Northern Exposure

by Matthew Curtis
September 6, 2008 5:29 AM
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Back in Toronto for my annual pilgrimage to international cinema heaven known as the Toronto Film Festival, but getting up here wasn't without incident. Dropping my car off at the Park and Ride by the Orlando airport at 5:30 AM, I accidentally turned on my hazard lights while putting up my sunshades in the windshield. Having never had to use the hazard lights before, of course I had no idea how or where to turn them off (being unable to see the little red triangle on the dashboard didn't help matters). After at least 10 minutes that felt like an eternity, the mechanical genius in me finally found the damn button and I was able to catch my shuttle without fear of returning home to a dead battery.

The passenger next to me on the flight up was an older guy who looked like he was from India or Pakistan but ended up telling me he emigrated from Guyana. At least I think that's what he said, since he talked the whole way up to Canada and his accent was so thick that I literally understood maybe 10% of what he was saying. An actual conversation was difficult and lots of head nodding transpired, but he was a sweet guy on his way to visit his sick older sister in Toronto.

Upon arrival and pick-up of the Press Screening schedule, I instantly noticed two things--the weather was delightful (haven't felt a cool breeze in Orlando for a while) and the pickings were slim for evening screenings. I'm not sure about the reasons for the cutback, but many are grumbling over the paucity of film choices after dinner time if you don't want to deal with the cost and effort of getting into public screenings. It was such a nice development last year for those of us that aren't party animals, that it's a shame it wasn't continued.

The Opening Night Party was gigantic and packed (and fun) as always, but I must admit the food this year was a bit underwhelming. Someone obviously thought that beef stew and mashed potatos, sausage, chicken/seafood/ham and cheese crepes, and other fairly unappetizing grub all went with the war theme of the Opening Night film, Paul Gross' PASSCHENDAELE. At least the desserts were impressive and as always, the alcohol was flowing. And while no one was really talking about the movie, everyone wanted to talk about Sarah Palin and the election as soon as they found out you were American.

And what's the skinny on the films so far? I've yet to see a film from the U.S., but I've been mostly pleased with my choices. Using the 5-star system our Orlando press uses, here's what I've checked out so far:

SAUNA (3-stars) - Tarkovsky meets Blair Witch in this creepy, evocative and well-shot 16th century tale of ghosts, demons, Swedes and Russians setting territory borders in a mysterious forest. As good as the build-up is, the ending is way over the top and ultimately disappointing. This horror entry from Finland is too gory for the art crowd, too poetic and arty for the midnight audience.

WALTZ WITH BASHIR (5-stars) - a stunning and powerful animated documentary from Israel about war, responsibility, and the nature of selective memory. As the filmmaker searches for information related to what really happened at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres in Beirut over 25 years ago, you'll be mesmerized from the opening scene of wild dogs running in the streets. Perhaps not the crowd pleaser that PERSEPOLIS proved to be, but a novel and important work.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD (not yet rated) - Only got to see the first half of this wild South Korean take on the spaghetti western by Kim Jee-woon (THE FOUL KING), but I loved it. Incredible action scenes, great characters and funny as hell, in all its cinemascope glory--I can't to see the whole thing soon. When's IFC releasing it?

HEAVEN ON EARTH (3-stars) - The latest from Deepa Mehta (WATER) is sure to stir things up once again with this well-acted drama of an Indian bride who comes to Canada for an arranged marriage, a mother-in-law from hell, and an abusive and controlling husband, not to mention an extended family all living under one (small) roof. Strong material, but the use of grainy B&W and the magical elements didn't work for me.

O'HORTEN (4-stars) - Bent Hamer, director of FACTOTUM and KITCHEN STORIES, returns to his native Norway for this typically dry, Scandinavian-funny look at a retiring train conductor. After 40 years at the helm, 67-year-old Odd Horten's orderly existence gives way to a bunch of quirky encounters and absurd situations. A lovely film that will put a smile on your face--someone in the audience giggled loudly through the whole thing.

EDISON & LEO (2-stars) - Co-written by the screenwriter of Guy Maddin's THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD, this is an ambitious, well-crafted but boring and ridiculous stop-motion animated feature about a thieving inventor (loosely based on Thomas Edison) who has a hairdo like Wolverine. Too violent and twisted for kids, most adults won't care less. I kept thinking of DAVEY & GOLIATH for some reason, and that's not a good thing.

--Matthew

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