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Art Snob takes a big ol look at his adventures and the films of The TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL

Hey folks, Harry here enjoying yet another wonderful report in from Toronto. While they don't quite make up for not being there... it really is the best possible... substitute for doing the real thing and being there. Of course it creates longing pangs... Sigh. But if you are curious where you can read the entire epic story of AICN's representatives at Toronto, then Click here to read them all!!!

Greetings again from Art Snob. I'm back home in Rochester on Sunday afternoon following a good night's sleep (for a change!) and a leisurely drive home without encountering any traffic congestion along the way (also a welcome change). Having just indulged myself in a duty-free bottle of Dave's Spiked Lemonade, here's what I can report back on weekend 2:


Friday was my busiest day of the festival -- four films, all in the Yonge-Bloor area. This didn't leave much time for indulging in the local scene, and I had to pretty much settle for fast food instead of the dizzying variety of ethnic fare available everywhere. (Not to worry ... I'll take Tim Horton's coffee and a Mega Wrap over Starbuck's and Burger King any day of the week!) I only had one confirmed ticket for the day, but was able to obtain same-day tickets for three others that looked interesting.

First up was the French movie, ROMANCE. I was very ... ummm ... "impressed" with the only previous picture from director Catherine Breillat, that I'd seen, 36 FILLETTE. Plus the festival program likened this new film to Oshima's IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES, and I'm a hopeless romantic. I just had to check it out.

Definitely one of the festival highlights for me. Likening it to Oshima's film is a bit of an exaggeration, but it's actually a much better movie in it's own way. It plays like a frank and honest 90's update to Luis Buñuel's classic (but hopelessly genteel) BELLE DE JOUR, with the closing scene pretty much a direct homage.

It isn't a discontented housewife in this case, but rather an elementary school teacher named Marie who's deeply involved with an extremely narcissistic movie star. She can't resist him, he knows it, and he decides to put her through some kind of celibacy test, eschewing all sexual contact with her until he feels inclined to resume it. (THAT's power!)

But Marie (Caroline Ducey) decides that if one man isn't going to satisfy all of her needs, she's just going to have to look elsewhere for someone to provide what's currently lacking in her life. And this she does with abandon, even taking up a proposition from a low-life on the street. Whereas BELLE DE JOUR did the soft-pedal on the actual sex -- paving the way for the absurdity of Julia Roberts' "virgin hooker" -- there are sure no secrets when it comes to THIS pretty woman's bag of tricks!

Things get REALLY interesting when Marie takes up with an older man played by veteran actor François Berléand. I can only tell you that his character would make Hugh Heffner and Wilt Chamberlin bow their heads and raise their hands in "not worthy" deference. If you're a forward-thinking kind of guy who's planning on becoming a dirty old man in your senior years ... prepare to meet your ULTIMATE role model!

There's the usual French philosophizing on boy-meets-girl, but this film doesn't shortchange you in the ACTION department. There's also a powerful climax (natch). Irene Jacob (HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT) may get my festival award for "best NON-costume" but there's no question that Ducey tries harder ... and is in a MUCH better film.

Trimark Films has the distribution rights and plans to release it unrated in the states. (There's no way that ANY modification to the MPAA film rating system would ever make this film suitable for exhibition in cineplexes and shopping malls, trust me.) If you're looking for some legit adult fare with first-rate production values and a story to tell, this is definitely one to keep an eye out for on the art house circuit. I have a feeling that you're going to be hearing a LOT about it.

From an eye-opening surprise, I unfortunately proceeded next to my biggest mistake of the festival -- a deceptively cool-sounding joint Chinese-Hong Kong-Canadian production named DREAMTRIPS filmed largely in the Toronto area. Director Kal Ng said before the screening that an American distributor hadn't been found yet and that this might be the last showing in North America. Out of mercy for my fellow movie enthusiasts, I can only hope that he was right.

The film is set in the near future when a way of enabling people with sleeping disorders to enter digital dreamworlds has been invented. If you're a filmmaker wanabe with some nifty sci-fi ideas in your head, please note: Do NOT set about trying to realize your dreams until you've lined up financing for some cool F/X! Now-you-see-'em-now-you-don't "poof"-type materializations and disappearances just don't CUT it in this day and age!

Cheesy F/X ... an incomprehensible storyline ... a cast of obvious amateurs ... spelling and syntax error-riddled subtitles ... DREAMTRIPS' effect on me was strictly soporific, and unfortunately, I wasn't able to dream that I was watching a better movie. Walkouts abounded. It's not bad in the "Ed Wood" sense, but NO WAY did it belong at the same festival with any of the other movies that I saw.

If I can say ANYthing positive about it, it's that an unscrupulous distributor with a talented film editor could probably fashion a slick, interesting-looking trailer for it, attach the trailer to video releases for a while, and generate some straight-to-video sales as a result. So if you ever see DREAMTRIPS on the "new video releases" shelf and think that it sounds like an interesting alternative to your 50th viewing of THE MATRIX, remember ... you've been warned!

Things improved immensely in the late afternoon when I saw long-time festival contributor Ron Mann's new documentary, GRASS. This film is almost identical in it's approach to marijuana as THE ATOMIC CAFE was to Cold War nuclear hysteria. It traces the history of marijuana in the U.S. from its initial arrival in the early part of this century through the present day, and contains an abundance of hysterical-in-retrospect public service announcements, movie scenes (including, of course, REEFER MADNESS) and political posturing on pot. (My personal favorites: the S&C-era Sonny Bono admonishing kids against trying weed, Richard Nixon announcing that Elvis Presley has enlisted in his war against drugs, and a gem where a public official warns that marijuana is "addictive" while repeatedly puffing on a cigarette.) As the attitudes and events of different eras are documented, you see the price tag of combating marijuana usage ever-escalating.

It's definitely lively, entertaining and informative, but I doubt that it's going to change anything politically. (This particular screening was definitely a case of "preaching to the choir.") Your enjoyment of GRASS will be proportional to your enjoyment of ... well ... GRASS, and the degree of consensus you share on the legalization issue with Mann and narrator Woody Harrelson going in. If you've ever inhaled and think that the marijuana laws in this country are hopelessly outdated and inconsistent with public policy on other controlled substances, then by all MEANS go for it! Otherwise, be advised that it won't be your cup of "tea."

After another great Chinese meal, it was time for my final screening of the day: A film with surprisingly-broad appeal filmed in the Russian republic of Tadjikistan (try finding THAT on a map!) named LUNA PAPA. It's a "tragicomedy" about a girl in her late teens named Mamlakat who mysteriously gets seduced and impregnated by someone she hears (but never gets a full look at) on a full moon night when a touring troupe of actors has flown into her small town for a performance of one of Shakespeare's plays. An unwanted pregnancy is the last thing she needs ... her father is widowed and finding it increasingly difficult to support her older brother, a former soldier who suffered permanent brain damage in battle and is now the town idiot.

When the girl discovers that she's pregnant and reveals it to her father, he's determined to find the responsible party, and there is much mirth as the family of three tours south central Russia in an attempt to locate the actor by attending plays and having Mamlakat try to identify the voice. The film has a lot of beautiful landscapes (reminiscent of those in THE ENGLISH PATIENT), the production values are excellent, the pacing never drags, there are many laughs, and the three leads are extremely well-cast. (The idiot brother, BTW is played by Moritz Bleibtreu, the dim bulb boyfriend in RUN LOLA RUN. He's really excellent -- a bit like Harpo Marx with a limited vocabulary -- but boy ... he'd better start playing brainier characters SOON if he wants to avoid typecasting!)

My main cavil: For a film from this exotic a locale, it's just a tad too WESTERN in its sensibilities and techniques. Director Bakhtiyar Khudojnazarov has obviously been a keen student of western popular entertainment. LUNA PAPA is like seeing proven Hollywood crowd-pleasing conventions effectively transplanted to a completely different culture, and I'm not sure that this is necessarily a good thing. There's no questioning that it's far more accessible to western audiences as a result, though.

The film doesn't have an American distributor yet, but that may very well change come Oscar time. This is EXACTLY the kind of good-natured, non-groundbreaking, non-controversial, Hollywood-reverential movie (think KOLYA) that AMPAS loves to reward in the foreign language category. And there's an added bonus that Hollywood stands to reap for rewarding it: the religious right-wing conservatives who are always condemning the entertainment industry will simply LOVE the film's handling of the abortion issue!


I decided to take things easy on Saturday, the final day of the festival. I had tickets already lined up for both films that I wanted to see, and they were both playing at the sumptuous Elgin Theater, rented out by Visa for movie screenings during the festival. This is very close to the southeast corner of the subway loop, and on Saturdays this means proximity to one of Toronto's TOP culinary treasures ... the only-open-one-day-a-week St. Lawrence Market! I decided to make up for "fast food Friday" in a major way, rather than try to squeeze in one more movie.

You've never seen such a diversity of fresh produce, meats, cheeses, baked goods, condiments, and prepared foods under two roofs! (I'd tell you what my favorite line of homemade products at this market are and what booth they're available at, but I don't get up this way every weekend, and supplies ARE limited ... try to understand.) Two huge slices of fresh-baked "everything" pizza and a caffeine overdose cup of Blue Mountain gourmet coffee for lunch for less than $5 American ... I PITY the out-of-towners who consume only hotel food, movie snacks, and junk food from familiar American chains while they're at this festival! You may never bat a thousand with your movie choices, but with some local in-the-know friends, every meal you have time to sit down for can be a feast ... even if you're on a budget.

And there were great movies to go with the great food on this day, also. First up was documentary master Errol Morris' MR. DEATH: THE RISE AND FALL OF FRED A. LEUCHTER, JR. This is easily his best to-date ... one that I'm certainly glad that a filmmaker of his talents was available to make.

While he's never come close to making a bad (or even mediocre) documentary, Morris' more recent efforts seem to have lacked the knockout punch effectiveness of his most widely known and highly-regarded classic, THE THIN BLUE LINE, which was instrumental in getting an innocent man removed from death row. This is the follow-up that his admirers have been waiting for ... the story of a controversial man who easily blows away the combined weirdness of the quartet from Morris' last film, FAST, CHEAP AND OUT OF CONTROL.

In the first part of the documentary, Fred Leuchter comes across as the embodiment of "compassionate conservative" ... a guy who firmly believes in the death penalty, but thinks that capital punishment should be more humanely administered. He's a regular geek of death technology ... the son of a prison guard who in the 80's designed a new state-of-the-art electric chair for Missouri. This lead to contracts with other state governments ... even ones employing technology (lethal injection, gas) that he had no immediate knowledge of. There's an undeniable morbid fascination in listening to him discuss the minutiae of death technology, covering topics such as the need for a drip pan under an electric chair. The guy is THOROUGH.

But he's also vain in believing in his own infallibility as the leading authority in his "field," and this leads to his downfall. He accepts a job from notorious Canadian Nazi historical revisionist Ernst Zundel to perform forensic investigations as to whether gassings could actually have taken place at Auschwitz. This he undertakes in earnestness, collecting all kinds of samples surreptitiously around the remains of the infamous facility while being videotaped by his guide. (Amusing side note: He had just been married at the time, and this trip was his "honeymoon".)

When he publishes "The Leuchter Report," which concludes that gassings COULDN'T have taken place at the facility since he found no traces of cyanide in the samples, he immediately gains notoriety. He testifies at the hate crime trial of Zundel (which took place right here in Toronto, resulting in a lot of local interest in this film), and becomes a star speaker on the neo-Nazi circuit. His report becomes the scientific basis for denying that the Holocaust ever happened and is widely circulated (it's easily locatable via a Web serach). He clearly relishes being revered as a scientific authority -- no matter what the audience. But his business contracts disappear as a result of this notoriety, his wife divorces him, and he's left pretty destitute.

In refuting Leuchter's "findings," Morris wisely eschews any testimony from Holocaust survivors. Instead, he relies on some very gentile-looking academics who meticulously show the overwhelming archival evidence (diagrams of the technology, correspondence between military officers, etc.) of mass extermination at the camp and demonstrate some HUGE holes in Leuchter's scientific methodology. When Zundel tries to refute these counterpoints by actually likening Leuchter to Christ, the jig's REALLY up.

What starts out seeming like another interesting installment of FAST, CHEAP AND OUT OF CONTROL turns out to have a much larger mission: Showing the world the EXACT foundation that the "scientific evidence" denying the Holocaust rests upon. It's a masterful tour-de-force from Morris with his polished documentary techniques (far more sophisticated and engaging than the standard, straightforward approach used by GRASS) on full display. It's VERY satisfying when "Mr. Death" turns out to be no match for a documentary filmmaker who knows how to give him enough rope to hang himself with. Even if you don't see documentaries as a rule, this is a not-to-miss. Truth IS stranger than fiction.

My final film of the festival was the eagerly-anticipated Americanized reworking of Hayao Miyazaki's Japanimation classic, PRINCESS MONONOKE. To put it succinctly: Everything you've heard about this film's visual splendor is true. Fans of the genre can feel free to leave their expectations on full throttle.

Even individual landscape backdrops in this film qualify as artistic masterpieces in their own right. It's SO refreshing to see animation of this quality knowing that you're not being set up for an endless bombardment of commercial spin-offs. (If anybody ever DOES try to adapt the characters in this film for a line of Happy Meal toys ... shoot them.)

Miyazaki was present for the screening (he received a thunderous ovation when introduced) and commented through a translator that the film was intended to be most fully appreciated by future generations. I have to admit that I didn't understand ALL of it (the motivations and intentions of some of the huge cast of human and animal characters were a bit hard to keep reconciled in the later stages of this 2-1/4 hour production), but that's almost irrelevant. I could still follow the big story, was immensely impressed, and look forward to a repeat viewing.

As for the English voices: Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, Claire Danes and Gillian Anderson are all fine for their parts. The only sore point is Billy Bob Thornton ... his slow southern drawl is a completely incongruous distraction. (Just a miniscule blemish on an otherwise overwhelmingly well-done adaptation, however.)

It's really hard to predict the degree of commercial success the film will enjoy in the U.S. Fans of traditional animation (especially children) may find it a bit overwhelming. But with the great Miramax publicity machine behind it, it's assured of getting maximum exposure and -- very likely -- an Oscar nomination. It should be a rousing success.


Well, that's it for this year. Another great festival that already has me making plans for the next one. It's impossible for me to choose a "best" film for this year ... there's just no way to rationally compare SHOW ME LOVE, MR. DEATH, and PRINCESS MONONOKE to each other. However, when it came time to cast my vote for the audience favorite, I went with SHOW ME LOVE. This film manages to be something that I would have deemed an utter impossibility without actually seeing it for myself ... an unapologetic, non-manipulative gay-themed movie that's a legitimate crowd-pleaser for straights.

Many thanks to the great folks I know in Toronto. You're always the difference between the Festival being a unique and leisurely pleasure for me instead of an impersonal, hectic and expensive rat race that could be taking place in ANY major metropolitan area.

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