Even though journalists now get inundated with cascading press releases from Toronto -- carefully calibrated and beautifully orchestrated to arouse excitement (in both us and our eventual readers) -- that let us know everything that’s going to be shown over the 11 days of the Toronto International Film Festival (aka TIFF), there’s still that ineffable moment when you sit down with the 448-page catalogue and read through each page as though it’s an especially engrossing, well-plotted novel.
I make three lists: Must Sees, Would Like to See, and Seen.
Even though I’ve arrived in Toronto having seen some twenty movies – at Telluride, other screenings, even, in one instance, on DVD – I feel overwhelmed by the riches displayed before me. (In a locked case, I must say. The intricacies of navigating the Festival, with competing press and public schedules, and no guarantee of getting into any screening, seem to get more baroque every year. And this year most press screenings are being held in the Scotiabank complex, with its lovely huge screens and vertiginous raking, but no longer a brisk walk from where I stay. And without the cozy familiarity of the Varsity complex. Oh well.)Even though I know that the TIFF programmers are known to make every movie sound better than sex in their catalogue entries, there are multiple reasons that I lust after the movies on offer: country of origin (a weakness for France, China, Japan); a director (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jean Luc Godard, Jia Zhangke); a star (Charlotte Rampling, Vincent Cassel, Isabelle Huppert); subject matter (food, sex, martial arts) – even a particularly striking photograph. I end up with 29 movies I feel I must see, and 85 more that I would really, really, really like to – even being somewhat rigorous in my selections. (Really.) I may squeeze in 40, if I’m relentless.
Todd McCarthy startled me, on our last day in Telluride, by casually telling me that he wouldn’t be going on to Toronto this year (“I’ve seen 75% of what they’re showing,” he said, which seems almost humanly impossible, given the strictures of international film releasing, but perhaps he meant 75% of what he wants to see). The press screenings are now in the Scotiabank Theatre, a pleasant multi-plex, as multi-plexes go, with a huge ticket lobby, extremely long ceremonial escalators that carry you to the second floor, which is ringed, in food-court style, with a number of fast food counters including a Burger King and a branch of Pizza Pizza, an Ontario chain.
Standing in line for a rather pallid coffee (“We’re out of the dark roast,”) before my first screening of the day, Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, I overheard two women bemoaning the lost proximity of the Bloor Street Diner, whose array of topnotch grab-and-go sandwiches I looked forward to from year to year.
Legend of the Fist is almost the martial arts movie of my dreams. The first sequences start with printed legends guaranteed to make my cinematic heart leap – “France 1917,” and, even better, “Shanghai 1925”. Much of the action takes place on a picturesque studio-built Shanghai street dominated by a fancy nightclub called the Casablanca, where the iconic, pillowy-lipped Hong Kong actress Shu Qi, whose filmic presence has lately escaped me, holds sway as a snappy nightclub singer named Kiki. (Backed up by a line of chorines that bring to mind what I used to call the Jean-Pierre Melville dancers.) I was happy to see Anthony Wong as the night club owner, and Donnie Yen in the title role, togged out in tight black leather and domino mask that unhappily looked more like a chauffeur’s getup than a superhero’s. Frequent montages (and a bit of incoherence) hinted at possible longer scenes that had been cut down. Not unexpectedly, from the director of the Infernal Affairs trilogy, every character possesses at least two (and sometimes three) identities – and flips allegiances. I wanted to gasp more than I did at the action sequences, I wanted more wire work (yes, egg in my beer) – though I admired the camera work (the film could have been subtitled “A Thousand Crane Shots.”)
Anyway in a few days I can see Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, and maybe that will satisfy my lust for martial arts scenes that defy gravity as well as common sense.
I segued immediately into a theater right across the hall to see Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Biutiful, which garnered mixed reactions at Cannes (as well as a Best Actor nod for Javier Bardem). I thought I must have mis-counted when I came up with a total of nine (admittedly brief) introductory films before Chen Zhen, but no, there they were, nine again before Biutiful: including an introduction to the TIFF Lightbox, a reminder that it’s illegal to record in the theater, a commercial for Bell devices, another for the Blackberry (both major sponsors), a shout-out for the volunteer program (now supported by Cineplex Odeon, after years of sponsorship by Universal, which resulted in such Pavlovian conditioning that whenever I heard the Universal musical fanfare anywhere I had the agreeable sensation of being at a Toronto screening), and reminders that Cadillac ponies up for the People’s Choice Awards and AMC for the Special Presentations. Whew.
Iñárritu’s success with Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel has almost guaranteed a mild critical backlash, but I found the multi-cultural Biutiful, set in Barcelona among Spaniards, Chinese, and Senegalese, strong and moving, and Javier Bardem compulsively watchable. He was evenly matched with Maricel Àlvarez, a actress with a strong presence (and profile) in her first movie role. A couple of shocking scenes involving pissing blood reminded me of an equally disturbing moment in Fat City, which I still regret not being able to see in Telluride.
For once the opening night gala held some allure for me: Score: A Hockey Musical sounded unpretentious and fun. But I hadn’t figured out how to get a ticket to it, so instead I stuck around the Scotiabank and watched what was on offer where I already was, a Russia movie called The Edge, even though it didn’t figure on any of the multiple lists I’d prepared after scouring the catalogue.
Its post-war Siberian labor camp setting seemed to continue the theme of two movies I’d seen in Telluride, the Werner Herzog/Dmitry Vasyukov documentary Happy People: A Year in the Taiga and Peter Weir’s The Way Back. (Film festivals are educational!) The mix of characters – Russians, Germans, Armenians, Estonians, Lithuanians – and their obsession with steam engines, as well as a mini-Bridge on the River Kwai sequence – kept me fairly engrossed.
Though after its sepia tones I yearned for something colorful, and found it in the extremely vivid Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, not part of the Toronto International Film Festival but definitely part of Toronto – the hometown audience chuckled at every local reference, including “They shoot movies in Toronto,” “What’s the website for amazon.ca? Amazon.ca.”, a shot of a Pizza Pizza chain, and “The comic book was better than the movie,” (not a Toronto reference, but it went over big with the room). I was in a multiplex, after all, it was still early, and the flesh is weak.
But now it’s late, very late, and I have to be on the subway around 8 a.m. if I am to see Alain Corneau’s Love Crime at 9 a.m. It was only about ten days ago that Bertrand Tavernier told me over breakfast high above Las Vegas with great sadness that his friend Corneau, who had started out in the French film world around the same time as him, had died. It stars Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier, and the Festival describes it as “Dangerous Liaisons meets Working Girl”, and I can’t wait.