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Saturday, Sep 20, 2008
by Sarah Zupko and Karen Zarker
Words by Karen Zarker and Pictures by Sarah Zupko.

We snagged the best table at the 3rd & Lindsley. This is a really good venue when you’ve got a table up close to the stage—that is, under the speakers that will, if aimed right at you, blast you to a pulp by the end of the evening. The lighting is harsh, but you’ll only notice that if you’re trying to photo shoot.


Jim White started us off this evening rather sweet and mellow. Or rather, a bit bitter and mellow (the tangy bite of his satirical lyrics are balanced with a mix of musical sugar). A master of the pedal last night, up there all by himself, he interspersed his songs with amusing storytelling. Intimate and comfortable.


A swift setup and in no time the Red Stick Ramblers dragged us kickin’ and hollering down to the Louisiana bayous. Consummate musicians, those of us stuck in our seats were doing the butt cheek dance while the women in the back grabbed one another and twirled. Just when your soul feels it might burst from all that Cajun-sustaining food, they bring it to a rousing end. Damn, that’s right—it’s a showcase, it ended about four hours too soon.


Time is a funny thing though, ain’t it? Jim White takes his 45-50 minutes with you and it’s like you were sitting on the porch all summer evening, enjoying the song of the crickets and the company of a good friend, while sharing a bottle. The Red Stick Ramblers made time go by faster than a speeding semi barreling down I-65 between Chicago and Nashville. And then Peter Bradley Adams and his band came on…


Set up takes a while, and we’re wary. Signifiers indicate this might be a… mellow set. Really mellow. A guitar case is opened and a Soviet-era looking poster is taped to the case for all to see. “HOPE”, it demands. Oh, yeah, that’s the latest Obama poster. 


Ironically, we spent more time writing over this set than any other, this evening—that is, passing notes back and forth to one another. “This is the sort of polite, mopey, singer-songwriter lite that sounds at home in a Starbucks line. Very sincere, slightly dazed-looking female back-up singer; even more seemingly sincere, deep lead singer. There are other musicians on the stage, but their sound is so muddy, one only knows from sight that they’re working… Rather depressing, really.” (That was a long note.) “I could help out that back-up singer, a few notches or 20.” “I could give the lead a decent haircut”, “Well, the bass player is cute” and so on. That’s a 45 minutes of our lives we want back.



Mike Farris and his amazing band answered our prayers and gave us more soulful sound in their all-too-short set than mere physical boundaries such as time and earthly bodies can contain. Lord, they resonate. If you see this man and his band once in your life, it will be music you’ll hear in your head when you’re clinging to the last vestiges of this mortal world—it is truly a joyful sound. It’s gospel, yes, but it’s that universal gospel that moves even the most cynical soul. Farris and the McCrary Sisters are singing their salvation—and yours—and you will be moved, no matter how firmly you keep to your convictions, wherever they’re grounded. Their Deep South sound heavily steeped in the sounds of New Orleans and Memphis will take you to Heaven and you won’t be able to sit down. Rarely do we, considered outsiders by many in this country, feel so welcome—and so damned happy to be human—than in the company of these highly talented people.



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Friday, Sep 19, 2008
by Sarah Zupko and Karen Zarker
Words by Karen Zarker and Sarah Zupko and Pictures by Sarah Zupko.

Day 1


Seated way in the back, the Ryman’s notoriously excellent acoustics failed, somehow, for Levon Helm’s Ramble. Couldn’t hear the horns, couldn’t hear Helm’s singing all that well, either. Hope the folks who were filming that event for DVD had a better time of it than we. Several songs in, and we stepped out to see what else was shaking on the opening night of the festival.


We stopped at the Basement—a cramped, somewhat down-in-the-heels place reminiscent of some of Austin’s less than pristine venues (we’re talking about you Emo’s). But hey, we come for the music. Alas, we never got to hear it, as two big mouthed, drunken louts “Whooo hoo’d” at everything and everyone—and the music hadn’t even started. Some pretty little thing was setting up on the stage, her clingy dress showing her form rather nicely for anyone with eyes in their head. But the Louts seemed to feel compelled to assist anyone there who might be blind, and “Whooo hoo’d” her for our benefit, as well. Bet she felt flattered, boys, thank you very much. Impossible to hear one’s own thoughts in this tiny space with these damned fools bellowing, we knew we’d never get to enjoy the music, either. Sorry, the Belleville Outfit, the everybodyfields, the Dedringers and Patrick Sweany, but the Basement seemed content to indulge the Whoo Hoos, and not you. We moved on before the show even started, cursing under our breaths.


Soon after we were pulling up chairs to the long tables at the Station Inn (with a car, it’s very easy to get around Nashville for these showcases). Many years prior we’d stopped here for some bluegrass and the feel was as if we stepped into a revival tent. We’d best be converted, or perhaps move on. Rather intense, in that regard, on that day.


It’s in this modest and yes, intense setting that PopMatters’ favorite Mike Farris holds a regular Sunday night gig. We saw him live on a large stage at the Mercy Lounge at last year’s Americana Music Fest—with plenty of room for his band of won’t-be-denied New Orleans-style horns and his trio of gorgeous back-up singers, The McCrary Sisters. Lord, how their sound filled every square inch of space in that large hall, wrapped around us and gave us a squeal-inducing squeeze. Yow!  We’ll be seeing him soon back at 3rd and Lindsley.


But this night, we were at the Station Inn in to hear artists new to us. Donna Beasley is lovely, if you like your decaf in the morning watered down with skim milk and just a granule or two of sugar. Looks good coming to the table, but alas, the brew is weak. An early morning kept us from staying for what appeared to be a folksy line-up tonight.


The first day at the Americana Music Festival was, alas, a bust for us. Others with more endurance and tolerance might say otherwise.


Day Two


Day two started with the incomparable Casey Driessen at the cozy Douglas Corner Café. Now that’s a great venue for hearing really good music. You talk during someone’s set there, you’ll be hushed by the hard core, knowledgeable music devotees surrounding you. And get your butt in that chair, now, ‘cause the artists start on time. Ah!  Perfect.


We’re figuring that when Driessen was a young man he sought out and found the Devil. He said, “Mr. Devil, I’ll give you my soul if you let me play this violin like no other living man.”  The Devil looked him up and down slowly—didn’t take long, as he’s a little fella—sucked on the smoking piece of straw in his mouth and said, “Son, you can keep your soul. You’re gonna need it when you step out on that stage.  But I’m gonna make that violin play you.”


And indeed it does. That sassy violin grabs Driessen by the scruff of the neck and has him shaking on his toes. We swear it thinks it’s the smartest thing in the room, and dares you to try to keep up with it. Ever hear an instrument do a call and response, making it look so damned easy conversational-wise with itself?  Uh huh. Keep up with us, here. Any chance you get to see this man perform live- er, this violin play this man—go, and give yourself one hell of a treat.


Some head shaking appreciation of Driessen over a cocktail at the quiet, elegant bar at Maggiano’s, and then we made our way to the Ryman, again, for the Americana Awards show.


Thank you, Americana Music Festival, for those second row, center seats, where we were in good company with many notables. Joan Baez, on hand to receive the “Spirit of Americana” Free Speech Award, sat behind us and Robert Plant, Alison Krauss and Mike Farris were just to our left. No complaints about acoustics this night. We could hear the sweat flying.


Courtesy of the AMA

Courtesy of the AMA


Ryan Bingham’s voice sounds like a truck tire on a gravel road, complete with rocks flying up and hitting the fender—it’s a good country sound.


Courtesy of the AMA

Courtesy of the AMA


When Steve Earle walked out we thought it might be the ghost of Allen Ginsberg, such is his middle-aged resemblance. Mr. Earle, please leave New York. It’s softened your sound and taken the edge off the anger that makes us wanna listen.


(You can see the awards results listed below.)


All the while there was Buddy Miller, sweet and modest, playing with the band. You’ll see this talented man everywhere, in the band, with nary a notice ‘til he steps up the mic and makes you smile so broadly.


Courtesy of the AMA

Jason & The Scorchers - Courtesy of the AMA


So, too, Joe Ely (a personal favorite) gives his all, every time we see him, every venue—from a room full of the reverent to singing over the fools blathering in the back, too damned ignorant to know what they’re missing. The man is pure, raw talent, and he makes you zero in on his songs and listen close, the rest of the world be damned.


Earlier in the day, on our way to Jack’s Bar-B-Que, we think we saw a construction crew on the roof of the Ryman, applying reinforcements in anticipation of Mike Farris (another personal favorite) and his kickass band. One song, “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” had the crowd testing the integrity of the Ryman’s construction. We swear that building was jumping. Wonder if they taped the stained glass windows, lest they shatter.


Speaking of building-shattering performances, Jason & The Scorchers did not hold back even for the sacred old Ryman—damn near twirled and leapt off the stage right into our second row laps. Tommy Womack has a write up in the program about Jason & the Scorchers that is high caliber music writing. If we find an online link to it, we’ll plug it in here for your reading pleasure. Heck, if we had a scanner…


After a lengthy chatty Awards ceremony, we headed south to 3rd and Lindsley for the Joe Ely set. Yep, Ely is one of those people we’re almost willing to follow to the ends of the earth. We were exhausted by this time, but 3rd and Lindsley has lots of tables and chairs (hallelujah) to rest our weary bones.


The always delightful Rosie Flores was dazzling the crowd with her sassy vocals and mean guitar when we stepped into the cozy place. James Intveld joined her for a few duets of pure honky tonk.


That set the stage nicely for Ely, who mostly played solo. Favorites like “All Just to Get to You” and “Me and Billy the Kid” roused the crowd and a new number “Homeland Refugee” proved equally compelling. The real treat of the evening was Ryan Bingham appearing on stage about halfway into the Ely set to sing a few songs with the Texas legend. They reprised their duet, “Southside of Heaven”, from early in the evening at the awards show and sang a few more off Bingham’s debut release.


Bingham’s dry, crusty Texas twang rests ever so nicely next to Ely’s more polished tones and they clearly feed off each other’s energy. Here’s hoping these two form a more permanent musical partnership and head out onto the road together. They just need to be sure to bring along ace accordionist Joel Guzman (Ely’s frequent musical partner) as Ely’s tunes—anyone’s, really —benefit enormously from the fiery, soulful solos and flourishes of this instrumental master.


AWARD WINNERS


  • Album of the Year: Alison Krauss & Robert Plant/Raising Sand
  • Artist of the Year: Levon Helm
  • Duo/Group of the Year: Alison Krauss & Robert Plant
  • Instrumentalist of the Year: Buddy Miller
  • New Emerging Artist of the Year: Mike Farris
  • Song of the Year: “She Left Me for Jesus” by Hayes Carll and Brian Keane Additional Lifetime Achievement Honors were given to:
  • Spirit of Americana Free Speech in Music—Joan Baez
  • Lifetime Achievement / Songwriting—John Hiatt
  • Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement / Executive—Terry Lickona
  • Lifetime Achievement / Performance—Jason & The Scorchers
  • Presidents Award—Jerry Garcia
  • Lifetime Achievement / Instrumentalist—Larry Campbell
  • Trailblazer / Nanci Griffith
  • Lifetime Achievement / Producer / Engineer—Tony Brown

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Tuesday, Sep 16, 2008
Words by Chris Catania and pictures by Colleen Catania.

Landing in Chicago for his debut U.S. performance, Japanese singer-songwriter Shugo Tokumaru started the Saturday night show at the Empty Bottle before a sold out crowd deploying an acoustic version of “Parachute,” a song busting at the seams with blissful sunshine and a perfect lead single from Exithis third album and the first to be released stateside.


He bows humbly, sits down and wastes no time going right into a furious mix of arpeggio pop and classic jazz fingerings with beaming with Beatle flavors. But it’s all Tokumaru in the interpretation as he stops and starts the chord progressions on his own terms, swiftly with playful agility and pure ease, sending the crowd into a hush of awe.


Tokumaru albums are one man bedroom symphonies created and produced on computer in his bedroom as he plays fifty plus instruments on Exit’s ten tracks, blending electronic, folk, blues and Japanese pop into a dreamy transcendence that melts the language barrier to almost nothing, leaving only the sweet melodies of Tokumaru’s gentle emotive croon to tie the finally knot firmly around your heart. 


Sometimes he plays with band but tonight it’s just him and his guitar, a different listening experience that what you hear on Exit but just as engaging if not more as his fingers fly across the frets, as he sings of abstract thoughts mined from his dream diary.   


Though his 11pm set ended way too soon, I did have a chance to sit down with him afterwards, as Saturday night ticked away and Sunday morning rolled in.


In the Empty Bottle’s musty basement green room and its graffiti spattered walls as our backdrop—and with a bit of translation help from his manager Koki Yahata—Tokumaru revealed the details behind dream diary inspired songwriting, his jazz influenced trip to the US a few years ago, and why, though he’s happy to play live, he still doesn’t want to have his parents come to his shows.


This being your first time playing in the US, what are your thoughts so far?
It was raining a lot in Japan when I left I was expecting some change in weather but it hasn’t really changed at all. [chuckles] so I guess it’s kind of disappointing [chuckles].


Normally it pretty nice this time of year but with Hurricane Ike we got tons of rain the last few days. How did you feel during the show?
The reaction from the crowd was better than I expected. I was very happy with the response.


So after your first US show how would you compare playing before a Japanese audience versus a US audience?
In Japan people usually come to the show to hear the music and concentrate on the performance, so comparing with the bar being so close to the stage, it was loud in the back and it was difficult to play by myself on stage.


You did do a great job of overcoming the crowd chatter, though. When I see that happen I often wonder what people could be possibly talking about while the show’s going on and they apparently paid money for the show.
But I was very happy with the large part of the crowd who was enjoying the performance.


You play a lot of different instruments on the album. How do you decide what and how the songs get played live?
When I started making music or even playing the songs from Exit, I had no intention of playing them live on stage in front of an audience.


Your performance tonight was very different from what first time listeners would hear on the album or vice versa. Seeing your play your guitar is just as fun as it is to listen to the album. Is that intentional? Because it seems that fans would be in for a surpris whether they first hear you at a concert or on record.
Yes. And when I play other shows I sometimes play with other band members but tonight it was just me and my guitar. But it is almost impossible to recreate what I do on album, so I won’t usually recreate the whole album on stage and just sound simpler and I try to find a way to present the songs.


You had a stay in Los Angeles from 1999-2001 learning jazz and it was obvious that you’ve melded that with other guitar styles to create your own style.
I didn’t have any intention of going to Japanese college so I tried something else before I had to start working at a regular job in Japan. I really had nothing else to do so I started studying jazz [chuckles].


Tell me about your dream diary.  Your lyrics are all sung in Japanese but the way your melodies are sung the language barrier is almost eliminated.
I don’t think that much about how to write lyrics form the dream diary, but I have been writing my dream dairy since my childhood and it was a very natural thing for me. Then when I was a teenager I started making music, and I looked back at what I wrote and took some hints from the pages to begin making the music. 


So first came the dream dairy, then the music and then at some point you came across the Beatles…
[playfully chuckles] Yes.


They have a significant influence on your music. Was there a specific song or album that had the biggest impact on you?
There’s not a certain song, necessarily, but because I have been listening to them since I was kid, there are certain melodies and chord progressions that unconsciously influence me and it certainly shows up in my music.


I can see the influence but you’ve certainly made it your own.  What is it like for you when you recording the albums in your bedroom?  Are you surrounded by the instruments?
I am always surrounded by a lot of different instruments. So I can start recording them at any moment. My writing process is more like making a song up in my mind, like an image of the song, and once it is completed in my mind, then I begin recording it.


So you see the song first in your mind? Do you see the song and notes in colors like Jimi Hendrix allegedly saw music?
Yes, very similar.


What is inspiring you to make your music?
I don’t really like the lyrics to have a certain meaning. I don’t want a song to mean something specific. I try to stay away from that and that’s why I go to my dream dairy for inspiration. I always want to create something that I haven’t heard before or would like to hear by myself.


Is the dream diary something literal as if you write down songs the morning after they come to you in a dream or are the songs pulled from journal entries you’ve written years ago?
It depends. Each song is created differently from the dream dairy and it doesn’t happen the same way each time. Usually I don’t rend to turn a dream into music right away. Because when an idea of a song is half created in my head and I take an instrument right away it will be very different from what I want to make in the end, so I almost intently stay away from an idea until it is fully developed in my mind.


Do you play your music for friends before you record it?
I know exactly how I want to make it the way I want. I like to hear responses, but I generally know what I want when I hear it.


If you had a choice would you rather play live or only record in your bedroom?
Well,…basically…I like to stay at home [chuckles] and I wish I could play at home without having to travel.


Maybe you could just hook up a live feed into your bedroom…
[laughs]


So how did they get you out of your bedroom and out on the road? Did they have to drag you out kicking and screaming?
[chuckles] I don’t really know it happened…


I hope nobody drugged you or hit your over the head…so did you then all of a sudden find yourself on the Empty Bottle stage, asking yourself ‘how did I get here?’
[laughs]


Well, I’m really glad you did come out of your room, however it happened.
I am too, and the experience of playing live show in the states is not that far from what I expected. I’ve toured Europe before, and so far, it’s very similar.

Playing live is very different than you playing in your bedroom. So who was the first person to hear your music when you first began to create it as a teenager?

Various people who were beside me, friend and original members of my first band Gellers. I was in that band with a childhood friend and it was my friend who also did the cover art for Exit and he was a friend since Kindergarten.


How did he create the artwork?
He had a good idea of what he wanted to do since he was someone who first heard my music and he had also done some of my demo CD artwork.


Do your parents play music or support your music?
[emphatically shakes head and waves arms] No.


So you’re going against some family grain and taking some big risks. Do they come to your shows?
No. it’s not their fault because I asked them not to come.


Why?
It’s very embarrassing to have them in the audience and see me live on stage.


Because of the things you’re signing about?
[chuckles] …it just very personal for me…


Do you have brothers or sisters…?
Yes.


Do they come to your shows?
Yes, once or twice.


So do you invite them or tell them to stay away and they come anyway?
[laughs] no, they come to shows when they can. Either way, I’m really happy that I’m been able to do what I love to do which is make music, and I would love to go to other places to make music.


Tagged as: exit, shugo tokumaru
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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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