Sunday, September 13, 2009

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.

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