Toronto International Film Festival

Stuck inside of Toronto with the movie blues again


Day Five of the Toronto International Film Festival: I had to make a Bob Dylan pun above because today I saw I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’ tribute to the star (focusing on the young, exciting, pre-Victoria’s Secret sellout years, thankfully). There’s a lot going on here — I’m sure you’ve already heard about the gimmick of having several different actors play Dylan or Dylanesque characters. It makes for a fascinating comment on perceptions of stardom and celebrity — and art, I guess — with stirring music (duh), contrasting visual textures, and some random cameos by an enormous cast (David Cross as Allen Ginsberg — works for me). A few moments felt transcendent (Cate Blanchett was my favorite Dylan); others felt clipped from A Mighty Wind. This was maybe the only movie at the festival where I got that overwhelming, I’m-enveloped-by-this-film feeling … which is not to say I was one hundred percent in love with it. But it was plenty stirring.

Just like a … woman?

Meanwhile, unless something bedazzles me during my half-day tomorrow, I think I’m ready to declare my personal best-of-fest.

“It’s meant to be funny!”


Day four of the Toronto International Film Fest: So, I was wrong. Nick Broomfield’s Battle for Haditha isn’t a documentary. Hell, it doesn’t even have any voice-over. It’s a drama — a docu-drama — that reenacts a real-life Iraq war incident in which a roadside IED led to the death of one American solider — and in turn, many Iraqi civilians (including children) shot to death by the fallen soldier’s weary, emotional, and confused squadmates. Shot in Jordan, the movie goes for a Flight 93-style realism, using mostly non-actors who represent more or less the characters they portray (Al-Qaeda aside, I’m guessing.) After the doc Heavy Metal in Baghdad, Battle for Haditha is the second Iraq-themed movie I’ve seen at the Toronto International Film Festival, and there are others on the bill I won’t have time to see, like Brian DePalma’s Redacted. Iraq is totally trendy … and timely. And in my festival-addled mind, I just realized tomorrow is September 11.


Although Nick Broomfield is best-known for films like Kurt and Courtney and Biggie and Tupac, his latest is a fact-based drama, similar to his 2006 film Ghosts.

Things that aren’t there anymore


Day three of the Toronto International Film Festival, and on the heels of Control comes Joy Division, a documentary about the groundbreaking (and heartbreakingly short-lived) post-punk band. While the narrative Control busied itself more with Ian Curtis’ complicated personal life, Joy Division taks a closer look at the band’s music, rise to fame, and also the roots of their dark, moody sound — specifically, the city of Manchester in the late 1970s, where as one interviewee points out, “Nothing looked pretty.” Just about everyone still living who had anything to do with the band chimes in on the doc, which benefits from director Grant Gee’s ability to contextualize Joy Division’s place in landscapes physical, sonic, and artistic. (He also made the 1998 Radiohead doc, Meeting People is Easy.) There’s a great attention to detail — the film visits places that are crucial to Joy Division lore, like the Factory, now shut down and living on only in the collective rock n’ roll memory. Some great Joy Division peformance footage too — seeing the doc so soon after seeing Control made me truly appreciate actor Sam Riley’s portrayal of Curtis. The resemblance is pretty spooky.
Fun fact: the artist who designed this iconic album sleeve did so without ever having heard a note of Joy Division music.

Sleep is for sissies!


Er, actually, I shouldn’t say shit like that, considering whatever cruddy virus I carted from California to Canada is lingering, probably due to acute lack of shut-eye. I am now officially “that coughing asshole” during quiet moments in movies.

Fortunately, the flicks on my schedule today at the Toronto International Film Festival haven’t been too library-like. I hit up the 9am (ouch) screening of Heavy Metal in Baghdad — a doc about Iraq’s only heavy metal band, although at present it would seem Iraq has zero metal bands, considering the members of the outfit profiled here, Acrassicauda, are currently hiding out in Syria. Produced by VICE films, exec produced by Spike Jonze, and inspired by an MTV trip to Iraq soon after the war broke out, I could easily see this doc finding a home on VH-1 or MTV. It’s got a little too much filmmaker presence for me (voice-over, appearing on-camera, and so on), but it’s hard not to love any film that delivers a political message for the kiddies snugly wrapped in a burrito of heavy-metal appreciation (with some intimate glimpses at post-Saddam Iraq, where the sounds of machine-gun fire are just part of the urban landscape). Metal fans can’t even headbang in Iraq, much less grow their hair long for maximum hair-whip effect … but Acrassicauda (a type of scorpion) learned to speak English by listening to Slayer, Metallica, and Mayhem records. Now if that ain’t the very definition of metal, I don’t know what is.

This is the CD a band member holds up to illustrate “what life here looks like.” Dude ain’t joking, neither.

Love will tear us apart … and, uh, so will the bullets


Day one of the Toronto International Film Festival. New this year: badges with bar codes. Now, when you enter a screening room, they zap you in the badge instead of making you sign in. There’s also a lot of construction going on in the mall that envelops the main festival theater. This is my third year at TIFF, but things feel a little unfamiliar so far.

Not the case with the movies (or the ancient-popcorn smell that fills the theaters…rank, yet comforting somehow). I’ve already seen some really great ones. Been up since 4am California time (is there any other time, really?) and I’m up at the same time tomorrow, so I’ll keep this post pretty brief.

The day began as more of my days should: with a satisfying jolt of Spanish horror.

You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave … amigo.

Spaghetti eastern



How many times am I gonna have to rave about Exiled before you go see it? It’s been a year since I first caught it at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival; the 2007 TIFF starts Sept. 6 and features Mad Detective, Johnnie To’s latest collaboration with Wai Ka Fai (Fulltime Killer). Needless to say, I’ll be first in line at that flick — and perhaps, like Exiled, it’ll play the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival before finally opening in theaters. So you missed Exiled at the Asian fest, and you missed To’s Triad Election when it rat-a-tatted through town a few months back. I hope you’re paying attention now, because you’re getting another big-screen crack at Hong Kong’s most exciting director since John Woo skedaddled for Hollywood. Don’t sleep on it.

If you’ve seen Exiled, of course, you know what I’m jawboning about. A sort-of sequel to what was previously held to be To’s best film (excluding 2001’s wondrously wrong Love on a Diet), 1999’s The Mission, Exiled happens upon a group of gangsters at a crossroad. Control of Macau is about to be handed to China, and triad kingpin Boss Fay (Simon Yam) is determined to maintain his position in the underworld. Meanwhile, outcast foot soldier Wo (Nick Cheung) has ill-advisedly returned to town with wife (Josie Ho) and baby in tow. Dispatched by Fay to take him out are Wo’s former compadres Blaze (Anthony Wong), Tai (Francis Ng), Cat (Roy Cheung), and Fat (Lam Suet). He’s their bro, so they don’t wanna kill him. These are assassins with hearts as generous as they are deadly. A compromise is reached: before Wo dies, the band will reunite for one last crime — the spoils of which will set his family up for life.

Of course, even the simplest plan is destined to go awry in a milieu geared toward staging as many balletic sequences of slo-mo gun-fu as humanly possible. As our antiheroes ride a hail of bullets through coincidences tragic and unbelievably convenient, To charges the action with an inspired array of spaghetti western motifs. World-weary Blaze needs only a cowboy hat (he rocks sunglasses instead) to be Lee Van Cleef’s fashion heir. The soundtrack twangs with plaintive guitars. Tables are upended in a restaurant shoot-out that mirrors the kind of Wild West brawl a hunchbacked Klaus Kinski might set off. A gold heist (because it’s good to be bad, or even ugly sometimes) is discussed. A harmonica emerges from a pocket while a campfire blazes.

To say much more about the plot would spoil its breakneck twists and turns, but know this: Exiled makes its lasting impact with its tone, which is palpably shaped by the tension of uncertainty and moral ambiguity. Plus, it doesn’t get much better than a movie that balances hair-trigger violence with moments of gentle humor, as when a battle royale segues into an impromptu dinner party — and the realization that spent bullets are floating in the tea.

Though Yam makes an over-the-top villain — and the actor playing the region’s police sergeant, who is predictably days from retirement, trowels on the whiny smarm — the film’s core ensemble of gangsters speaks little and expresses less, at least overtly. Wong’s face barely changes expression throughout. Still, it’s evident that the bond between the men transcends triad politics; when they gather for a snapshot at the film’s beginning, it’s contrasted with a photo of the group as cocky youths. Clearly, a lot’s happened since then. We don’t know precisely what, but friendships that go beyond who’s been ordered to kill whom have been well established — even as the code of the gangster is understood as law. "I have to kill you," Blaze tells Wo without affect. And Wo knows.

Wong — a Hong Kong superstar who’s slated to appear in the next Mummy film, forebodingly subtitled Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, alongside Brendan Fraser and Jet Li — gives a subtle performance that’s Exiled‘s heart. Though much screen time is given to Ho’s anxious wife, Wong’s quietly resigned hit man carries more power. His greatest moment of emotion comes when he realizes that the gang, seemingly on the brink of freedom, is obligated to follow through on a promise made to a fallen partner in crime. It’s a dilemma fit for any good pistol opera — and Exiled just happens to be a great one.<\!s>*


Opens Fri/7 in San Francisco theaters

High-risk headbanging


The Toronto International Film Festival posted their schedule today, and among the docs is something called Heavy Metal in Baghdad — a behind-the-scenes look at Acrassicauda, “the only Iraqi heavy metal band.” (And, I’m guessing, one of few Iraqi bands, period, these days.) Watch the trailer here. As you can see, co-directors Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi (Vice magazine co-founder; the film is produced by mag affiliate went the distance for the story. Which is, you know, totally metal of them. Before it became a feature, parts of the doc comprised a YouTube series of the same name.

METAL is a universal language!

Listen to clips of Acrassicauda — according to the band’s website, “a Latin term for one of the most dangerous and unique kind of black scorpions [that] lives in the Iraqi deserts” — here or at their MySpace page.

TIFF is pretty reliable insofar as booking the big music docs that soon make their way to San Francisco — Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey in 2005; American Hardcore in 2006. I’m definitely gonna catch it when I head to the fest in a few weeks…stay tuned.

Stalk tips



Nothing is what it seems in Red Road, a wonderfully restrained thriller that marks the feature debut of British writer-director Andrea Arnold. Jackie (a fierce Kate Dickie) works as a surveillance camera operator, studying closed-circuit feeds streaming from Glasgow’s streets. Her life is mysterious without being spectacular; for one thing, she lives alone but wears a wedding ring. Clearly, she’s had a tragic past, and her present is haunted by the specter of unfinished business – but what, exactly? And who is the mysterious man (Tony Curran) she pursues after spotting him on one of her monitors?

"The feedback I’m getting is that a lot of people don’t work it out exactly until the end," Arnold told me over the phone from Canada, where we missed meeting at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival. "I do sometimes think, ‘Oh god, was I too subtle?’ "

Being too subtle is a problem more directors should have. Arnold’s gift for capturing complicated characters and gritty urban settings was first displayed in Wasp, her 2003 Oscar-winning short film. In it impoverished young mother Zoe (Red Road costar Nathalie Press) parks her unsettlingly large brood in the parking lot of a pub after she determines it’s high time for a child-free date night. Near-tragedy ensues, but through it all Zoe remains sympathetic, not pathetic, despite the questionable decisions she makes along the way. This quality is shared by Red Road‘s Jackie.

"I knew I was taking things far by her behaving in a way that you didn’t completely understand. That was a risk of people running out of patience [with her]," Arnold said of Jackie, whose aloof demeanor makes her actions, including hooking up with a man she apparently hates, all the more surprising. "I think it takes a while to get to know her. But I like characters that are not so easy or straightforward."

Arnold’s interest in complex characters brings depth to her stories, which on the surface seem to simply follow the daily lives of rather ordinary people. "I think all human beings are very complicated in their circumstances and their environments – sometimes people don’t always behave in the best way. It doesn’t mean to say that they’re bad," she said. "I like seeing people that may not be easily likable to start. But then when you get to understand them more, when you see them in a more three-dimensional way, then you at least understand them, or you have empathy for them rather than immediately making a judgment about them."

Though she fielded suggestions to turn Wasp into her first feature, she was set on Red Road – even after she won the Oscar. It’s the first product of Advance Party, a concept project in which three directors will make films featuring the same group of characters, but each with distinct stories.

"Zentropa [cofounded by Danish director Lars von Trier] and [Scotland’s] Sigma Films had the idea of making films with rules, a bit like the Dogme films. Zentropa were very much involved in the Dogme thing. They were looking for filmmakers who hadn’t made a feature film before, and they saw Wasp when it premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival," Arnold recalled. "They rang me up, and it went from there."

Danish filmmakers Anders Thomas Jensen and Lone Scherfig sketched out the characters, who are required to appear in all the films and be played by the same actors. Arnold and the other two Advance Party participants – Dane Mikkel Norgaard and Scot Morag McKinnon – cast together and discussed story lines that each would pursue, but the films are stand-alone narratives in which "the other directors are free to create their entire universe."

Red Road‘s universe is bleak enough even before Jackie explores its seedier pockets, first through TV screens and then by physically visiting the places she’s seen on video. The surveillance theme is a nod to classic cinema (think Rear Window, The Conversation) and the information age.

"I’ve read we’ve got 20 percent of the world’s cameras in the UK," Arnold said. "There’s a lot of CCTV – it’s kind of a fact of life in this day and age. But my character uses it in a way that people are not supposed to use it. It’s supposed to be a crime-prevention tool; you’re not supposed to be following people. But who wouldn’t be tempted? I find just watching people fascinating, people going about their lives and doing ordinary things. I find it riveting." *


Opens Fri/4

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God of monster


At the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival — blissfully far from any rivers concealing flesh-eating aquatic life forms — I spoke (through a translator) with Bong Joon-ho, director and cowriter of The Host.

SFBG I’ve read that you make films you yourself want to see. Are you a fan of monster movies, and have you always been?

BONG JOON-HO I’m a fan of several monster films, but I was not necessarily fascinated exclusively by them. I admire John Carpenter’s The Thing and Steven Spielberg’s films — Jaws, for example — but they were not my sole interest.

SFBG The Host contextualizes its monster within a framework of social and political commentary. Was that something you planned from the beginning?

BJ I think it’s the tradition of this type of monster film to have political undertones. What’s interesting is that the first thing you see [in The Host] — an American researcher asking his [Korean assistant] to discard toxic chemicals — was based on a real story in [South] Korea. That incident gave me the idea for this film, because it actually happened and it had that political undertone. So it was very practical for me to start with that.

SFBG How do you think American audiences will view the film?

BJ It’s true that there’s a lot of satire against the American government, but I don’t think it’s as heavy as Fahrenheit 9/11! I worked with American artists [from San Francisco effects studio the Orphanage] while making this film, and when they read the script, they enjoyed it.

SFBG Can you talk a bit about the creature design and how it was working with the special-effects houses that contributed to The Host?

BJ The original design for the creature was by me and a Korean artist named Chin Wei-chen. New Zealand’s Weta Workshop made the model of the creature. Based on that model, the Orphanage created the computer graphics. There are 10 shots focusing on the head of the creature, and this head — it’s one-to-one scale — was created by John Cox Creature Workshop, located in Australia. So those 10 shots were the actual head of the creature, not computer graphics.

SFBG Both in close-up and at full-length, the monster’s appearance is impressive. But the ways in which the Korean and American governments react to its sudden appearance are almost more sinister than the creature itself.

BJ Definitely there is some kind of implication there, but the creature doesn’t necessarily represent the government of the United States. It’s everything combined: the social and political and the possible hardships that an ordinary family, like in the film, might suffer in daily life. The fact is, this family tries to save their daughter by fighting really hard against the creature. But society doesn’t support their efforts. What I tried to convey is the reality that in life individuals don’t get support from society.

SFBG For all its monstrous elements, The Host isn’t really a horror movie. There’s quite a bit of dark humor in the script.

BJ I wanted to add humorous elements, but it was not really intentional. It came out naturally. Like in my previous film Memories of Murder — which was based on an actual, really terrible serial-killing story — I managed [to include] some humorous elements. Combining the humor and fear, comedy and tragedy, that’s part of life. For me, that approach is more realistic than just focusing on one aspect.

SFBG What does the title The Host mean to you?

BJ The first meaning is the biological meaning — that the creature may be the host of a virus. If I expand the meaning of The Host, it also represents all of the evils of life — everything that suppresses the daily lives of ordinary people.

SFBG Will there be a sequel?

BJ I would be happy to see the sequels made, not necessarily by me but by other directors.

SFBG But no American remake, right? Promise?

BJ [Laughs.] I’d like to remain the original creator of The Host. (Cheryl Eddy)

Poppin’ and popcorn


Well, this comes as absolutely no surprise. As the Hollywood Reporter noted today, Newmarket Films is running into difficulties with the distribution of Death of a President. The Toronto International Film Festival hit — which imagines the assassination of President George W. Bush, and all the Cheney-led chaos and freedom-crackdowns that follow — will not be playing at the nation’s largest theater chain, Regal Cinemas. Nor will it be opening at any theaters operated by Cinemark USA, the company that just took over the Century chain (including the brand-new SF Centre, so nope, you won’t be slidin’ on their swanky faux-leather seats while you watch the Prez eat a lead sandwich).


Fortunately, the made-for-British-TV faux-doc will be coming to the Bay Area no matter what — look for Death of a President at one of San Francisco’s Landmark Theatres starting Oct 27. Though I had mixed feelings about the film (loved its shocking concept, ehh on its second-act slowdown) I’m glad to see it’s getting attention (although, come on — like this movie is just gonna casually saunter into theaters?) Too bad this smaller release means it might well end up preaching to the choir — as so many politically-themed docs (or faux-docs, as the case may be) do, tending to open only in cities already rollin’ in art-houses and progressive audiences.

Trash hits Toronto: part two


FEST REPORT Because I’m psychotic, I jammed 22 movies into six and a half days at the Toronto International Film Festival — and was actually pissed at myself for not seeing more. Out of curiosity, I sprinkled in a few prestige pictures: Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, about the early days of the Irish Republican Army; and Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver, starring a Penélope Cruz so va-va-voomy that it’s almost a relief when another character asks her if her chest was always that enormous.
I knew it’d be tough to top my two early favorites, both detailed in last week’s Guardian: from Korea, monster movie The Host; and from Hong Kong, Johnnie To’s stellar, Sergio Leone–infused gangster story Exiled. Several came mighty close though, including Andrea Arnold’s Red Road — about a woman whose numb existence spent watching surveillance camera footage is rocked when a man with ties to her tragic past happens to stroll into her line of vision. Not only is Red Road exquisitely directed, it features the best acting (particularly from lead Kate Dickie) of any film I saw at TIFF. That’s not a slight against the always-excellent Christian Bale, star of Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, whose Fear Factor–influenced portrayal of a jungle-bound prisoner of war erases all memories of Batman (but not, perhaps, freaky foodie Patrick Bateman).
Fellow Bollywood fans know a Shah Rukh Khan performance is not to be missed under any circumstances, though committing to the 192-minute Never Say Goodbye meant missing out on a few other screenings in the process. (It was worth it.) The fangirl mentality also drew me to Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, a polarizing work I heard variously described as “Aronofsky’s 2001” and “Aronofsky does Soderbergh doing Solaris.” Yep, it’s a bit baffling — but in a weirdly spellbinding way. Hugh Jackman, you are almost forgiven for Van Helsing.
TIFF’s documentaries were an overall strong bunch. Prickly American History X director Tony Kaye takes on America’s pro-choice–pro-life debate in the nearly three-hour Lake of Fire. Though the film’s most graphic images are (barely) muted by Kaye’s decision to shoot in black and white, the content — especially the interviews with right-wing extremists — is just as shocking. Other top docs: Macky Alston’s The Killer Within, about a nice, normal family grappling with the knowledge that 50 years prior, its patriarch shot and killed a college classmate for the murkiest of reasons; AJ Schnack’s Kurt Cobain about a Son, which takes the experimental approach of layering audio interviews with the late musician under newly shot footage of Cobain’s Northwest stomping grounds; and the more conventional punk celebration American Hardcore.
The fest’s lightning-rod film was Death of a President, a made-for-British-TV faux doc that imagines what would happen if George W. Bush were assassinated. (Before you start cheering, feel the terror of these words: President Dick Cheney.) JFK remains my favorite dead-prez whodunnit, but Death of a President manages to maneuver its scandalous concept into a perceptive take on post-9/11 civil liberties.
One last thing: do I have to give back my film critic’s wings if I say Borat Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhs was my favorite TIFF movie? Because if loving Borat is wrong, I don’t wanna be right. (Cheryl Eddy)
FEST REPORT Navigating TIFF’s public screenings often leads to a heavy bout of queue fatigue. You line up to purchase tickets, to pick up tickets, to get into the theater, and invariably to get into the exclusive confines of the ladies’ room. And then there’s the peculiar indignity of the absurdly named “rush” line: the film is already sold out, so if you want in, you have to take the chance that there’ll be a no-show ticket holder you can replace. And that requires waiting forever.
But being the first to discover little gems makes it all seem worth it: Agustín Díaz Yanes’s Alatriste (starring an español-speaking Viggo Mortensen) plays like Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean if Uncle Walt had done a tour of duty in Gallipoli; the Canadian National Film Board doc Manufactured Landscapes follows photographer Edward Burtynsky on a fascinatingly meditative trip through the industrial wastelands of China; and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century, the perfect companion piece, offers a brilliant, surreal slow boil on urban alienation in an increasingly modernized Thailand.
Of course, there were disappointments too, like Catch a Fire, Phillip Noyce’s well-acted yet underwhelming biopic of South African freedom fighter Patrick Chamusso. And let’s not forget the schlock, like the silly slasher film from Montreal’s Maurice Devereaux. I squinted when the director credit came onscreen, pretending for a moment that I had made it to the TIFF big time but winced at the sight of the movie’s irony-soaked title: End of the Line. (Michelle Devereaux)

Toronto International Film Festival: Five for the road


B. Ruby Rich reflects on some of her favorite TIFF ’06 moments.

* The scene: the world premiere of Dixie Chicks: Shut Up And Sing. Filmmakers Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck (daughter of Gregory) were in the audience, as were the Dixie Chicks themselves. The documentary tells the story of the past three years as the Chicks dealt with protests, concert cancellations, radio blackouts, and a death threat resulting from Natalie Maines’ remark: “We’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” When a scene played showing the decision to re-route the tour to Canada after Toronto was the only city to sell out immediately, the whole theatre erupted in wild hooray-for-us applause.

* Christine Vachon at TheatreBooks, one of Toronto’s great bookstores, signing copies of her new memoir about her experiences in the indie-film trade, A Killer Life Of course I bought one. She’s only in town for one night: she’s in the middle of shooting Todd Haynes’ new opus on Bob Dylan. Cate Blanchett just finished her section, so she got a break to come to Toronto for the premiere of Infamous. Vachon tells me she’ll be in San Francisco, at the Commonwealth Club, at the end of the month.

* Camila Guzman Urzua’s screening of The Sugar Curtain, her documentary on growing up in Cuba during the golden age of socialism. One audience member, an exiled Uruguayan, objected to her clear-eyed view of the terrible failures of the Revolution in the years since her childhood era. “Why don’t you talk about the embargo?” he wanted to know. Yeah, like every other Cuban film that’s ever been made. Old patterns die hard.

* Crowds jammed the sidewalk outside the Four Seasons, driven into a frenzy by a bumper crop of celebrities this year. My standards are different: Costa-Gavras at the Unifrance party was my idea of stardom. Talking to SFIFF’s Linda Blackaby and the NY Film Festival’s Marian Masone, he tried to explain the arrival of so many French films dealing with Algeria. “One million people left Algeria for France after the end of the war,” he said. “There are many stories, and different points of view. They should have been made ten years ago.”

* The moment the rain starts. Every year, mid-festival, the hot waning days of summer stop abruptly for a rainstorm. When the rain ends, the thermometer drops and fall is here. The mid-point of the festival is the change of seasons, and today I saw my first leaves turn red. Shadows of mortality. There’s nothing sadder than the end of a film festival. And at this writing, it’s only four days away.

Toronto International Film Festival: When Bond met Qui-Gon


Michelle Devereaux reports.


Before the world premiere screening of Seraphim Falls at the Elgin Theatre Wednesday night, Pierce Brosnan acted gruff and uncomfortable onstage, but Liam Neeson worked the crowd like a pro (even throwing out the old nugget “It’s all about you guys!”). He had some choice insights into the movie’s themes too, insisting that the western by first-time director David Von Acken — a cat-and-mouse tale featuring Neeson hunting Brosnan through snow and sand — is about forgiveness.
“The heart of this film is about forgiveness,” he reiterated. “Remember that.” Neeson thanked the production company behind Falls, as well as the company’s head, to general enthusiastic laughter from the adoring audience. The company? Icon. Its head? Why, that would be Mr. Mel Gibson. Maybe Gibson can get Neeson to make the same speech at the Apocalypto premiere in a couple of months. He’s probably going to need an icebreaker.

Toronto International Film Festival: Viggo, we love you, yeah yeah yeah


Celebrity sightings? Michelle Devereaux just spotted God at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival:


Toronto, Wednesday, 12:09am: I have just left the Ryerson Theatre, where I fear I have contracted a serious case of Viggomania — a condition characterized by fever, light-headedness, and general idiocy when Ultimate Man Viggo Mortensen is in the vicinity. And he happens to be in town for the premiere of Alatriste, a swashbuckling Spanish-language adventure epic he stars in as titular anti-hero Diego Alatriste, a 17th-century Spanish mercenary.

Trash hits Toronto


FEST REPORT I’m writing hours after the start of the Toronto International Film Festival’s 31st edition. Opening nights are a ritual for film festivals, and this one is no exception. The big show is always a Canadian feature: this year it’s Norman Cohn and Zacharias Kunuk’s The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, the follow-up to the same team’s hit from five years ago, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. I’ve seen the best and worst of Canadian cinema over the years at these opening nights, but I now choose to skip the red-carpet mob of Toronto’s moneyed finest in favor of an alternative: at the Elgin, one of Toronto’s best movie palaces, an international feature with high hopes unspools to an audience of cinephiles with equally grand expectations. To the collective joy of those assembled, The Lives of Others hits the giant screen with appropriate splendor. Already said to be Germany’s contender for the Oscars (a prospect that isn’t necessarily promising), this debut feature is much more than the usual polished Euro gem aiming at the global market. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck studied political science and economics as well as filmmaking, and it shows. Here is a man who can think about his society and who, moreover, trusts the specificities of history (in this case, 1984 in the German Democratic Republic) to speak to the present. Like Good Night, and Good Luck, Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others begs us to pay attention to history. In Germany — the film suggests — the days of political thugs abusing power to control a population are over. “To think that people like you used to run a country!” its writer-protagonist explodes in a pivotal scene to an ex-politician in the lobby of a Berlin theater reviving the former’s old socialist realist play. Here in George W. Bush and Karl Rove’s America (where the wiretapping that dominates Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film is a reality), no such comforting escape into the present is remotely possible. But The Lives of Others could be a lesson to US filmmakers on how to create complex characters that lead an audience through complex issues — to think and feel at the same time, as the director’s compatriot Rainer Werner Fassbinder once put it. The Elgin Visa Screening Room (yes, that’s the name — festival sponsor Visa is inescapable) vibrated with passion at film’s end. Directors aren’t supposed to come back onstage at the opening-night screening, but the standing ovation demanded it. And the applause wasn’t only for Henckel von Donnersmarck’s very real achievement as the writer and director. Lead actor Ulrich Mühe — who gives an extraordinary performance as a conflicted Stasi agent — had been an East German theater actor under heavy Stasi surveillance. There he was, onstage too, a living storehouse of historical process. At a festival where politics are already emerging as a major focus, this jewel of a flashback may well be a flash-forward to the year ahead. (B. Ruby Rich) FEST REPORT I may be an American journalist scuttling around in Canada, but so far all of my top picks at the Toronto International Film Festival hail from Asia. South Korea’s The Host is a film you will be hearing a lot about in the near future — especially if you’re anywhere near my yapping mouth, which will be (loudly) singing the praises of Bong Joon-ho’s colossal monster jam for months to come. Kinda like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Host is inspired by a true incident. According to a 2000 Korea Times article, an American civilian employee of US Forces Korea was jailed for ordering the dumping of toxins into Seoul’s Han River. That he happened to oversee a US Army mortuary was a particularly juicy detail. As The Host imagines it, the freaky chemical combo births an underwater mutant. We don’t have to wait long to get a full reveal either: it’s a huge, mouthy sea monster, complete with dexterous tentacles and the ability to gallop across land, perform graceful backflips, and swallow whatever unlucky human being gets the hell in its way. Naturally, the local population freaks — especially a sad-sack father (Song Kang-ho, who also played a sad-sack father in Park Chanwook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) who watches helplessly when his young daughter gets lassoed by the critter. The Host follows his oft-ridiculous plans to rescue her with the help of his brother (an educated drunk) and sister (a competitive archer who tends to choke when it counts). The film also chronicles the Korean government’s strong-arm approach to handling the “river incident” — with the help of the US Army, which would just as soon incite even more panic by claiming the monster is the source of a terrible and mysterious new virus. Bonus: The Host boasts killer special effects by San Francisco’s the Orphanage (Sin City, Superman Returns) and New Zealand’s Weta Workshop (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong). With cutting political and social commentary gurgling just below the surface and black humor spurting from every orifice, The Host (due for a Magnolia Pictures release in 2007) is a must-see for monster movie fans — and jeez, everybody else too. If straight-ahead action’s more your thing, keep an eye out for Johnnie To’s Exiled (Bay Area release date unknown). Touted in some circles as the sequel to The Mission, this may be the prolific To’s best gangster movie to date. The smashingly hangdog Anthony Wong anchors a cast of familiar Hong Kong faces (Simon Yam, Francis Ng, Nick Cheung); the plot, about hired guns and gangsters who do the double cross like nobody’s business, matters less than the jaw-dropping gun battles it produces. When shoot-outs come this well choreographed, the word is gun-fu — and in Exiled, the bloody results are nothing short of stunning. Also topping my Toronto experience so far: Takashi Miike’s latest oddity, surreal prison drama Big Bang Love: Juvenile A (by the time you read this, he’ll probably already have his next film in the can); The Wayward Cloud director Tsai Ming-liang’s dreamy, gritty, and near-silent I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone; and Nobody Knows helmer Hirokazu Kore-eda’s samurai yarn, Hana. (Cheryl Eddy) For longer takes on these and other TIFF selections, read daily festival updates on the Pixel Vision blog at

Toronto International Film Festival: Consider this


Michelle Devereaux is in Toronto. Here’s her first report:

“I’m hearing Oscar buzz!” a giddy audience member shouted after the second public TIFF screening of For Your Consideration Tuesday afternoon, kicking off a 10-minute-plus Q&A with the cast and director Christopher Guest. She was being ironic — the film-within-the-film is a little indie that receives tons of Oscar speculation — but who knows? She might not be too far off base.


Toronto International Film Festival: Four score


Day five.


Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

Toronto International Film Festival: “If you kiss me, I’ll pop you in the fuckin’ balls.”



Believe the hype: Borat rules. It has a release date of November 3. I suggest you mark it on your calendar … you will not be sorry. (Unless highly offensive, off-color humor — and the sight of two hairy, naked men vigorously wrestling their way across a banquet hall filled with mortgage brokers — ain’t your cup of tea. Then you can skip it. Everyone else will bust a gut without you.)

Toronto International Film Festival: The docs are in



Image of Yoko Ono and John Lennon, as seen in The U.S. vs. John Lennon, courtesy AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS.

Toronto International Film Festival: Quick weather report


It’s raining in Toronto … and New York City, setting for the weep-tastic Bollywood epic Never Say Goodbye, where no emotionally-charged moment passes without soaking at least one major character (and random passers-by) to the bone.


Just interviewed Bong Joon-ho, director of The Host, which even random journalists I’ve never met are declaring “the best thing here” in crowded elevators. More on the interview later, but after the jump, an example of something I’ve been seeing all over fest turf today…

Toronto International Film Festival: Bright lights, and the heart of theater darkness



Author and critic B. Ruby Rich (who programmed TIFF’s 2002 runaway hit and award winner Whale Rider) checks in with her first report from the fest:

Toronto International Film Festival: “Revenge is good for business!”



Day two. Why can’t every morning for the rest of my life begin with a Johnnie To movie?