As privileged as I am to attend the fest with accreditation, there's still a tremendous buzz felt when seeing public screenings, with a wild, friendly and exuberant audience that's rarely matched with the press and industry crowd. After the somber screening of the Wang film, I left the second in the series and managed to get into the final screening of Lars and the Real Girl. Despite having to sit mere feet away from the giant screen at the newly christened "Scotiabank Theatre", it was a wonderful showing, with the packed crowd really rooting for this little film that's generating much deserved applause.

Similarly, the Midnight Madness crowd was in truly great form, as the onslaught of punches, kicks and neck breaks elicited appropriate shouts in all the right places. Wilson Yip made the trip, and Donnie Yen provided a very eloquent email that was read off the screen of a notebook computer. Colin and Wilson even traded a few jabs as they acted out Donnie's description of traditional action film moves, making for a particularly notable series of photos included to the right.

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Wayne Wang returns with this quiet, slow paced tale of a Chinese man who moves to the West to live with his daughter. As he adjusts to life in North America, struggling with his English, he befriends a local woman, and they meet daily on a park bench to discuss their families in their broken dialects. Meanwhile, his daughter finds it difficult to adjust to having a parent back in her life, watching her every move, causing inevitable tension.

Other than Henry O's somber yet powerful performance, the rest of the film feels forced and quite tedious. Soap operatic and tedious, there is little to distinguish the film from a slew of other equally boring takes on the same type of father-daughter dynamic. Most of the characters lack dimension, and the token white-guy boyfriend is particularly ridiculous. It's a boring film without the necessary spark of originality required to be captivating for its running length.
Directed by: Wayne Wang
Grade: C-
Lars and the Real Girl
A feel good, quirky-as-hell, high-concept comedy offering at this year's fest, one that's sure to please a wide audience. The conceit is simple while unique - a compulsively shy man, Lars, presents his mail order sex doll (the ironically dubbed titular "real" girl) as his girlfriend to his brother, sister-in-law, and small community of friends and co-workers.

This is no Weekend at Bernies or fetish tale, but instead a mechanism to bring Lars out of his shell, finding love and communication with an inanimate companion where he has failed with all the other people in his life.

Gosling's quiet performance keeps the film at a slow simmer, suiting the mood of the film nicely. There's never a grab for a cheap laugh or an obvious ploy - the film treats the situation as genuine as Lars treats his bride, with the humour and warmth earned from the dynamics of the characters and their reactions to Lars.
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Grade: A-
Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case
With the end of the cold war, spy-on-spy intrigue has taken a back burner in our popular consciousness. When a former KGB officer was found in a London hospital, dying from what turned out to be poisoning due to Polonium exposure, the international media went into a tizzy covering the event.

I had assumed that the poisoning would be the starting point for this doc, but I was pleasantly shocked to find out that in fact it's the end of the doc. The titular "case" is not speaking to the (ongoing) investigation of his assassination; it's in fact the case that Litvinenko makes for the manipulation of the Russian citizenry by Putin and his ex-KGB colleagues to push into Chechnya. Most damaging, he provides what he considers to be incontrovertible proof that Putin and his allies were behind a series of bombings in Moscow, attacks blamed on Chechen separatists but in fact (it's argued) perpetuated in order to drive the country to war.

The documentary ties these charges to the rise of Putin from KGB leader to president of post-Communist Russia. The trail of bodies doesn't end with Litvinenko's - a number of the interviewees, including journalists and scholars, are killed sometime after they give interviews to the filmmakers.

This is a complex story, chillingly but unflinchingly (and bravely) told. It's a powerful document to the corruptive influence of power and the ability of a nation to manipulate its citizenry effectively when the media is brought under its thumb. Astonishingly stark, this is a doc that's not to be missed.
Directed by: Andrei Nekrasov
Grade: A-
Flash Point
Donnie Yen's latest film incorporates his newest fighting fetish, the so-called "Ultimate" style. A combination of boxing, kickboxing, Asian martial arts and street-level shit-kickings, this makes for some tremendous fighting moments. Choreographed by Yen himself, the fight scenes are brutal, kinetic and compelling, upping the ante from his previous films and creating some genuine remarkable sequences.

What elevates the film from just being a boxing mashup is that Yip has coaxed some fine performances from his actors, and presented a plot that is far more elegant than the usual crap that falls under this genre. Sure, it's another fucked-up cop movie, but the hyperbole is put on hold, and there are genuine emotions running through the tale.

This is action porn where you don't need to fast forward to the money shots, a well constructed movie with some tremendous action sequences and powerful performances.
Directed by: Wilson Yip
Grade: A