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September 17, 2006
Well I Guess That's It

"Bella" has taken the People's Choice Award in truly surprising fashion. I have no doubt that the filmmakers are absolutely floored having been so in awe of the fact that they even made in here. The film, which I thought would be released ever since seeing it, is now guaranteed of such a fate. As Kris says on the main page, that means absolutely nothing for awards' season but that's frankly irrelevant. "Bella" will now reach an audience it otherwise would not have. Good for it.

I pretty much wrapped everything up yesterday so I'll only say this: It's been a pleasure covering the festival for In Contention. I only hope you enjoyed reading the coverage as much as I've enjoyed writing it.

September 16, 2006
A Personal Look Back

It’s with bittersweetness that I look back on my experience at the 31st Annual Toronto International Film Festival. On the one hand, it's going to great once again experiencing sleep. Yet this week has been exhilarating, entertaining and a tremendous amount of fun.

I personally found this year’s lot of films I saw to be somewhat middling. None of the fifteen films I took in would I describe as terrible. Yet only one of the movies that I saw, “The Last King of Scotland”, would I truly defend to the death. There are three other films I could say that I loved – “Little Children”, “Breaking and Entering” and “For Your Consideration” – but I still acknowledge all fall short of masterwork status (especially the latter two).

The actual viewing experience of a festival film is very unique one – where it is easy to get caught up in hype – and when taking in so many movies at once, films age in different ways in one’s mind. “Little Children” is a film I like more I like the more think about it. There’s so much going on in it and I look forward to seeing it again. “Venus”, on the other hand, though enjoyable (especially for seeing Peter O’Toole act well again), really strikes me as ill-conceived the more I think about it. “Bobby”, having made the odd decision to show itself as a work in progress, deserves another look come November.

And then there’s the issue of it being impossible to see as much as one would like to. There’s no way an event like this could be scheduled in a way so that one person can see all they want to. “Babel” and “Stranger than Fiction” I unfortunately missed while two films that built themselves up while here – “The Lives of Others” and “Away from Her” – I also didn’t see.


Now, for those among you who love lists, allow me to rate and rank the fifteen films I saw (**** is outstanding for me, ***½ is great, *** is good, **½ is ‘on the fence’, ** is mediocre, *½ is bad, etc.)…

1. The Last King of Scotland: ****
2. Little Children: *** ½
3. Breaking and Entering
4. For Your Consideration
5. Bella: ***
6. Volver
7. Infamous
8. The Wind that Shakes the Barley
9. Catch a Fire: **½
10. Black Book
11. Venus
12. Bobby
13. All the King’s Men: **
14. The Fountain
15. A Good Year

Five Best Performances of the Festival
1. Forest Whitaker – The Last King of Scotland
2. Kate Winslet – Little Children
3. Jude Law – Breaking and Entering
4. Carmen Maura – Volver
5. James McAvoy – The Last King of Scotland

Best Screenplay of the Festival
“The Last King of Scotland” by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock (Runner-up: “Little Children” by Todd Field and Tom Perotta)

Best Direction of the Festival
Kevin Macdonald for “The Last King of Scotland” (Runner-Up: Todd Field for “Little Children”)

Best Technical Achievement of the Festival
The Visual Effects Work on “The Fountain” (Runner-Up: Ruth Myers’ Costume Design on “Infamous”)

Worst Performance of the Festival
James Gandolfini in “All the King’s Men” (Runner-Up: Ashton Kutcher in “Bobby”)

Surest Bets for Oscar Nominations
Peter O’Toole for “Venus”, Kate Winslet for “Little Children”, Forest Whitaker for “The Last King of Scotland”

So that’s *almost* it for me. I’ll pop in once tomorrow though.

Movers and Shakers at TIFF

Every film that is at the 31st Annual Toronto International Film Festival has been screened now. So what was hurt? What was helped? What is staying where it was?

Two major movie stars – Penelope Cruz and Brad Pitt – came up and were media darlings while promoting “Volver” and “Babel”, two of the hottest tickets of the festival. They certainly got ample media attention and their films both ended up quite loved, especially the Almodovar effort.

It turns out that the hype concerning Peter O’Toole’s in “Venus” was legit; his work here was a mini-event of sorts. Imagine if he had actually been here! He seems to have finally found the role that will bring him his eighth Oscar nomination. As no actor has lost eight times without winning, it appears as though that statuette which has been coming for 44 years is on the way, especially as people seem to at least enjoy the film itself.

After O’Toole, the male performance that most got people talking is Forest Whitaker’s outstanding performance as Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland”. The longtime underappreciated Hollywood staple has found the role to get him the appreciation he deserves. Hopefully said appreciation will also carry over to the film, which is equally excellent.


“All the King’s Men”, on the other hand, got ravaged by the critics. This shouldn’t really be a surprise for those who have watched the film’s saga from troubled shoot to long delays to holding out press screenings for the longest time. But it’s still a shame to see such a great story crash and burn. Especially as there’s a lot of merit stuck in the messy film.

To add insult to injury, the local media is jumping over the fact that Sean Penn is apparently going to get himself fined for smoking three cigarettes during the film’s press conference (in violation of the province’s strict health laws). Though I can’t help but wonder…why didn’t anyone tell him he couldn’t smoke during the actual press conference? Regardless, I’m sure the hotel will foot the bill.

Kate Winslet and Jude Law, meanwhile, each came to promote another film. I’m surprised that Winslet’s starring vehicle – “Little Children” – did not get more people talking. It’s in many ways a challenging film for the average filmgoer to take and I’ll concede there’s something about it that doesn’t *quite* click. Regardless, most critics seem to like it a great deal (if many others have reservations) with many loving it. Winslet herself certainly seems to be looking at her fifth Oscar nomination which, as she will only turn 31 next month, is pretty damn impressive. Jackie Earle Haley’s haunting performance as a sex offender will also surely be a topic of discussion when the film is released.

Law’s “Breaking and Entering” received a genuinely positive, if not overwhelming, response. His best work as a leading man, hopefully it’s an indication that more great star turns are on the way from this clearly talented actor.


The Weinstein Company, however, seems higher on “Bobby”. From talking to some people up here, you’d think it was one of the worst films of the year. Others would argue it was one of the best. I find myself between these two camps. Regardless, though I disagree with him on the film, I do agree with David Poland in saying that it was a mistake to unveil the film here (especially as a “work in progress”). The hype on the film is now completely out of the studio’s hands.

"The Fountain" came, was seen...and did not conquer. It really is on its way to joining "All the King's Men" in the slaughterhouse. I can't say it's a good film. But I still maintain it's almost worth seeing just for the visuals.

Then there is the issue of films that were lurking under the radar before the festival. “The Lives of Others” received a tremendous response after its opening night screening. It was soon bought up by Sony Pictures Classics. A foreign-language film nomination, assuming it’s submitted, would seem likely. Toronto’s own Sarah Polley unleashed her directorial debut “Away from Her” to quite a positive response, at least from the media. I’m curious to see how the film does in wider release.

Tomorrow, the people’s choice award is announced. The last eight winners are “Life is Beautiful”, “American Beauty”, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “Amelie”, “Whale Rider”, “Zatoichi”, “Hotel Rwanda” and “Tsotsi”. Not too shabby a lot. So what will join them? I’d personally bet on “Away from Her” (the Toronto crowd pulling through for Polley) though wins for either “The Lives of Others” or “Volver” certainly wouldn’t surprise me. Though the last two winners of this award definately have been surprising. So we’ll see.

Soon enough, the films from the Festival will show themselves in theatres. Yet this is where they’ve chosen to start their North American release. And they’ll always be alumni of TIFF ‘06.

September 15, 2006

While watching Douglas McGrath’s “Infamous”, it’s impossible not to think of Bennett Miller’s “Capote”. The film will ultimately struggle to not be considered “the other Truman Capote film”. Yet that’s uncalled for. “Infamous” is certainly the more ambitious of the two films and while it’s ultimately not as successful, it still works quite well on its own terms, being both entertaining and insightful.

McGrath’s film certainly takes a more intimate look at the glitzy social world that defined Capote while he was alive. His "swans" enliven the movie and his relationships with them help build his character, as all these shallow people feed off each other. There’s nothing here that Sigorney Weaver, Isabella Rossellini and Hope Davis couldn’t do in their sleep but it’s still great to see them charm as they do. The New York scenes in the movie are in general quite fun.

The film’s use of testimonials to tell its story serves the narrative well and is certainly entertaining. But this is not “Reds”. It feels a tad cheap that McGrath uses this technique to convey what really ought to be put in the narrative.

Toby Jones’ take on Truman Capote is impressive indeed (he received a standing ovation after the film). He never loses his voice and mannerisms while also managing to guide Capote through a true character arc in a very entertaining manner. The work will undoubtedly be compared to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning take on the same character. I personally find Hoffman's work much more impressive, as his film asks more of him, yet this British character actor gives a star turn I never would have suspected of him.

The film’s shift to Kansas is a crucial one and the process of Truman coming to know the townsfolk is very well told and actually quite funny (I must give a special shout out to the use of Velveeta cheese).

Daniel Craig’s take on Perry Smith begins unconvincingly yet improves as the film moves along. The relationship between Truman and Perry is in many ways the most interesting aspect of the film, if it doesn’t always work. The primary source of knowledge about Perry Smith is “In Cold Blood” itself and the interpretation that McGrath reaches for is a questionable one in the opinion of this viewer. I, for one, would have much preferred a more subtle approach to their relationship with the viewer being able to make his or her own interpretation. Though I will give credit to the use of Smith’s opinions on Capote’s literary work in serving the film as a whole.

The film shifts focus, becoming more dark and tragic. The shift from the earlier, glitzy part of the film isn’t flawless, if smooth enough. The ultimately tragedy is certainly felt. The execution scene is one of the best of the year, especially in regards to the role a doctor plays (which I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen the film) and the haunting cutting to Truman listening to a song. Yet while this is compelling and powerful, McGrath ultimately makes the decision to explicitly tell us what the tragedy of Truman is. Was this really necessary?

Sandra Bullock is given some of the film’s best dialogue; it’s too bad her accent work is so bad. The performance will suffer in comparison to Keener’s but after this and “Crash”, expect her career to go in different places. Gwyneth Paltrow, meanwhile, in just one scene, is absolutely superb. She sings, she cries, she captivates…and she brings us into the world of the New York socialite.

The film *looks* fabulous. As always, Ruth Myers does amazing costuming for McGrath, not only fashioning memorable threads appropriate to the period but also making the costumes expressions of the characters. Judy Becker’s production design also serves the story exquisitely.

Ultimately, “Infamous” mostly succeeds on its own terms, offering insight into the person of Capote and being an intriguing, engaging and entertaining film. It’s not perfect but it doesn’t deserve to be lost. So here’s hoping it doesn’t end up with such a fate.


“Bobby” is a film where I want to see the final cut before fully committing my opinion. Already divisive in the extreme, I currently find myself between the ‘love it’ and ‘hate it’ camps on the film. Estevez is certainly no master of filmmaking, and this shows as the film’s script really needed to be brushed up while the direction was lacking. Yet the great passion he has for this project shines through to such a tremendous degree that an appropriately nostalgic tale is created that truly engages the viewer.

Telling the story of a group of people who were at the Ambassador Hotel the day Robert Kennedy was assassinated, the cast is so huge that the characters end up feeling more like ideas than fully drawn out individuals. This hardly makes for ideal filmmaking, especially as the dialogue really could have been brushed up at times while many of the scenes feel contrived in the most pedestrian of manners.

Yet while the characters could hardly be described as deep or complex (the film would have been better if there were less individuals who were more drawn out), they nevertheless feel as though they represent an immensely broad range of people who were affected by the film’s tragic events. The cutting between storylines shows the state of the era across generations and social classes. This is not exactly done subtly (in some instances parallels are pathetically obvious) but that does not take away from its effectiveness. The situations in the film tend to be not only entertaining but also feel appropriate to the period and the mood of the film.

The atmosphere built is a truly nostalgic one, and in the best of ways at that. A time often reminisced about but seldom recaptured is built not only in the film’s mood but also in Patti Podesta’s production design and Julie Weiss’ costumes. The soundtrack used is not exactly creative but is nevertheless immensely enjoyable to listen to and appropriate to the period; it also thankfully gives us a break from Mark Isham’s score. The viewer feels the fear – and the hope – experienced at the time.

The best parts of “Bobby” are the ones which integrate archive footage of Kennedy himself (which Estevez ironically did not direct). When woven into the larger atmosphere of the film (Richard Chew deserves immense praise for his work here), an aura of fear and hope is created onscreen. And the scope of the tragedy is truly felt for those who did not experience it at the time (if the final moments of the film are not as well realized as well as they should be).

All in all, “Bobby” is a film that could have been great in the hands of a better filmmaker. But it’s doubtful that another filmmaker would have had the passion for the project that Estevez clearly does. This is certainly not a great film. It might not even be a good one. But it’s still an entertaining, thought-provoking and sincere homage to its subject. I’m sure Estevez is proud of it. It’s a fine accomplishment for him.

September 14, 2006
The Disappointment

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” is based upon a fascinating premise – Hugh Jackman’s seeking immortality in three different eras (1500, 2000, 2500), in every instance to save the woman he loves (Rachel Weisz). Alas, while Aronofsky’s visual flare is superb, the narrative he crafts is an utter mess.

As a conquistador in 1500, a doctor in 2000 and a space man of sorts in 2500, Jackman plays a character who comes to fear death, rather obsessing to live forever with his love. The juxtaposition between the three eras is well accomplished indeed (if a tad obvious). Moreover, Aronofsky’s visual vision is extraordinary. Blending camera work and visual effects, he not only manages to build the mood in every scene strictly with the visuals, but he also dazzles the audience with pure spectacle.

Alas, there’s a reason a film should be grounded in the script. The director should be allowed to explore his vision but a story has to be told. Of course, the film credits a writer (Aronofsky himself) but it really feels like more of a string of brilliant ideas than any sort of coherent narrative. While many individual scenes are great, story is not well built at all. In fact, I’d say anyone not familiar with the plot before going in would be a tad confused for a good long while, especially in the 1500 and 2500 segments of the film.

The 1500 and 2500 sections of the film also really felt like ends of a narrative in and of themselves, not stories that fit well into the broader film. And with the film just 96 minutes long, that really doesn’t work. While Jackman fares fine (but he could have been better with better material to work him), Weisz was truly underwhelming.

“The Fountain” is filled with wonderful ideas and tremendous visual pizzazz. Someone just needed to tell Aronofsky when it well time to stop playing magician and start playing storyteller. Because he really let a potential masterpiece become mediocre filmmaking.

Honest and Engaging

Anthony Minghella’s “Breaking and Entering” is such a departure from the sweeping period epics that made him famous that one almost cannot believe that it comes from the same auteur who gave us “The English Patient”, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and "Cold Mountain". Yet the tremendous care Minghella brings to filmmaking, as well as his intimate crafting of characters, remain present here. The result not only stands proudly in Minghella’s filmography but also is one of the most satisfying films of the year.

In “Breaking and Entering”, Minghella collaborates with Jude Law for the third straight time (after "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Cold Mountain", Law's two Oscar-nominated performances). As Will Francis, Law plays an architect attempting to transform contemporary London’s downtrodden King’s Cross neighbourhood (while also becoming wealthy doing it). Despite living with his girlfriend of ten years (Robert Wright Penn) and having raised her behaviourally challenged thirteen year old daughter as if he were her father, the couple has never married. Will is the sort of man who is not necessarily unhappy yet there’s nevertheless something missing in his life; Law conveys this subtle inner tension wonderfully.

Shortly after the film begins, Will’s office building is broken into and computers, layouts and valuable models are stolen. The culprit who actually does the breaking is 15-year old Miro (Rafi Gavron), the only child of Bosnian refugee Amira (Juliette Binoche in her best English language performance since last working with Minghella on “The English Patient”). Amira is convincingly portrayed as being worried sick about her son who she knows very well is up to no good. Yet out of an all too believable combination of loving him and wanting to close her eyes to what is going on, she does not pursue knowledge of what exactly he’s doing.

After Miro is involved in another robbery of the office, Will feels obliged to camp out at night to see what’s happening. This leads to some hilarious encounters with a King’s Cross hooker (Vera Farmiga)…while also putting more strain on Will’s personal life.

Minghella takes his time building up the cast of characters, with 40 minutes elapsing before Will actually discovers the identity of the thief. While the first third of the film could hardly be described as exciting, it certainly is not boring. The viewer is drawn into Minghella’s poignant and honest crafting of the film’s cast and its mood.


After realizing the age of the offender and his mother’s concern for him, Will finds himself unable to turn the boy in, instead trying to discover the state of affairs in another family in difficult times. It’s better not to know specific plot developments from this point on. But the story from here continues to develop and the viewer never feels it is unrealistic or contrived (let’s be frank – most cinematic stories are). Guided by Minghella’s careful hand, themes of indecision and inability to move forward are explored. Nothing excessively awful happens and there are no action scenes or moments of gore. Yet the viewer feels engaged while souls find themselves and the plot gels together in the most honest and realistic of ways. And that’s a great thing to see.

The film would not work without Jude Law, who finally has found the leading role that he’s slipped into flawlessly. In a very understated turn (it would not have worked any other way), Law delivers what is probably the most realistic and honest capturing of a human being this year. He’s given no opportunity to scream, domineer or continually crack jokes yet he manages to carry the film on his back, engaging the audience merely with his tone of voice and the look in his eyes. He builds the sort of character that everyone knows.

The film doesn’t have the captivation of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” or the Lean-esque scoping wonder of “The English Patient”. But it doesn’t have to. It succeeds beautifully on its own terms. See it.

September 13, 2006
Ah, Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven’s first Dutch-language film in 23 years, "Black Book" is a fundamentally entertaining feature that manages to be intriguing and suspenseful throughout most of its 2 hour and 15 minute running time. But the film is ultimately uneven and could have been better with some re-imagination.

The movie tells the story of Rachel, a young Dutch Jewish woman near the end of the Second World War. The layered character is brilliantly played by Carice von Houten, who truly carries the film on her back. After tragedy strikes her life, she soon finds herself working in the Dutch Resistance. With her good looks, smarts and ability to charm, she is before long working undercover in the Nazi police offices.

Unsurprisingly, the story turns into a suspenseful cat and mouse game with von Houten’s character finding herself in many perilous situations. As this is, after all, a Verhoeven film, it’s not surprising many – nay, make that most – of these situations are sexual in nature. (This works to a certain extent, but ultimately ends up being overplayed). The film, while gripping, is also a surprising amount of fun throughout much of its running time, with the pace becoming quicker after having sagged a bit at the very beginning. The musical scenes, in particular, are bursting with energy.

Alas, the third act of the film contains so many plot complications that I lost track of them. I will say that I was legitimately surprised with many of the turns in the plot. But the tone changes so often – after having been built steadily throughout the film – that it really feels out of place. Many of the ideas tossed in here are good, but tossing them all in the last 30 minutes of the movie was not a great idea.

Moreover, the film didn’t really need to be 135 minutes long. A complete rewrite would be needed to save the last 40 minutes but there are superfluous and slow-moving moments that didn’t need to be there. Had the film been less than two hours, it would have made an already intriguing and suspenseful narrative even moreso.

I have little doubt that Verhoeven – and his fans – are pleased with this movie. And I certainly enjoyed it. Might I also that I’m personally happy to see him once again working in his native tongue (his recent Hollywood efforts would be better off forgotten). Though he does also manage to integrate English and German flawlessly into the film which is not always an easy thing to do. Yet the film strikes me as a tad too ambitious for its own good…and somehow feels less than the sum of its parts.

Attempting to Get a Vibe

I’m not seeing anything until tonight at 9:30 (at Roy Thompson Hall!) so I thought I’d drop in and start sharing the general vibe on films I’m disappointed I haven’t seen yet have still managed to truly be talked about.

Please note that gathering buzz off the street is far from a science but this is the honest word that I’ve heard…



Without any question the hot ticket of the festival. It was impossible to purchase tickets and on a Sunday morning, people were into the rush lineup three hours in advance! (Normally, showing up an hour in advance would get you into ANYTHING).

The film has been somewhat divisive but those who like it tend to love it. And many more people tend to like it than dislike it. There has also been considerable praise for Pitt. Though the fact that he thoroughly charmed everyone up here doesn’t hurt in that regard.

Stranger than Fiction

With luck, I’ll be seeing this shortly after the festival. And I’m really looking forward to it as I haven’t heard a single bad thing about it.

Away From Her

A media darling of the last couple of days, I could easily see this winning the People’s Choice Award. Sarah Polley is so loved by her hometown that it’s hard to separate hype from reality but this has really gotten people talking, especially concerning Christie and another beloved Canadian, Gordon Pinset.

The Lives of Others

This German film which I had never heard of got a standing ovation at its premiere at the Elgin the other night (not that common an occurence in Toronto) and since has become quite a buzz-magnet on the street. Apparently VERY loved, a woman who I was behind in line said emphatically “it will definitely be released”.


Copying Beethoven

I unfortunately just missed seeing this yesterday, being about 10 people away from getting in via the rush line (damn the Spadina streetcar for being so crowded!). The film has now come and gone and…really hasn’t gotten people talking. The only talk I've heard was second-hand from a woman in front of me in line. Her friend said it was good (if not great). Yet the little tiny blurb I saw in the Globe and Mail (the only blurb I've seen) was decidedly underwhelming. That said, it did praise Harris as the best thing about the film, also stating it is visually impressive.

Meanwhile, I thought I’d add the vibe I'm getting on films I have seen. After all, my opinion is not Gospel:

“The Wind that Shakes the Barley”: Most people don’t seem to like it. I understand why (it certainly didn’t deserve the Palm) but I still maintain it’s a good film.

“Volver”: Cruz, like Pitt, charmed the socks off everyone while she was here. And, as always, Almodovar was embraced by Toronto with open arms.

“Venus”: O’Toole’s performance a mini-event while the film was screening. The name ‘Peter O’Toole’ is still often heard in cafés and lineups.

“A Good Year”: No one is talking about it.

“Catch a Fire”: The ink that has come down has been positive (if not overwhelming) but I’ve seldom heard it discussed on the street.

“All the King’s Men”: Getting ravaged.

“For Your Consideration”: Enjoyed – if not always loved – by pretty much everyone. At least every lay man. And how could you not enjoy it? That O'Hara and Guest are Canadians never hurts in getting an embrace from Toronto.

“Little Children”: I’m surprised this hasn’t been more discussed. Mostly it’s been fans outside the InterContinental waiting for Winslet. Though Haley is getting very fine ink and praise from the few other opinions on the film that I’ve heard. A shame he wasn't here.

“The Last King of Scotland”: Mostly getting media attention for Forest Whitaker’s performance; I haven’t heard comments on it outside the screening I was at yesterday. Though my friend who works in the Chapters beside the theatre it played at yesterday “heard it was really good”. Take it for what it’s worth.

September 12, 2006
The Best Film of the Festival

Attempting to capture history on screen is something that is seemingly done all the time. Even when the result is something worthy of its subject and/or manages to entertain, seldom are such films original or any more effective than dozens of other historical dramas produced in any one year. When a movie comes along that actually does something different within this broad genre – while also managing to be gripping, suspenseful, powerful and socially relevant – it’s truly a treat to see. “The Last King of Scotland” is such a film.

As is the case in the novel upon which this film is based, the story is observed by young Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan, who comes to Uganda out of medical school to assist in missionary work. Notice that it is seen from Garrigan's eyes...not heard from it. The filmmakers are more than confident that the dialogue, action and visuals are sufficient for the viewer to be compelled by the story without feeling the need to resort to voiceover (which must have been very tempting). And were they ever right.

Due to a chain of events, Garrigan soon finds himself Amin’s personal physician and one of his closest advisors. It this seems unlikely, it is because it is. Yet what is easily understood is what Amin sees in Nicholas…and what Nicholas sees in Amin. The ‘attraction’ (for desperate want of a better word) between the two men feels extremely honest and believable.

Despite the moral uneasiness that the audience – and Nicholas – feel as he leaves his missionary post, it’s easy to see why he does it. Amin’s world is actually fun, and the viewer is truly enjoying the experience. Like Garrigan and most of the Ugandan people, the audience is blinded by the charisma of Amin. Garrigan is happily not only caring for the President and his family but also working at a new hospital and caring for the Ugandan people.


Yet before long, the President’s behaviour becomes questionable; Nicholas brushes it off. Soon after this, the behaviour turns suspicious; Nicholas continues to close his eyes to it. Throughout all this, however, not only do we understand Nicholas’ motivations but we also question what we would do if we were in his shoes. As Amin obviously becomes a paranoid barbarian – even to Nicholas, who realizes his complicity in Amin’s actions – he can’t release himself from under the President's spell and find the ability to leave.

With Nicholas knowing that he must leave but finding himself unable to do so, the third act of the film is absolutely spellbinding. The last 40 minutes are ‘on the edge of one’s seat’. The last 10 minutes are heart-poundingly transfixing. Further serious complications to the plot are introduced late in the film (often a disastrous thing to do) yet they just deepen the story, setting up the unforgettable finale.

One of the best things about the film is how Kevin Macdonald is able to fashion the tone. For much of the film, it is joyous. At other times, dramatic. At still more, frightening. These shifts in tone flow extremely well, making the film tremendously entertaining, and never feeling inappropriate despite the nature of the story. In fact, considering the changes going on in Garrigan’s mind, the changes in tone are essential. This is, after all, being seen by him.

Might I also add the ‘look’ of the film gradually changes throughout the narrative. This is done very subtly and it’s all the better because of it. But when one compares the opening shot to the final one, it is clear Macdonald fashioned the mood of the film in the most brilliant of ways. The use of music in the film, blending songs with Alex Heffes’ (very fine) original score, is also very well done.

The use of an observer as a protagonist is tricky. Yet this film does it amazingly. The viewer feels as though they are truly in Uganda in a way they never would have been had Amin been the focus of every scene. Moreover, unlike “All the King’s Men” (which disastrously employs this technique), the writing and direction remain focused on the events that the film actually revolves around. All in all, the fashioning of the story around Nicholas is extremely affecting and compelling.

Much of the credit for the success of this must go the young and talented James McAvoy. The ‘observational protagonist’ is a tremendously challenging role to play, as it necessitates being intimately involved in every scene yet allowing for others to upstage you in many, if not most, scenes. And does he ever pull it off, flawlessly showing his character’s arc and making him extremely relatable despite not shying away from his flaws (which are identifiable but still the cause of his downfall). His inability to say no to Amin is especially powerful as it’s hard to imagine anyone in his position being able to do otherwise. His far too great a fondness for others men’s wives is also not shied away from; a trait that could be portrayed in a manner way over the top, he instead handles it extremely well.


Forest Whitaker’s take on Idi Amin is simply astounding. I cannot remember Idi Amin so I don’t know how well he actually captured the general’s physical mannerisms (if most people seem to think he did). But he certainly is utterly captivating on screen. He is thoroughly charming at times. Understatedly powerful at others. Grippingly compelling at still more. Throughout all this, the evil of the character is lurking underneath. And can he ever be scary…despite seldom being personally violent. Despite all these different aspects to Amin's personality, Whitaker truly makes the character feel like 'one man' throughout. I cannot imagine how this role could have been better played.

What is perhaps the film's greatest achievement is how it manages to be so entertaining and gripping while still being true to the history it tells. Some will undoubtedly argue that the movie differs too far from history. Yet as is, it feels more engaging, compelling and - believe it or not – honest than any of the dime a dozen historical dramas that come out every year. Rather than simply offering morality, the film actually offers insight into how events like those in Uganda can come to happen. It reminds the viewer of the tragic events of Amin's regime, while showing how a such a relatable man could end up so complicit in them. And it is demonstrative of how dangerous not looking beyond a man's surface-level charms can be. And in none of these instances does it beat the viewer of the head with its message yet rather lets the events on screen speak for themselves.

I’m not so sure “The Last King of Scotland” will ultimately get the attention it deserves. If not marketed properly, it could easily get lost among bigger fall films with bigger stars. Nor does it have the inspirational factor that a film such as “Catch a Fire” has. Yet seldom have I been more affected by or involved in a feature film. And I can tell you this is a movie that will stick with me for a long time yet to come.

Easily the best film of the festival. And just behind “United 93” for the status of best film of the year.

Little Children

When a director makes a first feature as haunting and powerful as Todd Field’s “In the Bedroom”, following up must always be extremely challenging. In “Little Children”, Field keeps many of the elements that worked so well in his debut. There are undeniable similarities between the two features, most notably in its moments of gripping darkness. Yet with “Little Children”, Field seems to have a greater confidence as a director. He blends several tones and is not afraid to play with the actual process of filmmaking. The effort is far from perfect. But damn if it isn’t doesn’t flirt with magnificence and manage to be haunting, captivating and amazingly entertaining.

Field was smart enough to cast Kate Winslet in the pivotal role of Sarah. It’s truly one of the best creations of her career. As an atypical member of her neighbourhood group of stay-at-homes moms, Winslet takes a role that could easily end up as a character impossible to care about. She makes her extraordinarily relatable, portraying the deep longing within her character while also exquisitely conveying the factors that keep her where she is. Yet she does so without ever resorting to showboating, which so many actresses would be tempted to do with such a difficult role. Instead, she allows other actors to play off her, improving their work, and benefiting the film as a whole.

Patrick Wilson’s Brad is a fascinating character as well. As the neighbourhood stay-at-home dad, Wilson conveys the great inner conflict going on in this man. He loves his wife. He loves his son. But he’s unfulfilled, wanting something more than being a full-time caregiver to an only child. Yet he’s certainly not sure he wants to be a lawyer, choosing to not take seriously his third attempt to pass the bar exam and rather spend time playing sports.

The inevitable affair that springs up between the two characters could easily have ended up soapish or cringe-inducing. Yet the two actors – under the watchful eye of this extremely skilled director – make their actions so understandable and believable. The developments within their liaison are equally so.


Yet this is far more than a simple tale of infidelity. For a recently released sexual offender has moved into the neighourhood. Played eerily by Jackie Earle Haley (in what could be the comeback story of the year), ‘Ronnie’ seems like he could be a character easily botched in realization. Yet underplayed, soft-spoken and hated by everyone except his eternally loving mother (an absolutely wonderful Phyllis Somerville), Ronnie becomes incredibly human and sympathetic. And the viewer never once feels bad for considering him as such. Might I add that Haley’s name received considerable applause after the film (not as much as Winslet but on par with Wilson), with both leads going out of their way to praise him during the Q&A.

Alas, the neighbourhood is not so understanding. Noah Emmerich’s Larry – a cop ‘retired’ due to mental health issues resulting from a massive mistake he has made on the job – is determined to make Ronnie’s life as miserable as hell. Larry, a man sinking more and more into loserdom, also happens to invite Brad to join the police officers’ football team. As you can imagine, storylines begin to cross over.

Seldom does a film have five characters as well written and truly relatable in spite of serious character flaws as the ones played by Winslet, Wilson, Emmerich, Haley and Somerville. The actors, Field and Perotta must all be congratulated for fashioning such layered and compelling individuals.

After the film, Patrick Wilson mentioned the film having “six or seven truly great roles, something you never see these days”. I assume he’s talking about Jennifer Connelly and Gregg Edelman, playing the spouses of Brad and Sarah. I wish he was right about this. Edelman is hardly in it, disappearing from the film for extremely long periods of time; I’m hesitant to even call him a substantial character much less a developed one with any sort of arc. Connelly has a respectable amount of screentime but is frankly wasted in an very boring role that any competent actress with the right looks could have portrayed. This is really a shame because the film does hint at layers to her character and with just a tiny bit more screentime and better writing, her role could have been on par with the aforementioned five players and added yet another layer of complexity to the film. As is, the role asks absolutely nothing out of her.

As mentioned above, the plot starts to get complicated soon enough. Yet Field doesn’t rush the story at all, taking time to build characters and atmosphere. And throughout all of this, the film is in no way a vehicle for nothing but depression (“In the Bedroom”, for all its merit, was a truly disturbing film to watch, if also an utterly compelling one). In fact, “Little Children” manages to be wickedly funny and entertaining, satirizing not only many aspects of characters’ personalities, but also broader suburban life as a whole, not to mention the nature of relationships between men and women.

On paper, the film might seem eerily akin to “Desperate Housewives”. And, oddly enough, it starts out with more similarity than is comfortable. Yet certain clichéd female characters fortunately leave the film (for all intents and purposes) soon enough. And then we never really think of this problem again except when they occasionally show up. Rather, the humourous aspects of the film are much more appropriately satiric.


Field is unafraid to shift tone in the film and while this is not done flawlessly, it nevertheless makes for a film experience that works on many levels. The film manages to be at times terribly sad, at others shockingly horrific, at still more hilariously entertaining and at others honestly observant. And considering the layers in the story, that’s oh so appropriate.

Field and Perotta’s script does make the rather odd choice to employ the little used cinematic technique of third-party narration. This is a technique that I find seldom works. Here, it leads to some moments of brilliance…and some moments of ‘why?’. The narrator gets some of the film’s biggest laughs and provides insight into characters’ minds. Yet he also says things that really do not have to be said, indicating writers' lack of faith in the audience. Regardless, this was in many ways a risky technique to employ and while it’s not always successful, it’s nevertheless interesting.

One element of filmmaking that does not really work at all, however, is Field’s use of train, doll and clock motifs. It’s just too obvious. And at times annoying. He’s not up with the greats just yet, even if he’s showing promise of getting there.

The ending may end up a cause of some divisiveness. And it's probably not perfectly realized. But the tragedy is appropriately felt while a considerable deal of hope is offered. And I left satisfied.

With some minor tinkering “Little Children” could have been the masterpiece so many think it is. Yet rarely does a film come along so gripping, fascinating, relatable, suspenseful and entertaining. And prior to my viewing of a certain other film earlier this morning, it was the best film of the festival thus far.

The audience seemed quite appreciative though not altogether bowled over (if they may just have been shocked). I've yet to speak to anyone who saw it at the screening I went to. Though Kate Winslet received considerable applause during the end credits, with Wilson and Haley receiving a healthy dose of it as well.

As for the Q&A, the questions weren't mind-blowing (one was asking Wilson to give her sister a birthday hug). Winslet sure knows how to charm an audience (finishing answers to questions that Field left incomplete) with Wilson obviously proud of the film. Field, on the other hand, was obviously uncomfortable, stutterring and taken aback by some of the questions. Though in all fairness, he was probably nervous as all hell.

Sorry to Keep You Waiting Again...

...but I have just seen the best film of the 31st Annual Toronto International Film Festival.

Alas, I must go to more festival functions right now. I'll be back tonight with LOTS of updates.

September 11, 2006
Sorry to Keep you Waiting...

...but certain films really need to be mulled over before an opinion on them can be well expressed. The film I saw tonight was such a film. 2:20 AM, having slept for only 8 of the last in the last 70 hours, is not the time for said mulling.

But I will say this:

Kate Winslet sure knows how to work a crowd.
Todd Field could sure take some notes from her.

Upon Further Consideration...

… I’m going to post more about the film I saw earlier today. I can understand my earlier entry may have left something lacking. It’s just that I was in a rush to drop in and out and, moreover, the film, though immensely enjoyable, isn’t the sort that really sticks with the viewer to the extent that “All the King’s Men” does, even though Guest’s film is a way more successful endeavour.

“For Your Consideration” simply starts on a studio lot where a low-key period piece – “Home for Purim” is being shot. The film within the film is absurd but nevertheless a melodramatic family drama that has serious undertones – such as an estranged daughter coming home to see her dying mother “for Purim”. This is all part of the (broader) film’s humour.

Guest himself plays the…director…of the movie and watching him and the on-screen cinematographer go at it is a hoot. Michael McKean and Bob Balaban play writers “just successful enough so that they can teach full-time”. Jennifer Coolidge, as a moronic producer, consistently gets some of the biggest laughs. These takes on industry staples are tremendously amusing to those who love film. (Eugene Levy’s agent is overdone, though).

But fundamentally this film is about the actors playing actors.

Catherine O’Hara, playing “Home for Purim”’s female lead, is a career actress who has never had the success she so obviously desires, being obsessed with her looking good as she ages. Harry Shearer plays the male lead of the film within the film. When Parker Posey arrives, playing the couple’s daughter, both “For Your Consideration” and “Home for Purim” truly pick up.

Early enough in the film, it is reported that someone has visited the set and has reported – on the internet (!) – that Catherine O’Hara’s Marylin Hack could be nominated for an Academy Award for her role in “Home for Purim”. The actress doesn’t let people forget this rumour.

Sure enough, buzz spreads and before long, O’Hara and Shearer end up on a morning entertainment news show (hosted by Fred Willard and Jane Lynch, hilariously aping the ET show hosts) and before long several actors are being ‘buzzed’ right up until nomination morning! As a result of this buzz, “Home for Purim” is compromised…the actors compromise themselves…and the absurdity of awards season is shown in its utmost hilarity.

I won’t go in to too many more plot details because, like most Guest movies, the film is short and I don’t want to spoil. There are many ways this film could have gone and while it eventually becomes predictable, it stays fresh and entertaining for a good long while.

Once nomination morning has come and gone, “For Your Consideration” begins to really flounder, going too over-the-top for its own good. And a character was very strangely omitted from the typical Guest coda.

Is this what awards watchers were truly hoping for? Probably not. It could have been better. But is it a worthy and entertaining effort that appropriately satirizes this crazy phenomenon? Absolutely.

All the King's Missteps

To me, the timing right about now is perfect for another adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men”. Steven Zaillian’s film seemingly had the perfect cast to pull this off. This makes it such a shame to see the film miss on so many levels.

First and foremost, the film doesn’t stay focused. While the book is told by Jack Borden, it is Willy Stark who people think of when they think of this story as he is by far the more interesting character. And it is his scenes that are actually the compelling parts in this film. He admittedly serves as the catalyst for other actions in the film yet the narrative ends up being overambitious, going off on tangents related to Borden's character where connections to the overall narrative are not well done. This may very well work on the page and it’s probably true to what a character such as Borden would be experiencing. But it nevertheless is illconceived, becoming distracting and preventing of a truly satisfying film experience. Keeping Willy Stark at the forefront of this film would have helped immensely.

Sean Penn’s take on the famous character is already extremely divisive. Some think he’s great. Others think he’s awful. I’ll say this for him – he always shows his passion. And while he does slip over-the-top in this film (often), Willy Stark is not a subtle character and he clearly tries to convey the man’s feelings and motivations. (On a completely shallow note, his hairstyle in the movie was awful).

Jude Law, though I consistently love him in supporting roles, is simply not a very compelling leading man. His performance here is too understated to really carry the film, especially opposite Penn’s scenery-chewing. The character also remains too vague for the good of the film, especially as he is playing the protagonist.

The rest of the cast ranges from ‘good but wasted’ (Clarkson, who seems incapable of being less than good) to ‘stock’ (Hopkins) to underdeveloped (Ruffalo, Winslet) to dreadful (Gandolfini).

It’s clear that this was a labour of love for Zaillian. And it’s a shame to see it so maligned. But it’s not as though he is innocent of creating this film’s problems.

The script is a mixed bag. In addition to the aforementioned tangent problem, while parts of the film are exceedingly well-written, others have very awkward dialogue. Further to this, the pivotal characters of Winslet and Ruffalo are essentially completely absent for the film’s first half and cannot be well developed enough in the screentime they have before they become extremely important towards the film’s climax.

The director actually shows a respectable amount of visual flare. Despite Penn’s overselling many of his speeches, they are exquisitely filmed and consistently involving. The capturing of Stark’s imagination on many levels is also superbly done (if this is completely absent for the larger Borden character). Further, rural Louisiana seems to become a character in the film during Stark’s run for Governor. Cinematographer Pawel Edelman must be congratulated on yet another relatively successful stateside accomplishment.

Alas, there are also ill-conceived scenes, notably a flashback to Winslet, Ruffalo and Law on a beach (which is repeated in the film way too many times). In other instances, hints that could theoretically be subtle (and work really well) instead become all-too-obvious foreshadowing.

This is not crap. It is extremely ambitious and striving for far too much to be considered crap. It’s ultimately unsuccessful on most levels it’s reaching for. But it ought not to be thoroughly dismissed. There are moments when the viewer can see the greatness of ‘what could have been’. And the film is never boring.

On a final note, James Horner’s score is inappropriate to the tone of the film and way too loud. Alas, I’d also call it the film’s best chance at a nomination. Go figure?

For Your Enjoyment

If there’s one thing that’s clear when watching the work of Christopher Guest and his regular troup of actors, it’s that it’s clear that they love what they do. Their films are so consistently amusing – in the most enthusiastic of ways – and their performances gel so well together that’s it’s impossible not to enjoy their films.

“For Your Consideration” holds its own in the Guest repertoire. Working in improv style – yet not in mockumentary format – the film manages to be enjoyable, clever, funny and especially entertaining for those who’ve watched awards’ seasons in past years. As always, this lot makes for a fantastic ensemble, with everyone playing off each other wonderfully. Catherine O'Hara and Parker Posey, in particular, are excellent, not mentioning the consistently zany antics of Fred Willard and Jennifer Coolidge.

On the whole, I’m really not sure how to evaluate a film like this. It's not as good as their true classic - "Best in Show" and it certainly has its missteps. Some of the humour is a tad predicatable, and the denouement, though funny, somehow rubbed me the wrong way. But no film is flawless. And this amusing and superbly acted feature is simply such a great film for movie-lovers that its flaws are more than forgiveable.

The Q&A afterwards was a hoot. Guest, Posey, Shearer, Balaban, McKean, Coolidge and Lynch were all there, not to mention Levy and O’Hara, who received an especially warm welcome as they were returning to their old stomping grounds. This group clearly loves working together...and they have a great time just talking about their work.

I really don’t know what else to say about a film like this apart from encouraging everyone to see it. ‘Better times at the movies’ are few and far between.

September 10, 2006
Catching a World Premiere

A great story is a necessary – if not sufficient – condition for a great film. Every so often, a film comes along where the story is so great that it manages to elevate what is otherwise merely solid filmmaking. Philip Noyce’s “Catch a Fire” is such a film.

The story of South African freedom fighter Patrick Chamusso, the movie is incredibly moving, incredibly ‘close to memory’ (apartheid did not fall *that* long ago) and so tragic yet uplifting that it’s impossible to not be drawn into Noyce’s cinematic take on this story.

Derek Luke, playing Patrick through thick and thin, gives his all here. While the performance is not always totally convincing (largely due to script problems I’ll get to in a minute), it’s easy to tell he put his heart and soul into this performance, striving to show the layers and fascinating tale of this extraordinary man.

The Aussie helmer’s direction is certainly more than adequate. Noyce is an excellent director of suspense, with the film’s climax being absolutely riveting. Excessive reliance on close-ups early on in the film is annoying yet on the whole, the directing is respectful, engaging and appropriate. It’s not terribly experimental filmmaking but it really doesn’t have to be.

Shawn Slovo’s script is a loving and sincere tribute to a man her father (who the film is dedicated to) knew. And on the whole, it’s a perfectly fine blueprint for the story. Yet it’s also where most of the film’s problems come from, problems which Noyce doesn’t fix. Characters’ motivations change frequently and, apart from Luke’s (whose role is still not flawless in this regard), this isn’t done very well. Tim Robbins’ character, in particular, is not well dealt with, being portrayed in too many different lights and tones despite remaining essentially the ‘same man’ throughout the film. The fact that he reappears at the very end yet his character is not actually wrapped up also leaves quite something to be desired.

And then there are simply sloppy little things which make no sense. The language of use changes in the most bizarre of ways. Subtitles identifying characters and places are also given when thoroughly unnecessary. This isn’t bad filmmaking…but it’s the sort that prevents greatness.

Much of the credit for the film being as good as it is must go to Jill Bilcock (who was there this evening) whose editing results in a concise and fast-paced feature that never feels dull. The cinematography of Gerry Phillips and Ron Fortunato perfectly captures the film’s atmosphere and mood while giving us intimate shots of the South African landscape. The blending of famous – and traditional African – songs with Philip Miller’s original music is also superbly done.

“Catch a Fire” will likely ultimately be compared to “Hotel Rwanda” (which it is better than but lacking the ‘tearjerker factor’ of) and “The Last King of Scotland” (which I’ll be seeing shortly). And that’s unfair, doing justice to none of the three films.

Chamusso received a standing ovation when the film was over and it was much deserved. His story is extraordinary and it’s great to see it told. And while “Catch a Fire” is not a great film, it’s nevertheless a good one. So here’s hoping that it finds itself an audience. Focus Features knows a thing or two about promotion. They just might pull this trick off.

A Not So Good Film

Ridley Scott's "A Good Year" was not a bad idea. It was never meant to be a classic, terribly original or a breathtaking experience. But the idea of seeing Russell Crowe find himself in Provence in a romantic actually sounds to me like a recipe for a truly enjoyable time at the movies.

Alas, the execution is simply rather clunky. First and foremost, the romance in the film is not compelling at all, with Crowe and Cotillard having no chemistry. Moreover, the story is filled with cliches from charicatures of stock brokers to obvious irony to a yappity dog. And the humour is extremely predictable and lacking in originality. Neither Scott nor Crowe have comedy as their forte.

The film is in no way horrible. Crowe is miscast but he still manages to charm. One also really wishes Finney - who brings such a unique aura to the screen - had been given more screentime. Phillipe Le Sourd's capturing of Provence makes the viewer truly 'fall in love' with the area. And there are some legitimately amusing moments.

But at the end of the day, the film ultimately fails to be consistently funny...or be truly charming...or be romantic in the slightest.

By the way, I *again* heard praise for O'Toole work in "Venus" while standing in the lineup. I haven't heard such across-the-board love for anything else that's screened here yet.

September 09, 2006
And I didn't think he had it in him anymore...

It’s a shame Peter O’Toole wasn’t here tonight. He would have absolutely enchanted the crowd…and received a standing ovation. For Chrissakes…Jodie Whittaker received a standing ovation! Such an ovation was admittedly much deserved as she took a bitch of a role and did a helluva job with it, holding her own opposite Peter O’Toole of all people! But it’s still too bad O’Toole wasn’t here, as his performance was such a joy to watch.

It was impossible to not see the legendary thespian having the time of his life. Relishing every moment of screentime he has, he carries the film in every sense of the word, being dramatic at the right times while also being wickedly funny when appropriate. A truly enchanting star turn...the sort I didn't think he had in him anymore.

He was sick. And that is understandable; he’s looked frail lately. In his witty ‘note to be read’, he specifically said his doctors told him to “not travel”. But this was the world premiere of his first opportunity to truly shine in ages. And it’s too bad he couldn’t attend.

The film itself starts out feeling like one long – and captivating – scene. Mitchell crafts the narrative together superbly, with the ‘flow’ of the film top-notch. The audience clearly loved it. This continued to work well for the first two-thirds of the film, with the audience literally being unable to look away from the quick-paced entertainment. The idea of a ‘dirty old man’ being infatuated with a young woman may not seem unique or interesting. But it truly becomes just that. Might I also add that Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Griffiths – with only three scenes each – manage to more than make their mark on the audience, with the latter being hilarious and the former being such a captivating screen presence.

And then…the third act came. A complication was added to the plot that was realistic but not handled well at all. The pace slows and the ‘joy’ becomes less dominant (which is somewhat appropriate but isn’t well done in the context of the film). The VERY last scene is well done but it’s a shame that the third act of the film is by far the weakest.

In spite of this, the audience was clearly into the film, especially early on, roaring with laughter at the rights times. The round of applause was very enthusiastic, especially when O’Toole’s name came up on the closing credits and when Whittaker stood up for the audience.

Further to this, it really seems that everyone everywhere is talking about this performance. How “great it is to see O’Toole back in top form” is a matter I have heard raised at all three of my previous viewings at the festival. At the risk of sounding harsh, we may never have a chance to see him giving such a great star turn again. So does this mean that AMPAS actually has the chance to make up one of the greatest Oscar injustices of all-time? It’s certainly looking like it. This is truly his show in every sense.

Beautiful Indeed

The Film Festival consists of more than major titles launching their Oscar campaigns. There are also small, 'studio-less' films simply trying to find a place in this crazy world.

"Bella" marks the debut feature of Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, a truly humble man in awe of the fact that he's actually made it here. It's better to know as little as possible about this film before going into it but let me tell you that it feels both sincere and loving. It's great to see a film that legitimately moves the viewer without being drowned in sap. And it does this in just 90 minutes. If it comes your way, see it. You won't regret it.

Keep Returning, Pedro

When the Cannes jury announced they had given their Best Actress award to the entire female cast of “Volver”, I thought to myself “what a copout”. I still feel this way. But when one actually sees the film, it’s impossible not to sympathize with the jury’s decision. For what an extraordinary female cast!

Penelope Cruz will undoubtedly get the most buzz for the role that is likely to put her into contention for a Best Actress nomination. This is easily her best work to date – appropriately understated, believably layered and with a tremendous sense of honesty. No one apart from Almodovar appears to know how to get greatness out of her. But he sure does.

Lola Dueñas’ understated and tremendously honest performance is exactly what her role calls for while Blanca Portillo and Yohana Cobo shine in their smaller roles.

Yet it’s ultimately Carmen Maura who steals the show and, in many ways, elevates the film to a quality it would not have otherwise had. It’s her arrival that truly ‘picks up’ the film and her joy, her wisdom and her layers add up to the viewer relishing every moment she’s onscreen.

The film does take a while to truly ‘get going’ with much of the opening 20 minutes not totally compelling. But once it ‘picks up’, it’s impossible not to be entranced by a wonderful blend of humour, heartbreak and reflections on human life. Almodovar knows how to tell a story where we care about characters who may be atypical…yet still feel so relatable.

This is a very mainstream film for Pedro, which is in no way a ‘bad thing’. Yet perhaps the lack of the typical Almodovar edge prevents me from saying it’s among his true masterworks. Something truly ‘profound’ is missing.

But one shouldn’t grade on a curve for greats. Compelling, touching, funny, beautifully and concisely told, “Volver” is already another deserved success for Almodovar. And being in an audience (which cheered when Almodovar's name came on screen in the opening credits) that laughed at the right times, was in shock at the times and was legitimately moved at the right times, it's obvious that that success is going to continue.

More screenings on the way…stay tuned.

September 08, 2006
Thank God It's Friday Indeed...

Tomorrow I truly become a ‘full time festivaller”.

The city and media aren’t quite into hyper mode yet. This is probably because most of the major stars aren't here yet. Moreover, I’m personally not in the ‘festival district’ today; I'll be truly in the swing of things tomorrow.

I must say that the more I think about “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”, the more I appreciate it. I’ve still got my problems with it but it’s honest, sincere, layered and moving. The sort that sticks with you.

Be sure to check back tomorrow…I’ll be seeing 2-3 major titles.

September 07, 2006
The Show that Starts the Festival

I arrived at the Ryerson Theatre at about 20 minutes to 6 this evening for the opening night of the 31st Annual Toronto International Film Festival. There was an undeniable ‘excitement’ in the air. The lineup for the film was…for want of a better word… ‘joyous’ while the Bell Canada cronies selling cell phones in the line were actually really enthusiastic (how much you want to bet they aren’t like that by Monday?).

The gentleman in front of me was amazed at the size of the line, though he was somewhat consoled by my telling him that the lineup at this particular venue tends to go all the way around a ‘block-sized’ building and even with being near the back of the line, one can still get a good seat. This same first-time festivaller had just come from seeing “The Magic Flute”, which he loved but thought “was bizarre”. He and his wife both described the cinematography as “amazing”. As we entered the theatre, we couldn’t have been more than five feet away from Cillian Murphy, signing autographs for some very excited fans. Murphy also introduced the film for us after the festival president announced that director Ken Loach was filming a new movie and, as such, couldn’t make it to the North American premiere of “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”.

Murphy also stayed behind for Q&A after the movie. Unfortunately, those who asked questions were not terribly insightful but such is life. Murphy was gracious, honest and humble. Mark my words when I say this man is going places.

Now onto the actual film…

I must make a confession. Prior to this evening, I had never seen a Ken Loach film. So I’m completely unfamiliar with his style. Though I can see what Cillian Murphy was saying in “he’s often confused with Mike Leigh” but this isn't altogether fair as “there’s a ‘strong script’…we, as actors, just aren’t privy to it”. The director’s hand is apparent in this film to the nth degree with the camera moving in the most distant of ways and the mood being at the forefront of every scene.

Unfortunately, story suffers as a result of this excessive reliance on the fashioning of mood. While the film has a definite story it is telling, the narrative consists of several dramatic shifts, most notably in the overall attitudes of characters. These do not gel as well as they should. That is not to say the scenes are not compelling. In fact, the opposite is the case, with the film becoming more enthralling as it goes on. In particular, three moments in the film that depict executions of characters are unforgettable. But that can’t take away from the fact that the overall flow of the movie is somewhat messy, with the pace a tad slow for the film’s good (particularly early on).

From an acting point of view, the three principal performances are all top-notch. Orla Fitzgerald and Padraic Delaney are both superb in crafting principled yet tragic individuals. And Cillian Murphy proves his talent – and versatility – yet again. While the character’s arc is not as natural as it should be, largely due to the rather oddly structured script, Murphy clearly contemplates every line delivery to draw the viewer into the world of yet another character the likes of which he’s yet to play to date. Get used to this man’s name and face. He’s going to be around for a long time.

Then there is the issue of the morality apparent in the film. I love Ireland. It’s a beautiful country (gorgeously captured by Barry Ackroyd, who along with “United 93”, is having a helluva year) that I’m proud to say my ancestors called home. And the Irish fight for freedom is a historical endeavour I admire immensely. Yet in many respects, the film rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t want to spoil the film so I’ll skimp on details here but let me just say that there are some actions in this film that are presented as morally right that I wouldn’t have made…and not felt the least bit badly about them.

But I’m here as a film critic…not an ethicist. And believe me when I say this film’s finale is powerful, my reservations aside.

I suppose at the end of the day I can truthfully say this film intrigued me…but I can’t truthfully say I’m that big a fan. Not really my style.

The audience was gracious and I could tell there were tears at the end, as well as a profound respect for Murphy and Loach. Though the response was not exactly overwhelming and I’ll have to speak to others who saw it to get a better idea of true consensus opinion.

After all this, I got invited out for beer and nachos! So that wasn’t a bad finale to opening night.

Keep reading…this is just the beginning.

The Torontonian Experience

Tonight, I begin going to films. Before this, however, a few words on the very experience of the “Toronto” International Film Festival. While I’ve never been to another film festival, I gather they are quite different experiences.

One thing that makes Toronto unique is the size of the city. Metropolitan Toronto has over 3 million people. The Greater Toronto Area has over 5 million. The festival-goer truly is in a huge metropolis. Yet the entire festival takes place in the downtown core – where no more than 200,000 people might live (and that figure is really high-balling it). So it’s completely possible – if not probable – to be in the city and not have anything to do with the festivities. Could any of this be said about Cannes?

At the same time, however, does that core ever come alive. The excitement, the joy and the love of movies is so obviously apparent where festival-goers are, from the lineups to the ‘festival’ restaurants, from to the media to the cigarette-smoking lot outside hotels.

Take, for instance, Cumberland Street, which is a tiny boulevard only two blocks long. It is nevertheless complete with a hotel, four festival screens and many of the most trendy restaurants. If you happen to be there during the festival, it's impossible not to feel you truly are in 'Hollywood North'.

Another thing that distinguishes Toronto from the major European festivals is that crowds that are less than gracious are almost non-existent. Last year, for instance, I was in the dreadful “Elizabethtown” while the audience was laughing and clapping. On the one hand, this makes getting a true vibe on the film more difficult. Yet at the same time, booing is just so damn rude. The filmmakers are present having just put their heart and soul into the film! If you don’t like it, leave it…or refrain from clapping. If you invite someone to your house and don't like what they wear, it's easy to not compliment them on it. But spitting in their face is beyond rude. And unlike at European festivals such as Cannes and Venice, I’ve never heard of booing at Toronto.

How will Toronto act this year? What films will actually get people on Yonge Street talking? It’s hard to say from this vantage point.

I’ll be back tonight with impressions from my first screening.

September 06, 2006
Ah, Anticipation

On the eve of the festival, anticipation for the films really does mount. I must admit to being a tad disappointed that I'll be unable to catch “Babel” or “Copying Beethoven” due to scheduling conflicts with other films. Alas, there’s not much that can be done about that. And there are many other titles that I will be taking in that ought to compensate for my missing of those two.

Here are the films that I should be seeing. I’m very much looking forward to all of them because of the experience of a 'festival screening' for each one of them. Yet there are also reasons I’m looking forward to each that are particular to each…

“All the King’s Men”: This is a great story and the sort that needs to be retold for a new generation. And, I mean, look at that cast! I’m particularly curious to see how Law and Penn approach their fascinating characters.

“Bobby”: My doubts about Estevez’s filmmaking abilities aside, attracting a cast like this is pretty amazing. Robert Kennedy is also a figure who must never be forgotten.

“Breaking and Entering”: I was a huge fan of Minghella’s first three directorial efforts. Here’s hoping he can work wonders with Law, an actor who I’ve always loved in supporting roles yet I still feel needs *just* the right role to become a bonafide leading man.

“Catch a Fire”: Focus Features usually know how to play their cards…here’s hoping they’re hiding something special in this film. Noyce is a talented filmmaker.

“For Your Consideration”: It seems as though this project was made ‘just for me’. Christopher Guest has always been a favourite of mine…and satirizing awards’ season?!? Why hasn’t this been done before?!?

“The Fountain”: At worst, I suspect this will be a visual treat. The premise sounds captivating and Jackman is also an actor I very highly respect.

“A Good Year”: Russell Crowe is one of our most consistently fine actors. And he’s reuniting with the director who turned him into a movie star.

“Infamous”: “Capote” was a superbly crafted film…yet it didn’t really explore ‘Truman the socialite’. Maybe this will?

“The Last King of Scotland”: Sounds like a unique take on an unfortunately memorable period in history. Macdonald is also a filmmaker blessed with talent and I'm anxious to see his first non-documentary feature.

“Little Children”: Field hit me in the gut with his directorial debut five years ago. Winslet and Wilson also have fascinating characters here that they are perfectly cast for.

“Stranger than Fiction”: This premise really sounds immensely clever to me. And the cast just seems so perfect for a film like this.

“Venus”: Peter O’Toole is, simply put, one of the all-time great actors. I have been wanting to see another truly great performance from him for a very long time.

“Volver”: Pedro Almodovar films are always must-sees for me; the advance praise this one has received just means that the 'screening can’t come soon enough'.

“The Wind that Shakes the Barley”: I don’t always love the Cannes winners…but I am always curious to see them. I also consider Cillian Murphy to be one of the best actors of his generation.

Tomorrow, the madness begins. Though I’ll be sure to check in at least once more before hitting my first screening tomorrow evening.

September 05, 2006
Big City, Big Festival

When I picked up my tickets this afternoon from the festival box office, I was yet again reminded of the sheer scope of this event. Dozens of volunteers were in a single room directing ticket holders, distributing tickets and responding to questions by those confused by all this procedure.

Such dedicated workers are needed to help run a film festival this size. More than 352 films are screening. 352. This, of course, makes seeing all of them impossible. It also makes seeing “all one wants to see” impossible. As such, there's no better way to spend time in line than talking to other attendees.

Scheduling must be a nightmare when trying to fit at least two viewings of each of these films into nine-and-a-half days. This year, my only opportunity to see a film I was very much looking forward to conflicted with my only opportunity to see another film I was very much looking forward to. But such is life and there’s not a whole lot that can be done about it.

Such size can be overwhelming. Yet is quite a sight to behold all the journalists, stars, filmmakers and fans coming together to celebrate film. And believe me when I say that truly does change the “overwhelming” sensation to a joyous one.

September 04, 2006
Another year...

Bloor Street and Yonge Street brimming with limos. The fanciest restaurants all reserved. Obsessed fans camping out at Roy Thompson Hall. The daily papers having big pictures of stars on their front pages. Such are the facts of life while being "on the street" in downtown Toronto during the Toronto International Film Festival.

It's impossible to appreciate the "feel" of being in the midst of a festival of this size unless you are actually in it. And in a few days time, the chaos will be upon us once more. It's almost frightening. And it's certainly exciting.

Welcome to In Contention's Coverage of the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival

This Thursday, the 31st Annual Toronto International Film Festival will commence. I am pleased to be covering the event for In Contention.

This will be my third year attending the festival, and while it won’t be true festival experience (30-50 films), I will be taking in 13-14 titles, most of which have some awards hopes in the upcoming Oscar season…or at least, so we think right now.

While this is a healthy crop, it’s not an overwhelming one, so I should be able to update on a regular basis. Coverage will begin Thursday, September 7th.

I’ll obviously be offering initial opinions of the films I see, many of which will only now be screened before audiences of considerable size. I also hope to be giving some insight into the overall feel of the festival and the experience of each individual viewing. It really is a different theater experience every time a festival film screens.

So here I am. I hope you enjoy reading my thoughts on the festival as much as I enjoy attending the films – and writing about them!

(On a personal note, I’d like to give thanks to Kris, for the opportunity to cover the festival for In Contention, and of course to Claes, for his absolutely stunning graphic design.)