TIFF Day 8: A lighter approach

As the festival winds itself down, I’m weaning myself off of movies gradually — four today, three tomorrow and two on Saturday to round it all off. And after a week’s worth of challenging, unconventional and occasionally frustrating picks, I figured it was time to go a little more straightforward. Hence, a Drew Barrymore-directed comedy, a musical about vampires, and some martial arts action. And the night was capped off with a live performance by Deerhoof at Yonge-Dundas square (basically the equivalent of Olympic Plaza), which was a bizarre but thoroughly rad venue to see the band.

Whip It (dir. Drew Barrymore)

Roller Derby hasn’t crossed into the mainstream quite yet(though it’s been on Fast Forward’s cover, for what it’s worth), but Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut aims to change that. Ellen Page stars as a 17-year-old living in a small town outside Austin, Texas, who dreams of a more stimulating life than beauty pageants and high school football can provide. Lying about her age, she joins a Roller Derby team in Austin, catching the eye of a young indie rocker in doing so. As to whether lying about her age comes back to bite her, and whether she’ll be forced to choose between the sport she loves and the pageants her mom wants her to be a part of, well, conventions are conventions.

Barrymore doesn’t push any boundaries, but she clearly knows enough about moviemaking to put together a competent comedy. Page is great, as usual, especially since she’s not saddled with absurd dialogue. Her and best friend Alia Shawkat strike a good rhythm together, and are perfectly believable as a couple of teens smart enough to want to get the hell out of town. But the action on the roller derby ring is never as frenzied as it should be, and the movie’s standard Bad News Bears story arc puts too much pressure on the actors to carry it — and as good as Page and Shawkat are, the supporting cast isn’t always up for it.

Still, the goodwill they generate (and a great performance from Marcia Gay Harden as Page’s mom) are enough to make Whip It a winner.

Suck (dir. Rob Stefaniuk)

In his first feature, Phil the Alien, Rob Stefaniuk played a naive alien who becomes a rock star and eventually a messiah figure (shades of Ziggy Stardust, for sure). In Suck, he plays an aspiring rock star whose band gets a boost in profile when its bass player becomes an honest-to-God vampire. Clearly, Stefaniuk likes his rock mythology.

That love bleeds into every aspect of the film, from shots that (sometimes ham-fistedly) imitate famous album covers to cameos from Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins, and, most entertainingly, Moby as a steak-loving heavy metal frontman.

The trouble is, for a musical, the songs all feel pretty inessential. They don’t advance the plot, they don’t mesh well with the rest of the movie’s esthetic, and worst of all, they’re just not all that good. Though the film’s already tight at 90 minutes, it’d probably benefit from a further pruning — keep the comedy, ditch the tunes and you have a potential cult hit on your hands.

Ondine (dir. Neil Jordan)

Fisherman Colin Farrell gets more than he expects when his drag net picks up a woman. Farrell’s daughter, a brainy, precocious elementary school student with kidney problems, suspects that the woman is a selkie, a seal that can take on human form to marry a land-man. That may or may not be true, but regardless, she has a hidden past that will interfere with her burgeoning relationship with Farrell and his daughter.

It’s a straightforward feature from director Neil Jordan, who’s known for edgier fare like The Crying Game and Breakfast on Pluto, but he handles it swimmingly, leaving enough time for relationships to develop naturally before getting too deep into the plot. Farrell’s performance isn’t as memorable as in last year’s In Bruges, but he’s soulful enough when he needs to be and funny enough when he can. It’s another low-key winner in a fest where the better films have largely been the more unassuming ones.

Ong Bak 2: The Beginning (dirs. Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai)

It might be blasphemy in some circles, but I far preferred The Protector to the original Ong Bak. It didn’t even pretend to have a plot, just a never-ending stream of action scenes with extreme sports ninjas, gratuitous limb-snapping and one incredibly impressive single-take scene in a restaurant.

With Ong Bak 2, Jaa returns to the realm of plot, this time trying to capture the grandeur of a historical epic, plus lots of punching. Not surprisingly, the action is far more entertaining than the bits in between. The fight choreography is incredible, with battles stretching almost to the point of absurdity and a ceaseless variety of weapons. Jaa doesn’t use the environment to his advantage the way he did in past films, but he more than makes up for it with his mastery of the various swords and other weapons he uses throughout — and if you really want that Jackie Chan-style choreography, there’s a great fight that takes place on and around an elephant.

More than any of his other films, though, Ong Bak 2 is best suited to the home theatre, where you can skip past all the nonsense about an exiled prince and the band of bandits that takes him in. Less talking, more punching.

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