For anyone living in the Greater Toronto Area with a cinematic sweet tooth, we’ve just entered a time of year that’s as exciting as Christmas, New Year’s and Family Day all rolled into one. That’s right, The Toronto International Film Festival has rolled into town, bringing hundreds of new films to flicker before the eyes of giddy cinephiles young and old.

For the next 10 days, I will be sacrificing sleep, hygiene and sanity all in the name of being your trusted guide to the finest and foulest offerings at this year’s festival. Keep coming back and I’ll promise daily reviews of marquee releases and strange oddities. There will be blood, laughs, stars, unknowns, disappointments, hidden gems, arthouse pretension, and grindehouse smut. In short, it’s everything a movie-loving boy needs.

Here are two films to get us started…

Only Lovers Left Alive

Jim Jarmusch and vampires. It’s not a combination that seemed destined to happen. After all, Jarmusch is one of the pioneers of the American indie filmmaking explosion of the 80s/90s and his black and white deadpan comedies like Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law, and Coffee And Cigarettes don’t exactly scream out horror filmmaking credentials. And yet, the director also made the brilliant acid Western Dead Man, which suggested a darker tune to Jarmusch’s voice that was rarely further explored. Only Lovers Left Alive might not be shot in black and white, but other than that it’s the movie that fans of the proto-hipster director have been waiting for since he shot Johnny Depp and watched him die in the ol’ West back in 1995.

The already somewhat vampiric and particularly British Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton star as two star-crossed vampire lovers who have weaved in and out of each other’s lives for centuries. These days he’s living as a depressed rocker in rotting Detroit, while she’s living across the globe in opulence with John Hurt (who else?). Yet they reconnect for passion, bloodsucking, and some good ol’ American tunes (the more he changes, the more Jarmusch stays the same). Trouble arrives in the form of a vampire vixen played by Mia Wasikowska, whose more outgoing and flirtatious nature promises human hunting rather than the underground blood trading that Hiddleston and Swinton favour. Of course, the movie never turns into a full on horror romp. Jarmusch is far more interested in the listless eternal suffering of vampires than he is in genre movie melodrama or set pieces and his film is far better for it.

Only Lovers Left Alive has a hypnotic tone laced with deadpan wit, the type of filmmaking that Jarmusch has specialized in for decades with few equals. The horror twist on his formula works quite well, adding a sense of dread and tension that hangs over the proceedings and prevents the constant pregnant silences from ever becoming dull. In Hiddleston and Swinton, he’s found two ideal actors for his take on the classic gothic genre. It’s the old vampires as junkies routine, with Hiddleston and Swinton boasting the gaunt physicality and other worldly features to suit their parts. They also have the depth as actors to communicate centuries of history through knowing looks without needless exposition and can slide from comedy to horror as quickly as Jarmusch’s finest screenplay in years requires. This isn’t really a movie for gore hungry horror hounds, yet still helps the cause of restoring respectability to bloodsuckers following a decade to teen soap opera cheese. Vampires were once poetically tragic figures and the unlikely source of Jim Jarmusch has restored the creatures of the night to their proudest form. The film is too slight and flippant to be dubbed a masterpiece, but when the finest scenes unspool on the screen, it can sure feel like one for a few moments.

Tim's VermeerTim's Vermeer

Legendary fourth-wall breaking magicians Penn & Teller have been many things in their careers, but never filmmakers before now. Sure, their love of ousting conmen and conspiracies led to the wonderfully flippant docu-comedy series Bullshit!, but aside from their wonderfully loopy and deeply underrated 1989 feature Penn & Teller Get Killed, the duo always seemed disinterested with the medium that lies to audiences 24 frames a second. However, their new doc (co-written by the pair, narrated by Penn, and directed by Teller) offers a subject so rich and…well…magical, that their delay to entering the film industry proved to be worth the wait.

The “star” of the show is the duo’s friend Tim Jenison, an optics expert, computer wizard, and self-made millionaire. Like many art history buffs, Jenison has long been obsessed with Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. The painter was capable of crafting works of such incredible detail that he’s been described as “painting with light,” using techniques that have confounded art critics and historians for generations. A few controversial critics have suggested in recent years that Vermeer possibly used a camera obscura to paint early equivalents of photographs, but the theory is commonly dismissed as being “cheating.” However, Jenison knows digital photography well enough to recognize undeniable similarities between Vermeer’s work and the way computers register light. Thankfully, he also has the right combination of ingenuity, eccentricity and free time to put his theory into practice. So for an almost unimaginably long period of time, Jenison embarks on a quest to recreate a Vermeer painting using not only a device combining mirrors and lenses that he believes the legendary artist invented, but also a meticulously reconstructed replica of his studio and tools, using only materials that Vermeer had access to at the time.

The only catch (and it’s a big one) is that Jenison never painted before in his life, but if his theory is correct that shouldn’t matter given that Vermeer was more of an ingenious technician and craftsman than painting prodigy. And so Penn and Teller document their friend’s wild quest and in the process end up with a film about obsession and creation that is equal parts funny, fascinating and moving. It’s a unique story about a unique man with one hell of a punchline. Like a perfect Penn & Teller magic routine, their film reveals to the audience how a remarkable trick is done while in action and yet by knowing what it took to achieve the final product, the result is even more magical than a mystery. It’s a wonderful piece of work to add to the partners’ already impressive back catalogue and hopefully not their final film if they can find another subject this intriguing. 

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