The Toronto International Film Festival 2006 By MIke White. Autumn 2006. Magic and murder are in the air. There are period murder mysteries (Hollywoodland, The Black Dahlia) and magician tales (The Illusionist, The Prestige) vying for the eyeballs of audiences worldwide...

Autumn 2006. Magic and murder are in the air. There are period murder mysteries (Hollywoodland, The Black Dahlia) and magician tales (The Illusionist, The Prestige) vying for the eyeballs of audiences worldwide. Fall in Toronto can mean only one thing: it’s time for the hotels to fill up and the bars to overflow each night of the Toronto International Film Festival, the biggest little fest in North America. The stars come out the media drools over sightings of anyone remotely related to Hollywood or the film biz in any shape, size, or form. It’s almost embarrassing, but I’ll admit I have had to do a double take on occasion—"Was that Maggie Gyllenhaal?"

I used to bitch and moan about not knowing when the festival screenings were going to start. Were they the first day of the fest? The second? The day before? I’ve decided that I don’t give a heck anymore. If I get in early it’s something of a treat. Toronto has scads of movie theaters with plenty of films that aren’t readily available in Detroit. Rather than the day before the fest being a write-off, I’ve turned it into something of a personal event. In years past I’ve caught up with Capturing the Friedmans, American Splendor, Dirty Pretty Things, and more. Apparently, I have something for Paul Giamatti flicks in foreign cities, as this year it was The Illusionist that I managed to see (I couldn’t find the showtimes for Idiocracy).

The Illusionist (Neil Burger, USA, 2006)
Based on Steven Millhauser’s short story, Eisenheim the Illusionist, this beautifully shot period piece is fairly hokey and completely predictable. That said, I still had a lot of fun watching it come together.

It’s a typical boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back story with Edward Norton as Eisenheim, a sleight of hand artist, who falls for the wrong dame, Sophie (Jessica Biel, sporting some big choppers and a nice plump heinie in the final shot). She’s an aristocrat, way out of his poor-boy league. The two are separated by the powers that be, only to be reunited years later when Eisenheim becomes the toast of Vienna and Sophie attends one of his gigs with her almost-fiancé, Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell, doing the darndest Jude-Law-with-ridiculous-moustache impersonation ever seen). Also on the scene is Paul Giamatti as Chief Inspector Uhl. He’s doing his best to maintain law and order while also favoring the Crown Prince in hopes of political advancement.

There’s lots of intrigue with more than enough special effects to go around. Luckily, Eisenheim’s illusions are not all "flash-bang wowzer" stuff. It’s subtle and keeps the story from lurching into something too big for its britches. This is a little film and, rightly, the tricks are small as well. I enjoyed the old-time look of the film (the center of the picture is very clear while the edges seem soft, and there is a distinct flicker to some flashback scenes), and was able to overlook the odd "we’re in a foreign country so let’s all have English accents" staple.

12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, 2006)
The title of this low-key comedy refers to the moment in 1989 that Nicolai Ceausescu was deposed as the leader of Romania. Taking place over one day sixteen years later in a small town (east of Bucharest, dontcha know?), the first half of the film introduces the audience to the three main characters: TV personality Jderescu (Teodor Corban), drunkard professor Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), and long-time local Santa Claus Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu). We linger a while to see Piscoci getting a new Santa suit, Manescu trying to pay off his drinking debts, and Jderescu attempting to obtain guests for his afternoon program.

Everyone knows one another in this small town whose only current problem is not Communism, but the random kid setting off fireworks in apartment hallways. This "Our Town" mentality makes for some interesting TV. On Jderescu’s "Issue of the Day" show, Manescu boldly proclaims that he and three teacher buddies stormed the town’s main square in anticipation of Ceausecu’s stepping down. It doesn’t take long for everyone and their brother to call in and pile onto Manescu, poking holes in his tall tale.

The film isn’t the most riveting, but I hung with it due to the fine performances by its three leads. There isn’t much to invest in this film except time. There are some long, lingering shots that reminded me of Aki Kaurismäki and the dry humor only strengthened this association. All in all, not a bad way to start the fest.

Days of Glory / Indigenes (Rachid Bouchareb, France, 2006)
Take one part Glory (Edward Zwick, USA, 1989), two parts Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1998), a pinch of A Soldier’s Story (Norman Jewison, USA, 1984), stir in a dash of French bitters and pour into a Colonial carafe. Say a prayer to Allah and take a sip. You’re enjoying a drink Rachid Buchareb calls Indigenes.

Exploring the exploitation of French colonials in Algeria and Morocco during World War II, Indigenes takes its title from the politically correct term for Africa’s indigenous peoples. To the less enlightened, these men—though they be brave of heart—are dark of skin and are known more commonly by the derisive term "wog." Denied promotion, leave, honor, and tomatoes, these men still strive to defend their wicked step-Motherland against the Germans.

We follow a group of four "wogs" during campaigns in Italy and France. Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) is an idealist Corporal who gained his rank through study rather than battle. Yassir (Samy Nacéri) hopes to earn money to help his beloved brother get married. Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), the sharpshooter, falls for one of the women in a town he helps to liberate. And Said (Jamel Debbouze) is a bumpkin with a heart of gold who learns the harsh realities of life.

These men are lead by Sgt. Martinez (Bernard Blancan), who bumps his head on the glass ceiling that his white colonial masters have put in place. However, he’s in a much better spot than his men: he’s a Christian and a Moroccan, while his men are Algerian Muslims. These men are the first to die in battles and the last to be shown appreciation. Meanwhile, the French stand offsides during battles and force their rancid culture on their African "children" otherwise.

The performances are top notch and our main characters are some of the most dynamic and multifaceted that I’ve seen on screen in a while. A lack of screen direction during the battle scenes is disconcerting but, to the dismay of some war film aficionados, these scenes are infrequent. The blatant Saving Private Ryan ending is a bit much, but it does help bring closure to the film.

Confetti (Debbie Isitt, United Kingdom, 2006)
There are few things so stressful in life as planning and executing a wedding. When that morass of charged emotions runs headlong into a contest held by Confetti Magazine for the "most original wedding," things are bound to get messy.

Three couples are chosen for their unique wedding ideas: Matt (Martin Freeman) and Sam (Jessica Stevenson) want a Hollywood musical style; Josef (Stephen Mangan) and Isabelle (Meredith MacNeill) vie for a tennis theme; and Michael (Robert Webb) and Joanna (Olivia Colman) are "naturalists" and want their nuptials to be done in the nude. Trying to wrangle these three disparate couples into some kind of order are wedding planners Archie Heron (Vincent Franklin) and Gregory Hough (Jason Watkins), who seem to be channeling Corky St. Clair...

Shot as a documentary, this British ensemble piece is sure to be (justly) compared to Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries (Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, et cetera). Director Debbie Isitt does a fair job of aping Guest, though she doesn’t know when to go from documentary handheld to a smoother, choreographed camera and relies too much on non-diegetic music.

Clearly, too, Isitt is aware of the weaknesses to the storyline. Two of the three couples are off screen for long stretches, and our "villainous" couple (think Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock from Best in Show) is mishandled in the finale. Even when they’re not working with the best material (how many jokes about a nudist wedding can there be?), the cast does a terrific job keeping the film afloat. Besotted with faces familiar to anglophile TV/film viewers, Confetti is an amusing farce.

Palimpest (Konrad Niewolski, Poland, 2006)
Detective Marek (Andrzej Chyra) is determined to find the killer of his ex-partner. Why ex? The two may or may not have parted ways due to a ménage à trois with Hanna (Magdalena Cielecka), Marek’s former partner’s dangerously beautiful main squeeze. Marek embarks on a labyrinthine journey through echoing hallways and visual reverberations of repeated phrases and images.

Palimpest begins with a lot of promise, but it quickly becomes apparent that somebody has been watching a lot of David Lynch films, and that somebody is director Konrad Niewolski. Shocking flashes of flashbacks, backwards dream sequences, and characters who seem to be able to see things that they shouldn’t (think Robert Blake’s Mystery Man in Lost Highway) all play into a mystery that isn’t all that mysterious, especially for link-minded Lynch fans or viewers familiar with fare such as Fight Club, The Machinist, Revolver, Twelve Monkeys, or The Wizard of Oz ("And you were there... and you... And you!) Don’t rush out to see this any time soon.

Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell, USA, 2006)
I know that Shortbus is John Cameron Mitchell’s second film, but that’s not the kind of "sophomore" I refer to when I call this film "sophomoric." An ensemble piece about love and sex in New York City, Shortbus has a good deal of laughs and poignant observations, but they’re nearly usurped by its "film school senior project" aesthetic.

Reminiscent of countless films I’ve endured at various "underground" film festivals, Shortbus sports uneven acting and relies too heavily on its "frank treatment of human sexuality." That is to say, there are a lot of boobs, butts, and penises on screen. While I appreciate that this isn’t done purely for titillation (and audience tittering), too much of it felt like a "transgressive cinema" reworking of "Sex in the City." Sure to cause a flurry of media attention (or so the producers hope), Shortbus won’t live up to the hype. Go try to find a copy of Sarah Jacobson’s Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore instead.

Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forster, USA, 2006)
Definitely cut from that "out there" cloth of Charley Kauffman (Adaptation, Being John Malcovich), Stranger Than Fiction is a more accessible film. Harold Crick (an understated Will Ferrell) is an I.R.S. agent living a bland life of quiet desperation that happens to be narrated by Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson). Little does he know that he’s the main character in Eiffel’s latest novel. Luckily, this isn’t one of those "writer makes fictional character do dumb things" films, á la Rob Reiner’s Alex & Emma, but a fun mix of narrative fiction and schizophrenia.

When a psychologist (Linda Hunt) can’t help him, Harold goes to a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman, also thankfully understated) who tries to determine what genre Harold is living. There’s also a romance along the way with a baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) that Harold is auditing that feels a little undercooked. Queen Latifah is also along for the ride in kind of a wasted role, and apparently Tom Hulce is somewhere in this film, but I just can’t remember seeing him in it.

I’m not usually one for Will Ferrell films, but I was glad to see him playing it relatively straight here. There were very few yelling fits or broad physical comedy. It’s actual more of a "serio-comic" performance and, as long as he doesn’t go around moping if he doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, he could teach Jim Carrey a thing or two about how to easily pass from comedy to dramedy without delving into crap like The Truman Show or Man in the Moon.

Whatever you do, don’t watch the preview for this one, though, as it gives away quite a few of the film’s finer moments.

Taxidermia (György Pálfi, Hungary, 2006)
Beginning in World War II-era Hungary, two soldiers stay at a remote country home. The sexually frustrated soldier Vendel (Csaba Czene) concerns himself with myriad masturbation techniques while watching his commanding officer’s wife and daughters. The product of his frequent seed spillage, Kálmán (Gergo Trócsányi), grows to comfort his country as a champion eater. While the International Olympic Committee refuses to recognize his sport, Kalman remains stolid and captures the heart of Gizella (Adél Stanczel), a female fellow champion. Their heir, Lajos (Marc Bischoff), has not inherited an ounce of his parents’ impressive girth. This sickly lad lives a life of quiet desperation as a taxidermist. A disappointment to his corpulent father, Lajos finds a few lucky solutions to solve his problems.

Following these three generations of fairly twisted fellows, Taxidermia is light on plot but heavy on visuals. Visceral often to the point of being gross, few bodily fluids and orifices go unseen in Palfi’s sophomore feature effort.

Lights in the Dark (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland, 2006)
When you find a formula that works you often stick to it, even to the point of spinning your wheels until you become something of either an establishment or a cliché. Director Aki Kaurismäki may do well to bear this in mind before embarking on his next languid look at sad-faced Finns moving in somnambulistic circles through the streets of Helsinki.

Perhaps considering Juha and Man Without A Past too fast-paced, Kaurismäki slows down the action in Lights in the Dark to a snail’s pace. A retelling of a fairly common noir plot, night watchman Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) becomes the unexpected object of affection for the lovely Mirja (Maria Järvenhelm). Of course, she’s a gangster’s moll who’s been placed on the task of using Koistinen for his security codes and keys to pull off a jewelry heist, for which he’s framed and jailed.

Oddly, prison is the only place where we see Koistinen exhibit any emotion remotely resembling happiness. Yes, he actually smiles. When he’s paroled, he returns to being a prisoner of his own loneliness. And, when he runs into the dame that sent him up the river, passions run warm.

Koistinen sort of seeks revenge and then the movie just kind of ends. Believe it or not, though, I enjoyed this film. Despite making me wonder if Kaurismäki is playing it safe by recycling the same ideas, his films are often like comfort food and it would take a lot to make me sick of macaroni and cheese. Rather than keeping on the safe ground, Kaurismäki could follow in the footsteps of his friend and fellow minimalist auteur Jim Jarmusch and make Finnish equivalents of Ghost Dog or Dead Man. On second thought, keep with what you’re doing, Aki.

Pan’s Labyrnth (Guillermo del Toro, Spain, 2006)
There are terrifying moments as we witness the fated journey of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), but the true horrors in Guillermo del Toro’s film stem from the sadistic Captain Vidal (Sergi López), her stepfather. Austere and severe, he holds few people dear, with the possible exception of his unborn son. Captain Vidal is determined to root out the communist rebel fighters who hide in the ancient forest and hills surrounding his country base of operations. Yet, the Captain’s own servant Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) and personal physician (álex Angulo) are in league with the fighters. In her own way, Ofelia is helping them, too, as she keeps Mercedes’s secret.

Added to this riveting war drama is a good dose of magic and magical realism, as Ofelia finds the fairies of the forest and learns that she must make several sojourns to the shadows in order to claim her rightful place as heir to the Underworld. At times, it feels like there should be more of this story but it’s more of a longing to see el fantastico.

If the pattern holds, we can expect a few Hollywood films (some good, some bad) from del Toro before he does another smaller Spanish language film set in wartime with overtones of horror/fantasy. That future film, along with The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrnth, will be dubbed "Guillermo del Toro’s Somethingorother Trilogy" and sold as a box set of DVDs. Look for it at your local Target store.

For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest, USA, 2006)
A return to The Big Picture by way of Waiting for Guffman, Christopher Guest’s For Your Consideration is more a pure narrative than adlibbed mockumentary. A film within a film, á la ...And God Spoke or Living in Oblivion, it’s obvious that some of the scenes rely on actors adlibbing (Jennifer Coolidge’s scenes feel the most so) but others have been completely "locked down" and shot as a traditional (albeit flatly lit) film.

The inner narrative, Home For Purim, sounds as if it were penned by Ed Begley Jr.’s character from A Mighty Wind, as it’s peppered with out-of-place Yiddish. Home For Purim exacerbates the "sore thumb" phrases by putting them in the mouths of a 1940s Southern family. Think Blanche Dubois going meshuge or Kats on a Hot Tin Dakh. We follow the production of Home For Purim, joining it already in progress. Here we see the cast’s dynamics and how they change when the film gets an early Oscar buzz.

With appearances by Guest’s regulars (along with a few notable newcomers, such as Ricky Gervais and Rachel Harris), I didn’t find myself getting too invested in any of the characters, even leading lady Catherine O’Hara. There are some great moments in For Your Consideration, but it’s not a Guest film that I’ll be watching again soon.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, USA, 2006)
I came into Borat fairly unfamiliar with the work of Sacha Baron Cohen. I had downloaded a few "Ali G" clips but had never experienced Cohen’s other characters. I was delighted to make Borat’s acquaintance.

The host of a wildly popular show on Kazakhstan TV, Borat acts as a cultural ambassador when he and his producer, Azamat (Ken Davitian), land on American soil, determined to document this strange country for his government’s glorious cultural ministry. All goes well as Borat takes a course in understanding American humor and interviews a group of feminists, but when he discovers the beauty that America has to offer in the form of C.J. Parker / Pamela Anderson, he begins an errant quest to make her his wife. High five!

The humor of Borat is one not of cultural snobbishness, where we mock a "fish out of Kazakhstan water" protagonist, but one instead where the fish is making fun of the waters he’s in. Poking fun at rednecks, fratboys, fundamentalists, and gun nuts (among others), no one is safe from his cockeyed observations and probing questions. Some patrons of the earlier Borat screenings admitted to feeling guilty for laughing at parts of the film. I imagine that the rampant political incorrectness of Borat’s "culture" has and will make some viewers squeamish (some to the point of being incensed), but I always admire comedy that plays against conventions in a smart, funny way. Borat does this.

Laughing to the point of hyperventilating, I haven’t had so much fun at a film since South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut.

10 Items or Less (Brad Silberberg, USA, 2006)
This was the first film of the fest that I just ducked into without having any prior knowledge. It filled a gap in my schedule.

I predict 10 Items or Less (a grammatically incorrect phrase that drives me mad) will be renamed in Hong Kong to "Cashiers’ Day With Crazy Black Actor." An unnamed actor who looks a lot like Morgan Freeman (played by Morgan Freeman) does character research at a barrio grocery store. When the production’s PA flunky doesn’t show up to fetch him, he hitches a ride with firecracker cashier Scarlet (Paz Vega) and, via his mystical Zen powers (perhaps called "Zihuatanejo"), he helps her gain self confidence and puts her on the path to a better life. Luckily, his magic is more Dr. Phil or Zig Ziglar than that kind of "the magic Negro" theme of The Green Mile or The Legend of Bagger Vance.

Playing like a sunbaked Before Sunrise or My Dinner With Arby, 10 Items or Less did well filling my time but didn’t do much more than that.

Hula Girls (Sang-il Lee, Japan, 2006)
As the world turns from coal to other fossil fuels, leaders of the mining town of Joban have plans for a hot springs-heated, palm-lined paradise resort with a Hawaiian theme. To that end, they hire a Tokyo dance instructor, Mrs. Hirayama (Yasuko Matsuyuki) to teach the local girls how to shimmy their hey-nani-nani to tropical tunes.

Brave enough to bare their midriff, four girls stay in the troupe. There’s not one nuclear family intact in the film—one parent or other is missing from the lives of every one of our main characters. The plot proceeds by the numbers, with several montages of progress. There are fumbles and squabbles, too, as our cadre of lovable losers strive to overcome adversity and learn the value of teamwork and pursuing a dream. The only real surprise of the film was the sudden jump in membership to the troupe between one scene and the next. Suddenly, our group of four had grown to twenty.

Far more distracting, however, was the use of non-period English language music in a very poignant scene. This double whammy really propelled me out of 1964 Japan. I should have hoped for Petty Booka on the soundtrack, if any modern music might be used. Still, the film managed to make me tear up during the big finale. Call it Billy Elliot in a Grass Skirt or Shall We Hula Dance?Hula Girls does its job in a fairly competent manner.

The Fall (Tarsem Singh, USA, 2006)
Director Tarsem Singh utilizes his vivid visual style to an effective narrative end.

Knowing that Tarsem made that waste of celluloid, The Cell (you mean that good detective work solved this case and all that dream stuff was just crap?), almost kept me from seeing The Fall. Needless to say, my expectations were so low that they were practically subterranean.

Keeping this in mind, any bit of competent storytelling would have blown me away. Luckily, Tarsem and his two fellow screenwriters, Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis, had a good story to start with via Valeri Petrov’s screenplay for Yo Ho Ho, a Bulgarian film from 1981 plundered liberally for The Fall. This epic tale, told by stunt man Roy (Lee Pace) to impish urchin Alexandra (Catinca Untaru) as the two mend in a 1920s Los Angeles hospital, managed to make me smile. As seen through Alexandra’s imagination, the majority of the film is comprised of this Adventures of Baron Munchausen cum Princess Bride tale that stretches around the globe.

A league of extraordinary gentlemen has sworn vengeance against their common enemy, Lord Odious. These men include an Italian explosives expert, a former African slave, a mystic with birds in his belly, a daring Indian, Charles Darwin, and a masked bandit. Their rollicking adventures fill the screen with dynamic images of wondrous composition, texture, and color. Propelled by its charming leads, I didn’t manage to invest much in the characters, despite a few "cry, damn it!" moments of emotional manipulation and swelling music. I suppose that this is due to Roy wallowing in self-pity and Alexandra being naïve. Even though some may find this an unforgivable flaw, I found too much to love in The Fall to condemn it.

Tales of the Rat Fink (Ron Mann, Canada, 2006)
I’m a shameful Detroiter. I grew up on the outskirts of the Motor City, sheltered from the automotive world by my mechanic stepfather. He was determined to keep me out of the garage and following in his greasy footsteps. Through luck (and hard work), I managed to find employment at a string of jobs that had little to nothing to do with the auto industry (a feat in Motown). And even after several years of attending the Woodward Cruise, I couldn’t tell a kit car from a custom. I’m an automotive idiot.

I confess to these sins in order to give my complete "outsider perspective" when it comes to reviewing this Canadian documentary on artistic motorhead Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. I might have more knowledge of Rene Descartes than of the Rat Fink.

I can say without hesitation that after seeing Ron Mann’s film, I now possess a good understanding not only of Roth and his accomplishments, but also his impact on popular culture. Little did I know that my beloved "wacky packages" stemmed from such auspicious beginnings. Roth managed to warp the minds of millions via his custom cars, t-shirts, artwork, and glue used to piece together his series of model cars.

Narrated by John Goodman as Roth (who passed during production) and sporting some nifty animation/photo manipulation, there are some weak moments in the film (the anthropomorphic talking cars), but overall, Tales of the Rat Fink does a terrific job of avoiding staid talking head interviews while providing a comprehensive, organized portrait of a wonderfully multifaceted media pioneer.

The Foundain (Darren Arnofsky, USA, 2006)
When I read the script for The Foundain in late 2005, I found it to be a fairly low- calorie film. There’s the central conceit of two characters named Thomas and Isabel who share a love that stretches across time and space, but otherwise, it was something of a one-trick pony. Three tales of Thomas (Hugh Jackman) and Isabel (Rachel Weisz) are branches of the same (literal) tree.

Thomas (called Tomas in the past) and Isabel are a conquistador and Queen of Spain. The loyal Tomas journeys to Central America on the quest to locate the Tree of Life, cutting his way through as many Mayans as it takes to get there. The central Thomas, a doctor, appears to have access to part of the Tree, which he uses on terminally ill monkeys in hopes of curing his terminally ill writer wife, Izzy. The third Thomas may or may not be a later version of the second. This one floats in a bubble through space with his "giving tree" of a wife. He’s headed to Xibalba (not to be confused with Three Dog Night’s "Shambala"), the Mayan underworld — a place of redemption and rebirth. The stories wind and wander around each other like wild vines. Dialogue and images echo one another throughout the ages. The past and future may simply be the different writings of Isabel and Thomas, who begin and end a story called "The Fountain."

My expectations were incredibly low for this film between the script and the last experience I had watching a film starring a tree (Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Charisma). Luckily, the performances and direction made The Foundain palatable. I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend the film to anyone, and I’m fine never seeing it again, but it was an unobjectionable way to spend two hours.

Black Sheep (Jonathan King, New Zealand, 2006)
Something of a comedic retelling of last year’s Midnight Madness feature, Isolation, Jonathan King’s Black Sheep also warns of the problems of genetic tampering with farm animals. Greed and pride lead to an outbreak of genetically engineered and enraged sheep. It’s an ovine Apocalypse on the green hills of New Zealand’s Oldfield family farm.

On the day that older brother Angus (Peter Feeney) prepares to reveal his super sheep to a multinational coalition of investors, prodigal son Henry (Nathan Meister) returns. Meanwhile, two hippy-dippy eco-terrorists, Experience (Danielle Mason) and Grant (Oliver Driver), liberate the farm of a failed experiment meant for the offal pit. (You’d have thought that eco-terrorists had learned their lessons from 28 Days Later.) Thus begins the terror, as sheep-become-mad-killers, and the bitten become blood-thirsty beasts.

So well shot and paced, I was on the edge of my seat a few times, despite the silly concept.

Trapped Ashes (Sean S. Cunningham, John Gaeta, Monte Hellman, Ken Russell, Joe Dante, USA, 2006)
Anthology films rarely work for me. Most of them are as uneven as twenty miles of bad road. Trapped Ashes was yet another bumpy ride.

Six people are trapped in a room and must confess terrible things that they’ve done (or had happen to them) to their host (Henry Gibson). What follows are four segments directed by auteurs not necessarily known for their horror chops (with the possible exception of Sean S. Cunningham). Each segment prominently features the ties between sex and death so prevalent in horror films. One features a woman with vampiric breasts whose lamprey-mouthed nipples suck the blood of her lovers. Another woman falls for a corpse who whisks her away to hell while on Japanese holiday. A succubus falls for Stanley Kubrick. And the last poor woman shares the insatiable hunger of her fraternal twin, a tapeworm.

The first segment sets up expectations that Trapped Ashes will be a much more lighthearted film. Surprisingly, this segment was directed by Ken Russell, though it felt like something from Joe Dante or Paul Bartel (it was especially reminiscent of Irvin Kershner’s "Hell Toupee" episode of "Amazing Stories"). The Sean S. Cunningham sequence felt like a pale gaijin aping of Hideo Nakata (The Ring), and John Gaeta’s just didn’t work at all. I enjoyed the Kubrick bit, courtesy of Monte Hellman — a perennial Cashiers du Cinemart fave — except that the horror element seemed like an afterthought.

Surprisingly, this wasn’t called Tales from the Crypt: Trapped Ashes. This is one that can be missed by all except diehard John Saxon fans.

Renaissance (Christian Volckman, France, 2006)
Looking like a hybrid of computer animation and rotoscoping, Christian Volckman’s 2006 animated feature recalls the stark look of Frank Miller’s Sin City graphic novels with its primarily monochromatic color palette. Black dominates the screen with swaths and points of white enough to create minimalist images. The plot of this sci-fi noir feels reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep or Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon. Renaissance is awash in dark secrets held by downtrodden degenerates.

Our protagonist, Karas (Daniel Craig) must cherchez la femme, Ilona (Romola Garai), a key researcher for the ever-present corporate behemoth, Avalon. Some may consider the biodegradable neo-noir plot too thin to care about or contend that this is a gimmick movie. I enjoyed the tone, even if I felt that it was a little long at 105 minutes.

Of course, being distributed by Miram-axe, it is unsure how long the version that hits theaters will be or even if what I saw was Volckman’s original cut. The studio known for re-cutting, dubbing, and adding of superfluous soundtrack tunes to make films more "marketable" can never be trusted to respect an artist’s vision.

Death of a President / D.O.A.P. (Gabriel Range, United Kingdom, 2006)
One of the hot ticket screenings at this year’s fest, Death of a President (commonly abbreviated as D.O.A.P., as if to be politically correct) is a recollection of the assassination of George W. Bush on October 19, 2007, and the subsequent manhunt for his killer. Constructed from archive footage of Bush’s fateful trip to Chicago and countless talking head interviews, this tale of Bush’s demise (and the wrongful conviction of Syrian-American, Jamal Abu Zikri) doesn’t shed any light on Zikri’s kangaroo trial and the real guilt of Al Claybon. This material was handled better in Michael Moore’s Undisclosed Location, about President Cheney’s rise to power and the passing of "Patriot 3." Thankfully, filmmaker Gabriel Range leaves out Jeane Dixon’s daughter, who seems to be making a living recalling her dubious prediction of President Bush’s death.

In all seriousness, Gabriel Range’s mockumentary was produced for the BBC, but feels much more like an A&E special. All of the conventions of a television documentary are followed to the letter. Range does a skillful job using pre-existing footage as "archive." The line between fact and fiction are blurred rather well, though some flaws risk jettisoning viewers from the conceit. These include some poorly computer-generated additions of Bush’s faux speech writer into background shots, and a horrible audio/visual edit of Dick Cheney eulogizing George W. Bush rather than Ronald Reagan. If there was ever a moment perfect for a cutaway to hide an awkward mouth match, that was it.

Utilizing a cast that could very well have been on any one of tonight’s ten repeats of the various "Law & Order" franchise shows, Range does a fair job using "generic" actors, though I recognized actor James Urbaniak immediately as forensic expert James Pearn. Missing from the proceedings (along with the aforementioned requisite psychic scene) are the shots celebrating Bush’s death in whatever axis of evil country needs demonizing the most at the moment. Beyond just convicting Zikri, we also should have had an immediate response that the shooter was a suspected Al Qaeda terrorist, even before anyone was in custody (recalling the Oklahoma City bomber reported to be an Arab well before Timothy McVeigh was apprehended). There are other shadings that could have boosted the film’s verisimilitude to make Death of a President a more polished film. As it is, the film works as a cinematic experiment and an act of wish fulfillment, though is a President Cheney any better than a President Bush?

Starter For Ten (Tom Vaughan, United Kingdom, 2006)
When I read about this coming-of-age dramedy about a young Essex bloke coming to University and joining the "University Challenge" team (Americans might be familiar with their "Quiz Bowl" version), I was hoping to see a "lovable losers rise to the top and win the championship" film. That is not Starter For Ten. While there are a few scenes of preparations for matches, we witness only one round of University Challenge play.

Starter For Ten is more of a John Hughes tale of Brian (James McAvoy sporting a terrible haircut) pining for the wrong girl (Alice Eve), while the "right" one (Rebecca Hall looking very Molly Ringwald) is right under his nose. Luckily, our Miss Wrong doesn’t turn out to be a Miss Bitch. All of her cards are on the table, and it’s just Brian’s skewed values that keep him from focusing where he needs to. A shake up at the University Challenge game gets Brian’s mind right.

A quaint little film with a killer soundtrack (though some of the songs are from years after the 1985/1986 timeframe, particularly The Cure’s "Pictures of You," which came out in 1989), Starter For Ten provides a few smiles on a lazy afternoon.

American Hardcore (Paul Rachman, USA, 2006)
Too young for hardcore and too old for grunge, I had to learn about most of the bands in Paul Rachman’s documentary American Hardcore after their demise or during their declining years. The emptiest screening I attended at the festival, Rachman covers the oft-overlooked hardcore music scene of the early 1980s via a montage of maps, concert footage, and talking head interviews. Feeling like it was edited with a food processor, American Hardcore does a fair job of cracking the lid on the hardcore scene, but doesn’t come close to presenting the material in any kind of cohesive way.

While the footage and photos of these myriad classic bands are fun to see (and the music is a blast), the film’s narrative thrust is a muddled mess and some bands are conspicuously missing. (Old cliques die hard?) Hopefully a soundtrack will come from this.

Time (Kim Ki-duk, Korea, 2006)
Always a sucker for plastic surgery films, I nevertheless came to Kim Ki-Duk’s Time with trepidation, as I had suffered through his Bad Guy in Toronto a few years ago.

Seh-Hee is the insanely jealous girlfriend of Ji-Woo ("I want to pluck out the girls’ eyes whenever they look at you," she says in all seriousness). After going out for two years, Seh-Hee becomes convinced that she must get a new look to keep Ji-Woo interested. Despite her psychotic behavior, Ji-Woo is truly in love with her and is devastated by her sudden disappearance.

Six months later, he meets a woman at his favorite sculpture park. She toys with him mercilessly, driving a wedge between him and his loyalty to Seh-Hee. When it looks like he might be falling in love with this new girl, See-Heh, a note from Seh-Hee threatens to topple their relationship. Of course, Seh-Hee and See-Heh are the same person, but it’s not as easy as that. Ki-Duk won’t allow this to be a "rose by any other name" love story or a The Girl Most Likely To tale of revenge. This artsy-fartsy flick (heavier on the artsy than the fartsy) explores the nature of love and identity. Not for people who can’t stand embarrassing public arguments or oddly circular narratives, Time is a compelling viewing experience.

Severance (Christopher Smith, United Kingdom, 2006)
When seven employees of Palisades Defense go on a team-building retreat in Hungary, the sins of their company’s questionable corporate investments come back to haunt them. The group is besieged by former soldiers bent on revenge, and anyone associated with Palisades is a target (whether or not they’re even a competent employee). Fortunately, this isn’t a "corporate drones versus mad mountain men" film, as most of the Palisades employees are generally an affable and diverse lot. Moreover, the film has several moments of well-placed levity.

While I was surprised that there wasn’t more pithy corporate speak ("I can’t spell success without you"), several valid workplace archetypes are present (the kiss-ass, the overeducated snob, the stoner, et cetera). With moments familiar to TIFF’s Midnight Madness fans, this cross between Office Space and Southern Comfort still feels fresh and very fun.

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