Donovan's Toronto Film Fest 2007 ReportSubmitted by ryandonovan at 2007-10-08 22:42:37 EDT
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DONOVAN’S TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2007 REPORT
Last year, the Toronto Film Festival was riding the crest of a wave of film fest superiority. Despite a couple cyclical troughs, it had been gaining moment for years. Entertainment Weekly and USA Today both noted that the fest had been an Oscar bellwether ever since 1999, when alumni American Beauty, The Cider House Rules, Boys Don’t Cry, and The Hurricane emerged as Academy Award heavyweights. It’s no coincidence, of course, that it was the first year that I attended (pay no mind to the fact that I saw none of those, but a film that I did see, It’s The Rage, went on to win… nothing). Last year’s Oscar and Golden Globe nominees included more Toronto films than ever: Babel, The Last King Of Scotland, Little Children, Venus, Volver, Pan’s Labyrinth, Borat, Thank You For Smoking, Stranger Than Fiction, The Lives Of Others, SherryBaby, Bobby, Deliver Us From Evil, After The Wedding, Days Of Glory, and Water.
But despite being at an all-time high, the ‘06 festival seemed to be missing something. Something critical. Some human element.
Yes, Canadian disappointment in American decision-making was heightened because I decided to get married rather than attend the fest last year. “You mean that poor woman went through with it?” Yes, she did. “And her parents...?” Yes, her parents dropped the kidnapping charges. “Why didn’t you go to the film fest as your honeymoon? Or at least go for a couple days?” You evidently missed out on hours of terse conversation between me and my wife.
And so it was with great anticipation that I returned to the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept 6 – 15, 2007). But as I planned the trip and reviewed the film schedules, a dark thought began crowding in on me: Had the fest jumped the shark, in the one year that I didn’t attend?
The crop of films, particularly the ones scheduled for when I would be in town, seemed disappointing. The hottest films were scheduled to screen at the same time, limiting my options severely. Ticket and festival package prices went up significantly. The Canadian dollar was killing the U.S. I was denied many of my top film choices due to higher demand. The festival website was down more often than it was up, particularly during peak sales times. It seemed like the high-profile films were all re-runs, having already premiered at Venice, Telluride, Cannes, or Deauville (including In The Valley Of Elah, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Into The Wild, Juno, Lust Caution, No Country For Old Men, Michael Clayton, and Atonement). Hell, Toronto didn’t even get The Darjeeling Limited at all, jilted in favor of the sexiest of European bitches, Venice. Throw in long customs lines and bad restaurant service, and I was forced to ask myself: Had Toronto been supplanted as the greatest film festival in the world?
It certainly felt that way at the start. After nine years since first attending, it now seemed that pioneering had turned into hype, which had turned into gluttony, which had turned into fatigue. Maybe the fest got slow and fat off its own success, catering to Hollywood more than to the average festival-goer. Maybe it was a case of ‘to name it is to kill it’, after years of being advertised as the cream of the crop. Or maybe the fest, like all of us, was simply not as cool as it once was.
But by the end of my stay, it turned out to be a great festival experience. Despite the fact that I didn’t see any films that were truly exceptional, I also didn’t see any films that were outright awful (and every other year, there’s always one or two). My group of friends didn’t see many stars at the screenings themselves, but we managed to see a few while standing awkwardly in bars where we couldn’t afford drinks or loitering stubbornly in lobbies of hotels where we couldn’t afford to stay, including: Jude Law, Jennifer Garner, Mark Ruffalo, Helen Hunt, Bill Maher, Marilyn Manson, Evan Rachel Wood, Rose Byrne, Robin Tunney, Gus Van Sant, Alan Ball, and Casey Affleck (who, on second thought, probably doesn’t qualify as a celebrity).
By other accounts, this may have been one of the best festivals yet. Entertainment Weekly dedicated several articles and many pages to it, and called it an “extraordinary” year for the fest. The film critic for French newspaper Le Monde said that Toronto has become a more important film festival than Cannes (wow, the French are even rude to each other). And while many of the fall’s most prestigious films premiered elsewhere, Toronto retained its title as THE showcase for the awards season. Other festivals may have had a handful of first screenings, but Toronto was the only fest to include ALL of the big films. It’s like the hook-up bar of film festivals: You might go somewhere else first, but everyone comes to Toronto to score. (The Department Of Tourism can have that slogan free of charge.)
And to the fest’s credit, it still screens films you can’t see anywhere else (349 films in all this year, from 55 countries). For example, in addition to the films I review below, my friends saw a small Canadian independent film called – no kidding – Young People Fucking. And that was probably the only time the film will be screened for an audience. (For all you aspiring indie filmmakers out there, if you’re looking for a surefire way to obliterate any chance of distribution for your film, put the word “fucking” in the title.)
REVIEWS (IN ORDER FROM BEST TO WORST)
BOY A – Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Peter Mullan, Katie Lyons; Directed By: John Crowley; Written By: Mark O’Rowe; Release Date: TBD
This tiny British film was the best I saw this year. While not a masterpiece, it was an extremely strong piece of work, and a great surprise (I thought I was going to see a documentary about rejected Radiohead album titles). Saying too much will ruin the experience, so I’ll just say that it was a harrowing coming-of-age drama that unfolded as a mystery. The film opens with a teenager choosing a new name for himself. He’s guided on starting a new life by an adult who treats him warmly but seems to be hiding something (and don’t worry, it’s nothing creepy – that territory is covered aplenty later in Nothing Is Private). As the boy makes a new start, we learn his past in flashbacks and in conversations with the adult. And the story unravels, backwards and forwards, until we learn just enough in the final scene. There’s probably even more to be learned in a second viewing.
I wasn’t the only who felt strongly about the film – it was one of the few noteworthy acquisitions at the festival, a sly pickup by the Weinstein Company. Lucky for you, that means you might get a chance to see it (at the very least on DVD). It will be tough to market though, as it’s a downer drama, with no stars, no laughs, no sunshine, and no American subtitles for the cockney-impaired.
The real strength of the film is Andrew Garfield, who plays the titular boy. The film hangs on his performance, and it’s note-perfect. As the credits rolled, I decided that the kid was an amazingly talented actor, having given a precisely nuanced performance that must have required intense Method study. Then he got up and spoke during the Q&A. Turns out he wasn’t acting at all – he had exactly the same speech, tics, and mannerisms as in the movie. A minor letdown. Nevertheless, the kid’s got a future, landing plum roles in Lions For Lambs and The Other Boleyn Girl.
RELIGULOUS: A CONVERSATION WITH BILL MAHER AND LARRY CHARLES – Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0
Starring: Bill Maher, Larry Charles
One of the best parts of a major film festival is the opportunity for Q&A with the director and stars after the movie. This event was essentially a long Q&A INSTEAD of a movie. It was part of the festival’s “Mavericks” program, which featured conversations with filmmakers. I had not attended any of these presentations in the past, so I didn’t really know what to expect. It turned out to be a film-length moderated discussion and clip preview for the upcoming film Religulous. The movie (whose title is a contraction of “Religion” and “Ridiculous”) will star Bill Maher, will be directed by Larry Charles, and will be a comic documentary about the ridiculousness of the “Big 3” Western religions: Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam (it’s not exactly going to be a universal crowd-pleaser).
I suppose the event was really propaganda, a marketing ploy to create buzz for a movie that isn’t even completed yet. It was essentially a 90-minute advertisement for an 80-minute movie, a Comic-Con teaser for film snobs. But it was a unique experience, which turned out to be one of the best parts of my trip, and something that I hope to see more of at future festivals. It could even turn out to be better than the film itself.
The clips that we saw (about 20 minutes’ worth) were very funny, partly due to Bill Maher’s wit, but mostly due to the outlandish personalities and inherent inconsistencies in the interviews with religious figures (from scholars to polygamists to Satanists to Rael himself). Maher and Charles take the stance of the opposite extreme (that organized religions and beliefs are silly at best and deadly worst), I think in part because they believe it, and in part because they have to in order to make a point (and a joke). They also seem to take on easy targets, argumentative and unprepared religious extremists, rather than rational, open-minded believers.
Regardless of how the film turns out, the conversation was extremely funny and engaging. Charles, who will probably not be on-screen in the film very much, was just as intriguing and hilarious as Maher in the discussion. And they had a chance to give insights that we won’t see in the film, the background about how the film came about, and why they think it’s an important topic to discuss/attack. Hopefully it will appear as an extra feature on the DVD.
I’ll be curious to see what specific issues the completed film addresses. The clips seem mostly to skewer facets of the religions that seem absurd, to spotlight outright contradictions, and to confront ideologies that have been scientifically proven to be untrue. I hope they also get into discussions about the origins of religions, how many ancient religions (now called “myths”) were created to explain the unexplainable, and whether parallels can be drawn to current religions.
BREAKFAST WITH SCOT – Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0
Starring: Tom Cavanagh, Noah Bernett, Ben Shenkman; Directed By: Laurie Lynd; Written By: Sean Reycraft; Release Date: TBD
I chose to see this film in the spirit of true festival-going: I opted for this lesser-known independent film searching for an audience, and passed up In The Valley Of Elah, a much-buzzed-about studio film with a theatrical release date set for just after the festival. I was trying to discover something unique, rather than see a film that I would probably see a month later anyway. I was trying to give the little guy a chance.
I’ll never make that mistake again.
Kidding... mostly. In The Valley Of Elah has gone on to get rave reviews and has positioned itself as an Oscar contender in many categories. I would have liked to have seen it and reported on my genius for uncovering it in Toronto. But I am actually very happy with my choice. I DID give the little guy a chance, and it was a very satisfying film. Not the best film I saw there, and maybe not as great as Elah, but a very good film that I may not have the chance to see ever again. As of the screening, it was working on Canadian distribution, but had no U.S. distribution in sight. It might be a tough sell in the States, because it’s mostly PG family fare (which I typically dislike, by the way), but it drops several F-bombs, which will automatically make it R-rated.
The film got some publicity south of the border several months ago, when the NHL cooperated with the production and endorsed the script, which features a gay former hockey player (played by Tom Cavanagh, convincing as a skater, but not has an NHL bruiser). The NFL, MLB, and NBA all declined to participate in a movie with such a theme, and in a joint statement, cited their “long-standing traditions of ignorance, paranoia, and intolerance, and a collective goal to foster positive role models for children.” They also stated that “turning a blind eye toward discrimination based on sexual preference is consistent with our policies on ignoring gambling, steroids, racism, dog-fighting, drug abuse, game-fixing, cheating, domestic violence, drunk driving, and strip-club shootings.” Individually, MLB noted that it has only broken its “one-gay-strike-and-you’re-out-so-to-speak” rule once, because “somehow Mike Piazza slipped passed us.” MLB declined to comment on the pending investigation of Alex Rodriguez. The NBA issued a statement stating “there are no homosexuals in the NBA, because the sight of Yao Ming naked in the locker room would scare any gay man straight. And for the record, Dennis Rodman was technically bi.” Representatives from the NFL could not be reached for comment because they were attending their daily office screening of the film 300.
JUST BURIED – Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Rose Byrne, Graham Greene; Directed By: Chaz Thorne; Written By: Chaz Thorne; Release Date: TBD
If you know going into it that this is a Canadian independent comedy set in Nova Scotia, written and directed by a first-timer, then this is a film with lot of promise that mostly delivers. (Personally, I’ve found that managing expectations is the key to a successful film festival experience.) Without giving away too much, Jay Baruchel (probably best known as the skinny, tic-y guy from Knocked Up and the TV show Undeclared) reluctantly takes over his family’s struggling funeral home in a small town when his estranged father dies. And of course, when the burial business is slow, what’s the best way to get more customers?
While not a knockout, I appreciate the movie for its originality and soot-black humor. It has few safe jokes, and mostly plays straight, which I always think is funnier in an outrageous farce than hamming it up. While Baruchel and Rose Byrne are recognizable faces, their names aren’t exactly well-known, so this film will not likely score distribution below the Great Lakes. But up north, people will likely know it as “that one Canadian movie with Graham Greene”. (Sorry, you probably have to be Canadian to get that.)
INTO THE WILD – Rating: 2.5 out of 5.0
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Catherine Keener, Hal Holbrook; Directed By: Sean Penn; Written By: Sean Penn; Release Date: 9/21/07
This was the highest-profile film on my slate, the one that I was the most excited about, and the last film of my trip. On the heels of other festivals, I had heard how amazing it was and how Oscars would abound. And I am here to proclaim to you and to God and to the world at the top of my lungs that it was decidedly… okay. Which means that it fell measurably short of expectations. The reviews from others in Toronto were mixed, but the general feeling is that it underwhelmed, and that the buzz is dying.
Over two-and-a-half hours long, it drags excessively, and just doesn’t end up telling much of a story. It isn’t bad – it’s somewhat enjoyable even – but I just can’t in good faith give it a resounding recommendation. The story of an upper-middle-class college grad who discards his earthly belongs (which is to say he gives away the money his parents gave him) to “find himself” while “on the road” and forging “into the wild” (which is to say he’s a freeloading bum) would probably appeal to me more if I didn’t have such an intense loathing for such people. In its defense, it confronts this viewpoint with various characters in the film, but doesn’t ever seem to defeat it (then again, those who love the film will probably argue that it does).
The filmmaking itself didn’t woo me much, either. I didn’t get the feeling of isolation or depression that I got from Cast Away (admittedly, a very different movie, but one with many overlapping themes and set pieces). Director Sean Penn (whose attitude of shy-yet-smug self-importance leaves a mark on almost everything he touches) did mostly a good job, but he decided to have his actors break the fourth wall a few times, which I found distracting, and disruptive to the gravity of the film. He also f’ed up by hanging the film on lead actor Emile Hirsch. He’s a poor man’s Leonardo DiCaprio (a statement that isn’t even as back-handedly complimentary as it might sound – I mean to say he’s like a smellier version of garbage). Not a terrible performance, but it’s one that I’m not able to completely buy into. Nevertheless, some people have been raving, even mentioning his name in the same sentence as “Oscar” (to be fair, I’ve been doing that too… but I’ve also been using the words “never” and “apocalypse”).
Now time to cover my ass… Just in case Hirsch gets hot during awards season, I included him in the “Top Performances” section (which is meant to reflect many opinions, not just my own). The more realistic award contenders will be Hal Holbrook and Eddie Vedder. Holbrook will be a sentimental favorite for Supporting Actor on the strength of two emotional scenes. And Vedder, who created almost the entire soundtrack as a way to provide the main character with an “inner voice” (screenwriters call that cheating, by the way), is a good Oscar bet for Best Song, assuming the spots aren’t all taken by Hairspray and Once.
NOTHING IS PRIVATE – Rating: 2.0 out of 5.0
Starring: Summer Bishil, Aaron Eckhart, Toni Collette; Directed By: Alan Ball; Written By: Alan Ball; Release Date: TBD
If you are uncomfortable with the opening scene of this film, where a 13-year-old girl has her pubic hair shaved by her mother’s boyfriend, then this movie is probably not for you. If, however, you give your buddy a high-five during that scene, then the movie is ALSO probably not for you, but for different reasons. Knowing it’s the directorial debut from Alan Ball, the writer of American Beauty and creator of Six Feet Under, I guess it should be no surprise that the film is (paraphrasing from the festival guide) “a story pitched between humor and horror, about a 13-year-old girl who moves in with her strict, condescending father, and has a troubling sexual awakening at the hands of a racist neighbor and a horny teenager.” Yikes.
Maybe it’s because it pushes more buttons, but I don’t think Nothing Is Private stands up like American Beauty did. And honestly, in retrospect, I think American Beauty was/is overrated. At the time, I thought it was the best film of the year; now, I’m not sure it’s even in the top five of 1999. And I never watched Six Feet Under – sorry – so I can’t comment on whether Ball’s audience will be used to scenes like... oh, I don’t know... a barely-teenage girl masturbating while looking at nudie mags, or a young girl having her cherry popped by the fingers of her middle-aged neighbor in fairly graphic detail, or a girl fantasizing about gallivanting on a golf course with nude female models, or an Army reservist telling an under-age girl to do a striptease and get on all fours. Maybe those things are not so strange. Come to think of it, throw in a bottle of whiskey and a bag of candy, and that sounds a lot like my stint as a substitute grammar school teacher.
Maybe the biggest surprise was that this was one of the few films to pick up distribution at the fest, getting a deal from Warner Independent for $1.25 million. What was not a surprise was the creation of a new drinking game: take a shot of 13-year-old scotch every time the girl in the movie is violated physically, mentally, or sexually.
All this said, the lead actress, newcomer Summer Bishil, gave a remarkable performance. In the Q&A at the end of the screening, as several patrons were calling the police to have Ball arrested, he revealed that young-looking Bishil was in fact 18 when the movie was filmed. My buddy said, “Thank goodness, we don’t have to feel guilty about watching that and her being 13.” And I said, “You felt guilty?”
THE EXODUS – Rating: 1.5 out of 5.0
Starring: Simon Yam, Annie Liu, Nick Cheung; Directed By: Ho-Cheung Pang; Written By: Ho-Cheung Pang, Cheuk Wan Chi, Jimmy Wan; Release Date: TBD
The set-up of this random dark comedy / detective story from Hong Kong sounded good enough to take a chance on: When a misfit police sergeant questions a goofy criminal, he is told that there is an underground and widespread syndicate of women whose mission is to exterminate all the men on the planet, and he decides to investigate. If that had been a summary of the first 15 minutes of the movie, and it lead to an involved and complicated plot, the film could have been outstanding. But that was pretty much the whole movie. It was puzzlingly paced as a slow, contemplative drama, and it never really got off the ground. A- for inspiration, D+ for execution. While it was a disappointment, I have no regrets: this is the sort of originality that makes a film festival worthwhile to begin with.
Far more interesting than the film was the Q&A afterward with writer/director Ho-Cheung Pang. His process of coming up with the ideas for the film was fascinating; I just wish he could have channeled the ideas better. He spoke at length about a seemingly random scene that opened the film: A dozen half-naked men wearing scuba gear beat up a man with weapons in a long hallway as the man tried to escape. He explained that his father had told him a story of how off-duty policemen would come to the station late at night dressed in scuba gear to beat the crap out of a criminal who would be getting off easy. The idea was that the story would be so ridiculous, that nobody would believe the criminal if he squealed. So what if the weirdest theories you’ve ever heard, like an organization of women killing off all men, were designed to sound crazy because they were actually true?
BEST BETS FOR DISTRIBUTION
4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days – Anamaria Marinca, Vlad Ivanov
Across The Universe – Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford – Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck
Atonement – Keira Knightley, James McAvoy
Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead – Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke
The Brave One – Jodie Foster, Terrence Howard
Cassandra’s Dream – Colin Farrell, Ewan McGregor
Cleaner – Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris
Eastern Promises – Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts
Elizabeth: The Golden Age – Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush
I’m Not There – Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett
In The Valley Of Elah – Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron
Into The Wild – Emile Hirsch, Catherine Keener
The Jane Austen Book Club – Emily Blunt, Maria Bello
Juno – Ellen Page, Michael Cera
King Of California – Michael Douglas, Evan Rachel Wood
Lars And The Real Girl – Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer
Lust, Caution – Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Tang Wei
Margot At The Wedding – Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Married Life – Pierce Brosnan, Rachel McAdams
Michael Clayton – George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson
No Country For Old Men – Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem
Nothing Is Private – Aaron Eckhart, Toni Collette
Rails & Ties – Marcia Gay Harden, Kevin Bacon
Redacted – Izzy Diaz, Daniel Stewart Sherman
Rendition – Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon
Reservation Road – Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo
The Savages – Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Sleuth – Jude Law, Michael Caine
Then She Found Me – Helen Hunt, Colin Firth
Javier Bardem – No Country For Old Men
Cate Blanchett – Elizabeth: The Golden Years, I’m Not There
George Clooney – Michael Clayton
Ethan & Joel Coen (Directors) – No Country For Old Men
David Cronenberg (Director) – Eastern Promises
Brian DePalma (Director) – Redacted
Ethan Hawke – Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead
Emile Hirsch – Into The Wild
Philip Seymour Hoffman – Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Savages
Hal Holbrook – Into The Wild
Tommy Lee Jones – In The Valley Of Elah, No Country For Old Men
Nicole Kidman – Margot At The Wedding
Keira Knightley – Atonement
Ang Lee (Director) – Lust, Caution
Laura Linney – The Savages
Sidney Lumet (Director) – Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead
James McAvoy – Atonement
Viggo Mortensen – Eastern Promises
Ellen Page – Juno
Brad Pitt – The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
Jason Reitman (Director) – Juno
Susan Sarandon – In The Valley Of Elah
Tom Wilkinson – Michael Clayton
Joe Wright (Director) – Atonement
Jay Baruchel – Just Buried
Summer Bishil – Nothing Is Private
Diablo Cody (Writer) – Juno
Andrew Dominik (Writer/Director) – The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
Alison Eastwood (Director) – Rails & Ties
Marcus Carl Franklin – I’m Not There
Andrew Garfield – Boy A
Tony Gilroy (Writer/Director) – Michael Clayton
Cristian Mungui (Writer/Director) – 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days
Stefan Ruzowitzky (Writer/Director) – The Counterfeiters
Jim Sturgess – Across The Universe
People’s Choice Award:
Winner: Eastern Promises – David Cronenberg
1st Runner Up: Juno – Jason Reitman
2nd Runner Up: Body Of War – Phil Donahue & Ellen Spiro
Winner: Cochochi - Israel Cárdenas & Laura Amelia Guzmán
FIPRESCI International Critics Prize:
Winner: La Zona – Rodrigo Plá
Visions Artistic Innovations Award:
Encarnacion – Anahí Berneri
Best Canadian Feature Film:
Winner: My Winnipeg – Guy Madddin