Toronto Revisited

Until this past July I was undecided about returning to the Toronto International Film Festival. No, my indecision had nothing to do with SARS. I was concerned that this would be my fourth year in a row. Shouldn't I go somewhere else this year? But any doubts I had quickly evaporated upon my arrival, even before I saw a single film. The weather alone made me glad I was there -- Clear blue skies with temperatures in the mid seventies. The conditions stayed that way until the day I left. The now-familiar streets and shops gave me a warm comfortable feeling. The best part though was receiving the tickets. You see, buying a festival pass, as I had, does not guarantee you admission to any film. If you don't live in or near Toronto, you must fax or courier your selections to the box office and hope you get your picks. Once the tickets are placed in your hand you know you're safe, especially if you get the films you want. I got all 45 and was ready to go.

DAY 1 -- I started off with only one film, in part because the first day's selections were limited and in part because I wanted to see the Redskins-Jets game that night. That film was Alexandra's Project, a warped and twisted Australian psychodrama. An unhappy wife leaves her clueless husband a video in which she reveals her grievances, secrets, and devious plans. Most of the film is the husband interacting with the video. Never before have I so fiercely liked and hated the same film. Alexandra's Project explored the way people communicate, or don't communicate with each other. Alexandra expressed herself to her husband through her video in a way she never could in person. At the same time, what she did, and how the film treated her actions, felt vicious and sadistic. Alexandra's Project left me unsettled and angry, but it stayed in my head for days afterwards, which is more than I can say for most films.

DAY 2 -- Today featured the first in the Midnight Madness series, which is almost a festival by itself. Midnight Madness audiences are loud and rowdy. They'll talk back to the screen, cheer, or boo during a film. The Midnight Madness flicks are mostly sci-fi, horror, marital arts or a weird combination. This all creates a Rocky Horror atmosphere. Midnight Madness this year led off with Cypher, a science fiction film that set Phillip K. Dick type issues of identity and memory in the world of corporate espionage. Cypher worked thanks to a standout performance by Jeremy Northam, seamless special effects, brilliant set design and a clever story. Other Midnight Madness highlights included Ong-Bak Muay: Thai Warrior, a fun martial arts flick; The Grudge, a chilling Japanese horror film; End of The Century: The Story of the Ramones, a solid documentary on the famous punk rock group; and Undead, a funny rollicking Australian zombie movie.

DAY 3 -- Every so often the festival provides an opportunity to revisit a classic. Today I saw the director's cut of Alien, with director Ridley Scott and star Yaphet Kotto in attendance. Scott received a standing ovation when he arrived. In the question-and answer session following the film, Scott remarked that he followed Steven Spielberg's example with Jaws by not showing the alien too much. Instead he gradually built the suspense and terror. Scott also remarked that the whole film cost $8.2 million and that the alien was created entirely by hand. The alien still frightens and the special effects hold up very well. If Alien were made today, it would probably cost ten times as much and the alien itself would be entirely computer generated. But would the film be any more frightening or thrilling? I doubt it.

DAY 4 -- Today I saw Francis Ford Coppola, John Sayles, and Jim Jarmusch. Not bad. Coppola appeared at a showing of One From the Heart, his 1982 musical romance. The film is not a traditional musical in that the characters don't sing. Instead, off-screen voices act as a musical Greek chorus, singing lyrics that comment on the story. Coppola experimented in other ways, such as shooting the entire film on one soundstage. Unfortunately, the flash and the music don't make up for a weak story. But frankly, I didn't care. I was seeing the man who directed the Godfather films, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. Sometimes it doesn't hurt to just be a fan.

Sayles presented his newest effort, Casa de los Babys. The "casa" is a hotel in an unnamed Latin American country. Six women reside there while each trying to adopt a baby. Like other Sayles films, Casa provides a firm sense of place. Sayles develops rich characters that showcase the talents of his fine cast, including Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Steenburgen, and Lili Taylor. But while many directors would only focus on the visiting Americans' story, Sayles also gives time to the local characters including the hotel owner (played convincingly by Rita Moreno) and a maid (Vanessa Martinez) who had to give up her own child for adoption.

In some films Jim Jarmusch downplays a traditional narrative. With Coffee & Cigarettes, he ignores it altogether. Instead he offers a series of vignettes each with 2-3 characters talking in a bar or restaurant. As you've likely guessed from the title, these people are all drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. While lacking a story, Jarmusch gets laughs from the nuances of the conversations, and what they reveal about the characters' goals and insecurities. Much of the dialogue was improvised and the characters were generally pretty close to the actors playing them. Who else would stage a scene with the frenetic Roberto Begnini talking to the laconic Steven Wright? My favorite was Cate Blanchett playing a double role as herself and her jealous cousin from Australia. When I asked Jarmusch whether Blanchett really had a cousin like that, I heard an emphatic "No!" shouted from the actress herself, seated in the audience.

DAY 5 -- I usually try to see at least one Israeli film at these festivals, and this year it was James' Journey to Jerusalem. James is a twentyish illegal immigrant from an unnamed African country trying to make a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Instead he ends up in jail and then forced into working for an under-the-table business that exploits migrant labor. While that description sounds rather bleak, the film is actually a funny morality tale. Through James' eyes we see the contrast between the religious ideal of Israel and the consumer culture that has impacted that nation like so much of the world. This clash is illustrated through the tumultuous but touching relationship between James' and his boss's father. South African actor Siyabonga Melongisi conveys both innocence and intelligence in the title role. I hope to see him again in other films.

Worlds away in style, content and tone was 21 Grams, the second feature from Amores Perros director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu. I thought going in that the film would focus on drugs. But it's actually a searing drama about guilt, loss and redemption. As he did with Perros, Iñárritu tells three interconnecting stories. But even more than with his earlier film, he challenges the audience by going back-and-forth in time. You have to figure out where each scene fits in the chronology. The non-linear storytelling and stellar acting from Benicio Del Toro, Sean Penn, and Naomi Watts suck you into the film. It was actually worth waiting an extra hour so that the press could take pictures of Del Toro and Watts. Once again, such is life at the festival.

DAY 6 -- Three films I'll remember for very different reasons:

Too many directors, most notably Mike Figgis, employ the split-screen as a cheap "look at me" gimmick. With Sexual Dependency, first-time director Rodrigo Bellott uses split-screen to enhance his storytelling. He gives the audience different views of the same scene. He'll show a long shot on one side and a close-up on the other displaying the big picture and how one character reacts. He actually tells four interrelated stories, moving the action from Bolivia to America. Each story has a compelling central character, and through them the film explores not only sexual dependency, but also sexual victimization, sexual peer pressure, and sexual insecurity, as well as racial prejudice. Bellott deftly plays on audience assumptions and twists them around to show how hollow they really are.

How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass. The title alone made me pick this film, and I'm glad it did. Writer-Director Mario Van Peebles offers a loving yet balanced tribute to his father Melvin. The film depicts the elder Van Peebles struggles in making Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song, a pioneering African-American independent film. Mario also stars as his father who has to scrounge for financing, assemble a rag-tag crew, go broke, and fight to get the finished film in theaters. While this could have been a Ken Burns-type wallow in nostalgia, Mario keeps the film moving. He recognizes his father's courage but also has fun with the story, especially with the personalities, egos, and tensions involved. Even aside from the historical significance, How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass is one of the most enlightening and enjoyable films about independent filmmaking.

Then the moment came, the reason I went to Toronto in the first place. Yes, it's true, I saw . . . The Brown Bunny. How could I resist a film described as the worst ever to run at the Cannes Film Festival? Well, the detractors were right. Vincent Gallo's narcissistic effort comes across as a student film submitted by someone who failed the course. Much of The Brown Bunny consists of shots through a dirty windshield as Gallo's character drives and drives and drives. The scenes are poorly framed and out of focus. The film starts slowly and grows slower. After all the tedium, The Brown Bunny closes with a needlessly pornographic sex scene. I was hoping Gallo would go on one of his crazy rants at the Q and A. He didn't, but he did make a tasteless remark about film critic Roger Ebert, with whom he has a running feud. To quote Jerry Seinfeld, "Sometimes the road less traveled is less traveled for a very good reason."

DAY 7 -- You never know when you'll see your favorite film of the festival. For me it was Fuse, Bosnian writer-director Pjer Zalica's first feature. While other films, such as Welcome to Sarajevo and No Man's Land, depicted the Croat-Serb war, Zalica explores the aftermath. A couple of years after the war, a small town near the Croat-Serb border reels from the devastation. Corruption festers and some townspeople still mourn their dead loved ones. But then a visiting U.N. delegation informs the mayor that President Clinton may visit, provided the town passes inspection. Fuse pokes fun at the town's attempt to place a pleasant face over the seedy reality -- e.g, the brothel becomes a "cultural center," the town choir practices "House of the Rising Sun." But Zalica balances the comedy with a serious depiction of the bitter peace and the difficult reconciliation between once warring parties. Terrific performances by an all-Bosnian cast bring to life very complex characters. While much of Fuse displays cynical wit and heart-wrenching tragedy, the end (without giving it away) allows a faint glimmer of optimism. Zalica illustrates how real progress comes not through grand gestures from diplomats and politicians, but through small strokes by regular people just trying to live their lives.

DAY 8 -- Today I experienced two different ends of the color palette. Jeux d'enfants is the kind or whimsical film the French seem to make so well. Warm, bright hues abound in this tale of a young boy and girl teasing and flirting with each other as they grow up. They have a "game" requiring each one to perform a dare more outrageous than the last. Jeux d'enfants practically glows with life and magic. The two sets of leads (kids and adult) have a sparkling chemistry that matches the brisk direction. In color, camera movement, and spirit Jeux d'enfants will remind many filmgoers of Amelie. While Jeux d'enfants has a bit more bite, I believe it could show the same type of appeal to American audiences (if a wise distributor gives the film a chance).

The flip side came with Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself. Everything about the film is dark, as you've probably guessed from the title. Instead of a bright Paris, we have a dreary Glasgow in this black comedy-drama. Wilbur is a newly orphaned twentysomething who has issues and tries to resolve them through dramatic suicide attempts. His older brother Harbour tries to look after him while keeping the family bookstore afloat. When Harbour marries a single mother new opportunities arise but also new complications. Director Lone Scherfig's last work was the Dogma 95 film Italian for Beginners. She shows the same feel for characters here, but abandons the Dogma style for a more traditional approach. In the Q and A Scherfig explained that the Dogma 95 style draws attention to itself. Instead, she wanted the camera to feel invisible so that the audience would focus on the story and the characters. She succeeded. Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself draws laughs without going over-the-top and evokes sadness without becoming maudlin.

DAY 9 -- Often I wondered why Jonathan Demme only directed two feature films since 1994. Turns out he produced and directed documentaries about Haiti. The latest of these, The Argonomist, examines the life and times of Jean Dominique, founder of Radio Free Haiti. Dominique became a loud voice for freedom and democracy, while enduring dictatorships, coups, and military unrest. He was exiled twice but both times returned to resume his work. Dominique continued until his assassination in 2000. Demme makes great use of news footage from the turbulent times. But he recognized that his best asset is Dominique himself. Demme conducted extensive interviews with Dominique over several years. Dominique's passionate and eloquent conversation provide a glimpse into his courage and determination. I defy anyone to see The Argonomist and not feel moved and inspired.

DAY 10 -- If Lady Luck had an opposite number, he would be Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy), the hero of The Cooler. Bernie's bad luck is so severe and contagious that casino owner Shelly Kaplow has him "cool off"any hot player. This arrangement works perfectly until Bernie finds love with a casino waitress. His luck begins to improve, so he can no longer do his job. The Cooler blends the magical realism of Bernie's character -- his love life improves, so does his luck, and folds it into a Vegas noir tale. Director Wayne Kramer evokes the atmosphere of old-time Vegas. The film includes an intriguing subplot with Kaplow's traditional ways threatened by a hip young assistant who wants to turn his casino into a family fun center. This old-school/new-school battle does not distract from the main plotline, but somehow enhances it. It provides a dimension of integrity to Kaplow, who could have otherwise been merely a sleazy creep. As Kaplow, Baldwin gives his best performance since Glengarry Glen Ross. Macy has always played the schmo well and does so again, but also shows a romantic quality that usually stays hidden.

The festival concluded with Undead. But while the film was fun and crazy, the atmosphere in the theater was somewhat sad and nostalgic. You see, Undead was not only the festival's last film, but the final showing of Toronto's historic Uptown Theater. The Uptown will soon disappear to make room for condominiums. Now, no one accused the Uptown of being perfect. It was not wheelchair accessible. The complete lack of leg room made you feel like a mummy by the time a film ended. But, like DC's namesake, the Uptown had a big screen and amazing sound. It had majesty, style and class. Just showing a film there gave it importance. Most significantly, it had been around since the 1920s and exuded a history that can't be duplicated. So there we all were, taking more pictures of the Uptown than we took of any movie star. At least, I'll remember it in all it's glory -- thrilling throngs of adoring fans.

Who knows what the future holds? I'm not sure if I'll return to the festival. Even if I do, it might not be the same festival. Part of it's charm was the proximity of the theaters to each other. Next year, with the Uptown gone, the festival may be spread out all over Toronto. Or it might move to a different part of Toronto altogether. A brand new gigantic festival center is in the works that might even house all the festivals' films by itself. But I'm afraid this center, which won't be ready until 2005 at the earliest, may just be one giant multiplex.

So let me linger on the past for just one more moment. In four years at the festival I've viewed 130 films. I've seen some movie stars and some renowned directors. I've talked and argued about films with both friends and strangers. I've ran from one theater to the other so many times I've lost count. Same goes for wolfing down food. Same goes with ingesting enough caffeine to wake the dead. I've seen part of a charming city. Most importantly, I've immersed myself in films from around the world, both good and bad, with many different points-of-view and cinematic stylings. Whatever happens from here on in I will always cherish these experiences. What a fun ride it's been!!!

Adam Spector
October 3, 2003

Festival Favorites

Below is a list of my top ten films from the 28th Toronto International Film Festival. Most of these I described earlier.

  1. Fuse (2003), Bosnia and Herzegovina -- directed by Pjer Zalica
  2. Casa de los Babys (2003), U.S.A. -- directed by John Sayles
  3. Sexual Dependency (2003), Bolivia/U.S.A. -- directed by Rodrigo Bellott
  4. How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass (2003), U.S.A. -- directed by Mario Van Peebles
  5. Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002), Denmark/U.K. -- directed by Lone Schefrig
  6. The Cooler (2002), U.S.A. -- directed by Wayne Kramer
  7. Jeux d'enfants (2003), France -- directed by Yann Samuel
  8. The Argonomist (2003), U.S.A. -- directed by Jonathan Demme
  9. Cypher (2002), U.S.A. -- directed by Vincenzo Natali
  10. Coffee & Cigarettes (2003), U.S.A. -- directed by Jim Jarmusch

Special Commendation:

Alien (1979), U.S.A. -- directed by Ridley Scott. A new Director's Cut of Alien will be released theatrically this Halloween.

Other recommendations:

  • 21 Grams (2003), U.S.A. -- directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
  • Danny Deckchair (2003), Australia -- directed by James Balsmeyer
  • Falling Angels (2003), Canada -- directed by Scott Smith
  • Good Morning, Night (2003), Italy -- directed by Marco Bellocchio
  • The Grudge (2002), Japan -- directed by Takashi Shimizu
  • In the Cut (2003), U.S.A./Australia -- directed by Jane Campion
  • James' Journey to Jerusalem (2003), Israel -- directed by Ra'anan Alexandrowicz
  • Nothing (2003), Canada -- directed by Vincenzo Natali
  • Ong-Bak Muay: Thai Warrior (2003), Thailand -- directed by Prachya Pinkaew
  • P.T.U. (2003), Hong Kong/China -- directed by Johnnie To
  • Undead (2002), Australia -- directed by Peter and Michael Spierig

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