Toronto International Film Festival 2004 Report
A convention report by Evelyn C. Leeper
Copyright 2004 by Evelyn C. Leeper

Introduction and General Comments
Notre Musique
Being Julia
When Will I Be Loved
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
Les Revenants
I (heart) Huckabees
The Merchant of Venice
Hotel Rwanda
Silver City
House of Flying Daggers
Double Dare
Touch of Sound
The Overture
The Limb Salesman
A Whale of a Tale
Phil the Alien
Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow
Salvador Allende
Red Dust
The Motorcycle Diaries
Shark Tale
9 Songs
Kung Fu Hustle
Imaginary Heroes
Male Fantasy
"Sombra Dolorosa"
"Mothers, Fathers & Strangers"
"Le Pont"
Dead Birds
Breaking News
Writer of O
An Italian Romance
5 x 2 - Cinq fois deux
10 on Ten
The Libertine
Themes and Closing Comments

[This is not complete, but it's been waiting far too long, so I'm going to post what I have and hope to finish the rest real soon now.]

There was a lot new this year. The out-of-town selection was simplified--the FAX option was eliminated, and the Festival provided a pre-paid return FedEx envelope and shipping ticket. In addition, if you shipped your choices back by 5PM Thursday, September 2, you got into the draw. We managed to get into bag 22 (of probably around 80) and since they started with bag 10, we got all our choices except one the first night, and we got into that from the rus line. We are seeing 44 films (45 if we see the last Midnight Madness, but it really sounds like something I would hate).

The price has gone up considerably, however. This year a Festival Pass (up to fifty films) cost $489; last year was just $376.50. Other options rose similarly. There was even an article in the "Toronto Metro" discussing this.

We are pleased that we could see just about the same number of films as last year, because the theatres have changed. The Uptown is gone, and the Ryerson and the Paramount have been added. The Ryerson is about a twenty-minute walk from the Varsity; the Paramount is even further. But with so many of the films we want to see in the Ryerson, we at least did not have to rush back and forth constantly. In fact, we had four days entirely in the Ryerson. And with the Elgin close to the Ryerson, we picked a few for there when we were in that area for previous or subsequent films. (We skipped the Paramount this year, with very little there we really wanted to see. I hear that more and more will be in the Paramount in future years.) I am still concerned for future Festivals, though, because the spread-out venues make choosing back-up or fill-in films much more difficult. (When everything was within a couple of blocks of each other, if we had a 9AM and a 3PM film in the Uptown, but couldn't get the 12N in the Uptown, we could still pick something in any one of a dozen other theatres right near by. But if you're in the Ryerson and for a 9AM and a 3PM film, but couldn't get the 12N there, your only real alternative is the Elgin.)

The major problem with the Ryerson itself is that the restrooms are in a building across the breezeway and have only three each--way too few to serve a 1200-seat theatre. (There apparently are a few in the Ryerson itself, but they were not working.) Others have complained that the seats don't have enough padding, but I haven't noticed that.

This was our first year seeing films in the Elgin, a very ornate theatre dating from (I would guess) the 1920s. Complete with balcony and box seats, it probably holds about a thousand people, but the evening shows have such huge sections blocked out for people who have bought Visa Screening Room Passes that there are hardly any decent seats left for ordinary Festival-goers. At Hotel Rwanda, all of the center section of the orchestra from row 9 through 20 was reserved, as was the entire front two-thirds of the balcony. (By scheduled show time, about a third of the reserved balcony seats and 90% of the orchestra seats were still empty, though by the actual start, the balcony had filled up more. This was still overkill.) They have a special advance entry for people holding Visa Gold cards (including a lounge where you can snack on chips and such before your priority seating starts), but even with that your seat selection is not very good. (I do not know why I want to create competition with us, but I will mention that the box seats, if available, do provide extra leg and arm roo, which is really welcome.) Oh, and everything here seems to start late, probably because one is always waiting for the director and cast to show up--and they always have some excuse.

In an effort to liven up the venues, by the way, we have renamed them the Cucumber, the Viagra, the CD-ROM, the RyKrisp, the Paramour (or the Paraquat), the Jackrabbit, the Elegant, and the Isabel Ringer. The Uptown, as I noted, is gone, demolished right after the last Festival. During the demolition a wall collapsed into the building next door, killing two people, and bringing immediately to mind "Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light." And since the land is currently being used as a parking lot, there is also "They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot." However, all the restaurants next to that lot have closed and that building too will be demolished, at which point a high-rise of some sort will go up.

Before the Festival started, we made our usual pilgrimage out to the Sleuth of Baker Street mystery bookstore, where I picked up a couple of Sherlock Holmes books. It is getting harder each year, as they move from being some mass-market paperbacks to pretty much all trade paperback or hardback. The stronger Canadian dollar (or weaker American dollar) is also taking its toll. The "discount" used to be 33%; now it is 20%. We also bought used DVDs on Yonge Street. In fact, the three of us bought so many at one store that we were entitled to a free one!

I did notice one strange thing, however. Many of the stores filed Canadian film under "Foreign Films". Admittedly, these tended to be those in French. When I asked one clerk why they did this, his answer was simple: "They sell better there."

The Ryerson, like the Bader, allows no food or drink except bottled water. This appears to be a custom more honored in the breach, however--I saw people bringing pizzas in.

At one point we saw someone in the Manulife Centre with a sign asking United States citizens to register to vote as Democrats. I do not know if this was aimed at ex-pats in Canada, or people just visiting for the Festival through some "register-by-mail" system.

The pre-film "stuff" is shorter this year. For example, the thank-you to the volunteers is the same short as was run last year, but trimmed by about fifteen seconds. And there seem to be only three different AGF shorts ("What are you doing after work?") rather than the half dozen or so trailer-park spots from the last couple of years. In spite of that, everything started at least five minutes late, and some more than that.

The subtitles were almost universally bad. Everyone seems to have forgotten that you need to do yellow subtitles, or outline the white ones, or something to set them off from white backgrounds. I suspect when they get to DVD they will be better, since I do not recall seeing such terrible ones on DVDs.

And the films:

Notre Musique (Ryerson): Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Why is he considered a great director? This is structured in three parts, Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but the middle one is about 90% of the running time, and consists of people at a conference in Bosnia talking about their philosophies. I would give it 4/10.

Being Julia (Ryerson): Based on a Somerset Maugham novella ("Theatre"), its success is somewhat dependent on your liking the main character (played by Annette Bening) and hence cheering the ending. The problem is, I found her not very likeable, and all the other characters' happiness in her victory misplaced. (Mark points out ending would not work in any case.) Also, the line "As God is my judge, I'll never eat a lettuce leaf again" is anachronistic for a film that takes place in 1938. Other people seemed to like it, but I would give it only 5/10. (As is common on opening night, everyone in the rush line got in. Apparently a lot of tickets are reserved for no-shows.)

When Will I Be Loved (Ryerson): Directed by James Toback and starring Neve Campbell, this seems to be a very simple story with lots of sex padding it out. It is more about types and personalities than about a complex plot. Another 5/10.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Ryerson): There was a brief written recap of the first movie given at the beginning, but it was so brief that even I, a speed reader, had trouble finishing it. At times visually stunning, at times confusing, this film convinced me that their is some other mindset writing films in Japan that I have trouble following. Still, I thought some of the ideas of what makes someone (or something) human were thought-provoking? 7/10

Les Revenants (Varsity): This is an odd zombie film (of sorts) from France. The zombies are not menacing or violent; they are merely disturbing. Suddenly, everyone who has died in the last ten years comes back to life with all their memories intact, but some part of their personality missing. (At one point, someone says that the dead have come back with the ability to have creative thought.) For some reason, the dead come back not in their burial clothes or their "death clothes", but in ordinary street clothes. Children came back, but the writer did not take the opportunity to address whether fetuses came back or not. The film is about society's attempt to deal with this influx, and with individuals attempts to deal with the return of their relatives. The director's answers to questions after the film actually made it *more* obscure. 6/10

Blood (Cumberland): This film was based on a two-person play and was made by videotaping four complete performances of it and then editing from that. It covers drugs, alcoholism, incest, sadism, and general nastiness and cruelty. I suppose as a pair of performances it is noteworthy, but it was neither enjoyable nor intriguing. It ran with a short, "My Old Man", also about alcoholism. 4/10

I (heart) Huckabees (Ryerson): Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman are "existential detectives" who help people resolve the philosophical dilemmas of their lives. A lot of the dialogue is reminiscent of Waking Life with its discussions of life, the universe, and everything. There are some interesting visual gimmicks, but they were not really necessary. 7/10

The Merchant of Venice (Elgin): Michael Radford has worked hard to make this "a play about anti-Semitism, rather than an anti-Semitic play," and so has created a very bleak "comedy" in which the pure comic elements are rather jarring. And Al Pacino is just wrong for Shylock--he delivers all of Shylock's lines with the same familiar Pacino cadence as he has used in all his films. But at least he was understandable. Several of the actors seemed to be mumbling their lines, or I suppose it could be the acoustics in the fifth row, or that I am getting old. (It is not the Shakespearean language--I have no problem with that in any other film, from Olivier through McKellan and beyond.) 5/10

Hotel Rwanda (Elgin): This was based on the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu hotel manager who saved 1200 Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide. That he managed this is a story worth telling, and how he did this is fascinating. There are some very strong scenes, but it is ultimately an uplifting lift of the same genre as Schindler's List and The Killing Fields. 9/10 (As an aside, Michael Moore attended this showing, to a round of applause when he came in. Rusesabagina and his wife, who were introduced at the end, got a five-minute standing ovation.)

Silver City (Elgin): The mystery/detective aspect of this was very good in this latest film from John Sayles, and even most of the political stuff. My one objection was that I found the imitation of George W. Bush (in the persona of Disk Pilager, gubernatorial candidate in Colorado) way too heavy-handed. Even the name shows the lack of subtlety and nuance. Still, I would recommend the film and give it a 7/10.

House of Flying Daggers (Ryerson): Mark thinks this was intended as a satire of martial arts films; I disagree. However, I do think that--in spite of the film Hero--this genre is not Zhang Yimou's strong suit, and House of Flying Daggers is more interesting in its non-martial moments. In spite of its flaws, including a couple of moments which unintentionally generated audience laughter, it is still visually stunning and has some intriguing characters. 7/10

Double Dare (Varsity): This was one we picked to fill an empty slot when there was nothing else we particularly wanted. It is the story of two stuntwomen, Jeannie Epper and Zoe Bell. Epper doubled for "Wonder Woman" in the 1960s; Bell doubled for "Xena" in the 1990s. Epper is still working, but unhappy about the discrimination she has faced (and continues to face) because she is a woman. (For example, she has never been hired as a stunt coordinator, though she says that any man with her credentials certainly would have.) At the same time, one sees that Bell might see more progress still. In addition to watching them do stunts, one hears about their lives. Epper comes from a family that would seem to be to stunt performances as the Westmores are to make-up. And we watch Bell as she goes trough the ups and downs (and ups) of getting started in the business. It seems as though it was intended as a documentary on the History Channel or some such, and seems a little thin for the big screen. 6/10

Touch of Sound (Cumberland): This is a documentary about Evelyn Glennie, a deaf musician which specializes in percussion instruments, presumably because she can perceive the sound vibrations from those the clearest. I say "presumably", because they never really cover that, and the film seems in general more aimed at someone familiar with Glennie's work than a complete new-comer. 5/10 (My appreciation may have been somewhat affected by the fact that I was already tired, and rhymthic Koto drumming is not the best thing for keeping awake.)

The Overture (Cumberland): This is a biopic about a famous Thai composer and musician (well, famous in Thailand anyway) and his difficulties, particularly during the modernization era of the 1930s. It is told in two interleaving strands, one from the late 1800s and one from the 1930s, and at least some people in the audience found this confusing. With its beautiful cinematography and wonderful music , I give this 7/10=

The Limb Salesman (Cumberland): A science fiction story about a man selling bootleg body parts, including arms and legs, in a future where genetic mutation has caused all sorts of deformities, and where somehow water is more precious and expensive than wine or any other beverage. (This latter premise indicates that the writer has not thought out the science very well.) The setting, someplace on the 36th parallel where they are mining the glaciers in the caves for water, makes this of mild interest. 6/10

A Whale of a Tale (ROM): Shot and projected on video, this looked absolutely terrible. The documentary story of the filmmaker's search for the true history of a whale vertebrae found in the Toronto lakeshore in the 1980s tended to meander a bit as he would get side-tracked from researching the whale vertebrae to musing on whales and whaling, and various philosophical aspects of all this. It was probably intended as a one-hour television documentary and got out of hand. 5/10 (One bad side-effect is that I was unable to get the Disney song of the same title from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea out of my head through the entire Festival!)

Phil the Alien (Varsity): There is a similarity between this and The Brother from Another Planet (or even with Starman, I suppose). There are enough humorous bits to make it mildly amusing, though the funniest parts have to do with the secret government installation under Niagara Falls and its minions rather than the alien. 7/10. This ran with a short, "Boyclops". which was just okay.

Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow (Varsity): This is the first part of a trilogy about one woman through the last century of Greek history. Given that this was almost three hours long, it will be a very long trilogy. But it won't have very many cuts--the director tends to have takes of six or seven minutes (and a couple even longer). This chapter covers Eleni's life from her arrival in Greece as a refugee from Odessa fleeing the Bolsheviks, through the unrest of the 1930s, World War II, and the Greek Civil War. But though it claims to be her story, most of the focus seems to be on her husband, a musician struggling to get by after eloping with Eleni right after the wedding ceremony between Eleni and his father, who had rescued the orphaned Eleni in Odessa. 7/10

Salvador Allende (Cumberland): This was an okay documentary on Allende, which did seem to go out of its way to say that he was a socialist, not a Communist. I found myself wondering about the subtitle describing his opposition as "Fascist mummies", but that seemed to be the Spanish as well. 6/10

Red Dust (Ryerson): This is a film based on a novel about the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa. (The novel, while fictional, was inspired by the author's own experiences with the TRC.) By keeping the focus on a small group of people, the film makes the audience feel their experiences more than if there had been a broader scope. The message, I suppose, is that the reconciliation and ending of hte cycle of revenge must be done on an individual basis, rather than expecting a solution mandated from the government. 8/10

The Motorcycle Diaries (Ryerson): Based on the diaries of Ernesto ("Che") Guevara and Alberto Granado, this is a docudrama about their road trip through South America in 1952. Questions from American journalists seemed to indicate a belief that this piece of history was not well known, and that is true in the United States, but the Mexican actor playing Guevara said that all of this was taught in schools there, as well as being well-known in Cuba (a place where all nationalities in the hemisphere but Americans visit a lot). This film shows how Guevara saw the plight of the underclass in Latin America, both on the road and during his time working in the leper colony in Peru, and why he eventually tried to do something about it. I am glad the film was subtitled rather than dubbed, since I could at least appreciate the original Spanish. I did not catch the line that was translated as "Blast this thing into orbit!" (referring to the motorbike), but in 1952 that was definitely an anachronism unless Guevara was a big science fiction fan. And as an example of how subtitles can fail to live up to the original, the line "El pasado no pasa" was translated as "The past remains," which lacks the marvelous alliteration of the original. At least with subtitles, one can still hear the alliteration--dubbing would destroy it. And maybe the translator was trying to avoid sounding as if Guevara was quoting Faulkner, who said, "The past is not dead. It isn't even past." 6/10

Shark Tale (Ryerson): This animated film from DreamWorks is along the lines of Shrek in that there are a lot of references that adults will appreciate, but it is aimed primarily at children. 7/10

9 Songs (Ryerson): This was terrible--it consisted of nine songs performed in a concert setting so poorly recorded that I could not understand what was being sung, interspersed with graphic sex scenes. (It is possible that the songs would all be familiar to the target audience, which clearly wasn't I.) 3/10

Kung Fu Hustle (Ryerson): This was done with a lot more wit and humor than a lot of standard "kung fu" films, and we enjoyed it much more than we expected to. 7/10 (We were lucky to see the first showing of this, because the second one was cancelled because the print got damaged.)

Imaginary Heroes (Ryerson): This seems like a copy (of sorts) of Ordinary People, even to the title. (to be continued) 6/10

Downfall (Ryerson): This would have been rated higher had I been able to keep all the characters straight. Even so, this German film about the final days of Hitler and the other high-ranked Nazis in the bunker in Berlin does a good job of portraying the chaos and disorder of the time. There was apparently some controversy about the film in Germany, because it portrays Hitler as a three-dimensional Character rather than as a caricature, a monster, or simplistic psychopath. (The same criticisms were leveled at Max, which we saw last year in the Festival.) All things considered, I would give it 7/10.

Sideways (Ryerson): I really enjoyed this somewhat subdued film about love and wine. While Paul Giametti tries to teach his friend about the finer points of wine, we learn them as well, and his character, a lonely writer, is someone we can feel for. 6/10

Keane (Bader): We picked this as a "fill-in" and after seeing it understood why it was not a first choice. The title character is schizophrenic. It is not clear whether he was always this way, or whether this happened when his daughter was abducted in the Port Authority and never found. He strikes up a friendship with a woman and her daughter in his transient hotel while still struggling with all his problems. I am not sure why this film was made, unless the director hopes to use it to show off his technical ability to leverage a better film. 5/10

Male Fantasy (Cumberland): (to be reviewed)

Canadian Shorts (Varsity): We always like to see a collection of shorts and the fact that one of these was by Guy Maddin (who did the fabulous "Heart of the World" short a few years ago) clinched it.

"Sombra Dolorosa": (to be reviewed)

"Mothers, Fathers & Strangers": A young man breaks into a sperm bank trying to find out if he has any children. Funny and touching at the same time.

"Groomed": I loved this and hope the writer-director gets the funding he is looking for to make it into a feature film. Two guys decide that they are not happy alone but do not want to make the sacrifices and concessions that marrying a woman would entail. So they marry each other and move into the ideal straight male couple's house (among other things, the toilet seat is always up and there is enough room in the den to install a stripper pole).

"Le Pont": This was a Quebecois film which we were sure was a satire of Ingmar Bergman films, but comments from the writer-director afterwards indicated that it was intended seriously. As a satire, I would say it was above average; as a serious film, below.

Two others, "Girl Clean Sink" and "Elliott Smelliott" did not make much of an impression on me.

Dead Birds (Varsity): This is a horror film set during the Civil War that seems inspired by H. P. Lovecraft, the Japanese New Wave, and Picnic at Hanging Rock. It is interesting more for the atmosphere than for the plot, and I'd swear I saw some very anachronistic clip-on suspenders at one point. 6/10

Steamboy (Bader): Watch for this great animated steampunk film, which is supposed to open in the United States in February 2005. 8/10

Breaking News (Bader): If you think the news both manipulates and is being manipulated, this Hong Kong crime film is for you. A large part of it is how the media, intentionally and intentionally, changes how we act and what we do. 7/10

Writer of O (Cumberland): If you are familiar with the book The Story of O, you might want to see this documentary about its author (known for years under the pseudonym Pauline Reage). This is an American film, but mostly in French. Because the makers were aware that their main audience would be reading the subtitles, this is one of the few films that had good subtitles. 6/10

Modigliani (Ryerson): Andy Garcia as Modigliani? After Al Pacino as Shylock, I guess nothing should surprise me, but I found Garcia distancing in terms of believing it was Modigliani. Perhaps casting less well-known actors for biopics makes more sense, or at least actors who can disappear into a character. I just did not feel this told me much about Modigliani, though I got some idea of the society in which he lived. 6/10

An Italian Romance (Ryerson): I had great hopes for this story, set in World War II Italy, but it really just a romance rather than a historical drama. 5/10

5 x 2 - Cinq fois deux (Ryerson): (to be reviewed) 5/10

Primer (Ryerson): (to be reviewed) 6/10

Trauma (Ryerson): (to be reviewed) 5/10

10 on Ten (Varsity): (to be reviewed) 7/10

The Libertine (Elgin): (to be reviewed)

Whisky (Varsity): (to be reviewed)

Rahtree (Varsity): (to be reviewed)

Zebraman (Varsity): (to be reviewed)

As always, I seemed to see themes:

We saw 5 x 2 and 10 on Ten, but missed Five. Last year we saw Cypher and Nothing, but we missed Zero this year.