2008 Toronto International Film Festival Journal

All films rated on a scale where **** is absolute best (A+)

Links to 2006 TIFF Journal          2007 TIFF Journal    

I arrived in Toronto on Monday the 25th, late afternoon, after an uneventful, if exhausting red-eye flight from L.A. to Buffalo and a great bus ride through to Toronto in rapt conversation with my anonymous seat mate, a young Canadian guy and a fine conversationalist.   Tuesday morning I waded through the pickup line in Dundas Square and managed to get my goody bag by 10AM.  Lots of work to do to schedule the festival...but that's the fun part.  Contents of this years goody bag:  Official film schedule; 2 advance order booklets; a page of handy tabs from Sun Life Financial; a mystery gift card from Pizza Nova; a sturdy, stemmed 330ml beer glass from Stella Artois; a small box of 3 milk chocolate Lindt Lindors; a menu from Matignon; a card touting RBC's t-shirt design by Deepa Mehta; a Toronto Life Square directory; cards publicizing the Drake Hotel and the Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate; a 70g (2.5oz) bag of Starbucks Cafè Verona Bold coffee; a green/yellow marker; a combo key chain & flashlight (which actually works) from FedEx; the all-important drop off envelope; and finally the extra price ($33.50) Program Book.   Not a particularly great haul.

I've written an Excel spreadsheet which lists all the 2008 TIFF feature films along with screening information and a personalized description of each film to aid me in prioritizing my chosen 50 films.  For anyone with Excel who might be interested, it can be found here.

Today (Thursday 8/28) I dropped off my festival requests into Box #24 after working hard at making the choices over the past two days.  The new box office space is fine, right in the middle of an excellent new food court.  However, one peculiarity stands out:  there is no down escalator at all from the food court/box office level.  Every other level has up and down escalators; but not this vital one...and there's only two elevators and a very hard to find stairway that leads down.  I can only imagine the traffic jam which is likely to happen when festival screenings let out.  Unless I'm missing something obvious, there is simply no easy way to exit the theatres to get to the street or subway.  Hmmmmm.   Design flaw or the devil at play? 

(8/30):  A nice person named Julian wrote me in e-mail that the down escalator at the food court/box office floor of the AMC Dundas Sq. actually does exist...only it is at the back of the room, not readily visible from the vantage point of the other escalators.  I scoped it out for myself when I attended a film there this morning.   Sure enough, there was the down escalator, big as life, if hard to see from any place in the room.  I still contend that initially people are going to have trouble finding it.   I also scoped out the secret passage through the subway tunnels to get from the Yonge line Dundas station southbound to the Toronto Life Square building.  The secret is that you have to take the passage to the northbound side, then there is an exit directly into the basement of the AMC building...which takes you right across from elevators directly to the third level ticket office bypassing the street entrance.

(9/1): I'm not sure why; but last year by 3PM on Labour Day Monday the line to pick up advanced tickets was down to 10 minutes or so.  That didn't apply to the line for buying and exchanging tickets, which still was pretty long late into the day.  This year I waited until 2:30 to even attempt picking up my tickets (aided by the fact that I got everything I wanted and have no need to make any changes.) However, the line to turn in the pick-up voucher for tickets still stretched outside in Dundas Sq. for as far as the eye could see around the block.  And the second line to buy and exchange was even more ridiculous, starting outside and continuing on the 3rd level at the actual box-office.

What a madhouse.  I decided then and there that I just wasn't in a hurry.  I'll pick up my tickets tomorrow afternoon when I accompany my friend Susan to the box-office.  I have a feeling that they aren't going to finish dealing with the pick-up line by the time the box-office is scheduled to close tonight, so the madness may spill over to tomorrow.

I don't believe I've seen a Gitaï film before...surely an unaccountable lapse in my cinemagoing.  However, for all the promise that this film had (French actors that I love, Holocaust related, emotional connectedness to being Jewish), I felt distanced and uninvolved except intermittently.  Certainly I can't fault Jeanne Moreau, who in a crucial Yom Kippur synagogue scene with her grandchildren moved me with her soulfulness and gravitas.   Moreau's character, as a young mother in France during WWII, daughter of Russian Jews, married to a Catholic man, survived the war by hiding her Jewishness, although her parents ultimately perished at Auschwitz.   The film is about the future reverberations of this denial of heritage on her grown children and grandchildren.   Gitaï's style is the opposite of flashy, depending on close-ups and long dialog scenes.  I wanted to feel emotionally connected to these characters; but I couldn't manage it.  ** 1/2

ACNÉ (d. Federico Veiroj)
Veiroj is a young director who has made quite a satisfying coming-of-age film about a 13 year-old Jewish boy growing up in the 1990s in the small Jewish community of Montevideo, Uruguay.   Alejandro Tocar, a slight young actor with a convincing case of acne and an even worse case of surging hormones, is quite fine in this perfectly observed, sexually frank story of adolescent growing pains.   This is one of those well made little films which make festival going a pleasure.   ***

Gross is an interesting actor, best at wry comedy.  This was obviously a labor of love for him, directing and playing the lead in a high budget romantic war drama.   The film does look great, glossy wide screen, convincingly realistic WWI footage which exemplified the carnage and vainglory (however, it is no All Quiet on the Western Front in that regard.)  Oddly enough, the film reminded me most, especially in its look and feel for the era on the home front, of East of Eden, except with nobody with the star wattage of James Dean.  The weak link (besides a script which left few clichés unplayed) was the dorky young second male lead (Joe Dinicol), who never convinced me he was worth the ultimate sacrifice which was the crux of the climax.  Maybe with a little less obvious symbolism and a lot more subtlety, this might have been a fine film.  As it was, an overwrought but honorable failure is the best it had to offer. ** 1/2

KHAMSA (d. Karim Dridi)
Khamsa is Arabic for five, a lucky number for Marco...11 1/2,  half gypsy, who wears a pendant with the Arabic sign for Khamsa which was his only memorial of his long dead mother.  Marco has been in the French equivalent to Borstal after burning out his step-mother's trailer; but he has escaped and returned to his alcoholic father's gypsy caravan where he joins his cousins and some towelhead Arab urchins in petty crime.  The film rambles through various crises...but the kid who plays Marco (Marc Cortez) has the innocent exterior and tough interior to carry the film.   Also, it seems to be a very accurate depiction of the Roma lifestyle in southern France...a tribute to the dedication of the filmmaker having immersed himself with the actual culture for a year and a half before starting the film.  ** 3/4

LINHA DE PASSE (d. Walter Salles, Daniela Thomas)
This is a story of a mother with four fatherless sons ranging in age from early teens to early twenties who lives in impoverished circumstances in Sao Paolo, Brazil.  She is pregnant, again with no visible father.  One son is a motorcycle currier with a baby son of his own, but separated from the boy's mother.  The second son is struggling to accept Jesus while working an honest job in a gas station.  The third son (played by the kid from Salles' Central Station, now grown up) has just turned 18, too old to interest the professional soccer establishment but determined to utilize his talents there.  The fourth son is a troubled young black boy who spends his days riding buses around town.   The film intercuts the actions of each of these characters, and I have to say I was quite involved with each of their stories.  Earlier today I got into a discussion about this film with two women while waiting for another film to start.  All of us had different perceptions of the way each of these stories worked out...an example of the power of ambiguity in the service of a brilliant script.  The film is shot in a neo-realist, off-the-cuff style; but unlike other recent Brazilian films like City of God, the film gives a more nuanced, even positive view of a lower class family struggling against social barriers in modern Brazil.  The more I think about it, the more props I give to Salles & Thomas and their remarkably realistic cast.  *** 1/2

ME AND ORSON WELLES (d. Richard Linklater)
It seems like every TIFF I choose one film playing at the Ryerson which is destined to be a surprise popular success.  Last year it was Juno, the rapturous reception of which sort of surprised me since I was at best mixed in my response to that film.  However, in this case I do agree with the enormous audience approval of Linklater's new film.  The film belongs to Christian McKay, who plays the young Welles of 1937 with brio...capturing his essence in everything but the sonorous voice, which was so unique to Welles.  However, it also belongs to rising teen-age heartthrob Zac Ephron, essaying the central role of Richard, the high school attending aspiring actor who lands the job of working besides Welles in the opening play of the Mercury Theater, a modern dress production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.   Ephron shows true star qualities in a role which demands dramatic chops in addition to charisma.   Linklater shows that he has mastered the art of making a large scale period film.  The sets, costumes and the play-within-a-play production were brilliantly conceived.   This is entertaining hokum, to be sure; but a surefire hit if there is any justice.  *** 1/4

UNIVERSALOVE (d. Thomas Woschitz)
Five eccentric love stories from around the world (Brooklyn, Marseilles, Luxembourg, Tokyo, Belgrade) cut together Intolerance style to an annoying rock score which was integral to the original script.  None of the stories grabbed me, especially the gay story which was perfunctory and unlikely.  But that really applies to the entire film.  * 3/4

Lots of stories to tell, including setting my alarm for 7PM instead of 7AM and oversleeping on Saturday morning for the first time ever.  So I'm falling behind on this blog; and I wonder if I'm ever going to be able to catch up!

TONY MANERO (d. Pablo Larrain)
The main character in this film (played with maniacally quiet fury by co-writer Alfredo Castro) is a 52 year old man who is obsessed by the eponymous movie character played by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.   The year is 1978; and a Chilean television network is presenting a Tony Manero impersonation contest (too bad it isn't an Al Pacino lookalike contest since Castro eerily resembles that actor.)  We start thinking of this man as something of a clown figure; but the film takes a startling turn and with one act the character changes the audience's perceptions of him forever.  Suddenly the film is a metaphor for the Pinochet years of repression and violence, which are in full swing outside.  This isn't a pretty film, or one easy to like.  But as I reflect on it a couple of days later, my admiration for its grit and honesty have raised my estimation.  ** 1/2

THE PARANOIDS (Los Paranoicos)  (d. Gabriel Medina)
Daniel Hendler is the draw here.  He is playing Luciano, a slacker type 30-something aspiring screen writer in present day Buenos Aires.  It's a role that Jeremy Davies could play in the American remake.  The film is ostensibly a romantic comedy...but Luciano is so antic and off-the-wall, that he's hard to relate to as a romantic hero.  His best friend from school has gone to Spain and based the hapless main character in a successful television comedy called "The Paranoids" on him.  Hendler carries the film, which overstays its slender premise.  He's in virtually every scene, and his performance is like an exposed nerve, edgy and electrifying.  ** 3/4

UN ÉTÉ SANS POINT NI COUP SUR (A No-hit, No-run Summer) (d. Francis Leclerc)
This is a feel-good coming of age story of a young boy's summer of 1969 (the year that the Montreal Expos emigrated to Canada).  He tries out for the pee-wee baseball team, practices a mild rebellion against his father's values.  It's a gentle family story which captures the era quite well.  Nothing earthshaking here, this certainly doesn't have any of the edge of another French Canadian film about the era, C.R.A.Z.Y. Rather it's just a G rated bit of nostalgia, fairly well done.  ** 3/4

PATRIK, AGE 1.5 (d. Ella Lemhagen)
Perhaps the best gay themed film I've seen in years.  Gören and Sven are a gay married couple, newly moved into a suburban home and qualified to adopt a kid.  Their application comes through for a 1.5 year old boy named Patrik; but there was a little misprint, and when troubled and homophobic 15 year old Patrik shows up at their door, they're convinced that it is a mistake.  The film is blessed with two outstanding performances which amaze:  Gustaf Skarsgard (2nd son of Stellan and whose older brother Alexander just made such an impact in the HBO series "Generation Kill") as the nurturing partner and Thomas Ljungman as the boy.   The film plays with the conventions of the romantic comedy with a gay twist.  It also presents its suburban milieu as a satire of normalcy, all vivid hues and exaggerated undercurrents of scandal.  A pure entertainment and a trenchant satire to boot:  a must-see for all future gay festivals and possibly a true breakout film destined for rare commercial success.  *** 1/2

THREE BLIND MICE (d. Matthew Newton)
Newton wrote, directed and played one of the lead actors in this dramedy about three Australian sailors on the last evening of leave before they must ship out again to service in the Persian Gulf.   The evening bursts with action:  picking up girls, a card game, dinner with future in-laws, second thoughts about desertion, prostitutes, fights, pratfalls, falling in love.   It's almost too rich in plot; and it doesn't help that much of it is shot in extreme close ups which tended to be disorienting on the big screen.  Still, the film had energy to spare, excellent acting, and a script which develops nicely as a character study of young men pushed to extremes.    ***

FAUBOURG 36 (d. Christophe Barratier)
The year is 1936, a time of labor strife and political tumult in France.  A few itinerant vaudeville types are trying to make a go of a theater in one of the Paris outer neighborhoods.  In a way this is an interesting French version of the similar situation in the film Me and Orson Welles, seen earlier in the festival.  Both were about starting a theater company in the same pre-war era.  Both were lush productions featuring elaborate plays-within-the-play.  But for me the French film didn't work nearly as well, with an inferior, clichéd script and looking like a shabby knockoff of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge.   However, for all that, the film entertains with a fine cast.  ** 3/4

THE GIRL FROM MONACO (La fille de Monaco) (d. Anne Fontaine)
Fontaine has made a typical piece of French fluff, a bloated romantic comedy about a Parisian lawyer defending a big murder case in Monaco.  His employer hires a bodyguard for his protection, as the murder victim was apparently part of the Russian mafia.  And in a convoluted plot contrivance the lawyer gets involved with this ditzy tv weathergirl who once was romantically involved with the bodyguard; and things spin out of control.  It's all a rather pointless farce which only works to any degree because of its gorgeous photography and setting, and assured performances by expert farceur Fabrice Luchini and striking (albeit annoying in this role) newcomer Louise Bourgoin as the eponymous girl.   This is a sellout to pure commercialism by the director. ** 1/4

Crowley snuck into TIFF last year with my favorite film of the festival, Boy A.  This year he can't fly under the radar; and his new film is also a winner, albeit not as wonderful as last year's film.  It has a predictable plot:  unconventional and odd young boy teaches a vital life lesson to elderly man.  But the boy is played by the extraordinary Bill Milner from Son of Rambow; and the old man is played by Michael Caine in another of his career capping, brilliant and daring performances.  The film takes place in a rustic, English old-folks home; and features cameos from just about every interesting, elderly English character actor still alive.  Crowley has an assured way with actors, and this touching film simply works.  *** 1/4

LORNA'S SILENCE (Le silence de Lorna) (d. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
The Dardenne brothers make uniquely realistic films about ordinary people in crisis, usually running around in circles.  They use hand held cameras, and let the natural sound work without dramatic additions such as music or elaborate setups.  They also are masters of casting; and Dardenne regular Jérémie Regnier is a favorite of mine (he's remarkable here playing an emaciated junky).  But the film belongs to the Albanian actress Arta Dobroshi, who is part of and trapped in a marriage-for-EU-citizenship ring of lowlifes.  Her silence implies assent to an evil act, and it comes at terrible cost to her.  The Dardennes' spare narratives cut to the bone; and this film affected me deeply.  *** 1/2

THE OTHER MAN (d. Richard Eyre)
Eyre gives great Q & A, he's so erudite.  So are his films.  This subtle, adult, romantic thriller/melodrama has a great cast led by Liam Neeson, Laura Linney and Antonio Banderas.  Its plot progression offered a central surprise which I really didn't see coming; so perhaps it's better to come to this film without prior knowledge.   In any case, Eyre has a talent for making "well made" quality films which also are entertaining and emotionally deep, reminding me a little of David Lean's more intimate films.  Somebody in the audience compared him to Harold Pinter; but I didn't see that.  One final prop to Banderas, who brings an amazing authenticity to his complex, sleazy/romantic fraud of a character.  Neeson and Linney have well practiced chemistry; but Banderas brings a whole new depth to the Euro gigolo type.  ***

REAL TIME (d. Randall Cole)
I had low expectations for this Canadian film; but I scheduled it anyway since I like Jay Baruchel and I've been known in the past to program weird films at TIFF just to see some of my favorite Canadian actors in films that are unlikely to get to L.A.   Actually, I was pleasantly surprised, as this film was hardly a waste of time.  The hook is that Baruchel is a degenerate gambler who has pissed off one too many bookies and has a hit out on him.  Randy Quaid (in an interesting reversal of Quaid's first film The Last Detail where he played the younger character) is the older hit man...and the film takes place in real time for the hour and a half that Quaid gives Baruchel to live.   The film is a mini-road film with added tension.  The interplay between the two actors was well written, witty; it's a pleasure to watch two actors of this caliber working in such an el chapo indie.  ** 3/4

Sláma's previous film Something Like Happiness marked him in my mind as a director to watch.  He has surpassed that film here and made an important, humanistic film on a subject so taboo that it hardly has been covered in films.  The great Czech actor Pavel Liska plays an elementary school teacher who, when the film starts, has left his job teaching upper class kids in a posh Prague academy for a country school with no such aspirations.  We soon learn that the teacher probably left because of some hushed-up homosexual scandal at his previous school.  What follows is a character study of a fundamentally decent, but flawed human being whose urges lead him to fall in love with a straight teen-age boy (not one of his students), while he is emotionally involved with the boy's dairy farmer mother.  What makes the film great is that it doesn't judge the teacher...rather it's about repentance, acceptance and, above all, the wonderful mutability of the human condition.  The Q&A opened with an angry statement by a man offended by the tack the film takes towards its main character.  He then walked out in a huff when a lady's impassioned defense (to thunderous applause) of the film followed his hostile attack.  This is a film which obviously divides audiences; but I felt that it came closer to my concept of what a great gay film should be than any serious drama I've ever seen.  That makes two first class gay films at this festival (along with Patrik 1.5); my cup runneth over.  *** 3/4

THE HURT LOCKER (d. Kathryn Bigelow)
The Hurt Locker is the long awaited sequel to the HBO series Generation Kill.  What?  You weren't awaiting such a sequel?  Well, I was.  And Bigelow delivers the goods in spades.  This is the film which is going to be looked back on as the definitive Iraq occupation experience, at least until a little more time brings additional perspective.  It's done from the point of view of a single Humvee crew of bomb defusers.  If there is any audience at all left for Iraqi war films (and let's not pussyfoot around...this film is an uncompromising, gung-ho war film about an unpopular war), then this should be a hit; and it should also make a star at last of Jeremy Renner, who is nothing short of remarkable as the sergeant who has defused 870 bombs and is ready for more.  He's not crazy, just dedicated in a way beyond heroics.   I saw somebody rate the film a zero in the popular film ballot.  Why someone who would not appreciate this film would even program it at all is beyond me.  ****

A CHRISTMAS TALE (Un conte de Noël) (d. Arnaud Desplechin)
This was a very complex story about a dysfunctional family's Christmas time get-together.  Like all the previous Desplechin films I've watched, it is smart, talky, emotionally distancing yet fascinating.  It has a large, fantastic cast, headed by Catherine Deneuve, Mattieu Amalric and (a personal favorite) Melvil Poupaud.  For me, this 2 1/2 hour exercise in family dynamics capped a great day of filmgoing.  But I'll leave it to others to analyse this film.  *** 1/4

VOY A EXPLOTAR (I'm Going to Explode) (d. Gerardo Naranjo)
A troubled teenage boy, son of privilege in Mexico, convinces a teenage girl to run away with him (to his parent's rooftop, not all that far), which starts this disturbing and ultimately disappointing film.  Like the director's previous, and superior film, Drama/Mex the kids are convincing teenagers.  But unlike that film, this one devolves into shallow melodrama which feels both contrived as Romeo & Juliet and just as unrealistic.  ** 3/4

GENOVA (d. Michael Winterbottom)
Winterbottom is one of my favorite directors; but this family drama and sort-of ghost story doesn't have his usual cutting edge originality.  Colin Firth plays the single father of two girls, the youngest of whom is literally haunted by guilty nightmares over the recent death of her mother.  Firth moves the family to Genoa, Italy (which looks ravishingly beautiful and also faintly menacing the way it is portrayed in travelogue style).  The girls were well played; but Catherine Keener seemed uncomfortable in the role of tour-guide, mother surrogate.   The film brims with tension; and I found myself feeling a father's constant angst for the well-being of his daughters (and thankful that such a control freak as I never had to face that feeling in real life.)  So on one level, emotionally,  Winterbottom worked his usual film magic on me.  But it felt clumsily manipulative.  ***

FLAME & CITRON (Flammen & Citronen) (d. Ole Christian Madsen)
This is a convincing (based on true events) story of two fighters in the Danish resistance during the final year of WWII.  Thure Lindhart and Mads Mikkelsen (the former steely eyed killer, the latter haunted by family attachments) are great in these roles.  The film looks authentic for the period.  But, for all that it may show a relatively unfamiliar Danish perspective on the war, the film seems strongly reminiscent of other films, for instance the French film from earlier this year, Female Agents; and especially Verhoeven's Black Book, in other words it isn't particularly original.    ***

NUIT DE CHIEN (Tonight) (d. Werner Schroeter)
Schroeter's horror show about the dissolution of some unnamed and unrecognizable, though certainly Eastern European, society faced with a revolutionary turnover, for me at least, is not worth the space to write about.  Ugh.  *

This is a wonderfully edited documentary about the Eurovision junior singing competition which attracts a huge television audience in Europe and has cultural import (at least according to the film) which transcends entertainment.  The director chose a few contestants to follow, and he chose interesting (even fascinating) types.  You have to be lucky to pick winners in a film like this; but even more important you have to be a fine judge of human interest to get it down on film to begin with.  Johnson succeeds beyond expectations, especially with his choice of the 10 year old boy who was Cyprus' entry along with his precocious younger sister.   Even though I might quibble with some of his extraneous choices (for instance using an opera aria over a key montage), overall I think he did an outstanding job of presenting the feeling and excitement of the pageant.  This is a big audience pleaser and a nice way to end a mostly dismal day of films at this festival.  *** 1/2

L'HEURE D'ÉTÉ (Summer Hours) (d. Olivier Assayas)
Assayas is in reflective, family mode here:  somewhat in the style of Les destinées sentimental, only with current day relevance.  Charles Berling, Jérémie Renier and Juliette Binoche are three siblings whose elderly mother is holding the flame of rememberance for her uncle, a famed but fading impressionist painter.  This more or less functional family meets every summer at the mother's country villa, a beautiful house filled with lovely (and expensive) collectables.  On the surface, it's all about inheritance.  But what distinguishes this film is the feeling of the appreciation for beauty and artistry.  Frankly, I was enchanted by this film.  Like Breitman's  The Man of My Life it weaves a tapistry which expresses the French appreciation of life through the beauty of the land and objects.  It also is a story of generations, how modern life is changing the French sensibility.  This is my favorite film by this masterful director.  *** 3/4

ADORATION (d. Atom Egoyan)
Egoyan is essaying something very difficult here:  bridging Middle East type terrorism and family tragedy in a modern Canadian context.  The plot is too complex to summarize.  It's about peeling away the layers of lies and half-truths surrounding a past tragedy.  I can only say that I was stunned by the impact of the gradual accumulation of details, by the stoic acting of young Devon Bostick as the high school student whose parents death when he was young remains a mystery needing to be unmasked.   *** 1/2

ONE WEEK (d. Michael McGowan)
McGowan has composed a love letter to his native Canada, one which resonates even for a non-Canadian like myself.  Joshua Jackson is solid in the role of a young man who has been given the diagnosis of stage 4 cancer, who asks himself the question if he had one week to live what would he do?  The answer is a fascinating road trip West through the Canadian countryside to find himself.  It's a simple tale; and it works.  McGowan has an eye and ear for the odd and wonderful quirkiness of the Canadian landscape and people. ***

UNCERTAINTY (d. Scott McGehee, David Siegel)
A young couple flip a coin in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge and run off in different directions to embark on paired intercut adventures featuring the same actors in a different borough and a different story...one a family get-together romance, the other a chase thriller.  The only problem is that neither story is very interesting (while the chase plot is totally implausible.)  The only possible saving grace here is the acting of the two attractive principals, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (one of a handful of young actors with true acting chops) and Lynn Collins.  ** 1/4

REVANCHE (d. Götz Spielmann)
This film was not originally on my schedule; but when it received multiple raves by friends here at the festival, I moved things around and scored a ticket.  I'm glad I did.  Revanche is the story of a mountain of a man (an impressive turn by Johannes Krisch) who opens the film working as a bouncer in a whore house in an Austrian town.  He's a petty criminal and secretly in love with one of the prostitutes.  When things go wrong in his life he escapes to his grandfather's dairy farm and becomes inexorably linked with a local policeman and that policeman's wife.  What raises this script to extraordinary is Krisch's character's progression, the film's plausible unpredictability, and a stunning conclusion where a very clever bargain is struck reminiscent of the Cold War and MAD:  mutually assured destruction.  *** 1/2

This is a film about the North Ireland troubles in the late 1990s.  It features Jim Sturges (another hot actor to watch) as the real-life IRA mole secretly working for British intelligence and his British handler (another great performance by Ben Kingsley who seems to be in every other quality film this year).  I desperately needed English sub-titles to make sense of great portions of the dialog...but the action was clear.  The film had something of the same look and pacing of Greengrass's Bloody Sunday or Loach's Wind that Shakes the Barley; but it was a more polished and risky effort, making a hero out of a morally questionable character.  Mostly this was due to the casting of Sturges whose soulful eyes make plausible the success of his longtime treachery.   I found the politics to be hard to follow; and the film is probably too gory for some.  ***

WINDS OF SEPTEMBER (Jiu Jiang Feng) (d. Tom Shu-Yu Lin)
This young Taiwanese director admired Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer's Day when he was 15, which led him to ultimately become a filmmaker.  However Feng is no Yang.  This is the story of a clique of seven high school boys and two girls who initially are a tight group of friends.  They're all into baseball; and their disillusionment when a famous betting scandal destroys the sport in Taiwan is a metaphor for the group's falling apart over the course of a semester.  I had trouble keeping the actors straight, and even more trouble relating to their problems, which were too tied to their Taiwanese cultural experiences to be clear to me as an American.  **

A PERFECT DAY (Un Giorno perfetto)  (d. Ferzan Ozpetek)
The title is ironic, as this was far from a perfect day for the two families whose story over 24 hours is told in this film.  It's more a straight melodrama than the usual Ozpetek, which is something of a disappointment.  Still, this director has a knack for ratcheting up the audience's tension while providing interesting insights into family dynamics.  Unfortunately the script was just a little too predictable, although Ozpetek's skill with actors and his mastery of the techniques of filmmaking (cinematography, music, etc.) make even minor Ozpetek worth watching.  *** 1/4

PARC (d. Arnaud des Pallières)
This is a moody, stultifyingly pretentious presentation of a John Cheever story shoveled into a South France milieu of a privileged gated community.  I don't feel like writing much about this film.  Some people will profess to love it because of its symbolism and blatant intellectual conceits.  I was bored, and even more, the hypnotic music and monotone dialog made it almost impossible for me to stay awake.  The film is undeniably beautiful to look at; but I could gladly have given it a miss.  * 3/4

EMPTY NEST (El Nido Vacio) (d. Daniel Burman)
Daniel Burman is a young Argentinian director who, as my friend Susan pointed out to me, focuses on the existential problems of the generation one step older than himself, which is probably why I usually relate so readily to his films.  The current film is about a long term married couple (fine performances by Oscar Martinez and Celia Roth) whose three children have grown and moved far away from the nest.  He is a blocked playwright who adjusts to this next stage of life by retreating into the fantasies of memory.  She copes by returning to the university studies that were deferred when she became wife and mother.  She blossoms.  The film is Proustian in the way it gets into the mindset of the husband.  He becomes deeply reflective and melancholy...maybe a little too much for me to totally identify.  The couple take a trip to visit their daughter in Israel; and Burman shows his mettle as a director by making me see that country (which I've never visited) with new eyes.  ***

WHAT DOESN'T KILL YOU (d. Brian Goodman)
Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke play two long time friends from South Boston, who gravitate into a small Irish gang of truck jackers and perpetrators of various other minor gangster things.  Hawke is playing a character very similar to the one he played in the superior Lumet film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.  But this film belongs to Ruffalo, family man, crack head, loser...who longs to redeem his life.  Ruffalo is great, as usual; and his deeply felt performance makes the film.  ***

WHITE NIGHT WEDDING (Brúdguminn) (d. Baltasar Kormákur)
Kormákur is in a playful mode in this comedy about a small Icelandic village and the native son, a college professor, who returns depressed from the city and his disastrous first marriage to the town only to become the obsession of a much younger woman determined to save him by marrying him.  The film has its amusements, especially in limning the quirky villagers.  The professor is played by an actor I admire greatly, Hilmir Snaer Gudnason, so remarkable in Peas at 5:30.   But this film dissolves into farce; and it just missed the mark for me.  ** 3/4

CONTROL ALT DELETE (d. Cameron Labine)
Tyler Labine, the director's brother, is an interesting comic actor recently featured as second banana in the tv series "Reaper".  Here he plays a computer programming whiz working at a company involved in solving the Y2K, Millennium Bug scare.  He deals with the pressure of his job in a way both depraved and genuinely amusing.  The film has certain similarities to the dreadful Visioneers I saw earlier in the year.  It's also a black comedy about a tech company staffed by neurotics.  But what distinguishes this film is that it actually is well observed about its computer stuff and the script is very original and laugh-out-loud funny.   It's one of those little, obscure films which, given the right distribution, might find broad cult appeal.  ** 3/4

KRABAT (d. Marco Kreuzpaintner)
Kreuzpaintner may be the best unheralded director making films today.  I expect that to change sooner or later, his talent is so gigantic.  He reminds me of another German visionary wunderkind, Tom Tykwer, whose breakthrough film Lola Rennt, came in his early 30's.  This film is apparently adapted from an epic German saga for young adults.  It's a tale of a 17th century sorcerer who teaches black arts to 12 boy apprentices during the Thirty Years War.  As Kreuzpaintner imagines it, the film takes on much of the grand design of the Lord of the Rings series (though on a much smaller, intimate scale) mixed with the youthful affect of the Harry Potter series.   On a much lower budget, and with only one star (Daniel Brühl) and promising young actor David Kross in the title role, the director has created an amazingly effective  special effects world similar to and as strange and convincing as the ones that Tim Burton creates.  Only a rather sappy and predictable love story which fails to spark detracts from the film's triumph.  I hate to say this...but to reach its deserved North American audience this film needs to be skillfully dubbed into English and given a real release.  It could be a monster hit.  *** 1/2

EASY VIRTUE (d. Stephan Elliott)
Elliott is an Australian director who is most famous for Priscilla Queen of the Desert.  He makes films infrequently; but he's no Terrence Malick.  Here he turns to a brittle Noël Coward drawing room comedy from the 20's as his inspiration, a play which once was made into a silent melodrama by Alfred Hitchcock, of all people.  However, even though the current film is set among the upper crust in rural England in the 1920's, it has a definite modern feminist tinge which could hardly have been in the original.  I was impressed by Jessica Biel as the American heroine despised by her snooty, but secretly impoverished, newly acquired mother-in-law (a curiously subdued Kristen Scott Thomas who should have eaten this role alive.)  Colin Firth is wonderfully dissipated as Thomas'  husband, an aristocrat ruined by the horrors of the Great War.  This was his best recent role, I think.  The male ingenue, their son, was played by Ben Barnes, looking quite different from his recent star turn as Prince Caspian; but I liked him here.  The film looks great, captures the era very well.  Too bad the source material wasn't up to the production values; although I was quite entertained nevertheless.  ***

THE SEA WALL (Un barrage contre le Pacifique)  (d. Rithy Panh)
Isabelle Huppert is the star of this lovely, sad film about a poor French colonist widow trying to eke out a meager existence from a rice farm in colonial Cambodia in the 1950s.  She has two almost grown children (played with enormous panache by the supernaturally attractive Gaspard Ulliel and lovely, young Astrid Berges-Frisbey).   The film is steeped in the political corruption of the colonial period; and somehow the director managed to imbue the film with authentic sensory details...the sounds and reeking wetness of the tropics, the beauty of the rice paddies, the very fabric of the lives of the colonists and natives in this tinderbox.  If only the script were a little more insightful and original, this would be one of the true highlights of the festival.  *** 1/4

PEDRO (d. Nick Oceano)
Unexpectedly, I managed to catch a great and important film about a famous gay icon forever associated with San Francisco, now dead but hardly forgotten...and it doesn't star Sean Penn.   I'm referring to Pedro Zamora, who may be even more famous than Harvey Milk for his incendiary stint on "The Real World San Francisco" the pioneering 1994 tv reality series.  And Gus Van Sant is going to have to really be on his game to make a better film than this simple, low-budget bio-pic by a first-time, student director.  This film doesn't come out of the blue, however:  among the producers are the team of Glatzer and Westmoreland who made the touching indie Quinceañera.   And the script was written by Dustin Lance Black, talented, committed gay filmmaker in his own right, who also wrote the script for the upcoming Milk.  I was particularly pleased with the boy they found to portray Zamora, Alex Loynaz, who comes close to Zamora in looks and charisma.  I can't even express how much I was emotionally moved by this film, which has an important story to tell which goes way beyond what was visible on the tv series (which I missed at the time but caught up with on re-runs, and which was a milestone of television history.)  I can only hope that this film finds its audience and it breaks out of the (most likely gay) festival circuit!  *** 1/2

THE NARROWS (d.  François A. Velle)
This is a familiar coming-of-age story about a Italian-American young man who is involved, as is his father, with one small adjunct of the Mob in New York City.  He's also on the cusp of escaping his pre-ordained life through a talent for photography, aided by an interested college professor who wants to nurture that talent.  Kevin Zegars continues the upward trajectory of his career with a fine, soulful performance; and Vincent d'Onofrio does a workmanlike job as the father.  There is enough substance to raise the film above mere genre.  Velle has an almost Sidney Lumet-esque eye and ear for depicting street life.  But ultimately the film is too derivative of better films to be of more than casual interest.  ***

INJU, LA BÊTE DANS L'OMBRES (Inju, the Beast in the Shadow) (d. Barbet Schroeder)
Benoit Magimel was the draw here, plus Barbet Schroeder's films are usually worth watching.  This is an American style flick about a French horror/thriller genre author caught up in an intrigue concerning the identity of a fellow writer who is wildly successful in his home country of Japan despite, or maybe because of, a total anonymity of Salinger proportions.  Schroeder has gathered an interesting Japanese cast to surround the very French, very arrogant character that Magimel plays.  The technical elements are all first class...this looks like a high budget horror genre film.  But I thought there were numerous flaws in the narrative, unlikely psychology on the part of the main character.  However, Schroeder somehow manages to sustain interest by going just a little bit too far towards violence and kink...the sex scene involving Magimel's feet was particularly salacious and erotic (for me, at least.)  An honorable failure.   ** 3/4

AFTERWARDS (d. Gilles Bourdos)
The festival ended on a disappointing note with this potboiler about death and afterlife and all the points in between.  John Malkovich underplays egregiously the role of a doctor who can "see" the specter of random people's impending deaths.  Romain Duris tries out a heavy English accent playing a lawyer who almost died as a child, but "came back" for a reason.   It's a lot of hokum, and boring to boot; but it is just slick enough to be worth sitting through.  ** 1/4

Overall, my impression of this year's TIFF is that it is the best of the three I've attended.  More highs, fewer lows, and not a single projection snafu.  The new AMC theater is quite a fine venue for the festival, even though they decided to follow the wrong model of crowd control there (massive outside line-ups instead of managing the attendees in the generous inside space the way they do at the Scotiabank multiplex. )  I love Toronto in September, despite the frequent rain this year.  Once again, mostly thanks to my friend Chris who put me up in his mid-city high-rise condo, I got enough sleep, ate well and managed to get to every film on time with great seats.  That is amazing, considering the considerable complexity of this festival with its massive crowds, occasionally overbearing crowd management and spread out venues (although it never took more than 20 minutes to traverse any trip between theaters thanks to Toronto's extraordinarily efficient transit system).   But the volunteers make things work here; and I revel in playing the TIFF game and winning.  I saw very few of the publicized "big" films.  Danny Boyle's celebrated Slumdog Millionaire won the People's Choice award; but I expect to have no trouble catching it later.  TIFF is such an exhilarating, energizing experience that I hope to be able to come back to Toronto next year.

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