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Toronto Film Festival 2008 (Days 0-1)
by Erik Childress

For a Chicagoan like myself, coming up to Toronto is a little like that John Travolta/Arye Gross vehicle, The Experts. In plotting, not execution. Downtown Bloor St. bares a unique resemblance to the Magnificent Mile in the Windy City. The shops all look the same, the traffic is similar. They’ve even got the stench of freshly-cooked sausage aligns the street at various stands. One taste of the sausage though and you know you’re not in Chicago. Italian, Polish, Hot Dog – no matter – they all taste the same. Now in my fifth year attending Toronto, strictly for purposes related to their glorious film festival, I get to see a ton of anticipated movies, get my first whiff of the true Oscar pre-season and meet up and hang with more colleagues then I can throw a full bag of popcorn at. It kinda makes me wonder why our Chicago Film Festival, also boasting the title of “international” doesn’t allow for the same kind of reunions and anticipation, despite being easily the next big festival post-Canada. Perhaps Mr. Kutza should look into that. But that’s a full month away. Let’s talk about what’s happening in Toronto now.

Scheduling is a bit tighter this year than usual. The agony of having access to so many movies and knowing that you can only schedule a couple handfuls, maybe squeeze in a few extra if you manage your cards right. A lot of journalists up here need to make room for interviews and/or parties. Not me. I’m strictly for the movies and about the movies. If I’ve seen only 30 in my 7 days here, I feel that I have failed my readers, the listeners I report for on Nick Digilio’s WGN radio show and possibly as a human being. Anything I can get out of the way early is a plus. And if bears the moniker of Sony Classics, chances I have, so a hearty thank you to the reps at SPC. You’ll hear about those soon enough, but what I plan to do is to take you through a day-by-day trip through the festival, keeping anecdotes to a minimum and sharing with you some tips on how to make your schedule over the coming months.

The beauty of coming in on a Wednesday is the opportunity to get your credentials taken care of (a nice quick process thanks to those in the press office.) Normally it also gives you a chance to rest up after that long 90-minute flight from Chicago and not have to check-in and get everything straightened out before rushing off to a screening. A lesson I learned years ago after rushing to catch Being Julia. This year was a little different though. Thanks to some wonderful help from Warner Bros., I was invited to a few select screenings taking place in conjunction with the festival, assuring an easier passage through the whirlwind of film choices. Appaloosa has a review waiting to pop, but I’ve been asked to wait until further instructions by WB to post it. Later in the week it will be Pride and Glory. But this evening it was Guy Ritchie’s Rocknrolla. Confessing that there’s no love lost between myself and his resume, I am still always up for the occasional riff on tough-guy dialogue, senseless violence and twisty plotting and word was that his latest, the first since the disastrous screening of Revolver back in 2005, was back up to Lock Stock quality. In other words at least a full star up from the likes of Snatch and Swept Away.

It doesn’t take RocknRolla long to see that Ritchie is up to his old tricks, which is none at all. In the modern history of all the music video, rapid-cutting, “hip” directorial stylings, Ritchie must easily qualify as the worst simply because he’s been allowed to endure this long. Everyone has forgotten about Jonas Akerlund’s Spun by now, but Ritchie has churned out five films now and each one is worse than the last. Surely not worse than Revolver, you say. Oh, but it is. Revolver, for all its ludicrously dense plotting, vileness and pretentious wankitude in its resolution, at least was semi-ambitious in trying to accomplish something. RocknRolla lies there without any sense of urgency, throwing subplot on top of subplot and one meaningless character after another in search of a MacGuffin that the film completely forgets about every twenty minutes. There’s literally more intrigue into whether or not Gerard Butler’s character sucked off an associate of his as a favor to his impending incarceration and recent revelation that he’s a poofter. Where’s the painting? Who’s the informant? None of it matters. And not because Ritchie is busy giving us violent action and bloody deaths. Nobody dies in the film until exceptionally late into the proceedings and everytime its done off-screen as if Ritchie read some film studies to discover that there’s more art to off-screen bloodshed. A master craftsman you are, Guy. How anyone has been seduced into thinking there’s any modicum of filmmaking skill in this guy’s body of work is beyond all rational first day studies in Film Techniques I.

Ritchie has had his chances. He benefited from the post-hype of Trainspotting when Lock Stock became the next big UK grosser advertised as coming to America. The most provocative thing about Snatch was its title, and even with Brad Pitt, was no box office champ here. Then he got coerced by the ultimate Snatch and got his vanity project out of the way with Swept Away. Director’s get one of those. We forgive them for it. When you follow it up with a Revolver, all bets are off. Now with RocknRolla, it’s time to collect and put Ritchie in cinematic jail where he belongs. RocknRolla is so bad that if I had seen it at 9 AM the next morning, where I would have if not for WB’s help, I would have hopped on the next flight out and gone home because my spirit for the festival would have been broken. Thankfully I had a night to sleep on it and start fresh in the late morning.



Doing my best to shake the stench of RocknRolla off of me, I dreamt that night about the screening. It was the dream of my Criticwatch present as I found myself in a room with none other than Earl Dittman, just a few rows ahead of me at RocknRolla. I also saw Maria Salas, still searching for her first quote of the year. With disgust for the movie coasting through my veins, I left the screening room only to see Shawn Edwards laughing outside. Only it wasn’t a dream. It was a reality. I wish I had gone up to Dittman and introduced myself, but like Keyser Soze he was gone by the time I went outside and shared a cab to a late dinner with some actual critics like Michael Phillips, Patrick McGavin, Kim Voynar, James Rocchi and Eugene Novikov.

That was still the night before. But for the first time in my five-year history attending Toronto, I slept in and caught my first screening at 11:45 AM. It was for the fest’s opening night film, Passchendaele, a Canadian WWI romance from writer/director/star, Paul Gross. Who knew Canada had such a vested interest in how it all turned out and that they had boys encouraged to join up and die for their country too at the hands of a British commander stepping right off the front lines of a cartoon. No, I certainly wasn’t thrilled with Passchendaele. A shame considering the lovely Caroline Dhavernas (of TV’s too quickly forgotten Wonderfalls) is one of the love interests of hand in one of those early war costumes that could signal her presence as a nurse or a nun. Choose your fantasy. Paul Gross indeed stars as a Canadian soldier who fought, was injured, briefly went AWOL, falls in love, recruits (poorly) and then goes back to war to protect Dhavernas’ brother (Joe Dinicol) who is desperate to go to war to impress the father of his young love whose primary romantic line is “introduce some foreign matter into me.” This all takes place within the first hour; one of the longest I think I’ve ever experienced during a single movie. The second half brings us back to the war, as if Gross followed the Titanic playbook of giving the ladies something for the first part and then the boys some violence in the second. The war stuff isn’t too bad, although it becomes a bit tiring to see grenades leading to the same flying somersaults any time one is in frame. The ending is particularly maudlin and martyr-esque and I haven’t even mentioned Gil Bellows who plays Gross’ drunken, short-tempered one-armed brother. It’s the one-armed part that you will be focusing on as Bellows is clearly wearing one of the worst fat suits imaginable in order to conceal his real arm and there’s a classic unintentional laugh shot where Bellows delivers a letter to Dhavernas and she walks out of her house – RIGHT PAST HIM – without noticing him and neither acknowledges each other. Too many silly moments to take seriously, especially from the performance of Dinicol who is immediately put into the running for one of the worst I’ll see this fest.


Up next was a film that surprised me in a really delightful way; all the more surprising because its trailer looked like a really lame updating of the Robert Downey Jr. vehicle, Heart and Souls. Remember that one? Certainly better than the Reese Witherspoon insult that was Just Like Heaven, but still a schmaltzy ghost comedy. David Koepp is known mostly as the screenwriter of such films as Jurassic Park, Spider-Man and this year’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. His directorial efforts, The Trigger Effect and Secret Window had their share of attributes but neither stood a candle to his underrated Stir of Echoes, which was the ghost story everyone should have seen in 1999 instead of The Sixth Sense. Koepp has again one-upped most of the modern ghost comedies with Ghost Town with the worldly treasure that is Ricky Gervais.

He plays a socially-irritated dentist who goes in for a colonoscopy and wakes up with the ability to see and hear the recently dead who follow him around the city begging him to complete their unfinished business. Greg Kinnear is the philandering husband who is now trying to look out for his wife (Tea Leoni) who may be making a mistake with her latest beau and needs Gervais to plant the seed of doubt in her mind. I know – it reads just like the trailer, which again resembled one of these poor American attempts to take a great comic actor from overseas and put him into less than stellar projects (see: Run Fatboy Run or the upcoming How To Lose Friends and Alienate People.) Ghost Town is much better than that though, first in huge thanks to Gervais who seems incapable of missing a laugh to be had with another actor. The explanatory conversation between him and the always-great Kristen Wiig about his hospital stay is without question one of the perfect comic exchanges of the year. But more than that, Gervais holds his own in some of the dramatic overtones that cloud the dentist’s past. Kinnear plays great off him as does Leoni and I was well sold well before the lovely final lines. By then I had a little crush on Ghost Town and I’ll stand by it as one of the best surprises of 2008.

Ghost Town

Sporting a goofy smile on my face and having successfully exorcised Guy Ritchie from my system, I had some time to kill and went over to the screener office where press members can sign up and view various available titles. Great staff over in the office. Patient, quick on the ball and always helpful. I was going in cold without a reservation hoping to snag a station before my 7:15 screening. After a little waiting and trying to determine what would best serve my schedule and allow another film to enter the fray, I sat down to watch Sexykiller. How could you miss, right? Things looked to be going OK. It purports to be a twist on the slasher film with a hot, young lady taking the reins of the sharp objects. (Guess the filmmakers never saw American Psycho II or the Devil in the Flesh series.) Mila Kunis, Rose McGowan and Jodi Lyn O’Keefe notwithstanding, the anti-heroine this time is Macarena Gomez who gets to do all the cool movie things like kill and talk directly to the camera (which she even acknowledges to a professor at one point.) It’s kinda fun watching her throw herself into the role and the film maintains it’s goofy tone, although it begins to drop the ball with the additional intrigue of two guys on campus developing a machine that plugs into your brain and allows you to see the final moments of the deceased. These scenes drag the film when we want to be following Gomez and even when it hits about another weirdo twist in the third act it just never quite goes the distance with it.. Not a bad film, but hard to completely like when the lead character refers to Kate Winslet as “that fat girl from Titanic.” That’s just wrong on so many levels.


Back to the Varsity Cinemas though where one of the films I was really looking forward, Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, was playing under the “Priority Press” banner. These are handily marked in red outline on our schedules, but not as handy if you show up early. If you have a “P” on your badge, you are good to go and can walk right in. If you have an “I” then you are basically waiting in a rush line, praying that the two theaters playing it doesn’t fill up with “P’s”. This leads me to another section of my Toronto reports which we’ll call “Things I Heard In Line.” No, I don’t deal in rumors, just things that I usually find funny, frustrating or downright infuriating. Trust me, you’ll learn a great deal about your fellow critics and reporters listening to them talk in line. This first entry deals directly with the whole Priority Press issue, which has bothered a number of people for various reasons despite having yet to hear one story where someone was locked out of one of these screenings. I never have. The guy in front of me (we deal in anonymity for this segment) was really getting his bitch on about this policy, going so far to blame it all on Roger Ebert who infamously was shut out of a screening some time ago and caused a stir about it. “IT’S ALL BECAUSE OF ROGER FREAKIN’ EBERT!” Hold on there, sport. The incident in question happened in 2002. The Priority Press screenings began in 2007. You’re telling me that the Toronto staff was so slow on the ball that they waited five full years to institute this policy? I don’t know why it was done and until I’m shut out of a screening because I didn’t bother to set my schedule and get there on time, I honestly don’t care. That said, a “P” on my badge would be most appreciated.

The other section we’ll be getting to coincides with my annual Oscar Eye articles as I’ll be keeping it on the films of Toronto and bringing you the latest buzz for the big year-end prizes. While we’re not quite there yet to report on The Brothers Bloom, perhaps my favorite thing I heard in line this evening was also a fine way to kick off the Oscar Eye. According to a woman whom Ebert Screamer was talking with, Julianne Moore was going to win the Best Actress Oscar for Saving Grace. She was convinced of it. This was the incestuous true story that was on many writers’ “worst of Sundance ‘08” list. The punchline to her prediction though – she had never even seen it – and on top of that wasn’t aware that it had come out in late May and was well forgotten. She also wanted to know if the guy had seen the movie at Sundance “with the girl who had teeth.”

But onto The Brothers Bloom. Rian Johnson’s debut feature, Brick, took over a year and to get into theaters after being one of the highlights at Sundance ’05. In 2006 he was named the Most Promising Director by the Chicago Film Critics Association and won Best Screenplay awards from the Central Ohio and San Francisco critics. All well deserved. For his follow-up, he has successfully avoided the dreaded Sophomore slump and delivered a film of large ambition (although one could argue his throwback hard-boiled dialogue for Brick was a greater creative risk) with a solid cast that proves he continues to be someone to keep an eye on. If he took a page from Raymond Chandler for Brick, then it’s one of Wes Anderson’s eyes he’s plucked out for his latest. Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo play the titular brothers (with Babel's Rinko "show my" Kikuchi as their silent Asian partner, Bang Bang), lifelong con artists from their days in and out of foster homes. Ruffalo is the instigator and Brody playing his part out of loyalty and certainly not enthusiasm. They set out on one final con together, to take an eccentric millionairess for a large sum of her inheritance. Rachel Weisz plays the fragile woman whom Brody takes an instant liking to and the feeling is instantly mutual. As she looks for a little adventure in her life, she joins the brothers on a quest involving steam ships, lost artifacts and the shady Robbie Coltrane while Brody is torn between blood and maybe a last chance at a love he’s always lost in the past. Despite our instinctual ability to be trying to figure out every last inch of who is conning who, it becomes clear (especially after all truths are revealed) that Johnson is more interested in the people than any false contrivances and pulling rugs. Some may find his anachronisms and colorful dialogue a little too clever and I’ll admit some of the motivations in the final half-hour are a bit convoluted and not fully understandable but its still a very good time punctuated by a good cast, particularly Weisz whose heiress is a vulnerable analomy and its great to see her open up throughout the film. Watch out for brief cameos by Brick stars, Nora Zehetner and a blink-and-you-will-miss (and slightly distracting if you notice) Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Certainly a film worth a second look.

OSCAR EYE ALERT: Summit Entertainment has pushed the release of The Brothers Bloom from October into a platform release in late December. Obviously someone there is thinking Oscar. And you can put it into the early running for a possible Original Screenplay nod and certainly higher on the list for what they should really be pushing – Rachel Weisz’s performance. Curious as to whether people will be thinking Lead or Supporting. The former might get a little crowded later in the year, but the latter would give her a great shot with a performance that I believe may be the best of her career.

The Brothers Bloom

Day 2 will continue with Burn After Reading, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Four Nights with Anna and Me & Orson Welles.

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originally posted: 09/13/08 00:33:22
last updated: 09/17/08 02:16:07
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