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From The Archives: Toronto Film Festival Overload 1999

Few things can be as exhausting as a film festival. From early in the morning to late at night you get to see movies, movies and more movies. Sounds like paradise, but it isn't.

Take The Toronto Film Festival for example -- 317 films over a period of 10 days. It's impossible to see everything, that would mean seeing 30 features a day, but even seeing a tiny fraction requires a heroic amount of zitsflisch.

Five films a day can turn the mind to mush. Four is exhausting, three is a decent maximum, although I did manage to do four for most of the time I was in Toronto.

I spent the middle two weeks of September at The Toronto Film Festival, and the last two weeks at The New York Film Festival, The Independent Feature Film Market and the Studio Ghibli retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

There are two things to do at film festivals, movies and parties. The problem is that, if you're there for the one, chances are you won't be able to get much of the other. There's far too much to do and I'm no athlete. So I managed a couple of parties at Toronto and one each for New York and the IFFM. Unfortunately, nothing notable happened.

But that's okay, I was only there for the movies.

Toronto is a cinematic supermarket, you can find almost anything from bad horror to timeless masterpieces. My goal for the Toronto Film Festival was to see 10% of the 317 films that were shown and I made it. 300 and 17 films. I caught about two thirds of the a documentary on Barenaked Ladies.

The fine film-to-stinker ratio was pretty good. True, I missed nine tenths of the films, but only a couple of films really stank.

One of the biggest stinkers was Love and Action in Chicago. This is a mistaken attempt at the perfect date movie. Kathleen Turner hooks up Courtney G. Vance with Regina King and they make such a cute couple! That's for the gals who like romance. For the guys, Vance plays a government killer and we see him shoot people and get shot at.


Now as to cool violence, there's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai which is more of a gunshot ballet than anything else. Forest Whitaker plays the title character, who's a contract killer for the mafia who fancies himself a samurai warrior. The joke of the film is that the Mafiosi like to watch old cartoons, and the next hit is suggested by the clip of animation. Really weird. When they turn on him, he kills everybody except his "landsman," played by John Tormey.

James Earl Jones fights demons in California with the help of Lynn Redgrave! You didn't expect that, I bet! Sure it's a weird pitch line, but that's what the plot of the romantic comedy Annihilating Fish is about. Nice performances too. Not anywhere near great, but nice all the same.

Redgrave also has an affair with 20 old Tyghe Runion in Touched. I saw both these movies one right after another, and despite the fact that Redgrave's character's lovers are both nuts, she herself and they do a great job in both. Unfortunately, this second film stinks.

Black and White has Brooke Shields trying to find out about why young white teenagers are so much into hip-hop culture. We never exactly find an answer, but we get to see Ben Stiller fret a lot and Mike Tyson beat up Robert Downey, Jr. It's an incoherent mess, but does have a story to it. Claudia Schiffer is the villain, but she gets away with it.

Keeping on the subject of murder, Steven  Soderburgh's The Limey is a way cool film. Terrence Stamp goes after the man who killed his daughter, who may or may not be Peter Fonda. Gunplay and car crashes and all sorts of fun stuff.

As to the epics, we've got Mansfield Park, based on the Jane Austen novel. It's a very complicated and lots of fun for those Masterpiece Theater fans out there. Then there's Sunshine, starring Ralph Fiennes as three generations of Hungarian Jews. They try to assimilate, but in the end the Nazis get them. And Molokai, tells the story of Father Damian and his ministrations to the lepers there. It's one of those star-studded epics that no one is going to see prior to getting on HBO or Showtime. It's got Peter O'Toole in a small part.

Wes Craven's Music of the Heart is probably his best movie since Scream I. It has a wonderful script, and Meryl Streep  gives her best performance in years. Yeah, it's not  a horror film, but so what? This is going to let Craven get out of the genre more often, it may even get him an Oscar nomination. This is a character study, and the scene where Streep "fires" her boyfriend is priceless.

Someone said that Jakob the Liar is Robin Williams' bid for the Nobel Peace Prize. The problem with this is that everyone speaks in a thick accent. It's very dark indeed. Good film though.

Snow Falling on Cedars is one of those films which is very pretty and well acted, yet still falls flat on it's ass. The Cider House Rules has a great first half and begins to poop out long before it's over.

After crashing and burning twice in a row, Woody Allen comes back somewhat with Sweet and Lowdown. Sean Penn is great here. If it fails at the box office, it may be the end for ol' Woody.

Natalie Portman proves she can act in Anywhere But Here. Susan Sarandon doesn't have to but she's really good anyway as the ditzy mother. Not a laughfest by any means, but entertaining.

There were a few overlaps in New York, which made life somewhat easier, but not all that much. While Toronto had a generalist selection, NY had a more elitist one, mostly avante-garde stuff, like the first American "Dogme '95" graduate, Harmony Korine's horrible Julian Donkey-Boy or Manoel de Oliveira's even worse The Letter.

The Letter is a parody and update of a long-extinct species of melodrama. It is rare to understand a parody if you don't know what it's parodying. Unless it's very good or you're familiar with the original product, something like this can be well neigh unwatchable. It's not, I'm not and it is.

The IFFM is not, strictly speaking, a film festival. It's a trade show, where those who don't have the connections try to sell their visions to those who do and usually end up failing. This year was no different, and what's worse, was that the annual Sundance party was canceled. They replaced it with a brunch that I couldn't attend due to prior commitments. Some of the films were interesting, and a few of those were even good.

This whole experience was more than worth it, but I'm not going to do this again for a while..

(Note from a decade later: I did it again every year since...)

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