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Friday, Sep 12, 2008
This is the end, my friends. TIFF 08 fades away with a whimper and few Oscar prospects.

The 2008 Toronto International Film Festival has ended, for me, with a sad whimper. There was no single film that took my breath away, proving, I think, that truly superlative achievements are very hard to come by these days. While there was a lot of passion, and a dazzling array of star power shining on the Canadian red carpets, there was a lack of quality, overall and a feeling of slight disappointment in the eyes and on the lips of industry folks I chatted with as well as the ticket-buying public.


I managed to get in a few truly great viewings (The Wrestler and Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale were two of the finest of the fest), several middle-of-the-road tedious films, and only a couple that were truly atrocious. But nothing can beat the overall “festival experience” of being where the celebrities are, where the buzz happens, and where other film fans from all over the world convene to wait in line for hours and hope for a miracle. Sometimes seeing some of these peculiar little films can be an eye-opening occurrence (I’ve Loved You So Long was my biggest surprise this year), while others still can be a total bust.


So, to wrap up my second consecutive year of covering the fest, I have compiled a list of the best and the worst of this festival (not just the films, either!), and ended it all with a spate of five mini-reviews to give you all the low-down on what you should keep an eye out for and others that you should avoid like the plague, as well as a top ten list of what was hot and a quick mention of what just absolutely sucked. Thank God for coffee, Diet Coke, and energy bars.


First, some short takes:


Il y a longtemps que je t’aime (I’ve Loved You So Long) (dir. Philippe Claudel, 2007, France)

“I was afraid of betraying the prison experience,” said the radiant Kristin Scott Thomas of her role as a woman released from prison after 15 years, in director/author Philippe Claudel’s moving feature debut. The actress talked at the film’s premiere of “fears of being overwhelmed by my own emotion, of having done some terrible crime. I was afraid my own feelings would get in the way of playing the role”. Thomas was nominated for an Oscar 12 years ago for her part in Anthony Minghella’s epic The English Patient, and in a just world, she will be back for her tour-de-force French-speaking portrait of a woman stilted in her grief and regret (Claudel talked of her “delicious little accent”). “I think we all have a fear of isolation and abandonment,” she added. “It’s our job to use it, that’s my job.”


The Other Man (dir. Richard Eyre, 2008, United Kingdom/USA)

The biggest let-down of the entire festival. What should have been a knock-out, with a pedigree to die for (Liam Neeson, Laura Linney and Notes on a Scandal director Richard Eyre), was like watching a train wreck in slow motion, even though the film was barely 90 minutes long. Eyre was on hand to talk about how the film was just finished last week, and it shows. Neeson blusters and barks and guffaws with a hammy ridiculousness (“Gucci loafers!” he furiously bellows in one over-the-top scene), and Linney is barely there, but its co-star Antonio Banderas that got the biggest (unintentional) laughs as a playboy who Linney is cheating on Neeson with. He likens himself to “fellow cosmopolitans and fashionistas” in one particularly hysterical scene, as he befriends Neeson’s character, who is out to meet the man who is schtupping his woman. This flop crawls at a snail’s pace and is hopelessly stage-bound, off-kilter, and badly-written and directed. By the time the ludicrous, emotionally-manipulative “twist” happens at the end, I was numb. “How did you find out about me,” whines a transparent Banderas. “You were on a file called ‘love’,” retorts Neeson. Shoot me, please.


Un Conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale) (dir. Arnaud Desplechin, 2008, France)

Kings and Queen, which also starred Christmas players Mathieu Amalric, Catherine Denueve, and Emanuelle Devos, is one of the most underrated, emotionally-complicated films of the last few years, so it is no surprise that French master Arnaud Desplechin has crafted a film of supreme emotional maturity, familial tensions and pure invention that gorgeously tells each of the film’s character’s stories and allows for a spectacular acting showcase for each of them. The narrative juggles a towering cast, moments of hilarity and tender, moving drama, that all plays out with surgical precision. As the Vuillard matriarch, Denueve gets her best role in years, while Amalric proves that he is one of the finest working actors in the world. Alternately cathartic, dysfunctional and compelling, American family sagas need to start taking on this modern French sensibility that Desplechin has become so adept at executing. This will be released in theaters by IFC in January, and there is no other way to experience this cinematic magic than on the big screen, so seek it out!


Skin (dir. Anthony Fabian, 2008, United Kingdom/South Africa)

Poor Sophie Okonedo. She’s given two capable performances in two of the biggest duds of the fest, The Secret Life of Bees (which she was the single good thing about), and this tedious small-scale drama set in apartheid-ridden South Africa. What could have been a canny entry into the discussion on gender, race and class, instead devolves into a hot mess of histrionics (courtesy of the over-blown presence of Sam Neil as Okonedo’s white father). Based on a true story of Sandra Laing, and her fight to be classified as a white woman, even though her skin was brown (due to something called “polygenic inheritance”), this film fights to be relevant despite its predictable African inspirational music and long gazing shots of the countryside that we’ve seen a million times in a million better movies. This would be right at home on Lifetime Television, where Okonedo might have at least gotten a little bit of positive attention.


The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond (dir. Jodie Markell, 2008, USA)

One of Tennessee Williams’ “lost” screenplays has been brought to (surprisingly) vivid life by director Jodie Markell (HBO’s Big Love, Joshua and the underrated indie Sweet Land). Markell has a flair for staging the material, and star Bryce Dallas Howard channels her inner Vivien Leigh, but male co-star Chris Evans, unfortunately cannot act his way out of a paper bag. This doesn’t really tread any new ground -– Williams’ milieu is fraught with melodramatic, mentally-unstable Southern Belles, but if you are a fan of the playwright, this isn’t a bad attempt at conceiving his work for a more contemporary audience and very nicely shot. Howard’s temperamental, sarcastic performance definitely is one of the more exciting actresses of her generation, who keeps choosing great material like this, Lars Von Trier’s Manderlay and As You Like It. Ellen Burstyn, Mamie Gummer, and Ann-Margret co-star as random Southern women with some sort of panic-stricken dilemmas they must face.


Top Ten Things I Loved About TIFF 08

01. Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler


In what could have been an offensive joke of a performance, Rourke captures hearts with his tender, tough portrait of a man coming apart. Will he capture the Oscar?


02. The Burning Plain


You either love the styles of writer-director Guillermo Arriaga or you hate them (he is responsible for the equally polarizing Babel and 21 Grams), but you cannot deny he is writing more expansive women’s roles than just about any other writer-director out there. He should be applauded, as should Charlize Theron and a career-best Kim Basinger.


03. Cultural Hybridity


Almost all of the films I saw, whether they were period pieces, biography films, or simply daring original works, explored the intersecting themes of borders opening; of lines on the maps being erased. They were beautifully humanist takes on what it’s like to live in a world where everyone’s concept of home is shrinking, and where cultures are bleeding into one another. It’s comforting to see that our modern master filmmakers are perceptively mirroring this global, transient realism onscreen.


04. Star Wattage and Accessibility


Where else are you going to be two feet away from Viggo Mortensen but at TIFF? More than I have seen before, the big guns were brought out for promoting films, for selling films, and for getting the word out there. Be it in the form of press conferences (where I sat directly in front of powerhouses like Queen Latifah stumping for Secret Lifes of Bees), or just walking down the street, there were actors and directors practically littering Yonge Street. Also, the graciousness of these actors and directors to do question and answer sessions with large festival audiences, as well as the frenzied red carpets, and just being present in general at screenings is unparalleled.


05. France


Alors! Staggering in their artistic consistency and integrity, the films from our great French directors at TIFF this year (Olivier Assayas, Phillip Claudel, Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, and Agnes Varda), proved that the country sets the bar much higher for their popular entertainment than we do here, they have a standard of excellence that needs to be emulated. The French directorial vision is typically beautifully art-directed; stunning acted and has, across the board, an emotional pull that is sorely lacking in the American entries this year.


06. Volunteers and Employees


Mostly all friendly and knowledgeable, these tireless enthusiasts had to wrangle not only the public, but the celebrities and the press and industry crowd. A thankless job, where they are paid nothing, but they do it with a smile on their face, for the love of film.


07. Talking to Strangers


Whether it was in line, or on the street to get directions, Canadians are friendly. You are standing in line sometimes for hours to get a decent spot, and are forced, in many ways, to chat up your neighbors. The shocker? They are usually extremely pleasant, excited, and just as knowledgeable about film as you are. A refreshing element to the proceedings that can sometimes be more fun than the films themselves.


08. That Blindness Did Not Stink


People tore this adaptation of Jose Saramago’s novel to pieces at Cannes, and critics had their knives sharpened for it here in Toronto, but Fernando Meirelles pulled it off. Don’t be fooled by those who would dissuade you from seeing it; Blindness is brutal, yet powerfully undeniable filmmaking. And between this and Savage Grace Julianne Moore shows (again) that she is the bravest American actress working.


09. The Queen Mother Restaurant


Canadian food is hit or miss, and that’s being polite (poutin, anyone?). Thank god for the Lao-Thai fusion at this quaint café in the best neighborhood in the city. Affordable, delicious, fresh food and no-nonsense, friendly service (inside or out on the patio) makes this the go-to spot for all visitors. Of note, particularly is their phenomenal brunch. I am not even going to tell you how many times I ate there this week.


10. The Return of Debra Winger


She was only in about four scenes of Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, but in her scant screen time, she conducted a master class in scene-stealing as the mother of the title character and Anne Hathaway’s noxious Kym. Yes, it may be the “mother” role, but Winger is understatedly elegant, and rock-solid. Here’s to hoping this high-profile release gains her some traction on the awards circuit, in tandem with Hathaway. It’s a small, quietly fuming turn that should be lauded for its poetic simplicity.


The Things I Did Not Love About TIFF 08

01. Jerks on BlackBerrys and I-Phones


Since everyone at the press and industry screenings are apparently so important they couldn’t turn off their phones for five seconds, other people, who were actually trying to work during the festival got treated to a sea of tiny illuminated screens that never went off and, when in combination, produced an obnoxious glow that distracted everyone from everything. At one especially terrible session, a young woman sitting next to me was actually texting on an I-Phone with one hand, and scrolling through her favorite web content with her other hand. This is not an exaggeration.


02. The Lack of Prestige Films


Toronto has been unquestionably known as the launching pad for Oscar nominees. Last year they showed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Juno, and Atonement (among a score of others), to smashing success and a parade of little gold men. In previous years, they brought out such Oscar war horses as Chariots of Fire, and American Beauty and led the way to glory. This year, none of the movies shown here look primed to be contenders. No one really loved the line-up.


There’s always hope for next year.


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Wednesday, Sep 10, 2008
Mazur reviews (and likes) three upcoming releases from Toronto that don't star women in the lead roles. Mickey Rourke for the Oscar?! What is the world coming to?

A few really big exceptions aside, this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is fairly tame. The big guns are shelved for now, and the programmers have instead turned their spotlight onto some more intimately-scaled little pictures that need distribution, films that will be out in theaters within the next month and international releases you and I will not likely see in our local cineplexes. Where oh where are the big Oscar movies of years past? They’re definitely not here.


Sugar (dir. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2007, USA)

I stumbled, quite by accident, wanting to kill time, into Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s surprising Sugar. Boden and Fleck co- wrote and directed the modest breakout hit Half Nelson, which netted star Ryan Gosling his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and here they couldn’t be more far removed from Nelson’s inner-city, drug-dealing turmoil, but those two elements do play a small role in Sugar.


When the projector began cranking, and the film opened with a shot of men playing baseball, in the Dominican Republic, I wanted to get up and leave immediately. A sports movie, in another language, about men, is really not my usual cup of tea. So, I sort of forced myself through the first few standard minutes, and am glad I did: Sugar is not a baseball movie, nor is it a simple “coming to America” story—it possesses a life and vitality that is singular.


All of the players in the Dominican Republic desire the same outcome: they want to play ball in America so they can send money back to their deprived families who spend their days working in t-shirt factories. For these young me, particularly the lead character “Sugar” (the excellent Algenis Perez Soto), it is more than just a dream of providing and chasing some American ideal—it’s a way to break the poverty cycle in their home country and to not live idle lives. “Life gives you many opportunities,” says Sugar’s uncle, himself a former player in the states, now a cell phone salesman. “Baseball only gives you one.”


The film is a rich exploration of the exploitation faced by Latin American men who are sent out to play here, and it’s a world I had no idea even existed. Sugar is an unusual story that’s definitely never been told before, which is a credit to these two fledgling directors, who seem to have found a particularly alchemic cinematic grace in working with one another, rather than alone. As writers seeking out completely original subject matter, they should be applauded for versatility.


Once “Sugar” lands in the States, he is caught up in a whirlwind frenzy of pre-season training and practice. In these scenes, rather than over-loading the film with the traditional montages that plague the sports film genre, Boden and Fleck instead go for introspection as their lead character, and those who have accompanied him from the Dominican league, begin to see just how isolated one can be when placed in unfamiliar surroundings, where they don’t speak more than ten words of the language. This feeling of not being able to fully communicate makes “Sugar” try even harder to learn, and makes him even more focused on the game.


And rather than staging the scenes in Iowa with overt racism or hatred (though there is a little implicit racism in the script), the directors wisely turn away from the “bad American” clichés, and show scenes of good people genuinely helping “Sugar”. Particularly effective are the scenes where the guys head out to the only diner they know, to order the only food they know how (“French toast!” they all yell in unison). They have to, like many people who are new to the country and to the language, work harder, practice more, and be better than everyone. Not to mention, they have to rely an awful lot on the kindness of strangers. As macho ballplayers, that can be a humbling experience, and those detail peppered throughout are very moving without being coy.


This film is packed with detail, the directors have a meticulous eye for it: in one scene, for a brief second (and without being preachy whatsoever) we notice “Sugar” looking at t-shirts in a discount department store, when he reads the label, it says “made in the Dominican Republic” and his face just collapses. Also a great detail is the exploration of baseball and sports fan subculture and the hierarchies of the sport, focusing on the enthusiasts who go to every high school game, every college game, and every minor league game. They have their fingers in every baseball pie, so to speak. When “Sugar” is dropped off in the corn fields of Iowa with a religious, elderly couple who speak no Spanish, he learns about, it is a funny fish-out-of-water moment, but also a learning experience for him and for the audience.


The film hinges on the performance of Perez Soto, and the audience’s empathy for him as he goes from Dominican dreamer, to Iowan farm teammate, to New Yorker on the lam. Boden and Fleck show, again, that working with an untrained young actor, as they did with the glorious newcomer Shareeka Epps in Nelson is one of their fortes. Perez Soto, for his part, does a nice job of showing the immigrant’s point of view, and highlights for the audience what is good, bad, and implausible about the American Dream.


All of the odds are against them, and so are most of the American players. The Dominican players, if they even hint at a loss of skill level, are sent home, while the Americans get chance after chance. “Sugar” is lucky he is more talented than most players on the team, but eventually, his arrogance gets the better of him. He has only that one shot that his uncle told him about and his entire life is riding on it.


His journey takes him far away from home, to unexpected little corners of the country, and makes for one cool little movie about how people from other cultures find their way on their own. It’s definitely not about baseball, in the broadest sense. For someone like me, who know positively zilch about sports in general, it’s an easy lesson and a informative primer on the fanaticism that surrounds the sport, even on the minute level, and it’s all told on a relatable, approachable point of view, with an entry point that is universal. Anyone who has ever felt alone, anyone who has ever experienced being taken out of their comfort zone, and who has been dropped into a situation where they had to fight for something the want more than anything, will be able to get on board with this lovely movie.


Che (dir. Stephen Soderbergh, 2008, USA/Spain/France)

Buckle up! Che, the newest offering from director Stephen Soderbergh that details the life of Che Guevara, is a whopping four and a half hours long.


I was among a group who was able to see the entire epic, split up only by a fifteen minute intermission, yesterday morning, the way the director has announced he intends everyone to see it; a “road-show” full cut of the film will be screened around the country (in approximately 20 markets) to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and the eightieth anniversary of his birth. Then, as planned, the vast Che, which features a gorgeously interior performance by Benecio Del Toro as the now-iconic revolutionary, will be split into two parts, The Argentinean and Guerilla.


When it first played at Cannes in May, all signs pointed to Che as being a hard sell. The length alone was its most daunting feature, not to mention it is essentially a four and a half hour Latin American history lesson, mostly told in Spanish. So, the chances of its success competing in the United States market, where you’re only considered a hit if you make over 100 million anymore, were rather bleak.


I’m happy to report, though, that as a far-reaching artistic endeavor and a more meditative alternative to the usual bio-pic fare, Che is a mild success, but more importantly, it’s a major turning point for Soderbergh as a director. This is his most ambitious film to date: a mainly Spanish-language mega epic of a revolutionary who has become appropriated by the entire world as a symbol of freedom and rebellion. I’m sure you’ve seen the t-shirts.


He opens chapter one like a book, with a golden-hued map of Cuba, all set to a pulsing score. We are given a cursory lesson in Cuban geography (probably much-needed for most viewers). This is a necessary feature to orient the viewers into the world of the Marxist guerillas’ plans. Immediately, we are plunged into New York, 1964, where Che is being interviewed in a black and white, grainy sequence that shows only his eyes furiously moving; these black and white bits are interspersed into the main attraction: the saturated world of color in Mexico City of 1955, where the story really begins after two seeming starts. Stylistically, Soderbergh goes for a scaled-back, less-is-more approach and lets the natural features take over the story’s art direction, rightfully. This may not be as flashy as the director’s other films, but the vistas are stunning.


The film cuts back and forth between the two formats. At the United Nations in 1964 NYC, Che, an Argentine who became a Cuban citizen, is greeted by shouts of “murderer” and “assassin”. He is Fidel Castro’s highest ranking lieutenant, the Marxist brains of the entire Cuban operation and a master at combat and warfare. We then are transported back to Mexico to begin the journey with Che to Cuba for the first time. It is a little bit confusing at the beginning, to get one’s bearings, but once Soderbergh gets a feeling for the complicated rhythms, so do the viewers. Once it hits its stride, it’s hard to stop watching.


Part one is well-shot, if fairly standard bio-flick material that charts the man’s journey from being a doctor to fighting in the jungles to becoming a sort of pseudo-celebrity asking to be powdered before an American television appearance. Del Toro’s versatile, stately performance covers a lot of ground, spans Che’s entire life, and proves a task the actor is more than up to. Che’s ability to be an orator, a fighter and an all around charismatic force of nature jumps to life thanks to Del Toro’s gift of being able to tap into his powerful, specific instrument. He is likely the only possible recognizable, working actor that could have pulled this off, exuding a dangerous charm, gravitas and presence every second he is onscreen.


He loves his soldiers (men and women) and knows all of their names. His idea of successful warfare is smart warfare and he only takes soldiers who can read or write; the ones who can’t, he makes sure to teach. He sees what he is doing as enriching the lives of these peasants who have long been taken advantage of. He wants to save each Latin American country, person by person.


Part one ends with the rebels winning the war, and according to Che, this is where the real revolution begins.


The first image of part two is another bit of Soderberghian cartography, only this time, we get our lesson in South American geography (and I was hugely embarrassed that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about the continent). The action will take place in Bolivia, where, funded by Castro (even after he renounced his Cuban citizenship), Che has sworn to bring the revolution to all of Latin America, much to the consternation of the country’s leaders.


One year later, Che is disguised as an old man with glasses, sneaking into Bolivia to train a new army of rebels in secret. By now, he has become a worldwide legend and has left his wife Aledia (Oscar nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno) behind. Obviously, “Che” is going to dominate a story called Che, but Moreno is barely there, and the same goes for Lou Diamond Phillips, Franka Potente, Julia Ormond and countless others—a cheeky trademark of the director’s that has become slightly irksome. His affinity for stunt casting known faces in cameos speaks to his directorial sway and the love for the project, but it is as distracting here as it is in Traffic or the Ocean movies.
But fortunately, the main character’s commitment, body and soul, to his cause, is mirrored in Del Toro’s physical commitment to playing him—in part two, it is as though he is playing two men wildly different than his character in part one.


Both parts of the film highlight that the best way to bring about change is with your own two hands, hard work, and, as Che says, with “love” for whatever it is you’re doing. For the director, this is an obvious labor of love, but at points watching lingering scenes of nature at a very deliberate pace can get tedious. As bloated as it is brave, I can see why Soderbergh thought it would be advantageous and respectful to do it in this style, but this will be slightly too much for most to handle in one sitting. In shorter chapters, it could have worked in a way that something like HBO’s recent John Adams mini-series did and turn a history lesson into something a bit more gripping. Yet, there is still something stolidly fascinating about this lesson in cinematic endurance that seems as equally influenced by Marxism and pop culture as it is by Terrence Malick in the many scenes featuring a cool and meditative showcasing of the geography as the story.


The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2008, USA)

Practically everyone in Toronto was buzzing about Darren Aronofsky’s newest offering The Wrestler. Following up the love it or hate it mess of The Fountain, The Wrestler was shown to a capacity press and industry only crowd in a completely packed theater of nearly 600—there were no empty seats. This is the first time I had seen that happen. In the same theater, for Che’s screening immediately before, roughly a third of those seats were filled.


Riding high on mega-buzz, the film, which just days ago won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, announced to the world that star Mickey Rourke is, and I am not being cheeky, a top possibility for a Best Actor nomination come early 2009; if not the win. That the director had the foresight to cast the downtrodden, eccentric actor who most people expected to go the way of Gary Busey, in the role of washed up former professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a right miracle and one of those rare instances where a performer can take every element of his past and his physical being, and use them to their fullest potential. Possessed of a weathered face that has been changed by cosmetic surgery to a very extensive degree, Rourke is able to even use that to his advantage in creating this once in a lifetime character.


When the film opens to the strains of Quiet Riot’s “Bang Your Head” (Ram’s theme song), we don’t see him right away, we just see press clippings, posters, and other tchotchkes and assorted ephemera from his past. It is all we need to get a sense of what he has become and that only takes Aronofsky seconds. The Ram is way past his prime, living in a filthy, pad-locked trailer in Jersey (he didn’t pay his rent again), and wounded beyond belief. When the camera finally settles onto Rourke’s face, it is jarring to meet him head on.


Broken, and taped-up within an inch of his life, The Ram ekes out a miserable existence working the most low-level amateur circuits he can find to make a buck, where the mats are sprayed with blood and not cleaned up in between battles. He also works doing stock at a grocery store. He is strung out on pills, drinks a lot, and is reeling from a life spent being beaten and abused, of his own choosing. A far cry from his former glories. Within these first few minutes, it is clear that Rourke was the only person who could play this part, much as Del Toro was the only actor who could play Che


The Ram frequents a dive of a strip club (he hooks the doorman up with pills), where Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) is also eking out a meager existence. Tomei has always been a hard actress to cast, but when she’s good, she’s on fire—her scene where she talks about The Passion of the Christ is her most brilliantly funny moment since winning the Oscar for My Cousin Vinny. Cassidy is The Ram’s only “friend”, a relationship for which she is paid by the shimmy, but not a responsibility she takes lightly: when The Ram needs sound advice about his estranged daughter Stephanie (an excellent Evan Rachel Wood), Cassidy is the go-to girl for him.


It’s only fair, if one is to discuss the sheer physicality of Rourke’s performance as a wrestler, to then also discuss the sensual physicality employed by Tomei in her free scenes of seductive dancing and stripping. Last year in Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, she was frequently, shockingly, naked. And she looked amazing. Last year, in her mid-40s, she fearlessly took it all off to reinvent herself, and it seems that that work could be viewed as a primer for the even more brave physical and emotional nakedness she brings to her career-best character here: a single mother busting her ass to feed her kid and move into a condo, thus leaving her lap-dancing days, and clients like The Ram, behind.


In between juicing and working out, The Ram spends his days prepping for his big battles, getting his hair perfectly highlighted at the salon, and going tanning. It is implied that the preparation for The Ram probably isn’t much different from what Cassidy does to get ready for work—they’re both putting on a show, after all, and shows require a certain image. The big difference, though, is that The Ram, when performing, beats opponents with barbed wire clubs, artificial limbs and gets stapled by a staple-gun wielding maniac; all in the name of show and money. He is mutilated in various extreme ways to please a bloodthirsty, raging crowd that chants at him while he’s down: “you still suck!”


These intense scenes are, well, crazy, but also wickedly funny and incisive. Aronofsky is able to show the kind of damage these athlete/performers endure to make a living. Rourke is beyond brilliant in these wrestling scenes, and shows a heretofore unknown comedic diligence in the funny moments (“do your push-ups brother,” he barks at a neighbor kid). Yet nothing will prepare you for the unexpected fragility in the poignant moments of sharply-drawn drama as his life begins to fall apart and his years of self-abuse begin to catch up to him. It’s absolutely thrilling to watch him.


After a heart attack and a bypass, The Ram tries to make a go of it in the real world. He goes to Stephanie to patch up their broken, distant relationship. He tells Cassidy that “she doesn’t really like me very much”, and that’s putting it mildly. He was not present for her as a child and in trying to reconnect; he hits many obstacles tougher than a metal folding chair to the face.


He tries to make a break from this world, even going so far as to work the deli counter at his supermarket to earn more money (one of the film’s absolute delights), but ultimately, he’s alone, and needs the adoration and the energy of the fans to buoy him, to keep him alive. This is Aronofsky’s most accomplished film thus far, devoid of the gimmicky camera angles and fish-eye lenses that permeate his other films, Pi, and Requiem for a Dream. It is a more straight-forward narrative, with a more straight-forward, audience-friendly structure. While The Wrestler does have moments of sentimentality, it is never out of place, never obnoxious. The ending is a brilliant culmination of suspense, fury, great story-telling and acting, and it will leave audiences high on their own adrenaline.



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Tuesday, Sep 9, 2008
Words by Chris Catania and pictures by Colleen Catania.

A lesson learned from kids that know how to rock to Andrew Bird.


The rush of kids toward the stage was fantastic!

It came near the end of Andrew Bird’s Chicago show. And as I watched the youngsters sprint from all areas of the venue and down the aisles toward the stage of the Pritzker Pavilion, I was reacquainted with a sense of innocence that I’ve either been missing, avoiding or choosing to forget about when enjoying a live show.


Those kids did what is often harder to do as you get older, which is not suppress that freely unashamed and spontaneous expression of joy when something is so exciting and you’re being yanked by your heart and mind to move outside of the normal mold of what’s “okay” to do in public, especially at a concert where there are more seats than open standing space near the stage. 


And for some reason I don’t fully understand yet, we push this spontaneous urge down, bottle it up and sometimes even thrown it away as we get older, deeming it immature or unacceptable.


But it was so fun to watch those kids run down the aisles and jump around up like miniature pogo sticks to Bird’s operatically rocking “Fake Palindromes”. 


I saw a few older folks shaking a leg, and yes, after the second chorus came around the whole crowd was on its feet, but it was those kids that started all the blissful ruckus.


So who were these kids? 


I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing they were probably related to the fundraiser for the night as a block of tickets for a Meet and Greet were being auctioned off benefitting local non-profit Rock for Kids.


I’ll end with this.


Bird has written in his New York Times blog that “writing songs and performing live have with time become almost the same process for me. The improvisation and conversation with the audience from show to show keep the songs fluid and alive. On the other hand, making a record is like a show that gets drawn out over a year or more, but with no cathartic resolution.”


Well, the show was definitely alive and fluid and I think those kids (and the adults, too) let loose enough cathartic resolution and had a wonderful time communicating with tracks from Bird’s Armchair Apocrapha (2007) or Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005) and some new tracks, to make recording a live album seem a lot less drawn out and arduous than a normal studio version.


We couldn’t get the camera out fast enough to capture the kids, but Colleen did shoot what built up the urge and caused the kids to bum-rush the stage.


Tagged as: andrew bird
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Tuesday, Sep 9, 2008
Multiculturalism is fun! Familial tensions, not so much...
Summer Hours (L’ Heure d’été) (dir. Olivier Assayas, 2008, France)

I couldn’t wait to spend an afternoon watching a film crafted by one of our most exciting contemporary directors, Olivier Assayas that featured a triad of top-notch French performers: Jeremy Renier, Charles Berling, and the virtually incandescent Juliette Binoche.


At turns elegiac, radiantly warm, and infinitely relatable, Summer Hours finds Assayas visiting the at once similar, yet wildly divergent territories he passed through and conquered with his marvelous studies in cross-cultural communications, Demonlover, Irma Vep, and the brilliant Clean, both of which starred his ex-wife, the brilliant Maggie Cheung.


With a penchant for magnanimously-detailed story telling, the bright director is one of the heroes of modern cinematic innovation, and one who is constantly questioning the concept of “home”. Assayas’ perception of “home” in all of his films reflects a newly-emergent sensibility that “home” for many people nowadays is not the place they grew up, or even necessarily the place of their choosing. “Home” may be devoid of wistfulness, but that’s exactly what the director has in mind when telling the elegant tale of the Berthier clan. Is home confined by international borders? Is home something that no longer exists when older generations die or when younger generations leave? Assayas is unafraid to explore these topics with the eye (and heart) of a true visionary artist, from his singular viewpoint.


Summer Hours immediately begins fresh and intriguing and with a sense of energy and a combination of fluid movement and contemplative stillness that has come to be expected from Assayas’ camera. There is a feeling of intimacy established from the get-go, as the camera focuses on children running in the country sunlight, carefree and lost in their innocent games, you can almost smell the fragrances emanating from the stately gardens. This is a less hard-edged, less overtly globalist perspective than the director usually traffics in, but the sweetness is perfectly ripe, never fettered by syrupy sentiment or cliché.


His previous films shrewdly explored modernity and the growing sense that international borders are becoming just lines on a map, and that more than ever, human beings are truly becoming citizens of the planet or cultural hybrids, rather than staying tied to one particular spot their entire lives. In other words: nostalgia is dead. Move on. But the miracle of this particular film is that it isn’t as bleak as it sounds, and Assayas makes the potentially maudlin concept of familial struggles with property in the wake of death surprisingly tender, and, at times, even a joyous cause for celebration.


Originally, the script for Summer Hours was commissioned by The Musee d’Orsay and conceived as a four-part series of short films, which the director abandoned because of what he called “technical reasons”. The foundation of the film, which he says was built around the connections shared by the work and the museum and between the patron and the objects, resulted in something universal, but also uniquely specific.


Summer Hours is fundamentally about relationships: between siblings, between parents and children, between the old and the young, between art and money, but most of all, between possessions and their owner. What do we hold on to? Why do we cling to it? “Ancient forms of the family are transfiguring,” said Assayas. “It is no longer a question of fighting to possess family heritage, but rather knowing how to get rid of it. How does this past, which no longer represents much, all of a sudden jump on us from behind? What do we do with it?”


Opening at a country manse on a glorious, sunny afternoon, the elliptical, brisk images glide by, reminiscent of fleeting recollections of childhood memories, a distinct joi de vivre, and the vitality and excitement of faded youth that is replaced with responsibility and often turmoil. It is a light, pure feeling that invokes a basic instinct, and that immediately seduces the viewer into the story that follows.


Helene (a smart, moving performance by Edith Scob, who establishes her character brilliantly in a short amount of time) is celebrating her birthday surrounded by her entire family, children and grandchildren, everyone in good spirits. Frederic (Berlinger) and Jeremie (Renier) have brought their wives and children, while Adrienne (Binoche) has traveled from NYC to reconnect with the family on this important day. The vivid, lived-in dialogue in this crucial opening sequence, as well as the exuberant pace, sets the tone: the Berthiers are a charming and genuinely affectionate family despite the geographical distance between them. The viewer gets a sense that the family is full of traditions, memories and special rituals specific to only them. It is an intimate feeling.


Helene, in a private moment, takes Frederic aside to discuss another tradition: the passing of possessions from one generation to the next. She feels as though her life is coming to a close, and since the family has amassed a grand private collection of historic, important French artifacts, Helene decides to have the necessary conversation that everyone dreads having to hear from their parents: who gets what? How will her possessions be divided?


The inevitability of possessions causing grief, in a time of grief, to those who inherit them, is something the woman wants to avoid. She wants the history of the art collection to end with her; she does not want this family legacy to burden her modern family, who visit France but once a year or so. As she ascends a tree-lined stone staircase, while watching her family leave her once again, Assayas is able to communicate volumes on the loneliness of the empty nest with just a single elegant shot. This will be the last time anyone sees her.


This is fundamentally a moving tale of loss and grief, but also, largely, about nationalism and globalization. The themes are packed into the film, but it never feels fat, Assayas’ touch makes it lean. The intuitive, neatly-paced little details, like the secret handshake the brothers share, or the way everyone cracks up when Adrienne announces her engagement, make the family dynamics seem warm and believable -– there is a whole sense of familial history in these performances.


Known for pushing the envelope a bit in his other works, Assayas employs a more classical, less experimental feeling, but the overall effect is no less fresh and thematically rich. Summer Hours feels like a poised, polished culmination of all of the things the director does best. There is a fraught mood of anxiety when strangers enter the estate and begin to catalogue the goods, and assess each rare item’s value for an impending auction and for sale to a museum. When the family’s long-time housekeeper Eloise (Isabelle Sadoyan) returns in the end, we are offered yet another perspective –- how do you dismiss someone who has spent their life serving you? Do you simply give them a vase and some money and that’s it?


These are the delicate questions that the filmmaker faces with candor, and in the end, possessions ultimately only mean something to those who have lived with them forever . To others, they are simply found objects. This highlights that letting go is the hardest thing to do, but in the end it will unshackle you. We can almost let go of people (like Eloise) more easily than our “things”.


Eventually, when homes are not filled with these lives and objects, they are but empty shells that offer comfort no more.


Rachel Getting Married (dir. Jonathan Demme, 2008, USA)

Thanks to a malfunctioning streetcar (insert “Matt Mazur/Blanche Dubois” joke here), I ended up getting to the screening of Jonathan Demme’s new Rachel Getting Married much later than I planned, but just in time for it to start pouring rain whilst I stood in a line several blocks long without an umbrella. Where was my corporate sugar daddy Visa or my freshly-dipped bon bons today when I really needed them? I guess having a Visa card wasn’t as special as I thought yesterday.


Since Demme has not made an original dramatic feature in ten years, I had to catch this. It was my number one pick for the entire festival. His dabbling in documentaries (the excellent 2003 film The Agronomist is a must see) and remakes (like 2004’s Manchurian Candidate) has made me long for the days of easy, dare I say, quirky comedies he once cranked out with spirit.


All of the reviews I had read up until this screening indicated that Rachel was his return to form, that it harkened back to the time when Melanie Griffith was still a good actress (check out Something Wild if you don’t believe me!), and his actors were winning pre-Silence of the Lambs Oscars (Mary Steenburgen in Melvin and Howard). Films like those, and Married to the Mob, made him the premiere director of offbeat mélanges of drama and comedy that could turn on a dime in the span of seconds. All of this “return to form” business is a little off, honestly – Rachel is a much different film than he has done in the past, refreshingly so, showing another color of a director who already paints with so many tones and techniques. It is a pivotal, substantial film for the director and a step forward.


Demme’s scant work in the 90s after his Best Director win for Silence did not yield many fruitful endeavors, though, in my humble opinion, his adaptation of Beloved is one of the great underrated gems of the entire decade. After that high profile film was widely and unfairly dismissed as a failure by audiences and critics, Demme’s glory days began to fade from memory.


Written by Jenny Lumet (daughter of director Sidney and granddaughter of Lena Horne), Rachel explores the relationship between the titular character (Rosemarie DeWitt) with her black sheep sister Kym (Anne Hathaway in a breakout performance) on the eve of her (you guessed it!) wedding. Kym is being released from rehab especially for the occasion.


I am all for films that explore sisterly relations, family relations and the chaos that surrounds a wedding, but there are moments of this film, that, while very good, seem to be borrowing heavily from another film I loved from TIFF 07, Noah Baumbach’s far superior Margot at the Wedding. Wealthy, privileged East Coast family? Check. Hand-held, grainy camera movements following people from behind to big, gloomy houses? Check. Bitchy snipes aplenty? Check. Lots of picking off of festering sibling scabs? It’s all here. This is a slight gripe as the two films do have major differences, but since this one has a more light tone, and more likable characters, it is bound to (unfairly) be received better.


One of the nicest things Lumet treats us to with her energetic script is a cast of completely multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-talented character actors and musicians. This is one of the recurring themes this year at the fest, and in my opinion, the film that wins the contest is the one that features on of my favorite performers, Anna Deveare Smith, who gets a nice chance to grab screen time as the girls’ step mother, while Bill Irwin plays their music industry papa perfectly.


Rachel is marrying Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe of the band TV on the Radio) in an elaborate Hindu ceremony at their family estate, and as her dad is in the biz, the place is filled with creative types, who are constantly playing live music throughout, which jangles Kym’s nerves, having been away at rehab for nine months and seeing her family for the first time has her understandably anxious.


Hathaway, who I have never really been partial to, deserves every scrap of Oscar buzz she has netted from here in Toronto, and also from the film’s recent premiere at Venice. She is a spoiled, snappish little slip of a thing who is in a desperate state of transition, and whom no one trusts. They all have good reason for that, too: Kym, who must always be the center of attention, is responsible for an unspeakable family tragedy due to her drug addiction and general petulance.


Kym’s scenes in Narcotic’s Anonymous and her dealings with rehab, and the legal system (and of their condescending bureaucracy) are well-handled by the proficient young actress.  People who have been through these things in real life will appreciate Demme and Hathaway’s insistence on properly detailing the meetings, the probation officers and the people in charge who just think of the sardonic Kym as a stupid, screwed up little girl will find a particular realism and hopefully some resonance. These are very tiny details, but they are the kind of attentive pieces of a character puzzle that add up to a large pay-off.


Her family doesn’t really know what to do anymore, or how to behave around her, which causes Kym even more stress. The way that familial bonds and wounds are gauged in Rachel, and the way these obstacles are overcome, are the most interesting component of the film. Why do we allow those closest to us to hurt us the most? Why is it ok for someone in your family to apologize over and over, to maybe not even mean it, but to continually get away with behaving badly? Rachel would like everyone to forget about Kym for just one day and focus on her wedding, but even she wants to know when her responsibility for her sister will come to an end. She doesn’t even really want a happy medium, she just wants one day.


Abby (Debra Winger, roaring back, thank God!) is the girl’s distant mother, and almost instantly, you can see why her daughters have turned out slightly screwy. Winger instantly embodies a character she hasn’t tried to tackle before –- the uptight, socially proper type who would never want anyone to know what a terrible mother she actually is. During a particular train wreck of a rehearsal dinner, where Kym derails publicly, Abby looks as though she is about to crawl out of her skin.


This is a Stepford-y, unsentimental turn from one of the greats of the business who just walked out of her career, and one can surmise it is much like the way she walks out of her fictional daughter’s life. She plays her few scenes with an aristocratic aloofness that helps add up to a performance. It’s “the mother” role, but a new take: her life no longer revolves around her children, and she likes being away from them. If Ruby Dee, Vanessa Redgrave, and countless others who have turned virtual cameos into Oscar nominations in the past, then Winger should merit the same year-end consideration for her return.


Even Abby, though, must eventually face up to some of the glaring problems that she has passed on to both Rachel and Kym, and in her final scene, Demme wisely chooses to go with his gut and give true realism, rather than sloppily pandering to the audience’s emotions – the three actresses share a single beautiful, moving moment together where nothing is really resolved, but there is a fleeting feeling of comfort for but a second.


The dance sequence that ends the film, filled with booming music, is terrifically-shot and overall, Rachel has many qualities to admire, and is filled with some appealing, if not fully explored themes. It is mainly worthy to bear witness to Hathaway’s one-woman wrecking crew of a star turn plow through everything with a complexity she hasn’t really been afforded the chance to explore onscreen as of yet. As a performer, she hints at a fine dramatic maturity that will surely lead her to her first Oscar nomination.


“Maturity” is a good word for Demme’s style here as well –- it has evolved from his maverick indie-king days but still feels special and home-made, if not as overtly curious as his older films. He heartily walks the trapeze of drama versus comedy without a net, and he does it better than most. His Rachel is robust, brimming with life, and a joyous reason to celebrate: Demme’s back and he’s brought out the best in Hathaway!


Tomorrow, it’s time to bring out the men folk: co-writers/directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden follow up Half Nelson with the surprisingly strong Sugar, while Stephen Soderbergh gives us four and a half ponderous Terrence Malick-esque hours of Che starring Benecio Del Toro, while Darren Aronofsky turns in his career-best, The Wrestler, featuring Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, and, in the performance of a lifetime, Mickey Rourke. I’m not even kidding in the slightest. I can’t even believe I am saying this, but Rourke is literally on the fast track to an Oscar with his magisterial portrayal of a professional wrestler fallen from grace.


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Monday, Sep 8, 2008
TIFF 08: Now with More Celebrities Than You Can Shake a Stick At!

Up until today things were looking pretty bleak here in Toronto, as far as films go. My favorite parts of the festival have been, in no particular order: the new Olivier Assayas film, the food, and the multitude of men in tight pants; including, for the second straight year in a row, the debonair, police-barricade-jumping Viggo Mortensen—but more on him later, because, as we learned last year with Eastern Promises, every Toronto Film Festival must always come back to Viggo.


This has mostly been a banner year for star-spotting: I’ve sat at the feet of Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and Dakota Fanning (lol—check out October’s Suffragette City column for a full-length dissection of their film The Secret Life of Bees) and I’ve seen Gael Garcia Bernal get a piggy-back ride from Mark Ruffalo. After all of this star-fuckery, I was thinking it would be great to actually get to see a film that truly moves me, rather than the man-candy proliferating the streets.


The Burning Plain (dir. Guillermo Arriaga, 2008, USA)

Thankfully, I got a chance to catch Guillermo Arriaga’s spectacular directorial debut, The Burning Plain today, which more than satisfied my need for nourishing cinematic sustenance.


Arriaga’s debut follows his much-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for Babel and is reminiscent, in many ways, of his prior two films with Alejandro Gonzales-Inaritu, Ammores Perros and 21 Grams. Comparably, The Burning Plain tells several distinct, convergent stories that are elliptically inter-connected and are told with a singular energy and dynamism that has come to be associated with Arriaga. 


A master at capturing multiple, parallel perspectives in one film, without it ever feeling overly-full, talky or scattered, Arriaga has also carved an unexpected niche as one of the premiere, go-to screenwriters who is continually exploring unique female characters and women’s themes in a touching, intelligent way. The women of Arriaga’s worldview are amongst some of the most piquant, well-conceived characters in recent cinema history—they are the everywomen who are often thrust into extraordinary circumstances, who are put through their paces by life, and not some fantasy Hollywood ideal of what a woman’s life is, either. They have real problems, which are often crippling.


In 21 Grams, there was the trio of Naomi Watts, Melissa Leo and Charlotte Gainsbourg all going for broke, each giving a superlative, sincere performance (with Watts garnering an Oscar nomination for Best Actress). Babel’s actresses, Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kickuchi, of course scored an unprecedented set of Academy Award nominations for their very different women at the ends of their ropes in Mexico and Japan, respectively.  It is not a surprise in the least that our brightest and best are lining up to collaborate with him.


With this new offering, which took 15 years to gestate (“you have to wait until the story is mature enough to be told,” he said in an interview), the director can add four more excellently drawn female characters to this pantheon of gorgeously modern, unforgettable anti-heroines.


The Burning Plain opens in the Organ Mountains in Las Cruces, a place of isolation, where a trailer is ablaze in the middle of seeming nothingness. Abruptly, the point of view switches to Portland, Oregon, where an angry, nude Sylvia (Charlize Theron) is instructing her sleeping lover John (John Corbett) to “get out”. These opening sequences add to the key elements of poignancy, and mystery that run throughout without being overly sappy or arty. It keeps viewers guessing and hanging on for any crumb of a detail that will better orient them to what is happening. You want to pay attention, you want to understand.


Sylvia is a restaurant manager who has a problem with acting out sexually. She’s also a self-mutilator, who, at times when she’s alone, looks like she is about to crawl out of her own skin or even end it all at any second. There is a thrilling, fresh approach to this character that is wisely, masterfully under-played by Theron. When at work, she’s another woman altogether. To the actresses’ credit, she is able to use her own physicality in a creative way: her facial expressions, her guarded body language, and her damaged silence and stillness are all perfectly modulated against a glorious ocean backdrop at one point, and the effect is gripping. She tackles the very tricky concept of cyclical, learned behavior being wildly, destructively misinterpreted without any hint of histrionics.


The film switches gears quickly once more, to the story of brothers Santiago and Christobal (Danny Pino and Diego Torres), whose father, Nick, we learn as the survey the wreckage, died in the opening sequence; making love to a woman they refer to as “that slut”. At Nick’s funeral, an angry man shows up with his kids screaming that the dead Nick was a “wetback” and that he hopes both sons burn in hell alongside their father for taking away the mother of his children. Nick was apparently not so well-liked.


Arriaga sets up another multi-lingual, multicultural mini-epic that cannily explores border town tensions and racial tensions, with the same ease with which he looks at family and internal tensions. He does all of this while constantly maintaining a clear, gorgeous mise- en-scene filled with sexual and romantic intrigues that are utterly believable and expertly shaded with a minimalist, lyrical quality. In particular, his take on middle-aged sexuality, in the story of Gina (Kim Basinger) and her lover (Joaquim De Almeida) has a lived-in realism that makes for a wholly compelling, watchable experience that explores with frankness a woman’s sexuality in the aftermath of breast cancer.


There is also an obvious thrill to watching these actors dig into their ripe, juicy roles with sharp abandon. Theron is perfectly cast as the depressed, wanton Sylvia. Her eyes burning with an intensity not unlike the fire that opens the film, the performer gets her best role in years, in her best film since winning the Oscar for Monster. There is a degree of thoughtful commitment and intelligence in this performance that marks her as one of, if not the most consistently adventure-seeking, risk taking female actresses of her generation. And she is only getting even better with age.


The same goes double for Basinger, whose face is more glorious and breathtaking now, at age 55, than it was almost 30 years ago when she first began acting. She does a tremendous job of playing a real woman, who shops at K-Mart, and lives a rather meager existence. When big stars like this play parts that require them to be “real” or “de-glam” as it has come to be known, there can often be a distracting star quality and artifice that permeates the work, hinders the actual performance, and ruins their full disappearance into character.


Not so with Gina, in any way: Basinger nails this out of the park and should be extremely proud of her work here. The character is torn between familial duties and lustful abandon, she has a bruised, wounded sexuality; which is something of a Basinger specialty (for which she has been given an Oscar, for 97’s L.A. Confidential). This ordinary housewife’s unassuming descent into a tragedy that will forever alter her family’s lives becomes at once inordinately moving and harrowing in the actresses’ hands. Gina is her best performance; her most subtle, mature, brilliant work.


Arriaga’s use of the close-up with these two characters borders on being Ingmar Bergman-esque at times, and he knows how to show off an actor’s face with pitch-perfect modulation, allowing for silence and appropriately necessary reflective moments that drive the story and are crucial for establishing such complex characters. He does this not only with Theron and Basinger, but with the entire excellent cast as well.


Everything that the film wants to accomplish—it’s mystery, it’s yearning, and it’s heart, are all reflected on the faces and in the eyes of the cast, in loving close-ups that are infused with naturally moody lighting. Authoritatively written, photographed, and directed, The Burning Plain is an eloquent, moving experience that needs to be released into theaters ASAP for serious year-end awards consideration. If Basinger can pull off an Oscar win for getting slapped by Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential, then she more than merits consideration for at least a nomination here, particularly in such a weak year.


Appaloosa (dir. Ed Harris, 2008, USA)

From one “plain” to another, we travel to the town of Appaloosa, where lawlessness runs rampant (in the form of a dastardly Jeremy Irons), and the “good guys” (Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen) ride into the place to save the day, for a nominal fee, of course.


The film treads the same similar ground as many other cinematic Western points of reference, John Ford being the obvious, though even as an homage Appaloosa, which is very entertaining and well-made, doesn’t really come even close to capturing that genre master’s ebullience. The main draw for the some 1,500 (!) people who came to see the film at it’s world premiere at the beautiful, historic Elgin Theater in the middle of downtown Toronto was not the content, likely, but the experience of being closer to the stars—Harris, Irons, Mortensen and Renee Zellweger were all on hand to launch this labor of love.


In addition to star-spotting, another facet of the “festival experience” is meeting genuine fans of film who are revved up, having fun, and talking trash while staked on the street, waiting in massive, unbelievable lines to get in to a show they pay top dollar for. Whether it’s 17 year old guys spazzing out over catching a glimpse of Zellweger, or middle-aged women who are not really sure who Viggo is (but once they come face to face with him, they are won’t soon forget!), part of doing this festival successfully involves trading war stories with your neighbor while standing in these lines, and loving it (and I should really be getting paid by this festival to write this “how-to-festival” manual).


The red carpet premiere brought out not only stars and fans with tickets, but also drew a massive crowd of onlookers and paparazzi across the street, who were all screaming and yelling at the top of their lungs, as what felt like a million flashes went off. It was actually a little bit scary and I don’t know how these film people can handle that part of their job. After doing his duty on the carpet, Mortensen, after first going inside, came running back out and actually hopped over police barricades (followed by a frantic entourage), scampered through downtown traffic on Yonge Street and signed multiple autographs for fans who had been standing there for hours. Talk about a dashing star turn. I don’t think I even need to really mention this, but that is one handsome man.


Before the premiere of Appaloosa, Harris took to the stage to address the audience. “I know I’m not the governor of Alaska, but,” joked the self-effacing actor-director to thunderous applause as he began to explain his project to the crowd. In 2000, he brought his very different Pollack here for launching, to great success, which he hoped to repeat with his newest venture.


Based on the novel of the same name by Robert Parker (who was in attendance and given a shout-out from the dais), Harris explained he first wanted to do the project while he was in Ireland doing a play and became fascinated by the two lead characters’ relationship, and called Mortensen one of the “loves of his life” (the other, he pointed out was Zellweger, in the film). There was an intensely emotional moment that felt very private when Harris thanked his father, who plays a judge in Appaloosa. “I’m so darn proud of him,” Harris said, choking back tears. “He did a great job”. His father stood up and received a roaring ovation as Harris beamed. Then bringing Irons, Mortensen, and Zellweger out to the stage, he commented that they were some of the best actors he had ever worked with and that there were “no divas, no jerks,” and then joined the group in the theater to watch the film on the big screen, with the crowd, something of an opening night tradition here.


The most surprising thing about Appaloosa was its sense of humor. There are countless moments of good-hearted quips and cowboy jokes intertwined with the violence that had the audience guffawing; everything is sort of mildly reminiscent of other similar flicks, and from what I gathered from Harris’ speech, his making this film seemed to be something he was doing perhaps for his dad, but also just for the good old-fashioned fun of spinning a Old West yarn that audiences will probably really enjoy. What’s wrong with making an enjoyable, simple little film every now and again?


Revenge, anarchistic villains, and shady ladies, are the recurring themes that the hard-working townsfolk of the titular city are relentlessly plagued by as they are repeatedly hounded by the Braggs gang (led by Irons), who take the law into their own hands. Enter Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch (Harris and Mortensen), legendary men of honor who will even the odds out by slinging a gun faster than anyone else, to protect their charges, for the right price. They trade jokes back and forth, even in the face of danger; in the wise-cracking, rich American tradition Old West mythology.


Still, the film is less about cinematic innovation that it is about the pure delight of making movies with people you like, with material of your own choosing. The esprit de corps, the camaraderie, and enthusiasm shared by this cast (working harmoniously together) and the adventure they embarked on making it is almost more remarkable than the actual end product. Largely an homage, Appaloosa is well-made, and well-shot; has nice sets and costumes, but no one is going to be winning any kind of awards for acting for their work here. And that’s fine. Each cast member does fine and serves the material appropriately.


Harris (looking like he just stepped off the set of his ‘87 film Walker) and Mortensen have a bountiful, lived-in chemistry and Irons is a completely stock “bad guy”, but he does that sort of greasy cliché very well. Zellweger wisely underplays in a strange role, essentially playing a kind of bad actress. She seems at home in the genre, able to employ her comedic chops in equal measure to her dramatic side.


This couldn’t be any more far removed from the world of Jackson Pollack, so to that point, Harris as a director shows a capable versatility by proving he can coordinate a big-budget, economically-paced, rhythmic period piece. It doesn’t re-invent the wheel or anything, but it is nonetheless energetic and enjoyable—a throwback and a crow-pleaser. I can’t wait to see what Harris does next, he’s one of the most sincerely adventurous artists we have working.


Blindness (dir. Fernando Meirelles, 2008, Canada/Brazil/Japan)

At the historic Elgin theater on Yonge street in downtown Toronto, there are three lines that form when a film is playing there: a regular line for people with tickets, a “rush” line for those who don’t, and a special, corporate whoring line for those who have Visa platinum or gold cards, who get to go in before everyone else and have priority seating.


When I was waiting to see Appaloosa on Friday, I furiously looked through my wallet to see what kind of credit card I could muster up, and, as I didn’t think I had the proper piece of plastic, I waited in the regular line, got a terrible seat with a pillar in front of me and watched everyone else whiz by.


Saturday for Fernando Meirelles’ Blindness, I discovered that I actually did have a Visa platinum card in my wallet the whole time.


I was let immediately in, and whisked down to the Visa Lounge, a super-exclusive (well, not really) little area of the theater where the elite (again, not really) chill and mingle. Lindt chocolate chefs were dipping gourmet bon bons, and every table was adorned with orchids and glittering little candle lamps. Those with no Visa (the ones who probably are wise to not have one, that is!) waited in what looked like a miles-long line, for literally hours, while I enjoyed a glass of chardonnay and ate freshly-prepared candies brought directly to my table like a civilized human being (or was it like a spoiled housewife?). Sure beats waiting in the rain.


In attendance was, I think, every single person who was involved with making the film: Meirelles, Julianne Moore, Sandra Oh, Mark Ruffalo, and Gael Garcia Bernal (who rode out piggy-back on Ruffalo) were among the glitterati onstage, while in the audience I was mere feet away from two amazing Oscar-winners: Adrien Brody and Geoffrey Rush.


Screenwriter Don McKellar (the Canadian writer-director-star of the critically acclaimed Last Night) came onstage to tell a charming anecdote about traveling to the Canary Islands to woo author Jose Saramago for the book’s rights (“he was suspicious of the film industry. I don’t know why” he deadpanned); then after Meirelles brought everyone out and made a short speech, the house lights went down, and, having not read the book (I know! I know!), I had no idea what to expect.


Immediately, the audience was transported into a visually arresting world. We are plopped down squarely into a nameless city where everything seems like business as usual. Except, through the eyes of this director, there is a stylistically precise element to each shot, something that has become a major component of his oeuvre. I talk a lot about “energy” and how it relates to a film’s life force in my writing, and Meirelles is a man who proudly uses his “energy” and exuberance to guide a film from being ordinary to being completely unique—I doubt you will not encounter any more visually courageous imagery this year.


Washed out in gauzy tones, with effects blurring and confounding and white-hot lights popping and disorienting, Meirelles forces his viewer to be a part of this world much in the way Julian Schnabel had the spectators see the world of Jean-Dominique Bauby through his single working eye in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. When you put your audience into a position of empathy like this, it is extremely hard for them to remain unattached; they are forced to care almost. It’s jarring. Personally, I wish that all films could be as thoughtful and talent-rich this: multiple perspectives from around the globe converging into one spectacular artistic collaboration, with everyone bringing their “A” game, on one of the most celebrated modern novels is pretty much a dream come true.


These kinds of major works are rare, and the elements actually coming together cohesively are even rarer. The film faced an uphill battle after being trashed at Cannes, but the cut that played in Toronto, I am told, was a marked improvement, and majorly over-hauled—which included taking out what I heard was a stilted narrative monologue.


Moore and Ruffalo are “The Doctor” and “The Doctor’s Wife”, who, when everyone is beginning to lose their sight, remains the calm in the eye of the storm. They are mainly relatively calm (comparatively) because the wife, for an unknown reason, has still gone blind. Everything whites out for the characters that do, though, and then complete, anarchic pandemonium breaks loose. An epidemic sweeps this city, hitting it hard. This could really be anyone’s city. The panic that ensues is wholly petrifying, especially when people’s evil natures get the better of them.


One by one, the characters are cordoned off into a dank, filthy “quarantine” by the government. It is scary to think of what would happen should a large medical disaster of these proportions actually happen—are we ready to take on the unknown? Are we strong enough to not take advantage of one another in a time of catastrophic crisis? Can we band together and help one another in a state of helplessness and defensiveness? Over the course of the film, these questions have to be answered by the performers, and the answers might shock you. It’s surprising where the sources of courage are in the darkest hours, and everyone begins to rely on Moore’s ability to see as she is the only one who still can. She’s everyone’s nurse, everyone’s angel; ghostly pale to the point of being nearly translucent. An apparition floating through the shit and the rubbish to help strangers.


Left to their own devices, after the government alternately threatens and abandons them, the blind begin to make their own help. They band together to make the best of a bad situation. The apocalyptic doom and gloom plays as being surprisingly realistic and not to hard to imagine taking place in the foreseeable future—it does not take much suspension of disbelief to think that human suffering would be placed lower in importance than government or corporate bureaucracy.


Both could easily be our undoing in real life as well. It’s not a stretch to think the government would just as soon kill the infirmed as they would help them, probably because that is already sort of happening to the homeless, to the mentally ill, and to the disabled. No pun intended, but when it comes to the needy, we have a nasty habit of turning a blind eye. We seal ourselves off hermetically from these problems rather than face them and fix them, which is exactly what happens in Blindness.In the film, the people “guarding” the blind callously laugh when they see people hurt or when people violently die. They are forbidden from leaving their prison-home.


At turns disturbingly provocative, and risky, the entire cast of actors has a field day with the gruesome challenges Saramago outlined in his epic. The multiple physical challenges that they put themselves through and the universal, relevant emotional themes that are played out require an expertly-trained ensemble to hold this sort of mirror up to society. Not only do the actors gamely take up the challenge, they do it in a responsible, socially and globally aware way. Even though there are extended scenes of violence, particularly one of the most awful scenes of female torture, rape and degradation I have ever seen put to film; there is never a feeling of gratuitousness.


When the psychotic, self-appointed “King of Ward 3” takes over the food supply, he demands the other blind wards give up all of their valuables in order to eat. When they run out of jewelry, he takes women as payment. The women volunteer, thinking this will save them in some way, but they are brutalized to a savage degree that had some female audience members in tears. I’m not sure what that meant, but there was an undeniable, terrible power to what was happening up there that elicits a gut response.


In that sequence, a survival instinct comes out in the women that they didn’t know was there to begin with, and it compels them to bring about change in a denouement of pure adrenaline-fueled chaos and triumph where people walk the streets in zombie-like hordes, scavenging desperately in a world of ruination.


Meirelles needs to be commended for taking on this job that requires someone with a perfect blending of an artist’s eye and the technical know-how of a true genius. It is unimaginable what kind of work went into piecing this meticulous bedlam together, stitch by stitch, and the degree of difficulty in coordinating, staging, and choreographing this mayhem. He pulls it off beautifully, though, without resorting to beating us over the head with symbolism or preaching. This is a delicate balancing act that proves him to be one of our great contemporary working directors.


Blindness is a must-see film for this bravery. It was a privilege to get to watch it with the cast and crew, and award it with a standing ovation and shouts of “bravo!”



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