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From The Archives: Toronto '03

The most memorable thing about the Toronto Film Festival are the lunch wagons. The city has the best curbside hot dogs in the world, no doubt about it. It’s one of those things I look forward to every year when I make my annual pilgrimage to the Great White North and the #2 film festival in the world.

I always come a couple of days early. The festival always has some left over pre-festival screenings the week the big show starts, the locals want to cover the parties and they begin to watch movies sometime in July. There are almost four hundred films shown, and seeing them all during the fest is clearly impossible.

10% is hard enough.

This means that most of the parties were out. I only was invited to two at any rate.

After one day watching at the Canadian Film Board screening room, us critics moved uptown to Bloor Street where the various venues are located.

There are three of them, the Cumberland multiplex (159 Cumberland Street), the Cineplex Odeon Varsity multiplex (55 Bloor Street West) and the Uptown multiplex (defunct); all within easy walking distance of each other [assuming you can run fast].

The press office is another matter, that being more than half a mile to the south. Blame the Toronto hotels for that. We seem to interfere with the “real” guests for some reason. This hurt the festival’s publicity quite a bit, and that’s why the festival is going to have its very own building in a couple of years. But in the meantime, we avoid the press office and stay uptown.

The first problem one encounters is the schedule. There are two, one for press and industry screenings [that’s us] and one for everyone else. Both have conflicts galore, especially for those of us who don’t have to pay for it [600 bucks to get in for free-ya gotta sleep somewhere, I guess]. For some reason nobody can explain, all the best movies are scheduled at exactly the same time. Sometimes a film one HAS to see will begin fifteen minutes before another one ends, and a lot of people see snippets and chunks while rushing from one flick to another. I don’t do that, but that doesn’t stop from seeing around forty films all the way through in 10 days.

But some success doesn’t ameliorate the challenge. People bitch and moan about it every year and we all know that the problem will never go away, so there are a number of ways of getting around this: First off, there’s begging. You go to the PR offices that are set up in all those hotels that have kicked out the press office in previous years and ask as politely as you could if you can get into an already sold out public screening. This works about half the time. The failure rate isn’t because the PR people don’t like you, it’s just that everybody else is doing the same thing.

Then there’s the industry/press ticket office. The industry people, who pay huge amounts of money, can get a couple of “public screening” tickets a day early, and some in the press can as well. But only those like Roger Ebert and Elvis Mitchell. The rest of us have to wait on the rush line.

The heart and soul of the Toronto Film Festival is the rush line. Fifteen minutes before a public screening begins, any seats that are empty in a sold out show go on sale again. For the big flicks, these line tend to wrap around the block and with volunteers sometimes going  up and down the queue announcing the odds of actually being able to get in.

I’m still amazed that I managed to get into every film I lined up for.

Once in, there’s the standard opening credits, followed by one of three shorts. This year’s crop all has the theme of “live the dream” and were all rather good the first couple of screenings. There was one where an airline steward gives the safety speil in an overly dramatic way, another one has a private detective critiquing a video cinematically while his client cringes at his wife’s adultery, and a court reporter reads off testemony  as if it were written by Micky Spillane.

The festival is divided into categories: At the top of the pack are the Galas, the big films from famous directors and usually distributed by the big Hollywood studios. In other words, Oscar®-bait. [Either that, or they’re extremely Canadian, this IS TeeO after all.]

The best of these was a French film called Bon Voyage. An action comedy taking place during the fall of France in 1940, it’s about a movie star, played by Isabelle Adjani, whose childhood pal (Grégori Derangère), tracks her down to Bordeaux, where she and her lover (Gérard Depardieu), who’s Minister of something’er’other in the final French government are on their way to Vichy. She’s oblivious to what’s actually going on, and the old boyfriend meets a young student (Virginie Ledoyen) who’s involved in a plot to get the world’s supply of heavy water [for the use in atomic research], out of the country in order to keep it out of Nazi hands. Of course, there’s a Nazi spy (Peter Coyote), who’s privy to the whole thing….It’s a hoot!

The next category is “The Masters.” These are famous directors who don’t actually have major studio backing, stuff like Robert Altman’s The Company, which is for the most part a vanity production by Neve Campbell, who was at one time a ballet dancer. This film is supposed to be about the Joffery Ballet of Chicago, whom does all of the dancing. Campbell can dance, and Malcolm McDowell is hilarious as the head of the company, but unless one is into that sort of thing, this isn’t really much of anything.

Next on the list is “Visions.” These are mostly “a walk on the wild side.” Stuff like Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3, the most overrated film of the 21st century. This doesn’t mean it’s not good, far from it, but Barney’s amazing visuals don’t actually make up for the utter lack of story. Yeah, the sight of a bunch of men in 1930s gangster suits dancing around the maypole is arresting, and Barney’s climbing like a monkey around the Guggenheim Museum while trying to escape from the Rockettes is actually quite fun, but genuinely weird doth not a great film make.

Then there are the special presentations, which are the films that are just plain good, and while not “big enough” to qualify for “Gala” status, are going to be out soon and are definitely worth the bucks for a full price ticket. Stuff like “Sophia Coppolla’s masterpiece about nothing really going on in Tokyo, Lost in Translation, and Jim Jarmusch’s sketch comedy compilation, Coffee and Cigarettes.

Both have Bill Murray giving brilliant performances and both are basically about nothing. C&C has about a dozen short pieces where two or three people sit down to a cuppa and a smoke and discuss either life in general or the subject implied by the title of the movie. The best skit has Cate Blanchett in a black wig and biker chick clothes talking to Cate Blanchett dressed up in expensive movie star duds. It’s hilarious.

If you haven’t seen Lost in Translation yet, you should be ashamed of yourself.

There were eight other categories of film presented and the quality was for the most part rather high. The best of the bunch was a Russian film called The Return which was about the mysterious appearance of a long-lost father who takes two boys on a mysterious journey. The acting by the children is riveting, and the tension in the film is so thick one can almost touch it. Director Andrey Zvyaginstev is going to be recognized as a major talent.

But most of the people at the festival don’t go to see movies. In fact most only see two or three at most. What they do do a lot of is go stalk celebrities. There are lots and lots of actors and actresses who come in order to promote their films and that doesn’t take all that much time. So the rest of the visit is taken up with partying, and sometimes these are semi-public, which means that the common people can stand outside either the Toronto Exhibition grounds or the CHUM radio parking lot and try to catch a glimpse of someone only read about in the tabloids.

It’s a blast.

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