The Good, The Bad, The Plug Ugly: The Best of Cinema Scope’s TIFF Bonanza

Julia Leigh's "Sleeping Beauty" has no pulse, according to Cinema-scope's extensive coverage of TIFF

With hundreds of films unveiled in just eleven exhausting days, the Toronto International Film Festival is as much of a jungle as it is a paradise for film lovers. For every masterpiece ready to be discovered, there are as many lemons lying in wait, often with the deceiving mark of an accomplished director or star on the marquee. So consider it a blessing that Cinema Scope, one of the most discerning film publications out there, is offering exhaustive coverage of dozens of TIFF titles on its website.

With daily updates, the site is reviewing as many as 18 films a day spread across a half dozen of its regular contributors, and the results show Cinema Scope at its vigorous best. While the fleet-footed coverage falls in line with the magazine’s reputation for being the first to discover new films and filmmakers of interest, the print edition typically runs deep dive pieces with word counts in the thousands. Each daily in the online fest coverage still opens with a long review that will probably wind up in the print edition, but by and large the reviews run between one to two paragraphs, just enough space for writers to give their essential impressions and move on.

The results make for reviews that, aside from being greatly helpful for festival calendar planning, are entertaining and engaging reading, as vividly journalistic as they are insightfully critical. Cinema Scope editor Mark Peranson especially seems to thrive in the short form format; his typically opinionated disposition exudes even more effusiveness than usual. And year-round festival reviewer Robert Koehler seems to have mastered the art of the well-worded takedown to make up for his time put in with bad films. Here we present the highlights so far – good, bad, and plug ugly – from Cinema Scope’s coverage, one week so far and continuing throughout the festival:

The Good:

Odd Future: Ben Wheatley's "Kill List" lights the way for the New British Cinema

All hail Satan, and, while we’re at it, Ben Wheatley. The future of British cinema has rapidly become the present, as the promise of Wheatley’s wild 2010 debut, Down Terrace (a kind of low-rent Sopranos in Brighton) is fully realized in the insane and terrifying Kill List. Like Down Terrace, Kill List is a genre mash-up, beginning as a darkly comic kitchen-sink affair in the form of verbose improvisatory domestic scenes: two couples have gathered in the suburbs for dinner, and soon the dinner party veers into the territory of emotional violence;  it’s clear something’s amiss… In all seriousness, I can’t remember being this disturbed at the movies, and in this day and age, that’s certainly saying something.

– From Mark Peranson’s review of Kill List (dir. Ben Wheatley)

Yorgos Lanthimos expands on the themes of his previous film, the unlikely Foreign Oscar nominee Dogtooth, with much more unsettling results. Again, life constitutes some form of role-play, and as the rules of the game only become clear in the process even the slightest synopsis is a major spoiler, thanks to an initially opaque construction that then unravels with near-mathematical precision while allowing for the unpredictable interventions of character obstinacy and natural environments… The absurdity of the situations and the deadpan line deliveries suggest another dark comedy, but the undercurrents are more scary than hilarious, abetted by fragmented framing and generally outstanding camerawork by veteran Christos Voudouris…  A truly original work and a masterpiece of contemporary existentialism, confirming Lanthimos as Europe’s most pertinent hope.

– From Christoph Huber’s review of ALPS (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)


Over the last decade, I’ve realized that Frederick Wiseman devotees are incapable of critical thinking when it comes to their master. They fail to see (or refuse to acknowledge) that in composing his career-long grand narrative analysis, Wiseman sometimes loses sight of the particularities of the institution under observation; at times, he’s been just plain lazy as an editor. To what extent his unofficial status as the chronicler of American life has weighed upon him as a burden I can’t say, but my complaints disappear into the shadows in Crazy Horse, his 39th film, and, for my money, the most entertaining movie he’s ever made. Maybe this has something to do with Wiseman’s differing takes on the American and French nations. Put another way, America for Wiseman is high school, legislature, public housing, hospital, the army; France is the Comédie Française and strippers. (Common ground is found in ballet.)

– from Mark Peranson’s review of Crazy Horse (dir. Frederick Wiseman)

The Bad

Wim Wenders, quite possibly Europe’s worst working filmmaker, only gets worse with this atrocious 3-D “love letter” to the late German choreographer Pina Bausch. No two figures in recent German culture are perhaps less suited for one another: Wenders and his tone-deaf approach to human beings, his thoughtless imposition of movie lore and memories onto every moment, his spineless manner of deferring everything until his films are about nothing; Bausch and her absolute self-conviction, bold physicality, fierce attention to details and moments, total belief in her dancers to execute her seemingly impossible work teeming with ideas. Not surprisingly, with Bausch no longer around to correct him, Wenders screws up everything as he tries to film her Tanztheater Wuppertal company. His camera, for one, intrudes on the dancers’ space, in a crude attempt to bring the viewer closer to the action. (Bausch once demanded that a film crew documenting one of her performances remain off-stage, as close to the audience’s perspective as possible; after all, it’s from this view where she intended her work to be seen.) Worse, the pieces are broken and cut up, most egregiously in the wholesale obliteration of Bausch’s masterpiece “Café Mueller,” which realizes its dramatic and conceptual power only when viewed in its totality and in continuity. Wenders’ slice-and-dice game makes one wish that Bausch would rise from the grave and give him a firm kick where it counts.

– From Robert Koehler’s review of Pina (dir. Wim Wenders)

If Zack Snyder had read a hypothetical Art Films for Dummies manual, the result might look like Sleeping Beauty. Beyond sharing Emily Browning as lead, Julia Leigh’s first feature slides like a palimpest over Sucker Punch: instead of burrowing behind Browning’s dazed doe eyes to explore her unconscious fantasies a la Snyder, Leigh’s film observes her in the flesh while she’s out of it. It’s a close call as to which film is worse, as both, in their differing modes, pay lip service to exploring female sexuality in the interest of pointless and neutered provocations.

– From Kiva Reardon’s review of Sleeping Beauty (dir. Julia Leigh)

Particularly when Americans do it, filmmakers dropping in on a country to dramatize matters that are essentially foreign to their origins is usually as disastrous as Americans dropping in for war… American Joshua Marston, who demonstrated a certain lack of knowledge of the international drug trade in his first film Maria Full of Grace, has comparatively more control over the bizarre and seemingly intractable Albanian blood feud traditions that govern The Forgiveness of Blood. But there’s an unmistakably American indie patina that imprints and distorts this tale of a teen son trapped in a situation in which, despite his innocence of a crime committed by his father, ancient codes permit for his execution as payback. Marston understandably appears to relate more closely to the guy’s interest in web cafés and girls than the weird habits of old men, and this tends to mirror a national, American set of behaviours rather than get to the centre of the drama’s concerns.

– From Robert Koehler’s review of The Forgiveness of Blood (dir. Joshua Marston)

The Plug Ugly

Every conceivable orifice gets plugged in Cuchera, a purposefully squalid drama about Filipino drug mules that seems bent on stimulating the gag reflex on either side of the screen. A scene detailing an agonizing experience at a faith healer’s parlour sets a precedent for suffering and physical violation that the rest of the film endeavours to live up to: by the time the characters start preparing in earnest for an elaborate yet completely addled drug-transport operation, the dialogue has been reduced to the likes of “I’m going to put more drugs into your anus.”

– From Adam Nayman’s review of Cuchera (dir. Joseph Israel Laban)

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