Continuing Adventures in Toronto

OK, “adventure” might be stretching things. I did not exactly go rock climbing or water skiing in Toronto. But I had about as much of an adventure as I could, given that I spent most of my time watching movies. This year I went to the 31st Toronto International Film Festival with my friend, film critic and cinema connoisseur Bill Henry. We stayed at a dive that reminded me of the Happiness Hotel in The Great Muppet Caper. For the first time since 2001 I did not get several of the films I selected. This meant going to the box office early in the morning to see if any last-minute tickets became available. Finally, this year I went back to basics. While last year I caught a few Hollywood films, this year I generally stuck with foreign and smaller offerings, films less likely to open in the U.S. So while I did want to see For Your Consideration, The Fountain, and Stranger Than Fiction, I resisted, knowing that I could catch them all back home. So please indulge me as I revisit my ten days in Toronto:

Day 1
Bill and I opened with The Wind that Shakes the Barley from acclaimed British director Ken Loach. It had garnered much attention since winning the Palme D'Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. While the film, depicting the early days of the Irish Republican Army, did not disappoint, it was not the most notable of the day. That would be The Bothersome Man, an absurd Norwegian offering from director Jens Lien. The title character is Andreas who, having already tried to commit suicide, finds himself in a seemingly happy, but strangely Kafkaesque world. The food is bland, everyone seems strangely content, and his girlfriend constantly redecorates their apartment. The oppression comes not through a totalitarian government but through emotional shallowness and mindless consumerism, as if everyone OD’d on anti-depressants. The minimalist acting blends together perfectly with the austere production design and muted colors to create a seemingly benign, but increasingly hellish surreal world. It’s a perfect example of the type of film that most people could only see at a film festival.

Also surreal, but in a very different way, was the midnight screening of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Bill and I could barely get in, as a crowd gathered to watch star Sacha Baron Cohen arrive in character in a cart carried by several Eastern European looking women. When we finally arrived, we were forced to sit in the very last row of the balcony. Cohen appeared before the raucous crowd, again as Borat. Everyone had a great time until the film broke 15 minutes into the screening. Michael Moore, sitting in the audience, went into the projection booth to offer his help, but to no avail. He then appeared on stage with Borat director Larry Charles to answer questions and try to calm an increasingly restless crowd. Someone asked Moore if he was afraid for his life. Not missing a beat, Moore replied “Should I be?” Finally, an hour after the breakdown, the screening was cancelled. In my six trips to Toronto this was the first time I saw a screening shut down due to technical issues. As I left, I hoped the night’s malfunction was not an omen.

Day 2
My fears proved unfounded as the second day proceeded smoothly. Well, almost smoothly. The Borat make-up screening was delayed more than 30 minutes as I stood outside in the rain wondering whether I was ever meant to see this film. Eventually I got in, and it was well worth it. Borat is scathingly hilarious satire. The film works largely due to Cohen’s commitment to his character and his ability to play off any situation. Since the festival, Cohen and the film have gained notoriety thanks to the Kazakhstan government’s complaints about the way that nation is depicted. Yes, Cohen slams that nation, but it’s his version of Kazakhstan, not the real thing. Most of the film takes place in the U.S., as Borat makes his way coast-to-coast in search of Pamela Anderson. Borat, the misogynist, racist, Anti-Semitic Kazakh reporter, interacts with Americans from many different walks of life. The people he meets are not in on the joke and their reactions provide many of the laughs. As you would expect, Borat elicits shock and outrage. What’s just as funny, and also scary, are the people who agree with or go along with Borat’s bigoted and ignorant statements. Borat pulls no punches, and is not for the easily offended. But right now I’d say it’s the best comedy of the year.

Day 3
Many scholars have commented on the link between film and psychology, but perhaps none so compellingly as Slavoj Žižek in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. Žižek, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, discusses the works of Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, Charlie Chaplin, and many more. He also comments on science fiction films such as Alien and The Matrix. One of Žižek’s many theories (and I don’t claim to understand them all) is that films not only reflect our desires but that they also influence what we desire and how we desire. Director Sophie Fiennes (sister of Ralph and Joseph) weaves in clips from these films with Žižek, whom she places in similar backgrounds. For example, she will show a clip from Hitchcock’s The Birds, and then cut to Žižek in a motorboat on what looks like Bodega Bay with birds flying around him. Žižek’s charisma and passion for his subject and Fiennes’s skill make what could seem dry into something thrilling and fun.

Day 4
By far the best day of the festival, with three terrific films:

Chronicle of an Escape works as both a political polemic and a thriller. Rodrigo de la Serna (The Motorcycle Diaries) stars as Claudio Tamburrini, a soccer player in late 1970s Argentina. Agents from the country’s brutal dictatorship kidnap Tamburrini and falsely claim he is an anti-government terrorist. Without any trial or due process Tamburrini and his fellow inmates are tortured and degraded over several months. Finally, out of sheer desperation, they plan their escape. Director and co-screenwriter Israel Adrián Cateano vividly recreates the horrors the captives faced, placing the viewer front and center. He then gradually builds the suspense as the prisoners realize they have to escape to survive. Cateano’s cast give some brave performances in what had to be grueling roles.

Just as powerful and gripping was The Killer Within, a documentary from Macky Alston. Bob Bechtel is a mild-mannered psychology professor in Colorado. Now in his seventies, Bechtel has a loving wife, daughter and stepdaughter. He has the respect and admiration of his friends and colleagues. One day Bob announces to everyone that he killed his college roommate fifty years ago. He went on a shooting rampage in his dormitory. Bob was found not guilty by reason of insanity, in no small part thanks to the victim’s parents, who pleaded for leniency. He spent a few years in an asylum, was released and gradually rebuilt his life. The Killer Within presents both sides of the story. Bob claims that he had been bullied and finally just snapped. The victim’s brother claims that Bob was never bullied and that his brother had never done anything to him. Bob’s daughter and stepdaughter try to revisit what happened, balancing their love for Bob with the growing realization that there might be more to the story. The Killer Within asks tough questions, but does not give easy answers because there aren’t any. Alston explores the killing but is more interested in its effects today, particularly on Bob’s daughter and stepdaughter. Nothing is clear-cut in The Killer Within, making for an unsettling but completely engrossing film.

Beauty in Trouble is the latest from Czech director Jan Hrebejk, an Oscar nominee for his brilliant Divided We Fall. In a Czech town still reeling from the effects of a flood, Marcela, a young woman, grows frustrated as her husband Jarda strips stolen cars to make a living. Finally growing fed up she takes her two young kids to live with her mother and creepy stepfather. Meanwhile, police arrest Jarda for stealing a car from Evzen, a wealthy older emigre returning to handle financial matters. Evzen and Marcela meet at the police station and develop their own relationship. Many complications ensue from this May-December romance. Hrebejk has a gentle touch. He keeps the focus on his characters, letting both the comedy and the drama flow through them. Hrebejk deftly balances the main storyline with several smaller ones, and gives all of his actors a chance to shine. Beauty in Trouble is both exquisitely cast and finely crafted.

Day 5
Some of you may recall that my favorite from the 2003 festival was the Bosnian entry Fuse. Pjer Žalica’s first feature displayed an acerbic wit as it depicted a community coming to grips with the aftermath of the Bosnian-Serb conflict. This year I found a similar blend of caustic humor and heartbreaking tragedy from the other side of the divide in the Serbian film The Optimists. Veteran Serbian director Goran Paskaljevic tells five short stories about a war and flood ravaged Serbian community. While these tales vary in subject matter and tone, they all question what optimism really is. They also examine the disconnect between faith and the real world. Paskaljevic uses the same actor, Lazar Ristovski, in all five stories playing different roles. Ristovski’s charisma, voice, and sheer dramatic presence provide a steady anchor that helps sustain the film. The Optimists takes a very cynical view of humanity, but one that is not entirely devoid of hope. It blends intelligence with raw emotions, and while very dark, is entirely worthwhile.

Day 6
It’s rare to get the opportunity to see the same film in a different form. Earlier this year I saw an 18 minute short called Cashback, which received an Oscar nomination for Live Action Short Film. Today I caught the feature full-length version. British writer-director Sean Ellis expanded his earlier effort, while keeping all of the original’s wit and charm. Both versions tell of a young art student who develops severe insomnia. To pass the time he works the night shift at a local supermarket. He and his coworkers develop their own ways to ward off boredom. His is to imagine that he can stop time and move around while everything else stays in place. Ellis develops the supporting characters well, drawing much of the humor from them. His film has a certain Nick Hornby sensibility, and it would appeal to anyone who liked films such as High Fidelity and About a Boy (both based on Hornby’s novels). Like Hornby, Ellis establishes the characters and the humor early and then slowly brings out the romance towards the end. The supermarket scenes are clever and hilarious, as they are in the short film. And the time-stopping sequences, which could have been a tacky gimmick, blend right into the story and its themes. If Cashback ever gets a U.S. distribution, look for it to become a sleeper hit.

It’s also rare to see two famed cult film directors at once. This year’s festival paired maverick film legend John Waters with John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus) for a lively discussion I wanted desperately to get into the program, and made it a couple of minutes before start time. It was everything I hoped it would be, with Waters in top form. He joked that his films were accused of being obscene, but then admitted that they were. Waters recalled some of his obscenity trials, saying that 10am in a courtroom was not exactly the prime viewing environment for his films. He claimed that he had “anti-product placement” that companies would pay him not to use their products in his films. Mitchell was not nearly as brash as Waters (as if anyone could be) and his humor was more dry and understated, but he held his own. Both of them discussed not showing their films to their parents. Beyond the laughs, the talk was an also an interesting illustration of how filmmakers operate outside the mainstream and deal with provocative subjects.

Day 7
Bill insisted we see Patrice Laconte’s Mon meilleur ami (My Best Friend) and I’m glad he did. While Laconte is an acclaimed French director, with films such as Monsieur Hire, The Widow of Saint Pierre, and Girl on a Bridge, I had never seen any of his work. But I will now. Daniel Auteil stars as François, a successful but lonely art dealer. His colleagues coldly confront François with the fact that he has no friends. François denies this and frantically rushes to make a friend, any friend. He enlists the aid of Bruno (Dany Boon) a gregarious cab driver. Laconte finds the humor in the characters and in the simple need for friendship - to connect with another human being. Boon and Auteil have wonderful chemistry and are buoyed by a strong supporting cast. Laconte deftly sets up each situation so the scenes never feel forced. He builds to a perfect, hilarious climax. Mon meilleur ami is a beautiful, elegant film that, while funny, is also very human and insightful.

Day 8
For years I’ve wanted to see The Harder They Come, the 1972 Jamaican cult hit from writer-director Perry Henzell, and now I finally got the chance. The festival brought it back as part of its “Dialogues” series, which features older films with a special guest discussing that film’s impact. In this case the special guest was Henzell himself, who appeared with Carl Bradshaw, one of the film’s stars. The film itself was fun, if somewhat disjointed. The story didn’t always hold together, but the vibrant scenery, terrific music, and an engaging star turn by Jimmy Cliff made up for any other shortcomings. The story behind the film was more interesting than the film’s plot. No one from Jamaica had ever made a feature before Henzell. Unable to find a distributor, Henzell distributed The Harder They Come himself, taking it from country to country. He also promoted it himself. Sometimes it’s easy to forget the struggles filmmakers often endure to get their films made and then to get them seen. Today’s discussion was a vivid reminder.

Imagine a film combining a romantic comedy, a showbiz satire, and a political polemic. Sounds nearly impossible but Italian director Nanni Moretti (The Son’s Room) pulls it off with The Caiman. The title refers to Silvio Berlusconi, a media magnate who used his power to get elected as Italy’s Prime Minister. His administration was rife with scandal and deeply divided Italy. But Berlusconi is merely the film-within-the-film. The film’s main storyline focuses on Bruno (Silvio Orlando), an aging B-movie producer who is desperately trying to save both his career and his marriage. Bruno hooks up with Teresa, a young director who is shopping her script about Berlusconi. The satire comes from clips of Bruno’s earlier movies, such as Mocassin Assassins and Lady Cop in Stilettos. The other comedy stems largely from a stellar performance by Orlando who makes you believe Bruno’s passion and desperation. At the same time, The Caiman pulls no punches with its political statements. Moretti somehow balances all of his film’s disparate elements without letting any one overwhelm the others. His skills help make The Caiman a pointed film that’s also funny and touching.

Day 9
Australian director Ray Lawrence’s film Lantana was a compelling examination of guilt and distrust. His latest effort, Jindabyne, also explores these themes, but it also adds new elements. Lawrence takes a short story by Raymond Carver (one that was also used for Robert Altman’s Short Cuts) and transposes it into rural Australia. A group of white friends on a fishing trip discover the dead body of a young Aboriginal woman. Instead of reporting the body right away, the buddies finish their fishing trip and call the police days later. Their delay causes an uproar, particularly in the Aboriginal community. The ramifications take an enormous toll on the friends and their wives, especially Claire (Laura Linney) and her husband Stewart (Gabriel Byrne). As he did with Lantana, Lawrence slowly shows the anger and pain eating away at relationships. This time he blends in racial elements. Would Stewart and his friends have acted differently if they had found a white woman? Linney, one of the finest actresses working today, shines as someone so obsessed with her perceived responsibility that it overwhelms her. She is riveting every moment she’s on the screen. Lawrence also uses the beautiful but sparse Australian landscape as the perfect backdrop for the simmering anger. He respects the audience’s intelligence. He doesn’t cheat and doesn’t make it easy. This makes for a dark, nuanced, complex and believable film.

Day 10
Tonight my festival experience concluded with Sheitan, a French horror film with a fun scenery-chewing turn by Vincent Cassel. Sheitan was the last in the “Midnight Madness” series, which, as always, featured a strange mix of mostly sci-fi and horror films. Included this year was S&M Man, a chilling examination of exactly how violent and how real we want horror films to be. Another highlight was Severance, which was accurately described as “Deliverance meets ‘The Office.’” My favorite was the New Zealand comedy-horror offering Black Sheep, about genetically engineered sheep which, no surprise, become bloodthirsty killers. Hey, for sheer entertainment value you just can’t beat killer sheep.

The frustrating part of the festival experience was that, even though I saw 46 films, this total was only a fraction of the hundreds that were offered. Some of the best from this year’s festival I didn’t see and probably never will. In a way, it’s microcosm of film in general; the more you experience, the more you realize is still out there.

The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that the Toronto International Film Festival has been an important part of my life the past several years. Yes, it’s been a fun vacation. Yes, it’s been an enjoyable diversion from everyday life. But much more importantly, as a film lover it has provided me with a glimpse into a much larger world. For that I will always be grateful.

Festival Favorites
Below is a list of my top ten films from the 31st Toronto International Film Festival. Most of these I described earlier.

1. The Killer Within (2006), U.S.A. - dir. Macky Alston

2. Mon meilleur ami (My Best Friend: 2006), France - dir. Patrice Laconte

3. The Optimists (2006), Serbia - dir. Goran Paskaljevic

4. The Caiman (2006), Italy - dir. Nanni Moretti

5. Cashback (2006), U.K. - dir. Sean Ellis

6. Jindabyne (2006), Australia - dir. Ray Lawrence

7. The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), U.K./Austria/Netherlands - dir. Sophie Fiennes

8. Chronicle of an Escape (2006), Argentina - dir. Israel Adrián Cateano. Note: Chronicle of an Escape played at the AFI’s Latin American Film Festival under the title Breakout.

9. Beauty in Trouble (2006), Czech Republic - dir. Jan Hrebejk

10. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006), U.S.A. - dir. Larry Charles

Special Commendation:
The Harder They Come (1972), Jamaica - dir. Perry Henzell

Other recommendations:
The Art of Crying (2006), Denmark - dir. Peter Schřnau Fog
Black Sheep (2006), New Zealand - dir. Jonathan King
The Bothersome Man (2006), Norway - dir. Jens Lien
Bunny Chow (2006), South Africa - dir. John Barker
Cages (2006), Belgium - dir. Olivier Masset-Depasse
Confetti (2006), U.K. - dir. Debbie Isitt
I Am the Other Woman (2006), Germany - dir. Margarethe von Trotta
No Place Like Home (2006*), Jamaica/U.S.A. - dir. Perry Henzell
Outsourced (2006), U.S.A. - dir. John Jeffcoat
Severance (2006), U.K. - dir. Christopher Smith
The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), U.K./Ireland - dir. Ken Loach

*Even though No Place Like Home was completed this year, much of the film was shot during the 1970s.

Adam Spector
November 1, 2006

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