The Toronto International Film Festival 2002 By Mike White. September 6, 2002 Things were looking good for me. Other than a screw-up with the directions to the hotel, which took me quite a few kilometers toward Niagara Falls rather than Toronto, the day (which started well before dawn) was going smoothly...

September 6, 2002
Things were looking good for me. Other than a screw-up with the directions to the hotel, which took me quite a few kilometers toward Niagara Falls rather than Toronto, the day (which started well before dawn) was going smoothly.

I managed to park, get my press pass, and get into a screening of Bubba Ho-Tep without even breaking a sweat. If only I had remembered the words of Mike Thompson, my record for my initial day at the Toronto International Film Festival might have remained unblemished...

Bubba Ho-Tep (Don Coscarelli, 2002)
Using the titular mummy as the metaphor to describe this film is tempting. It’d be appropriate to describe horror-meister Don Coscarelli’s latest work as "shambling along and in need of some fleshing-out." Yet, remarkably, Bubba Ho-Tep kept my interest for its entire 92-minute running time. More than its "geezers battling the undead" plot, Bubba Ho-Tep ’s success stems from the performances of Bruce Campbell as an over-the-hill Elvis Presley and Ossie Davis as John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The two veteran actors take the one-joke plot out of the X-Files parody reject bin and elevate it almost to the level of The Collegians Are Go.

I won’t go out of my way to see Bubba Ho-Tep again but it was definitely worth a look and highly recommended for anyone in need of a goofy flick (and who isn’t?).

Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)
Wow. I don’t necessarily consider myself a fan of Michael Moore. I only saw Roger & Me when it was required viewing for a college film class and haven’t bothered to go out of my way to see anything else he’s done. I suppose it’s that "let’s not support the local boy" mentality that runs rampant in Detroit (recent example: I had to go to Baltimore to have anyone tell me about The White Stripes). Additionally, I sometimes find the "documentary director as star" thing a bit unpalatable. However, Bowling for Columbine wouldn’t have worked with anyone other than Moore at the helm and in front of the camera. There are several key moments in the film when Moore’s balls-out, confrontational modus operandi play directly into the action.

In Bowling for Columbine, Moore explores the trigger-happy mentality of Americans. Rather than simply skewering easy targets like the National Rifle Association, the Parents Music Resource Coalition, the Military-Industrial complex, or mainstream media, Moore even-handedly bashes these groups and many more as he attempts to divine what kernel in the American psyche causes such rampant violence in U.S. society. It appears that guns don’t kill people, Americans do.

Moore shows a real maturity as a filmmaker throughout Bowling for Columbine. His material is well organized and his juxtapositions are spot-on. I didn’t want Bowling for Columbine to end and, truth be told, I’m already looking forward to seeing it again. This film is required viewing for every citizen of the United States.

The Man Without A Past / Mies Vailla Mennisyytta (Aki Kaurismaki, 2002)
If you like the work of Aki Kaurismaki, you should like The Man Without A Past. Present are Kaurismaki’s trademark dry humor and Finnish sensibility. The story-what little there is-has M (Markku Peltola) as an amnesiac trying to cope in a poorer-than-dirt Finnish town. The real joy of The Man Without A Past is watching characters grow and interact. I like Kaurismaki’s work and really enjoyed The Man Without A Past.

Bad Guy / Nabbeun Namja (Kim Ki-duk, 2001)
Mike Thompson once told me that I should never just catch the next showing of whatever else is on if the movie I want to see is full. I’m not sure if Daniele Thompson’s Jet Lag is any good but it has to be better than Kim Ki-duk’s Bad Guy.

Sporting a couple of ideas and not having a clue what to do with them, Bad Guy rambles on interminably. There are elements of obsessive love, the Stockholm Syndrome, fate, and a killer game of "rock / paper / scissors" (in this case it’s "brick / paper / glass").Apart from a relatively good-looking cast (the unstoppable Cho Jae-hyun simply smolders), Bad Guy offers nothing more than frustration and boredom.

September 7, 2002
Auto Focus (Paul Schrader, 2002)
About three-quarters of the way through Auto Focus, I started looking for someone lurking in the shadows of the screen. I had forgotten temporarily how actor Bob Crane had been killed and was just hoping that it’d happen soon.

Paul Shrader’s bio-pic of the Hogan’s Heroes washout was interesting to a point but that point came and went a good twenty minutes before the credits rolled. Rather than examining the "why" or "what" of Crane’s insatiable sexual appetite, Schrader seemed content to feature the "where," "how," and "when" of countless trysts.

Why did Bob Crane seek satisfaction with innumerable anonymous sex partners? Auto Focus presents Crane’s sexual addiction as stemming from a lack of moral fiber. Rather than turning to pornography, Crane should have a good dose of family values. Another explanation could be that Crane needed to sow some wild oats and that Auto Focus teaches us to not marry our uptight high school sweethearts. Another explanation? I really can’t blame Greg Kinnear’s Crane for sleeping around rather than coming home to Rita Wilson...

Throughout Auto Focus I got the feeling that there were far more sordid details to Citizen Crane’s life left untouched. Perhaps these might have provided some further information about Crane’s psyche. They might have also netted the film a commercially disastrous NC-17 rating. As it is, the film’s performances are solid (Kinnear’s turn as Crane is remarkable) but Auto Focus merely made me want to see a really well made documentary about Crane’s life and death (and I want to see some of those Crane sex tapes!).

More of a history of video equipment used for homemade porn than an insightful look at celebrity and sexual longing, Auto Focus is too bleary to be enjoyed.

Spun (Jonas Akerlund, 2002)
I’m not a big fan of drug movies, that small subgenre of films wherein excess and loopy camerawork go hand in hand. Too often I’m annoyed by characters that get loaded and act like assholes. Either I’m reminded of real life dopers or boozers or I’m jealous that these characters are having a better time on screen than I am watching them.

Luckily, Spun lacks quite a few of the "drug film standards" such as the overdose scene, the withdrawal scene, the scene of someone killing someone else (either on purpose or by accident) and excessive amounts of the "we’re watching through the eyes of the drug-user" shots. Sure, sure, there are a lot (a lot) of "Woah, I just ingested a mind-altering substance") shots and some irresponsible behavior but, like the better parts of Trainspotting, the characters in Spun are fun to watch. I certainly wouldn’t want to hang out with any of them (well, okay, maybe Mickey Rourke’s The Cook) but they didn’t get on my nerves.

The plot of Spun (what little there is) has Ross (Jason Schwartzman) caught up with an odd assortment of characters, especially The Cook and Nikki (Brittany Murphy playing the only stripper in the U.S. who doesn’t get naked, apparently). The story meanders to the benefit of the film.

Highlights include Peter Stormare’s mullet, cameos by Rob Halford and Ron Jeremy, and a performance from Mickey Rourke that ranks among his best.

Alive (Ryuhei Kitamura, 2002)
A death row prisoner’s execution goes wrong and he’s given the choice to live as part of an experiment or get another burst of electricity through his system. A promising premise, I had hoped that Alive might turn into Il Homme Tenshu but, alas, this latest work from Ryuhei Kitamura, the man behind the yakuza zombie splatterfest Versus, is as far from an action movie as one can get. If anything, it’s an inaction movie. When the first bit of anything exciting happened I checked my watch to find that I had been watching for seventy-seven minutes! By the time I looked back up at the screen, that bit of gunplay was just about over, leaving another long stretch of boredom in its wake.

For folks looking for an action fest, keep looking. Are you seeking a creepy possession film? This isn’t for you either. How about some taut science fiction? Nope... try again. I think that the guy behind me summed it up when he started snoring-this is a good movie to sleep through. Alive might also be of interest to anyone wishing to see how The Matrix has helped populate the screen with black leather outfits and bullet-dodging mayhem. Alive is definitely Kitamura’s sophomore slump. I can’t even imagine watching this during the Midnight Madness program. If I had trouble staying awake through it at 6 in the evening, I know I couldn’t survive seeing it late a night!

September 8, 2002
Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002)
Technically, Spider is a terrific film. It looks good, the performances are stellar and the direction is solid. However, Spider left me cold. The film tries to embrace a "big twist" ending but doesn’t do this very well. In other words, I saw the twist coming a few miles ahead. The trip to that spot was fine, but it didn’t go anyplace new. Folks unfamiliar with Miranda Richardson will enjoy this film more than people who have seen this wonderful actress in action before.

September 9, 2002
Blue Car (Karen Moncrieff, 2002)
This film has the distinction of being the only film I walked out on during the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival. In many ways, this flick reminds me of last year’s Rain. I guess that’s because both films were filled to the brim with teen angst and clichés. Blue Car was also steeped in poetry (is there a worse thing to combine with teen angst? It’s like mixing bleach with ammonia). I didn’t need to see this film play out to its conclusion since I was three steps ahead of it all the way.

The Trials of Henry Kissinger (Eugene Jarecki, 2002)
Are we living in the Age of Accountability? Is this the bastard byproduct of our litigious mentality? Obviously, the question "Who can we sue?" is synonymous with "Who is responsible?" And, likewise, it’s easier to saddle an individual with blame than an era, an organization, or a shared mentality.

Henry Kissinger is not a scapegoat. Among other dirty deeds, he was integral to a CIA-backed coup in Chile along with the prolonging of the Vietnam War, and the destruction of Cambodia. The Trials of Henry Kissinger presents a he said/they said dichotomy, which successfully convicts the former statesman of crimes against humanity. The evidence is damning and the defense-especially by former Kissinger aide, Alexander Haig-is less than adequate. Director Jarecki doesn’t spend as much time as I’d like qualifying Kissinger’s detractors though the paper trail, if authentic, could stand on its own to convict Kissinger. Trials stands as a powerful look at an unseemly player in history.

Chiwaseon / Painted Fire (Im Kwon-Taek, 2002)
This film from Korea managed to keep my interest for its entire 117-minute run. Chiwaseon is the story of Jang Seung-ub, a commoner who shook up the art world in an ever-changing Korea of the late 1800s. A pretty, intriguing film, I never came to know the characters very well. Was this movie cut down? If not, there were some holes in the narrative that left me baffled.

September 10, 2002
Horns and Halos (Suki Hawley & Michael Galinsky, 2001)
I was disheartened to see a mere handful of folks in the Press/Industry screening of Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky’s Horns and Halos. I’m not disillusioned to say that a documentary about the banishment and revival of J.H. Hatfield’s book, Fortunate Son, should garner more attention. But, then again, that George W. Bush remains in office without dissention and rioting in the streets following his judicial coup tells me that the American people don’t give a shit that a right wing zealot usurped the democratic principles on which this country was founded.

Horns and Halos closely follows the ascent from the ashes of Fortunate Son, a book originally intended to be a quickie biography of an impending president that struck a discordant note with the George W. Bush camp. First published by St. Martin’s Press, the company yanked the books and promised to burn them after buckling to pressure from Bush lawyers. That said, more than Hatfield, the real "star" of Horns and Halos is Sander Hicks of Soft Skull Press, a punk rock publisher who picked up the rights to the book and cast it back onto book shelves.

Leaving a few stones unturned (what about the reporter who can’t get a single source of Hatfield’s to confirm that they spoke to him?), Horns and Halos remains a fairly solid work of journalism about a story that no one would touch.

I had a lot of time to kill during the day as there wasn’t anything on that I really wanted to see (and I didn’t want another Bad Guy on my hands). I had left my book back at the hotel (a much more reasonable walk this year compared to the train and bus ride to B.F.E., Ontario last year) so I picked up a few trashy magazines at the local Indigo Bookstore and killed some time perusing those and drinking some bitter brew.

Actually, the coffee wasn’t so bad, it was the conversation I tuned-in on that had my stomach rolling. Two guys that personified "Hollywood sleazoids" were sitting next to me. The one dressed all in black seemed to be some kind of "money man" that the other one was trying to "green light" something. Oh, geez, the projects that they were discussing...

"We’ve got the rights to Ginger Snaps and we’re going to do a sequel and a prequel...

"A made for TV sequel to Wing Commander!

I’d go on but the rest is all a blur. After a while I started looking around for hidden cameras, hoping that these two jokers were... jokers. Alas. They seemed as genuine as the prospects for a Wing Commander franchise...

11'9''01 (Various Directors, 2002)
Omnibus films don’t often "work." 11'9''01 is not the exception to this truism. Inevitably, audiences lean toward one story or another and either feel nonplussed or dislike another (Night on Earth’s Wynona Rider segment comes to mind). Again, 11'9''01 doesn’t challenge this notion. Rather than eleven segments that run nine minutes eleven seconds and one frame, perhaps this film would have been better served with nine, seven, or five. While that might undermine the "symbolism" of the structure, it would have made for a much better experience.

In order of preference, here’s what I liked and why:

Mexico (Alejandro Gonzalez) This is the only segment that came close to pushing any boundaries or using cinema for anything other than a narrative medium. Director Gonzalez primarily relies on sound for an incredible effect. More than seeing the Twin Towers being hit and falling, the audience hears the events against a chorus of voices and feels the terror.

United Kingdom (Ken Loach) A deceptively simple mix of voice-over and archival footage, Loach makes the audience privy to a letter from a Chilean émigré to the people of the United States. He sends his condolences to the victims of 9/11/01 while reminding the U.S. that Americans were the evil-doers behind the events of 9/11/73 with the bloody coup that usurped the democratically-elected government of Chile in favor of a pliable puppet regime that kept the money flowing to U.S. coffers and cost 30,000 lives in the process.

India (Mira Nair) Based on a true story, Mira Nair explores the fear and hatred of Muslim-Americans in the aftermath of 9/11/01.

France (Claude Lelouch) This look at a love affair crumbling on the morning of 9/11/01, this film effectively captures the human element of that terrible day.

Umm... well, maybe I only really liked four of the eleven. There were few that were good but not to the level of the aforementioned.

Egypt (Youssef Chahine) This meandering film features the ghost of a terrorist and Beirut Marine to remind the audience of other terrorist attacks as well as the perpetrators and politics of terrorism. A less jokey and cinematic outing would have worked better. But, at least, this work pushed enough buttons to garner "boos" from the audience.

Burkina Faso (Idrissa Ouedraogo) Some folks objected to this nearly-comedic short about a handful of African youths hunting for Osama Bin Laden in hopes of collecting the $25 million bounty. Other than being cute, the film made quite a statement about the disparity of economic stature between the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Iran (Samira Makhmalbaf) How difficult would it be to really make a child understand what happened in New York without having ever seen an airplane or a skyscraper? How can you make a war refugee understand why the loss of life in America will effect them a world away? This film by Makhmalbaf tries to answer these questions.

And, alas, there were a few complete misfires...

Bosnia-Herzegovine (Danis Tanovic) This could have been a powerful look at the day to day horrors and terrible foreign policy of the U.S. in the Balkans. Instead, this just left me cold.

Israel (Amos Gitaï) In a land where terrorism is a day-to-day (perhaps hour-to-hour) occurrence, you’d think that a film might be able to show the real terror of terrorism. Alas, this had a protagonist who was pushy and annoying.

USA (Sean Penn) Sean, what were you thinking? An old man,Ernest Bornine, wanders around his apartment talking to his dead wife until the first tower falls, magically revitalizing the old man’s flowers and, apparently, leading him to finally let go of his wife. A little human drama but oh-so-trivial and over-directed.

Japan (Shohei Imamura) The only film in the collection set wholly in another time, place, and country 55 years away from 9/11/01. On its own terms, this little story of a Japanese soldier who acts like a snake might work but its "there is no such thing as a holy war" message feels very contrived in this collection.

The strangest thing about this collection of short films had to be that there was little to no mention of any of the other hijacked planes. Going on this work alone, the events in Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. never happened. This dismissal severely hampers the film’s tenuous credibility.

My Little Eye (Marc Evans, 2002)
One of the more effective post-Scream horror films, My Little Eye stays away from abject self-reflexivity and opts for some great thrills and atmospheric creepiness. Reminiscent of "The Real World" populated with the cast of The Breakfast Club set in a creepy mansion (down the road from The Overlook Hotel, apparently), My Little Eye pits its hip twentysomething cast against one another and anything else that might cross their paths in their web-cam-enabled abode. Smartly employing a good-looking cast of young actors that look remarkably like Hollywood hotties (is that James Franco? Alyssa Milano?) the actors gel effortlessly with their stereotypical roles. My only complaint would be the presence of two Emilio Estevez characters and no Anthony Michael Halls.

The use of "hidden" and night vision cameras make for some unsettling images and help to keep the audience off-balance. Likewise, the use of ominous bass tones and ambient noise make the score an important character unto itself. An ambitious and effective thriller, I actually found myself jumping in the appropriate moments. I respect that.

Unfortunately, a respectable theatrical release of My Little Eye in the U.S. seems unlikely, so keep your little eye out for a bootleg copy.

The Last Letter (Frederick Wiseman, 2002)
This latest documentary by Frederick Wiseman captures a one-woman performance of the reading of a letter. It’s the final letter a woman writes to her son from a Jewish ghetto in wartime Russia. Shot in black and white, the lovely image and beautiful use of shadows accents the bittersweet words. Definitely not crackling with adrenaline-fueled excitement, The Last Letter captivates a patient audience.

City of Ghosts (Matt Dillon, 2002)
This film, the directorial debut of Matt Dillon, displays the talent of Dillon as an actor and makes me yearn to see him in a more challenging role. City of Ghosts is nothing you haven’t seen before. It’s kind of like a Frantic meets The Year of Living Dangerously. A man (Dillon) goes off to a spooky foreign country (Cambodia) in search of his father/father figure (James Caan). Along the way, there’s some intrigue, a tacked on romance, and a suitcase full of money. Towards the end of the second act, I had the distinct feeling that the film was being made up as it went along.

I wouldn’t object to watching City of Ghosts on a Friday night on cable but I definitely wouldn’t pay to see it. I would pay to see Dillon in a smartly written Phillip Marlow-esque role.

Dirty Deeds (David Caesar, 2002)
This gangster film from Australia provides fine performances, a glossy look, and a good 110-minutes of entertainment. Directed by David Caesar, Dirty Deeds doesn’t break any new ground in the gangster genre. However, the film is infused with a light-hearted bit of fun from the frank Aussie attitudes of its characters. I highly recommend Dirty Deeds for a movie to rent on a dreary Sunday afternoon.

Volcano High / Hwasango (Kim Tae-kyun, 2002)
At the intersection of Blackboard Jungle and The Matrix resides Volcano High. Herein, the cliques don’t battle for top spot of the school with switchblades but with kenbo sticks and extreme kung fu finesse. The plot has something to do with a sacred scroll, a conniving vice principal and some seriously bad-ass substitute teachers. Our hero, the new kid, is a super-charged delinquent who needs to use his great power with great responsibility. A fun film to experience, Volcano High might not make a lot of sense but it’s the best Korean film I’ve seen all festival.

MC5: A True Testimonial (David C. Thomas, 2002)
How odd it was to attend an international film festival only to see two movies in which Michigan was prominently featured. While the Michigan activity in Bowling for Columbine took place outside the Metro area, MC5: A True Testimonial made this Downriver boy’s heart proud.

Starting out in Lincoln Park, MI, the MC5 are the under-appreciated group who proved that Detroit could be more than "Motown." The Motor City could rock as well. Unfortunately, while other Detroit artists survived the ’60s and ’70s to become asinine disc jockeys (Ted Nugent) or pen soulful songs perfect for prom season (Bob Segar who bought his rhyming dictionary from Book Beat in Oak Park, MI), the MC5 came, rocked, and conquered. However, they remain little more than a footnote in Rock ‘n’ Roll history.

I’d have thought that, perhaps, the MC5 befell the "kill yr idol" mentality of the Motor City and remain better-known in the rest of the country where people support one another. However, that MC5: A True Testimonial exists to uncover the existence and impact of this seminal act makes me reconsider.

Directed by David C. Thomas, MC5g: A True Testimonial charts the rise and fall of the controversial quintet. Through archival and present-day interviews, priceless concert footage, and photographs, the filmmakers paint a vivid portrait of the band and their environment. While the film felt a little long on the ass at 120-minutes, I can’t think of anything that should be cut. In fact, there were several things I should have liked to see expanded. If the FCC didn’t have its head up its ass, MC5: A True Testimonial would be ideal for a two-night special on PBS. Alas, Americans can handle bloodshed but coarse language is too offensive.

I look forward to a day when MC5: A True Testimonial might play at a refurbished Grande Ballroom. Only then would I feel that Detroit could appreciate its roots and be a true "Renaissance Zone."

September 11, 2002
Cabin Fever (Eli Roth, 2002)
I didn’t realize that Roger Ebert being shut out of a screening of Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven would make international news. Indeed, when I returned to the U.S. and tried to tell this tale (mostly to highlight the catty journalists who were chuckling about the misfortune of "Roger") I was greeted with statements of "Oh, yes, I heard about that!" even from my least movie astute chums. I can sympathize with Ebert. I arrived 25 minutes early to the Press and Industry screening of Cabin Fever and, while I didn’t get "shut out," I found that the 91 people already in the theater (of 110 seats) were completely rude bastards.

I felt a little like Forrest Gump going up one aisle and down another. "This seat’s taken," I was told whenever I found one empty. Finally, I had to revert to my "usher mode" of old.

I had always disliked "seating theaters" during my days at the Star Theater as people became highly confrontational when asked to scoot over one seat to make room for a couple. I didn’t want two seats together, however, I just needed one.

"Does anyone here have an empty seat next to them?" I boomed, surprising myself with the strength of my voice.

No response.

"If you have an empty seat next to you, please raise your hand," I requested.

No response.

I was pissed. There were nearly twenty empty seats but they were all "claimed?!?"

"You mean to tell me that there are no free seats?!"

No response.

I felt completely dejected. It was third grade all over again as I slunked over and leaned against the theater wall. Please, someone pick me to sit next to you...

It took a "professional" to find me a seat. Armed with a clipboard and headset, the Toronto Film Festival volunteer knew what to say.

"If you have an empty seat next to you, please raise your hand," he said.

Hands started rising through the theater. Ironically, I ended up sitting in a seat that had been "taken" when I had inquired earlier. Rather than thinking I’m an offensive beast, I’d like to think that the seat-saver realized that their companion was still in line and probably wouldn’t get in.

I’d like to say that the rudeness stopped there but I can’t. After two trailers, the opening credits began and the guy one row up and over hadn’t stopped talking on his cell phone. Despite someone yelling, "Okay, you can hang up now!" the guy continued to chat through the length of the credits.

The lady next to me didn’t talk during the credits. Rather, she talked the rest of the time. When she wasn’t on the phone (she received two calls), she gabbed to the lady next to her. She "harrumphed rather loudly when I shushed her. Yet, that only deterred her conversation for a few seconds.

Now, despite all that chatter, Cabin Fever proved to be an enjoyable flick.

Five youths (apparently five is the perfect number of folks for a story like this) go off for a weekend retreat of beer, sex, and plaintive longing. Bert (James DeBello) is there for the beer. Jeff (Joey Kern) and Marcy (Cerina Vincent) are down with sex and Paul (Rider Strong) is all about longing for Karen (Jordan Ladd). Luckily, this is no "Dawson’s Creek" as a horrible flesh-eating virus crashes the party. Despite the rural setting there’s enough flair and play on real life fear that Cabin Fever doesn’t come off as a pale imitation of The Evil Dead or any other "five kids in a cabin" films.

Apparently there’s a behemoth of hype behind this film. If you can avoid it, do so. Cabin Fever ’s a good film but it’s not the be-all end-all of teen horror that the pundits would have you believe.

Despite the good film, I was left with a mighty bad taste in my mouth after the Cabin Fever screening. I took the rest of the day off and hooked up with Dion and Skizz that night, hanging at a local Mexican place. The next day I dropped Skizz and Dan off at the airport before heading home. The ride back was uneventful until I got to the Canada/U.S. border and was informed that I needed more than a driver’s license to prove citizenship. I ended up getting quizzed by the dicky guard at the booth. It was an opportunity to recall my high school’s colors and I even belted out a verse of "Aunt Hannah"—our school fight song—before I was silenced and sent on my way.

Back to Issue 14