The Canadian Film Festival levels up and embraces Filth

Canadian Film Fest from Tuesday (March 21) to Saturday (March 25) at the Scotiabank Theatre, 259 Richmond W. Rating: NNNN

For its 2017 edition, the Canadian Film Fest will be settling in this week at the Scotiabank Theatre, a venue somewhat larger and shinier than its previous home at The Royal.

And with no disrespect intended to The Royal, the move does seem to suit the Can Film Fest’s evolution into a festival that’s a little more sophisticated and a little slicker than it was when it started out.

What began as a ramshackle selection of undistributed features has become sharper and more selective, and while the programming still favours modestly budgeted indies that’s becoming an asset rather than a detriment.

For example, I can’t imagine a picture like Natty Zavitz’s Edging (screening Wednesday at 7 pm) turning up in a festival like TIFF it’s just too small in both stature and scope, set entirely at a housewarming party for Jordan (Shomari Downer), who winds up isolating himself from the festivities to obsess over a malfunctioning garage door.

It’s basically a filmed play, with friends coming to check on Jordan and winding up engaging in heavy conversations about their quarter-life crises – but it’s an interesting one, intelligently written and structured to avoid monotony.

Zavitz – an actor-turned-director making his feature debut after a couple of shorts – grounds each conversation in little bits of business, occasionally cutting to a parallel story in which two of Jordan’s work friends arrive at the party and become fixated on getting him the perfect housewarming gift. Like I said, it’s a small picture with modest ambitions, but it fulfills those ambitions nicely. That’s never a bad thing.

Adam Garnet Jones’s followup to Fire Song, Great Great Great (Thursday, 7 pm), is similarly modest in scale, being a tightly focused character study of Lauren (Sarah Kolasky), a Toronto woman who finds herself questioning her life choices when her sweet but almost pathologically considerate boyfriend (Daniel Beirne) proposes.

It’s a moody, occasionally piercing character study, and Kolasky – who co-wrote and co-produced the film with Jones – is terrific in a tricky role, keeping us on Lauren’s side as she acts out in increasingly risky ways by hinting at the panic driving those actions. It’s a tour de force performance, played in a minor key.

I would love to be as generous to the festival’s opening feature, An American Dream: The Education Of William Bowman (Tuesday, 7 pm), but unfortunately I’ve seen it. Written and directed by Ken Finkleman in a mode that I can only describe as “wrongheaded Lindsay Anderson,” it’s a smug, insufferable satire about contemporary American culture that somehow thinks scoring a gunfight with wacky banjo music will be hailed as an original and even daring flourish.

No cliché goes unturned – hypocritical Christians, hyperbolic media, drone strikes, two-faced politicians, you name it – and a host of gifted performers (among them Derek McGrath, Rick Roberts, Ron Lea, Natalie Lisinska and The Beaverton’s Emma Hunter) are utterly wasted.

Finkleman’s always been a fairly self-congratulatory filmmaker, but with this one – presented as the delirious fantasy of a heartland naïf (Jake Croker) after he’s laid out during a high-school football game – he’s patting himself on the back so hard I’m surprised he didn’t break both his arms.

Now, the closing-night gala? That’s another story.  

You’ve likely heard a little about Filth City (Saturday, 8 pm) already as soon as it was announced as part of the festival lineup, Doug Ford started whining on local television about how Andy King’s satire – conceived and produced as a 12-part web series but repackaged as a two-hour feature – mocks his late brother’s disgraceful behaviour.

Doug being Doug, he had neither seen the film nor understood what it’s actually about – though that didn’t stop him from threatening to run over the filmmakers if he saw them crossing the street. (Guy’s a prince.)

Weirdly enough, there is no Doug Ford character in Filth City, which spins the national embarrassment of the Rob Ford crack tape scandal into the stuff of broad farce. And its reckless, drug-addled politician is simply one element in King’s larger canvas of opportunistic corruption.

Not that Tom Hogg, mayor of the movie’s alternate municipality of “York,” isn’t supposed to be a Rob Ford clone. Pat Thornton is appropriately splotchy, blank-eyed and manic, and his confused whine will be painfully familiar to Toronto residents. But he’s also cannier and more active in his cover-up than his inspiration, and Thornton – who played another gleefully corrupt mayor on the TV sketch series Sunnyside – gives him a life of his own.

And at any rate, Filth City has a wider scope than just Hogg, casting its cynical net across all of the people drawn into the chaos of Hogg’s attempts to reclaim the crack video – including cops (co-writer Danny Polishchuk, Melanie Nicholls-King), a journalist (Siobhan Murphy) and one very resourceful civilian (Melinda Shankar).

The result is an appropriately frantic satire that perfectly captures the headspace of Toronto in 2012 and 2013, when the city seemed just seconds away from exploding into total mayhem. I’m fascinated to see how it plays with an audience – either Saturday night, or when I introduce it next month when it’s screened as NOW’s Free Flick Monday at The Royal.

Oh, and don’t forget about the shorts. Each feature will be preceded by at least one, and there’s an entire shorts program Saturday at 12 pm that features a wide range of genres and themes. I really enjoyed Matthew Campbell’s enthusiastic Grocery Store Action Movie and Joel Ashton McCarthy’s clever I Love You So Much It’s Killing Them, but there’s something in there for everyone.

It’s that kind of festival. | @normwilner

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