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MY TIFF: 2008

movieshowstillsmall4Usually when I sit down to write my festival wrap-up I’m exhausted, trying to type through a veil of teary eyes, aching bones and stuffy nose. This is the first year I haven’t gotten sick and / or been sleep deprived by the end of it all. Not sure if it was my Zen attitude towards everything this year or if the festival was a bit slower than usual. Whatever the case, without breaking a sweat, I still managed to squeeze in 30 plus movies and a few dozen interviews.

Movie wise highlights included Happy Go Lucky, the new film from five time Oscar nominee, director Mike Leigh. He’s probably best known for his loose, improvisational style of working, a style very much on display in Happy Go Lucky. It’s the story of the perkiest, most annoyingly cheerful woman in the world. Endearingly played by Sally Hawkins the character of Poppy is the polar opposite of the drab, dreary characters that have populated Leigh’s other works, most notably Vera Drake.  Her relentlessly upbeat mood is a little hard to take at times, but the film is a winner.

Also amazing is Hunger, the debut feature film from English director Steve McQueen. It’s the story of Bobby Sands’s 1981 hunger strike in an Irish prison. It’s not exactly the kind of movie you walk out of and say, “Boy! I really enjoyed that!” and it’s not necessarily something I’d like to see again anytime soon, but it is a spectacular looking film with an amazing lead performance from Michael Fassbinbder, who, as Bobby Sands slowly wastes away before our very eyes. It’s not exactly dinner and movie material, but compelling nonetheless.

Probably the most surprising film I saw at the festival was JCVD. Before this it would have been an act of film critic heresy to suggest that a film starring Jean Claude Van Damme is one of the most fun movies I have seen in a long time, but it’s true. The audacious story has Jean Claude playing himself as a forty-seven-year-old has been action star who can’t get a job—in the ultimate sign of his unbankability in Hollywood he keeps losing work to Steven Seagal—who has just lost custody of his kids and has blown all his money on women and drugs. A trip to his hometown in Brussels that was meant to rejuvenate him turns sour when he becomes involved in a hostage taking at a local post office.

This is a very strange movie, a weird mix of fact and fiction that is by times very funny, but then turns on a dime to poignant melancholy. The Muscles from Brussels has never looked so grizzled or shown the acting chops he has on display here.

On the other end of the scale was The Narrows, a painfully earnest, painfully predictable coming-of-age-in-Brooklyn story that ranks as the worst of the festival for me.

Outside of the movie theatre there were many highpoints. Since Reel to Real is no longer in production I didn’t have to do the 200 plus interviews I usually do during the festival. Free to do other things we shot loads of interviews for my new show, Richard Crouse’s Movie Show—debuting on the Independent Film Channel on October 6—including sit downs with Mark Ruffalo, Ed Harris, Bill Maher, Jeremy Piven, Viggo Mortensen and many others. I also shot interviews for Canada AM which will run on the show as the movies get released. Look for my interview with Julianne Moore coming soon.

For the first year ever I moderated some press conferences for the TIFF folks. The first was for Spike Lee’s new movie Miracle at St. Anna which tells the story of four African- American soldiers who are members of the US Army as part of the all-black 92nd Buffalo Soldier Division stationed in Tuscany, Italy during World War II. They experience the tragedy and triumph of the war as they find themselves trapped behind enemy lines and separated from their unit after one of them risks his life to save an Italian boy.

On the panel were Laz Alonso, Michael Ealy, Omar Benson Miller, Derek Luke, Spike Lee (Director), James McBride (screenplay), Spike Lee (director), Valentina Cervi, Pierfrancesco Favino and Terance Blanchard. With that many people basically you are simply playing traffic cop, ensuring that everyone gets chance to speak and the conference doesn’t go way over schedule.

It didn’t start off promisingly. Backstage Spike Lee—wearing an oversized t-shirt adorned with an image of Barack Obama—was kind of dismissive of me. He wasn’t exactly rude, he was just very curt. I thought, “Great, I have 45 minutes on stage with a guy who doesn’t seem to want to talk to me.” To make matters worse I then had to do another, smaller presser with him at the Four Seasons for junket press. It was shaping up to be a long, weird morning.

Luckily when we got on stage he didn’t disappoint. He was outspoken—although he didn’t mention his feud with Clint Eastwood, apparently at the request of Disney who reportedly felt that further mention of it could hurt St. Anna’s Oscar chances—and entertaining throughout the press conference. He talked about how after the success of Inside Man, the 2006 heist flick starring Clive Owen, Jodie Foster and Denzel Washington, which made $300 million worldwide, he thought he would be able to write his own ticket in Hollywood, only to discover that it still wasn’t easy to get funding for his stories.

“After my biggest hit ever, Inside Man, I thought it’d be a little easier to get my next film made,” he said, but he ran into roadblocks trying to get St. Anna off the ground with a cast of mostly African-American actors and no big stars.

“If you’re not doing a comic book movie or some TV show made into a movie, it’s hard to get original stuff made,” he said. “I’m not complaining about it, we’ve just got to make due with what we’ve got.”

It was all going well. Spike was at his quotable best, we were on schedule and everyone had been given a chance to speak. Then, just as I got the signal to wrap things up, Lee launched into a long rant, starting with a swipe at Hollywood legend John Wayne, which blew our schedule but gave the reporters in attendance their best quotes of the day. He began by suggesting that Wayne’s war films ignored the great contributions made by minorities in the military.

“They have not gotten their due,” said Lee. “And now most of them are dead. It is not a mistake that this film begins with John Wayne and The Longest Day. This is the Hollywood bullshit mythology that excludes plenty of people. You look at John Wayne. What does John Wayne represent? In a World War Two film John Wayne is kicking Nazi ass, in the Pacific he’s kicking Japanese ass, and in the western he’s killing the savage Indians. This film is a rebuttal to the same Hollywood bullshit mythology that demeans other people. And we have to change this shit. We have to change it. We continue putting out these lies again and again and young people growing up have no idea that this stuff even happened.

“That’s why this whole thing is tied in with Obama,” he continued, “because these guys fought not knowing there will be a black president, but they were hoping some day, some day American would deliver on its promise for life, liberty for all American citizens.That’s my tirade for the day.”

Our schedule was kaput, but his ten minute or so tirade was so fiery no one complained.

Later in the week I also hosted a presser for What Doesn’t Kill You, a gritty crime drama set in South Boston, starring Ethan Hawke, Mark Ruffalo and Amanda Peet. The audience was a little sparse; mostly photographers there to take pictures of Amada Peet, once voted one of the most beautiful women in the world.

Questions were a little slow in coming so I took over and interviewed the panel. Good answers from everyone, particularly Brian Goodman, the film’s director. He co-wrote the script, originally titled Real Men Cry, with Donnie Wahlberg based on his own experiences of growing up in a rough neighborhood and his struggles with drugs and alcohol. In the nine years it took to get the movie made Ruffalo and Goodman became tight friends, and their relationship became the focus of my questions.

Soon Ruffalo, who plays the Goodman character in the film, had his head in his hands. At first I wasn’t sure what was happening. Was he tired? Taking a break from the conversation? Asleep? Turns out the conversation and questions had made him emotional and he was crying.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when he started to get emotional as I asked if he felt responsible to Goodman to get the character right, but I didn’t expect him to break down into tears and be unable to speak. Hawke jumped in and spoke for him about how Ruffalo is a committed actor who completely throws himself into his roles.

“There was huge responsibility that Mark felt,” Hawke said, “when you love somebody and you respect them, and they have invested their faith in you.”
Eventually after some prodding Ruffalo spoke up, but the tears continued.

“To know Brian like I do underneath all of this, to tell that story today when it’s even more difficult than it was then,” he said, “is just a huge responsibility.

“And then what it means to him, there’s nothing inauthentic about him. As an actor, to be asked to portray somebody that authentic is a huge burden. But what is so moving is I saw him reliving his wife and his whole life in that life. It was extremely powerful.”

“Why it’s so moving to me is there is a young boy in south Boston who doesn’t have a chance; for economic reasons, education, luck,” said Ruffalo. “He has something to offer to the world but has no avenue to get to it. To know Brian like I do, and the human being underneath… to tell that story today is just a huge responsibility.

“There were moments when I was bowled over by the pain, the immense pain of waking up in a crack house and the shame. Because these people are human beings under this terrible, debilitating, cunning, brutal disease.”

It was an amazing moment that reaffirmed my belief that sometimes at the festival we can cut through the hype and the Hollywood nonsense and get down to nitty gritty, the real passion behind why people make movies.

I wrapped things up shortly afterwards, but the emotional feeling of the event continued backstage. I spoke with Ruffalo, Hawke and Goodman about what had happened on stage, asking if I had gone too far and put any of them on the spot. Assured that I hadn’t; each of them thanked me for my handling of the whole thing.

Others though, were calling me The Man who Made Mark Ruffalo Cry, labeling it my Barbara Walters moment. The next day the Globe and Mail described the event as “a press conference that was a rare treat for both journos and actors because of the heartfelt questions…”

Later that same day I presented Shirley MacLaine with the Spirit of Friendship Award at the Best Buddies Gala at the Muzik Nightclub. Aside from giving me a chance to wear my tuxedo and eat the biggest piece of veal I have ever seen in my life, it also fulfilled my festival mandate of meeting at least one legendary star. In past years Francis Ford Coppola and Omar Sharif have been my link to the legends and I was beginning to feel that I wouldn’t have the chance to connect with any of my real heroes.

I had a speech prepared, which got cut down to “Ladies and gentlemen help me welcome Shirley MacLaine to the stage” because we were running so late. She came up, charmed the crowd and then we did a quick Q&A.

The first question I took from the audience was from a well heeled looking woman who had been sitting at MacLaine’s table. I’m not sure what the woman was asking, and frankly I’m not sure she knew either. MacLaine certainly didn’t. The marathon question was five minutes long, peppered with references to the Dalai Lama and new age catchphrases. When MacLaine finally cut her off, the woman said, “Sorry the question was so long… I don’t do small talk…” An understatement to be sure… the question was so long I had to shave again before returning to the stage.

The rest of the questions went a little more smoothly. When it was over, MacLaine and I were at center stage and I’m trying to figure out how to gracefully get off the stage. She turned to me and she asked me what I thought of Religulous, the controversial Bill Maher film about religion in America. When I told her that I thought it was a good, funny movie she stared me down and said, “So you agree with Bill Maher that religion is funny?”

Earlier in the evening Shinan Govani, the National Post’s social columnist told me that MacLaine had a wicked stare that seemed to be looking directly into your soul. I now knew what he meant. I mumbled something about the movie. She complimented me on my shoes—I was wearing black and white spats—and we exited the stage. It was a strange night, but as I stood next to her I had the strange feeling that her life was flashing before my eyes.  She knew Frank Sinatra! Worked with Hitchcock! Fosse! Billy Wilder! That kind of legacy is a bit blinding for a film geek like me.

Other highlights include Gordon Pinsent yelling my name out his car window as he drove by me on University Avenue; chatting with Nurse.Fighter.Boy star Clark Johnson on Yonge Street; hosting a luncheon for TIFF’s emerging filmmakers with Barry Avrich at The Spoke Club—the Cobb Salad was delicious!—and sitting on the floor of a Hotel Inter Con hallway with Rachel Blanchard and talking about her sister’s upcoming wedding.

Less fun was the glare Jeremy Northam gave me when I politely asked if he could move his coat so we could use the chair he was using as a coat rack. Maybe he was having a bad day, but if looks could kill…

The best party was Bruce MacDonald’s bash for Ponypool at the delightfully downscale Imperial Pub and Library on Dundas Street. Leave it to Bruce to opt for a place with a sticky carpet and broken urinals instead of one of the usual TIFF haunts like Lobby. It was totally fun and it was amusing watching the TIFF types trying to order Grey Goose and other higher end libations at the bar. This is most definitely a beer-and-a-shot kind of place.

My favorite overheard conversation involved a bellhop at the Hotel Intercontinental and actor Stephen McHattie. I happened to be walking by the actor’s room as he was checking into his suite. The bellhop, trying to make conversation, asked McHattie what he was doing in town.

“I’m in one of the movies at the film festival,” he said.

“Really! That’s exciting,” said the chatty bellhop. “Which one?”

“Pontypool,” was the reply.

“I’m sorry I don’t know that one…”

“It’s the new Bruce MacDonald film…” said McHattie.

“Really! I loved him on The Kids in the Hall!” the bellhop replied enthusiastically, not realizing Bruce MacDonald and Bruce McCulloch are two very different people.

I walked away at that point so I’m not sure how it all turned out, but I do know that if I was McHattie I would have sent the bellhop back downstairs with a suggestion that, in future, he keep his mouth shut.

The most ironic dinner was the Maple Pictures fete for the movie Hunger. No, the waiters didn’t walk around with empty plates and yes, everyone gobbled up every last bit of bison and salmon on offer. The paradox of eating $45 entrees in celebration of a movie about a hunger strike hung heavy in the air, but the chance to eat something other than sweaty cheese cubes and the usual TIFF party food was too enticing. Incongruity be damned… the bison was delicious.

Despite the high moments and the yummy bison it was a slower TIFF than usual this year—less chaotic and less interesting. Barry Avrich suggested to me that instead of it being a year of great films it was more a year of great performances. Perhaps he’s right. I think of Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married and Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, both performances that could be nominated come Oscar season and both performances that outshine their respective films. Fingers are crossed for a wilder ride next year…

Every year I approach the Toronto International Film Festival with equal parts anticipation and dread. On one hand I look forward to taking in all the new movies and interviewing the actors and directors, but taking part in the ten day event is a punishing test of one’s ability to function past the point of exhaustion and pushes my make-up person’s skill at covering up the bags under my eyes to the limit. By the waning moments of the fest I usually feel as though I have been beaten by an angry mob of teamsters. You can call me a masochist, but I wouldn’t trade a minute of it.

For me the film festival actually starts about two weeks before the official opening date. In those weeks I spend my days running from one pre-screening to the next, usually seeing three or four movies a day. This is an important part of the process and one that takes some planning. In an effort to stay fit I have devised a number of exercises I can perform while sitting in the theatre, and it was the early morning screenings that I learned that popcorn actually is a perfectly acceptable breakfast food.

At night and on the weekends I watch video or DVD copies of films that aren’t available to be seen on the big screen. Take it from me, if you want to protect your eyesight, you should limit yourself to a maximum of six movies a day.

This year I have been pre-screening for the past couple of weeks and I have seen a lot of interesting stuff including…

Passchendaele, the second feature from director / actor Paul Gross, is a hybrid of romance and war movie based around the 1917 battle for Passchendaele which lasted for four months and claimed 600,000 causalities on both sides. The story sprung from a conversation Gross had with his Grandfather who told him about bayonetting a young German through the face and killing him during a battle. Years later as his grandfather lay dying in a hospital bed he asked for forgiveness over and over. Only Gross knew that he was speaking to the young German he had killed in the First World War.

Passchendaele is a personal story told on an epic scale and was seen by audiences for the first time as the opening night film at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

The film is ambitious in its scope with battle scenes to rival anything we’ve seen on screen in recent years, while also grafting on a story of honor and romance. In the self-penned script Gross tackles big, timely issues regarding war, patriotism and valor that occasionally come off as a bit corny, but the movie’s heart is in the right place.

On a much lighter note… Zach and Miri Make a Porno is a return to form for director Kevin Smith… The film stars Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks as lifelong platonic friends Zack and Miri who look to solve their respective cash flow problems by making an adult film together. This is first film by Kevin Smith that neither is set nor shot in his native state of New Jersey and it makes its world premier at the festival…

JCVD is probably the most surprising film I have seen so far at the festival. Before this it would have been an act of film critic heresy to suggest that a film starring Jean Claude Van Damme is one of the most fun movies I have seen in a long time, but it’s true.

The audacious story has Jean Claude playing himself as a forty-seven-year-old has been action star who can’t get a job—in the ultimate sign of his unbankability in Hollywood he keeps losing work to Steven Seagal—who has just lost custody of his kids and has blown all his money on women and drugs. A trip to his hometown in Brussels that was meant to rejuvenate him turns sour when he becomes involved in a hostage taking at a local post office.

This is a very strange movie, a weird mix of fact and fiction that is by times very funny, but then turns on a dime to poignant melancholy. The Muscles from Brussels has never looked so grizzled or shown the acting chops he has on display here…

Are there two more stronger, silenter types in modern movies than Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen? Each of these actors are a throw back to the days when cowboy stars were manly men who mean what they say and only say what they mean and nothing else.

In Appaloosa Harris (who also directs) and Mortensen are gunmen hired to bring law and order to the City of Appaloosa, New Mexico. Their main target is cop killer Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), but their job is complicated when a flirtatious woman (Renée Zellweger) comes between them.

Appaloosa comes a year after 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James gave the western genre a shot in the arm. It’s closer in spirit to the former than the latter—meaning that it is a straightforward genre piece that if it had been made 50 years ago would have starred Alan Ladd and Randolph Scott. Like Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven, Appaloosa is a great Western cow opera about men looking inside themselves to discover the true essence of their lives. It doesn’t have the gravitas of Eastwood’s classic, and the economy of dialogue between the leads—there are conversational gaps you could drive a truck through—gets a bit tiresome after a while, but Appaloosa should satisfy viewers who long for the days when men wore chaps and spittoons were a welcome decorative addition to any home…

I have often joked that the Toronto Film Festival wouldn’t be the same without Don McKellar. Every year since I can remember he has a movie playing at the fest, and this year is no different. This year he returns with Blindness, a film he adapted from the 1995 novel of the same name by José Saramago about an epidemic that causes blindness in a modern city, resulting in the collapse of society. Directed by Fernando Meirelles, who made one of my favorite TIFF films ever, City of God, a few years ago, it stars McKellar, Mark Ruffalo, Julianne Moore and Danny Glover along with an international cast.

The Canadian-Brazilian-Japanese co-production opened the Cannes film festival this year to middling reviews but should fare better with the hometown crowd.

Director Meirelles is unfailing stylish in his presentation of this highly metaphorical work, so, ironically a movie about Blindness is a treat for the eyes. His handling of the story and view of the humanity of the characters is challenging, but a tad disengaged to make the film’s social commentary truly effective. He avoids the clichés of most horror films—Blindness would likely have been a much different movie in the hands of George A. Romero or the like—instead delivering a thoughtful film that doesn’t quite live up to the intensity and promise of the novel.

Last year one of the big buzz films at TIFF was No Country for Old Men from directors Joel and Ethan Coen… after going on to win a load of Academy Awards they’re back at TIFF again this year but with a much different kind of film. Burn After Reading is a crime caper film that has more to do with their previous films like Raising Arizona than the dark feel of No Country for Old Men. In the film, which stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Tilda Swinton, a disk containing the memoirs of a CIA agent ends up in the hands of two unscrupulous gym employees who attempt to sell it…

And finally in Rock ‘N Rolla a Russian mobster sets up a real estate scam that generates millions of pounds, but then various members of London’s criminal underworld pursue their share of the fortune. Director Guy Ritchie has been at the festival before, but has been on a bit of a dry spell of late with his last two films, Swept Away and Revolver, getting pummeled by people like me. Rock’n’rolla looks like a cool return to form for him…

There are many more cool movies coming to the fest this year… Among them is The Brothers Bloom, in which Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo star as a pair of accomplished con men… Colin Firth will star in an adaptation of the Noel Coward play Easy Virtue, alongside Jessica Biel and Kristin Scott Thomas… director Steven Soderbergh will be at the festival with Che: Part One and Che: Part Two. The first film tracks Che’s rise in the Cuban Revolution, from doctor to commander to revolutionary hero, while the second looks at his legacy and how he remains a symbol of idealism and heroism… Also screening at the festival will be Me and Orson Welles, an ode to the legendary director, which, unbelievably stars Zac Efron and Claire Danes and is directed by Richard Linklater…

I will have seen all those and more by the time the first day of the festival rolls around and feel secure that I am prepared to begin my coverage. That feeling usually fades after the first hour and disappears completely by lunch time when the chaos of the festival kicks in. The best laid plans evaporate in front of your eyes, and suddenly the weeks of prep work are meaningless. Actors have missed their flights and have to reschedule. Prints are unavailable. A few years ago a group of Brazillian filmmakers disappeared for a couple of days. They were later found, hung-over but happy. The point is, it’s hectic and nothing goes as planned.

Once I have let go of any sense of control and just let events swirl around me, the festival is a fascinating place to be. I’ll interview dozens of filmmakers and actors and every year I am guaranteed to meet at least one hero of mine, develop at least one crush and discover at least one great talent.

My favorite interviews tend to be with the festival newbies – debut directors, unknown actors – who haven’t been chewed up by the big publicity machine yet. They are generally more open than the name brand stars and are frequently the most interesting guests.

On the other end of the scale are the old timers. They have been around long enough to feel comfortable in their skin and don’t have to play the Hollywood publicity game. A few years ago legendary director Francis Ford Coppola stopped by to discuss the DVD release of One from the Heart. A conversation that began with Coppola promoting the new disc morphed into a touching discussion on life, work and being happy. It was one of my favorite moments of the year…

These moments are satisfying for me, but the Toronto International Film Festival is not just about pressing the flesh with movie stars, it is, first and foremost about the movies. I will never forget seeing Reservoir Dogs for the first time and hearing a young, unknown Quentin Tarantino speak passionately about his film afterward. Last year there was a great little horror film called Stuck which impressed me, but didn’t grab many headlines. There are always gems, all you have to do is mine them.

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