Toronto International Film Festival
A festival report by Evelyn C. Leeper
Copyright 1998 Evelyn C. Leeper

We attended the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) from September 10 through September 19, and so naturally I'm doing a report.


Registration for this festival is like nothing else I've registered for. There are several ways of buying tickets: a festival pass (good for up to fifty films), a thirty-coupon book, a ten-coupon book, or individually. The cheapest per-film is the Festival Pass (C$240.75) and we got those. This was not all that difficult-I called the box office and gave them a credit card number. For out-of-town folks they hold the passes in the office. But I also had to order a programme book (C$26.70) with courier service (C$35). Now, we would get the programme book in any case, but why courier service?

Well, TIFF has grown to be the fourth largest film festival in the world (only Cannes, Venice, and Berlin are larger), and one can't wait until one arrives to order tickets or none will be available. So you must order tickets the day the box office starts selling them.

Okay, the package arrived promptly on September 2. The programme book is 400 pages long and has 311 films. The order form is a magazine-sized booklet with two dozen pages that need to be filled out.

The process is complicated by the following facts:

Okay, someone must have a computer program that could do this, but we didn't. So here's our process:

This process took eight hours.

But wait-we're still not done!

Now we had to transcribe all this onto the real, color-coded, bar-coded form by writing "1" on the first-choice block for each of our films (for one ticket, since each pass requires a separate form), and "1" on the second-choice block for those couple of places where there was a clear second-choice.

And then we had to highlight the titles of the first-choice films in yellow and the second-choice films in green.

I am not making this up.

(Though the last part was only recommended, not required.)

And then I had to drive to Red Bank on September 3 and FedEx the order forms back to Toronto so they would get there in time (US$19).

Even with all, we were told by people we probably would not get all our requested tickets. We ended up ordering 46 each, so we could add at least four films if we can find any open time slots.

Why don't they allow FAX or Web orders? Well, they do have FAX orders, but they charge an extra C$0.75 per ticket for them, because they have to type in the code numbers instead of scanning the pages. And though they have an extensive web site, they don't do Web orders.

We drove up to Amherst, picked Kate up, and drove to Toronto. We talked about how we could have flown instead, but of course we could have merely planned to fly, then ended up having to drive anyway because of the Air Canada strike.

We arrived in Toronto after the box office closed, so we couldn't pick up our tickets until Thursday. At that point, we discovered that we had gotten forty of our first choices and one second choice. We then went over the board to see what we could get instead of our first choices and filled in a couple, and then added a couple of films in remaining open slots, bringing us back up to 46 each. (I described the "Festival Pass" as the "no-eat, no-sleep pass.") It was so confusing trying to fill in movies, in fact, that I ended up with two tickets for Beautiful Sunday, one for each showing! (I could always exchange one for something else, but there isn't anything else available that fits. I may try getting some last-minute ["rush"] tickets, though.)

Kate had a different problem. She had tickets for a film opposite Touch of Evil, which was listed as still available. So she tried to exchange her ticket. They took back that, but then she couldn't get a ticket for Touch of Evil because it had sold out. And they couldn't return her ticket because she was now at the end of the list for it! (She's did get a rush ticket for Touch of Evil.)

As if this weren't confused enough, when we went looking for the theaters, we had a very hard time finding the Cumberland. That's because this morning they changed their name to the Alliance! In fact, the workmen were still putting up the new signs. This will undoubtedly add to the confusion, but it might make it easier to get last-minute tickets there.

We spent the day book-shopping. buying twenty new and used books. The exchange rate (C$1 is US$.66) makes the books cheap (Jack Faust by Michael Swanwick is US$1.50 cheaper in Canada than in the United States). We found a really good used book store (Eliot's on Yonge) and a lot of used science fiction, then went to Bakka and bought some new stuff.

Full Moon (Den polniluniya)
Russia, 1998
Directed by Karen Shakhnazarov
Written by Alexander Borodyansky and Karen Shakhnazarov

This was an odd film to start the (our) festival with, since it didn't have a story. Instead, it started with a character, followed him or her for five minutes, then jumped to another character he was seeing, or hearing, or who was passing in the background. A high-concept description would be Six Degrees of Separation meets Fallen. (Mark compared it to Slacker, though the vignettes here were much smaller.) It also had flashbacks to the Mongol Empire and to Pushkin, as well as returning several times to a mysterious woman (the only scene repeated through the film). All in all, an unusual film-the director began by saying if the audience found it hard to watch, they should remember that it was at least short, and then afterwards said that he was surprised that everyone stayed for the whole movie.

I suspect this does not yet have a United States distributor.

Rating: 6/10

Smoke Signals
USA, 1998
Directed by Chris Eyre
Written by Sherman Alexie

This one was not part of TIFF, but was playing in a time slot we couldn't get tickets for any TIFF films for, in the theater right next to our hotel, for which we just happened to have two passes (not for that theater specifically, but for the chain).

Smoke Signals is a story of a young Indian coming to terms with his father's alcoholism and abuse, and also with his friend, who seems to follow him around no matter how much he is rejected. The main story is not very original, but the characters that populate it are, at least in the sense of being new to movie-goers. There's the radio weatherman, who describes what the clouds look like where he is sitting, and the three basketball players arguing about how good a basketball player Geronimo would have been, and many more. This film also has some marvelous dialogue, particularly between the two friends, and in the story-telling of one of them.

Rating: 7/10

Flowers of Shanghai (Hai shan hua)
Taiwan, 1998
Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
Written by Chu Tien-wen

This was a very slow-moving story set in the brothels of 1880s Shanghai, centered around five women who work in them and their patrons. It had the most static camera-work I have seen in a long time, with each scene filmed with a fixed camera that could (slowly) pan from side to side, but without any change in depth and without any edits. The only edits were the fade-outs and fade-ins between scenes. (Apparently this is more camera movement than his previous films. which were filmed with an entirely stationary camera.) This does make the length of the takes unusually long, with the first scene running seven minutes without a single cut. This film was a contrast to Full Moon in terms of editing-the latter used editing as the basis and centerpiece of the movie, while this one uses it by in some sense ignoring it. I had expected a film set in this time and place to be more interesting then this, but other than the costumes and sets (all interiors), Flowers of Shanghai has little to recommend it.

This film has no United States distributor yet.

Rating: 4/10

April Story (Shigatsu Monogatari)
Japan, 1998
Directed by Shunji Iwai
Written by Shunji Iwai

This was a short (1h07m) film about a young woman going off to college. She leaves her home in Hokkaido and travels to Tokyo, followed by a van full of far more stuff than can possibly fit in her small apartment. This is just the beginning of her learning to adjust to her new surroundings. A lot of the interest of the film for me was in the Japanese culture-for example, the idea that in college one joins a club, not so much because one is interested in what the club does, but because it's expected that you join a club. The film does put a slight "spin on the ball," but its appeal is more in its understated look at student life than at any amazing or startling developments.

The length (or shortness) of this film probably means it will show up on cable rather than in theaters.

Rating: 5/10

After Life
Japan, 1998
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-Eda
Written by Hirokazu Kore-Eda

This was the world premiere of this film, made by the same director who had previously made the highly acclaimed Maborosi. However, I haven't seen Maborosi so I can't compare the two.

The film begins with twenty-two people arriving in the after-life, which starts out as a sort of hotel where everyone is asked to choose the one memory they want to take with himself or herself beyond this point. (Afterwards, the director said that ten of the people were not professional actors, but just people telling their own memories. Of the twelve actors, some of them then decided that they wanted to tell their own stories as well!)

The stories vary from childhood memories to memories of romance to memories of war and disaster. And two can't-or won't-choose a memory. The film follows the more problematic characters more closely than the others, but everyone gets a chance to tell his or her story.

Afterwards the director was asked if he was inspired by La Jetee, Defending Your Life, or Wings of Desire. He said that while he knew these films, he was more inspired by Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait and Tosca's Kiss.

As with many films, there didn't appear to be a United States distributor yet, but Maborosi was highly enough acclaimed that the chances are good someone will pick this up.

Rating: 7/10

Very Bad Things
USA, 1998
Directed by Peter Berg
Written by Peter Berg

This was the North American premiere (possibly even the world premiere) of this film, so all the cast and director were there (late, so the movie started late). In addition, major film reviewers were present, including Roger Ebert.

It's hard to talk about this film without giving too much away. It starts with five friends going to Las Vegas for a bachelor party. Bad things happen. More bad things happen. Very bad things happen. The director read a quote that he said inspired him, about how one does not fall from grace in one spectacular step, but in small steps without noticing. (I don't think I'd call what happens in the film small steps, though.)

This is, I suppose, what is called a black comedy, but frankly I thought it would have worked better without the comedy. And I thought that part of the last third undercut the message of the film (as I perceived it). It's not for everyone, but if you liked Heathers (which starred Christian Slater, as does this) or Neighbors, I might still recommend this to you.

Needless to say, this will get a major release in the United States.

Rating: 6/10

Perdito Durango
Mexico/Spain, 1997
Directed by Alex de la Iglesia
Written by Barry Gifford, Jorge Guerricaechevaria, David Trueba, and Alex de la Iglesia

As might be expected from their "Midnight Madness" track, this was a strange film. Rosie Perez plays the title character, who takes up with a Santeria priest and convinces him to kidnap someone to serve as a human sacrifice. The priest is also involved with the underworld in delivering a truckload of illicit human embryos to a cosmetic company. This is a very violent film, with some bizarre moments, and extremely difficult to rate. The story was written as a follow-up to the story that was the basis of Wild at Heart (though it's not precisely a sequel), so if you liked that you might like this.

Rating: 5/10

Jeanne et le garçon formidable (Jeanne and the Perfect Guy)
France, 1998
Directed by Olivier and Jacques Martineau
Written by Jacques Martineau

They say the musical is dead, but that's apparently only in the United States. This film is a musical from France about a woman who meets the "perfect guy"-the only problems is that he has AIDS.

It probably seems an unlikely subject for a musical, but then most plots of musicals are, unless they're of the "let's-put-on-a-show!" variety. The movie avoids many Hollywood cliches as it follows it characters through their story, and although the singing and dancing isn't up to the standards of the great movie musicals, it is certainly acceptable. (For one thing, the director has figured out that a dance number should be shot as one continuous shot, not as a series of quick edits.)

There is some social and political content as well (not too surprisingly), but it is clearly secondary to the main story. We hadn't chosen this initially, but we're glad we picked it up later.

This seems unlikely to be released in the United States.

Rating: 7/10

Last Night
Canada, 1998
Directed by Don McKellar
Written by Don McKellar

This we had requested and not gotten, with both shows listed as sold out. But when we got to the theater for Jeanne et le garçon formidable we discovered they had some same-day tickets for this (the same show we had initially requested), so we decided to see it instead of going back for a nap (we had only four and a half hours of sleep last night). It was a good decision, since it turned out to be very good and something we may well nominate (futilely, no doubt) for the Hugo Award next year.

This film was does as part of a series of ten films, from ten countries, about the end of the millennium. Two other films from this series, commissioned by a French organization, are in the TIFF, "The Hole" (which we will be seeing later) and The Book of Life by Hal Hartley (which we won't). McKellar decided the end of the millennium has already been overused and decided to do the end of the world instead.

The film follows a dozen or so people through the last six hours of the world, which is going to end from some unspecified, but clearly astronomical, cause, and conveniently precisely at midnight in Toronto. They all have their own stories, but connections between them develop as the evening wears on. The only well-known face among them is that of David Cronenberg, known primarily as a director.

Don McKellar (who wrote, directed, and starred) was available afterwards for questions. The budget was about C$2,000,000, or which McKellar said was "about $20 American." He also described the budget as "making El Mariachi look like the Titanic." One person asked about a cross formed in the elevator in one scene by the paneling, and McKellar said the elevator was just whatever was there. Then the next asked why he didn't show more of religious fanatics. "Religious imagery? Didn't you see all the crucifixion imagery?" I asked about the release schedule; it's scheduled for a Canadian release October 23, and has no United States distributor yet.

Rating: 8/10

The Cruise
USA, 1998
Directed by Bennett Miller
Written by Timothy Speed Levitch, edited by Michael Levine

This documentary about Timothy Speed Levitch was done as a video-to-film transfer. I mention this because at times I found it very distracting, as what should be straight lines turned into "stair-steps" from the pixillation.

The film follows Levitch as a tour guide, both on Gray Lines tours of Manhattan and his own private walking tours. In addition to pointing out the usual tourist sights, he also gives his often bizarre opinions on the city and its people, and a thorough history of architecture and politics. This film is very dialogue-heavy, and though not as set-bound as My Dinner with Andre, would probably appeal to the same audience. (However, Miller said he had dinner with Levitch and Wallace Shawn, and Shawn was totally unimpressed with Levitch.)

The film is at its best following Levitch on his tours and only falters when Levitch speaks more or less directly to the camera about his personal life. Indeed, Miller say he purposely didn't give any background information on Levitch so that people would not try to psychoanalyze him from his background, but rather just accept what he was.

Afterwards, the director said that he shot it in black and white because he wanted to show the viewer New York "through slightly different eyes," just as Levitch's tour does. Levitch has seen it and liked it. Levitch quit his job with Gray Lines and is currently doing walking tours. He has no permanent residence, but his voice mail can be reached at 212-636-9324 to book tours. (He apparently has an interesting message at this number as well.) The film will be released October 24.

Rating: 7/10

Finding Graceland
USA, 1998
Directed by David Winkler
Written by Jason Horwitch

Harvey Keitel plays Elvis Presley, or the Ghost of Elvis, or an Elvis impostor, or something else entirely, depending on your point of view. (Though Keitel does not really look like Elvis even a much older Elvis, we are clearly supposed to suspend our disbelief about this, since in the movie everyone thinks he looks like Elvis.) Keitel seems to be an actor who will do anything, in the sense that he is not afraid to do things other actors would say were too extreme. Most actors do not seem willing to do frontal nudity, and few would be willing to risk singing "Suspicious Minds" while doing a full Elvis impersonation. (Actually Marc Campbell did the singing; Keitel lip-synced, but did all the dancing.)

In Finding Graceland, Elvis is trying to redeem himself ("find grace") while helping others to find their way out of their own troubles. While it does not endorse "Elvis as a religion," it does recognize this as a genuine belief, partly because the basic plot could almost have Keitel as a generic guardian angel rather than Elvis.

In addition to Keitel's predictably excellent performance, Bridget Fonda does very well, both as her character and as her character's character-she plays a Marilyn Monroe impersonator. This is the sort of film that garners a few Oscar nominations, and is certainly worth them.

  • Note: 700,000 people visited Graceland last year.
  • Rating: 8/10

    [Coincidentally, there is another film we saw in the TIFF which uses Elvis, the song "Suspicious Minds," and Marilyn Monroe, but telling you which would be a bit of a spoiler.]

    Sweety Barrett
    Ireland, 1998
    Directed by Stephen Bradley
    Written by Stephen Bradley

    There are definite similarities between this film and Sling Blade, though Bradley said he hadn't seen Thornton's film. Sweety Barrett is a rather simple man who is let go from his job with the circus, and arrives in a small fishing town where he befriends a young boy. The town is controlled by a corrupt police chief and the boy's father, who has just been released from prison, is being targeted by this chief.

    There are many things in the script that make it clear this is not a Hollywood film, but the script is secondary to the acting by Brendan Glesson as Sweety Barrett, and also to that of Liam Cunningham as the police chief.

    There is no United States distributor yet, but I have to think someone will pick this up.

    Rating: 7/10

    Dancing at Lughnasa
    USA/Ireland, 1998
    Directed by Pat O'Connor
    Written by Frank McGuiness based on the play by Brian Friel

    This is another one of those films that comes out at Christmas and has "Nominate me" written all over it. It's the story of five unmarried sisters in 1930s Ireland. It is based on the stage play of the same name, and my main complaint is that the filmmakers obviously cut out a lot of dialogue from the play which I would have liked to hear. First of all, the film runs about 96 minutes, much shorter than a play. And they also put long scenes of Irish country scenery in, which means the actual amount of dialogue time is considerably less. I realize that film is a visual medium, but I am bothered by this trend toward replacing dialogue with scenery, or special effects, or other filler.

    That said, I will say that I did enjoy the film. Meryl Streep is not my favorite actress, but I thought she did well enough in her role here. Michael Gambon was also good as the priest returning from Africa after twenty-five years as a missionary.

    Rating: 7/10

    Buttoners (Knoflíkári)
    Czech Republic, 1997
    Directed by Petr Zelenka
    Written by Petr Zelenka

    We stood in the rush line for A Simple Plan (which had been our first choice but we hadn't gotten) and didn't get in, so we then stood in the rush line for this and did manage to get in, barely. (When we were eight from the front, three people came up to the first person in line, starting talking to him, and then tried to claim they were in line when the woman said only ten more could go in. I reverted to stereotypical New Yorker behavior and pointed out that we had been standing there over an hour and that they were not in line.)

    This film consisted of six segments which, like those in Pulp Fiction. are shown out of sequence and all tie together. It begins with the bombing of Hiroshima, and then jumps to present-day Prague, with a taxi driver, a young couple, a train buff, and other assorted characters. There was in particular a dinner sequence that reminded me of Vaclav Havel's Unveiling, but the director said his influences were more from Kurt Vonnegut's "Big Space Fuck" and the films of Woody Allen and Milos Forman.

    There was no particular point to the film. Its opening and closing with sequences about Hiroshima would indicate that the director was trying to emphasize that, but I suspect the pilot's remorse is not historically accurate, or even historically justified. That Zelenka named Vonnegut as an influence leads me to think that Zelenka is responding more to the actuality of the fire-bombing of Dresden than to the bombing of Hiroshima, but using the name and iconography of the latter.

    This film was made for Czech television, and I would say is unlikely to get United States distribution.

    Rating: 6/10

    God Said, "Ha!"
    USA, 1997
    Directed by Julia Sweeney
    Written by Julia Sweeney

    This is basically the filming of Sweeney's one-woman show, in which she talks about her life during the time her brother was dying of lymphatic cancer and she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. In spite of the general downbeat nature of the situation, there is mostly humor, as Sweeney describes trying to cope with five people, including her parents and two brothers, living in her one-person bungalow. Most of her humor is focused on her mother, though there are other targets as well.

    The film opens at the Film Forum in New York on December 11.

    Rating: 6/10

    Beautiful Sunday (Shigatsu monogatari)
    Japan, 1998
    Directed by Tetsuya Nakashima
    Written by Tetsuya Nakashima

    This was a film that I went to alone, while Mark went to a film dealing with necrophilia, sado-masochism, and so on.

    In spite of the rather pleasant-sounding title, this is a downbeat film about the residents of a Tokyo apartment block on a Sunday. None of them are leading happy lives, and the film just follows them through their unhappiness and problems. The director said that this film was not universally liked in Japan-many people felt it portrayed the society very negatively. Of course, this seemed to be what he intended.

    Chances for United States distribution appear slim.

    Rating: 6/10


    The collections of shorts are the hardest shows to get tickets to, mostly because they're in the two smallest

    theaters. This is because these are the only theaters which have the ability to show 16mm films. We could

    fit in only one set and luckily did get tickets.

    Sandra Law

    Clay animation and evolution. Good combination of technique and story.

    L'Amour l'Amour Shut the Door Por Favor
    Written and directed by Valerie Buhagiar

    Live-action "slice of life" in a surreal neighborhood-a fat woman is stomping grapes, a man is paddling a canoe in an alley, and so on. I couldn't figure out what this was trying to say.

    Fish Bait
    Written and directed by Anthony Seck

    One continuous take, one-joke film.

    The Fisherman and His Wife
    Written and directed by Jochen Schliessler

    Obvious story, but interesting photography from a fish-eye view.

    Written and directed by Tim Hamilton

    This was the longest in this group (thirty minutes), about a man's dreams and imaginings as he goes for therapy. Some interesting images liven this up.

    Written and directed by Nathan Garfinkel

    Lake monster and aliens-but you never see either.

    Elimination Dance
    Written and directed by Bruce McDonald

    Strange concept for a dance, with the ubiquitous (at least in this festival) Tracy Wright, who was also in Last Night and Dog Park.

    Phil Touches Flo
    Written and directed by David Birdsell

    This was done for the Fox Movie Network, so you may actually see it. Interesting structure, but not much there.

    UK/India, 1998
    Directed by Shekhar Kapur
    Written by Michael Hirst

    This has edged out Last Night as the best film we saw at the TIFF, though I have a few questions about the accuracy of some details.

    This at first seemed to be a Merchant-Ivory imitation covering the early reign of Queen Elizabeth I, especially from the coming attractions we had seen, but it much more. Where Merchant-Ivory tends to concentrate on the beauty, or at least photogeneity of everything, this begins with the burning at the stake of Master Ridley and includes several other scenes more unpleasant than one finds in Merchant-Ivory. This means that as a historical epic, Elizabeth is far more accurate than it might otherwise have been. The other obvious, and more accurate, comparison would be to Restoration.

    Cate Blanchett's performance as Elizabeth is excellent, going through a wide range of emotional states. (Actually, I suspect it was too wide-I though there were scenes where Elizabeth was too unsure of herself. But that is the script; Blanchett delivers what the script calls for. Geoffrey Rush also stands out as Wolsingham, Kathy Burke gives a great performance as Queen Mary I, and John Gielgud and Edward Hardwicke are always good to see.

    One wonders if Shekhar Kapur drew on the religious strife in India to help him direct this film about a similar situation in England. And he is no stranger to directing films about strong women: his best-known film before this was Bandit Queen.

    Kudos also to David Hirschfelder for the music, and to whoever did the opening credits sequence. The camerawork by Remi Adefarasin was at times quite striking in a way that that of the historical epics of the 1950s never was, and the lighting enhanced the authenticity of the period look.

    Oh, the historical quibbles. I had thought that Elizabeth lost her hair due to smallpox, which was also why she wore heavy make-up, but the film claims otherwise.

    I assume this will be released in the United States around Christmas.

    Rating: 8/10

    Jerry and Tom
    USA, 1998
    Directed by Saul Rubinek
    Written by Sloane Klevin

    As Rubinek pointed out afterward, there is no plot to this film. It just follows two hit men through ten years of their careers, using some rather unusual editing techniques. (Rubinek said that he wanted us to know before we saw the film that no computer-generated effects were used-everything done in the film could have been done in the silent days.)

    Even without the editing quirks, this would have been a good film. The script creates interesting characters and the actors make them come alive. Joe Mantegna, Maury Chaykin, Ted Danson, Charles Durning, William H. Macy, and Peter Riegert are all in their usual fine form. Only Sam Rockwell's performance as Jerry seems a little weak, but then the character is supposed to be a bit "off" as well. (There are no women in the story directly. Rubinek said that originally there were sequences with wives and girlfriends, but when the movie was finished, something had to go and everything else was critical to the progression.)

    I can't help but think that there is some influence here from Pulp Fiction in the dialogue, but only a slight amount. I believe that this will be released in the United States later this year.

    Rating: 7/10

    I Woke Up Early the Day I Died
    USA, 1998
    Directed by Aris Iliopulos
    Written by Edward D. Wood Jr.

    The script may originally have been written by Wood, but Iliopulos clearly added or changed some scenes.

    The film is far more Chaplinesque than an Ed Wood film ever was, with far more intentional humor.

    Billy Zane is the main character, a bank robber who loses the loot in a cemetery and has to try to recover it. Zane seems to pattern his performance alternately after Johnny Depp's portrayal of Wood in the film "Ed Wood" and Charlie Chaplin's in any number of his films. Ron Perlman plays the cemetery caretaker, Christina Ricci has a small role, and Eartha Kitt performs a new song written expressly for the film. (Kitt also sang a song on the soundtrack of Perdita Dunrango, which we saw earlier.)

    This is probably of interest only to the midnight circuit (and possibly science fiction conventions), but will undoubtedly make the rounds there.

    Rating: 6/10

    The Sleepwalker (La Sonámbula)
    Argentina, 1997
    Directed by Fernando Spiner
    Written by Fabian Bielinsky, Ricardo Piglia, and Fernando Spiner

    There are not a lot of Argentinean science fiction films being made. The last I saw was Man Facing Southeast, and that was years ago. Even Spiner admitted this was not a popular Argentinean genre, saying his film influences were from Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, Chris Marker's La Jetee, and James Cameron's films. He also acknowledged Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy-Casares, and Julio Cortazar. (I was surprised he didn't mention Fritz Lang's Metropolis or Ridley Scott's Bladerunner, though the set design in the film was strongly reminiscent of both.)

    The story is set in the future, in the Buenos Aires of 2010, with brief sections in the present. The present sections are in color, but most of the film is in black and white, set in a controlled future where 300,000 people are suffering from amnesia from a toxic accident. Two victims find their lives tied up in some inexplicable way with the head of the revolutionary movement, and go on a quest to find him.

    While this film would be of interest to some science fiction fans, its chances for a release in the United States are pretty slim.

    Rating: 7/10

    Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (Rajio no jikan)
    Japan, 1997
    Directed by Koki Mitani
    Written by Koki Mitani

    This is a light comedy about the production of a live radio play. Starting with a few requests to change a word here or there, the chaos grows as entire characters are added or dropped, and plotlines rewritten even as the actors are reading their lines on the air. It reminded me a lot of the cable television show "Remember WENN" (on AMC), at least of the earlier episodes.

    I don't think this has a United States distributor yet, though it should appeal to the art audience crowd.

    Rating: 7/10

    Six-String Samurai
    USA, 1998
    Directed by Lance Mungia
    Written by Jeffrey Falcon and Lance Mungia

    There was an atomic war in 1957, and now that the King of Lost Vegas [sic], Elvis, has finally died, would-be replacements are slogging across the badlands to get there, beset by Death and his henchmen. There is very little dialogue in this, just scenes of people walking across the desert punctuated by samurai sword fights.

    Rating: 3/10

    Dog Park
    Canada/USA, 1998
    Directed by Bruce McCulloch
    Written by Bruce McCulloch

    Another romantic comedy/drama about a man who has just broken up with his girlfriend and who meets a single woman. He is attracted to her and she is attracted to him, but they spend most of the movie resisting this and going out with other strange people instead. The title comes from the park where the various characters walk their dogs. It's amusing, but nothing special. Even the dogs are somewhat dull.

    This film has no United States distributor yet, but will probably get one because of the joint production and because of Janeane Garofalo's presence.

    Rating: 6/10

    The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice
    USA/Italy/France/Morocco, 1952
    Directed by Orson Welles
    Written by William Shakespeare, Orson Welles, and Jean Sacha

    This was part of the track of "Directors' Choices," where different directors choose an older film to show and talk about. Othello was chosen by Francois Girard, director of The Red Violin (the official opening film of TIFF).

    I won't say too much about the film. The cinematography is very striking, but I personally don't like it as a Shakespearean film because of the cutting and rearranging Welles did. Girard thought this was a good point, and that Welles was the first to "cinematize" Shakespeare. Welles also did this with Macbeth (his first Shakespeare film), and really did it with Chimes at Midnight, which pieced together parts of several plays into one story.

    Afterward, Girard talked about all the problems in making Othello. The first producer Welles dealt with thought Welles was doing the Verdi opera rather than the Shakespeare play, and withdrew when this was discovered several months into the planning. The second producer went bankrupt literally while the plane with the cast and crew was in the air on the way to Morocco. So when they got there with no costumes or props, they ended up filming the bath scene, because it required no costumes.

    Welles exhausted himself by this movie, which took four years to shoot. Before starting, eleven different actresses had been cast as Desdemona. The castle was a composite of castles and sets in several locations over two continents. (In fact, I agree with another audience member who said that the settings overwhelm the film, and the patched-together shooting makes this even more of a problem. Welles never really had the whole cast together and was shooting scenes based on who was available when he had the money to shoot. All of his speeches were done last, and with no one else in the shot because they were all gone. Someone in the audience said that this also emphasized the isolation of Othello in these speeches in close-up, and was brilliant even if was necessary. Girard said Welles also shot his scenes last to play off and learn from the other performances.

    In addition to Welles, Girard listed Luc Besson, Andrei Tarkovsky, Stanley Kubrick, and Michaelangelo Antonioni as his major influences.

    Rating: 6/10

    Extraordinary Visitor
    Canada, 1998
    Directed by John W. Doyle
    Written by John W. Doyle

    I am a sucker for religious fantasies (within reason-even I thought Wholly Moses was enormously unfunny). So I would probably enjoy a competently done fable of John the Baptist visiting his namesake town in Newfoundland right before the turn of the millennium to try to find a sign that God shouldn't terminate the human race more than the average movie-goer. And I did enjoy this.

    A few touches I particularly liked were the use of Middle Eastern actors in the roles of the Biblical characters, Mary's down-to-earth attitude about it all, John's rivalry with his cousin, and the fact that this movie was partially in Latin with English subtitles. In fact, this may well be the first Latin-language film made in Newfoundland. (McCulloch later said that he knew they didn't speak Latin in the Vatican, but it was too good to resist.)

    I did think that the Vatican sub-plot got a little excessive at times. (Also, there was one stretch in which the subtitles were out of sync with the speakers, which led to some confusion.) But on the whole I enjoyed the film.

    There is no United States distributor yet. The somewhat flippant attitude might cause some difficulty, although it would be an art house film in any case.

    Rating: 7/10

    Clay Pigeons
    USA, 1998
    Directed by David Dobkin
    Written by Matt Healy

    This was the world premiere of this film, a bit surprising since I would have thought that as a major release this would have played in Venice a couple of weeks ago.

    The theme is similar to that of Very Bad Things-something bad happens, and in fixing that, things get worse. And both have characters who say they're making things better for the central character, but are only making them worse. But where Very Bad Things couldn't decide on a tone, this one doesn't have that problem. All in all, this is the better of the two and the one to see.

    Rating: 7/10

    The Hole (Dona)
    Taiwan/France, 1998
    Directed by Tsai Ming-liang
    Written by Tsai Ming-liang

    The Hole is a strange film with very little dialogue and several interspersed song-and-dance numbers (all based on Grace Chang songs). A mysterious epidemic has struck Taiwan and most people have left the affected areas. In an almost deserted apartment beset with plumbing problems and incessant rain, a hole forms in the ceiling of one woman's apartment from the apartment of her upstairs neighbor. She spends most of the film trying to close it up, to no avail.

    In feeling, this is reminiscent of Peter Weir's Plumber (with all the water symbolism of Weir's Last Wave thrown in). But the slowness of the film, combined with the lack of dialogue, makes this a difficult film to enjoy.

    United States release seems unlikely.

    Rating: 6/10

    The Giraffe (Meshugge, Die Giraffe)
    Germany/Switzerland, 1998
    Directed by Dani Levy
    Written by Dani Levy and Maria Scrader

    This was the best film we saw at TIFF.

    The Giraffe is a mystery in the classic style-someone is killed and we don't know why. As the plot unfolds, further mysteries and seeming contradictions arise, but all are resolved and revealed at the end.

    The story begins with the fire-bombing of a factory owned by an elderly Jewish businessman living in Germany, a Holocaust survivor. A woman in New York sees a news article about this and is convinced he is her father, whom she thought lost in the camps. This sets in motion the whole plot, which is given such a level of realism that audience members asked afterwards if it was based on a true story. In fact, the closing "title cards" describing the conclusion of the story were written in the future tense to try to emphasize that this was not history.

    Set in the Jewish community, this can be compared to films such as Homicide and the much earlier Final Embrace. (I won't even talk about A Stranger Among Us, which is not in their league at all.)

    The only real problem is the title. The working title was "Meshugge" ("Crazy"), but Levy felt that was too unfamiliar a word to most audiences. (It also carries a slightly humorous connotation.) It's a difficult film to name without giving away anything, I suppose, but this title seemed forced.

    This was a world premiere, and distribution is still up in the air, but Levy apparently has several offers and I would expect this will be released in the United States.

    Rating: 9/10

    Cure (Kyua)
    Japan, 1997
    Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
    Written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

    As films about serial killers go, this has an unusual gimmick. Because I don't want to give anything away, it's hard to say too much specific about the film. So I'll just say that this could best be described as a psychological thriller, with appeal to audiences that like that sort of film. It stars Koji Yakusho, known to United States audiences from Shall We Dance?

    We couldn't stay for the entire question-and-answer period, because our next film was in a half hour and a few blocks away. We did hear that this is Kurosawa's fifteenth film but only the first released outside Japan. And, no, I don't know if he's related to Akira Kurosawa. (Actually, Japanese and Chinese names were done very inconsistently at TIFF. Well, they were probably consistent by TIFF, but where TIFF listed family names last, the film posters and subtitles often kept with the Japanese form and listed them first.)

    Rating: 7/10

    The Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Los Amantes del Circulo Polar)
    Spain, 1998
    Directed by Julio Medem
    Written by Julio Medem

    This was another late addition to our list. It is based primarily on the idea of coincidence or accident being a major part of our lives. Two young children meet several times by accident and eventually fall in love. Accidents part them and re-unite them throughout their lives in unusual ways right up to the end of the film.

    It has little to do with the Arctic Circle, though, in spite of the title.

    Again, we couldn't stay for the entire question-and-answer period, because even though our next film was in the same building, it was supposedly in twenty minutes and sold out, so if we wanted any sort of a reasonable seat for it, we needed to get in line.

    Rating: 7/10

    Apt Pupil
    USA, 1998
    Directed by Bryan Singer
    Written by Brandon Boyce based on the story by Stephen King

    I was really looking forward to this, particularly with Ian McKellan, but found it a disappointment. This was made from a Stephen King novella from Different Seasons, the same book that contained stories that were made into Stand by Me ("The Body") and The Shawshank Redemption ("Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption"). This was not up to their standard, nor up to Singer's previous film, The Usual Suspects.

    Brad Renfro plays a student who becomes obsessed with the Holocaust after the one-week session on it in school. He spots Ian McKellan on a bus and recognizes him as a concentration camp commandant now in hiding. He threatens to turn McKellen in unless McKellen tells him more details about the camps. And so begins a strange, and strained, friendship. Unfortunately, it was all fairly predictable, and didn't do anything new. Even McKellan's performance seems distracted at times, though that may be due to my comparing it to his electrifying performance in Richard III.

    This was the film's North American premiere and will soon have a major release in the United States.

    Rating: 5/10

    The Man with Rain in His Shoes
    UK, 1998
    Directed by Maria Ripoli
    Written by Rafa Russo

    If you saw Sliding Doors, you have some idea of what this is about. A mostly unemployed actor is desperate when his ex-girlfriend is about to marry someone else. Then he meets two Spaniards, who use magic an Don Quixote to turn back the clock for him. What he does differently, and what happens because of that, form the core of the story.

    At heart, though, it's your basic romantic comedy/drama, and the science fictional aspects are minimal. A lot is unexplained, like what happens to the "original" of him, since he goes back in the clothes he was wearing in the "future." (There should now be two identical winter coats in the past, for example.)

    I have no idea if this will play in the United States.

    Rating: 6/10

    Another Day in Paradise
    USA, 1998
    Directed by Larry Clark
    Written by Christopher B. Landon from the book by Eddie Little

    Clark's first film was "Kids" and this is another look at the gritty side of life. A young hoodlum and his

    girlfriend get "Adopted" by experienced thieves and drug dealers James Woods and Melanie Griffith. They

    form a family of sorts for a while, but the nature of their lives and their characters eventually brings

    problems and disaster.

    This was the North American premiere of this film and it will certainly get a major release in the United


    Rating: 5/10

    Home Fries
    USA, 1998
    Directed by Dean Parisot
    Written by Vince Gilligan

    What is it with black comedies this days? This is at least the fourth film we've seen at TIFF that combines murder and comedy in that strange genre. (I note in passing that you can combine murder and comedy without producing a black comedy; one example would be Some Like It Hot.)

    Anyway, this also features another dysfunctional family in which the father is cheating on his wife and has gotten Drew Barrymore pregnant, and his stepsons are vying for their mother's approval, and everyone is screwed up. Maybe I'm just over-dosing on this sort of film here, but this didn't do anything for me.

    Rating: 5/10

    The Impostors
    USA, 1998
    Directed by Stanley Tucci
    Written by Stanley Tucci

    And speaking of Some Like It Hot, take that movie, add a liberal dose of the Marx Brothers and a slight tough of Laurel and Hardy, and you have the basic ingredients of The Impostors. ("Basic ingredients" is an appropriate metaphor because Tucci's previous film as a director was Big Night.)

    In The Impostors Tucci teams with Oliver Platt in a farce about two unemployed actors who are accused of attacking another successful, if pompous, actor and have to hide. In the process they become stowaways on an ocean liner populated with colorful (and sinister) characters.

    This was the North American premiere for this film, for which we've already seen coming attractions in our local art house.

    Rating: 6/10

    Night Train
    UK, 1998
    Directed by John Lynch
    Written by Aodhan Maden

    This is primarily a character study of two lonely people, marred by what seemed to me as unnecessary violence.

    John Hurt plays a man just released from prison. On the run from a gangster from whom he has stolen quite a bit of money, he rents a room in Brenda Blethyn's house, and they are gradually drawn to each other. Their romance is complicated by the disapproval of her domineering mother and also (of course) by his fugitive status. The way in which they build a sort of fantasy world into which they can escape, and then have that world begin to leak into the real world, is reminiscent in a way of the fantasy world in "Heavenly Creatures".

    (The violence, by the way, consists of a couple of scenes of gangster violence, and several explicit scenes in a slaughterhouse.)

    Rating: 7/10

    Cascadeur: The Amber Chamber (Der Cascadeur - Die Jagd nach dem Bernsteinzimmer)
    Germany, 1998
    Directed by Hardy Martins
    Written by Uwe Wilhelm and Uwe Kossmann

    "Cascadeur" is French for "stuntman" and this a film made by stuntmen (and stuntwomen) in the style of an Indiana Jones movie. The object being sought is a amber room which disappeared during World War II, and the chase leads our heroes to South America and the Bavarian Alps, as well as down the Autobahn at top speed. According to Martins, action films in Germany have to have American stars, so ironically this may end up being more successful outside Germany.

    Rating: 6/10

    USA, 1998
    Directed by Gary Ross
    Written by Gary Ross

    This film starts out well but ends up having all the subtlety of a fifty-pound sledgehammer. (I had come to this conclusion even before the film used stock footage of Nazi book-burning.)

    Two teenagers "fall into" the world of "Pleasantville," a television show modeled after "Father Knows Best." They find themselves in a strange world where everything is in black and white (and gray), geography ends at the town line, and there are no toilets.

    Not surprisingly, the teenagers have troubles fitting in. Also not surprisingly, they start convincing people to change the way they live, and go from the depressing life that they are leading to the wonderful life of the 1990s. When people do change, they suddenly go from black-and-white to color, and the technical magic is in large part the main appeal of this film. (Well, to be fair, they do decide that some of the values of the 1950s are worthwhile, but to a great extent the film is a paean to how much better we are now, and glosses over the problems that we have with all that.) There are also very non-subtle parallels and analogies (the use of stock footage mentioned above, the use of the term "colored people" to refer to those who have escaped their black-and-white status, and the exact copy of a scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, for example).

    This film had great promise, and still has some very good parts, but is also quite disappointing.

    Rating: 6/10

    USA, 1998
    Directed by Wes Anderson
    Written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson

    When this film was over I found myself asking, "Why was this film made?"

    This film is about a student at a private school who makes up in extracurricular activities (often of his own devising) what he lacks in the academic arena. It's supposed to be a comedy, at least in part, but I didn't find it very funny, and I didn't find the serious parts very effective either.

    Rating: 4/10

    Japan, 1998
    Directed by Hiroshi Shimizu
    Written by Minoru Iizuka

    A Japanese tour group is linked together by a strange pact-they are planning to commit suicide but to make it look like an accident so as to provide the insurance money to their families. Through a not-entirely explained set of circumstances, a young woman who knows nothing about this ends up on the same tour.

    This is a study of the psychology of the various characters, as well as a look into Japanese society. (As with all the Japanese films at the TIFF, this was made for the domestic Japanese market and so does not change anything with Western viewers.)

    Rating: 7/10

    Ping Pong Bath Station
    Japan, 1998
    Directed by Gen Yamakawa
    Written by Gen Yamakawa

    A Japanese wife an mother is convinced by a radio psychologist to leave her unappreciative husband and son and strike out on her own. She returns to the spa where she and her husband spent their honeymoon and decides to try to revive the old ping-pong halls that used to be one of the main attractions there. There is a definite message of cooperation rather than competition, perhaps reflecting the Yamakawa's feelings about recent trends in Japanese society. (There is also a gay sub-story, unusual in Japanese films.)

    Rating: 7/10

    Shattered Image
    USA, 1998
    Directed by Raúl Ruiz
    Written by Duane Poole

    Two parallel stories of the main character (played by Anne Parillaud), one in which she is an assassin and one in which she is a slightly unbalanced newlywed. The back-and-forth jumping of the story just adds to the confusion, and makes the title quite apt. Maybe it was that I was seeing this at the end of a long day, but I didn't get much out of it.

    Rating: 5/10

    USA, 1998
    Directed by Michael Almereyda
    Written by Michael Almereyda

    [As the festival wears on, I find I am writing less about each film. This isn't necessarily because the later films are less interesting, but because I am running out of energy.]

    Trance is reminiscent of the 1960s haunted house sort of films: Christopher Walken has an ancient mummified Celtic witch in his basement, and while his dypsomaniac relatives are visiting, she is brought back to life and wreaks havoc. It's a type of film that seems to have gone out of style (there is not nearly as much gore as most modern slasher films), an it was nice to see this sort of thing again.

    Rating: 7/10

    Germany, 1998
    Directed by Hans-Christian Schmid
    Written by Michael Dierking, Michael Gutmann, and Hans-Christian Schmid

    This is the story of the Hanover hackers, known better in this country through Clifford Stoll's book The Cuckoo's Egg. How the hackers got started, how they got embroiled in espionage, and what eventually happened to them make fascinating viewing, especially for those of us in the computer industry. Though based on fact, this is not a documentary, or even a docu-drama, but the basic facts stick to actual history.

    I don't know if this has United States distribution yet, but this film does seem as though it could attract an audience here, perhaps even as a subtitled film. I spoke to the director afterward; he has read The Cuckoo's Egg, but has not spoken to Stoll.

    Rating: 7/10

    Return to Paradise
    USA, 1998
    Directed by Joseph Ruben
    Written by Wesley Strick and Bruce Robinson

    This was another film not in the TIFF that we saw because it was playing right next to our hotel and we weren't sure when else we would have a chance to see it.

    Three young men hook up in Malaysia an travel together. Two leave, and then the third is found with the left-over hash they had shared. There is enough that he is convicted as a dealer and sentenced to death. His lawyer works out an arrangement that if one friend comes back and serves years, or both come back and serve three years each, the third won't be executed. She has seven days to convince one or both of them, and to juggle other related problems as well.

    This looks at a lot of philosophical issues as well as some interesting logical/mathematical ones, and is one of the best films I've seen this year.

    Rating: 9/10

    USA, 1998
    Directed by Eric Darnell, Lawrence Guterman, and Tim Johnson
    Written by Todd Alcott, and Chris & Paul Weitz

    Brilliant animation helps overcome a somewhat trite story, with Woody Allen providing the voice for an ant that is very much like every other Woody Allen character. The ants are very human, even when they're talking about how ant-like they are. (I know-I shouldn't be looking for scientific realism here. But a little more consistency would have been nice.)

    This film also has some scary moments and may actually be more for adults than children, though I doubt people trying to decide what to see will see it that way.

    Rating: 7/10

    This Is My Father
    Canada/Ireland, 1998
    Directed by Paul Quinn
    Written by Paul Quinn

    This was another last-minute addition to our schedule, and we ended up seeing it in two different theaters. (Mark got the last ticket of one batch of "rush line" tickets, and then a few more tickets were issued.)

    James Caan plays a high school history who finds an old photograph of his mother which drives him to go to Ireland to visit the village she came from. He takes his nephew along with him, but the whole present-day story seems designed to tell the 1930s story that the filmmakers (the Quinn brothers) really wanted to do, without having to make a period film. Or perhaps to fill in the time. In any case, the present-day story doesn't add anything to the film.

    This is a fairly standard look at a woman who falls in love with someone deemed unsuitable and the problems they have. The setting gives it some additional interest, but not enough to make this more than an average film.

    Rating: 6/10

    Mighty Peking Man (Hsing hsing wang, Colossus of Congo, Goliathon)
    Hong Kong, 1977
    Directed by Meng-Hwa Ho (as Homer Gaugh)
    Written by I. Kuang

    Okay, this has a fifty-foot ape (played by a man in a bad ape suit) terrorizing Hong Kong. The other two main attractions belong to the female lead who must have been glued into her fur bikini-there is no way it would stay on otherwise. Definitely trash, but fun trash.

    Rating: 3/10

    In addition to going to films, we also went to quite a few bookstores in Toronto, and ended up getting several science fiction books, a couple of alternate history books (Daniel Eastermann's K Is for Killing and Mark Shainblum's anthology of alternate Canada stories Arrowdreams), Stephen Fry's Hippopotamus, Douglas R. Hofstadter's Ton beau de Marot, three books on various Jewish themes, five books by Brian Stableford, and the entire "Sharpe" series by Bernard Cornwell.

    Evelyn C. Leeper (

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