The Toronto International Film Festival 2003 By Mike White. This was my fourth time attending the Toronto International Film Festival. I thought I knew the routine by now so I came prepared...

This was my fourth time attending the Toronto International Film Festival. I thought I knew the routine by now so I came prepared. The last few years I arrived on the first day of the fest and rushed to pick up my Press Pass. A look at the Press/Industry schedule would indubitably reveal that I had missed a full day of screenings; among I had wanted to see at least a half-dozen features.

This year I found out the initial date of the fest and made my reservations for the day before. While I might miss a couple early morning showings, I could live with that. At least I’d have a jump on the festival and on scoring some interviews.

I should have known that things were going awry when I learned the day before I left that every other journalist in the Metro Detroit area already had their interviews booked—having gotten an email to the effect that never showed up in my email inbox. Moreover, when I got to Toronto, I learned that things were different this year. There were no screenings the day before the fest. In fact, the first day of the festival only hosted a smattering of flicks. Rather than showing up a day early, I should have come two days late.

I’m thinking that those surveys I filled out in the weeks and months after TIFF 2002 (I kept sending in surveys and kept getting more...) might have actually made a difference (that and all of Ebert’s bellyaching after getting shut out of Far From Heaven). However, for all the changes that the folks at TIFF may have made, they didn’t do much in the way of letting folks know about them in advance.

Yeah, yeah, I’m bitching way too much for being a tiny magazine allowed to sit in the same auditoriums with cranky critics of renown. I suppose I’m just a little down after some of the less-than-stellar screenings I sat through.

Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2002, USA)
Rather than sit on my hands, I opted to pony up the funds and catch a flick or two at the theater a few feet away from my hotel entrance.

Alas, director Andrew Jarecki has created one of those documentaries that manage to miss the mark by refusing to take a stand. Capturing the Friedmans sacrifices outlook for objectivism. Rather than presenting a full spectrum of facts about the case of Arthur and Jesse Friedman—a father and son from Greatneck, New York accused of hundreds of counts of heinous sex crimes involving young boys—the filmmakers opted to relay the breakdown of the Friedman family. While the dynamics of the Friedman family may be interesting, it pales in comparison to the legal wranglings and mass hysteria that went on in Greatneck.

While Jarecki’s documentary felt painfully neutral (as if demanding that folks break into discussion groups after the film’s end), that doesn’t mean that it isn’t distressfully manipulative. The narrative has a maddening peristaltic retain and reveal structure that apes the current trend in documentaries. The Friedman story is definitely interesting but you’ll find more questions than answers in Jarecki’s film.

Distant / Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2003, Turkey)
My first film of the fest, my first walkout of the fest. I guess it just goes to show me that I shouldn’t trust the local Toronto papers when it comes to movie recommendations. Both EYE and NOW gave Distant their highest ratings. I’m not sure what they saw in Distant but what I saw was a couple guys watching television. I’m sad to report, what they had on TV was far more interesting than what went on in the rest of the film. The story? What little story there is (or that I could sit through) has young Yusef (Mehmet Emin Toprak) coming from his downtrodden village to the big city to find work. He stays with the bitter Mahmut (Muzaffer Ozdemir). It’s kind of like Perfect Strangers but Balki and Cousin Larry sit around a lot and there’s no wackiness.

Save the Green Planet / Jigureul Jikyeora! (Jun-hwan Jeong, 2003, Korean)
Paranoid schizophrenic Lee (Ha-kyun Shin) kidnaps Man Shik Kang (Yun-shik Baek), CEO of Yuje Chemical and space alien in disguise. The majority of the film takes place in Lee’s fortified basement where the audience is made privy to the varied and creative tortures Kang undergoes. Jun-hwan Jeong’s stylishly directed film is reminiscent of Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990) and Robert M. Young’s Extremities (1986).

Will Kang escape? Will Lee’s simpleminded girlfriend Su-ni (Jeong-min Hwang) realize that her man is nuts? Will the wizened but disgraced Chief Chu (Jae-yong Lee) crack the case? Will Lee’s wild claims prove true? Do I really care? Remarkably, yes. Despite the rather tedious storyline, Save the Green Planet managed to hold my attention on its first go ‘round. Apart from a hilarious cardiopulmonary resuscitation scene in which some celebratory kicking of Lee’s lifeless body by Kang brings his kidnapper back from the brink, there’s nothing about the film that I’d like to experience again.

Ong Bak Muay-Thai Warrior (Prachya Pinkaew, 2003, Thailand) / Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003, Korea)
Both Prachya Pinkaew’s Ong Bak and Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder present few new ideas and images to genre fans but that doesn’t mean that they’re anything but completely successful works of chop socky and serial killer films, respectively. Both films are disciplined, keeping within the boundaries of their genres. I chose to review these films concurrently as they compliment each other in their use of city slickers versus country bumpkin conventions.

I’d venture a guess that half of the films in the Toronto International Film Festival are "fish out of water" tales. And, undoubtedly, from there they can be fit into the "Slicker" or "Bumpkin" dichotomy. Inevitably, the Bumpkin in the big city shows the urbanites that he may not know everything about the latest gadgets, but he’s got a purity of vision that has been lost in the metropolitan haze. Conversely, that city fella who has come to the country might think he’s surrounded by loonies but he’ll see the wisdom in their simple life, sho’ ‘nuff.

Luckily, while Ong Bak ’s hero, Ting (Panom Yeerum), may have a much better grasp on morality than his Bangkok cousin, Hae Wah (who’s chucked his real name in favor of the more urbane George), there are no scenes in Ong Bak of a hapless Ting freaking out over a self-flushing toilet. Likewise, in Memories of Murder, Inspector Seo (Kim Sang-Kyung) doesn’t learn that he should dispense with science and logic when dealing with the small-time peacekeeping putzes who keep beating confessions out of the wrong suspects for a series of sex crimes.

That our heroes don’t overtly cast off their long-held beliefs for the ways of others helps to make both films stand strong. It doesn’t hurt either that Memories of Murder has some seat-jumping thrills (and a few unexpected gut-busting laughs) or that Ong Bak has some fresh and fabulous fight scenes (Yeerum might be part kangaroo, judging by his jumping abilities).

These were the best films I caught at TIFF 2003 and I highly recommend them.

Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003, USA)
"Here’s a picture of Mount Fuji."
"And here we are at the karaoke bar."
"And here’s Bill and Charlotte, I mean Bob and Scarlett, no, I mean Bob and Charlotte in the bar."
"This is Giovani Ribisi. He was on set for a couple hours. He didn’t have much of a part."

Unless they’re put to song by the Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players, looking at other people’s vacation photos isn’t much of a fun activity. Lost in Translation feels like Sophia Coppola’s trip to Japan. While a fun preview (and pretty to look at), there’s little else good I can say about Coppola’s sophomore feature.

Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), two American fish out of water, have a David Lean-ish Brief Encounter against a background of everything stereotypically Japanese. Name five things that you think of when you think "Japan" and they’re in this movie. From karaoke to sushi to wacky TV programs to Shinto temples,: they’re all in the mix. The only thing missing—other than characterization and a bit more plot—is the obligatory montage set to The Vapors’ "I’m Turning Japanese."

Like the fellows in Distant, I’d have rather watched more of what Murray and Johansson were tuning into on their television than them. The scenes I liked the best—those where Murray seemed free to riff the most while working on some whiskey commercials—were over before they began and sorely missed in the second half of this tiresome film.

Oh, and for the record, Bill Murray should never play a character named Bob again unless he’s opposite Richard Dreyfus. I kept expecting Bob to baby step his way around downtown Tokyo.

Vibrator (Ryuichi Hiroki, 2003, Japan)
Ryuichi Hiroki’s Vibrator is another oddball "romance" set against the backdrop of Japan. While Lost in Translation ’s Bob and Charlotte never consummate their relationship (lest the audience think anything bad about them—better that they live in rotten marriages than have a little fun), it doesn’t take long for Rei (Shinobu Terajima) and Takatoshi (Nao Ohmori) to bump uglies in the cab of Takatoshi’s truck. Feeling something like a cross between Two Lane Blacktop and Body Drop Asphalt, Vibrator is the existential journey of star-crossed lovers across Japan coupled with Rei’s personal exploration.

While Lost in Translation is more of a shabu-shabu style film, Vibrator is like fine tempura—crisp and full of flavor. Saddled with an unfortunate title (and a misleading one at that—there are no vibrators in Hiroki’s film), Vibrator will remain overlooked while Lost in Translation has that cute, quirky quality which proves intoxicatingly endearing to critics and audiences.

Cypher (Vincenzo Natali, 2002, Canada)
You are not a Cashiers du Cinemart reader; you are Jack Thursby. Or, are you Morgan Sullivan? More than just sharing its title with Joe Pantoliano’s character from The Matrix, Vincenzo Natali’s Cypher is indebted to the Waschowski Brothers’ reality-bending series. Moreover, Cypher oozes Philip K. Dick-style double and triple twists.

Starring Jeremy Northam as Morgan Sullivan, Cypher employs some of my favorite brain washing techniques (a la A Clockwork Orange and The Parallax View) to turn Sullivan into Thursby, corporate spy and modern Manchurian Candidate. Unsure of who he is and why he’s having some bad headaches, the ever-cute Lucy Liu appears to come to his rescue. While the twists and turns may have been visible from a distance, Cypher was still a fun ride. Had I not just watched Total Recall again a few days prior, I think I would have found Cypher a bit fresher. As it is, when you get a chance to see Cypher —as it appears doomed to skip theaters, look for it at your local video store—it’s definitely worth a rental.

The Tesseract (Oxide Pang, 2003, Thailand)
Oxide Pang’s international co-production, The Tesseract has been unfairly likened to The Matrix. It’s an undue slur against The Matrix ’s good name to sully it with such a comparison. There is one inexplicable shot towards the beginning of The Tesseract, which employs some "bullet time" photographic effects, but this feels out of place and makes little narrative sense. Otherwise, The Tesseract is a laborious experiment in time fragmentation. Not unlike the finale of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown or Pulp Fiction, the audience is subjected to seeing the same scenes play out from several points of view as if there was a game of "52 Pick-Up" going on in the film’s editing room.

Ironically, I had encountered the term "tesseract" just a few days prior to seeing Pang’s film when I saw the sequel to Vincenzo Natali’s Cube. Simply stated, a tesseract is a four-dimensional equivalent of a cube. To put it another way, Pang’s The Tesseract has several blockheads running around time and again. The film stars Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as an incompetent drug dealer and Saskia Reeves as a self-obsessed psychologist. Both end up at the same hotel in Thailand and interact with an urchin named Wit. At one point the two are both looking for the kid and I couldn’t help but think, "This sums up the whole movie—‘Witless.’" One to avoid.

Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003, USA)
The French have declared war. That’s the only reason I can see Elephant winning at Cannes. Those damn French want to trick Americans into wasting their time and brain cells on such a wretched movie.

I know that Elephant ’s going to produce scads of opinions, editorials, and "thought pieces." Who am I to avoid putting in my two cents into the critical kitty? After all, I paid my dues—I sat through all 89 long minutes of this Gus Van Sant flick.

The premise of Elephant is sure to raise some eyebrows—it’s a day (or so) in the lives of some kids in a Columbine-like high school. Yes, there’s a shooting and a bit of teen angst. There’s not a lot of angst as angst is a human emotion, but there aren’t any people in Elephant, only stereotypes—walking and talking stereotypes. We follow the jock, the photographer, the geeky girl, the bitchy bulimics, et al., as they walk around their high school.

There’s a bit of fractured time structure (this year’s cliché?) to help muddy the film’s waters in hopes of making them appear deep. I’m certain that the continual change of time, place, and "perspective" (whose head are we following now?) is meant to raise tension as well as play into a John Godfrey Saxe interpretation of film’s title. For me, these switches from one long single take to another told me that something might actually happen in this cockadoodie movie.

These long, dull scenes had the odd effect of making me want the bloodshed to happen sooner and to be as violent as possible. I would rather see these actors prone in a pool of red-tinged karo syrup than endlessly walk the halls of their generic high school. I wanted them to undergo some excruciating pain—I wanted them to feel what I was feeling.

Of course, not knowing any of the characters includes that the audience gets little information about the duo destined to shoot up their school. As with the other stereotypes, these two trench coat mafia wannabes play violent video games, watch history channel specials on Hitler, and have Satan for a car air freshener. The only thing missing from their lives is a little heavy metal music. Rather, these kids are into Beethoven. Maybe it’s that damn Fur Elise that’s driving these kids nuts...

I don’t think I’d have been surprised to hear these kids groovin’ on some "destined to reprogram your child into a killing machine" tunes. However, I don’t know what era these songs would come from. The hair, the clothes, and the break dancing all suggest that Elephant takes place either in the mid-’80s or in some trend-defying town.

Oh, and finally, did I mention that the killers are gay? Yeah, you read right. They’re gay. I guess that’s one of those problem signs that goes hand in hand with ordering guns on the internet. Where does Gus Van Sant get off spicing up these two bland characters with some boy on boy kissing? The short scene of the killers cohabitating in the shower coupled with an earlier sore-thumb scene of a classroom "Can you tell if someone’s gay by looking at them?" discussion left me even more disgusted with his vacuous film.

The unadorned "narrative style" of Elephant had me longing to see the same-titled film from Alan Clarke. At least Clarke didn’t bore his audience to tears and throw in a few hot button themes to get folks (like me) all up in arms. More than sensationalistic and exploitative, Elephant was just plain benumbing and cheesy. I was actually expecting Elephant to end with a kid waking up at his desk. "Oh, it was all a dream," he’d say with a doodle of TNT on his notebook. Or, at that moment, we’d hear the ominous cock of a rifle before going to black, knowing that the dream was only too real... Yes, Elephant is that bad of a movie. This one is to avoid at all costs.

Ju-On: The Gruge (Takashi Shimizu, 2002, USA)
Having heard rave reviews about this film from Takashi Shimizu and its made-for-Japanese-TV incarnations, I had high hopes for Ju-On. Truth be told, I was expecting another thriller in the RING mold. Rather, I witnessed a rather shoddy knock-off of The Ring. Between its perpetuating curse theme, its scary longhaired ghost, and its "cursed people look weird in photographs" themes, I was struck with a severe case of déjà vu.

Ju-On lacks a strong protagonist to investigate the strange goings-on at a suburban home. Just when I thought our lead actor had finally stepped on screen a half-hour into the vignette-structured film, Ju-On jumped gears like a worn out transmission. Suddenly, we’re several years into the future and I was left choking in the sputtering wake. The feeling of confusion didn’t dissipate. Rather, it increased, culminating in the film’s head scratching finale, which appeared to turn the story into some kind of parable for the cyclical nature of domestic violence.


The only thing that Ju-On had that The Ring didn’t was a creepy cat/kid that proved genuinely ookie. This is one of the few times where I was looking forward to foreign intervention in the inevitable U.S. remake scenario. Alas, it’s Shimizu behind the camera again for the remake. There’s little to be done to Ju-On to make it worse; it could only get better. If you’re ever tempted to see Ju-On, just rent The Ring, Ringu, or Ring: Virus instead.

Zatoichi (Takashi Kitano, 2003, Japan)
Of all the films at the Toronto International Film Festival I was looking the most forward to, Takeshi Kitano’s re-imagining of the classic chambara tale, Zatoichi, was at the top of the list. With such high hopes, it’s no wonder that I ended up a tad disappointed.

Zatoichi is a well-structured, multifaceted tale of filial loyalty and honor. In addition to directing, Kitano wrote the screenplay and stars as the titular blind gambling masseuse. I was struck by how seldom we see Zatoichi but Kitano seems to realize how ancillary the character is to the story. The tale belongs more to geishas and ronin. However, it’s difficult to sympathize with these characters due to their means of introduction and subsequent lack of development.

Staying true to the "geysers of blood" style of violence that made the original film series popular, Kitano’s Zatoichi utilizes digital effects for the gorier scenes. While the digital blood looks fine, losses of limbs or fingers look awkward and cartoonish. Despite this, the film is pleasantly punctuated with scenes of swordplay whenever things seem to be getting dull.

Admittedly, Kitano’s Zatoichi begins to come apart at the seams near the end of the film. It’s a stretch to think that the cool, calculating Zatoichi would ever start a fight (he always finishes them).

End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (Michael Gramaglia & Jim Fields, 2003, USA)
Gabba gabba huh? End of the Century would like to stand alone as the be-all end-all documentary of The Ramones, the seminal New York punk band. Alas, through its 110-minutes, Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields’ mixed media movie barely scratches too many surfaces. Where was the origin of The Ramones’ homogenous names and leather jackets? Coming from a scene rife with glam and synthesizers, the revolutionary atavistic look and three-chord rock was revolutionary but seemingly under appreciated.

End of the Century seems to set up a premise that The Ramones were always on the brink of major mainstream success but never quite made it. To think that this group of eccentrics with their songs about lobotomies, psychotherapy, and shock treatment would ever become media darlings is folly, exceeded only by the notion that The Ramones weren’t successful. I don’t have one friend who wouldn’t recognize at least one Ramones tune; the same can’t be said for many other bands I listen to. Additionally, how many bands get to star in an AIP film?

Rock ‘N’ Roll High School is barely a blip on the End of the Century radar screen. The general impression I got was that the Ramones weren’t too happy about the film. Regardless of their opinion, Rock ‘N’ Roll High School remains a terrific juvenile delinquent movie. How often do you get to see Paul Bartel dance with a giant mouse? And where was that classic clip of Dick Miller saying, "They’re ugly, ugly people"? (For more on Rock ‘N’ Roll High School and the bands that Warner Brothers suggested before they suggested The Ramones, see Teenage Rampage #1).

While there’s some great concert footage in End of the Century, there are few clips from the group’s videos and no discussion of the group’s unconventional lyrics or even their references to Todd Browning’s Freaks. Other than learning just how much of a controlling megalomaniac Johnny is or what a basket case Dee Dee was, I came away from End of the Century with more questions than answers. I’m still waiting for that end-all be-all Ramones documentary.

The Yes Men (Dan Ollman, Sarah Price & Chris Smith, 2003, USA)
People don’t do their homework. They see a website that seems to have a legitimate URL and, rather than sitting down and doing a little research or reading the site’s content, they act without consideration, proving the axiom about assumption. While I try to correct people when they think that I’m the same Mike White who wrote Chuck & Buck, the Yes Men take advantage of people’s misconception to hilarious ends.

The Yes Men, a loose organization of educated pranksters, are known for provoking the wrath of George W. Bush for their website, — a nonfictional, albeit parodic, answer to Bush’s official website. Either Bush doesn’t know how to take a joke or he’s got a little too much to hide. Regardless, The Yes Men ’s antics provoked Bush’s infamous declaration that there’s such a thing as "too much freedom." Ever since, he’s done whatever he can to remedy that situation.

But I digress. The Yes Men isn’t about poking fun at George W. Bush. Rather, this documentary by Dan Ollman, Sarah Price, and Chris Smith follows some of the exploits of The Yes Men as (mis)representatives of the World Trade Organization. Along with, the Yes Men also run From there, they’ve managed to receive invitations to speak or debate at several events as WTO spokesmen. Speaking for the WTO, the Yes Men have gone on record with off the wall statements and shenanigans. More outrageous, for all of their bizarre antics, no one questions their pranks. It isn’t until they go before a group of young people to present a speech about recycling human waste for food in third world countries that they’re scrutinized.

If you like media pranks, you’ll love The Yes Men.

The Singing Detective (Keith Gordon, 2003, USA)
I’ll admit that I’ve never seen "The Singing Detective" TV mini-series from Britain. However, Keith Gordon’s Singing Detective —a film version of the earlier work—made me very curious to see the seven hour mini-series of 1986. While Dennis Potter penned both the TV and film versions, I was left with the feeling that the movie rendition was the equivalent of watching the Cliff’s Notes of The Singing Detective, albeit with a bigger budget and cadre of Hollywood celebrities.

Robert Downey Jr. plays the title character (who would be more accurately called "The Lip-synching Detective"). Covered from head to toe with psoriasis, Downey manages to deliver most of his dialogue through a clenched jaw, leaving me yearning for subtitles. Hospitalized for his condition, we follow Downey in and out of delusions wherein he mixes fantasy and reality in a hard-boiled murder mystery.

Emotionally stunted (practically wearing his caustic feelings on his skin), Downey’s Dan Dark has a lot of issues with women. He works through these via his colorful hallucinations about his wife (Robin Wright Penn) and mother (Carla Gugino). The "mystery" in Dark’s life isn’t much of a head-scratcher. If anything, it feels like The Singing Detective has been pruned of its more original aspects leaving a rather rote tale of a contemptuous curmudgeon, peppered with startling musical numbers.

Haute Tension / Switchblade Romance (Alexandre Aja, 2003, France)
I walked out of Alexandre Aja’s sophomore film. After sitting through well over 60 of the film’s 87-minutes (shortly before the lame, inevitable twist ending), I simply couldn’t stomach watching Haute Tension ’s protagonist, Alex (Cecile de France) doing yet another stupid thing. Teens in horror films aren’t known for their brilliance but Alex should be bumped up to the top of the brain transplant list. It’s only lucky for her that the film’s menacing, unstoppable killer often proves as unobservant as she is stupid.

Haute Tension (oddly called Switchblade Romance—I saw neither) plays like The Last Chateau on the Left. About the only thing good I can say about the film is that it’s well-shot. The glossy look is appropriate, as Haute Tension never goes below the surface. It’s slick with fake blood and day-for-night lighting and rife with cliché. After our harebrained heroine hid in a toilet stall, I knew that Haute Tension had truly hit rock bottom. Haute Tension is a heinous film, guilty of being a blatantly banal thriller.

Underworld (Len Wiseman, 2003, USA)
I felt beaten up after sitting through the two hours of Underworld. This humorless film portrays itself as a tale of star-crossed lovers from warring clans of werewolves and vampires. At least, we’re supposed to believe that Michael (Scott Speedman), a newly turned lycanthrope, and Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a vampire sworn to wipe out werewolves, are in love. Characters in Underworld are bereft of any human emotions except, perhaps, anger. In Les Wiseman’s directorial shorthand, if a man and a woman are on screen at the same time they’re either in love or mad at one another.

Underworld could be considered a supernatural Romeo & Juliet but it’d be more appropriate to think of it as a gothic Jungle Fever. According to the lore of the film, vampires enslaved werewolves to watch over their tombs during the daylight hours (why use bodyguards that are only most effective at night during the full moon never comes to fore). Yeah, sure, they’re great at watching our crypts but we don’t want our daughters to marry one of them. The best exhibition of the interracial analogy comes in the character of Raze (Kevin Grevioux), a hulking African American. When this seemingly indestructible shape shifter goes head to head with a vampire, the former werewolf master is conspicuously armed with a pair of whips!

The bi-racial couple theme would have been more effective if Michael had been played by an African American actor. If I had been in charge of casting, I’d have gone for Chris Tucker as Michael. Tucker could have provided Underworld with some sorely needed levity and a protagonist who might not have complacently accepted a world of bloodthirsty immortals. As Underworld seems to take its inspiration from the Blade movies (particularly Blade II), screenwriter Danny McBride would have done well to take note of Blade’s Karen Jenson (N’Bushe Wright) who acts as the audience’s foil and who shows some genuine dismay when her world is suddenly turned upside down.

Underworld may not be much of a movie but it’s one heck of a fashion show. Kate Beckinsale’s fetishistic latex and leather ensemble accents all of her many lovely curves. The cinematography of Underworld is also noteworthy. Drained of red, the look of Underworld is as cold and lifeless as its characters.

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