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Art Snob's In Toronto! ALL THE KING'S MEN, BABEL, THE HOST, PAN'S LABYRINTH And More!!

Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. ArtSnob’s an old friend of AICN, a longtime festival-goer who always turns in great overviews of the time he spends mainlining movies. Check out this awesome batch of reactions to what sounds like a pretty great overall group of films...

Well, here I am at the midpoint of my annual two-phase trip to the Toronto Film Festival. (God, has it been nine straight years already?!) Attending this year has been a “something gained/something lost” affair in comparison to last year. On the minus side: no more sailing across Lake Ontario on a high speed ferry from Rochester to Toronto. The ferry is now defunct after less than two years of operation. So I’m back to the same old well-worn highway route. At least it’s less expensive, takes about the same amount of time (at least on days when the traffic isn’t backed up from Toronto to Oakville), and doesn’t force me to travel light. The plus side more than compensates: This is my first year with priority ticketing, which means no lotteries, no alternate choices, and no rush lines … ask and ye shall receive! Every year I prepare an HTML chart with the TIFF movies grouped by category and hyperlinked to their respective IMDB pages. I emailed a copy to a programming director whom I met a couple of years ago and have had occasional contact with since, and he and his colleagues were so impressed that I got priority ticketing as a reward. It’s sweet, let me tell you … I’ve sure come a long way since my rush-line-only rookie year of ’98! One warning before I start: Be mindful that the movies I’m seeing at TIFF are not necessarily the same movies you’ll be seeing -- some might even have their titles changed. Last year I complained that CAPOTE was too long and that the conversations between the lead character and convict Perry Smith seemed interminable. Sure enough, when it was finally released, it was 9 minutes shorter with the conversations judiciously trimmed. Also, I got a huge kick out of the Hong Kong gangster flick S.P.L. and was disappointed when an official-looking DVD I got on Ebay seemed to have de-fanged the entire story and significantly changed the ending. It turned out that this was an edited edition for mainland China that was 12 minutes shorter that the version I saw originally. I recommend carefully comparing running times to the times posted on the TIFF website as the movies become available, Below are the ten movies I saw on the first leg of my trip, listed in the order in which I saw them. Verdicts are rendered in terms of WISIA …”would I see it again?” REQUIEM I have a lot of German cinema on my docket this year. This “Exorcist”-style entry, based partly on a true story and set in the early 70’s, is noteworthy primarily for the acting talent of lead Sandra Hüller as a young woman caught between science and religion in the treatment of her unstable, epileptic-fit-prone condition. Even during her periods of normalcy, she has an uncanny knack for projecting trouble lurking just below the surface. It’s a true tour de force performance … especially in comparison to Linda Blair and Jennifer Carpenter. The film has solid production values and a convincing cast. But the story ends MUCH too abruptly, with a written epilog ending that’s totally unacceptable to a large portion of the American audience – all the more so because it’s true. WISIA: No, but it’s close. JADE WARRIOR The 2001 Japanese-Polish movie AVALON intrigued me with the cinematic possibilities posed by Euro-Asian collaboration. So I was very receptive when I saw the lush trailer for this Finnish-Chinese movie. It made the title character look like the kind of action babe who could teach Halle Berry, Jennifer Garner and Charlize Theron a thing or two, so I decided to give it a shot. Mistake. The film DOES have some impressive cinematography, but the story is convoluted (to put it mildly), the action sequences aren’t that impressive, and the title character is pretty much just a minor supporting player. Plus, the story is largely based on the Finnish mythological device, the “Sampo,” and anyone who’s ever seen the MST3K installment THE DAY THE EARTH FROZE will have cheese on the brain while watching this film. WISIA: No. THE HOST Leave it to Midnight Madness to salvage a so-so day. This Korean box-office smash is a true cinematic rarity … a monster movie that really WORKS. No “MAN IN SUIT!” stuff with THIS movie … the monster is one CGI mofo, created by the combined forces that gave you LORD OF THE RINGS, BABE, and HELLBOY. It’s ferocious, merciless, and has table manners that would make Terry Jones in Monty Python’s THE MEANING OF LIFE look like “Mr. Etiquette.” So where does this monster come from? From chemicals dumped in the Han River under orders from an American scientist because the bottles they were stored in were getting too dusty. Six years later, the creature jumps out of the river and wreaks havoc among people along the riverbank, devouring some and depositing others in a holding area in the sewer system for when it wants a late night snack. One of those deposited is a resourceful young girl, being raised by her single, somewhat dim father and her grandfather. She’s able to get off a single cell phone call to her father that she’s still alive, and this sets off a family rescue mission which her Olympic-caliber archer aunt and unemployed college graduate uncle join in on, a mission complicated by a government quarantine imposed due to concern that the monster could be a “host” for a lot of viruses. A “summer” movie, for sure, but a great one. It violates movie conventions with glee … one cardinal rule in particular, and I would say that doing so creates emotional resonance -- an extremely rare quality in a creature feature. WISIA: YES! In fact, I have my local video store under orders to pick up a copy as soon as it turns up anywhere on Ebay. THE LIVES OF OTHERS An extremely impressive cliché-free/stereotype-free tale of political intrigue set in East Germany in 1984. It stars Ulrich Muehe (the father from FUNNY GAMES) as an extremely loyal and ruthlessly efficient operative of the secret police who gets in over his head when he’s assigned to spy on a successful playwright suspected of being a dissident. Muehe has the playwright’s apartment thoroughly wired and works a twelve-hour shift every day keeping track of the goings on with a nearly-expressionless efficiency that’s unnerving. But like Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul in THE CONVERSATION, he finds out something that he doesn’t want to know, and feels compelled to take matters into his own hands. It’s a “talkie” for sure, but the superb cast (Sebastian Koch is also excellent as the playwright) and the rich storyline (enhanced with locations actually once used by the East German secret police) more than compensates for the lack of shoot-‘em-up action. The film also mercifully eschews drawing parallels between the past and present or trying to deliver any heavy-handed political message. It’s a superbly crafted film from top to bottom and capped with a memorable epilog that shows what’s become of Muehe’s character three years after the fall of the Berlin wall. WISIA: Yes. DELIVER US FROM EVIL I make a point of seeing at least one festival documentary a year, and have had some very good luck in the past, with entries like MR. DEATH, BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, THE FOG OF WAR, and WHY WE FIGHT. Alas, the list of winners is not to be expanded this year. DELIVER US FROM EVIL sounded interesting – the subject is Father Oliver O’Grady, a notorious Catholic priest who was convicted of multiple pedophilia crimes over a twenty-year period in Northern California – but the execution turned out to be a disappointment. First-time director Amy Berg has been a producer for CBS News and CNN, and it shows – the documentary turns out be mostly talking heads and blown-up low-resolution TV footage of trial testimony. Kind of like an extended 60 Minutes segment. The purpose of the documentary seems to be more to fan hatred of O’Grady rather than to shed any light on his behavior. One minute you have him glibly doing his “Yeah, I did it, let’s get on to the forgiveness”- thing, next minute you have his victims – now grown adults – and their families recounting their nightmares in anguish. When it’s all over, you just feel more of the contempt for O’Grady that you felt going in. Ms. Berg simply overreached with her first feature-length documentary – a character like O’Grady is made to order for the Errol Morris treatment. WISIA: No. REPRISE This little Norwegian entry from first-time director Jaochim Trier was interesting, but it’s probably too culture-specific to make the jump to the American market. It’s about two young rebellious writers and their shifting fortunes from the time they simultaneously submit their first novels until they both become established writers. One of them tastes success first, but the other one later leapfrogs over him. The never-ending balancing act between art and commerce figures prominently in the storyline. The gentle Nordic humor that enabled a film like ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS to play on the American art house circuit is in evidence, but there’s not quite enough of it relative to the serious stuff. The story also tends to meander a bit, and I couldn’t shake the notion that a lot of good stuff was shooting right past me. WISIA: Not alone, but I’d be willing to give it another shot if I could see it with someone from Norway. Also, the soundtrack is excellent … I think I’m going to try and download a few tracks from Napster. BABEL Even at two hours and twenty-three minutes, this new Brad Pitt-attached movie doesn’t seem too long. Alejandro González Iñárritu, who made a big splash at the 2000 fest with his debut film, AMORES PEROS, has moved his “interconnected lives” theme from Mexico City to the world stage with this movie. And thanks to Pitt – who contributes a lot more than just a cameo in this film – many more people the world over will be seeing it. There are three settings used in the film: Morocco, where Pitt and wife Cate Blanchett are on a bus tour interrupted by a shot from a high-powered rifle wielded by some irresponsible young shepherd boys, Mexico, where their two children get taken to when their illegal immigrant nanny has to attend a wedding and can’t find anyone to care for them, and Tokyo, where the original owner of the rifle lives with his deaf-mute daughter. It’s not always clear what the commonality between the overlapping stories is supposed to be, exactly – especially a segment focusing on the deaf-mute daughter -- but the movie never drags for a moment. Pitt is impressive as he’s ever been, having to deal with some major duress in most of his scenes. The entire extremely ethnically diverse cast is superb for that matter, as is the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) and the soundtrack. There was hearty applause by the audience at the end. WISIA: Yes. PAN’S LABYRINTH As much as I liked THE HOST, THE LIVES OF OTHERS, and BABEL, Guillermo Del Toro’s new film would get my “audience choice award” vote if I had to cast it now. It’s a true cinematic masterpiece … we’re talking Jean Cocteau’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST territory here. The storyline focuses on a young girl straddling the line between fantasy and reality in rural Spain in 1944, five years into Franco’s reign of power. Much to her chagrin, she discovers that her new stepfather is a tyrannical Fascist captain whose job is to snuff out any remaining resistance in the mountains. Her new home has a large garden with a labyrinth, and it’s here that the girl seems to cross over into a world of her own, meeting up with the fawnlike caretaker of the labyrinth who has three assignments for her. Once the two worlds are established, an exciting story of courage and betrayal unfolds, constantly – and with great agility – shifting between reality and fantasy. This is going to be a very hard sell in the States, because it’s a decidedly adult fairy tale, with too many dark images and too much violence to be anything but R-rated. Plus it violates the same cardinal rule that the aforementioned THE HOST does … albeit with a silver (make that gold) lining. The performances are uniformly excellent, but the standout of standouts is Sergi Lopez as the stepfather-captain. He’s impressed me tremendously at festivals past with his ability to play colorful lowlifes (WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY, DIRTY PRETTY THINGS), but here, he’s pulled out ALL the stops. I now consider him a member of my elite “Scum of the Earth All-Star Team” -- the first addition from the fest since Leandro Firmino in CITY OF GOD, WISIA: Try and STOP me! LAST KING OF SCOTLAND This straightforward retelling of the story of a doctor who became Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s personal physician is memorable mainly for Forrest Whitaker’s performance. In fact, lead James McAvoy (Mr. Tummus in THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA) almost seems like a supporting player in retrospect. Everything else about the film seems competent and conventional … not a bad movie, it just has a standard linear storyline and the kind of polished production values you expect from a medium-budgeted feature. The producers are probably banking on a supporting actor nod for Whitaker. There WAS one great audience-specific laugh in the auditorium. Early in the film, when McAvoy wants out of Scotland in the worst way, he spins a globe, vowing to go wherever it stops. When his finger stops it, he says, “Hmmm … Canada,” and then immediately spins again! WISIA: No, I feel like I’ve gotten out of it all that it has to offer. ALL THE KING’S MEN AKA “Sean Penn’s Bad Hair Day” While extremely professional and well-made in every way, this updating of the previously-filmed Robert Penn Warren novel felt like an exercise in creating an Oscar-nominated film from a cookbook to me. I mean, all of the actors are pros and handle their accents well, but couldn’t we have had a bona fide SOUTHERNER somewhere in the cast? It’s SO obvious that this movie is going to be marketed on the statuettes and nominations of the cast members … just get enough of them in one spot and you’ve got an Oscar-nominated movie! Penn is the standout of the cast and will likely snatch another nomination, but his main rival for screen time – Jude Law – is pretty easy to outshine. The production design is also outstanding in the way that it takes you back in time. WISIA: No. Like LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, one viewing is pretty much enough to absorb all that it has to offer. But I’d say that it was certainly worth that one viewing if just for seeing the assorted talent at work. Hmmm … just a thought: Who would have guessed 25 years ago that two Ridgemont High alumni would be competing for best actor in 2006? Well, that’s it for the first half of my TIFF slate. Coming up on the second half: BLACK BOOK, THE FOUNTAIN, SEVERANCE and THE BANQUET.
Readers Talkback
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  • Sept. 14, 2006, 6:23 a.m. CST

    first

    by BadMrWonka

    to say I wish I lived in Toronto to see all this great shit

  • Sept. 14, 2006, 6:26 a.m. CST

    also Mori...

    by BadMrWonka

    I sent you a review from an advance screening of Flyboys...I'm worried that unless you post it, some people might accidentally see the film. do society a favor, pleeeaaase?

  • Sept. 14, 2006, 7:48 a.m. CST

    Pan...AGAIN!

    by Alfeetoe

    I think I'm blowing my load on this movie three months before it even gets screenings in the US.

  • Sept. 14, 2006, 7:58 a.m. CST

    "ALLOW ME TO YELLLLLLLLL!!!!!!"

    by future help

    Both Sean Penn & Al Pacino's new way of cinema time. a shame...but pretty much tired of those two cats OVER-Acting.

  • Sept. 14, 2006, 8:52 a.m. CST

    FUCK YEAH!

    by MonsterSpielberg

    I'm REALLY expecting Babel and Pan's Labytinth to blow my mind :)Can'T wait.

  • Sept. 14, 2006, 9:28 a.m. CST

    Pans labyrinth

    by The hoff

    Well another reviewer blown away by Pans. Just one question when the F*** does this thing come out in the UK I need me some Del Toro action.

  • Sept. 14, 2006, 6:21 p.m. CST

    Pan's is the real deal

    by Happyfat73

    I saw it Sunday, and I still can't stop thinking about it. It stays with you like a good vindaloo. Everyone should see this movie, so del Toro can make more like it.

  • Sept. 19, 2006, 5:08 p.m. CST

    Looking forward...

    by jhershaw

    to read the second part of the report, Banquet, Black Book and especially a review of the Fountain!