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August 29, 2007
Getting to Know Your Correspondent

As TIFF approaches I find myself thinking a lot about the films that set me on the path to becoming a film critic/ historian.

I was a cynical 12 year old in a theatre with my dad watching a re-release of Cecil B. Demille’s “The Ten Commandments” in 1971, long before home video. When one wanted to see a film from the past again, we were at the mercy of the studio to re-release the picture. Dad, also a movie fan, had gone on and on about this movie, so much that, naturally, I was not expecting all that much. From the opening sequence I was hooked by the enormous scope of the thing, the size, the color, the spectacle. Charlton Heston was mesmerizing as Moses (could anyone else get away with speaking those lines?) and Yul Brynner was the perfect villain. The moment that seared into my mind and began this obsession with the cinema was the parting of the Red Sea. I honestly expected perhaps for the tide to go out, but the sky grew black, Heston looked magnificent against the swirling black clouds atop the rock, his arms stretched out, his voice booming, “Behold his mighty hand!” and the waters opened, two massive walls on either side, raging madly as the exodus crossed.

I was stunned by what had just taken place on the screen.

From that day on, I saw everything. I would set my alarm for the wee hours of the morning to watch a late, late show I had not seen before. My grandmother, bless her soul, took me to the library where I discovered the film book section, and devoured every book there. Trips to Toronto took me to the rep theatres where “Citizen Kane,” “On the Waterfront” and “The Searchers” played regularly.

In college, I studied film and theatre, with hopes of being an actor. But in the back of mind I knew what I really wanted to was write about film. A screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” opening day in Toronto confirmed that. I watched, hypnotized by Coppola’s imagery and left the theatre wanting to tell people, wanting others to experience what I had just experienced. I wrote for myself at first and kept diaries of the films I had seen, fully intent of launching a career as a critic.

It took a long time, but I finally did it in the late eighties and became a full time film critic and historian. I now write for several outlets in Canada and lecture at the Toronto Film School.

Over the years I have seen tens of thousands of films and still avoid being jaded about the product on screens
around the world. Each film I see might be the greatest film ever made. You never know.

I am now 48 years old, married for 17 years, the father of two wonderful girls ages 15 and 7, lucky to be married to my soul mate who shares this crazy love of cinema. A long time ago I learned that “The Ten Commandments” really just…isn’t very good, hokey in fact, but I cannot look away if it is on. Next year my study of Clint Eastwood as a director will be published as “Eastwood: American Filmmaker,” by Greenwood Press, followed by “The Great Under Appreciated Films of the Eighties in 2009.” Somewhere down the line I will write a biography of Steven Spielberg for Greenwood, as promised.

I am handicapped, the result of a devastating head-on collision six years ago that left me in constant pain and crippled, my legs forever damaged. My heart was damaged in the crash and I underwent open heart surgery before regaining consciousness one month after the crash. After five months in the hospital where they twice told my wife I might die, I left, and though initially there was concern whether or not I would walk…I do. I have vowed not to let my handicap interfere with my life and I do not, though the pain can be frustrating some days.

Asked which filmmakers I admire, I answer easily: Francis Ford Coppola (in the seventies), Scorsese, John Ford, Elia Kazan, Steven Spielberg (successful but still under appreciated), Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, PT Anderson, Ang Lee, Julie Taymor, David Fincher, Peter Jackson and Oliver Stone. I have never lost the acting bug and remain fascinated with that craft, which brings me to watch Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, Holly Hunter, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Diane Keaton and countless others I admire.

I believe the single greatest performance given by a male is Robert Duvall in “The Apostle” and by a female, Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice.”

And the most often asked question of a film critic?

“What’s the best movie you have ever seen?”

OK, there are a few.

“The Godfather Part II,” “The Godfather,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Schindler’s List,” “Citizen Kane,” “The Searchers,” “On the Waterfront,” “Apocalypse Now,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Jaws,” “Raging Bull,” “Cabaret,” “King Kong” (1933 and 2005), “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “The African Queen,” “Magnolia,” “Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Passion of the Christ,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Mystic River,” “Fight Club,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Pulp Fiction,” “JFK,” “Trainspotting,” “Blow Out,” “Reds,” “E.T.,” “Terms of Endearment,” “The Sweet Hereafter,” “Away from Her,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Blue Velvet,” “Manhattan,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Once Upon a Time in America,” “Shane,” “The Hustler,” “The Stunt Man,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Hair,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Shootist,” “All the President’s Men,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Tootsie,’ “City Lights,” and several others.

Now…you know me just a little better.

August 22, 2007
The Line-Up Revealed

With today’s final announcement of the festival line-up, I must confess to some disappointment, as the earlier announcements certainly packed more of a punch. Not that I am complaining about TIFF 2007 – not at all as it looks like the best fest in years – but I had thought the final films being unveiled would be major releases that would vie for Oscar attention as the previously announced films certainly will.

A couple of things excite me, one being the arrival of Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead” with Ethan Hawke, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Albert Finney. Lumet is one of the great directors of modern cinema. Efforts such as “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network,” “Prince of the City” and “The Verdict” are brilliant works more than deserving of the accolades they received over the years. “Daniel” and “Equus” are two efforts that briefly come to mind that are equally stunning and yet under the radar of the general movie-goer.

Lumet’s direction of actors is legendary, and though he has never won an Academy Award he was given an Honorary Oscar a couple of years ago. The director is also taking part in the Dialogue series, one of the festival’s most popular events in which a filmmaker or actor selects a film that inspired them and after screening the film discusses the picture with the audience. Lumet has selected “The Best Years of Our Lives,” the Oscar winning masterpiece by William Wyler that helped heal a nation with its study of post-wartime America and the re-adjustment of the vets.

Kenneth Branagh’s remake of “Sleuth” is here as a Gala, with Michael Caine taking the role once portrayed by Sir Laurence Olivier, while Jude Law tackles the part Caine played in the Oscar nominated 1972 film. Both Caine and Olivier were nominated for Oscars as best actor in the year Marlon Brando won for his performance as Vito Corleone in “The Godfather.” “Sleuth,” based on the popular play by Anthony Shaffer, who also wrote “Amadeus” (and the aforementioned “Equus”), deals with the confrontation between an older gent who knows that a younger man is involved with his wife. A series of word games and eventually nightmarish games unfold over the course of the film, allowing both actors showcases for their talents.

I would have hoped Sir Richard Attenborough would have stopped directing films after “Grey Owl” in 1998. But here he is again with a Gala Presentation of his new film “Closing the Ring,” which mercifully is not a biography (as Sir Richard seems incapable of making a good biography). And yes, I include the vastly overrated “Gandhi,” which one year after winning eight Oscars looked like an old fashioned Hollywood biography. How did “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” or “Tootsie” lose to that film?

But I digress. “Closing the Ring” is a love story interwoven between present day and the Second World War with Shirley MacLaine, Christopher Plummer, Mischa Barton and the master of the acting craft, Neve Campbell.

Renny Harlin’s new film “Cleaner” is a big screen “C.S.I.” (sort of), exploring the people who clean up the mess when the body has been taken away. Samuel L. Jackson plays such a soul, responsible for cleaning up the blood, the brains, and the pungent odor of death. Forced to dispose of evidence, he is drawn back into the world he had hoped he had left behind. Ed Harris and Eva Mendes star in this, another Gala.

My favorite program, the Special Presentations, has the aforementioned Lumet film as well as Michael Moore’s latest, “Captain Mike Across America,” a documentary about Moore’s attempt to stop George Bush from being re-elected. The film chronicles Moore’s journey across the US trying to get folks to vote for John Kerry or anyone but Bush.

Another Presidential flavored documentary is Jonathan Demme’s “Man from Plains,” which studies former President Jimmy Carter’s book tour after penning the controversial book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” We watch as Carter, not a young man anymore, his presidency haunted by the hostage crisis, proves to be a most worthy subject, full of gusto and determination to get his message of peace across.

A favorite of the festival, Brian De Palma is back with his newest film, “Redacted,” focusing on a squadron of young soldiers in Iraq. Using different points of view to explore the confusing messages of war, De Palma plunges his audience into a hell that leads to a tragic incident that impacts the squadron.

Of course there are many more titles to check out, but these represent the big ones announced this morning. Others of interest include Alison Eastwood’s “Rails and Ties” with Kevin Bacon, and also in the Dialogue series, Ellen Burstyn will present and discuss her Oscar winning performance in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”

Counting the days, the minutes….

August 08, 2007
TIFF Looking Like Oscar Preview

Though we are two weeks away from final announcements, the Toronto International Film Festival is looking more and more like an unofficial Academy Awards preview. Though it seems by now we’re used to that notion. After scouring the Oscar sites on the web, I found that many of the films already announced are among those being touted for Oscars in the major categories, and a few will likely slip in as sleepers. Never before has the festival looked so strong so early, and in all honesty 2007 could be the finest version of the festival yet.

Kris himself has named several of the films here as major contenders.

Among the films arriving that can be considered definite hopefuls for the Academy Award for best picture are the Coen brothers’ acclaimed film “No Country for Old Men” and Paul Haggis’s new picture “The Valley of Elah,” both featuring Tommy Lee Jones, who is being touted for best actor for the latter film.

Certainly “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” must be considered a potential best picture nominee, given the awards success of director Shekhar Kapur’s 1997 initial installment, and Cate Blanchett could skip past Julie Christie to become the frontrunner for best actress for the Oscar she should have won back in '98.

Joe Wright brings “Atonement” here after the success of “Pride and Prejudice” in 2005, again working with Keira Knightley in another British romance that many writers seem very high on. And though snubbed for the brilliant “A History of Violence,” David Cronenburg could find himself in the running this year for “Eastern Promises,” a thriller with Viggo Mortenson.

If that isn’t enough, there is buzz building for Sean Penn’s new picture “Into the Wild,” based on the book by Jon Krakauer about a wealthy young man who walks away from his life and heads into the wilderness to seek adventure and challenge himself as a human being. Again, inside word is building fast on this one, and Penn is long overdue for some attention for his directing.

Not long ago “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” was being labeled a troubled film, but recently there has been a turnaround on that front, with some web writers who have seen the film claiming it to be the finest American western since “Unforgiven.” High praise indeed. Is it best picture material? The Academy has always been loathe to name westerns best film of the year, snubbing “Shane” in 1953 and “The Searchers” in 1956, yet honoring “Dances with Wolves” in 1990 and the aforementioned “Unforgiven” in 1992. Indeed, the only other western to claim a best picture prize of its own was “Cimarron,” way back in 1931. If Andrew Domink’s film is as good as the potential of Ron Hansen’s novel, then perhaps we will have a western on the nominee list once again.


Jodie Foster, a two-time Oscar winning actress may find herself up for another performance, this time as a vigilante in Neil Jordan’s “The Brave One.” Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman seems to be in on the comeback trail in Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding.” After winning an Oscar for “The Hours” in 2002 and being cheated of a nomination for “Cold Mountain” the very next year, Kidman cooled off quickly. But this could be the one that brings her back to Oscar. Also in the film, Jennifer Jason Leigh, so long overdue for a mere nomination it is frightening. She may find herself in contention in the supporting actress category, co-star Jack Black across the way in supporting actor.

Best actor in 2005 for “Capote,” Phillip Seymour Hoffman will be seen with Laura Linney in the Sundance sensation “The Savages.” The Tamara Jenkins film could land them both nominations.

Elsewhere, Denys Arcand brings his newest work from Quebec, “Days of Darkness,” while the most recent announcements see two of the more creative directors bringing their films to our fair city. Julie Taymor was here five years ago with “Frida,” which began its march to six Oscar nominations in Toronto. This time she brings “Across the Universe,” a musical of sorts dealing with the hippy culture, Vietnam and love in the sixties. The film has also been the subject of behind-the-scenes editorial strife.

Finally, Woody Allen brings “Cassandra's Dream,” his newest with Colin Farrell (an interesting match) and another in the director’s latest slate of films set outside his beloved New York City.

In the weeks to come festival co-director Noah Cowan has promised some major announcements leading to all sorts of rumors and speculation about which films not yet announced could be coming. Me? I think “There Will Be Blood” is a strong possibility if only because director Paul Thomas Anderson launched both “Boogie Nights” and “Punch-Drunk Love” here to great acclaim.

Francis Ford Coppola watched daughter Sofia bring “Lost in Translation” to the fest and eventually become the first American woman nominated for best director. So it is likely his first film in a decade, “Youth Without Youth” will make an appearance.

Flying far under the radar is “The Bucket List,” not even being mentioned on Oscar sites despite the presence of Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as two dying men who take a road trip in a film directed by Rob Reiner who was here twenty years ago with “The Princess Bride.”


And finally, Sir Ridley Scott has been here often with his films, thus leaving me thinking that “American Gangster” will move into Toronto for the festival. We’ll soon know the score.

How many of these films will move into the Kodak Theatre for a date with Oscar? Some will, some will fall the way of inevitable disappointment. In two weeks I will begin screening the cream of the crop for 2007.

Tick, tick, tick…