Back to Toronto

In recent years I had come to think of the Toronto International Film Festival as my beach house. It was where I came to relax and unwind at the end of the summer. True, the films were always different, but the theaters, food, and rythyms of the festival greeted me with a comforting familiarity. Last month I headed back to the festival after a one-year hiatus, and I found some changes. In festivals past the theaters were all walking distance from each other. I would spend my time within six square blocks in uptown Toronto. Then, two years ago, Toronto’s Uptown Theater, one of the festival’s primary venues, closed. The festival expanded into other theaters in different areas of the city. So now instead of just walking I was taking the subway and an occasional cab. I got to see some parts of downtown Toronto besides the uptown areas I knew before. The rythyms and general feel of the festival were different. It was still my beach house, but someone put in new furniture.

While I was initially wary of the changes, I quickly grew to embrace them. As much as I liked the Uptown, the new theaters were more comfortable and accessible. While I had to rush from theater to theater more than before, I learned that Toronto has an excellent subway system. The stops were convenient to the theaters and I never had to wait more than a few minutes for a train, even late at night.

One other change was on my end. I used to only select smaller films that I thought had little chance at U.S. distribution. This time I aimed for balance, including a few of the bigger Hollywood films with the independent and international fare. This change also worked out well, and I had a blast. Here’s a look back:

Day 1
Buying a festival pass does not guarantee admission into any particular film. Luckily I got 47 out of my 48 selections. The 48th was Water, from director Deepa Metha. Water attracted controversy long before its release. In 2000, Metha began filming in India but had to shut down production after violent protests by Hindu fundamentalists. She eventually completed filming in Sri Lanka. I wanted to see what the fuss was about but was left without a ticket. So I had to “rush” the film, which, in festival lingo, means stand in line and try to get a ticket at the last minute. In practical terms “rushing” meant waiting for two hours. Don’t tell me Canadians can’t appreciate irony.

Fortunately the waiting paid off and I made it in. So was it worth it? Yes. Water is a poetic film, beautifully shot and acted (with one exception). Set in late 1930's India, Water depicts a child bride who quickly becomes a widow. The girl, named Chuiya, quickly learns that as a widow she has no rights and has to live a beggar’s life. She is shut away from the rest of society with other widows. Metha explores the culture and the hierarchy of the widow’s society. She sets the struggle of Chuyia and the other widows against larger changes in Indian society (such as the rise of Gandhi). Water lags at times and has a weak lead male actor. Still, it’s moving and powerful thanks largely to Metha and her talented actresses. I can understand why the film attracted protest, since it is critical of certain Hindu traditions. But one can criticize an aspect of a religion without condemning that religion as a whole. That’s certainly the case with Water.

Sometimes the people of the festival make more of an impression than the films. Kiss, Kiss, Bang Bang marks the directorial debut of Shane Black who wrote the original Lethal Weapon and many other action films in the late 80s and early 90s. With Kiss, Kiss, Bang Bang he tries to send up big, mindless action films. He succeeds initially but the film runs out of gas. Like the Last Action Hero (which Black wrote), Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang ends up becoming what it was originally satirizing. The film was entertaining enough, largely due to a hilarious turn by Val Kilmer, but completely forgettable. The same cannot be said for Joel Silver, the film’s producer. He introduced Black and the cast while wearing a bright pinkish purple suit and even brighter pink shoes. Here was a man who produced Die Hard and The Matrix, and he looked like a comic book villain. Gotta love the festival.

Day 2
The festival’s films can sometimes shine the light on historical events that have gone unnoticed by many on this side of the Atlantic. On October 17, 1961 French police killed anywhere from 48 to 200 Algerians in the streets of Paris. These were unarmed protesters marching against the continued French occupation of Algeria. Alain Tasma’s docudrama October 17, 1961 skillfully recreates the days leading up to the fateful clash. Through doing so Tasma examines the attitudes, conflicts and decisions that contributed to the massacre. He then combines these smaller stories into the big one. While the film is a scathing indictment against the French police, Tasma is not afraid to show the Algerians’ faults, particularly the terrorist actions of the FLN, the Algerian insurgent organization. Last year, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers was re-released in theaters and made available on DVD. By depicting a different side of the same conflict, October 17, 1961 in a way expands the scope of The Battle of Algiers and is a perfect complement to Pontecorvo’s masterpiece.

I always look forward to the festival’s “Midnight Madness” series, a showcase of bizarre films, most of them sci-fi, martial arts or horror, many of them joyously pushing the boundaries of good taste. The boisterous audiences give “Midnight Madness” a rock concert atmosphere. Tonight’s entry was Banliue 13, a rollicking, fun French martial arts flick. Director Pierre Morel combines expert gunplay with the daring and inventive acrobatics of his stars and throws in a story just clever enough to justify the mayhem. The breakneck, frenzied action scenes avoid the staginess that plagues many Hollywood action films these days. Other Midnight Madness highlights included Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, a rocking yet informative documentary on the heavy metal culture; Evil Aliens, a campy send-up of every alien invasion movie ever made; The Great Yokai War, an intense and engaging Japanese fantasy; and Bangkok Loco, a bright, strange, trippy comedy from Thailand.

Day 3
Today’s highlight was Sud Express, from Spanish directors Chema de la PeZa and Gabriel Velázquez. The “Sud Express” is a train running from Lisbon to Paris. The film tells several related stories using the train to connect the disparate characters. These characters come from different countries and different ethnicities. The diversity in the people and the stories touches on struggles among ethnic populations in Europe. But it does this subtly and is by no means a message picture. Sud Express uses mostly improvised dialogue and nonprofessional actors, both of which are very risky. Here it works, giving the film authenticity and rich performances. The camerawork and direction let the actors shine and add to the naturalistic feel. I walked away thinking that a whole film could be made about each of the characters and that I wanted to know more about them--always a good sign.

Day 4
Like many, I had been eagerly anticipating Cameron Crowe’s new film Elizabethtown. After he misfired with Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown marks a return to more vintage Crowe. Orlando Bloom plays Drew, an up and coming sneaker designer whose career implodes when his creation loses billions of dollars. Just when he thinks he hit rock bottom, he receives word that his father died. His family sends him to Elizabethtown, Kentucky to sort out his father’s affairs. Along the way he meets a gregarious flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst) who takes an immediate shine to him. The film follows Drew on a path to self-discovery, as he learns about his father and his family. Like Jerry McGuire and Almost Famous, Elizabethtown is funny, wistful and romantic. Without being ostentatious, it celebrates small-town American values in a way that should appeal to both blue and red staters. As you would expect from a Crowe film, it boasts a terrific soundtrack. After all the epics he’s done, Bloom shows a new side here, not just by playing an American but also by playing a nondescript incredibly average guy. Dunst is solid, and look for Paul Schneider in a breakout role. The film does run too long, suffering from too many endings and emotional climaxes. Much of the media coverage focused on that and trashed the film. By all accounts Crowe made some additional cuts to Elizabethtown before the October release. I can tell you though, that the Toronto audiences responded warmly to the film.

Miles away from Elizabethtown in location, subject, and tone was Day Break, a tense psychological drama from Iranian director Hamid Rahmanian. Day Break follows Mansour, a man who killed his boss in a fit of rage and is sentenced to death. This is more than an Iranian Dead Man Walking. You see, in Iranian law the victim’s family must decide, on the day of the execution, whether to spare the condemned man or proceed. If the family does not show up, the execution is postponed. Mansour’s execution has already been postponed twice. Now he must wonder whether his victim’s family will spare him or whether they will stay away, making him go through this process all over again. Rahmanian slowly tells his story, making you experience some of the tedium of prison life. He also draws you into Mansour’s mind as the prisoner relives his fateful decision and agonizes over his fate. As Mansour, Hossein Yari does so much with little dialogue. Mansour is usually by himself, so Yari establishes the character mostly through his eyes and his facial expressions. With a story that could have easily lent itself to cheap tricks, Day Break instead holds the audience with real human emotion. I’d like to see another film made from the family’s point of view. If it were your decision whether or not to execute someone who killed a loved one, what would you do?

Day 5
It’s always fun to revisit directors whose work I liked in earlier festivals. In Shower and Quitting, Chinese director Zhang Yang took a complex look at family relationships, especially those between fathers and sons. He does so again with Sunflower, this time on an even more ambitious scale. The story begins in 1976, as Gengian, once a promising artist, returns from years in a labor camp, where his hands were broken. His artistic career gone, Gengian works hard for his family and pushes his nine-year old son Xianyang to become the artist that he couldn’t. Xianyang, while talented, resents his father, whom he has barely known until now. He grows especially angry at his father forcing him to draw. This conflict plays out through Xianyang’s teenage years and adulthood. Yang deftly plays this against shifts in China, going from the death of Mao in 1976 to today’s more capitalistic country. He also provides rich supporting characters, interesting side stories, and many funny moments. But he always maintains the focus on Gengian and Xianyang. Sun Haiying is magnificent as Gengian, creating a three-dimensional character who truly loves his family and means well, but lets his stubbornness and pride control him. Sunflower is Yang’s most personal and heartfelt film yet, and I hope American audiences get the chance to see this tender and touching film.

The festival always includes retrospectives. Today I saw Rome, Open City, from famed Italian neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini. Preceding Rome, Open City was My Dad is 100 Years Old, a short film about Rossellini written by and starring his daughter Isabella. Now My Dad is 100 Years Old was certainly a warm and loving tribute. Isabella played herself, Alfred Hitchcock, David O. Selznick, Charlie Chaplin, and most affectionately, her mother Ingrid Bergman. The ironic part is that Guy Madden directed, and his baroque style is as far from the straightforward Rossellini as one can get.

Rome, Open City still holds up well as a powerful account of German occupation in Italy at the end of WWII. Rossellini shot in Rome very soon after the war ended with actors who had experienced many of the atrocities depicted in the film. For the most part he eschewed sets for true locations, including ruins from the war. He kept his camera still and let the actors tell the story. Isabella mentioned that her father had little money and had to use discarded American film stock. She said that she was concerned that her father’s works and role in film history were largely forgotten. The print of Rome, Open City was old, faded and scratchy, giving credence to her words. Festival staff said that film restorers were working on a new print, which will be ready next year. Here’s hoping Isabella and others who care about Roberto Rossellini’s legacy succeed in bringing his works back to public attention.

Day 6
Some actors you just root for like you would with a favorite ballplayer. For me and many other film lovers I know, Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of those actors. He always seemed to fly below the radar, despite bravura supporting turns in Boogie Nights, Happiness, Almost Famous, and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Even when he moved to lead roles in Love Liza and Owning Mahowny, few outside the art house circuit seemed to notice. All of that will change with Capote. Capote is not a biopic, but wisely focuses on the years famed author Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood, based on the killing of a Kansas family in 1959. Capote went beyond covering the horrific murders. He befriended the killers and even helped them find new lawyers. Capote asks real questions. How detached and objective should a journalist be? Should he ever insert himself into the story? How far should he go to get what he wants? Director Bennett Miller slowly illustrates how Capote both loses himself to ambition and starts to identify with one of the killers, two impulses that eventually conflict with each other. He also subtly draws attention to the culture clash between the fey, literary New Yorker and the conservative Midwesterners. Hoffman completely inhabits Capote in a mesmerizing performance. While neither he nor the film tone down Capote’s homosexuality, neither makes it the center of the character. Capote also boast fine supporting work by Clifton Collins, Catherine Keener, Bruce Greenwood, and Chris Cooper. Hoffman should finally receive some long overdue recognition for his work in this riveting, compelling film.

Took another 180 degree turn with Do U Cry for 4 Me Argentina?, a clever and funny take on the Korean immigrant experience in Argentina. Writer-director Bae Youn-suk shot on video with a budget that looked like less than what I paid for my hotel room. Do U Cry for 4 Me Argentina? depicts the challenges facing a group of twenty-something second-generation Koreans. Youn-suk captures his characters’ alienation and frustrations, both with their world and with each other. For most of the film he strikes a healthy balance between comedy and drama, with some unusual musical interludes thrown in. He loses course at the end and veers into a crime tragedy. It’s a rough effort, but it’s gratifying to see a film like that for its own sake. The chance to see films like this one of the reasons I go to the festival in the first place.

Day 7
If you’re already at a festival, how can you resist a film called Festival? First-time director Annie Griffin sets her sights on the Edinburgh Arts Festival in Scotland in her scathing, hilarious satire of showbiz types, including fans, performers and journalists. Even though this was not a “mockumentary” it did remind me very much of Christopher Guest’s work, except her characters feel a little more true to life. Griffin keeps the film moving briskly among the interrelated stories. She skewers the egotism, insecurities, pretentiousness and desperation with precision but stops just short of growing heavy-handed. I grew to like the characters, including a conceited TV star, an over-the hill comedian, a frustrated critic, and an over-the-top theater troupe, almost in spite of themselves. Maybe it was because Griffin never tried to make them likable. Her performers play very well off each other. How appropriate that Festival the funniest film I saw at the festival.

It’s impossible to describe the effect of watching Diameter of the Bomb. “Moving,” “powerful,” and “heartbreaking,” while all accurate, somehow fail to fully capture the experience. Canadian director Steven Silver and British director Andrew Quigley examine the June 2002 suicide bombing of a Jerusalem bus, which killed 19 and wounded many more. Silver and Quigley talk with survivors of the bombing and families of the victims who were killed. They delve into these people’s lives, giving a true sense of the tragedy and the loss. Included in this are the families of an Ethiopian Christian girl and Israeli Arab student, showing that the conflict is beyond Jews and Palestinians. That by itself would have made for a solid documentary, but Silver and Quigley go deeper. They talk with the doctor who treated the wounded, the volunteers that collected the remains for burial, the forensic examiner who reviewed the bodies, and other bus drivers. They give you the whole scope of what happened and how it affected people across the spectrum. Perhaps the film’s most controversial elements are interviews with the families of the suicide bomber and the man who drove him to the bus, all of whom defend the bomber’s actions. While some could fault Silver and Quigley for giving terrorists and their supporters a voice, it makes sense in the film. The bombing did not occur in a vacuum, and Diameter of the Bomb uses the interviews to give a sense of why it happened. That the film was able to accomplish so much in a mere 86 minutes is a testament to Silver and Quigley’s skill and their editing. The impact of Diameter of the Bomb stays with you long after you leave the theater. It’s the type of experience you need to share with others.

Day 8
Every so often I pick a film based mostly on the director’s personal story. On November 2, 2004 Dutch director Theo Van Gogh was killed by a Muslim extremist. Ironically, his last film, 06/05, dealt with the assassination of a popular Dutch politician. As Oliver Stone did with JFK, Van Gogh presents his view of what might have been behind the murder. But unlike Stone, Van Gogh does not lionize the deceased, preach endlessly, or hit you over the head with his message. Instead he delivers a tight political thriller in the vein of 70's paranoia films such as The Parallax View. Not a bad final testament at all.

Some of the festival’s best and most moving films centered around children. Two of these were back-to-back today. Va, vis et deviens (Live and Become) goes back to the mid-1980s, when Israel rescued hundreds of Ethiopian Jews (also called Falashas) from refugee camps in the Sudan. What’s often overlooked is that there were other refugees in these camps. In Va, vis et deviens, a Christian refugee has her son pretend he is Jewish so he will be taken to Israel. Once there, the boy (now named Shlomo) is adopted by a loving Israeli family. Shlomo faces an identity crisis every day, as he knows he is living a lie but is afraid to reveal that he is not Jewish. And that’s on top of the culture clash as he learns to adjust to Israeli life. The beauty of the film is how these conflicts plays into the “normal” pressures of growing up. We follow Sholmo (well played by three different actors) over twelve years. As Zhang Yang did with China in Sunflower, Va, vis et deviens co-writer and director Radu Mihaileanu skillfully weaves in Sholmo’s story with Israel’s recent history. Mihaileanu takes his time and uses humor wisely to leaven a serious story. He fills the film with wonderful supporting characters. Va, vis et deviens is both an epic and a personal film, a rare feat.

I need to admit I was a little reluctant to pick All the Invisible Children, a UNICEF sponsored collection of short films abut children in different parts of the world. While I had no doubt about the good intentions, I thought the films might be too preachy or didactic. Boy, was I wrong. All the Invisible Children does show the difficult challenges children face in different parts of the world, including Brazil, the U.S., and China. But it does so in a very engaging way. The seven films are also very different from each other, including a slice-of-life comedy, a fantasy, and a fable. The best of them include Spike Lee’s Jesus Children of America, about Blanca, a twelve-year old Brooklyn girl who is HIV-positive. She struggles not only with her disease but with her drug addicted parents. The film works in part because Lee does not celebrate the “innocence” of children, but shows how cruel Blanca’s classmates are when they find out about her illness. Perhaps the most moving of the group is John Woo’s Song Song and Little Cat a parallel story of a rich girl and poor girl in China. In the end, when the girls meet, you’ll be amazed at how touching one simple act of generosity can be.

Day 9
Today featured yet another terrific film about children, Twelve and Holding, from director Michael Cuesta. As he did with his debut film L.I.E., Cuesta explores how kids deal with very adult situations. Three friends, Jake, Malee and Leonard, must deal with the sudden death of Jake’s twin brother Rudy. Jake becomes consumed with a desire for revenge. Malee develops a crush on a man twice her age, while the obese Leonard tries to lose weight. Like last year’s very underrated Mean Creek, Twelve and Holding presents tough moral questions and avoids easy answers. Also like Mean Creek, Twelve and Holding feels authentic thanks largely to natural performances from the lead actors. Conor Donovan, who plays Jake, has a small role in the next Scorsese film. Hopefully Zoe Weizenbaum and Jesse Camacho, the other leads, will have similar success. Jeremy Renner, as the object of Malee’s affections, also gives a breakout performance. Now that we’re finally moving away (I hope) from the insipid teenager comedies that have plagued us over the past few years, maybe audiences will be ready for honest, thoughtful youth-centered films such as Twelve and Holding.

Day 10
The Last Hangman could serve as counterpoint to Day Break. Both examine the emotional effects of executions, but while Day Break presents the condemned man’s point of view, The Last Hangman explores the impact on the executioner. Timothy Spall plays Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s most prolific hangman from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s. Pierrepoint quickly masters his profession, planning each execution to the slightest detail. He takes pride in his work, and tries to ignore the human element. But slowly the weight of what he does and the changing times take their emotional toll. Like Hossein Yari in Day Break, Spall conveys so much using his eyes and his facial expressions. While Pierrepoint is a reserved, buttoned-down man Spall gradually lets you see the conflict gradually churning up inside. Jayne Atkinson also shines as Pierrepoint’s questioning but supportive wife. Like Spall’s performance, the film itself is understated but gripping. Director Adrian Shergold presents a very limited color pallette filled with grays. That’s certainly appropriate for a movie largely set in prisons, but to me it also signifies the gray (as opposed to black and white) in Pierrepoint’s life. Shergold also gently tweaks the classic British professionalism and good cheer. So many of his scenes have a subtext beneath what’s being presented. Shergold presents the subtext in a way that it’s clear, but not overwhelming. That’s especially true in the final scene, which is simply pitch-perfect.

The festival’s final film was Hostel, the second effort from director Eli Roth. Hostel was a vast improvement over Roth’s debut, the execrable Cabin Fever. But as with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, the screening’s atmosphere was more entertaining than the movie. Roth carried himself like a rock star and was treated as such by the Midnight Madness crowd. He and the audience seemed to feed off each other’s energy. He ranted and rambled hilariously, whether it was a spot-on impression of Quentin Tarantino or a diatribe against PG-13 horror movies (are they really so bad?). Before the screening I talked with a husband and wife from Chicago. The wife told me how at a festival a few years ago Vincent Gallo (who later went on to direct The Brown Bunny) hit on her and every other woman with a pulse. After the screening, the husband turned to me and said “See you next year.”

Well, I don’t know for sure that I’ll be back next year, but I wouldn’t bet against it. This was the strongest lineup in the five years I’ve been going. And that’s without me seeing Tsotsi, the festival People’s Choice winner, or other films that drew acclaim such as The Grönholm Method and Summer in Berlin. But you can never make it to all the good ones. I’m hoping that the three films I noted and others from the festival will make it down to D.C.

When I tell people about the festival, they are usually eager to hear about the experience and some of the films. When I tell people that I saw 48 films in ten days they look at me like I was nuts. They might have a point. But after seeing these films, experiencing the different ways of storytelling styles, learning about other cultures, and hearing some of the filmmakers, I don’t regret a moment. Is it nuts? Maybe, but the Toronto International Film Festival is perfect for crazy people like me.

Festival Favorites
Below is a list of my top ten films from the 30th Toronto International Film Festival. Most of these I described earlier.

1. Diameter of the Bomb (2005), U.K./Canada -- directed by Steven Silver and Andrew Quigley

2. Capote (2005), U.S.A. -- directed by Bennett Miller

3. Va, vis et Deviens (Live and Become) (2005), Israel/France. -- directed by Radu Mihaileanu

4. Sunflower (2005), China -- directed by Zhang Yang

5. All the Invisible Children (2005), Italy -- directed by Mehdi Charef; Emir Kusturica; Spike Lee; Katia Lund; Jordan and Ridley Scott; Stefano Veneruso; and John Woo

6. The Last Hangman (2005), U.K. -- directed by Adrian Shergold

7. October 17, 1961 (2005), France -- directed by Alain Tasma

8. Twelve and Holding (2005), U.S.A. -- directed by Michael Cuesta

9. Sud Express (2005), Spain/Portugal -- directed by Chema de la PeZa and Gabriel Velázquez

10. Festival (2005), U.K. -- directed by Annie Griffin

Special Commendation:
Rome, Open City (1945), Italy -- directed by Roberto Rossellini

Other recommendations:
06/05: The Sixth of May (2005), The Netherlands - directed by Theo van Gogh
Backstage (2005), France - directed by Emmanuelle Bercot
Bangkok Loco (2004), Thailand - directed by Pornchai Hongrattanporn
Banlieue 13 (2004), France - directed by Pierre Morel
Day Break (2005), Iran - directed by Hamid Rahmanian
Do U Cry 4 Me Argentina? (2005), Argentina - directed by Bae Youn-suk
Elizbethtown (2005), U.S.A. - directed by Cameron Crowe
The Great Yokai War (2005), Japan - directed by Takashi Miike
Harsh Times (2005), U.S.A. - directed by David Ayer
Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005), Canada - directed by Sam Dunn, Scot McFayden and Jessica Joy Wise
Thank You for Smoking (2005), U.S.A. - directed by Jason Reitman
Water (2005), Canada - directed by Deepa Metha
Zozo (2005), Sweden/U.K./Denmark - directed by Josef Fares

Adam Spector
October 22, 2005

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