The 24th Toronto International Film Festival

I came. I saw. I saw some more. Before I go into the reviews proper, I figure I should share some lessons I learned at this, my first exposure to Toronto. (The NYFF does not adequately prepare you for this).

Toronto International Film Festival Tip #1: Go for a varied and diverse lineup. Try to sneak in a couple of comedies. Luckily, I found I had an unexpected reservoir of film festival stamina, but even I don't think I could take a hypothetical one-day bill of L'humanite, Moloch, Kadosh, and The Wind Will Carry Us without collapsing into a coma.

TIFF Tip #2: Unless it's something you're dying to see, avoid American films in general, especially ones debuting at Toronto. They're almost invariably quasi-indie films with big name casts; either contorted melodramas (A Map of the World), "heartwarming" films (The Annihilation of Fish), or stage adaptations (The Big Kahuna, All the Rage) all clearly designed to grab a surprise Oscar nomination. If they're truly indie and good, they're going to wait for Sundance. There are some exceptions, of course -- I, for one, greatly enjoyed The Big Kahuna -- but the majority simply aren't worth watching.

TIFF Tip #3: I really, really liked those milkshakes (or faux milkshakes) in bottles and milk cartons that are available in Canada. I miss them already. Those Aero bars are also pretty good, too. And poutine isn't half-bad. This has absolutely nothing to do with the festival, BTW. It's lunch-time as I'm typing this and I'm getting a bit hungry.

TIFF Tip #4: Don't worry too much about not getting tickets in advance. The Thursday night screenings are tough to get, and there are going to be some exceedingly hard-to-find tickets, but the vast majority of screenings had an ample number of same-day tickets available from what I saw. (And some of the tough tickets like The Wind Will Carry Us are mainly due to inexplicable scheduling by the Festival Group.)

TIFF Tip #5: Note to fellow New Yorkers: anyone who says anything about the "romance of the rails" is a liar. It's a mind-numbingly dull 12 hours by train to/from Toronto. Admittedly, my feelings about Amtrak may be darkened by having the train on my return break down in Yonkers..

Friday, September 10

Moloch (Alexandr Sokurov) [C-]
Slightly more interesting than Mother and Son since this actually has a story (of sorts)[1]. There are some impressive visuals -- Sokurov uses the same smear effect he used in Mother to great effect here, as well -- but ultimately, this is a snoozer whose subtext about the banality of evil has become, well, banal.

Une liasion pornagraphique (Frederick Fontayne) [B]
I have no idea what the couple (Nathalie Baye and Sergi Lopez, both superb) in this document of a relationship first meet to do; I think Erik Gregersen and myself finally agreed there's nothing we could think of that's fully satisfactory. But that's a minor tangent. What follows is your typical French chamber drama about a a sexual relationship slowly blossoming into something more substantial, with one of the finest and most intellingent sex scenes I've ever seen. Liaison is exceptionally well-made. Too bad it didn't really wow me.

Mifune (Soren Kragh-Jacobsen) [B]
Entertaining, if awfully conventional tale of a Danish yuppie heading back home to his dead father's delapitated farm to take care of his mentally retarded brother. It does however prove that the Dogma manifesto is nowhere near as restrictive as one might think; save for its yellowish tint, there's nothing here that distinguishes it from any other mainstream European comedy.[2]

Saturday, September 11

Kadosh (Amos Gitai) [A-]
A near-twin to Leila in depicting the tragic consequences of a society that values the womb more than the woman. Gitai's long, long takes slowly and inexorably build up an impending sense of doom for both the individual characters and their small ultra-Orthodox sect, desperately trying to maintain cohesion and purpose in the secular modern world. Some mechanical contrivances near the end, though, prevent me from giving it the full A.

Freeway II: Confessions of a Trickbaby (Matthew Bright) [C+]
Yet another young-lovers-on-the-run film where the director attempts to deconstruct the genre by mimicking Hansel and Gretel and fails to succeed. Since there isn't anything as riveting as Reese Whitherspoon's fiery performance in the original Freeway here, Bright overcompensates by going completely over-the-top with his followup feature (which has no plot connection to Freeway, BTW). Projectile vomiting gags, outlandish violence, and bizarre performances (including Vincent Gallo as a Mexican nun(!)) are the order of the day here. Fun, but its sheer junkiness doesn't settle well.

Les amants criminels (Francois Ozon) [C-]
Yet another young-lovers-on-the-run film where the director attempts to deconstruct the genre by mimicking Hansel and Gretel and fails to succeed. There's some interesting things in the last half-hour, but the hour beforehand utilizes the same genre tropes that bored me to tears with Kiss or Kill. Anybody else want to retire this genre for the next ten years?

The Annihilation of Fish (Charles Burnett) [C-]
You have to feel sorry for James Earl Jones as he spends what seems like half of the film wrestling with invisible demons. Yes, this is one of those "aw, aren't the mentally ill cute?" movies; there's something masochistic about seeing a fine cast and distinguished director try to make something watchable from a truly wretched script. Burnett and crew almost succeed in that effort, but one keeps wondering "why did they bother?".

Emporte-moi (Lea Pool) [B+]
I dig 400 Blows chronicles of the artist as a young (wo)man and Emporte-moi is a worthy addition to that cinematic subgenre.[3] Karine Vanasse hits all the right notes as the directorial surrogate, and Pool's use of Godard's Vivre sa vie (which I haven't seen) is a textbook example on how to integrate other films into your narrative.

Sunday, September 12

Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay) [A]
An astonishing blend of Ken Loach Brit-working-class realism and visual poetry that is the single best debut feature from the UK I've seen in a long, long time. All the more surprising since I wasn't wild about Ramsay's prize-winning short, Gasman. The Badlands riff where a white rat is sent to the moon tied to a red balloon is far and away my favorite scene of the year.

Miss Julie (Mike Figgis) [C+]
Lean adaptation of a Strindberg (who I'm not at all familiar with) play, which Figgis attempts to liven up with roving handheld camera work and one ill-advised split-screen sequence. Peter Mullan is excellent, but the play itself leaves me somewhat cool. It's still a hell of a lot better film than The Loss of Sexual Innocence.

Show Me Love (Lukas Moodyson) [A-]
The single most entertaining teen movie since Clueless, Show Me Love is, at heart, just as poppy as its recent American cousins, but unlike She's All That and its ilk, allows its heroines to occasionally be horses' asses. Along with the grainy 16mm photography, this adds a veneer of reality which makes the eventual triumph all the more sweet.

American Movie (Chris Smith) [B]
Peters out near the end, and the film's affectionately condescending attitude toward its subjects is bothersome (made more so by having them in the audience and the Q&A), but Movie has one of the single funniest scenes I have ever seen in a film.

Coven (Mark Borchardt, short) [D]
After American Movie was screened, Toronto trotted out the short whose making Movie documented. I wanted to like it, but unfortunately, Borchardt has just enough talent to make a boring bad movie instead of a "good" bad movie. The basic idea is actually fairly good (AA group is the cover for a witches' coven), but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

Monday, September 13

The Cider House Rules (Lasse Halstrom) [B]
Skander Halim's one line comment of "Good liberal-Hollywood filmmaking" says it all: this is a solidly entertaining adaptation of John Irving's novel that's a pleasant film to watch. Unfortunately, there's nothing remotely exceptional about it, and the whole thing fades from memory rather quickly. Likely to get a bunch of Oscar nominations, though.

Gregory's Two Girls (Bill Forsyth) [C]
Shapeless and aimless comedy about a Scots schoolteacher harboring a crush on one of his students. Has its moments (including a very funny and incredibly humiliating Freudian slip), but Girls goes nowhere in particular and its comic situations are as contrived as any American sitcom.

All the Rage (James D. Stern) [D+]
Great cast (Joan Allen, Andre Braugher, Anna Paquin, Gary Sinise, Robert Forster, and many more) meets terrible script. Cast loses. With the possible exception of Giovanni Ribisi (who has the one decent scene in the entire film), this is a film they will hopefully leave off their resumes. Rage is nothing more than a shrill, idiotic movie about guns in America whose tone is so stridently hysteric that it makes the NRA look reasonable in comparison.

Away with Words (Christopher Doyle) [B-]
A film that feels like all the world like Doyle took his trusty camera, shot some random shit and then tried to paste together a movie. The resulting film is certainly a visual feast (did you expect anything else?) and some moments are quite funny; too bad it doesn't make a bit of sense.

Boys Don't Cry (Kimberly Peirce) [B+]
Propulsive and assured debut film that builds to a harrowing climax as it recounts the true story of Brandon Teena. Hilary Swank (best known as the next Karate Kid) gives a convincing-enough performance as the transsexual Brandon, a girl who just wants to be a good ol' boy; but it's Chloe Sevigny as the gal who falls in love with him who commands the film with her superb work. Only real deficit is some irritatingly arty time-lapse photography.

Tuesday, September 14

The Emperor and the Assassin (Chen Kaige) [B]
Long, sprawling epic spectacle[4] about the first emperor of China and his descent from a ambitious, but benevolent ruler to a ruthless, genocidal tyrant as he struggles to unite the warring Chinese kingdoms. Never less than absorbing, but there's a severe formality to the relationships between the emperor, the assassin, and the Lady Zhao (Gong Li) that prevents much emotional engagement.

Le petit voleur (Erick Zoncka) [B-]
Zoncka's followup to The Dreamlife of Angels continues in the same vein of vivid naturalism and has the virtue of being a spare 65 minutes in length. Too bad that instead of the dynamic duo of Reigner and Bouchez, there's an expressionless blank at the center of this chronicle of one young man's brief foray into organized crime.

Two Streams (Carlos Reichenbach) [C]
Hopelessly middlebrow (in a very Latin way) Brazilian drama that goes for self-consciously arty gestures just when it starts to get interesting.

Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (Paul Cox) [B-]
Average biopic, with the rather distracting tendency to have well-known actors like Peter O'Toole and Tom Wilkinson pop up in small cameos throughout the movie. A fine performance by David Wentham as Father Damien, who worked on the leper colony on Molokai island, gives the film a strong center. Worthy, but it does leave a "good for you" taste on the tongue.

My Best Fiend (Werner Herzog) [C]
I must come clean: Herzog or the BBC or New Yorker decided to do one thing throughout this "appreciation" of Klaus Kinski that drives me absolutely batty; they overdub conversations or monologues in German into English without removing the German. I found this extraordinarily annoying. Subtitles I could take, clean dubbing would have been acceptable. This, however, is like fingernails on the chalkboard. Even without that into account, I found Herzog's tribute/retribution largely repetitive, especially since I've read Kinski's "autobiography"[5]. Fiend paints the same portrait of Kinski that anybody sane who's read it would have; that he was an intensely emotional egomaniac who could be either your best friend or the biggest asshole on planet Earth. Some of Herzog's anecdotes are amusing (and I have to give him respect for occasionally making fun of himself) and seeing Kinski in full rave is .. interesting, but the material's too thin for a feature. It does, however, make me want to see Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre, the Wrath of God in the near future.

Wednesday, September 15

Sweet and Lowdown (Woody Allen) [B-]
Well, it's better than Celebrity. Allen's newest is a pleasing enough trifle, a straight-faced mock biopic whose unusual structure, depicting episodes in the life of Emmitt Ray (a fine Sean Penn), a 30s jazz guitarist, surrounded by footage of several jazz experts (including Allen himself) discussing Ray, allows the Woodster to engage in narrative tomfoolery, such as telling a story with three different punchlines. Thematically, it covers the same ground as Deconstructing Harry -- an asshole being excused by his art -- but Penn's depiction of Ray softens the edges (paradoxically by making Ray too dumb to hate). Samantha Morton is especially appealing as Ray's sweet and mute lover.

The War Zone (Tim Roth) [B+]
Not quite what I expected; for one, it's not the working class kitchen-sink drama I assumed it would be, taking place as it does in coastal England among a recently transplated middle class family from London. Roth, like many actors turned directors, gets great performances from his cast, especially newcomer Lara Belmont as Jessie. It's an intelligent and probing examination of incest, but there is a certain TV movie quality about it, especially in some unfortunate and melodramatic plot twists. Bonus points for the disturbing and ambiguous ending, which I think drives home the fact that our teenaged hero isn't acting out of concern of his sister, but out of jealousy. (My reading of this film is extremely dark; though the film is open-ended enough that slightly more positive(?) readings are equally valid.) The real interesting question is how Lot 47, the film's U.S distributor (and a completely unknown quantity), is going to handle it. There's no way the cut I saw would ever get less than an NC-17, and a R-rated cut would lose a lot of Zone's impact.

Map of the World (Scott Elliot) [C+]
Fine performances from Sigourney Weaver, Julianne Moore, and David Strathairn can't elevate this melodrama from the overblown button pusher (Kids in jeopardy! Allegations of child sexual abuse!) it is. Lackluster and unimaginative direction doesn't help.

julien donkey-boy (Harmony Korine) [D-]
I almost liked Gummo, but julien is more of the same, only worse; Jean-Yves Escoffier's luminous photography is traded in for ugly video and the resulting mess is unwatchable[6]. I now give up on Korine.

Thursday, September 16

A Room for Romeo Brass (Shane Meadows) [A-]
Like TwentyFourSeven, Meadows' debut feature, Brass displays Meadows' extraordinary talent for slice-of-life character interaction and control of tone; his account of two 12-year-old best friends and the odd friend they make veers suddenly from a low-key comedy to something more menacing, and it's a testament to Meadows' skill that this feels natural. Thankfully, one of my major roadblocks to my enjoyment to TwentyFourSeven is missing here; either the Notts County accents or I are less thick. A small, but delightful, film.

The Big Brass Ring (George Hickenlooper) [C-]
Bypassed theaters and went to direct to Showtime; it's easy to see why. This is a terrible film, extraordinarily shoddy in appearance, which ignores any remotely interesting thing it might say about American campaigning and politics for a trite "man reconciliates with his shady past" plot. Proof that if you want to find great screenplays, rooting around the trunks of deceased legends (the film is based on an Orson Welles screenplay) is not the most optimal search methodology.

Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano) [B+]
A departure from the violent, yet lyrical crime flicks that has been Kitano's output until now, Kikujiro is one of the best grumpy-adult-bonds-with-kid-on-a-road-trip films I've ever seen. Here, Kitano's retired gangster is coerced into accompanying a young boy trying to find his mother, and what emerges is an odd and visually inventive deadpan slapstick comedy.

Wonderland (Michael Winterbottom) [C]
Yet another Short Cuts movie where the connecting thread between the vignettes is that these are three sisters and their families. The plotting is exceptionally dull, and none of the actors make a strong impact. Instead, Winterbottom relies heavily on long stretches of his characters simply wandering through the streets of London to the strains of classical music at bombastic levels. He just about screams "This is Art. I'm an Artist". I want to scream "This is Crap. You're a Hack."

Pas de scandale (Benoit Jacquot) [B-]
Both a typical Jacquot film and a huge departure for him. This is the first film of his that juggles such a large cast; by my count, there's at least six important characters centered around a rich industrialist, Gregorie, returning to his family after a four month incarceration for an unspecified crime. On the other hand, the emotional interplay is still as cryptic as his other films; the response of his family to his return suggests more the return of a long absent prodigal son than a mere four month absence. Ultimately, I can't make heads or tails of this; in other words, my typical response to a Jacquot film. I should note that there's an added bonus to the large cast; it allows for a higher number of attractive French brunettes[7] to dot the film.

Friday, September 17

Love and Action in Chicago (Dwayne Johnson-Cochran) [C]
Starts off promisingly enough as a quirky comedy, with Courtney Vance's government hit-man having to deal with a matchmaking boss, a nagging mom, and a particularly aggressive love interest. Then it goes horribly wrong, as Johnson-Cochran actually begins to take his scenario seriously and the film slowly winds down to a lone-man climax.

The Big Kahuna (John Swanbeck) [B+]
A straightforward theatrical adaptation that lets the script and the actors provide the fireworks. And how! Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, and Peter Facinelli are all superb as the triumvirate of salesmen whose pursuit of a client for their company's industrial lubricant leads to philosophical soul-searching.

Augustin, roi du kung-fu (Anne Fontaine) [B]
A quiet charmer, Augustin chronicles the adventures of a Frenchman who wants to be Asian; enough to move into the Parisian Chinatown. (God knows what Alex C. would think of it!) Maggie Cheung, as always, is wonderful.

Moonlight Whispers (Akihiko Shiota) [B-]
Just your typical boy-gets-girl, girl-discovers-boy-is-a-kinky-pervert, boy-loses-girl, girl-gets-in-touch-with-her-inner-dominatrix, boy-regains-girl teen romance. Defiantly odd film that plays its material perfectly straight; I'm not sure if it's good, mind you, but I have to appreciate any film this twisted.

Jesus' Son[8] (Alison Maclean) [C]
Already this episodic and langorous account about a junkie's fall and rehab is fading from my mind. All I can remember is some zonked out hallucinotary visuals (talking cotton balls!), some vivid black comedy early on, and a jerky plot that falls apart when Fuckhead (our hero's nickname) stops doing so. Good work from Samantha Morton as his girl and Jack Black as a truly fucked-up orderly.

Saturday, September 18

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (Errol Morris)[A]
A great film that tackles the problem of hubris. Those of us who read Usenet have all met people like Mr. Leuchter, people who can't seem to fathom a world where they might possibly be wrong and that everyone is in a giant conspiracy against them. Like Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control, Mr. Death is filled with inventive editing and visuals (gotta love the mad scientist look of the opening credits) and features a brilliant score by the late Caleb Sampson. The "rise" which depicts Leuchter's success in the field of providing more "humane executions"[9] is a bizarrely fascinating look at the mundane details of killing. But the film gets into the really meaty stuff when detailing Leuchter's visit to Auschwitz and his giant mistake of hubris. The one time we hear Morris, he asks the vital question of the film to Mr. Leuchter: "Do you ever think you could be wrong?". Death does retain some sympathy for Mr. Leuchter; while it makes clear that he's a delusional fool, it also argues that he's being unduly persecuted for his beliefs.

Me & Isaac Newton (Michael Apted) [B]
After Morris' brilliant doc, Apted's more conventional documentary detailing the life and background of seven reknowned contemporary scientists falters in comparison. Interesting viewing for any science wonk, certainly. However, a two hour feature film seems the wrong format for Apted's project; it reduces much of the film into sound bites, and I'm left with the feeling that this could have been a really cool PBS miniseries. Anybody got Ken Burns' number?

One Piece! (Shinobi Yaguchi & Takuji Suzuki) [B-]
Not a proper feature film, One Piece! is a collection of shorts on projected video that plays like the oddest version of Japan's Funniest Home Videos you can imagine. As such, the quality of each of the shorts is very hit or miss. The best, "Who's the Director?", applies the concept of "elephants all the way down" to a movie set, and several reach high points of wacky mayhem. Others, however, are interminable bouts of strained whimsy.

L'humanite (Bruno Dumont) [C+]
I'm now going to take the rather bizarre action of passionately defending a film that I'm not that wild about. When it played at Cannes, the shitstorm that its three prizes generated from the North American press was breathtaking in its venom. While I find the film to have its problems -- the film's slow pace was a bit too turgid for me and I never was as engaged by the plight of its detective protagonist as others were -- denying the passion, ambition, and intelligence behind it is the worst kind of critical idiocy. Did they miss Dumont's impressive eye for landscape and visage? The intense tension that pervades every frame of the film and never achieves cathartic release? A difficult, frustating, but worthy film.

George Lucas in Love (Joe Nussbaum, short)[A-]
Exceedingly clever short that applies the old rubric of "write what you know" to the gestation of the Star Wars script. Without question, the funniest film I've seen all year judged simply by laughs per minute (the filmmakers are smart enough not to stretch their premise past its natural sketch length); just thinking of Darth Vader as the weirdo asthmatic hallmate next door makes me smile.

Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (Shusuke Kaneko) [B]
"Gamera is really neat!/Gamera is full of turtle meat." Not quite as much fun as the first installment of the new Gamera films (Gamera: Guardian of the Universe), this one is hampered by having much of its running time devoted to setting up the sequel to this film (which promises to be a humdinger, BTW). Still, there's enough giant monster action to satisfy all but the most jaded of fans, and it finally asks and answers[10] the burning question of our times -- "Why do giant monsters always attack Japan?".

Top Ten for the Festival
1. Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
2. Ratcatcher
3. Kadosh
4. A Room for Romeo Brass
5. Show Me Love
6. Boys Don't Cry
7. Kikujiro
8. The War Zone
9. Emporte-moi
10. The Big Kahuna

Bottom Five
1. julien donkey-boy
2. All the Rage
3. The Big Brass Ring
4. The Annihilation of Fish
5. Les amants criminels

Notable Performances
Lara Belmont, The War Zone; Danny DeVito, The Big Kahuna; Klaus Kinski, My Best Fiend; Samatha Morton, Sweet and Lowdown; Peter Mullan, Miss Julie; Chloe Sevigny, Boys Don't Cry; Kevin Spacey, The Big Kahuna; Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry; Karine Vanasse, Emporte-moi

[1]While I think the Cannes jury's choice of this for Best Screenplay is a big mistake, it isn't the absurdity I had assumed.

[2]One of the more entertaining things about Q&A's on Dogma films is seeing how contorted the rationalizations of apparent violations of the Dogma "rules" can get. In Mifune, there's a scene where our lead does vaguely samurai-like martial arts (the Mifune in the title refers to Toshiro) to waterpipe music that's apparently non-diegetic (thanks, Mike, for expanding my vocabulary), a Dogma no-no. According to Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, the director, he had the musician lying down in the field and playing his instrument(!). Somehow, I don't think that fits the spirit of the endeavour.

[3]It also has my favorite still in the Toronto program guide. Immensely charming, that one.

[4]I find Emperor's multitude of extras and gigantic sets far more spectacular than anything in the bloated CGI fantasias of Phantom Menace.

[5]I use the term autobiography loosely; the book is so over-the-top in its pornographic excess and bile that it's difficult to believe a single word in it. Highly entertaining, though.

[6]Literally at times -- I had to strain mightily to prevent staining the theater floor with vomit during one sequence where a man swallows lit cigarettes for what seemed like an eternity. (Odd what hits my gag reflex.)

[7]Probably the primary non-quality reason I'm generally francophilic in my cinematic tastes.

[8]In the "D'oh" category, the meaning of Jesus' Son's title is that it's a reference to the Velvet Underground song "Heroin", specifically the lyric "And when I'm rushin' on my run/And I feel just like Jesus' son". I've listened to that song at least a hundred times, but the thought never crossed my mind till it was mentioned in the Q&A.

[9]A phrase which I find an incredibly foul bit of warm fuzzy euphemism. There's no way I can wrap my mind around the idea that killing a sentient human being is any way, shape, or form "humane". Not something that predisposed me to liking Mr. Leuchter.

[10]Unfornately, the answer is either stupid or incomprehensible to those (like myself) unfamiliar with Japanese culture. Or both.