Tuesday, September 12, 2006


MONDAY: “Red Road,” a first feature from the Oscar-winning (for live action short) English director Andrea Arnold, is set in the grimmest corners of Glasgow and stars Kate Dickie as a pretty-grim-herself cop who sits all day in a control room watching monitors of video surveillance cameras positioned around the city. (Her department: City Eye.) This isn’t some futuristic thriller; it’s the here-and-now, and this quiet, coolly observed psycho-suspenser is about what happens when Dickie’s character abuses her position – her ability to literally zoom-in on people’s lives – when she discovers a guy who’s been released early from jail, and who clearly did something awful to her (it's the Scots answer to the German opening-nighter, "The Lives of Others"). The story transpires in bleak, barren council housing and grimy cafes; the accents are thick, tangled Glaswegian. There are English subtitles, and you need them.
Interview at the Intercontinental with Guillermo del Toro, the cheerful, articulate Mexican filmmaker (he taught himself English reading Mad magazine, he says) for “Pan’s Labyrinth.” On the table in front of him is a leather-bound notebook: his journal, and notes, and amazing sketches in colored ink for the monsters and fawns, faeiries and Fascist officers that populate his surreal saga. (He has a notebook for each of his films – one day, he says, he might publish them – although the personal stuff (“Monday I do my laundry”) would have to be deleted.) Just here from Venice, where he served on one of that fest's juries, del Toro is in serious pre-production on “Hellboy 2.”
Back into the dark: “Thicker Than Water,” from Iceland, about a couple expecting their second child who are thrown into a domestic maelstrom of doubt and betrayal when the husband discovers that his first son, now a frail preteen, is not his biological progeny. It’s “The Last Kiss,” sort of (Himar Jonsson even looks like Tom Wilkinson), except a generation older and it’s in Icelandic and everyone’s drinking a lot and living in Ikea showrooms. Message of the movie (and “The Last Kiss,” and “Little Children,” and who knows how many other festival entries: Marriage – It’s Rough.)
Next: “The Killer Within,” a documentary about Robert Bechtel, a successful academic (in environmental psychology)who, 50 years after the deed, comes clean to his grown daughters, his family, friends, his students and faculty coworkers: In 1955, as a student at Swarthmore, he murdered a dorm mate. Found innocent by reason of insanity and sent to a state mental hospital for only four years, Bechtel went on to have a distinguished career, and a loving family – now confronted with this shocker from the past. Produced by Discovery Channel, Macky Alston’s pic is disturbing on all sorts of levels: why’d Bechtel do it? Where’s the remorse? Can people really change? What about the victim’s family, and his cruelly aborted life? Is Bechtel the father of Columbine? And why did he, his wife, and their two girls agree to go through this psychic torment for the camera? Am interviewing the daughters, Amanda and Carrah, and Alston, tomorrow.
“Black Sheep” is an early-Peter Jackson-ish genre romp from New Zealand about a flock of genetically mutated sheep gone wild: Zombie sheep who go for the jugular and turn their human victims into, yes, zombie sheep. Shot in the glorious Land of the Long White Cloud (the Maori name for Kiwiland), also known as Middle Earth, it’s a cautionary tale of bioengineering with a Cain and Abel overlay -- well, actually, it’s just silly, fake-blood-and-oozing-offal stuff, with a few funny, gross gags and a good kicker. (A sheepdog sequel?)
“Mon Meilleur Ami” ("My Best Friend") finds the great, prolific veteran French director Patrice Leconte (“Monsieur Hire,” “Girl On a Bridge,” “Man On a Train”) in humorous mode, with Daniel Auteuil likewise shedding his grave “Cache” vibe to play an all-work-and-no-play Paris antiquities dealer who realizes he has no friends. He goes about finding one, thanks to the help of a sociable, sincere and smiling cabbie (Dany Boon). It’s light, maybe too light, but gets better, and slightly stranger, as it moves along, ending with a “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” game show sequence. Maybe it's a cultural thing, but the premise seems sabotaged somewhat by the fact that Auteuil’s character is surrounded by people who care about him (a daughter, a lover, his beautiful lesbian business partner), even if – and as -- he doesn’t seem to care about them.
There’s a late screening of “Renaissance,” the animated French futuro noir (English-language version, with Daniel Craig in the lead voice). It’s a graphic novel-come-alive, and a dazzling vision of a “Blade Runner”-esque Paris in the later 21st century.
Bonne nuit.

Monday, September 11, 2006


SATURDAY: For all its gross, excessive hilarity, Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” pales in comparison to Saturday’s first offering, “Taxidermia” (a TIFF press & industry programmer’s idea of a sick joke: showing this at 9am!). From Gyorgy Palfi, a Budapester whose inspired, altogether more tasteful “Hukkle” screened here in 2002, “Taxidermia, like “Borat,” parodies backward Soviet-influenced village culture, its wart-faced populace’s too-close relationship to poultry and pigs, and other things that make you laugh, wince, hunch over in pain and pop your eyeballs in wonder. Palfi’s whirligig visual style mixes and mashes Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Terry Gilliam and Jan Svankmajer, while his scatological, out-there sexual sensibilities have a bizarro John Waters (if he was Slavic, and straight) edge. What’s it about? Ha! A multigenerational tour through Hungary’s post-war Soviet rule and aftermath, it’s about the sport of speed-eating (championship gluttony, spooning down pounds of bean soup and gelatin-encased offal!) It’s about love and parenting and Army life, Peeping Tomism, and father-son relationships gone really, really bad. It’s about a lot of “ations” – masturbation, fornication, regurgitation. It has to be seen to be believed, and it should be.

Interview with Sir Ridley Scott, who tells you he’s getting over a nasty 5-day flu -- AFTER he shakes your hand. He and Peter Mayle, who wrote “A Good Year,” are old London ad-world buddies and they each have spreads in Provence. Scott’s wrapping his third film with Russell Crowe, the 1970s drug and cops saga, “American Gangster”, in New York right now. The director and his star like each other.

In “The Last King of Scotland,” Forest Whitaker is Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. It’s a big, lusty part, and Whitaker is great in it, going from charming revolutionary to paranoid despot in the span of a couple of tumultuous (and over-directed, breathlessly edited) hours. Seen from the perspective of a young Scottish doctor who goes to work for Amin and becomes one of his closest advisers, it’s a remarkable and odd story, very much worth watching despite its filmmaking flaws. Whitaker = Oscar nom (even though, having now seen Christopher Guest’s indie-world awards season pararody, “For Your Consideration,” it seems utterly foolish and predictable saying that.)

Interview Russell Crowe, who’s wearing black Sydney football club sweatshirt and who’s chatty and smart and talking about his daily commute from north of Manhattan to Governor’s Island, for the shoot of "American Gangster" (he plays a cop, Denzel Washington has the title role): The Aussie star gets ferried down the Hudson each morning on a speedboat. His daily commute on the set of “A Good Year” in the South of France: a 10-minute bike-ride from hotel to chateau. He’s beaming like a little boy.

Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” is another super-cinematic, dark, bloody, graphic, saga – this one set in Spain as the Fascists battle a stray band of freedom fighters at the close of WW2, and a little girl has an amazing journey into realms of faeriedom and fantasy. It’s “The Wizard of Oz,” if Tarantino got his hands on it, and he was Spanish, kind of.

I didn’t get what was going on half the time in the Indonesian musical “Opera Jawa,” a combo of Bollywood singalongs and a more spiritual, avant-garde-y art-installation and dance mindset. It’s beautiful, though, and strange, especially when the lovely Artika Sari Devi does weird dances with oversized, conical straw hats. Javanese puppetry, Indonesian politics and street crime have a part, too. As do beheaded cows. What’s with all the bloody, butchered livestock at this year’s fest?


SUNDAY: Things start badly – bloody awful, as the fake-Brits in “Love and Other Catastrophies” would say. A stab at jaunty, sophisto, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” tooling-around-London-in-a-vintage-Mini sex and relationship comedy, this self-consciously clever piffle from Alex “Madonna: Truth or Dare” Keshishian stars Brittany Murphy as an American ex-pat who gads, gawks, and I dunno what. The opening credits music, blasting over putatively snappy dialogue, was nothing if not distracting, the characters (a gay screenwriting journalist, a fashion mag editor, a hunky photo assistant) were annoying, and “For Your Consideration” was starting in 10 minutes in Varsity 8. Make a run for it.

(A note, in case anybody’s reading this: the last thing a critic does is quit a movie before it’s over, and if “LAOC” gets distribution and my colleague can’t review, I’ll revisit it in its entirety. But there are way too many possibilities and potential gems at TIFF, and buyers and other industry-ites get up and leave all the time. It feels bad, but then it feels good.)

“For Your Consideration”: the Christopher Guest Players do their thing, gently mocking Hollywood/Indiewood narcissism. But this stuff’s beginning to feel stale and crusty and somewhat off-the-mark. Thank God for Fred Willard, who plays an “Entertainment Tonight”-like co-anchor, wears a faux-hawk and gets off all the best lines.

“Little Children,” from Todd Field, is next. Kate Winslet is amazing as an unhappy housewife who tumbles into an affair with a hunky Mr. Mom (Patrick Wilson) in upper-tier suburban settings. Beautfully shot, and deploying a smart, ironic voice-over that lends a dimension of humor, and distance, to an otherwise too-disturbing tale, this is formidable, thought-provoking stuff. Michael Moore is sitting next to me. Before the film starts he tells me about the “Borat” public screening -- he could have fixed the projector if they’d let him cannibalize a part from another booth (he was a projectionist for many years in Detroit), but they wouldn’t. Then the lights go down and “Little Children” begins, with the Canadian distributor Atlantis Alliance’s logo: “They still haven’t paid me for “Bowling For Columbine,” Moore whispers. “I’m getting ready to sue them.” Then, five or ten minutes into “Little Children,” a weird meta moment as Jennifer Connelly’s character explains what she does for a living. “I make documentaries.” “Oh, like Michael Moore?” someone asks. No sound from the seat next to me.

I just make it into Benoit Jacquot’s “L’Intouchable.” His “A Single Girl,” with Virginie Ledoyen, is a real-time mini-masterpiece, and like that, this one lovingly follows a young French beauty (Isild Le Besco) on a psychic odyssey – although this is a geographic odyssey, too, as Le Besco’s Jeanne quits Paris for New Delhi to find her Indian father. A father that she only just found out about! Jacquot shoots doc-style, so people on the crowded streets of New Delhi eyeball his camera and occasionally grin, but mostly his camera only has eyes for Le Besco. She’s very good, and the film stays with you, even though it flirts with French art movie cliché and verite self-parody.

Speaking of self-parody, Harvey Keitel absolutely kills “Un Crime,” Manuel Pradal’s interesting up-to-the-moment-Keitel-appears story about a guy (Norman Reedus) who races his greyhound and bails drunken floozy Emmanuelle Beart out of jail for a living. Set in interestingly grungy quarters of Manhattan and Brooklyn (and boasting an opening shot of a Delilah’s Gentleman’s Club billboard – yes, the Philly strip club), “Un Crime” (it’s in English) is a mystery of sorts about the death, several years earlier, of Reedus’ girlfriend. Keitel plays a cabbie that may or may not have been the culprit, the perp. Beart, pursuing the case, pouting her lips and puffing les cigarettes, climbs into Keitel’s taxi (yes, he’s a Scorsese alum and he’s a Taxi Driver!) for the first time. They chit and chat, and then Keitel delivers his first major clunker: “In the harsh light, I see that you’ve got sadness written all over you.” People start running for the exit.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


Kevin Costner wandering around the Four Seasons carrying a shopping bag with a little purse inside.... Russell Crowe posing for photos with a family of kids. The kids' Mom says she knows the girl who played Crowe's daughter in that movie made by "you know, Howard from "Happy Days."" (That would be "Cinderella Man." I swear!)..... Marion Cotillard, Crowe's star in "A Good Year," conversing in French with her Quebecois handler in the Four Seasons elevator, discussing red carpet etiquette....

Friday, Sept. 8

Day 2: First up, “Deliver Us From Evil,” an expertly made, profoundly troubling doc about defrocked and convicted Catholic priest Oliver O’Grady and his 20-year run of sexual abuse of children and adult parishioners in California. Amy Berg, a veteran CNN and CBS news producer, intercuts chilling interviews with the serial pedophile, now roaming free (and apparently jolly) in Ireland, and heartbreaking segments with a number of O’Grady’s victims and their families. Lawyers, activist priests, abuse experts and historians fill out the narrative, which does not paint a pretty picture of the institution of the Catholic Church, from the Los Angeles archdiocese that oversaw O’Grady to the Vatican itself.

Then, “La Tourneuse de Pages (The Page Turner).” Director Denis Dercourt’s ice-cool and elegant French revenger takes a page (or deux) from Chabrol -- “La Ceremonie,” especially -- and demonstrates that Deborah Francois’ performance in the Cannes-winner “L’Enfant” was anything but a fluke. Here, the mole-specked actress stars as Melanie, a musical prodigy from a working class provincial family (the parents are butchers – more about animal carcasses later). In childhood, following a traumatic audition, she abandoned the piano. Now a young woman, she gets a job as a page-turner for a celebrated classical pianist (Catherine Frot). The position is no accident, it seems, as Melanie insinuates herself into the lives of the frosty musician, her high-powered lawyer husband and their piano-playing son. Revanche!

A run from the Varsity, a 12-screen complex in a block of fancy shops where most of the press and industry screenings are held, to the Intercontinental, where a swarm of indie P.R. firms have their offices and the hotel patio becomes a defacto gab-lounge during the festival run. Interview with Amy Berg, director of “Deliver Us From Evil.” This is only her second fest -– she landed Lions Gate as a distributor at the first, the L.A. Film Festival, in a “little bidding war.” Berg’s head turns along with others as Glaswegian comic Billy Connolly works the al fresco room (he’s here with "Fido," a Canadian entry). The waiter reports that Penelope Cruz and her director, the Spanish brandname Pedro Almodovar, have already come and gone.

Third pic: “Borat Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” in which Sacha Baron Cohen goes from the Frenchie racecar driver of “Talladega Nights” to this mustachioed newscaster of Kazakhstan’s state-run TV station. The mock-doc, directed by “Seinfeld”/ “Curb Your Enthusiasm” dude Larry Charles (no relation to Larry David), starts in Borat’s Kazakh village, where he bids farewell to family and livestock to take a road trip across the USA, but not before merrily lampooning post-Soviet Eurasian culture, with references to, I dunno, bestiality, incest, prostitution and wrinkled old crones in babushkas. Cohen, who is Jewish, delves into anti-Semitic themes, too, in both his character’s homeland (the traditional "Running of the Jews") and in the USA, where Borat begins his journey in New York and ends it in Orange County. An outrageous odyssey, it brings the hirsute foreigner into contact with Southern etiquette classes, a plus-size black hooker, a giant bear, an ice cream truck, an Evangelical ministry, an unbelievable naked wrestling match/quasi sex scene between Borat and his portly news producer, and a Pamela Anderson autograph signing that ends with the former "Baywatch" babe being put in a sack. Seriously. (The press screening went without a hitch; but the previous night’s public presentation went south 15 or 20 minutes into the film, with a projection room disaster. No one could fix things, so Cohen, Charles and documentarian Michael Moore (he was in the audience) offered to entertain – and entertain questions from the crowd.

“Chacun Sa Nuit” (“To Each Their Night”, or the less-telling Anglo title “One to Another”) is next – a disappointment co-directed by the actor Jean-Marc Barr. It’s about five randy teenagers, four guys and a girl, in some sunny quadrant of France --childhood friends who swim naked, have sex, play in a bad rock band and occasionally go home for dinner. (Think: Gallic version of Larry Clark’s “Kids.) The pouty, Converse-wearing Lizzie Brochere plays Lucie, who goes from boy to boy, but who remains in love with her brother, Pierre (Arthur Dupont), in a rather intimate manner. Meanwhile, Pierre, who’s bisexual, goes missing and then turns up dead. Call the cops. It’s a mystery, kind of, but less a whodunit than a who-cares?

Lots of talk about the serious, socio-political tenor of this year’s festival, and it’s true. Even “Borat,” for all its comic outrageousness, grapples with weighty stuff (and not just that fat guy): American xenophobia, international anti-Semitism, radical Islamicism and East-West conflict. The documentary “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” which showed tonight, echoes the opening night German secret police drama “The Lives of Others” in its account of the Nixon administration’s and FBI’s orchestrated campaign of surveillance and interference against the ex-Beatle peacenik and his wife, Yoko. Not to mention the much-buzzed, yet-to-be-screened "Death of a President" -- the hypothetical, faux doc about the assassination of President George W. Bush and its tumultuous aftermath.
Good night, and good luck.


Friday, September 08, 2006

1:30pm, Thursday: Checked into the Film Festival press office, picked up my credentials, the telephone-book-size Festival guide (440 whopping pages) and the absolutely essential Press & Industry screening schedule -- a little gridded booklet by which media and movie bizzers plan their morning/afternoon/evening lineup of films (and note with frustration the overlapping screenings of pics that’ll have to be missed). Was also handed a blue and yellow TIFF tote bag filled with invaluable movie-related items. (Coupon for an Ontario wine country tour, anyone? How about a jar of Garnier Skin Naturals anti-wrinkle firming cream?) (Note to editor: goods will be dispensed with in an ethically correct manner. Like the trash.)

And we’re off. First film is a Fox screening of “A Good Year,” Sir Ridley Scott’s larky adaptation of Peter Mayle’s novel about a hard-charging British moneyman who inherits his beloved, eccentric uncle’s chateau and vineyard in the south of France. (Hmmm, that Ontario wine tour – compare and contrast?) Russell Crowe plays Max the testosteroned arbitrageur, now faced with a big dilemma: stay in London and make millions and never take a weekend off, or move to the late (flashbacks courtesy of Albert Finney) uncle Henry’s home in Provence, and, stop and smell the giant sunflowers that line the country roads. No-brainer here, especially as the chateau comes with a nutty vintner, his cheery, cheeky cook of a wife, and a couple of beautiful femmes, one of whom is named Fanny. Someone once said that if a director speeds-up the film for comic effect it’s a sign of desparation, and Sir Ridley does that and then some, but Francophiles, Oenophiles, and Marion Cotillard-philes won’t mind. Interviewing Sir Rid and Mr. Crowe on Saturday, so enough of that. (Except to note that the automobile-of-the-moment-in-movies seems to be the Smart car, the 2-seat park-it-sideways vehicle that Woody Allen takes for a fateful spin in “Scoop,” and that Crowe’s Max revs recklessly along Provencal superhighways. Toronto’s streets are also a poppin’ with the little Smarties, several of which sport advertisements. (Garnier Lift, anyone?)
Time for a quick dinner, and a ride (have brought a bike – Toronto is a civilized, cycle-friendly town) back to the hotel, which is a nice, modest little place except that it’s in the heart of U of T fratboy land – it’s rush week, and the fraternity brethren have moved their couches onto the front lawns, the better to drink beer and ogle sorority sisters as they march by.) Then it’s the opening evening public screening of “The Lives of Others,” a grim (but also comic) account of Big Brother-ism in Communist East Germany. Destined for foreign language Oscar contention, this first film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck centers around a pasty secret police officer (Ulrich Muhe) who eavesdrops on an East German playwright and his actress girlfriend. Won’t say more bout this clever, compelling look into Eastern Bloc-headedness and its oppressive rule over the public, except to note two things. One: the public screening was at Toronto’s lovingly-restored grand palace of a theater, the Elgin, which seats thousands – and every one of those seats was full for a GERMAN LANGUAGE MOVIE ABOUT THE STASI! And von Donnersmarck gets a standing ovation! Torontonians: They’re film fest crazy.
Second thing: Speaking of the Stasi, there are uniformed security guards at most press and industry screenings and public showings, scanning audiences with night-vision binoculars? . Yes, they're looking for pirates, I know. But it’s kind of creepy, knowing that someone is watching while you’re watching….)