Witch, please

› cheryl@sfbg.com

If you can end your Toronto International Film Festival experience with a movie that climaxes in a 10-minute fistfight (roofs collapse, cinder blocks are smashed, tables become splinters, ankle bones snap like twigs, and vengeance is won … but at what price?), that qualifies as a joyous note in my book. And fortunately, it’s my book we’re talking about — specifically, my TIFF screening list, which by the end of my festival stint was completely mangled by incoherent scribblings and intricate schemes involving cinematic scheduling and basic human needs (chief among them sleep, which was often totally disregarded).

There’s a fine art to festivalgoing. I’m not sure I’ve mastered it yet. But I managed to see 26 (and a half) movies, probably missing some that I should have seen and certainly digesting a few disappointments. Another critic could spend a week in Toronto and see none of the films that I saw; my tastes run toward horror, documentaries, Hollywood and accessible indie stuff by directors I admire, and Hong Kong cinema (like the ankle buster mentioned above, the Donnie Yen–<\d>starring Flash Point). Plus, you gotta work in at least a few totally random selections — otherwise, what’s the point of being surrounded by cinema 24-7?

The big bananas in the horror bunch were Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears, the long-awaited conclusion to his witch-happy Three Mothers trilogy, and George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, hyped as the legendary zombie king’s return to no-frills filmmaking. I also followed my thrill-sniffing snout to Spanish newcomer Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage and the French Frontier(s), directed by Xavier Gens (whose Hollywood debut, video game–<\d>based Hitman, is currently trailered on Death Sentence). I’m a huge fan of Argento’s gialli and flashy, trashy, blood-soaked horror epics — and while I’m aware of the argument that he hasn’t made a great film since 1985’s Phenomena, Mother of Tears offers vintage pleasures galore. You want a coherent story and subtle acting? Look elsewhere (perhaps to the ghostly, Guillermo del Toro–<\d>produced fable The Orphanage). Argento’s tale starts with a cursed urn and snowballs into mad hysteria, grabbing a gold-toothed witch, Argento ex (and Mother star Asia Argento’s real-life mother) Daria Nicolodi, a creepy monkey, and exorcist Udo Kier en route to a church-burningly ridiculous conclusion. In other words, I loved it.

I wasn’t as sold on Frontier(s), a well-made but derivative Texas Chainsaw Massacre descendent that squanders its interesting Paris riots context. And it’s my sad duty to report that Diary of the Dead is hardly essential Romero. Glowing reviews published elsewhere baffle me. Diary works an of-the-moment theme of kids subverting the mainstream media via user-controlled Internet sites — post–<\d>undead apocalypse, the only source of truth for the masses. But it becomes caught up in Making a Statement, and its narrative device — camera-wielding film student obsessively documents the undead uprising — is completely irritating. Sorry, but I’ll take the flawed-but-fun Land of the Dead any day.

Enfolded into my documentary diet were several music-themed entries, including Heavy Metal in Baghdad and Joy Division, and the doclike narratives Control and I’m Not There. We all know things are bad in Iraq, but Heavy Metal puts them on a regular-dude level that CNN reports don’t often facilitate. Metal outfit Acrassicauda love Slayer and Metallica, and they (and their fans) just wanna rock. At the start of the film (exec-produced by Spike Jonze and codirected by Suroosh Alvi, the cofounder of Vice magazine, and Eddy Moretti), the musicians claim they aren’t a political band. Attitudes change, thanks to Scud missiles (which destroy their practice space and all of their instruments), pressure from a culture that frowns on long hair and headbanging, and a post–<\d>Saddam Hussein environment of extreme danger (machine-gun fire is just part of the street noise). Less contemporary but no less absorbing is Joy Division, Grant Gee’s reverent and artful look at Manchester’s pioneering post-punkers. Lead singer Ian Curtis is the focus of Control, a black-and-white wonder by music-video vet Anton Corbijn that focuses mostly on the troubled Curtis’s rocky personal life. Meanwhile, Todd Haynes creatively interprets the music biopic — as he’s done before with Superstar and Velvet Goldmine — with I’m Not There, a freewheeling (yet carefully calibrated) look at Bob Dylan. An array of famous folks — the stunning Cate Blanchett among them — portrays an array of Dylanesque characters. Though I could feel the movie being deliberately arty at times, it worked for me. And I’m not even a huge Dylan fan.

I’m running out of space, and I haven’t even gotten to three of my favorite TIFF films, so I’ll just lump ’em in here. Son of Rambow got mad props at Sundance, and with good reason; you’d have to be completely heartless to not love this tale of two British boys who bond over the one thing they have in common: First Blood. You know you’re gonna see No Country for Old Men anyway, because seeing the new Coen brothers movie — well, that’s a no-brainer. Lucky for you, it’s their best film in years. If Oscar don’t bite, there’s no hope for Oscar. I know the gold guy will totally ignore Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely, and that’s OK. I doubt the multiplex crowd will go for its sweetly bizarre tale of celebrity impersonators (Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe specifically, but other faux familiar faces, including Abe Lincoln and Buckwheat, make appearances) — and that’s not even mentioning Werner Herzog or the skydiving nuns. Amid all the witches, zombies, and actual movie stars, it was my favorite TIFF film.*