Sunday, December 6, 2009

I'm a stranger here myself: report on the U.K. trip

I know I was trying to keep this a movie-oriented blog, but I do write below on the experience of seeing films in London and Wales...anyway, enjoy.

I’ve been back two weeks now as I post this, back to the grind of Toronto and the office after eight days in the U.K. And it’s been pretty much as I feared all the way back in the summer when I made my airline reservations: I fell so in love with the place that I didn’t want to leave. It’s silly and melodramatic; I was actually choking up at Gatwick when I called Genevieve to let her know I’d made it to the airport after one last day of sightseeing and souvenir shopping. Breakups haven’t hit me so hard. Crazy, right? I still can’t explain why I was so affected, why the Small Island, as Bill Bryson called it in a book which filled me with no small amount of dread when I read it a week before departure, got so far under my skin. Maybe it all comes down to one simple fact: I got it. Within a day of boots on the ground, I felt I was making my way as a tourist through a society and culture that made some odd sort of sense to me. By contrast, I’ve lived in Toronto for almost a decade, was in Los Angeles for four-odd years before that, Montreal for university and a youth in Ottawa and all of those cities, to this day, leave me somewhat baffled. Granted, most human behavior does that, but far too often I feel like an alien trying to decipher why those cities work (or more often don’t work) the way they do. I can’t claim to fully understand London, there’s no way one could after only a week. And I’m sure there’s plenty that would get me completely flummoxed upon lengthy exposure (and I will admit to a small sampling of that, see the section below on the topic of plumbing). But there’s just such a certain ease in living in the U.K. that impressed me and made me feel at home to a sudden and strange degree.

Some of it was just the little things. Take the London Underground (and you must). Compared to Toronto’s anemic two routes, the tangled, dozen-route spider web that jumps off the map is intimidating at first…but five minutes in one realizes that it really can get you anywhere you need to be. And things are a lot closer than you may think; often a few stops within central London including a transfer can be skipped with a brief walk. And such interconnectivity makes it a snap whenever there’s a station closure or track repair: a detour doesn’t take you that far out of your way. Other legends disproved: did you ever hear the expression “In London, you’re never more than thirty yards away from a rat”? Compared to Toronto, or even Montreal, the Tube is clean enough to do surgery on. In my experience, only Washington D.C.’s subway is cleaner, and it’s illegal to eat while riding that one. I never even saw a hint of the capital’s legendary vermin the whole time I was in London, yet the first day I was back in Toronto, I saw soot-blackened mice running around on the tracks at the Eglinton station. And by the way, that very day the stretch of the Yonge line between Bloor and Queen was shut down due to a power failure for several hours, until the TTC managed to spread the same failure to the track between St. Andrew’s and Museum. Enjoy the walk.

The sense of the city making sense comes in bits and pieces. Sticking to the Tube for a moment, if you step off a train and are looking for the way out, there are illuminated signs saying, and I quote, “WAY OUT”. Seriously. Not “This way to (whatever) street,” but a straightforward “WAY OUT” lit up in green. How about when you need to see a man about a horse? Looking around you won’t spot a sign for “rest rooms” or “washrooms” or any other euphemistic appellations. Just “TOILETS”. No beating around the bush here. It’s a tiny semantic thing, but for a big function-over-form guy like myself, it struck a chord. And speaking of British toilets, what with their smart avoidance of the North American-style automatic flush radar sensors that give you a ride on the enema express if you so much as bend over to tie a bootlace, I must also mention their hand dryers, these clamshell contraptions into which you insert your hands for about eight seconds while air blasting at hurricane speeds dries your hands to a Sahara degree, and you get to thinking that the designers of the wheezing, asthmatic dryers that serve Canadian public johns and never fail to leave your hands awkwardly moist, they just didn’t give a shit about their work.

This sensibility seems to extend to the locals, which is possibly the thing I liked most about being there. In addition to being generally helpful and friendly without ever descending into obsequiousness, the Brits and the Welsh seem to have made an art of, well, just going about their day-to-day in an efficient, non-obtrusive way. It’s hard to explain exactly what I mean, but as an experiment, just try to walk around Toronto on some busy weekend afternoon. Count how many people get to the top of an escalator then stop in their tracks and look around absently while other riders trip over themselves piling up behind them. Or how many couples hold hands and spread themselves out, weaving back and forth in front of you as you try and squeak around them. Or make your way to the back of the Queen streetcar past someone wearing a huge backpack blocking the aisle, staring vaguely ahead then barking at you if you try to nudge past. Okay, so I’m a misanthrope. Whatever. In England, wherever I went, life seemed to chug along without any of these inconveniences that no matter how minor, can add up over the course of a day to the extent that hermit life seems a viable alternative. Londoners are alert, street-smart and aware of their surroundings. Once again, a subtle, surely unconscious thing that makes worlds of difference. I sometimes suffer from claustrophobia in crowds to the point of hyperventilation, and that was barely an issue the entire time I was in the U.K. I'll concede that Harrods was pretty bad, and I imagine that the week before Christmas must be like a Tokyo subway during rush hour in there, but that was really the exception.

Having been fed a diet of British movies and books growing up (part and parcel of being Canadian), I’d been worried about having to deal with shillings, farthings, ha’pennies, guineas, crowns and the legendary three-part price tags, but a quick wiki search dispelled that conundrum, as England went to decimalization in the early seventies. Whew. The coinage is a bit excessive, especially considering how nothing can really be bought for a pence (I think Canada and the U.S. could also stand to be rid of the penny), but it barely matters, as the VAT is included in purchases. Go into an HMV and you’ll see CDs for £6 or books for £5 and (miraculously, to an Ontarian who’s had two decades of national sales tax upon provincial sales tax and is about to be subjected to a harmonized tax) that’s what you pay! Here’s a fiver, and walk out with your product. No muss, no fuss. Add the concept of virtually no tipping in restaurants, and a day and a half in you’re wondering why the rest of the world seems to miss the point.

Yes, England, or at least London, is more expensive than here. Still, the universal law of salary does apply: while you may be required to take a flatmate, even out in the suburbs, Genevieve said that after the initial shock, when you’re getting paid in pounds it all sort of evens out. Some expenses were my own damn fault. I didn’t bring my cell phone with me, which I still think was a sensible move. On a trip to New York City a couple of years back I got absolutely raped on roaming charges, and I shudder to think what Rogers would have gleefully dinged me for any overseas calls. So I used phone booths, which they still have in abundance over there, unlike in North America, where every glass-enclosed pay phone was stripped of its shell by the end of the nineties (and no, not all London phone booths are plastered to an opaque degree by postcards advertising transsexual prostitutes; the number is closer to 85%). However, the U.K. is, I discovered, a cell phone based culture to the degree that of the half hour of commercials that precede the feature in a movie theatre (half an hour? Yes, more on that later), twenty minutes tend to be devoted to cell services, apps and blackberries. Which all have a different area code than central London, hence when you plug a pound into a phone box to call a friend you’re basically always calling long-distance, a countdown clock starts ticking and the pence remaining indicated on the LCD screen plummets like the Dow in 2008 so that you’re scrambling for more change almost immediately.

Likewise on the price front, I’d heard endless horror stories before I went: “We ordered a tuna fish sandwich and a Coke at a cafe, and later we did the currency conversion and realized it had cost us $18!” Bollocks. The exchange rate when I went was not nearly as bad as it has been in past years, and the difference was negligible. Most of my pub meals would have cost even more in Canada, I suspect, figuring in tax and tip. My round-trip bus ride between Cardiff and Caerphilly was £3.90. Movies at some theatres, even on a weekend evening, were cheaper than Toronto. WHSmith (and there seems to be one in every major train station, and four within just the south terminal at Gatwick) have virtually every bestseller marked down to cheaper than BMV would stock it at here in Toronto. (Hmmm…could there be a correlation between plentiful cheap reading material and a savvy and intelligent population? One can’t help but wonder…) But a pay phone call still costs you four bucks if you want to actually finish your sentences. So it’s hit and miss.

One forgets how much England has permeated our consciousness until you’re there and every tube stop, neighborhood and town brings up the memory of some song or book passage. I was staying with friends in Streatham in south London, and the radio station in my brain kept spinning “Stay Free” every time I was in the area (“…at weekends we’d go dancing down Streatham on the bus…”). The tube stop at which I’d catch the double-decker bus home was in Brixton (“When they kick at your front door/How you gonna come?...”) And oh yeah, I don’t want to go to Chelsea. It’s also impossible to walk past the MI-6 building overlooking the Thames without humming the James Bond theme or possibly some Morrissey track from “Vauxhall and I” (or, for that matter, wondering why the Thames is pronounced “temms”), or through Waterloo without thinking of Ray Davies and his sunset. The train ride back from Wales passed by the connections to towns I only know from Douglas Adams books (“Ford wasn’t from Guildford after all…”, “I’ll take you as far as the Basingstoke roundabout.”) By the time I walked past Notting Hill up Portobello Road and wound up at the Rough Trade record label’s flagship store, I was in cultural memory overload.

Okay, a few more notes on my trip in no particular order. First, and maybe this should have come first, a big shoutout to Genevieve and her husband David, who graciously let me crash on their living room couch for five nights. I know Gen from when she starred in the short movie I made back in 2002, then she subsequently got accepted into a drama school in London, and her awesome hosting made my trip wonderfully low-stress. I arrived during a particularly heavy work week for both Gen and David, so I didn’t get to see nearly enough of them, but I couldn’t have had lucked into a better living arrangement. Endless, endless thanks.

The British moviegoing experience. One thing that impressed me about Leicester Square was that if you do a slow turn in the middle of the park, there are at least five movie theatres within view. My second full day in London I caught an opening day matinee of 2012 at the VUE and it was…well, different. First there was the snack bar. Here’s my actual exchange with the guy behind the counter.
“Hi, I’d like a small popcorn.”
“Certainly. Salted or sweetened?”
“Um…salted?” He brings it to me and I have to ask, “I’m sorry, when you said ‘sweetened’, what did you mean exactly?”
“Oh, it’s, ah, sugared?”
Here is one of the few things in Britain that left me gobsmacked.
“Ah. Okay, sorry, that’s just weird. I’m Canadian, and I’d put butter on my popcorn.”
“Butter? Ewww!”
I kid you not.
Anyway, like I said, if you think there are too many commercials before the flick at your local Cineplex Odeon, you have no frikkin’ idea. David told me later that it’s standard practice to show up for a movie twenty minutes or more past the announced starting time as you know you’re not going to miss anything. And ready for the website, there were a couple of Lost In Translation-style commercials for which George Clooney and John Malkovich (for some coffee brand) and Sigourney Weaver (for what I think is a cell phone video game app) got some quick overseas dough. And if you fear that Canada is turning into a nanny state, I should point out that every single onscreen commercial was rated by the British film classification board and branded with the ratings logo in the lower left corner. When the film finally started, we got the full censor’s certificate and rating on the screen. To go to such extremes reminds me of how, when I lived in L.A., a stationery store would have to get a restaurant health inspector’s certificate in the window if it had one rack of breath mints at the counter. As for the movie, well, it’s certainly Emmerich’s best, which is to say it’s ludicrous and overwrought from beginning to end, but at least has a classier bunch of actors than he usually gets, including Thandie Newton (still one of the great screen goddesses of our age) and John Cusack (getting’ paid, Malkovich-style).

Sunday night in Cardiff I checked out Harry Brown at the ginormoplex visible from my hotel window. I missed the movie when it played TIFF this year, though I did catch Michael Caine’s Q&A a day or two later. As far as I know there’s no distributor for Harry Brown in North America, which is a shame, because it’s one of my top movies of the year, a grim but still touching revenge thriller in which Caine goes Bronson-style vigilante on a gang of drug dealing hoodies just a couple of tube stops away from where Gen and David live. Michael Caine just rocks the joint as a retired Royal Marine who’s been Pushed To The Edge; it’s one of his best performances in ages and a pretty kickass action role for a guy in his seventies. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was also playing in Cardiff, and I kind of regret not seeing it, as it’s not out here in North America yet. The different release schedules of major films is a bit disorienting: I saw the trailer for the “upcoming” Law-Abiding Citizen, and Where The Wild Things Are will be arriving in the U.K. in mid-December. On the other hand, The Boat That Rocked, re-edited and re-titled as Pirate Radio for its North American release of a few weeks ago, is already on DVD over there, as is that new biopic of Queen Victoria, which will be coming out here during the Oscar rush next month.

Getting around: I’ve already gone on at length about how easy it is to find your way around London on the Underground, but as further proof, here was my first day in a city in which I had never set foot before. I arrived at Victoria Station on the Gatwick Express by around 10AM. I dumped my suitcase at Left Luggage (£8 for the day), bought my train ticket to Cardiff and a weeklong Oyster Card (an all-purpose transit pass for the tube and busses) and began walking. By early evening I’d seen Westminster Abbey and Cathedral; Parliament and Big Ben; taken a ride on The Eye; checked out the Harry Potter platform at King’s Cross station; passed through part of the theatre district; explored Trafalgar Square; located a few decent cybercafés, bookstores and souvenir shops; and plotted out my next day’s walking tours. I’d also taken about a hundred photos by the time night fell and the rain finally started and I caught an overland train to Balham station. Oh yeah, here’s the thing about the night: I guess it’s because the British Isles are substantially north of Toronto that the sun, at this time of year, is always relatively low in the sky, so the midday haze both over Waterloo Bridge and Cardiff Bay had a glorious sunset glow to it, and actual sunset would occur a bit after four PM. Weather-wise, England was pretty much how I’d imagined. I’m pretty sure it rained every day I was there, everything from prickly mist to frog-choking downpours, but there was also never a single day without some clear skies and sunshine. I’ll take that any day over your typical Toronto November weather, all frigid and windy, or Montreal where I’m sure it was already snowing as I was walking up Regent Street with my Spring jacket zipped halfway up.

The British seem to travel everywhere. All through the tube system, the wall posters that aren’t advertising theatre shows (“James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Lathan and Adrian Lester in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” or the unsettling sight of Captain Jack Harkness all dolled up for La Cage Aux Folles) or the new Queen best-of CD, plug vacation destinations. “Come to Syria!” is not, I’d wager, an advert you’ll see anywhere on this side of the Atlantic. Everywhere in Eastern Europe is a viable destination. Every town, including Cardiff with its 300,000 population, has an international airport. Plus they’ve got all these little charter airlines all over Europe with insane deals. On the walk to my gate for departure I saw a billboard for a Norwegian airline offering Oslo-London flights for £28. When I was considering Edinburgh as my side-trip I found a £5 flight from Gatwick. Okay, there are no doubt some extra fees, but anyone who’s ever paid a few hundred bucks to fly one way from Toronto to Ottawa and spent so much time waiting in lounges and on the tarmac and stuck in traffic on the 425 that you figure it would have been quicker and cheaper to just rent a damn car and drive there yourself, would find this place a paradise of bargains.

I know I’ve gloried in British plumbing already, but I’ll also add my voice to the chorus of befuddlement at the sinks in that fair land. One sink, two taps, two faucets. Wha-huh? I caught a standup comic my second night there (also my third night, as he was the compère at the second comedy show I went to), a New Orleans ex-pat who’d told me he’d been living in England for nine years, who did a bit that slayed the audiences both nights. To the best of my recollection, here’s how it goes:
“Winston Churchill visited Moscow for a summit with Stalin and observed these fascinating sinks in which all the water came out of one tap, and you could adjust the temperature to your liking via two knobs, one for hot water and one for cold water. He was so impressed that he wrote about it in his memoirs. Why is Britain still the only developed country in the world where people think it’s normal to wash your hands like…” And then he mimes sticking one hand under a tap and wincing as it gets scalded, then the other hand under the other tap and shivering as it’s chilled, then repeats the action and finally yells “Fuck it!” and stomps off. The audience howled and applauded, so they're obviously aware of the silliness yet I don’t see any populist uprising demanding rational plumbing. Maybe they figure they’re at least better off than the Welsh. I had to call down to the desk at my hotel in Cardiff to get the sink in my bathroom (sorry: in my toilet) explained to me, what with its two horizontal knobs sticking out of the faucet, each with a release button and latch, one of which, as I learned, controls the intensity of the water and the other of which is actually marked with temperature gauges. For a country that once conquered half the world, you’d think the British could get this sorted out.

If I had to pick one highlight from the trip it would be the glorious, glorious city of Cardiff. I knew I wanted to take at least one side-trip while in Great Britain, and had considered Edinburgh, but that would have involved another flight or a seven-hour train ride, and I couldn’t really think of anything much I wanted to see there…oooh, castles. Well, they have those all over the place, including in London. And Napier University, which would have just been for wistful what-if wondering (I’d considered going there for post-grad film school if I hadn’t gotten into AFI). On the other hand, Cardiff did have the biggest Dr. Who museum and looks pretty damn spiffy on Torchwood and it’s only two hours away by train, plus I stumbled upon a great bargain at a hip hotel through Frommer’s so Cardiff it was! I just couldn’t get enough of the place, from its bilingualism—it’s so rare to see a sign not in two languages that to see something just in English tends to jar you to a stop—to its magnificent town centre and brand new shopping complexes that seem to have had the wrapping taken off an hour before I arrived, to “the Hayes,” the town centre pedestrian stroll…

Then there’s The Bay. I got to the hotel a couple of hours before check-in so I left my duffel, got a map from reception and took a half-hour walk down to the Red Dragon Centre, the entertainment complex that houses the Dr. Who Museum. Yes, I’m a nerd. Deal. And yes, the Red Dragon is all over the place, on every bit of tourist merchandise, the Arena, the Stadium, the Brains Beer brewery, and possibly on a tattoo on my arm someday. Interestingly, Wales’ is one of only two flags in the world whose design features a dragon, the other being Bhutan. Anyway. The Dr. Who exhibit, except for a mural depicting all the previous Doctors, is devoted entirely to props and costumes from the 2005-onwards relaunch, and has a curiously small gift shop. The exhibition is coordinated, I believe, from a shop on The Strand back in London which I visited on my last day in country and where bought even more Dr. Who junk (Torchwood mug and playing cards, and a hardcover episode guide) to weigh down my luggage. The next day was my required castle excursion, to the painfully charming town of Caerphilly (where, of course, the Cheese Shop sketch kept running through my head) and the kind of millennia-old battlements that scatter the countryside like they were sprinkled randomly like pizza toppings across the crust of the isles. Seeing as how it was a chilly, windy Monday morning in November, there were about nine people total touring the castle, including a Japanese family with whom I used my fractured nihon-go to ask if they’d get a photo of me with a turret in the background, and a Filipino couple who, of course, have relatives in Mississauga. Wales, overall, made a huge impression on me. The populace, if it’s at all possible, were even nicer and friendlier than Londoners; the language, when you hear it--and if you want to there’s a TV channel entirely in Welsh which I kept flipping back to in awe--is hypnotic; and except for the HMV on Queen Street in Cardiff filing artists alphabetically by first name (yes, Lou Reed is in the L’s), it was the kind of town in which I’d love to put down roots.

So where does that leave me? Homesick for someplace I spent eight days in, unfortunately. I know I’m going back as soon as I can…the coming year is going to be a frugal one so I can save up for a longer stay in Cardiff, some more London theatre experiences (number two on my greatest hits of the U.K. was seeing We Will Rock You at the Dominion) and hopefully Manchester, Dublin, Edinburgh…once the British Isles get in your blood, they’re there for good. See you soon.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

TIFF 2009: the wrap-up

Maybe the problem was me. Maybe I was just the victim of some weird statistical clustering in that my fourteen film selections out of the several hundred available from which to choose were merely “solidly entertaining” down to “you’ve gotta be kidding me” and there are, out there across the GTA, dozens of other festival regulars with ten-packs who saw nothing but gems and are currently proclaiming in their own blogs that TIFF ’09 is the best year ever. I don’t discount that possibility out of hand. I do, however, have to be truthful and say that this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was a big letdown for me.

Part of it may be that I’m stuck in the past. It’s not a long past, to be sure: 2009 was only my seventh TIFF, only the fourth for which I purchased ticket packages and booked a week off of work and made the festival my late-summer holiday. I don’t remember TIFF when it was still called The Festival of Festivals, or when all the screenings were in Yorkville, hell, I don’t even go back far enough to remember when the Program(me) Book was published in black and white. I’ve just been going long enough to know, in ways that barely need articulating, the rhythm of the festival’s unspooling, and when something might be amiss.

In 2007, my favourite year of all my fests, the word hit the street in very short order: Juno is the breakout of the year. That was also the year of No Country For Old Men, the year the Ryerson auditorium sang “Happy Birthday” to Dario Argento on the first night of Midnight Madness, when Young People Fucking and Walk All Over Me were must-see refreshing blasts of Canadian kink following through on the promise of Shortbus, when there was an unofficial double bill of Joy Division was, in my memory, the year where there was a wonderful overlap between movie star hype and quality world cinema that spilled over onto the streets of downtown for ten days. There was joy in the air that year, quality and excitement that created an almost tangible buzz. And maybe it’s unfair of me to compare subsequent festivals to that one, but as long as the hype machines are out there trumpeting how “this year is the strongest year in memory”, they have it coming.

2007 had Juno. 2008 had Slumdog Millionaire. 2009 had...don’t say Precious, please don’t say Precious. Ungainly title aside, no film was more hyped, and no film could be more predictable as the Audience Award winner. With wins at Cannes and Sundance before this town, there’s already talk of the Oscar push. I wouldn’t count it out, but is the nation really going to embrace something so far along the misery index? What other possibilities are there? Up In the Air, I suppose, which I am really looking forward to seeing. Darwin, at this point, doesn’t even have an American distributor, and early reviews are middling. Dr. Parnassus will be a curiosity piece; since Ledger already got his posthumous Oscar, expect it to have a steep dropoff in its second weekend and to be ignored come awards season.

Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. Here’s my week in review:

Best of the fest
I actually did enjoy several of the movies I saw this year. I won’t be seeing them again, but I’d recommend them to anyone
An Education
Timetrip: Curse of the Viking Witch
The Loved Ones
L’Affaire Farewell

Middle-of-the road
Still worthwhile, I’m glad I saw them even if I didn’t love them.
Solitary Man
The Disappearance of Alice Creed
The Most Dangerous Man in America

Fish Tank
La Donation
Survival of the Dead
Bran Nue Dae

Films that, in retrospect, I really wish I’d either had a chance to see, or made the effort to see
Daybreakers, A Town Called Panic, Antichrist, Suck, Glorious 39, Cracks, The Joneses, Harry Brown, Leaves of Grass, Partir, Mao’s Last Dancer

Random thoughts on the festival

I didn’t see any screenings at the Cumberland this year. If the longstanding threats are followed through with, and the theatre is razed to make room for another much-needed Yorkville condo tower (eye roll) I may never enjoy TIFF shows there again.

Why did Space not sponsor Midnight Madness this year?

Are you sure we're at the right movie: Solitary Man, A Single Man and A Serious Man...hey, I didn't know Michael Douglas worked with the Coen brothers! Oh, wait a sec...

The pirate noises are a tradition that already seems to be on the wane. It was pretty funny when it started in 2007, though.

The pre-film montage of sponsors was sort of interesting this year, though as I'm sure it is for everyone who sees more than ten movies, it's pretty exasperating by day four. The excerpts of old footage showing Toronto on film actually inspired applause during several of my screenings. The Cadillac ads where the guy pitches rehashed script ideas (“This one’s about a shark that terrorizes a seaside town. It’s called...Death Shark!”) never get old for me. The NBC/Universal Volunteers one, though...thank god for the volunteers, that’s not what I’m saying, but that clip is at least three years old, and I’m always distracted by seeing the same actor who plays the spotlighted volunteer also sitting front row stage right applauding himself.

Resolutions for next year

1. TIFF 2010 is going to be all about fun for me. I’m going to see a lot fewer movies that are good for me and more movies that offer pure silly pleasure. I’m going to see fewer movies set in depressed northern Quebec towns and I’m going to make a concerted effort to fill my selection booklet with Canadian vampire comedies and movies in which Nick Cage flips out with an iguana.
2. Though I still won’t be shelling out for any Galas, I’m rescinding my rule about skipping the star-laden Special Presentations. I heard too many stories of great films and fun screenings to write them off completely. So Clooney’s movie will be out in November. I cherish the experience of a great audience too much to discount the potential joyous evening.
3. I won’t book a full week off of work any more. With the festival practically winding down by Tuesday and daytime screenings during the week being half-full with seniors’ outings, I’ll conserve my days off and fill my first weekend and evenings with films instead of sticking myself with do-nothing Thursdays.

And that’s it. Only fifty or so more weeks...

Saturday, September 19, 2009

TIFF 2009 Reviews: Bran Nue Dae

So this is how it all ends? Not with a bang, but with a simper?

Last year, recapped: the final Saturday of the 2008 festival, a muggy day that gave way to storm clouds and a cold autumn rain, I saw three movies to close out my marathons, one of which was the French nightmare Martyrs. Though I'd seen a few terrific films at TIFF '08, I was still already feeling a bit burned out and let down after a truly top-to-bottom spectacular '07, and to end it all with an hour and a half of grisly bodily mutilation and torture was not, to put it mildly, a good move. So this year, not even knowing how disappointing I'd find my screening choices, I was determined to walk out of my final film in an upbeat mood: no dead children, no documentaries about Kafkaesque legal situations, no decaying marriages...just something fun and happy. Hey! There's an Australian musical! Brilliant.

Bran Nue Dae is apparently based on a hit stage play from Down Under, and has been translated to the screen with a thudding obviousness that can only make me wonder how it was a hit in the first place. With a storyline that seems plotted by an eight year-old and song lyrics straight from the "let me put too fine a point on that" school of unintentional comedy and song after song that ends after one verse, Bran Nue Dae could have been deliberate tourisy camp, a giddy self-knowing nostalgic romp in the vein of Grease. But even the slight pleasures of decent tunes and a couple of solid singing voices are steamrolled by Geoffrey Rush who apparently thinks he's doing The Rocky Horror Show and patronizing overacting on the part of most of the Aboriginal performers that borders on minstrelry. (*1/2)

What a way to end the week. Crap. I think I'm going to catch a late show of Jennifer's Body tonight and I'll do a full-festival round-up in the next entry.

Friday, September 18, 2009

TIFF 2009 Reviews: Timetrip - The Curse of the Viking Witch

Emerged from the AMC and what little overcast sky there had been had completely dissipated, so I walked back north under a flawless blue, dammit. I really miss the Varsity, I realized; only two of my screenings were there this year, as opposed to 2007 when pretty much half were. Bloody AMC siphoning off screenings. I was standing in line when Arsinée Khanjian appeared at the top of the escalator, and I would have gone over to express my fandom to one of the great screen goddesses of our time but she headed downstairs before I could duck under the ropes. Oh well.

Down the line a bunch of kids were, for no reason I can explain, singing Abba songs. Right, this was my first-ever Sprockets Family Zone screening, so my first TIFF experience where under-eighteens were both allowed and encouraged. I was a bit worried about this; early in the festival I’d heard from someone in line next to me that she’d gone to a Sprockets show in a previous year, and the festival had stationed someone with a microphone in the theatre to read aloud the subtitles for the benefit of the wee ones. This lead to a pre-emptive investigation on my part, I managed to stump a few people at The Tent but eventually got a phone call saying that, no, there wouldn’t be simultaneous English translation and I wouldn’t need to trade in my ticket. Still, the projector bulb did get switched off for a minute or so after one reel change, so Thespis wasn’t entirely thwarted.

Despite all that, Timetrip: The Curse of the Viking Witch (VØlvens Forbandelse) turned out to be, though not necessarily the best movie I saw at TIFF this year, certainly the most enjoyable time I spent in a darkened theatre since opening night eight days ago. I guess I see my fair share of current children’s movies...I always check out the latest Pixar, and I sorta liked Monsters vs. Aliens, plus I’ll usually take my little brother to a flick when I visit Ottawa. My own take on it is that H’wood churns out three kinds of movies for pre-teens these days: the computer-animated stuff that’s geared just as much for the parents and at its best operates on a few different levels of thematic understanding; pandering and obvious life-lesson slapstick (you couldn’t drag me to the upcoming Old Dogs if you shoved hooks through my eyelids and yanked); and Troublemaker Studios’ filming of Racer Rodriguez’ bedtime stories. This wonderfully fun film from Denmark, on the other hand, is something I haven’t seen in a while: a solid SF/fantasy tale that assumes the audience is as smart as its characters and delivers its entertaining thrills and spills without a trace of condescension.

It also bears mentioning that religious history plays a key role in the plot, and the way it’s handled pretty much guarantees that Timetrip will never see the inside of an American movie theatre. The story is kicked off by a tenth-century Danish soldier refusing to reject his conversion to Christianity and thus being cursed by his former lover, a witch who bears an uncanny resemblance to Nina Hagen circa “Get Your Body,” to immortality. To actually tackle the demise of pre-Christian pagan beliefs in a children’s movie and not treat it evangelically seems, in a year where the Darwin biopic Creation reportedly can’t secure a U.S. distributor because nobody wants to risk releasing it in flyover country, and a couple of years after The Golden Compass was run out of town on a rail for daring to be written by an avowed atheist, even a seriously demented dubbing job can’t save this one from the inevitable knives. A sixteen year-old and his younger sister chase a magical crucifix through Danish history, yet their faith is never even an issue, no belief system is ever proclaimed by the filmmaker to be superior to another, and the villainess acts out of a sense of jilted injury rather than theological inflexibility. The religious story points are there, but the beliefs of the audience have no bearing on one’s level of engagement with the story. Like I said: respect for the audience. (***1/2)

TIFF 2009 Reviews: L'Affaire Farewell

Man, I really wish it would rain. If nothing else, this TIFF will be remembered for the unprecedented gorgeous weather that persisted for its entire run. It’s especially notable in comparison to last year’s week-long Dagobah-in-July mugginess. Personally, I find it all a bit unsettling; just one day of lining up in the rain would help ease us into the autumn, the festival being that sad occasion where the serious moviegoing population of Toronto exits the AMC on the second Saturday night after Labour Day into a light drizzle and sighs “well, that was summer.” The natural transition point of the seasons has been well out of whack for two years in a row now. I blame Al Gore.

Anyway, day 9. After swinging by Hollywood Canteen to pick up a flyer for next week’s memorabilia show—I never go to those but it’s got three Bond-related guests, including George Lazenby, lined up—and taking care of some banking, I meandered down to the AMC for another movie that’s been getting quite terrific advance praise, Christian Carion’s L’Affaire Farewell. Early arrivals were herded back down the escalator to the food court and lined up in a vacant room overlooking Yonge-Dundas Square, where Don’t Look Back played under the makeshift bandshell, then we headed back up stairs after a while and ¾ filled the theatre...I’ve never seen so many unfilled seats as I have this year. I imagine it’s economic, fewer people seeing fewer films, but it’s also that time of the week.

I should state right off the bat that I have no idea if this cold war thriller is based on an actual event. I sort of assumed it was, but it occurred to me later that it’s the kind of story that would remain classified for decades if it were true, so if it is based on real people, it’s no doubt been changed beyond recognition. The film itself is terrific, I’d say its relation to other spy movies is like Donnie Brasco’s relation to other gangster movies, namely that it shows the mundane yet still deadly day-to-day workings of a certain mysterious business, with all the cinematic excitement stripped away. Farewell exudes authenticity. There’s not one moment over the course of the film when you aren’t convinced that real life espionage behind the Iron Curtain carried on exactly as its portrayed.

It’s also got some very curious casting. Director Emir Kusturica plays the Soviet government official leaking state secrets, Willem Defoe (in one of three movies he’s got at TIFF this year) plays the head of the CIA and Fred Ward plays President Reagan without the slightest hint of parody or irony, and actually manages to look uncannily like the 40th president. And oh yeah, there’s David “Hutch” Soul as another White House aide. Yeah, that credit kinda made me do a double take as well.

Anyway. Pretty solid film, a great dissection of realpolitik and a pretty perfect time capsule of a bygone era. Not a bad pick. (***1/2)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

TIFF 2009 Reviews: La Donation

Every year, I try and see at least one Canadian movie at the festival, either in the Canada First! program or Reel to Reel or wherever it happens to fall. This year, though an oddity of funding and immigration, Survival of the Dead counted towards that goal, but I also wound up seeing Bernard Émond's La Donation (The Legacy). I'd actually been looking forward to this one since I read about it in the Program(me) Book, for reasons that now seem a bit baffling to me. Homesickness for Québec? Well, I only lived in Montréal for four years and barely ventured off the island. I guess it was just my attempt to guarantee myself something humanist and low-key amidst the British kidnappings and Australian serial killers. Of course, I wasn't really in much of a mood for low-key and humanist by the time 3PM on TIFF Day Eight rolled around. An early morning oil change turned into a $371.00 repair job, I missed lunch, and I raced to make it to the Scotia in time for the lineup. Plus I've been reading "Downtown Owl" over the past couple of days and my mind was already floating in a haze of elitist sadness about what life is like in a town of less than 800 souls.

This seems an opportune moment to bring up something that's puzzled me for ages, or at least I've found oddly frustrating. We in North America have a strange idea of what constitutes an "art movie" and by extension a "film festival" movie. Basically, any foreign language film, no matter how mainstream it is thematically, qualifies for that particular millstone of categorization. There's a story, which may be apocryphal but probably not, about a film distributor in the mid-eighties who was shopping A Better Tomorrow around in search of an American distributor. This U.S. studio exec sat patiently through John Woo's classic Heroic Bloodshed epic, the film that made Chow Yun-Fat a megastar across Asia, and when the lights came back up shrugged to the rights holder and said: "I can't do anything with it. It's an art movie." To which the poor guy said "What the fuck are you talking about? It's an action movie! In fact, it's got more action than Lethal Weapon! Are you crazy?" and the exec calmly pointed out "It's all Chinese people. That's an art movie."

True, this was about eight or nine years before the underground following of HK would spill over into a couple of years of mainstream box office acceptance of dubbed Jackie Chan, and more than a decade before Crouching Tiger accomplished the long-sought-after CrossOver. But it's indicative of a mentality that still, I think, affects distribution thinking, not to mention festival programmers. There are always a few Indian movies in the TIFF lineup, often even as a gala, and every couple of years one sneaks through the ramparts to wind up with some sort of low-level distribution. I wonder, though, if these films, are the truly brilliant ones that deserve to break out of the Bollywood pack. Or if you could grab any well-directed non-hacky yet still utterly generic Indian film, put some solid subtitles on it and peddle it as the next arthouse hit. I suspect this theory runs smack up against the other theory I spouted a few days ago about how we can learn more about a country's culture through its genre cinema than its pious nationalist cinema. But my point is that what we in this limited market think of as an art movie, or a film festival selection, is, for its country of origin, Just A Damn Movie.

Which brings me to Québec. It's the sad cliché that Canadians don't go and see Canadian movies. It's such a cliché in fact, that it barely bears rehashing here. We've gotta be the only country in the world where our own movies go straight into the arthouses for the most part. Yet, just five hours east of here there exists a Distinct Society that supports its own vibrant self-contained industry, films made for and by Québecers with very little eye on the commercial markets beyond the borders of the province. On one hand it's admirable, on another hand it`s indicative of a certain insularity that results in separatist ideology. But on a third hand, it baffles me when I see some Québec films, because I have no idea what audience they’re aimed at, but then again I’m not from la belle province and I don’t claim to understand what makes them tick cinematically. In 2006 I saw a film called Dans Les Villes at TIFF. I just scoured my old MySpace blog to dig up my review of it:

Oh, jeez. Never would I have thought that Montreal could seem as hideously unromantic onscreen as it does in this movie. A bunch of miserable, suicidal, blind, insomniac and senile Quebeckers walk rainsoaked streets, cross paths randomly and drink a lot of coffee and wine. For an hour and a half. Truth be told, it's actually quite well-directed, but to what purpose? I'm enough of a believer in film as a necessary art that I think if you've got the chance, you make a film to tell the story that you want/have to tell, and Québec has a long and justifiably proud history of supporting their homegrown filmmakers at the box office. But who is going to want to watch this? Who in god's name is this film meant for? “Marie-Joseph! We must hurry if we are to get to the cine for the new Catherine Martin film! I've heard there's no dialogue for more than sixty minutes, and Robert LaPage stares at a wall for half an hour! We don't want to be at the back of the line!”

Okay, La Donation isn’t nearly as bad as all that. In fact, it’s the most atmospheric film I’ve seen in ages, completely immersing the audience in the mood and tone of West Abitibi with a skill that Alan Rudolph could take notes from. But oh Buddah is it sad! Its portrayal of a cold, grey community that is slowly dying from lack of industry and general old age is utterly heartbreaking. And in keeping with the aesthetic of misery, the lead actress maintains a rigid squinty emotionless mask for nearly the entire running time. There are at least four deaths over the course of the film, many more tales of wasted lives and dreams deferred, and an oppressive gloom that penetrates every frame. And is this mainstream Québec filmmaking? Is there an audience for this, enough of one to make back its budget?

But dammit, like I said, it’s so freaking well-made that it could only be totally intentional. Still, the director stood up beforehand and explained that it was the third part of his trilogy dealing with faith, fate and charity (a triptych I wasn’t aware of), and maybe that’s what tipped the scale for me. As soon as he provided that key, I couldn’t help but flash back to Kieslowski`s Trois Couleurs trilogy, a trio of films that coincidentally came out when I was living in Montréal, and Faraway, So Close!`, a film which I always associate with Bleu, Blanc and Rouge because they all shared a certain vibrant thematic and tonal aesthetic that I came to associate with post-unification European cinema. And La Donation just seemed so freaking dour and sad in comparison. (**1/2)

So I don’t know. All I know is that it’s not the movie I really needed to see today. I’ve got three more to go: a French cold war thriller, a Danish kids’ fantasy and an Australian musical. Come on, TIFF...blow me away!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

TIFF 2009 Reviews: The Loved Ones

Now THAT'S what I'm talkin' about!

I am officially back in the Midnight Madness groove. Sean Byrne's The Loved Ones is one of Geddes' best finds of recent years; in fact it serves much like a compendium of tropes and aesthetics that define the most notable MM flicks of late. It's Australian (Not Quite Hollywood), it stars a bunch of good-looking young Aussie actors and is set is a creepy, forboding suburb (Acolytes), it flirts with the depravity of torture porn (Saw, Hostel) but injects some tension-releasing inky black humour (Severance) and surreal nightmarish camera angles (take your pick of Miike's offerings). One of the actresses is even a near-doppelganger of Megan Fox although, you know, real. Personally, I thought Wolf Creek was an overrated bore, but The Loved Ones, along with last year's two Australian MM offerings, restores my faith in horror from down under.

What is it about the other side of the world that seems to revitalize horror every few years right around the time that the American scene seems to forget how to thrill and chill? As our multiplexes get such hackneyed junk as A Haunting In Connecticut, and All The Boys Love Mandy Lane doesn't even get a Canadian release, and just the ad campaign for Sorority Row is giving me dull Valentine flashbacks (Does anyone remember that one? David Boreanaz and Denise Richards' boobs, towards the ass end of the post-Scream American slasher trend early this decade? Yeah, I didn't think so...), and somebody insists on continuing to give Rob Zombie money to piss all over one of the few decent franchises in the whole stinkin' genre...we need some fresh blood. As it were.

And Byrne might as well be a player in a potential Oz invasion. He was a wonderfully shaggy and event-struck presence at the afternoon screening--he had a certain "holy shit, I can't believe I'm at this festival!" nervousness happening as he took questions. He cited the usual early-seventies influences but also mentioned that he was shooting for some Lynchian "peel back the veneer of polite society" surrealism which is always a risky proposition, but to his credit he pulled off a certain type of creeping dread not too dissimilar to Lynch at his creepiest. Yes, The Loved Ones has more than its fair share of rendered flesh and bloody viscera, but it has the simple goal in mind of scaring the snot out of the audience in addition to grossing them out. In the characters of Lola Stone and her father, Byrne has created two of the most unsettling yet hypnotic horror film villains in years; they're not supernatural boogeymen, but nor are they the "you'd never have imagined" quiet types who are supposed to lend "realism" to far too many lousy horror flicks with pretentions. They're monsters, plain and simple, and the mere thought of being at their mercy is frightening in a downright primal way.

Good on ya, mate. (***1/2)

Monday, September 14, 2009

TIFF 2009 Reviews: George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead

Before I go any further...the title? Is that official? It's annoying enough when John Carpenter does it, are we to infer that the possessive is to distinguish this flick from the other Survival of the Dead? Just wondering.

I really don't do well with not being at work in the middle of the day. I know I've got the week off for my festival holiday ("Merry TIFFmas!" as Roxy put it to me the other day) but taking the TTC in the mid-afternoon and being in my well-lit apartment while the rest of the world reminds me too much of the last time I was unemployed and it freaks me right the hell out. So I supect I may break a promise and cave to pick up another ticket or two just to keep myself out of the house and occupied between now and Friday.

As I settled into practically the same seat for a second show in a row in the Scotia 2, I engaged as usual in the "What have you seen that you've liked?" conversation and found myself chatting to Joshua Ligairi, one of the co-directors of Cleanflix. And now I feel like a bit of a tool for dissing his movie on this blog, 'cause he's a decent and soft-spoken guy. I mentioned how I thought the parallel between Hollywood's capitalism values and Daniel Thompson's viewing Provo Mormons as little more than a viable market was an odd one (he also confirmed my suspicion that Thompson is not a practicing Mormon), and told him I was surprised that he hadn't shown some of the directors the hacked-up versions of their films and got their comments on camera. As close as they got, it turns out, was when they interviewed Neil LaBute on the set of Lakeview Terrace. While on set, Ligiari and James showed Samuel L. Jackson the Cleanflicks version of Pulp Fiction, in which every bit of profanity had been excised...with the notable exception of the n-word. Jackson was quite incensed, and it was all I could do to not ask "Why the hell isn't THAT footage in your movie?"

Anyway, back to George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead. Seeing this movie violated one of my general festival rules, namely it's coming out in theatres this fall anyway. I wound up with a ticket for a couple of reasons: I had changed my mind on Tanner Hall and wanted something earlier in the day on Monday; I wanted to show some love to Romero in honour of his becoming a passport-carrying Canuck and Hogtown resident; and despite my Midnight Madness overdose of last year I felt odd only seeing one MM flick this September. Romero couldn't show up for this morning, which was a bit of a surprise, but Colin Geddes conveyed his regrets, and regaled us with tales of the mini-Zombie Walk of this past weekend.

And then the movie started, and a kind of disappointment set in. Romero's never been a filmmaker with a distinct visual style, but he's always been a perfectly good no-frills director as opposed to a no-style hack. That artlessness is still on display here, but I have to say, for the sixth part of a walking-dead saga that's now been unspooling on screens for 41 years, the wheels are really starting to come off the wagon. Talk all you want about the sociopolitical subtext of Romero's films, and I concede there's always something there, the fact is one goes to a zombie flick for the trashy fun of seeing splattery gore effects and creative vivisectioning done with verve. There may be political comment going on, but it needn't get in the way of the money shot. Survival is like the Home Alone of zombie movies: an hour and a half of unfunny mugging which leads to a marathon of slapsticky ultraviolence to close out the affair. And fair 'nuff, the splatter is at times quite inspired, though a bit CGI-heavy in a couple of shots...part of the charm of revisiting Dawn or Day is seeing the amazing old-school latex work by Savini and his crew, who are missed terribly. But to get there we have to wade through Kenneth Welsh and Richard Fitzpatrick putting on elaborately silly Irish brogues and reenacting John Ford-esque rivalries that seem airlifted in from another movie, a gratuitous Strombo cameo and a rather perfunctory military group and their not terribly original internal bickering.

It breaks my heart. I really wanted to have a blast at this movie, especially since Romero is such a groundbreaker in the genre that I love so much and which has been such a huge influence on my life and writing. But my heart's just really not in it. (**)

TIFF 2009 Reviews: Solitary Man

This late festival schedule has really messed with my internal clock. With Labour Day a full week into September the festival is running as late in the calendar as it ever does and I keep feeling like things ought to be winding down. They're not, really, this is only day five of ten. personal screening schedule is a bit front-loaded this year (I'm two thirds done) and now that a fair chunk of the festival screenings are second showings, that sad autumn sense of clearing out of town is already creeping in.

Today, for instance, I had an early morning show of Solitary Man, one of a bizarre type of independent movie that seems to exist solely for the purposes of festivals, that one can only imagine being financed with pieced together foreign pre-sales. I wanted to check it out solely for the cast: Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Mary-Louise Parker, Danny DeVito, Jesse Eisenberg, Jenna Fischer...this is one heavy-hitting collection of actors. Not a single one of which were at the screening, nor were the co-directors. Something is very noticeable as the movie unspools: except for Douglas, none of the actors has more than three or four scenes. That tells me this was a hiatus movie, something the actors signed up for because they had a couple of weeks off as some point between other bigger projects or TV seasons. Before I sound churlish, let me add that I don't see anything at all wrong with this. Solitary Man has a good script, and these fine thespians obviously responded to the material. As well, I can testify from my experience with actors that in general, they jump at any chance to hone their craft. A serious actor doesn't check out for a month's vacation; if their agent says "Since you're in New York anyway, do you want three days on this picture? Soderbergh's producing." it's a no-brainer. For all the crap that actors take, the good ones work as hard as anyone, and as often.

Michael Douglas is an interesting guy to watch, but for the past few years I've seen all his performances through an odd lens. I crewed on The In-Laws when it shot here in Toronto, and saw him acting from up close most days for three straight months. Douglas was never a favorite actor of mine--he does hold a certain iconic place in my mind for Romancing The Stone--but I was a huge fan by the end of the shoot, mainly for his personal character rather than the performance (The In-Laws had a sensational cast and a very good director, yet anyone who's seen it can testify how lifelessly it just sat there on screen...I'm still mystified what went wrong there.) Douglas was an absolute pro, fascinating to watch in process, as well as being a very classy guy with fans. I never had a full conversation with him in three months, but I gathered that he appreciated my not crowding him and was ultra nice to my date at the wrap party. So anyway, whenever I see him in a movie since, I find it hard to just sit back and watch the performance, instead I watch his scenes unfold and envision him pacing in front of his trailer holding the sides (shrunken script pages for the day), committing every word and pause to memory, playing out the body language. Douglas isn't really the type to vanish into a role, which is fine, most aren't, but throw in my own experience and I always see him acting.

Anyway. The movie is fine, it sort of reminded me of The Girl in the Park from TIFF '07 in that it's set among a certain strata of New York society and is directed in very sleek and classy way. It's a solid actor's showcase, and everyone in the cast gets a solid scene or two to shine without playing to the rafters. Susan Sarandon is as glamourous and stunning as ever; she's going to be a knockout at eighty, I suspect. The story of a profoundly self-destructive man on his final slide from Captain of Industry to pariah is touching and more than a little timely--economic fear informs almost every scene and despite Douglas' character having brought it all on himself one does feel sympathy for him. Its ending is one of those final shots that's simultaneously perfect yet also frustrating in its open-endedness, which is pretty much par for the course with these movies. Not a classic, but I'm sorta glad I saw it. (***)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

TIFF 2009 Reviews: Kirot

Oh wait, there's more? Yeah, Michael Caine and Sam Neill weren't enough for one day.

I barely travel. I'd love to see more of the world, but the fact is that except for a couple of solo drives across the U.S., four years living in Los Angeles and drives though the dull stretch of central Canada between Toronto and Montreal, I haven't seen much of the world. I'm planning a trip to England and Scotland this fall, and that will, due to finances, likely be the last big voyage I take for a long while. So every time the Festival comes around, I make a point of seeing a whack of foreign movies. Lest I seem like one of those assholes that I used to rent to when I worked at the independent video store that shall remain unnamed, I don't look down on American movies. I love 'em to death, and I don't automatically call foreign films "better" because they're subtitled. I just think they shouldn't be avoided, and should be celebrated whenever possible as a chance to see parts of the world in which I'll never actually set foot.

Which brings me to my big Unifying Theory of the Foreign Film that I've worked out over the past seven years of TIFF. To wit: you can learn more about a country's culture by watching its genre movies than any so-called "national cinema" that it may have on offer. Celebrations of Old Country, nationalist paeans or simply self-consciously "look at meeeee!" movies can be fine, I guess, sorta, but one has to suspect the motives of the filmmakers. But you take an Ed McBain-esque murder mystery and set it in Reykjavik, or locate your haunted house in Joburg, or have your aliens invade in Sao Paolo, you're offering every other culture that's checking out your movie a baseline from which to see what's uniquely yours and why. So this year, with the festival's inaugural City to City program on the docket, I decided to see what happens when you set a feminist mob thriller in Tel Aviv and checked out my first Israeli film, Danny Lerner's Kirot.

I should also bring up the kosher elephant in the room and mention that tonight was another first for me. It was the first time I'd been to a TIFF screening with a visible police presence, and one for which the street had been cleared and a fenced-off blast area was established in front of the theatre. Before the show, a small film crew was going down the line, interviewing people waiting in line. They were with a Jewish organization whose name I didn't retain, and were putting together a documentary to send around to other film festivals to try and convince them that the outcry over the Tel Aviv program here didn't reflect the views of the audiences and that they shouldn't avoid booking the films for fear of boycotts. A noble goal, but I still hung back and didn't offer myself up. This is how terror works, isn't it? I don't dare go on video and point out that Tel Aviv was already a city when the Palestinian state was established, despite the timeline that the anti-Israel protestors are claiming, so it wasn't built on land stolen from the Palestinians, and oh yeah, considering Israel is pretty much the only country in the entire region that actually respects human rights to any great degree and doesn't, you know, cut your head off for being gay or wearing pants if you're a woman or phoning the pizza place before everyone's agreed on the toppings or whatever else, it seems a bit odd that so many sheeple on the left are jumping on the anti-Israel bandwagon. Make an honest argument against the forced resettlements, there's a case to be made. But the protest against the film festival and controversy defies logic or common sense. I will fully admit that I don't know nearly enough about the issues at play here...but, judging from the muddle of the protests, I'm not the only one.

Also, I was wearing my Miskatonic University t-shirt today, and since H.P. Lovecraft, despite being a great writer, was sadly a big honking anti-semite, I didn't feel like sending mixed messages. But it was mainly the fear thing.

ANYWAY...Kirot stars Olga Kurylenko from Quantum of Solace as a Ukranian in Tel Aviv, enslaved by the Russian mob, who is shoved into a sideline as a hitwoman to earn back her passport. Along the way she becomes BFFs with the abused wife across the hall played by singing star Ninet Tayeb. The movie is largely about the friendship and mutual support between the two women, but also tells a taut, violent mob story. During the Q&A, Lerner expressed his own dissatisfaction with self-consciously nationalist cinema; he said there are virtually no genre films made in Israel and he wanted to make one. I would have loved to ask him who his influences were on the action scenes, because, speaking as a connoisseur of the gun fu, they kicked ass. No slick overedited operatic shootemups a la Louis Leterrier or later-period Kirk Wong, the copious scenes of stunning violence (with Kurylenko decked out in a leather trenchcoat not unlike Zoe Tamerlis' in Ms. 45, and I don't think that's knock on Carrie-Ann Moss, but Kurylenko would have made an awesome Trinity) are brutal, gritty and like a jolt of adrenaline. Kirot is a killer thriller, and Lerner could do worse than being recruited to helm some old-school ultraviolence for H'wood.

Real brief Q&A, at which Kurylenko didn't show as she's in Argentina on a shoot, which makes zero for three as far as Bond girls sightings go this year (no Rosamund Pike at An Education, no Gemma Arterton at Alice Creed, and I heard Eva Green wasn't at Cracks this morning either), but Ninet Tayeb was in the house, looking a total knockout in contrast to the constantly black-eyed housewife we'd just seen onscreen. How does one say "hubba hubba" in Hebrew, anyway? At any rate, awesomely good flick. (***1/2)

TIFF 2009 reviews: In converation with...Michael Caine

Finally! Four days in, and a day that was pretty kickass from beginning to end. Early afternoon I was at the Isabel Bader Theatre for the only In Conversation... of the year (Chris Rock's presentation was "An Afternoon With..." for reasons that are clear to somebody but not me), a couple of hours with a genuine living legend of the silver screen, Sir Michael Caine. He's at TIFF with a new vigilante flick, Harry Brown, which I didn't see at its SP premiere but which I'm now really hoping gets picked up for North American distribution. Sir Michael talked about it quite a bit, taking great care to explain that it's not a simpleminded Bronsonesque revenge story, but how it's a very cinema verite look at the very neighborhood where he grew up and what it's descended into since crack and guns took over for simple British boozing as the escape of choice.

From there it was back to the beginning, steered as well as he could by Canada A.M. co-host Seamus O'Regan, whose show I've never actually watched--I think I'm either at work or tuned to CNN when he's on--but who acquitted himself fairly well (not sure why Noah Cowan or Piers Handling didn't do the honours, but at least they didn't tap Ralph Benmuergi or someone equally crap for the gig). Caine retold the classic story of how he came up with his stage name (you've heard ends with the punchline "I could have been Michael 101 Dalmations!"), and lovingly detailed early gigs and tales of Hollywood of yesteryear. The occasion actually kicked off with a good ten minutes on his friendship with Cary Grant, and when he mentioned Red Buttons I got a bit worried that he was in a morbid reminiscing mood and wasn't going to talk about anyone who was still alive. I think he sort of caught himself at this as well and kicked the energy level up a notch.

Sir Michael is, as one can imagine, a brilliant storyteller. The old cliche about "had us in the palm of his hand"? Yeah, that's it. From beginning to end. And hilarious as well; poor Seamus was practically falling off his chair. After covering Zulu and The Man Who Would Be King, O'Regan looked at the clock and sighed "Oh my god, it's quarter to two and I haven't even got to Alfie yet!" which was his biggest laugh line of the day.

To go on recapping wouldn't do he afternoon justice. The Q&A went out to the crowd, and folks asked for stories about their favorite Caine movies--incidentally, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is his favorite of his own comedies, a fine choice, if you ask me--and in typical Toronto fashion no one was tactless enough to bring up Jaws: The Revenge or On Deadly Ground (when Max von Sydow was here two years ago nobody brought up Strange Brew, which was actually kind of a surprise). Second last question came from a surprise visitor in the audience, Sam Neill, who I would later learn has actually been popping up all over, showing up at the premiere of Beautiful Kate to show support for some friends and fellow Aussie filmmakers. He's also got a Midnight Madness flick in the program this year and I know he's been in town filming something new for the past few weeks so Neill is doing what I keep complaining that most stars don't do, he's actually taking advantage of his time here and enjoying the festival instead of beating a quick retreat after his duties are done. Anyway, Neill's question was about technique, as he pointed out that there hadn't been any questions about, you know, acting. So Sir Michael gave his tips on eye direction and focus in regards to the camera when shooting dialogue scenes (I really should have been taking notes) and managed to turn even a somewhat clinical explanation of filming technique into an engaging story. Which just proved...a great actor can read the phone book and keep you interested. Huge standing ovation, no surprise. The man is loved here. The afternoon showed why. (****)

Anyway, so I went up the north aisle and there, standing at the door on the opposite side of the auditorium from where he was sitting, talking to a fan, was Sam Neill. Cursing myself for not being more prepared with my Bis ans Ende der Welte poster, I approached him.

"Mr. Neill?"
"I have to tell you, sir, that Until The End of the World is my favorite movie of all time."
He registered a bit of surprise. Not one he's cited that often, I'd wager.
"Really. You know the director's cut of that is eight hours or so?"
Duh. I think I've seen four different cuts of that movie and the Wenders retrospective of that one was the only near-religious experience of my life. I didn't say that.
"Yeah, I know! I was at the premiere in Los Angeles for that! It was amazing." Then I went sheepish. "Um, could I trouble you for a photo?"

A volunteer snapped a shot as my face, already giddy from the fun afternoon and the fact that I'm standing next to Eugene Fitzpatrick himself, twisted into as close as I get to a smile when facing a camera lens. I thanked him profusely and headed for the door.

Off to Yonge St. to check email at a cybercafe, then hop the TTC uptown to Vortex, where I find a used copy of Bowie's Stage CD (the 2005 reissue with the set list order corrected and the deleted songs reinserted), then back down south for some food court noms and a walk up to Isabel Bader for today's second show.

It was a good day.

TIFF 2009 reviews: The Disappearance of Alice Creed

When was the last time you heard an audience applaud a plot twist? Been a while for me, actually I'm kinda stuck to remember witnessing that...ever. The identity of Keyzer Soze, Dil having a dork...shock indeed, but not cheers and clapping. That did happen, however, during the premiere of The Disappearance of Alice Creed. The movie's not quite as brilliant as all that, but it's still a solid piece of suspense filmmaking, one of the few thrillers of recent decades in which the term "Hitchcockian" isn't inappropriately applied. Three people in one apartment, and two big reveals that more or less form the dividing lines between acts are the basic elements that let the movie serve as a definitely above-average genre exercise.

This was one of the movies I chose entirely for the cast. On one hand you've got Gemma Arterton, who was quite the knockout as one Strawberry Fields in the last Bond flick (she's the one who gets drowned in crude oil post Bond-boff), and on the other you've got Eddie Marsan, who rocketed into the arthouse consciousness as the short-fused driving instructor in Happy-Go-Lucky last fall. There is a third hand here, a young Scotsman by the name of Martin Compston, but I didn't know anything about him going in. Anyway, if nothing else I figured we'd be in for an evening of solid British performance intensity even if the storyline sounded a bit too torture-porn for me.

To his credit, debut director J Blakeston (yeah, that's "J" with no period, like Harry S Truman or Homer Jay Simpson) acknowledged the TP-word early on and pointed out that just when the audience thinks that we're in for Roth Redux, he pointedly turns back from the brink. Blakeston seems a smart guy, with an oddly Tarantino-esque backstory (writer for hire, wrote something deliberately small-scale so that he could shoot it for next to nothing until he lucked into financing) and he won me over in his introduction by saying something I've been waiting years to hear from a visiting filmmaker or actor: it's his first time to TIFF, he absolutely loves it and he's going to come back. Which may seem like your basic audience flattery, but the fact is, while the bigwigs do love to come to town during our annual three weeks of good weather and appreciate the good audiences, they tend to race off to Pearson once the required velvet rope bash and Sassafraz lunch are done with. Blakeston is the first guest who's expressed genuine fandom (okay, actually, I'm remembering Jon Hewitt last year, who attended a whole whack of Midnight Madness shows besides his own, so there's two), plus he comes across as a weird combination of Jim Parsons and Billy Corgan, so he didn't have a hard time winning over the crowd with his enthusiasm.

So anyway, pretty solid thriller, twisty and surprising, good performances...didn't set my mind on fire, but you could do a lot worse. And I swear, I am dying for a light frothy comedy right around this point. An Education was sweet, but the four I've seen since have been mature and serious at best, intense and opresive at worst. Mercifully today I've Israeli/Russian revenge thirller. Le sigh. (***)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

TIFF 2009 reviews: Fish Tank

There are times when I think being a movie critic would be the greatest job in the world. To see everything that gets released, to have a paid public forum in which to rave and encourage or in which to lay waste to a, well, waste of celluloid; to travel to festivals around the world; to interview filmmakers both legendary and on their way seems like paradise. Then I'm faced with something like Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, the source of some unofficial buzz so far at this year's TIFF. When I say "unofficial" I mean, I haven't read much about the movie in the way that, say An Education or Up In The Air are getting early Oscar buzz. I have overheard a lot of people in lines talking about it, though, and I've heard from more than a few folks "yeah, wanted to see that one, but it was sold out." Anyway, the critic's dilemma: I have absolutely no idea what to say about Fish Tank. Every time I think I've got a handle on it I wind up deleting the paragraphs with "no, that's not quite it." This is one damned elusive film.

Once again, as was the case with Cleanflix, I feel like the Program(me) Book description isn't quite bang on. Storywise, yeah, no lies there. But rather than a feminist Loach movie with a hip-hop undercurrent, Fish Tank plays very self-consciously hand-held and frustratingly free-form. The director, Andrea Arnold, is actually from my film school alma mater, the AFI, though I don't remember her from my year. This is definitely not what the school was trying to turn out from their director's program (thank god, actually...the AFI was going through an unfortunate cookie-cutter period when I was there, I felt), the biggest influence on the film seems to be Cassavettes...or rather an intervening generation of directors who themselves were influenced by Cassavettes, if that makes any sense. Cross that with the misanthropy of a Todd Solondz and an improvisation-to-script style modeled on Mike Leigh and you're in the ballpark. Though that final comparison falls apart when one remembers that Leigh's characters end up with poetry in their mouths while Katie Jarvis (who is great, don't get me wrong) has little beyond "fook you, ya coont!" ad nauseum. So basically: two hours of unsympathetic people with serious sexual boundary issues being horrible to each other in grey British ghetto settings. I might add (SPOILER ALERT) that I have to wonder what problems with infidelity are plaguing the English zeitgeist of late, as this is the second film out of the four I've seen at the festival so far in which a 16-year-old British girl discovers that the guy she's been screwing is married with a kid in the suburbs. I will be very disappointed if Alice Creed finds out the same thing tonight.

There's also a disturbing and inescapable racial undercurrent to the film: both Jarvis' Mia and her mother are protrayed as products of Black popular culture through their musical obsessions (hip-hop and reggae, respectively) and Michael Fassbender's character introduces old-school soul (specifically Bobby Womack) into the mix. Yet the film is populated entirely by white characters, belieing the melting pot that is modern Britain. That's a charge that may be getting tired; it was well over ten years ago that Notting Hill received flack for the same problem (the eponymous neighborhood in that film has a huge immigrant population in reality yet was portrayed through a Mayberry lens on film), but it lent an odd tilt to the proceedings. Anyway...don't believe the hype. (**1/2...I do have to credit the great perfomances)

Friday, September 11, 2009

TIFF 2009 reviews: The Most Dangerous Man In America

I have to admit, I knew practically nothing about Daniel Ellsberg when I picked up my ticket for The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. I knew the name, he's namechecked quite often in Nixon, still my favorite Oliver Stone film (and one I'm obviously going to have to revisit again when the festival winds down and I can spare the four hours), but I had little inkling about what precisely the Pentagon Papers actually were. It's not my fault: as a Canadian I never once heard discussion of recent American history in school, not to mention the fact that in my lifetime there's been Iran-Contra and the Valerie Plame Affair (yellowcakegate?) and a dozen other scandals that seem simple enough when you first hear about them but are then obfuscated by both the media and the governing party of the day until they're impenetrable messes incomprehensible to anyone but inside-the-beltway types with a vested interest in their book deal at the other end of it. This mostly-terrific documentary explains it all pretty clearly, and despite its objective, talking-heads-heavy style, shows Ellsberg to be a genuine American hero without descending into hagiography.

I'm wary about going into too much detail, as with a heavy fish dinner sitting in my stomach and another round of insomnia in the wee hours this morning I drifted off several times so I'm not totally qualified. I may have to start making Red Bull part of my nutritious breakfast to get through some of my late-evening screenings. At any rate, it's worth commenting on the crowd, which gave the subject of the film a long and heartfelt standing ovation when he was introduced at lights-up. Also there's Ellbserg's wife Patricia, who planted a huge kiss mit tongue on him as they stood at the front of the auditorium, and who is revealed in the film to be a key moral fork in the road for him, opening his eyes to the system he was a part of and the dominos he'd helped to start to topple. Daniel Ellsberg played the crowd the way Michael Moore wishes he could; positively evangelical in his activism, being 78 years old hasn't sapped him of one iota of energy or passion. True, it was a crowd already predisposed to be on his side politically (at one point he asked how many people had seen Errol Morris' The Fog of War and easily 90% of the audience shot their hands into the air and that pretty much says it all) but the crowd was in his hands no less than the Ryerson auditorium was in Jimmy Page's hands at It Might Get Loud last year. Though I had to take off, I gathered that Ellsberg was willing to entertain questions and lead group discussions in the Varsity lobby until he got dragged off. I passed by the throng on my way to the door, got a couple of pictures and felt more than a slight rush of being in the presence of a true icon of American history. A very odd night. (***)

TIFF 2009 Reviews: Cleanflix

I did really want to love Cleanflix, truly I did. I didn't dislike it, but it's still a moderate non-recommend. The problem may be one of expectations: the filmmakers could have take their investigation and the material in at least three directions that I can think of, and they chose to go the least interesting route.

Okay, sidebar here, then I'll get back to the movie. I need to talk a bit about the screening venue. The AMC at Yonge-Dundas Square is without a doubt one of the best-appointed theatres I've ever been in. The seats are wide, plush and comfortable, with plenty of leg room. The rooms boast brand spankin' new digital projections and sound systems, so I've yet to see a movie there with less-than-stellar image and sound (though come to think of it, last summer's Godfather reissue was a bit grainy). With the steep stadium seating there's not a bad seat in the theatre. And I hate the place, and try to avoid seeing movies there if I can at all help it during the rest of the year. I hate that it charges a higher admission than anywhere else in the city, that it's got a lousy snack bar, that the time-waster magazine "Tribute" that they distribute in the lobby is an ugly piece of crap that seems to be designed for people whose lips move when they read US Weekly. And I hate that often it's the only place in town--or often it's one of two places the other being the equally execrable yet still cheaper Canada Square--that shows a number of smaller-release films and as a viewer I don't have much choice in the matter than to sit in a virtually-empty screening room for a Saturday matinee. I will concede that it's a convenient location for festival screenings, but when the Lightbox is finally complete hopefully TIFF can lose it as a venue. Maybe in a few years when it's a bit more broken in I won't feel such antipathy towards the place, but right now, less than two years into its existence, attending the AMC at Yonge & Dundas is like seeing a movie in a clinical, sterile and friction-free environment.

And speaking of clinical, sterile and friction-free, the "International" theme of the festival now takes us to the Utah Valley, where freshly-scrubbed and ultra-judgmental (emphasis on the "mental") white people insist that Hollywood is in the business of foisting its values on a godly world that simply knows better what makes a good movie. Cleanflix is (sort of) about the variety of companies that sprung up in Utah in the past decade or so that rent or sell bowdlerized versions of mainstream movies, DVDs and videotapes in which all blood, sex, nudity or even oblique references to human anatomy are excised so as not to poison innocent Mormon minds. This is all done, of course, in clear violation of U.S. copyright law, and the DGA rightly won injunctions against the dealers to get them to stop the practice (which, needless to say, goes on largely unabated anyway).

To my mind, the filmmakers could have gone a few ways with this. As members of the Mormon community themselves, but obviously not on the side of censorship, Ligairi and James could have explored the moral value system of the Church of LDS and examined why committee decisions by the Elders are treated as holy writ carried down from the mountain, why the entire community seems to be raised in fear of exposure to any cutlure that brushes roughly against their established beliefs. There is a bit of this; one former LDS filmmaker expounds on how Mormonism is not a religion for self-examination or philosophizing. They also could have examined the artistic side of the equation, gone in-depth on the subject of the censored movies, what got changed and why, maybe shown the Cleanflicks versions of their films to H'wood directors and gotten their reactions. As it is, the only director who seems to have sat down with the filmmakers is Neil LaBute, who famously left the church and is quite eloquent as to why. Many other directors appear onscreen, but judging from the video quality, this all seems to be found footage.

The tack the directors took was to focus on one player in the mess, a video store owner who, due to his love of being on camera for this film or for local media, became one of the public faces of the controversy as he ran his store, reopened it after the first injunction, got shut down again and eventually got busted soliciting sex from a couple of fourteen year old girls. I don't know if the movie ever explicitly states he's a Mormon. I'm not sure he is: he says "shit" a couple of times on camera and mentions the market for the movies much more than any moral issues he himself takes with the product. Which is, I guess, the big irony that the directors simply never bring up (or maybe they didn't notice it): anyone who's worked there, or who pays attention at all, knows that Hollywood has no moral agenda. The town as a collective whole does not foist any particular brand of morality on the world. The city produces and distributes with one goal in mind: profit. The same industry produced Showgirls and Passion of the Christ. Hostel and the Tyler Perry movies. The 10 Commandments and Five Easy Pieces. So the Cleanflix directors focussed on a guy with no moral stake in the game who violated copyright law to make a big profit, just like the system he's ripping off...and this is never pointed out! There's a missed opportunity here on several levels, I think. (**1/2)

TIFF 2009 reviews: An Education

It's my birthday, and after nodding off in front of a Buffy DVD upon arriving home from the opening night of the film festival, I've been awake since four. Ain't insomnia a hoot? Le sigh. So thus my reports begin, and I lead off with battling omens. On one hand, I darted into the washroom before grabbing my seat for Lone Scherfig's An Education and upon leaving the stall caught my favorite dress shirt on the door latch and with a horrifying riiiiiipppp it was torn from waist to armpit. On the other hand, my TIFF '09 experience began with a warm and wonderful human comedy filled with terrific music and performances, the kind of movie that leaves you with a goofy smile on your face but without the bitter aftertaste that one often gets from nostalgia pieces.

Part of the Special Presentations program, the movie is Scherfig's fourth, the first I've seen of hers, and is helmed with the sure and classy hand that seems to be the trademark of Nick Hornby adaptations (see: Stephen Frears, Chris Weitz). Hornby's the reason I went at all, to be honest; I saw his name as screenwriter and went "Sold!" I'd been a fan of the film version of High Fidelity for ages, thought it was one of the best movies of 2000 and the decade, but never got around to actually reading the book until a couple of years ago. It was one of those novels that, fifteen pages in, I realized I'd be burning through the author's entire oeuvre immediately, which I subsequently did. An Education is actually an adaptation; during the Q&A Hornby explained that after Fever Pitch he has no interest in adapting any more of his own work as it involves,as he put it, "unwriting" something he's spent years writing, removing three quarters of his own work to fit the confines of a screenplay. Fair 'nuff. I'm not sure how many more adaptations we'll see of his work...High Fidelity and About A Boy are pretty straightforward, but How To Be Good and A Long Way Down seem somewhat unfilmable.

Anyway, not much to say about the film beyond sweeping admiration for the cast and the casting director who pulled this astonishing group together. Nobody, from a flawlessly-accented Peter Sarsgaard to Alfred Molina, who tends to walk off with the biggest laughs in all of his scenes, to the screen-siezing cameos by the likes of Emma Thompson (with her funniest deadpan ever) and Sally Hawkins (whom I'm still convinced was robbed of an Oscar nod for Happy-Go-Lucky), ever sets a foot wrong. And then of course there's the masterful star-making turn by one Carey Mulligan, who walks off with the audience's hearts and sympathies within moments of stepping onscreen. Mulligan had a small role in the brilliant adaptation of Pride and Prejudice a few years back (alongside Rosamund Pike, who also deserves credit in this movie for demolishing all of her scenes with a hilarious dumb blonde act) and starred in one of my favorite Dr. Who episodes but is now officially a Screen Presence To Watch. It's worrisome that she's reportedly dating Shia LeBeouf, it's a warning sign that she's about to get sucked into the H'wood tabloid mill, but then she does come across as smart enough to avoid those pitfalls.

So...terrific movie, fun and well-paced Q&A, and despite the draft from my expired shirt, a good start to the festival. Two documentaries today and a couple more onscreen trips to Britain tomorrow. And we're off...

(star ratings out of four in honour, as usual, of Roger Ebert, who's in town for the fest, and whose TIFF blog is essential reading every September)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The night before...

24 hours from now I'll have finished watching my first movie of TIFF 2009. I'd like to say it snuck up on me, but then again I'm the guy who booked the 11th through the 18th off work back in freakin' January, so my protestations of time just a-whippin' by would no doubt ring a little hollow. This year I've got fourteen tickets, and I'll be calling it quits at that, I'll resist impulse buys just to fill any holes. In addition to my package ten, I swung by The Tent after the early close on Friday before the fam arrived at their hotel and picked up four more: Fish Tank, Solitary Man, Tanner Hall and Bran Nue Dae...then on Monday I traded in Tanner Hall for George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead. TH is actually getting some good reviews already, but I'd come to the realization that I was really going to miss the fun of Midnight Madness this year. So okay, sure, it's not an 11:59PM showing, but it'll still be packed, I'm sure Romero will be there (as he lives in town, where else is he going to be?) and the MM crowd is always the best at the fest, even if it's a 9AM screening (this one's at noon-thirty, but you see my point). I'm also violating one of my TIFF tix rules, namely "don't plunk down a sawbuck for a flick that's hitting the Scotia by November anyway" but I felt like showing the love. Turns out An Education got some raves and Oscar buzz at Venice and it's actually got a fall release date lined up as well. Two out of fourteen, shrug.

My analytical sense wants to's the breakdown.
Documentaries: 2
Subtitled: 4 (really low compared to last year)
Canadian: 2 (counting Survival of the Dead, I'd put it there even if the Program(me) Book hadn't listed it as such)
Potential Bond girl sightings: 3 (would have been 4 if I'd gotten Cracks)
First time at specific programs: 2 (my first Sprockets and City to City screenings; I have yet to see a Wavelengths or Short Cuts Canada presentation)

Anyway...charging the batteries in my camera, double-checking that tomorrow's ticket is in my wallet as well as a stack of business cards for trading blog addresses, one more day of work before my vacation starts...see you soon.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Things falling into place...

Short update the email yesterday afternoon, and for the third year out of four in which I've been participating in the ticket package lottery, I got my top ten picks. So it looks like I'm kicking off my TIFF '09 with the 6PM screening of An Education next Thursday. Especially pleased with getting the Michael Caine Mavericks show.

Spent an hour or so last night doing round 2 of the Program(me) Book ritual, namely going over the schedule to find which of my backup picks will fit into the gaps and discovering other possibilities. I'm a bit fuzzy (and the TIFF website is a bit vague on the subject) as to whether Special Presentations, when purchased as individual tickets from September 4th onwards, are still twice as pricey as regular screening tickets, and if that also applies to subsequent screenings of the films--speaking of which, a lot of the Special Presentations don't premiere at the Elgin this year, which seems odd. If they are, that rules out Cracks and Solitary Man. Still, even though I still have to keep blocks of time free for a dentist appointment and the Nick Cave book signing, I can squeeze in four or five of the following: Fish Tank, Bran Nue Dae, Giulia Doesn't Date At Night, Tanner Hall, The Search, My Tehran For Sale, and Hipsters. Gotta rank those before I line up at the tent Friday...Tehran definitely, Tanner Hall as well on the off chance that Amy Sedaris will show up.

8 days 'til TIFF

Monday, August 31, 2009

A diversion: FanExpo 2009 wrapup

Ticket order forms were all due in to the Big White Tent today, and the box lottery has revealed that they're starting with (drum roll buddabuddabuddabudda) box 48 out of 54. Which is not that bad for me, as I was in box 6. If I'm in the (counting on my fingers...carry the one...) thirteenth box, I actually stand a pretty good chance of getting most of my top ten, which is pretty sweet, and a nice karmic turnaround from last year when my form wound up in box 8 and the wheel landed on box 9 to start processing. Hopefully I'll get the email within the next day or so letting me know. The 'rents and the little brother arrive in town late afternoon Friday, that'll give me time between the early close at the office for the holiday and their check-in to line up for another four or five tix to fill in the gaps.

My autumn has two big high points: there's the TIFF season, obviously, which in addition to the ten days of holiday and cinematic bliss surrounding my birthday stretches back to late July and the first dribblings of program leaks and the filmgasm that is Program Book Day. And then the cherry on top of August is the weekend before Labour Day, when the Convention Centre is taken over by thousands upon thousands of nerds, geeks, dweebs, genre TV stars, B-movie headliners, local shot-on-DV horror film producers, women with a pound of metal in their face who sell baby clothes with severed-head logo patterns, the really hot eighteen-year-olds who somehow didn't exist when I was in high school who love nothing better than to walk around the hall painted green or in a form-fitting black spandex catsuit for three days, burlesque dancers, promotions/marketing folk who were blessed by gypsies as children and now get to flog slasher flicks and hold screaming contests and indulge their movie night party jones...basically everyone in the eastern half of Canada and the nor'eastern States who lives for the freaky and fun and heroic and spooky and the chance to leave behind real life's sadness to immerse themselves in fantasy and creativity and shared joy of nostalgia and dreams about what the future holds.

My people, in other words.

I've been going to FanExpo regularly since 2003, and cliches be damned, it does seem to get bigger and better every year. Last year is a bit of a haze for some reason...I remember taking a few hundred photos and I cosplayed as Captain Marvel, but I don't have any solid memories to grasp. Maybe it's because 2008 was the year I gave up on autographs from the stars. $20 was a rubicon I couldn't cross. I was fine with that...a sawbuck for an 8X10 glossy, a personalized sig, 120 seconds of conversation and a quick photo isn't too exorbitant, the memory and photo and thrill last. But like the American movie ticket price of $10 or the trillion $ for the new health care bill, there came a wall, and I hit it. From the white t-shirted volunteers who would chase you down and demand that you not take any shots of Adam West from across the aisle without coughing up the green to the separation of sig and pic into two distinct and accumulating fees and lines, the Special Guest portion of the weekend has been priced out of the range of all but the hardiest and most obsessive completists. I'd considered limiting myself to one this year, and had settled on Emma Caulfield, but I got to the front of the line, saw that a sig and no pic would cost me most of my grocery budget for the week and I realized there was no way I could justify such an expense to myself, no matter how much I adored Anya and longed to bask in the two-degrees-away-from-Whedon glow. So I snapped a quick pic and skedaddled.

Didn't do much shopping this a couple of TPBs (Preacher vol. 4 and Essential X-Men vol. 7), one independent DVD of a webseries set at a comic book shop from a bunch of quite cool folks to whom I gave a copy of my own short superhero film the following day, a trio of books from Burning Effigy Press, and a Harleen Quinzell-as-The Baroness signed headshot from the stunning ladies at With the England trip coming up in two and a half months, I'm not splurging on as much stuff as I would have in previous years.

And then there was the cosplay. Really, the reason I go every year. It's comic book characters made's as close as one can get to immersion in the world of comic books, a world which is, let's not forget, infinitely more interesting than the one we're stuck with. I went totally mainstream this year: old-school Spider-Man. The result was my favorite Halloween-for-grownups experience of all time. The photos started minutes after I got in line on Saturday morning, as I posed with a Rogue and Wolverine in the next swoop of the line's S. I got pulled off the floor by Marvel's marketing head (I think) Arune Singh, who insisted on taking photos of me posing with Captain America's shield. I was shot with one arm around (purple) Catwoman and (comic) Silk Spectre 1. A pair of Kevin Smith lookalike brothers from the east coast sandwiched me for another photo to the delight of the lobby. And the kids...seriously, the best part. One four year old literally ran up and leapt into my arms to pose for shots. I'm just some anonymous schmuck, but that kid is going to kindergarten tomorrow morning and when asked "What did you do this summer, Matt?" is going to be able to stand tall and with eyes wide proclaim "I met Spider-Man!" and there won't be a dry seat in the room. I still don't know if I want kids of my own, but even I have to admit that's pretty cool.

Anyway, I only lasted about four hours in the suit before the dehydration, pressure on the sides of my head and the creeping headache that always results from going without my glasses for extended periods of time (oh, astigmatism, thou art a bitch) made me cave, so I stripped out, and immediately ran into an adorable blonde dressed like the Black Cat. Grrrrr...... Other faves: a couple of unrelated Cassandra Cain Batgirls absolutely rocked the house. Ashley and her Steampunk X-Men group that would go on to win Best in Show Overall at that night's Masquerade. The Orion Slave Girl; an awesome Captain Jack Harkness making Ianto jokes; a six-foot-tall Emma Frost; the 501st Legion and their virtual army of Lucasfilm-quality costumes, props and droids; a half-dozen Harley Quinns ranging from classic flavour to punked out and gender-fucked; the Buddy Christ (actually a high school bud of mine in for the weekend); plenty of Catwomen in all purrmutations; more than a few Dr. Horribles; a female Indiana Jones...this year's costumes were as stellar as they come. San Diego...try on Toronto for size, suckers.
Before you know it, though...the crash. You know the drill: it's Sunday afternoon, you've once again paid over five dollars for a muffin and a soft drink just to keep some energy going, you've seen every booth twice and not turned up a single piece of Godzilla merch in the whole stinkin' hall, you're starting to take photos of the same people over again, some of the booksellers are looking a bit sparse and Artist's Alley is starting to pack it in. You want to weep. Another fifty-two freakin' weeks until you get to have this much fun again.

Thanks to everyone who made this year so amazing: Tina, Ashley, Monica, Liisa, Susan, Willow, the guys at The Comic Book Store: The Series, the ladies at NerdGirlPinups, all the folks at HardcoreNerdity, everyone in the Steampunk X-Men, the Kevin Smith twins, that three year old who astonished his parents by hugging Spider-Man with the joy of a hundred dreams in his eyes, Emma Caulfield for those cheekbones, that Austin Powers dude who knew when to break character, and everyone who squeezed into a zentai suit or painted themselves green or just, you know, showed up to be a big nerd all weekend (gabba gabba one of us...). I'll see you next year.