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Four is the Word: Toronto Day 4, and my first 4 film day!

Things kicked into high gear for me on Monday with my first four film day. That coupled with a Chlotrudis group lunch with Don McKellar and Tracy Wright (and a quick visit from Wiebke von Carolsfeld) meant I couldn't grab a nap. Fortunately, Beth agreed to grab tickets for me early this morning so I got about 30 minutes additional sleep. Okay, it's not much, but I'll take what I can get.

The morning started off with a nice breakfast where Beth, Chris, Gil, Amanda, Bruce and I all managed to touch base before we dispersed for our films. A quick ride on the wonderfully convenient Toronto subway brought me to the Scotiabank Cinema and my first film of the day.

BRICK LANE (UK; 101 min.)

Director: Sarah Gavron

Cast: Tannishtha Chatterjee, Satish Kaushik, Christopher Simpson

Based on an internationally best-selling novel, BRICK LANE explores a plethora of theme including the nature of love, the Muslim community in Britain after 9/11, the empowerment of Indian women, and much more. Sarah Gavron, whose little seen in the U.S. made for UK television film THIS LITTLE LIFE earned a Chlotrudis spotlight a few years ago, follows up with this accomplished, multi-layered first feature which has already been picked up for U.S. distribution and is surrounded by the kind of buzz any filmmaker would yearn for.

As a child growing up in Bangladesh, Nazneen and her younger sister frolicked in the fields without a care in the world. When their mother commits suicide, Nazneed finds herself promised in marriage to an "educated man" living in Britain. Shipped to London, the good village girl endures a submissive life in the Brick Lane neighborhood, a far cry from the color and splendor of her childhood memories. Her husband, Chanu, is a good man, but old-fashioned, expecting Nazneen to keep the household running while he supports the family, which includes two daughters. When Chanu resigns from his job over one too many missed promotions, Nazneen, driven by her desire to return to Bangladesh and the sister she left behind, begins working as a seamstress out of her home despite her husband's misgivings. She is initially dismayed when Karim, the young man who delivers the clothing to her, catches her eye, but soon they embark on an ilicit affair, and Nazneen begins to explore the rapidly changing world beyond her apartment.

Abi Morgan and Laura Jones' adaptation of Monica Ali's novel is a fine work as they pare down the many threads of the narrative managing to include a great many while spending just enough time on each. The cast is strong, including Tannishtha Chatterjee as Nazneen, whose solitary scenes must convey so much emotion without dialogue, and Satish Kaushik as Chanu who brings such complexity and dimension to a character who could have been painted in very broad strokes. Yet this is Gavron's film as much as it is anyone's, and it's thrilling to see such an assured directorial hand in a first-time feature director. Magnificent editing, a cinematic eye, and deft musical choices contribute to a film that Gavron must surely be very proud of.

JUNO (US; 92 min.)

director: Jason Reitman

cast: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, Olivia Thirlby, J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney

It was with great excitement that our large group of six attended what is surely the festival film generating the most buzz. This is a special film for Chlotrudis as it features in a starring role, an actor who is one of our organization's great finds in the U.S.: Ellen Page. JUNO is Jason Reitman's follow-up to last year's well-received THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, but while I was not as impressed as many with that film, Reitman has found a secret weapon to make JUNO truly sparkle in new, young screenwriter Diablo Cody.

When sixteen-year-old Juno discovers that she is pregnant after a single night of sex with her sort-of boyfriend Paulie Bleeker, she knows that she is incapable of raising a child. After a fairly quick consideration of offers, she decides to go with an open adoption after a suggestion from her best friend Leah. Juno finds a good-looking, wealthy couple for the prospective parents in the classified ads of the Pennysaver (right next to the exotic pets section). Her parents are disappointed but supportive, but her relationship with Bleeker gets a little shaky. As the seasons pass and Juno grows more and more pregnant, she learns that there are some people who might disappoint her in life, but there are many who will not let her down.

There are so many things right with JUNO, including the cast (in addition to Page we have Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, Allison Janney, and J.K. Simmons) and some deft directorial work, but JUNO succeeds or fails on its screenplay. Fortunately, somebody noticed Diablo Cody's blog and suggested to her that she write a screenplay. After a career that included working in an ad agency, as a stripper and as a phone sex operator, Cody tried her hand at screenwriting. With JUNO she has created the original and extremely funny voice of a teen-aged girl living in the modern world. She does a terrific job handling the many supporting roles as well, making each one pop in their respective scenes.

The other not-so secret weapon of JUNO is certainly the talented Ellen Page, who after putting in some stellar work in lesser-seen intense dramas (HARD CANDY; AMERICAN CRIME) decided she needed to try her hand at comedy. Fortunately for her she found JUNO, a comedy that's loaded with laughs and smarts.

JUST LIKE HOME (Denmark; 97 min.)

director: Lone Scherfig

cast: Lars Kaalund, Bodil Jørgensen, Ann Eleonora Jørgensen, Peter Gantzler, Peter Hesse Overgaard

Lone Scherfig returns with a third film following the delightful ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS and the quirky WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF and offers up what she self-admittedly does best: finding humor in tragic situations. Sprinkling a few new faces, with a few familiar faces from ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS, Scherfig unites another talented ensemble cast to look at a community, and the way people can care about people they know, but don't really know.

When a small town where everyone knows everyone else is thrown into a tizzy after a man is allegedly seen running naked through the streets brandishing a rolled-up newspaper suspicion blooms which leads to depression. Fortunately a pair of townsfolk have just launched a hotline for the depressed called "The Silent Ear." As the calls become more frequent, a small group of folk rally together to man the phones in the hopes that the streaker will confess so that the townsfolk can be put at ease and things can go back to normal. Well, in a Scherfig movie, things don't usually work out the way they should... at least not for a good 90 minutes, and despite it's sluggish first third, JUST LIKE HOME comes together beautifully and continues the filmmaker's delightful string of films.

NORMAL (Canada; 100 min.)

director: Carl Bessai

cast: Carrie-Anne Moss, Kevin Zegers, Callum Keith Rennie, Tygh Runyan, Camille Sullivan

When a sixteen-year-old Nick is killed in a tragic accident in a wealthy Victoria community, several lives spin out of control. Carrie-Anne Moss embodies the grief of a mother who has lost a son, begging to talk about her lost boy yet pushing others, including her husband and second son, angrily away. Jordie is Nick's best friend who was driving the car they had stolen when the accident happened. After spending several years in prison, Jordie has just been released, but his pent-up anger guilt hold him in place, preventing him from forward movement. Callum Keith Rennie is failed writer Walt, the man who caused the accident while driving his car while drunk. There are several other storylines running throughout the film, but they don't really matter, and actually, would have probably served the movie better had they been edited out.

NORMAL is what I call a second-tier Canadian film. While I am a huge fan of Canadian film and will see as many as I can during the festival, there are distinct tiers. The top tier feature the directors Chlotrudis knows and loves including Egoyan, Maddin, McKellar, MacIvor, Rozema and on... The lower tier tend to be films that are just bad, and I have had the misfortune to see them at festivals. These include such films as LUCID and YELLOWKNIFE. The second tier have some promise, feature some good elements, but fail overall.

NORMAL features a strong cast, particularly Moss and Rennie who act as each other's foils. I have some quibbling with the editing, and although much was made in the Q&A of the director's hand-held camera work, I found it distracting and occasionally annoying. I also took some issue with some of the director's choices regarding the shooting. One sex scene was overlong and a little annoying the way it lingered on the actress's breasts (even returning to them for no apparent reason for a few seconds the way a man's eyes keep drifting down while in conversation.) The biggest flaw was in the screenplay, which unfortunately, is often the case with the second-tier film. There was too much jammed into it, there were odd leaps in character development (possibly a flaw in the editing) and it wasn't all that original.

Okay, I'm a day behind now, and it's unlikely I'll catch up today. We had a terrific time at two parties last night courtesy of Don & Tracy, but that got us in pretty darn late. I'll try to report on yesterday's films soon.

Toronto Day 2: Catching Up

I'm going to try to do a little catch-up here, with reviews from the three films I caught yesterday.


director: Theo Angelopoulos, Olivier Assayas, Bille August, Jane Campion, Youssef Chahine, Chen Kaige, David Cronenberg, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Manoel de Oliveira, Raymond Depardon, Atom Egoyan, Amos Gitai, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Aki Kaurismäki, Abbas Kiarostami, Takeshi Kitano, Andrei Konchalovsky, Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, David Lynch, Nanni Moretti, Roman Polanski, Raúl Ruiz, Walter Salles, Elia Suleiman, Tsai Ming-liang, Gus Van Sant, Lars von Trier, Wim Wenders, Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Yimou

Omnibus films like PARIS JE T'AIME have been popping up a lot lately. CHANCUN SON CINÉMA was commissioned to honor the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival. Thirty-three world class directors each contributed a three minute film celebrating the love of cinema. What more perfect omnibus for a Chlotrudis member could there be? Naturally, as is the case with all films of this type, some of the offerings are brilliant, others are good, and a handful needn't have bothered. Fortunately in this case, the brilliant and the good far outweight the needn't have bothered.

Part of the fun of this film was in seeing how quickly I could identify the director of any given piece. I was pleasantly surprised at how adept I was at this identification. Highlights include Olivier Assayas' (DEMONLOVER) twist on the purse-snatching moviegoer; Jane Campion's (THE PIANO) surreal look at one cinema's uninvited guest; David Cronenberg's (THE HISTORY OF VIOLENCE) twisted and satrical comment on television journalism; Atom Egoyan's (WHERE THE TRUTH LIES) look at movie viewing in a mobile world; Aki Kaurismäki's (THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST) deadpan (go figure) look at the factory theatre; Takeshi Kitano's (DOLLS) wry look at the Japanese country cinema; Nanni Moretti's (THE SON'S ROOM) sweet diary of a film viewer; Elia Suleiman's (DIVINE INTERVENTION) absurdist take on a filmmaker's visit to the local cinema; Zhang Yimou's (HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS) adorable take on outdoor cinema; Lars von Trier's (DOGVILLE) hilarious revenge on the talkative filmgoer; and Walter Salles' (CENTRAL STATION) standout false ending that should have concluded the program instead of Ken Loach's amusing but curious choice that made an interesting comment on cinema.

PLOY (Thailand; 107)

Director: Pen-ek Ratanaruang

Cast: Lalita Panyopas, Pornwut Sarasin, Ananda Everingham, Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, Phorntip Papanai

At first, Ratanaruang's latest film PLOY seems nothing like his previous film, the dreamily divine LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE. A Thai couple have just arrived back home for a funeral after spending the last 10+ years living in the States. It quickly becomes apparent that their relationship has seen better days, despite their physical closeness on the plane and in the taxi to the hotel. When Wit leaves the hotel room to get a pack of smokes, and ends up spending the next hour or so in the hotel bar befriending the nubile, teenager Ploy while his wife Dang wanders restlessly in their room, it becomes evident. While looking for the luggage key in her husband's suit jacket, Dang discovers a piece of paper with a woman's name and phone number on it; her brow furrows and we wonder if after 7 years of marriage this is it.

When Wit invites Ploy up to the couple's room while she waits for her mother to pick her up in a few hours, things enter LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE country, where dreams and reality collide and intermingle. Are the housekeeper and the bartender really having steamy sex in one of the empty guest rooms? What about the brutal twist that delivers Dang to an abandoned garage in fear of her life? Ratanaruang doesn't provide any easy answers, but that doesn't make PLOY any less a joy to watch. High marks for the three principal cast members too. Together they erased any disappointment that the lack of Tadanobu Asano created.

AMERICAN VENUS (Canada; 81 min.)

director: Bruce Sweeney

cast: Rebecca De Mornay, Jane McGregor, Matt Craven, Nicholas Lea

Social satire is a tricky thing to pull off, but I had high hopes for AMERICAN VENUS after happening upon Sweeney's previous film THE LAST WEDDING, which took a critical eye to marriage. Unfortunately, he doesn't quite manage to pull it off, a fact I don't blame on his script or direction, but rather on the inability of star Rebecca De Mornay to successfully pull it off.

De Mornay plays Celia, a fiercely driven mother and ice skating coach to Jenna, who after botching her chance at the National's, wants only to get far away from her family (especially Mom) even if that means leaving the country. Despite Celia's best attempts, Jenna does hightail it to Vancouver, but when Celia shows up unexpectedly at her door, the subsequent week unspools as a living hell. Deprived at the border of the handgun that gives her so much comfort, Celia spends much of the week unwilling to leave her daughter in Canada, and simultaneously searching desperately for something that she can shoot.

De Mornay bites into Celia with career-reviving vigor, but the beauty of a good satire is when the players play it straight. Celia's mugging and tetanus-stiffened walk turn Celia into a parody of a monster-mother that negate the potential strength of Sweeney's screenplay.

Toronto Day 2: A Mixed Bag

Another late night, and I have to get up early again tomorrow, so this will be brief, hopefully to be followed tomorrow by something more in depth. After a solid screening of CHANCUN SON CINÉMA and a nice lunch with Beth, Nancy and Brian, I spent the afternoon napping. That prepped me for the always fascinating Pen-ek Ratanraug's follow-up to LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE called PLOY, and a disappointing satire from Canadian Bruce Sweeney called AMERICAN VENUS. More details to follow tomorrow.

TIFF Starts off with 2 Docs... sort of

As promised, here's a look at the first two films I caught at the Toronto International Film Festival on day 1. I'm just back from my first early morning box office run and things ran smoothly. I was 9th in line, and most of the people in front of me were a little too... energetic for my sleep-addled senses. Ah, the enthusiasm and uncertainty of the young. I've got three movies lined up for today, and the last one is a 9:15 p.m. show, so I probably won't review them until tomorrow (gotta get to bed so I can make the sunrise trip tomorrow morning!) Still, my schedule is filling in. While I don't have tickets for anything yet tomorrow, I've got most of my other tickets!

HOLLYWOOD CHINESE (USA; 89 min.) directed by Arthur Dong

Accomplished documentarian Dong has won acclaim for his earlier films, COMING OUT UNDER FIRE, LICENSED TO KILL, and FAMILY FUNDAMENTALS. He's back with a film that he's been working on for 7 - 8 years, HOLLYWOOD CHINESE, a look at the portrayal of the Chinese, and the opportunities for Chinese American actors and filmmakers in Hollywood films from the earliest days to today. Dong taps a wide array of Chiense-Americans to discuss this topic, from actor/filmmaker Joan Chen to author Amy Tan. The list of notables keeps coming: Nancy Kwan, Ang Lee, Justin Lin, Wayne Wang, B. D. Wong and Henry David Hwang. He also talks to non-Chinese actors who played Chinese like Christopher Lee and Luise Rainer who won an Oscar for her performance in THE GOOD EARTH. Rainer, who looked to be in her 90's, commented on the fact that in today's Hollywood, everything has to be so exact: if you're playing Chinese, you must be Chinese, if you're playing a tall man, you must be a tall man, but it wasn't like that in her day. You were playing a part, it didn't matter their nationality.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Dong's film was a look at the earliest days of Hollywood and the lost work of actress/filmmaker Marion Wong and her 1916 silent film THE CURSE OF QUON GWON. Dong speaks to Wong's three daughters and they tell the tale of her secret success that had become lost in history. Now fortunately, more people will hear of it. Nancy Kwan tells of her breakout success in THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG, and her sudden celebrity after appearing in the film adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE FLOWER DRUM SONG. Joan Chen discusses the difficulty of capitalizing on t her success in Bertolucci's Oscar-winning THE LAST EMPEROR, and how she had to leave Hollywood to make her directorial debut, XIU XIU: THE SENT DOWN GIRL. Justin Lin tells how his slightly controversial directorial debut, BETTER LUCK TOMORROW spun into a Hollywood foray directing THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT.

While Dong does a fine job exploring his topic, the pacing seems a little bit off, and this genre of film has been done so many times with women in Hollywood, gays in Hollywood, African-Americans in Hollywood, etc., that it's very difficult to do something new and original. A delightful, post-film Q&A featured the director and special guest Nancy Kwan who is in town for a discussions screening of THE FLOWER DRUM SONG.

MY WINNIPEG (Canada; 2007) directed by Guy Maddin
starring: Ann Savage, Louis Negin, Darcy Fehr, Amy Stewart

What a delightful evening in the Wintergarden theatre spent enjoying the world premiere of Guy Maddin's pseudo-documentary MY WINNIPEG. Maddin was challenged by the Documentary channel to make a doc on his hometown of Winnipeg, and Maddin being Maddin utilized his considerable talents to transform the story of the heart of the heart of Canada into one of his fantastic, surreal signature films. While telling the tale of this cold, northern city, Maddin leans heavily on nostalgia, both his own and the the collective population's, delving into the personal to explore how growing up with his family in this city shaped his psyche.

In addition to the exploration of the personal, Maddin brings in two other threads to flesh out his tale. In dreamlike sequences reminiscent of early Russian films, Winnipeg likens the peopls of Winnipeg to sleepwalkers, focusing on one particular man standing in for himself, on a train trying to escape the city but ever being drawn back. He also touches on some of the key moments of the city's history giving the non-Winnipegger a strong if perhaps skewed look at its origins and upbringing.

Looking at Maddin's upbringing in the context of MY WINNIPEG, it becomes clear where the themes for his movie come from. The loneliness and isolation of THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD, the bizarre beauty parlor and hockey shenanigans of COWARDS BEND THE KNEE and the watchful mother and distant father of BRAND UPON THE BRAIN are all in strong evidence in MY WINNIPEG. Classic film noir star Ann Savage provides a delightful turn as Maddin's mother, adding both camp humor and a sense of danger to Maddin's memories. As an added treat, the premiere featured live narration from Maddin himself, an experience that will not be repeated if the filmmaker has anything to say about it.

On a side note, it's great to see Canadian filmmakers out in force to support their fellows. In the audience were Chlotrudis Advisory Board member Patricia Rozema, and many other Chlotrudis pals, including Don McKellar, Tracy Wright, Nadia Litz, and Reg Harkema. I chatted with Tracy and Nadia post-film and can attest to high marks all around.

An Overdose of Scheduling

In just over a week, a bevy of Chlotrudis members will cross the northern border and arrive eager to spend the better part of their days in dark movie theatres at the Toronto International Film Festival. As anyone anticipating a trip to the festival knows, the complete schedule was posted yesterday so many of us have been spending a lot of time working on excel spreadsheets tweaking schedules and prioritizing films. It's a massive undertaking with well over 300 films to chose from. Now while my friends Bruce and Beth are well ahead of me with scheduling, I have spent a little time on my own film selection, so I thought I'd share with you in no particular order a handful of films I am excited about and hope to see during the festival.

PING PONG PLAYA' directed by Jessica Yu - With Yu's documentary PROTAGONIST as one of my top docs seen this year, I am very excited to catch her first feature narrative about a young Chinese-American man with dreams of becoming a basketball star. The problems is, he's not very good. Instead he finds himself taking over for his mother to teach ping pong lessons after she is injured in a car accident. Despite his lack of interest in ping pong, our hero finds himself giving his best effort in an important championship game to win the attention of a girl he admires.

THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS directed by Bruce McDonald - TIFF is always flush with new Canadian films, something this movie buff always enjoys, and this year is no exception. Chlotrudis Award winner Ellen Page is featured in a trifecta of features this year, and THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS is the one I am most excited about. Visually experimental, McDonald's latest film tells the story of Tracey, a young social outcast who leaves her small town for the big city in search of her younger brother. Penniless and along, Tracey encounters a series of outsiders while always one step behind her target.

UNE VIELLE MAÎTRESSE directed by Catherine Breillat - I'm always up for a new film by the controversial Catherine Breillat, who received Chlotrudis attention with for her divisive film FAT GIRL. After suffering from a near-fatal stroke, Breillat returns with a movie that while less in-your-face than some of her earlier work, still deals with her perennial topics of women and sex. UNE VIELLE MAÎTRESSE concerns the attempts of sexual libertine Vellini to interrupt the plans of her dissolute young lover, Ryno de Marigny, to marry the virtuous gem of the French aristocracy, Hermangarde.

BRICK LANE directed by Sarah Gavron - On the strength of a single film, the made for British television work, THIS LITTLE LIFE, filmmaker Gavron received a Chlotrudis spotlight. I am very eager to see her first feature narrative based on one of the most celebrated British novels in years, that opened a window on a community that lives in plain sight but is seldom understood by outsiders. Growing up in the idyllic setting of Bangladesh, Nazneen is married off to a man she has never met and flown to London’s Brick Lane neighbourhood to meet her new husband after her mother commits suicide. Nazneen must struggle to find her own autonomy with a man she does not love, but when the attractive young Karim enters the picture, things get complicated.

JUST LIKE HOME directed by Lone Scherfig - Danish filmmaker Scherfig is off to a strong start. She wowed us with her debut narrative, ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS, and proved her talent with her follow-up, WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF. Now with her third film, Scherfig displays her talent for angst-ridden comedy is at its sharpest. A man running naked through the steets of a small Danish town sets off a chain of events that uproot the natural repression and politesse of its inhabitants. As the townsfolk attempt to find a solution to this sudden decay of morals in their community, Scherfig focuses a harsh lens on this insular society’s collective neuroses.

HELP ME EROS directed by Lee Kang Sheng - TIFF is always packed with new films from Asia, and I'm very excited about this Taiwanese entry from Lee Kang Sheng, best known for his leading roles in all of the films of Tsai Ming Liang. In his second directorial effort, Lee shares a personal reflection on Taiwanese society. In this tale of loneliness and dissatisfaction with consumer culture the successful Ah Jie loses all his money on the stock market and turns to pot for comfort. Although he makes a connection with Chyi, a volunteer hotline counsellor, he engages in an easy but unsatisfying sexual relationship with local vendor Shin. Lee explores excess and poverty, both in terms of consumerism and spiritual sustenance.

I'll be back with some more of my selections in the next day or two. I haven't even mentioned any of the terrific-sounding documentaries screening at the festival. I will also return with some tips for TIFF newbies to make sure you don't miss any of the films you want to see!

Toronto International Film Festival's International Line-Up

While the complete film list by title won't be announced until next Tuesday, August 21, a whole slew of announcements have been made over the past several days. In fact, over at Thompson on Hollywood, Variety.com's deputy editor Anne Thompson lists the complete international film line-up (not really sure what that means) by country. It's a pretty cool list, and I'm only going to name a couple of films that I am excited about.

It's always fun to see a new film by François Ozon (SWIMMING POOL; 8 WOMEN), and his latest effort is called ANGEL. Starring Charlotte Rampling and Sam Neill, ANGEL tells the story of a young woman with incredible imagination who refuses to accept the world around her, and creates her own realities. It's been a while since we've had a new film by Danish director Lone Scherfig (ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS; WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF), and she returns with a comedy called JUST LIKE HOME. It's good to see a new film by the always challenging Catherine Breillat (SEX IS COMEDY; FAT GIRL), and she returns with UNE VIEILLE MAÎTRESSE (pictured left), where secrets, rumors and betrayals surround the upcoming marriage between a young dissolute man and virtuous woman of the French aristocracy.

There is a whole lot more to come, and I will be returning to post about getting the tickets you want in the next few days.