, and one that is wholly entertaining. Page Eight deserves to play on the big screen.
Last up for the day was another stylish thriller, Countdown. This South Korean film marks the directorial debut of Huh Jong-ho, and it stars Korean superstars Jung Jae-Young and Jeon Do-Yeon. Jung stars as Tae, a collection agent who receives a diagnosis of liver cancer from his doctor, and gets a three-month life expectancy. The only way for Tae to survive, the doctor says, is to have a liver transplant. Tae becomes determined to find a donor, for his lost his son a few years back, which leads him to track down all the recipients of his son’s organ donations because they could be ideal matches for him as well.
This leads Tae to Cha Ha-yeon (Jeon), a former beauty queen turned convict. Cha is safe while in prison, but she has a roster of outstanding debts with the mob. Tae’s request for her donation, which becomes a sale, offers Cha a safe haven from all the men hunting her down upon release. As Tae and Cha run from the mob and try to beat the clock to save Tae’s life, Countdown becomes a brisk, engaging caper. The film also has the production value on par with most Hollywood blockbusters, so the high-calibre action of Countdown could please an audience on this side of the pond should it receive a decent release. Marred only by its overlength, Countdown was a great film to end the festival, for it had style, substance, and subtitles.
This concludes my coverage for the 2011 Toronto International film Festival. The festival gave us a big surprise by naming Nadine Labaki’s Where do We Go Now? as the People’s Choice of the festival, so we’ll have to keep an eye on that one when awards season gets underway. It’s nice to see an unexpected victory at the fest, for the consensus from Day One was that The Artist would take the prize. I’m also happy to see that Starbuck was the runner-up: don’t be surprised if Canada sends this one to the Oscars. I would personally name The Descendants as ‘Best of the Fest’, with runner-up prizes going to Shame; We Need to Take About Kevin; Take Shelter and Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding. Michael Fassbender easily gets my pick as the best performance of festival for his stunning work in Shame.
It’s been a pleasure covering the festival for Awards Daily, and I want to thank Sasha and Ryan for the opportunity. Thanks to the readers too – I look forward to discussing these films with you further in the coming months. Let the countdown to the Oscars begin!