Tuesday, September 16, 2008

TIFF 2008 wrapup (and revisiting the film that won't die)

This fest-end wrapup has been a bit harder than usual to get going on. Not sure exactly why that is, probably just a struggle to balance my more generic rankings of viewings with my more confused ongoing feelings about Martyrs and my mixed emotions about the various controversies the TIFF engendered this year. Over all it was a good year…on average. I saw eighteen films at TIFF 08, a personal record for me (although last year I saw the same number during the period of the festival due to three others in regular theatre admissions) though certainly no record-breaker as far as TIFF regulars go. In fact, I hate to say it but I may actually scale back next year to a single ten-pack and a few extras. My point is that with so many films within nine days there had to be a few duds along with the spots of brilliance and (most of all) the Interesting Viewing Experiences, same as every year.

There certainly wasn’t, however, something I saw that really knocked my socks off. I did give four-star reviews to, and still continue to rave to my friends about, three films: It Might Get Loud, Not Quite Hollywood and The Burrowers, the first two of which at least I’ll definitely acquire on DVD at some point. But while my experience at those films was an absolute blast, a wild and fun few hours with chills and thrills, none of them really achieved a certain transcendence. Which seems like a tall order, I know, but it’s certainly something that’s attainable, that’s why I and no doubt most of my fellow audience members fell in love with the cinematic art form in the first place. While Not Quite Hollywood renewed my love of a certain aesthetic of fun trashy cinema, last year’s Son of Rambow went that much further to tap into something primal in my love of movies and my memories of how the movies have shaped me.

It also didn’t help, and of course this has nothing to do with the festival itself, that the weather was uncommonly pissy this year. In my experience, part of the joy of the festival is the way it eases us out of summer into autumn. You attend opening night in a t-shirt, tanning yourself under a blazing post-labour day sun, there’s maybe one day of rain somewhere around Wednesday, and you emerge from your final screening Saturday evening into a brisk fall evening, wrapping your jacket around you and debating Halloween costumes. I found myself carrying an umbrella in my bag every day this year, and the final three days were a muggy, sticky, tropical stew. Such meteorological misery does no good for filmic enjoyment.

And what of the stuff we can lay at the feet of the festival organizers? I laid off the TIFF board during the run of the fest, but many others laid into them. The Sun had a front page headline on the 6th blaring “FILM FEST ELITIST” and the article inside gave voice to many of the complaints of the regular fest-goers about the newly-established class system and inequities in ticket distribution. Piers Handling frowned his way through a response the next day, some of which I was on board with and some of which smacked of “well, we haven’t raised the prices on ALL the programs.” Unlike many, I’m split on the validity of some of the changes. As for the donors getting first crack at the ticket draws, um, (kaff kaff) I kinda thought they did already, so that wasn’t as big an affront to me as it was to many. And despite my bitching about being in the very last bin processed for the draw, I probably overreacted because a) I got thirteen of my top eighteen picks anyway and b) it really is a pretty fair way to distribute.

When it comes to people completely striking out with their picks, I’m of two minds. With the woman I was next to in line on pickup day who got zero out of twenty, I still have to wonder about computer or human error, however I have no opinion on the high percentage of folks who didn’t get very many of their picks. While I’m sure some of the disappointing draws were due to the donors jumping the line, I suspect a lot of it is really just “you pays your money, you takes your chances.” Availability obviously has something to do with the individual viewing halls’ capacities. I saw some movies in massive, half-empty auditoriums, and some smaller halls were packed to the rafters. There’s just no way of knowing in advance where the viewers are going to gravitate each year, the best example of which is the blockbuster status at the fest of Country Wedding. I mean, who knew? My own rules are pretty firm: as little as possible that’s going to be in the theatres in October anyway, and no galas. Getting a photo of one of the Coen brothers from across King St. just isn’t a priority for me, and I don’t need to hear Kevin Smith doing a Q&A after the second screening of Zack and Miri. So people filled their ticket selection books with the star-studded Hollywood awards bait and wondered why they didn’t get in? Hmmm?

Having come down on the side of the TIFF on those fronts, though, there was still plenty to aggravate this year. There was the clusterfuck of the ticket pickup day, with (reportedly) the broken printer and a three-hour wait for voucher cash-ins. There was the muddle regarding the split within the Special Presentation program, with no distinction between gala-priced and regular-priced SP’s in the main reference bible of the festival. I suspect, sadly, that next year all Special Presentations will be gala-priced, though fortunately there’s no way they can spread that to other programs without seeming completely arbitrary and giving the game away (“Okay from now on…um…Canada First! is forty-five bucks a pop! Yeah, that’s the ticket!”) The demise of the Cumberland as a viewing venue hits hard; though the theatres aren’t the biggest, it’s always been a cozy spot for an end-of-week screening.

And then…there was Martyrs. It was three days ago and I’m still playing it over and over in my mind—not the movie itself, though certain images are sticking with me much to my chagrin. Rather, I keep going over my reaction to it, and my bafflement over the reasons for its existence. In some regards, I suppose it is a masterpiece; Martyrs takes the horror genre to a very specific new groundbreaking place. Whether it needed to go there is another question entirely. The sort of pleasure it brings to its admirers and defenders is yet another issue. I may never be comfortable with the film; I certainly don’t plan on ever seeing it again to see if I feel as strongly about it in the future. But the fact that it’s still gnawing at me and I still keep bashing the arguments around in my head, and I can’t help but acknowledge that for all the moral offence it caused me it was an exceptionally made piece of work and far from the product of a hack…I guess that all means it did what it set out to do.

But is that justification enough? I still can’t get anywhere near conceding that Martyrs says anything that needs to be said in the genre or even film in general, and the director’s studied offhand remark that he views the piece as a melodrama that happens to have a lot of violence in it still strikes me as cynical and disingenuous. That bit of propaganda aside, I’m left with just my own reaction to the film to go by. And what possibly disturbs me the most is the feelings it brought out in me about the validity of a work’s very existence, an argument that before now I never would have had about anything in the entire cultural spectrum. My reaction to Martyrs made me think, this is what all of western popular culture must seem like to the Brent Bozells, the James Dobsons, the Mary Whitehouses of the world. What can it be like living in a world in which every Janet Jackson nipplegate or every f-bomb that slips past the tape delay is as shattering an offence as a young French girl being skinned alive for the edification of a bunch of religious cultists onscreen or an a theatre of gorehounds offscreen? Feeling that murmur of censoriousness was almost as disturbing as anything I witnessed at the AMC that rainy afternoon.

So anyway…that’s about all I can say on the subject. Martyrs didn’t cast a fatal pall over the festival for me, but it did make it memorable in a way I really could have done without in the absence of a life-changing cinematic experience. I did make a number of new great memories this year: meeting my screenwriting idol Paul Schrader, even if only for long enough to get a poster autographed, is a moment I’ll cherish forever. The Q&A for It Might Get Loud was the most rocking and rolling evening I’ve ever spent without any live music actually being played. Asking Wong Kar Wai a question and having him tell me about his latest conversation with Lin Ching Hsia in response…be still my heart. Not to mention the cinephile debates, the blog trades, winning the Ozpolitation handbook at the Not Quite Hollywood screening, and the tradition continuing of uncovering those special gems entirely by accident, the great along with the good and the bad.

Best year ever? Well, no. But still pretty damn good.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

TIFF 2008 reviews: My Mother, My Bride & I

My Mother, My Bride & I is a charming German romantic comedy that maybe relies upon a bit too much hand-held camera and stretches credulity when it asks us to believe that even a repressed forty-year-old mutter’s boy is going to bail in fear if Maria Popistasu doffs her kit in front of him and says please. But I still liked it a lot. It manages to make all three leads believable and interesting, and makes some sweet soundtrack choices, but mainly I’m glad I saw it because otherwise the last movie of this year’s TIFF for me would have been Martyrs and it was such a relief to have two hours of recognizable human behavior onscreen again. (***)

Yeah, it's short and doesn't say much but I'm still incensed over that travesti from this afternoon. I'll be back with a festival wrapup tomorrow.

TIFF 2008 reviews: Martyrs

Martyrs was a post-ticket-draw voucher cash-in. What the hell, I sez, a French horror film, I regret missing Frontière(s) last year, and why not plug that hole in my schedule on the last day of the festival between the Thai kickboxing flick and the German romantic comedy with something fun and wild? What could go wrong?

I’ve been writing and rewriting this blog entry in my mind ever since the lights came up, and I’m still sort of at a loss for words as I sit down in front of the computer for the dispatch. Martyrs is, without a doubt, the most vile, disgusting piece of trash I’ve ever seen. I will concede that there’s skill behind the camera, but if anything that makes it worse, since that skill is being put to no conceivable good use. Look, I’ll defend Hostel and its sequel, the work of Jorg Buttgerheit, Cannibal Ferox and Cannibal Holocaust (one more than the other but I always get them confused) and any number of other extreme horror flicks. And those aren’t even really my type of horrors: give me a creepy J-horror ghost story or some classic Hammer or a werewolf, vampire or Frankenstein variant any day. I was telling someone the other day that if I never saw another serial killer movie again that would be fine with me (and then I wandered into Acolytes).

But this film goes beyond the pale. It’s not just torture porn, that recent genre mutation that actually seemed to find its mainstream footing at TIFF Midnight Madness with Hostel and Saw (which I have never seen a single franchise installment of), it’s torture porn to the hundredth degree, unleavened by irony, subtext, politics or any sense of morality. The pseudo-religious garbage spewed by the ultimately-revealed villains doesn’t justify the senseless abuse the audience has been subject to for the previous hour. This is a new low: never before has physical abuse, damage and pain inflicted on frightened innocents been portrayed as stoically, methodically graphic.

For a while, I was lulled into thinking that this would be like the Reservoir Dogs of TP: Dogs was a heist movie all about the aftermath, and this would be all about the recovery and vengeance from a freed victim. But oh no, at about the hour mark any forward plot momentum simply stops and the audience’s nose is rubbed into the BTK depravity for a wordless twenty minute stretch as one of our two heroines (?) is chained up in a basement and beaten mercilessly. Rumour has it that someone actually vomited at the midnight screening. Gee, when was that? Was it when the girl was flayed alive, or when the ten year old took a shotgun blast to the chest, or was it when the other girl chained up in the basement had her facemask removed, the inch-long pins holding it to her skull slowly pulled out and the skin of her face and scalp sloughing off with the mask? Take your pick.

I should have listened to one quiet nagging doubt. The controversy of Martyrs’ French rating—the ratings board dusted off a rating that’s actually no different than Ontario’s “R” or the American “NC-17” but which is virtually never applied in France, basically serving as a ban over there—was mentioned in the TIFF program book and I sort of thought that was leading the witness, as it were. I mean, shouldn’t we decide if a movie is “controversial” or not, isn’t it the audience reaction over here that will give the movie its reputation? Look, I’m no great lover of the French, but they do have North American culture beat in so many ways. France is an open-minded society that knows how to balance work and play, doesn’t get hung up over sexual matters, takes care of the health of its citizens, and isn’t run by religious moralizers. I have a visceral reaction to any form of censorship, but Martyrs has brought me to the point where I’m willing to say: “you know, if even the French want to ban this movie…maybe we oughta listen.” (zero stars)

TIFF 2008 reviews: Chocolate

When it comes to most genre films, I can get lenient on my criteria for entertainment. Basically it all ultimately boils down to one question: did the movie deliver what it promised? In the case of Chocolate, Prachya Prinkaew’s follow-up to festival hit Ong Bak, the answer is a stone cold yes, maybe not a home run but still a solid hit. The promise, in this case, was that for my admission price I’d get an hour and a half of a cute autistic Thai girl with photographic reflexes muay thai-ing her way through the Bangkok underworld. Done.

I actually kind of prefer Chocolate to Ong Bak (it’s about neck and neck with Tom Yum Goong, though, as far as lack of downtime goes), mainly because I’m still not convinced Tony Jaa will develop the onscreen gravitas and charisma he’ll need for the long run, whereas JeeJa Yanin emerges in her starmaking vehicle fully formed: she’s got the comedy, drama and moves down pat. Plus this time there isn’t a cynical passing-the-torch scene like the one in Ong Bak where Jaa bumps into the world’s worst Jackie Chan impersonator at the airport and stares him down.

If I’d seen this movie when I was twenty and in full chop socky fanatic mode, it would have been my favorite movie ever. As it is, there’s nothing new but, as I said: the movie delivers. It’s not a classic, but anything that gets an entire audience screaming, cheering and clapping simultaneously at acrobatics and body blows has done its job. (***1/2)

TIFF 2008 reviews: Achilles and the Tortoise

This’ll be a short one. I actually would have traded in my ticket for Achilles and the Tortoise if I’d remembered that same-day exchanges weren’t permitted, and I nearly walked out after nodding off a couple of times during the screening. Which isn’t to say that A&T is a bad movie, far from it. There’s a reason Takeshi Kitano’s in the Masters program, and I’m a big admirer. But only four hours sleep Thursday night and the oppressive sweltering heat of Friday afternoon were not making me the most receptive audience member, especially for a stoic Japanese parable about the compulsive need to create “art” in a world that just doesn’t understand genius. I will say that it’s an oddly lopsided movie for Takeshi, who usually maintains a much more consistent tone in his films (I can’t recommend Hana-Bi enough for anyone who wants to see him at the peak of his directing abilities). The first half is a grim tale of a child’s obsessive need to paint as outside forces strip away all creature comforts. The second half is a wacky comedy about the child (grown up and played in the last act by the director) and his repeated bungled attempts to break into the art world, first with a college gang of zany abstractionists and then as a solo act abetted by his long-suffering wife. The only real aesthetic link between the two halves is a recurring theme of various people in his periphery committing suicide in front of him, usually ending with a pool of blood spreading around their head. So, really, just your typical Japanese comedy. (***)

TIFF 2008 reviews: Acolytes

I wouldn’t call Acolytes a dud, as far as Midnight Madness shows go, though of the four MM flicks I’ve seen so far (two more to go) it’s the only one I’m not exactly raving about. The afternoon screening went rush shortly after I picked up my ticket at the Manulife box office. I’m not sure why the sudden surge in interest, the reviews in the weeklies hadn’t exactly been effusive, and it certainly wasn’t garnering the press attention of JCVD or the public curiosity (judging from how many people I talked to this week who were dying to see it) of Detroit Metal City. I suspect that many festival-goers just wanted to see SOMETHING—Friday was a rainy, muggy, miserable day outside, and there were less than 36 hours remaining in the festival and oh god this can’t end so soon, is it nine days already? Is there something, anything starting right now? I’ll take it! Just keep the non-mainstream flickering images going in front of my eyeballs! In all honesty, that’s kind of why I went. Well, it was Acolytes or Christopher Walken as a wacky con man, so…

Director John Hewitt showed up to introduce the movie though he couldn’t stick around for a Q&A. Interestingly enough, Geddes mentioned that Hewitt had actually been seeing plenty of other movies at the fest while in town, including all the midnight shows, which is refreshing news, as I’ve been wondering for years why more guests of the festival don’t kick back for a week and take in the TIFF like regular movie-lovin’ folk instead of bolting for Pearson after a gala or two and a couple of parties. Personally, if I was in their boots I’d be making a ten ticket pack and a program(me) book a condition of playing nice on the red carpet. This year, like I mentioned, I spotted a couple of directors in the audience for Kathryn Bigelow, and reports were going around of Geoffrey Rush making like a local, but except for Ivan Reitman at the Ryerson showing of DePalma’s Redacted last year, that’s the extent of my celeb spotting among the hoi polloi.

So anyway, Hewitt commented on his enthusiasm for Not Quite Hollywood, and how those same schlocky seventies grindhouse flicks influenced his own work (“You can see the occasional Brian Trenchard-Smith shot in here,” he promised, and went on to dis the classy examples of Aussie national cinema such as Breaker Morant and Picnic at Hanging Rock which, after the week I’ve had, somehow seems like a de rigeur complaint), which places him solidly in the tradition of the horror film directors working today who revere the seventies as a golden age for the genre. Which is a stance I only partially understand. I think Eli Roth is a terribly underrated director solely because he traffics in the most extreme end of the mainstream horror genre (and by “mainstream” I simply mean that he pushes the envelope in terms of what a major studio will release), but actually has a tremendous eye and a solid sense of pacing and storytelling. Still, to listen to the commentary track on Cabin Fever, he’s yet another young filmmaker who can’t stop raving about the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a movie I’m still convinced is the biggest cinematic case of the Emperor’s New Clothes in history, a dull, dreary, murky bore. This era of “hardcore” horror never does anything for me; except for Dawn of the Dead and early Cronenberg, the seventies were a big dry stretch in horror in my opinion.

Which is a roundabout way of getting to my main issue with Acolytes. Don’t get me wrong, I still recommend the movie: the performances are uniformly genuine and effective, and Hewitt’s a creative guy when it comes to camerawork, so the movie works well cinematically. It does suffer from a certain depressed grimness, a shadowy visual palette that makes me think that just maybe it wasn’t the best choice moodwise for an ugly, muggy Toronto afternoon. But for all the skill behind the camera, Acolytes rarely cuts loose with the kind of celebrated weirdness and gonzo spirit that Hewitt loved at the Ozploitaion drive-ins of his youth. It’s a pretty unrelenting story about three high schoolers seemingly from the Queensland touring group of Larry Clark’s Kids, three familiar types: the sensitive wounded teen romantic, the hypersexualized hottie (played by a terrific actress named Hanna Mangan Lawrence who bears an uncanny resemblance to Anna Paquin) and the sneering bully alpha dog, the type of fifteen year old asshat we all remember from high school, the guy who was a mess of wretched aggressiveness who still somehow managed to bag the girls who bore an uncanny resemblance to Anna Paquin. What starts off as a down-under version of Stand By Me, as the trio discovers a dead body in the woods, soon enough starts twisting off course into a cat and mouse game with a suburban serial killer and the local white trash child molester. There may be a twist or two too many, actually; though all the pieces come together at the end, I personally thought one of the reversals was a deus ex machina of the highest order. I left the Varsity feeling very bummed out rather than exhilarated, recognizing the skill with which the movie was made but still wishing that today’s horrormeisters would let loose with the wonky craziness more than the seemy-underbelly aesthetic. (***)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

TIFF 2008 reviews: The Burrowers

I turned thirty-five today, which I hesitate to mention here except that it always does fall in the middle of the festival, and I have to wonder if that annual body blow of mortality awareness determined why I liked the one movie I saw today so much and why I couldn’t quite bring myself to actually go to the other one for which I had a ticket. Anyway, it’s certainly not like I had a big blowout—indeed, with a b-day on 9/11, I stopped telling very many people a few years ago for some reason—it was a typical holiday for me: gym, grocery store, poking around on the internet, downtown for a screening of a monster-filled western, treated myself to dinner at Red Lobster. Who says oldsters don’t know how to get down?

Once again, at any rate, the fates work in mysterious ways. The second movie I saw at TIFF this year, It Might Get Loud, was one of my backup picks; I forget what I missed getting to make room for it, but it really doesn’t matter as I had a wild rockin’ time to kick off my first night of screenings. Today was another second choice: for some reason The Dungeon Masters, the doc about role playing gamers, was booked solid early on, so I wound up with a ticket to the Midnight Madness presentation The Burrowers, which I may have wound up trying to wedge in anyway, what with my elevated MM immersion program this year. I’d been wary of the movie for reasons I’ll get to, but when I bumped into Colin Geddes manning the MM booth at FanExpo, he gave me the hard sell on it and, yes, I’m learning to trust his judgment (see: Not Quite Hollywood. No, literally, see it. It’s playing again tomorrow evening. End plug.)

What did I know going in? Just the pitch of “it’s like The Searchers, but with monsters,” which tickled that part of my brain that celebrates the wacky genre mashup. So I kicked back in the Scotia 4, engaged in the most spirited “what have you seen?” conversation with my seatmates that I’ve had yet (any TIFF regular knows that such exchanges can be almost as entertaining as the movies themselves and can result in anything from desperate searches for 2nd showing tickets to love affairs to fistfights) and as the movie unspooled, was utterly transported. Yes, The Searchers with monsters. But also a genuinely expertly-made western, a solid suspense flick and an actors’ showcase. How great is it to see Clancy Brown onscreen again? Though he’ll always be the Kurgan to me, in The Burrowers he’s a wonder: buried under a grey beard and a tattered cowboy hat, he disappears into the role of a Dakota lawman, and establishes himself as a western actor in the tradition of Ben Johnson or Warren Oates. William Mapother is also a shock. Tom Crooze’s cousin scuffs down enough to be another credible oater star. If the western ever actually makes another comeback, these guys should be regular players.

And as for the monsters? Well, not to give too much away, they freakin’ rock. Director JT Petty keeps them offscreen or fleetingly-glimpsed for the first hour or so, and when they’re revealed as being…well, I won’t spoil that.

Here’s the thing that baffles me about The Burrowers: I saw Petty’s last movie S&MAN at TIFF two years ago and really disliked it. S&MAN was purportedly a documentary about the ultra low-budget, made in someone’s backyard horror movie scene, the kind of filmmaking that makes the dudes from American Movie seem like Corman-esque entrepreneurs—I say “purportedly” because it is that but is also something else, I won’t spoil that either, but I left the theatre feeling pranked, and not in a pleasurable way. Beyond the manipulative rug-pulling that pissed me off, the movie’s focus was on a group of people that I would have gladly crossed the street to avoid, a certain metalhead white trash alcoholic substrata of trailer park culture, and Petty’s documentary aesthetic seemed to stoop to that level. His film, despite the switcheroo, barely seemed a notch above the homemade exercises in masturbatory violence his subjects trafficked in. I felt dirty watching it.

So two years later, here’s Petty again with one of a) the best films of the festival, b) the best horror movies I’ve seen in ages and c) the most gorgeously-shot and brilliantly-acted westerns to come down the pike since Unforgiven. Was this talent coiled inside him as he hung around biker bars with a digicam shooting losers pretending to knife strippers laid out in wax pentagrams? This is a monumental leap forward, and I’m all of a sudden a huge fan, I can’t wait to see what he does next and my head hurts from switching gears that fast. The Burrowers is Petty’s fourth feature film. I’ve seen films that were the director’s tenth that weren’t as assured or well-mounted. And oh yeah, he wrote it, too, this terrific script that not only fuses genres so smoothly it’s like they were thrown together unexpectedly in a telepod, he also manages to comment on extraordinary rendition and class warfare without the slightest hint of beating the audience over the head with metaphor. I could rave for a few more paragraphs, but I expect I’ve overstayed my welcome here already. Great goddamn movie. (****)

I had a ticket to Firaaq this evening, but I wound up pawning it in the rush line. I know I really wanted to see something from India this year, but a week of disc-punishing lines, food court dinners and insomnia finally caught up with me, and I also realized I just wasn’t in any mood to see what was bound to be a really intense drama about south Asian religious strife (on this day of all days). So I retreated back to the east end, and I swear I’ll check out Firaaq if it plays the Varsity this fall.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

TIFF 2008 reviews: Adam Resurrected

From the ridiculous to the sublime…Plastic City finally (FINALLY!) ended and I raced up the aisle in the dark to line up outside the Isabel Bader theatre again for one of my absolute cannot-miss screenings of the festival, Paul Schrader’s Adam Resurrected. Okay, truth be told, I had no real idea what the movie was about going in; I knew there was a holocaust theme, and both Jeff Goldblum and Willem Defoe were in it, but beyond that I was in the dark. I was there for the man himself: Paul Schrader, the main reason I went to the AFI; the man from whose frontal lobe sprung Travis Bickle and Julian Kay and John Letour; the man who got career-best performances out of Richard Pryor, Michael J. Fox, Dana Delaney; one of the icons of the seventies golden age of American cinema. So he really could have brought Bio-Dome 2: Still Domin’ to town and I would have shown up with bells on. Indulge me, I have so few heroes left.

So anyway, the movie’s an adaptation of a novel which I haven’t read but which I learned in the Q&A is a major part of the cultural lexicon in Israel, and while it seems strange at first for Schrader to be taking on such a subject, considering his religious background both biographical and filmographical (raised strict Dutch Calvinist and made his name writing for the most Catholic of all American directors) but then again he did write the definitive movie on the most famous Jew in history, so maybe it’s not a stretch. Adam Resurrected, as a film, is at times even more powerful that Schindler’s List as it tackles some of the same horrors, though the events in this film are entirely fictional. In his B&W flashbacks to the camps, Schrader focuses not so much on the visceral evil of the Nazis but on the violations of the soul and dignity that they perpetrated. It’s a subtle distinction, but essential for Goldblum’s arc. Since we’re on the subject of career-best performances…yeah. This is his. It’s still Goldblum, he does that rapid-talking thing and that move where he’s unloading sly witticisms while his eyes are already moving on across the room and he’s no longer paying attention to his listener, and throws in a Yiddish accent on top. During the Q&A, he was asked about preparation for the role and he brought the house down; apparently that babble that’s become his onscreen trademark is basically how he talks in real life.

In fact, the Q&A seemed oddly jovial for such a serious film, though truth be told the film itself has more moments of levity than one might expect. Partly it’s a “laugh that we not cry” thing, but Schrader explained right off the bat that one thing that attracted him to the script was that it violated two key rules about holocaust movies, namely the story is entirely fictional, and it’s irreverent. I’ve seen the man come off as incredibly dour in interviews (in the Taxi Driver documentary he’s positively mopey) but he was a cheery delight tonight. And (swoon) I raced out behind the theatre and caught the delegation as they were piling into the limo, and he signed my Light Sleeper poster (“Oh, I like this one!” he commented cheerfully as he scrawled his name and I promptly dropped the poster on the ground twice). Sweet. (***1/2)

TIFF 2008 reviews: Plastic City

Ouch. Another stinker. Plastic City started off okay, it’s a Hong Kong film starring Anthony Wong set among criminal-minded Chinese expats in Sao Paolo, and for a while it seemed like a topical contemporary gangster thriller in the making, ie: it’s no golden age classic but at least Noodle Cheng isn’t in it, and it deals somewhat with the scourge of piracy as a criminal enterprise. Then about halfway into the movie, the wheels come off the wagon in a big way. The supersaturated colour scheme starts taking on a bit of an “anime bordering on Beatty’s Dick Tracy” primary palette. The plot, already a bit shaky, topples over into the realm of the nonsensical—no two consecutive scenes appear to be following any similar plot strands. The limitations of digital projection make themselves clear: not only is the image visibly grainy, the subtitles don’t switch off during the few bits of English dialogue which, it should be pointed out, is invariably completely different from the words along the bottom of the screen, and I started to wonder if we were actually watching a DVD being projected. Finally, from out of absolutely nowhere, there’s a huge gang fight that seems to be set in an apocalyptic wasteland for no readily discernable reason and the Urotskudôji colour scheme really goes into overdrive. One character starts calling out for “Tetsuo” (by the way, I didn’t even know there was a Tetsuo in the flick so far) and I fought the urge to start an Akira chant (“Tet-suuuu-ooooo!!!!”). By the time the dead Amazonian native shaman popped up, I realized I was trapped in a reasonable facsimile of Oliver Stone’s id, and all I could really do was wait it out.

Director Yu Lik-Wai is apparently mainly a cinematographer, though looking over his filmography I’ve seen none of the films he’s shot. This movie is exhibit A in why not a lot of DPs make the move to the director’s chair. (*1/2)

TIFF 2008 report: In conversation with...Kathryn Bigelow

Do you ever get the feeling, when discussing a movie, that everyone else saw a different one than you did? Same stars, same director, same story, but somehow your eyeballs took in a completely different film? I sometimes feel that way about Kathryn Bigelow’s work. Near Dark is one of my touchstone films; it’s among my top three vampire movies ever, the other two being The Addiction and The Hunger, and was a big influence on my own vampire script. From the incredible composition, to the brilliant casting (three key players from Aliens plus the luminous Jenny "why hasn't she acted in a decade?" Wright and stellar B-movie presences Adrian Pasdar and Tim Thomerson) to the eerie Tangerine Dream score to the assured storytelling, Near Dark is, in my opinion, a masterpiece.

And Bigelow has never been able to follow it up. Next up were Blue Steel, a gorgeously shot actioner with plot holes you can drive a winebago through and slack pacing; Point Break is a painful-to-watch early-90’s period piece full of hokey philosophizing that expects us to buy a 26-year-old Keanu Reeves as an undercover FBI agent; and then came Strange Days, to my mind one of the worst big-budget science fiction movies of the 90’s. I could expound for page after page on what I thought was wrong with Strange Days, but I guess my biggest problem was on the screenplay level. James Cameron (Bigelow’s ex) co-wrote the script, and while Cameron’s been able to get his key message—namely the dangers of mankind putting all his trust in machines that can turn on him—across in his own movies without whacking the audience about the head with it, in Strange Days one could almost see him at the corner of the screen pleading in a whiny voice: “You have to pay attention to this! This is soooo important!” Not to mention the scene where a racially-charged riot is stopped by the white Los Angeles mayor simply walking into the middle of the street and extending a saviour’s hand to a beaten black woman. I haven’t seen any of Bigelow’s films since, except for her latest, The Hurt Locker, on Monday night.

But apparently, I’m the one out of step. To judge from Noah Cowan’s introduction and the audience’s questions at the “In conversation with…Kathryn Bigelow” presentation at the Isabel Bader theatre, Blue Steel is a prescient feminist manifesto, Point Break broke new ground in chase technique and was ahead of its time in both casting and pseudo-homosexual interplay, and Strange Days is a millennial masterpiece. Maybe it is me, and I have to go back to give those movies another chance. This feeling of being critically out of step is one reason I wanted to hear Bigelow speak, and I emerged after an hour and a half even more confused than before, because the director we all saw onstage was nothing if not a smart, talented craftsperson with a clear directorial vision and a natural born filmmaker’s aggression and drive. Near Dark was a gorgeous movie: you could tell there was a brilliant visual stylist behind the camera. And her next two films, despite my problems with the storytelling, were a cut above most action films of the era; Bigelow struck me during this period as a female Tony Scott, only without so much reliance on smoke machines (which, despite the razzing Tony Scott gets these days which I feel is largely deserved, I do mean as a compliment, as his technique defined the North American action movie palette for more than a decade).

So am I just nitpicking the scripts? Does she just not spot what doesn’t work in a screenplay when she’s occupied with setting up her painterly compositions? Could she not tell that the “If only I had a knife! Oh, wait a sec…” climax of Strange Days was one of the funniest moments onscreen in 1995? When she devoted weeks to developing a portable 35mm camera fluid and light enough to shoot the POV virtual reality sequences in the same movie, did she not know about the digital video cameras that NHK-Nihon had invented for Until The End of the World four years earlier that would have done the same job?

I don’t know. I guess I’m still an admirer of Kathryn Bigelow. There’s something to be said for a solid action movie craftsperson and The Hurt Locker, despite my problems with it on a structural level, is probably the best film so far about the Iraq conflict. I guess I will have to go back and view her older films again to see what I missed, to see if the problem was with me. It was an illuminating evening, even if it didn’t exactly resolve my conflicted feelings about Bigelow, but then I guess that wasn’t the point.

As a side note, this is the second year in a row that I spotted a stellar rainbow to the east while waiting in line outside this particular theatre. As well, there were several directors in attendance with the seminar: Richie Mehta and Mark Hartley were both sitting a couple of rows behind me.

TIFF 2008 reviews: Not Quite Hollywood

This year nearly a third of my TIFF screenings are from the Midnight Madness program. There’s actually a ticket package available that gets you into all ten MM movies at their 11:59 PM showings where, if coverage is to believed and I don’t know why it wouldn’t, the Ryerson theatre is packed to the rafters with scruffy Red Bull-wired vampires who can expound on the finer points of Takashi Miike and Hershell Gordon Lewis with equal fervor at the drop of a hat, glazed-eyed 30-ticket-package holders who’ve already seen five movies that day and are shooting for the hat trick, and Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth hiding behind Groucho glasses. Bear in mind I say this with all respect for this crowd. Colin Geddes probably has more fun putting together his program than any other programmer at TIFF. While most of the other higher-ups at the TIFF group are making the film festival rounds slogging through three-hour Bulgarian abortion weepies and achingly sincere Venezuelan transvestite coming-of-age sagas, Colin’s trolling the grindhouses of Japan and the sleaziest booths on the Croissette for the kinds of movies that’ll give you nightmares, laughter-induced laryngitis, erections or preferably all three at the same time so he can foist them on a public absolutely starved for the kind of stimulation that the demise of VHS back catalogs and the real-world midnight showings community has robbed us of. Simply put, I think he may have the best job in Toronto.

Personally, I’d go nuts after a week. Not to restate the bloody obvious, everyone’s film fanaticism goes through phases. When I got my first VCR in my first apartment and could devote night after night to the film education that I wasn’t getting in my Film & Communications program, I’d go through my Scorsese week, my Wenders era, my westerns survey…as well as my front-to-back horror franchise overview and my straight-to-video martial arts cheapie exploration. A few outside influences drew me over to the realm of trash connoisseurship and then the Hong Kong invasion hit and that was it for me, weekend after weekend of laserdisc rentals, immersing myself in wonky gun-fu and Boxer Rebellion-set wire-fu lunacies, searing the memory banks with indelible images of carnage and craziness that may as well have been from another planet.

That lasted for a few years until…I’m not sure what exactly began to dull my taste for trash (and I’m using the term “trash” in its honorific form; Leonard Maltin don’t know, but the MM crowd understands). Maybe it was the rise of DVD and the disappearance of vast catalogs of the low-budget dreck-with-the-occasional-gem on video from the shelves of Suspect. Maybe it was the grim realization that it didn’t really matter if I ever saw another Cynthia Rothrock or Don “The Dragon” Wilson movie again cause they were all pretty much going to be the same lousy flick over and over again. Maybe it was, as Roger Ebert has pointed out, that B-movies were now being produced by major Hollywood studios as summer tentpole features and those rare moments of wacky genius started to have a CGI’d focus group sheen on them. Maybe it was the 1997 handover of Hong Kong back to the PRC, after which the batting average of what had been the most vibrant film community in the world took a cordless bungee jump and Jackie Chan began making shitty movies with anorexic Party of Five stars, and my trips up to the Pacific Mall would result in piles of unwatched bootleg DVDs gathering dust, with me unable to work up the interest to sit through even one of them on a snowy Sunday afternoon.

No matter the reason, I was burned out on trash.

Which brings me, (FINALLY, the readers yell) to Not Quite Hollywood, Mark Hartley’s utterly brilliant “rockumentary” about Australian exploitation cinema, or “Ozploitation” as he calls it in a term I plan on inserting into conversations at any given opportunity whether it’s called for or not. The doc explores an industry that found its economic footing through randy sex comedies, horror films that seem to filter the excesses of the goriest giallo through an alcoholic redneck rage and car chase movies that would make that hack Hal Needham soil himself (in other words, it pretty much parallels the last thirty-five years of Canadian film history including the tax rebate program and the expat American stars slumming it for a paycheque but without the snow, the rural Quebec location shooting and the ponderous self-importance…speaking of which, why hasn’t anyone made the Canadian version of Not Quite Hollywood yet?). In the hundred or so minutes of the film, clips from seemingly hundreds of “oh my god I can’t believe I just saw that” unspoiled, each one crazier than the previous, each behind-the-scenes story more surreal, each Tarantino interview segment lending more confusion as to how he could have gotten Death Proof so wrong if he understands so well what makes grindhouse movies work. This film celebrates trash and pulled off what I thought was near-impossible: it made me want to immerse myself in utterly crap movies again to find those gems that renew one’s faith in the fun side of movie-making.

If I had one complaint about NQH, it was resolved quite adequately in the Q&A. The first half hour or so whizzes by at such a prodigious pace that even if I had been taking notes during the screening I never would have been able to write down the titles I’m now dying to see. So I asked if there was, perhaps on the movie website, a comprehensive list of the movies excerpted, and for my question I was honoured with a prize of the Not Quite Hollywood companion book, the first time I’ve won anything at one of these screenings so I left the AMC walking on air, my faith in the healing cinematic power of all things totally gratuitous renewed. Anyway. See it. (****)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

TIFF 2008 reviews: The Hurt Locker

I won’t say much about The Hurt Locker because later today I’m attending “in conversation with Kathryn Bigelow” and I’ll have more context for a proper review, but I was left somewhat cold. To be sure, it’s a terrifically well-directed piece, and its total lack of politics surrounding the Iraq war is probably the right angle to take on the subject at this point. But it’s about twenty minutes too long, the shakycam hand-held style is rapidly becoming the most overused technique of 2008 (though to its credit this movie didn’t make me want to go peristaltic with my popcorn the way Cloverfield did), and the big-name cameos become distracting much the way they did in JFK. The short screen time afforded to Guy Pearce, David Morse and Ralph Fiennes (who actually gives the film a jolt of elegance and sex appeal when it really needs some) explains why none of them bothered flying in for the screening. Worst of all, and maybe this is just a peril of filming in a blazing-bright pale white sand-covered country, Bigelow’s traditional visual style which used to have a great Tony Scott sheen to it is almost nonexistent. Anyway, I might have more later. (**1/2)

TIFF 2008 reviews: Ashes of Time Redux

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Wong Kar Wai and the glory that was his mid-nineties output, so I won’t rehash here. This special presentation is the recut (pared down by ten minutes or so) and rescored version of his bizarre wu xia pan Ashes of Time and I can say that I did pretty much understand what was going on this time. I had seen the original version three or four times before, though the last time was well over a decade ago so maybe I just wasn’t as swift back then (if anything, I think the opposite may be true) or maybe Wong actually did tighten up the narration into coherence. For me, part of the attraction was to see Brigitte Lin on the big screen one more time. Lin Ching Hsia was, IMHO, one of the greatest screen sirens of all time, with a screen presence in the tradition of the Asumpta Sernas, Anouk Aimées and Arsinée Khanjians of the film world, an utterly hypnotic scene-stealer who consumed the lens. She retired and vanished from public life after making a pair of movies with Wong Kar Wai, each of which summed up her career and her iconic status in the Hong Kong new wave and movie history in the long term in diametrically opposite ways. In Chungking Express she was every film noire femme fatale brought to Taiwanese life for a final farewell (her stage-right freeze frame after finally dropping the blonde wig has got to be one of the greatest cinematic sendoffs in history), and in Ashes her role’s a comment on and deconstruction of all the androgynous sorceress swordswomen she had brought to life in the previous five or ten years.

In fact, as Wong alluded in his Q&A, Ashes of Time Redux is a veritable time capsule of a certain era in HK cinema, starring as it does so many of the best and biggest dramatic stars of back in the day: Jacky Cheung, the late Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Big Tony, Little Tony, Charlie Yeung. Although I guess by that logic Eagle Shooting Heroes, the parody of Ashes that made it to the screens before the source material did because of the long post-production period and which starred all the above actors plus Joey Wong whose part had been cut from Ashes, is also a time capsule, though the scene where Brigitte is chased through flat-floored Star Trek caves by a guy in a gorilla suit would tend to give the lie to that notion. Hmmm? Oh, right, back to the movie. Anyway, therein lies my only problem with the screening (besides an oddly grainy print), namely that I remember Ashes being much more affecting than it was. Maybe it’s a simple case of “you can’t go home again” or maybe it’s that Yo-Yo Ma’s cello doesn’t quite fit Maggie’s monolog the way Frankie Chan’s synths did but Ashes of Time seems much more the odd man out in Wong’s filmography, a noble experiment that has moments of transcendence but is more a curiosity piece that freed up his muse to make such masterpieces as Chungking Express and Fallen Angels.

Seeing as how my next movie was also at Ryerson and I didn’t need to race across downtown, I stuck around for the brief Q&A, which was quite rewarding. Wong Kar Wai’s English is better than most HK directors, and I asked a question for the first time at the festival, namely if the actors had seen the new version and what were their reactions. Apparently Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Carina Lau saw it at Cannes, and less than two weeks ago he’d arranged a private screening for the now-reclusive Brigitte Lin, and they all loved it and were glad they’d made the film in the first place. Overall a good afternoon, and I’m even more curious to know how Wong’s going to follow up My Blueberry Nights if he’s got swordsmen on his mind again. (***1/2)

TIFF 2008 reviews: White Night Wedding

There’s not a lot I can really say about White Night Wedding. I’ve been lucky the last two years at TIFF with Icelandic films, and Baltasar Kormákur directed Jar City, one of the best movies I saw at last year’s festival, so picking this one was a no-brainer, though I’d also put in for a ticket to Country Wedding but, like everyone else I spoke to in the pickup line, didn’t get it, as apparently Icelandic nuptials are the hot ticket item among donors this year. Maybe there was some advance hype on that one; my Icelandic friend Disa says that her grandmother recommended she see Country, but White Night is, according to the program(me) book, one of the biggest box office hits in Iceland in recent years, so six of one, you know, maybe it doesn't matter which one I wound up seeing.

As it is, the impression left with me by WNW is similar to how I felt after Jar City, namely that Kormákur’s good at taking a familiar genre and putting a uniquely Icelandic twist on it while leaving most of the familiar beats in place, not that I’m even sure this is his plan. This movie’s apparently based on a Chekhov play that I haven’t read, but I’m pretty sure even most American marriage comedies have a little Chekhov in their DNA even if the Disney execs greenlighting them think “The Cherry Orchard” was a Warrant song. So there’s plenty of recognizable tropes here, with the characters just slightly larger than life which may be, I guess, the only way one can make it through life if you’re living on a tiny island of maybe fifty people shoved up against the arctic circle, as are the townsfolk in the movie. Personally, I found a bit of a Corner Gas vibe going on, including one character who’s basically a cross between Hank Yarbo and Vincent Gallo. And once again I have to wonder just how big the Icelandic film community is to be able to showcase such uniformly good performers. I can only guess that it’s largely government-subsidized and there’s gotta be a pretty sizeable theatre community from which to draw actors who are able to pull off Nordic zaniness without falling into the cloying saccharine trap that mars so much similarly-themed fare from, say, Ireland. Anyway, as for the movie: hilarious, well-acted, loads of fun, there’s no chance in hell it’ll play anyplace bigger than the Carlton but worth hunting down on DVD later. (***1/2)

Monday, September 8, 2008

TIFF 2008 reviews: Genova

Genova is the movie I’d kind of worked myself into a lather over in the runup to the TIFF program book release, what with its “special presentation but not Visa Screening Room” status confusion. And all in all it really wasn’t worth my sweat. I was just psyched to have the opportunity, ultimately, to see Michael Winterbottom’s new film, no matter what the subject. Winterbottom’s a guy I’ve really gotten into in the past couple of years. The double Coogan whammy of 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy really woke me up to the guy’s versatility: both movies play with narrative and storytelling in intriguing ways, and the latter was actually my favorite movie of 2006. I also recently saw 9 Songs, and it brought it home that this is a filmmaker with a unique and intriguing artistic sensibility. I did stay away from A Mighty Heart, but that’s more just an aversion to Angelina Jolie going all method. So anyway, I was down for whatever trip Winterbottom wanted to take us on this month (yes, month…he’s practically as prolific as Miike, it seems).

And “trip” is actually a better description of Genova than “story” when you get right down to it. I mean, there is a plot, the story of a family coping with the death of a mother by relocating to scenic Italy for a year (as we are wont to do, I’m sure…no, it’s not Hollywood-style contrived, there’s actually a reason for them to go), but you can sit back and watch the movie as a travelogue and probably walk out not disappointed. And the beauty of the city and ocean is only helped along by the always-luminous Catherine Keener. This was, to hear Colin Firth describe it in the Q&A after the screening, a real guerilla-style shoot, not so much in the absence of permits but in the lack of a crew, so the end result is a loose, 100% believably naturalistic family drama that happens to play out in gorgeous locales. You can immerse yourself in the mood; if anything I was reminded of the effect Alan Rudolph used to be able to pull off in his movies, that dream-like quality that lingers after the lights come up. So I’m glad I saw it, doubly glad the cast and director were all so engaging at the show. It’s no Tristram Shandy, but I dug it. (***)

TIFF 2008 reviews: La Mémoire des Anges

Instead of College Park, this year’s southernmost TIFF box office is located at the brand spankin’ new AMC 24 at Yonge and Dundas. Which, mercifully, they’ve finally finishd construction on, since although it’s disconcerting enough emerging from a festival screening into a food court, I think it would somehow be worse to have to slog up three levels of escalators past nothing but drywall, scaffolding and surly staring contractors with Burton Cummings hair. I’m still not sold on the whole megaplex-as-festival-venue idea. The Scotia, at least, limits TIFF to the front four screens and manages to maintain the festival atmosphere while adding the more traditional moviegoing perks, like a snack bar, that you can’t enjoy at, say, Isabel Bader. Fortunately, I’m only at the AMC for three more screenings this week, although two of those are Midnight Madness flicks, which seem more incongruous at that location than anywhere else, although no more so, I guess, than The Memory of Angels.

Before I get going on that, was there a senior’s discount day that I wasn’t aware of? Because the 5:30 screening was a sea of grey hair (okay, considering the size of the AMC 1, “pond of grey hair” may be more appropriate), walkers, canes and at least one portable oxygen tank. And I had the great fortune of sitting next to this guy:

“So tell me again how you buy tickets? Wow, eighteen movies. I guess you must really love film, eh? You know, yesterday they told us this was sold out but then they also said to try again this morning and that’s how we got our tickets. Who are these seats reserved for? Really? The director is going to be here, too? Oh, that would be terrific, we can ask questions about the film then! You know, I’m from Montreal, that’s why I wanted to see this…” and then he went on to identify for his wife all the city landmarks as they appeared onscreen until I finally nudged him and made the finger-to-lips universal signal to shush although I’m hoping the look in my eyes also conveyed the addendum “Are you that bloody ignorant that you yammer all the way through every movie you go and see or is this the first time you’ve been in a movie theatre since The Sting? STFU!”

ANYHOW…La Mémoire des Anges (so identified in the program book and on my ticket yet not in the credits which were entirely in English) is an eighty-minute montage of clips from the National Film Board archives, exclusively from films set in or about Montreal between the depression and, say, Expo 67, the effect of which is not unlike flipping through your grandmother’s photo album and envisioning a time when all men looked sixty and were born wearing hats and women were prohibited by law from leaving the house without wearing white gloves and a pair of batwing-shaped glasses.

So it’s a sort of interesting compilation, especially as I’m a former resident of Montreal and it’s fascinating just how much of the architecture from sixty-odd years ago is still intact today. And it’s an at-times stunning portrayal of the pre-Quiet Revolution era, in which the Catholic church held sway over every aspect of private and public life in the province. But I’m stumped as to what the actual purpose of the movie is. It’s obviously not destined for theatrical release so…what? Promotional DVD sampler for the NFB library? A permanent exhibit for Tourism Montreal? As a sampler, it’s way too long. So I’m not even sure how I’m supposed to take it beyond “this is your grandfather’s Montreal.” Um, okay? (**1/2)

Saturday, September 6, 2008

TIFF 2008 reviews: The Ghost

Okay, so you have a good day, then you have a bad day. I mean, come on, with eighteen screenings on my docket at TIFF this year, they can’t ALL be gems. And thus, my first stinker of the fest, The Ghost. I don’t have much to say about it, really, partly because I fell asleep a couple of times and can’t claim to have followed every minute of the setup. I couldn’t leave, though, because the director was sitting right behind me. On the plus side, the program book got the running time wrong, and it was about forty minutes shorter than I’d thought it would be.

Anyway, here’s the thing about foreign fest fare, as far as my programming picks are concerned. My theory is that we learn much more about foreign cultures through their genre pop culture than through any sort of official national cinema or adaptations of the country’s “classics.” By the very nature of inherent populist requirements, horror, thriller, comedy, sci-fi or what have you tap more deeply into a national culture’s touchstones than straight drama, which in my experience tends towards the “look at my potato” school of storytelling. This has been borne out through years at the festival: Iceland’s Jar City, Hong Kong’s PTU and Throw Down, Japan’s Sukiyaki Western Django…these films say more to me about the countries that produced them than all the Zhang, Bergman and Ray you can throw at me.

That said, the movie still has to stand on its own merits, thus my apathy or outright dislike of Macedonia’s Shadows, Austria’s Silent Resident and as of tonight, Russia’s The Ghost. Part of the problem I had with the flick, I suppose, was that it seemed to be structured around where one would think the major plot twist would happen, like the director was trying to ape American movies stylistically but couldn’t quite get the bat off his shoulder. Not helping things is the fact that the protagonist is a major douchebag throughout the first seventy minutes or thereabouts, so when his life turns criminally Kafkaesque, it’s hard to be 100% sympathetic to his plight. Anyway, like I said: they can’t all be gems. Hopefully I’ll have better luck tomorrow. (**)

TIFF 2008 reviews: It Might Get Loud

Next up was another of my fallback screening picks, and I’m still baffled as to how I managed to snag a ticket for what had to be one of the packed houses at the festival, Davis Guggenheim’s documentary It Might Get Loud. The concept is simple: three major rock guitarists, each from a different musical generation, having a creative summit on camera, crosscut with location shooting of their workspaces and vintage footage of The Early Years. Basic stuff, except that the three stars are Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White. In all my years of the festival, I’ve never seen an audience so primed and jazzed by the presence of stars…you can have your Clooneys and Pitts, I have a hard time believing either of them have received such a split-the-sky thundering standing O the way the former Led Zeppelin axeman got by taking one step into the Ryerson auditorium.

As for the movie itself, It Might Get Loud is one of the great rock documentaries and a guitar nerd’s wet dream. The vintage footage of a teenage Page’s early TV appearances in pre-Yardbirds combos is reason enough to see the movie. However, these numbers also prompted some of the more annoying audience call-outs; the crowd had more than its share of paunchy longhaired ex-hippies, already primed to cheer every time Page’s name was even mentioned onscreen for the first half hour, and the hoot of “You’ve come a long way, Jimmy!” when the scratchy BBC footage played was just embarrassing.

The whole evening turned into kind of a blur for me. It’s easy to get lost in the riffage as your brain tries to process concepts like the three stars all jamming on the “I Will Follow” intro riff and turning a two chord repeating figure into a heavenly paean. So I’m left with random thoughts:
· The Edge deserves a lot better than to be saddled with that obnoxious goof as a lead singer. The U2 footage reaffirms my impression of Bono as a dingbat who’s probably always composing articles about himself in his head (“’Politicians are a funny breed,’ he mused, settling back in the limo on the way to the airport…yeah, that’s what he’ll write.”) In fact, one of the Edge’s big laugh lines happens when I’m pretty sure he’s doing an impression of Bono’s portentiousness.
· Jack White is a bundle of contradictions for me. On one hand he seems to let himself be defined by his shtick, be that the colour coordinated wardrobe or his ongoing claim that Meg is his sister (is that one of those ironic things, that by repeating the trope five years after it’s been revealed as false, it becomes funny again?), an impression backed up by the Raconteurs footage in which, stripped of such irrelevancies, he seems to put on a better show. On the other hand, he’s a fucking great guitarist and his love of the blues seems utterly genuine and not at all like white boy slumming.
· Jimmy Page is the epitome of cool. I’m not the biggest Zep fan—in fact, if I never hear “Stairway” again it’ll be far too soon—but Page just eats up the lens with charisma.

Anyway, it was a pretty magical night. I was in the third row, so my proximity to rock royalty was as good as it’s ever been, even including Lou Reed at last year’s fest. I think I’ve got to go practice now. (****)

TIFF 2008 reviews: JCVD

(now that I’m actually getting to the reviews part of my festival dispatches, I’m going to my annual 4-star ratings system, in honour of Roger Ebert, and if anyone knows if he made it to the fest this year, please give him my best. I’m also assuming that anyone logging into this blog has access to the tiff08.ca website and the film summaries contained therein so I’ll be skipping plot overviews for the most part.)

Reading over my past few entries, it’s embarrassingly obvious that I’ve been really negative this year. Yeah, there have been some hitches, but I’m willing to posit that one reason I’m so out of sorts is that my regular TIFF body rhythms are off. I’m pretty sure that every other year I’ve attended the festival I’ve attended a screening on opening night. This year with my backup tickets my first film wasn’t until Friday afternoon. So I was living in an emotional temporal stutter until I finally settled in for…a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie? Well, yes and no.

If there exists a more self-excoriating film project by a major movie star, I have yet to see it. JCVD isn’t a joke. It’s not a take-the-piss approach to an actor’s image, a self-referential inside-Hollywood elbow in the ribs ode to a star’s image that comes off as manufactured and contrived as said star’s mainstream efforts. Nor can JCVD even be described as a comeback vehicle, as its goal is something different and almost unsettling: therapy.

The centerpiece of the film is a five-minute unbroken shot in which the drama freezes, the eponymous star floats up through the ceiling and, among unattended grip equipment, breaks the fourth wall to lay himself bare for the audience. No, not in a “Very nice, Mr. Keitel, now please put that away.” sort of way, but in an unsettlingly emotional purge, a paean to a career that tumbled from some relatively impressive heights to straight-to-DVD purgatory. Addressing the camera/audience directly, Van Damme unloads blame for his decline on himself, the business, himself, the pressures of stardom, himself, his own lack of willpower and himself again. He actually cries in this scene, and it doesn’t get a laugh, nor is he going for one. One wonders how many takes were required to get the shot in the can; if it was a first take I wouldn’t be surprised.

The fact that the monolog is delivered in French helps immeasurably. Actually, that could be said about the film as a whole—sample any of Van Damme’s “classic” actioners and one realizes that even a master thespian couldn’t put lipstick on the pig that tried to pass as expository dialogue (No Retreat No Surrender's "So. It is you. The son. Is it not?" still cracks me up). But here, freed from the constraints of The Prisoner ripoffs, illogically paradoxical science fiction and the toxicity of Rob Schneider, as well as using his native tongue. JCVD gives his first genuinely terrific performance, top to bottom. It’s all in the subtleties: asides that are anything but sly, resignation, fatigue…even in one of the few scenes in English, a custody battle flashback, his body language is priceless. If nothing else, only the most churlish critic could fault the star’s acting abilities here. Comparisons to Stallone’s work in Copland (for much the same reasons) are appropriate.

JCVD isn’t a perfect film. The sepia-toned photography is beautiful and evocative, but a little goes a long way to negligible effect. That to-the-camera shot goes on for about a minute longer than it really needs to (or maybe that’s the point). And the production might have shelled out a bit more for a proofreader to snag those typos in the subtitles which, I should point out, were white against white about 20% of the time. But overall, JCVD is a daring move by a star with nothing much left to lose and is all that much more powerful an experience as a result. (***1/2)

Friday, September 5, 2008

The press needs an attitude adjustment

Okay, this insomnia, this waking up at 4:30 every morning no matter what time I turned out my lights the night before, this has really got to stop if I’m going to make it through this marathon.

First day of my vacation, and I’ve got two movies today: JCVD at 3:15 and It Might Get Loud at 9:15. Easing into things, I guess…tomorrow I’ve just got an evening show of The Ghost, and Monday is my first three-flick marathon.

More exhaustive fest coverage in the free weeklies yesterday. Glad to see that one of my gambles, My Mother, My Bride & I, is getting raves. Now included a Stella Artois pullout which features an easy-to-read schedule, a couple of glossy interviews and still more snarky promo. Seriously? In promotional material, should the first person singular pronoun appear quite so often? Who’s Barrett Hooper and why should we care that he’s got nothing to add to the tired “TIFF is the launching pad for Oscar season” meme? Does Glenn Sumi work for TIFF or Stella Artois? And if it’s the former, do the programmers mind that he calls some of their picks “stinkers”?

I’m not sure why the press coverage is bugging me so much this year. Part of it seems to be a tone of “cut ‘em down a peg” from outsiders but there’s plenty of pissing from inside the tent as well. Does TIFF have a few problems this year? Judging from what I saw and heard on ticket pickup day, sure, but can’t we put that crap on hold for ten days? Not to sound all Tracy Flick here, but can we have a little pep and spirit for the home team for at least a week?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

My schedule and some strange/lame coverage

Okay, it’s all nailed down. Barring any impulse buys—which during the festival basically means I’ve got a four hour gap between movies and I’m debating whether to spend an hour and a half plus in transit back out to my place in the east end then back downtown or is it worth $20 to skip the trip and fill the gap with an Uzbek musical or Ghanaian murder mystery—I’ve got my schedule locked down. Made a couple of trades and picked up some extras for friends so here’s how I’m spending Friday through next Saturday:
It Might Get Loud
The Ghost
La memoire des anges
White Night Wedding
Ashes of Time Redux
The Hurt Locker
Not Quite Hollywood

In conversation with Kathryn Bigelow
Plastic City
Adam Resurrected
The Burrowers
Achilles and the Tortoise
My Mother, My Bride & I

Realized I’m seeing fully half the Midnight Madness program, none of it at midnight. With my sleep cycle as wonky as it is, I daren’t risk the caffeine binges that would be required to make the witching hour shows. Though I may at least show up at 11 on Thursday to see if I can spot the eponymous Belgian meatloaf heading into the premiere of JCVD.

On another note, last year Time magazine had two huge features on the festival on consecutive weeks, one of which was a cover story (Canadian edition only, I imagine). Last week’s issue, the one with McCain on the cover, has this year’s coverage, and if you happen to have read the article, chime in on this would you, is it unnecessarily snarky and pissy this year? Comments about how the reduced number of features “allow[s] the bosses of the festival…to congratulate themselves for streamlining the event.” The whole article seems to be about how TIFF is the launching pad for Oscar season, which is hardly news to anyone, but the writer obviously had a hard time finding an angle. The main body of the article barely qualifies as news; it’s a glorified promo piece, down to the more in depth coverage of Brad Pitt’s latest career move and fleeting interest in the foreign fare that makes up the bulk of the screenings. There’s also a few pages on where to shop and dine if you’ve got money to set on fire, and a map of downtown that suggests to me that this article IS in the U.S. edition of the magazine, if only because the Gardner Expressway is referred to on the map as “Frederick G. Gardner.”

One more day of work then my vacation starts. Kickass, dude.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Five hours in line and the rare stroke of luck

This may be the week for me to buy a lottery ticket.

You can probably tell from the tone of my last dispatch that I felt thoroughly screwed by fate, being in the very last ticket form bin to be processed. All Sunday night I was in a pretty foul mood, figuring I’d get none of my first picks and I’d be slogging through the festival seeing a bunch of also-rans. Any gems I came across by accident would be tainted…tainted, I tells ya.

So I’m up at 4:30 on Monday because I collapsed from exhaustion at quarter to ten the night before and apparently my body’s only got a certain number of hours REM in it each night, and I checked my email. And I got thirteen out of my top eighteen. Not only that, but I got some shows that I was 100% sure would be sold out, like the Genova SP and the premiere of Ashes of Time Redux. Adding curiosity, I got It Might Get Loud as a backup. Huh? That was a shot in the dark, if only because who knows if Jimmy Page, Jack White and the Edge will show up for opening night? So thirteen first picks, four second picks and one voucher. I did miss a few that I really wanted, but oh well, I’ll only see one Icelandic movie with “wedding” in the title this year.

Anyway, I head downtown a bit later than I’d planned and I get to Canada Life Square around nine…then all the way up the block to Gould and around the corner. And then the weird stories start. I’m right in front of a woman who not only got none of her first picks but none of her second picks either. She got an email saying, basically, “here’re ten vouchers.” What are the statistical possibilities of that happening without a computer foulup or some serious human error? The woman in front of me, on the other hand, got duplicate tix for the same show, with her first and second picks overlapping, so she had some exchanges to make as well.

Knowledge of the holy bin number turned out to be a strange shibboleth among the crowd. All morning, you could hear the furtive queries: “what bin were you?” My downbeat “eight” was always met with a mixture of horror and sympathy, followed by disbelief that I batted as well as I ultimately did. Two hours after arriving I finally picked up my tix. The volunteer cheerily noted “you did pretty well!” so I imagine he was seeing some of the horror stories first-hand. At this point, the exchange line was almost as long as the pickup line. I joined the second crowd and…stood almost perfectly still for another hour. THAT line wasn’t moving an iota. Word filtered back that they were letting up fifteen people every twenty minutes…or ten people every fifteen minutes…or thirty people every…whatever…and that a printer had broken down, and a volunteer was running someone’s tickets down from Manulife.

Finally I said screw it, I’ve gotta go. So I scooted up to Yonge and Eg to catch a noon showing of Babylon A.D. which aside from a botched ending (the leitmotif of high-concept action flicks this summer) was actually a pretty solid dystopic actioner with a European sensibility. Kassovitz is disowning the movie, saying the producers ruined a much smarter movie. I’ll be curious to see a director’s cut.

Anyhoo…back down to Canada Life Square and jaysis fookin’ ‘ell, the exchange line is just as long. Well, ye gotta do…so two hours later…I traded in my voucher and my passes to that long-titled Quebec film about the ’68 Expos as it’s been getting pans and Cold Lunch because I just can’t deal with dead kids that early in the festival (yes, I know the blurb says nothing about a dead kid but it’s implied) for a couple more Midnight Madness matinees and an early screening of The Ghost. Heard more tales of woe while in line…the guy who got two out of his top picks, the goof who didn’t know about the 1 PM cutoff for dropping off his form (actually, not much sympathy there, but then I’m anal about deadlines, especially when it comes to the TIFF), and NOBODY I talked to got Country Wedding though many people had it as a pick. Who knew that an Icelandic comedy would be the hot ticket item for opening night?

Heading up to the Box Office after work tomorrow to try and fill in some gaps, to try and trade one of my Achilles and the Tortoise tix for a second My Mother My Bride & I pass. Two more days of work, then Friday afternoon I plunge right in. Woo-hoo!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Screwed by punctuality: sagas of the bin

Number fucking nine.

Saw on the TIFF site that the number selected (was it not randomly computer-generated? did they ask someone's kid what his favorite number was?) to begin the ticket draw was number nine. And I, of course, dropped my ticket form off on Wedneday mid-afternoon and it went into bin number (wait for it) eight. And they filled seventy-eight boxes with forms. How many forms in a box? Fifty? So are there 3900 people who will be processed before I am? Am I going to get a single one of my top picks? Looking over my list I see at least seven I can pretty much guarantee will be filled before my form is drawn.

Seriously, at this point it's probably for the best if I think negative thoughts; the surprise waiting for me in my inbox later tonight or early tomorrow morning can only be an improvement.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Program book day and the torture of choosing a top twenty

You know that classic scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High where the teacher passes out a mimeographed quiz and all the stoner students take a huge whiff of the papers? Yeah, that’s me soon’s I crack open the TIFF program(me) book every summer. Sad, ain’t it? I actually said “Amazing! Smell this!” to my manager and she did indulge me, though I suspect it’s because I so rarely get enthused about very much at the office and she didn’t quite know what nuttiness might ensue otherwise. I passed out the promo goodies (a bag of coffee, some Lindor chocolates, a Pizza Nova contest card, and I kept the Stella Artois glass) and settled back to get to highlighting the index.

So the book is out! Kind of muddy earth tones on the cover, not exactly the eye-catcher that the blazing blue of ’06 or the green of ’04 was, but never mind, I don’t get it for the cover. And I’ve actually worked out a top twenty schedule in record time. I think. Sort of. I’m missing a couple that I was hoping to squeeze in, and if I get them at all as backups, it’ll be at the cost of something I want even more, but I did the best I could with the overall festival schedule. My top twenty is actually a top eighteen, as I’m taking friends to a couple of shows. So the eighteen I’m hoping to see this year are, in chronological order: Country Wedding, A Film With Me In It, Un été sans point ni coup sûr, Middle of Nowhere, La Mémoire des Anges, Genova, White Night Wedding, Ashes of Time Redux, The Hurt Locker, Not Quite Hollywood, the evening with Kathryn Bigelow, Plastic City, Adam Ressurected, The Dungeon Masters, Firaaq, Krabat, Chocolate and My Mother, My Bride and I. I’ll spare you my backup list until it becomes a going concern.

What’s the breakdown? Ten are in a language other than English, two are documentaries, two are Canadian (specifically Quebecois), two are Icelandic, two are matinees of Midnight Madness flicks and only one is something I suspect might get a theatrical release in Toronto.

And Genova made my list, despite the muddling efforts of the fest organizers. When I open the book, I tend to skip over the gala section for the obvious reason. This year, what with the Special Presentation change (which the woman behind me in line, for whom this will be her twentieth year at the fest, was also commiserating about. Power to the people), I was going to skip the SP section as well. Skimming through the book, frustration mounted as that particular program seemed to be the thickest of them all. I verified that a handful of SPs were playing in non-gala theatres after their premieres, so I called up once more to see if a verdict had been reached on 2nd screening prices. At which point it was explained that the pricing pertains, ultimately, to the venue more than the program. Galas you know, but SPs are only premium priced if they play at the Visa Screening Room. The Winter Garden Theatre, on the other hand, located in the same building, though I have no idea where, is also playing host to Special Presentations at the old price. So it sort of makes sense, though such a distinction is spelled out only monumentally obliquely if you care to hunt for the facts. Genova makes the list. I hope I get in.

Looking forward to Ashes of Time Redux. I must admit my interest in Wong Kar Wai waxes and wanes; I nearly fell asleep at 2046 but thought My Blueberry Nights was quite wonderful and unfairly maligned by the critics. ‘twas a time, back when a good 40% of what I was watching was in Cantonese with English subtitles, that Wong was a major concern in my cinematic life. To this day I think Chungking Express is the most romantic movie I’ve ever seen; the final line of dialogue between Tony Leung and Faye Wong makes me want to hug myself with joy every time I hear it. The original version of Ashes is more problematic. It was a wu xia pan whose production spiraled out of control and was banged into a well-nigh incomprehensible form in the editing room, yet was still a wonky masterpiece. I remember lending a bootleg to a German friend while at film school and she called me up just as Brigitte Lin was slicing the lake in two, saying “Thees is my new favorite moo-vee! Thank you, thank you!” The way the camera lingers on Maggie Cheung’s face during her closing monolog cemented her status as one of the greatest iconic screen beauties of all time. If this re-edit maintains all the power of the original but also renders the story understandable, Wong will definitely have his mojo back.

A few other observations…

Control Alt Delete, a Canadian film about a guy obsessed with internet porn who actually begins to have intercourse with his hard drive, was produced by Lynne Stopkewich, who directed the classic necro drama Kissed, and thus seems to be building a career around movies featuring characters humpinandpumpin things they really shouldn’t. Only in Canada.

Looking through the Galas I can’t spot this year’s massive misstep, that high profile red carpet event that either tanks completely upon release or is critically reviled or both. All The Kings Men, anyone? How about 2005’s closing night gala Edison, starring Kevin Spacey, Morgan Freeman and Justin Timberlake, which went straight to DVD as Edison Force? I’m leaving Elizabethtown out of this grouping because I thought the release version was a lopsided masterpiece and I don’t hold its “work in progress” gala catastrophe against it.

I ran into Colin Geddes at FanExpo and we talked about the Midnight Madness lineup. It’s a really solid program this year, though oddly enough there’s no musical documentary like there usually is. Geddes was raving about The Burrowers, though I really disliked JP Petty’s S&MAN two years ago. If I can somehow squeeze into a screening of Martyrs, I just might hit that one on top of my ticketed program.

Is every Israeli director named “Amos?” Just wondering.

I think John Malkovich is in about eight movies at the festival this year. Maybe not that many, but his photo seems to be all over the book for some reason.

I’ve already seen the trailers for seven of the Special Presentations in theatres, two of which star Greg Kinnear, who’s actually done really well at the TIFF with Auto Focus and The Matador, among others. Ghost Town seems to be the oddest festival entry of the year, a comedy that seems so unbearably mainstream and generic and is really only going to pack ‘em it so folks can see and hear Ricky Gervais in person.

So anyway, I’m dropping off my form after my lunchtime comics run tomorrow and my fingers will be crossed until the weekend. What did everyone else pick?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Various random thoughts on the film list

The closing night gala is Stone of Destiny, about the theft of the Stone of Scone which is kinda funny because I just last weekend watched the episode of Highlander in which Mac, Fitz and Amanda are revealed to be the ones who lifted the rock. Okay, so that’s just funny to me.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a Special Presentation, and I noticed that Traci Lords is in the cast list. Which got me wondering if this is the first time Lords is onscreen at the TIFF, but then I realized that as a John Waters veteran, it’s probably not even the first time she’s been thirty feet high on the Visa screen.

In between my recent 24 marathons, I’ve rented a couple of former festival flicks lately. Saw Shortbus (2006) last night and liked it quite a bit, though the ending was way too inconclusive for my liking. There were some truly spectacular moments of pathos, though, particularly the former mayor’s lament and the closing song. And I rented The Boys and Girl from County Clare pretty much on whim (an hour and a half of Irish reels and Andrea Corr’s cheekbones? Sold!) only to discover later that it had played at a Gala in 2003. It was…fine, I guess, entertaining enough despite a script loaded with more clichés than a Bon Jovi lyric; I’m still sort of puzzled as to how it made the gala cut.

Only two of the galas worry me about subsequent general release possibilities: Who Do You Love and The Good, The Bad and the Weird. I really hope there’s a Mongol-style surprise and Lionsgate or Alliance picks them up for theatrical.

Two weeks to go!

Initial thoughts on the film list and one final rant

So, Christmas (ie: Program Book Day) is just around the corner and things are in kind of a holding pattern. The full film list went live on Tuesday, but with no blurbs or schedule accompanying it, such a posting tends to leave one more frustrated than anything else. Each year I spend that Tuesday evening cross-referencing titles with the imdb, but since most of the films haven’t had any kind of release even in their home countries, and many others have secured little if no distribution, information can be scarce. Many titles don’t show up at all on an imdb search, and others have little more than a title and main cast credits in the listing: no external reviews or official website which makes advance querying futile until the book comes out to give a few more hints.

All I can really do until the 26th, then, is to research what I can and make lists based on directors, actors, and countries of origin that I’m hoping to visit cinematically this year. Two Icelandic movies have made my list--both about weddings, oddly enough; I guess nuptials was this year’s theme du jour in the Reykjavik film community. French-Canadian films seem a little thin on the ground, but the weird way in which Canuck flicks are programmed (a concentration in Canada First! and then scattershot through every other program) makes it hard to be sure until I see the catalog en toto.

Paul Schrader’s latest, a holocaust drama starring Wilem Dafoe, is playing, thankfully in the Masters program and not as a Special Presentation, and that’s my Can’t Miss for this year. Schrader’s one of my few remaining cinematic heroes; Taxi Driver was such a seminal film for me, and so many others, like Hardcore, Mishima, Auto Focus and Last Temptation of Christ, have made a huge impact on my life. I went to the AFI largely because Schrader was one of the first Fellows there…though he dropped out due to political reasons, which I should have seen as an omen for how well I’d succeed in film after actually graduating. So I’ll be lining up early for that one if I can score a ticket, and in my required one fanboy move of the festival I’ll be bringing along my Light Sleeper poster and a Sharpie, just in case director and star walk the gauntlet slowly outside the Ryerson.

This week’s Now magazine also has a pullout section with some interesting info. There’s a purported full rundown of the Galas and Special Presentations and Genova isn’t on the list. Very curious. Cancelled from the fest? Downgraded to an accessible screening? (interjection: I sketched out this posting at work and checked the site at home, and Genova is indeed listed on the TIFF site as being an SP, so who knows?) In its own TIFF article, Eye also makes the first comment I’ve seen so far in the press about the elevation of status and ticket prices for SP screenings. I’m really hoping a few more people will kick up a bit of a stink. It also seems, judging from this pullout, that the second or third screenings of Gala and SP movies are also being held at the Visa Screening Room which ixnays ticket package purchases.

I know I seem to be harping on this issue, but it’s not a minor one to me. I don’t have an issue with the exclusionary galas; part of the international cachet of the film fest is the Hollywood North rollout of Oscar season prestige product and the attendant celebrity buzz. My own preferred beat at the TIFF is the smaller indie film or the obscure foreign entry or quirky doc, so the galas are off my radar. I mean, I’m going to go see Burn After Reading when it gets released anyway, and I don’t feel like I’m being shut out of a valuable viewing experience by not ponying up a couple of sawbucks for the nosebleeds. But in my festival experience, the Special Presentations have a certain magic to them; the Visa Screening Room is one of the most beautiful theatres I’ve ever set foot in—I’d rank it up there with the (late) Rialto in Montreal or the main room at Mann’s Chinese. The films that make that SP cut, they’ve been leaning towards “why isn’t this a gala?” lately but something like, say, Snow Cake or a Johnny To flick late in the evening feel more like regular festival programming, not something that needs to shut out the hoi polloi. True, it’s one program out of the dozen or so, but it still seems like a major step away from the notion of the “people’s festival.”

Okay, I’m officially dropping the subject now.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tropic Thunder, Mirrors and more festival picks

Saw Tropic Thunder Friday night and it was....good, I guess. No, it was actually pretty hilarious, and I'll repeat my comment from Pineapple Express regarding bloody viscera and its growing importance in improv-heavy ironic comedies of the day. I suppose what resistance I have to giving the movie an all-out rave is my basic issue with Ben Stiller, namely that his inside-Hollywood self-reference always seems to lend his projects an uncomfortable air of nudge-nudge chumminess that I find really offputting. On the other hand, Stiller seems to only play two kinds of characters these days: on one hand there's the schlemiel whose relationships devolve into Kafka-esque hells (Along Came Polly, Meet The Parents), on the other there's the over-the-top caricature who seems to exist in a separate plane of reality but seems vaguely plausible within the context of the narrative (Dodgeball, Zoolander, Mystery Men). Personally, when he's doing the latter I tend to find him a lot more interesting; Tugg Speedman falls firmly into the this camp, but the returns are shrinking. As for the other much talked-about performances, Downey Jr. is as brilliant as always, and I think would be a shoo-in for a best supporting actor nod if the role wasn't freighted with such political overtones. Tom Cruise...is onscreen for about three times as long as he should be for his role to be at all effective; as it plays, he's boring and irritatingly profane for no discernable reason.

Also saw Mirrors in a virtually empty AMC 24 theatre and I was mostly impressed. Though I've kind of cooled on Asian horror of late, I'm always game for a solid remake, and Alexadre Aja delivered in ways that the makers of One Missed Call and Shutter utterly failed to do. I was stunned at just how extreme the violence was, and how it pushed so many of my nightmare buttons.

Anyway, back to the TIFF. More announcements this week, including Genova which is a Special Presentation after all so I won't be going to the premiere screening. I called the festival office to inquire about pricing for the subsequent screenings and was told they hadn't gotten all the details yet. Assuming that the second and maybe third screenings of Genova will be in theatres other than the Elgin I'll still add it to my choices. Discovery, Vanguard and Visions programs were also announced, with several maybes: Gigantic, Lymelife and Afterwards are high on the possibles list.

Two days til the whole film list goes live

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Looking back: thumbnail sketches of my past TIFF experiences

Killing time…killing time…one week until the full film list is up and a week more after that until Program Book Day so I figured some self-indulgent autobiography is in order. Not my own life history, which is boring enough, but my history of the TIFF. I moved to Toronto permanently in late summer of 2000 after four+ years off and on in L.A. My only previous film festival experience was mostly the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival and occasional one-off screenings at other local L.A. fests, of which there are dozens if not hundreds. So now, a year-by-year rundown of how I became such a TIFF junkie.

2000: Didn’t go. I’d just moved to Toronto a couple of weeks before and was barely eking out a living at the nameless video store. This was, however, my first experience with movie actors setting up accounts for a couple of days so they could rent movies then run off to California with them.

2001: The year everyone would like to forget, in which the 9/11 attacks happened at the midpoint of the festival. I actually wasn’t in town; I was taking a week off work around by birthday (which is on 9/11) and was in Ottawa visiting my folks for most of the fest. That day I went to a sparsely-attended matinee of Peter Hyams’ The Musketeer and the next day took a road trip to Montreal in a daze.

2002: Didn’t go. I was working on the set of The In-Laws at the time, though, and many of the cast went to galas and parties. For several days in a row the press person for the shoot would drop off stacks of party invites to my boss and would tell me very pointedly: “And remember, these are non-transferable.” Yeah, yeah, I get it. Didn't want to go to Jewison's barbecue anyway (pout).

2003: Finally took my first tentative steps. Went up to the box office after work the day individual tickets went on sale and stood in line for two hours as more and more screenings got crossed off the big board. I didn’t have a program book, so I borrowed the one of the guy standing in front of me. Picked three more or less at random based on the photos. Opening night I saw the brilliant documentary Mayor of the Sunset Strip and was made painfully nostalgic for L.A.; the film even opened with footage of an X concert that I had attended. Met Rodney Bingenheimer and director George Hickenlooper after the show; got to tell the latter that I’d been at the Dogtown premiere at the LAIFF back in 1997. Saw four more movies at the fest: PTU, Prey For Rock ‘n Roll, Elephant and Cremaster 3, which nearly put me to sleep. One was a particularly good score; I was walking past the Uptown when somebody in the crowd said “Does anybody need a ticket for Elephant?” I said yes and was reaching for my wallet when he pressed the ticket into my hand and walked off. Van Sant was there for a Q&A after the screening with his cast; little did I know at the time what a rare occurrence that would be for a third-fest-screening of a movie.

2004: Planned ahead, but still wasn’t plunking yet down for a ticket package. I lined up on FanExpo Saturday for a gala ticket to Clean, then arrived at College Park at 4 in the morning for a handful of individual tickets. Some memorable moments: the gala was a “never again” experience. Forty-odd dollars for nosebleed-section seats at Roy Thompson Hall, Maggie Cheung could have been Jacky Cheung onstage for all I could see. It was pretty funny when a staggering Nick Nolte slurred into the mic that his favorite city is Montreal. Also, in memory of the time Wim Wenders had let me buy him a glass of wine at a Harry Dean Stanton concert, I gave him a bottle of Ontario cabernet after the Land of Plenty screening. Saw about six movies, the best was Johnny To’s Throw Down.

2005: Another crack-of-dawn lineup experience, this time up at Manulife. First time going to a Dialogues presentation (Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream) and my first Midnight Madness screening, albeit in the afternoon (The Great Yokai War on the final Saturday). Some pretty terrific films (Wah Wah stands out, partly for the fantastic Q&A) and I got to chat with Robin Tunney for the first time since The In-Laws wrapped after her screening of Runaway. This year’s Nick Nolte moment was David Boreanaz using the phrase “we were all in agreeance” during the These Girls Q&A. But the year felt like a bit of a letdown; unlike the previous two years, there was no one movie I saw that was a transformative experience. I went home after TGYW and thence to the Beach Cinema to see Lord of War, which was more powerful than anything I’d caught at the fest that year.

2006: The year I finally got it right. Booked a week off of work and bought a ten-pack of tickets. Had a fun moment with Saffron Burrows after the Fay Grim screening; I’d driven her around on her first American movie as she didn’t have a driver’s license (in clear violation of favored-nations clauses in the actors’ contracts) and when I said hi to her from the crowd on the way to the limo she recognized me and came over to chat, leaving a confused Jeff Goldblum stewing in the car wondering what the holdup was. Fave movies of the fest: Severance and Snow Cake. Least favorite: Dans Les Villes.

2007: I knew I should have booked an extra day off; The Mother of Tears opens Midnight Madness and I can’t go ‘cause I’ve got work the next morning. Fricking frick. Lou Reed concert movie on my birthday, Peter Greenaway in the Elgin theatre, Bill Maher at Ryerson and a Roger Ebert book signing. A pretty perfect week if you ask me. Except, I suppose for that lousy Austrian science fiction movie that I walked out of halfway through. Son of Rambow was my last screening of the fest and became my favorite movie of the year. I saw fifteen movies in total and can’t remember a better time.

2008…gonna be a great one, I can feel it…