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An EducationDirected by Lone ScherfigStarring Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams, Sally Hawkins, Lynn Barber and Dominic CooperLynn Barber has been writing about sex for decades and has been very successful at it. So, as one of the most famous mainstream journalists in Britain on that particular subject, she eventually wrote her memoirs, and part of it became this movie. Nick Hornby, who gave us About a Boy and High Fidelity, has changed the names to protect the guilty and gone on to create an excellent script ably directed by Scherfig. The fictionalized version of Barber is Jenny (Mulligan), a senior in British high school who is looking forward to going to Oxford to "read" (major in) English. Her parents (Molina and Seymour) want this, too, and all seems to be going along swimmingly until she meets a charming mystery, David (Sarsgaard), who knocks the socks off Jenny and her parents. He and his pals Danny (Cooper) and Helen (Pike) whisk her away to a fairyland of posh London nightlife, which leads her teachers to believe her new friends are up to no good. They are right. Jenny is heading for some sort of fall. But will she able to avoid it, or at least get back up?
Read more: Short Takes: Toronto Film Fest 2009
Every morning, after returning from the cafe next to my apartment building, I turn on my computer and delete spam. There's tons of it. Most of the time it's things like: "Congratulations! You've just won a chance to get robbed!" or something like that. But I can't just delete the previous evening's emails in one fell swoop. Every now and then there's something that comes out of the blue which might actually be worth responding to.
Sandwiched between the Nigerian versions of The Spanish Prisoner and the Dutch lottery drawings for games I never entered, there are usually some legitimate screening invitations and jokes sent by friends. I get to these after the email count goes down from 87 to 12. One of these was an invite to a Disney/Pixar film press junket being held in California. I was about to delete it, when, as a joke, I decided to reply.I know why they have these things. Advertising. The fawning press is supposed to ask some softball questions for the evening newscast, or to get some background from a producer for a feature in a magazine or newspaper. You get everyone in the same place and it's actually pretty easy for all involved.
Now one can see why they do this for a film that's coming out. Even if the buzz is terrific, the studios still need publicity in order for that all important first weekend. It's a major expense, but a necessary one.
Sometimes, during major film festivals, the survivors of some old films are trotted out for the press. Just a couple of months ago, they had press conferences for El Topo and Reds -- films with great reputations which few have seen in many years. That's understandable, too. But what I couldn't understand is why they would have a full-fledged junket for the animated feature, Cars.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about the one they had last June. They should have had one just before the film came out. No, I'm talking about having another one four months later for the release of the DVD.
I saw the film twice when it first came out, once at the regular press screening and then at the screening for the IMAX version, and I gave the thing a good review. Maybe that's why they invited me, I don't know, but going out there, on their dime, and getting to see the innards of this magical factory, that is something no one in their right mind would pass up.
That's what made this trip so disappointing. We didn't actually see all that much. This was only what was advertised, nothing more. Damn!
I don't really want to seem ungrateful. San Francisco is a great city, and had I not had to get back when I did, I would have had an extremely enjoyable day hanging out on Market or Polk Street. The food was wonderful and the Hotel Monaco [501 Geary St, San Francisco, CA 94102] has soft beds and a wonderful free wine tasting program. But that's not why I was there. I was there to see Pixar, and if I saw nothing else, that would be just dandy.
The lot of us got together at 6:45 am in the lobby, and got on a pair of minibuses where we headed out over the Bay Bridge and into Marin County, Passing Berkeley and into the town of Emoryville, which is sort of in Oakland, and where all the factories are. The scenery was very much like it was on the other side of America, with the beginnings of autumn changing the trees from green to orange and gold. It was all very California.
Sooner than expected, there we were. They let us out of the vans and we walked into the building. the Pixar building is a two-story structure with a huge interior "courtyard" surrounded by two wings which are connected on the second floor by a bridge. The schedule went something like this:
The morning roundtables
The Afternoon screenings
A tour of the campus
Back to the Hotel
Breakfast was really good. Various versions of scrambled eggs and cheese omelets, and really fine coffee and fruit. Then we had to sign in. I'm sorry. The sign-in was lame. Usually when you sign in for one of these things, you just sign your name on a register, grab some press materials and go on. That's lame too, but in the usual bureaucratic way. Nobody minds that.
This time, we had to go through a pseudo-DMV type thing, where we had to recognize some of the characters and do a quiz, followed by a demo of the video game (that part would have been fine, but I suck at that sort of thing). This was too cute by half. If there were little children there, that would be one thing, but you had a few dozen adults going through this none-too-pleased.
Then we had some more food and wandered around the vast area that was the first floor for a bit before lining up and heading past the "unauthorized personnel forbidden" signs and up the stairs for three round tables with a couple of the storyboarders and some technicians, who told us about how much work it is to do lighting in an all CGI film and how to make color packets for the techies doing the rendering. That was fine, then we went downstairs again where a couple of people showed us how wonderful all the extras were.
Now extras are important to a DVD. Nobody likes "vanilla," and no one did vanilla more annoyingly than Disney did back in the day. The original Roger Rabbit had a list of them where actually weren't on the disc.
Pixar knows this and they're justly proud of what they did on some of their earlier efforts. They gave us a brief tour of what's on there, and the whole presentation was mostly boring. Menus are like that. However, I want a plasma TV more than ever. God that was beautiful.
Then came lunch, and this was where the problems started. No. The food was terrific, the buffet was to perfection and I enjoyed every morsel. The problem was stonewalling. I sat down and there he was. Director John Lasseter, sitting catty corner from me. He was very pleasant, and I decided, since I was there, to find out what exactly was going on with the studio. Bang! He and his main flunky are very good at stonewalling. They had just come out with a new short, called Lifted, and they had a few signs for it on the wall. I asked about it and they seemed very exited, although they wouldn't say anything specific.
I asked about the next project he's producing, Ratatouille, and the project after that, W.A.L.L.-E.... Stonewall.
I persisted. "Do you see any posters for Meet the Robinsons... do you?" he snarled at me. I was there to do journalism, right? But what was I supposed to do? I couldn't do what I wanted, after all it was on their dime and in their house.
This was a squandered opportunity on Pixar's part. If you're going to spend thousands of dollars to bring people thousands of miles, it would be really cool to dazzle them. Show them a tease here and there like some character designs for Ratatouille, or Lifted, for example.
We've got something special for you! Not special like a t-shirt (which I'm wearing, by the way), something that you can tell your readers in confidence.
The afternoon sessions were rather boring. They showed us the specially-made cartoon for the DVD, Mater and the GhostLight, and that wasn't particularly good. The character of Mater in the feature was silly and colorful, but he was actually one of the more intelligent characters. Here he's just a moronic child. The punch line was cute but the build up wasn't.
But you can't say "This sucks" on their turf. The questions were for the most part polite and perfunctory. Lasseter made his official appearance and talked about how how he was inspired by a road trip he took with his family after Toy Story 2 was finished. Very sweet. Of course the original concept had nothing to do with the finished film except for the fact that all of the characters were automotive. I was still a bit ticked off.
Then we took the tour. We actually saw quite a bit of the preliminary art from Cars, and some from Finding Nemo. But we didn't see anyone working. That was all hidden. We did go outside and see the volleyball court.
We went back to the hotel and drank more free wine before having dinner on Disney's dime. It helped me sleep on the flight back.
The Hotel Monaco501 Geary St.San Francisco, CA 94102http://www.monaco-sf.com/
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.
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...)
Every year there are hundreds of film festivals, but four stand out above the others: Sundance, Cannes, Venice and Toronto. These are the ones that make headlines above and beyond the cities they’re in and while New York has some great stuff and Telluride is cozy, the big four make headlines throughout the world.
Toronto, the jewel of Canada, is last of the big four. There are literally hundreds of films being screened during the ten days of the festival and except for a few local critics who’ve been viewing a couple entries a day for months, it’s impossible to see anywhere near anything.
The last of the advanced screenings are at the National Film Board screening room down by where the local TV/Radio conglomerate is having it’s annual party for the festival, and as usual, I’m not invited. But then I’m not going to any of the parties this year. There’s nothing but movies, movies and more movies. It’s either one or the other. You can’t do both.
So I head south from my ratty hotel on Church and Dundas Streets (right next to the subway), and head over to the venue. It’s my fifth year and doing this is like putting on an old glove, except that I stay at a different hotel every year.
So with that "same as it ever was" attitude I bring with me I try to find where the entrance to the venue is this year. For some reason they’ve closed the regular entrance, and after a bit of looking, I find a sign. So far, so good.
Then, at last, we get in our seats and look around for familiar faces. There’s a few and we greet each other and promise to gossip when the first film is over…
Our first flick of the festival is Hari Om -- an Indian story of a girl left behind (Camille Natta) and her meeting the eponymous rickshaw driver (Vijay Raaz), who happens to be on the run. So she decides to follow her boyfriend (Jean Marie Lamour) to the next stop on the train and somehow, our hero finds our heroine at the side of the road [the bus had a flat of course], the two of them take the rickshaw [a motorcycle kind of thing, not a seat with wheels powered by a guy running] and go across India where they meet several interesting people and sort of fall in love before our hero has to start a worker's rebellion and the boyfriend.
It’s actually not that bad…
Our second selection is Forest for the Trees which is a sad tale of a relatively nice person (Eva Löbow) who’s looking to start her life over. Unfortunately, she makes a botch of it and spends her life lonelier than ever. It’s depressing as hell, but Löbow is a brilliant actress and is cute as a button and is terrific as the protagonist. I'm not sure if it's worth the bucks, and I don't think it's going to come to the arthouse anytime soon, so don't sweat it.
Our third selection for the day is an exercise in Weirdness for Weirdness' sake. Innocence is about a bizarre prison/ballet school for a select group of little girls who enter the place in a coffin and are told weird stories about kids who try to escape and are turned into old hags who must serve the girls forever and the like. The whole thing is very strange and not very effecting, and the ending is particularly disappointing...we were hoping for more murders....bummer.
The discovery of the day is that the day passes don't work until 9:30 which makes them almost useless, me having to get to at least half a dozen places in the early morning...%^&*
So the next day, we head up to the Transit authority to figure out what to do with the extra day pass, we argue and a compromise is reached. That being done we head south to the NFB and see what’s apparently the only film of the day:
One of the themes this year is the Rwandan genocide of 1994. There are a number of films on the subject and the first I've seen is Shake Hands with the Devil which is about Canadian General Roméo Dallier, who was the head of the UN peacekeepers in that godforsaken place when the lord forsook it a decade ago.
He returned for a conference and the filmmaker Peter Raymont decided to tag along, and the results are both infuriating and heartbreaking. One tends to wonder if the wanton murder of between 800,000 and a million people killed mostly with machetes could have been prevented, and if Dallier could have done more in that direction. But the simple fact is that while it probably could have and he couldn't.
There was plenty of blame to go around, could the French told the perpetrators to not go there? Should the UN have gone to war when there were two thousand UN troops briefly there to get foreign nationals out? One could go on for months on this topic.
But the simple fact is nobody did a damn thing and then nobody did anything after that. What did happen is that Dallaier was kicking himself about it ever since.
This film is especially important when we see what's going on in Darfur, Sudan.
The reason nobody did anything was simple, by the way. Look at how Bush was treated over Iraq...in other words the world would go nuts blaming the rescuers and nobody wants that.…
Finally, we head up to the press office and get our credentials. There were problems over the summer as none of the hotels in the area wanted to deal with the press and refused to house the thing, so they had to rent an office in the Cumberland Mall, which turned out to be extremely convenient. They had wireless internet, and the underground tunnels made life much easier for me and all involved.
I always knew that there were tunnels underneath Bloor Street, where the main venue for press screenings were, but I’ve never had to actually use them before. This year is different. One just gets off the subway and then goes through a series of tunnels and violá, you’re there, and you don’t have to dodge traffic. This would be routine for most of the next eight days.
The routine was for the most part the same. Five to seven screenings a day, one party and one of the panels, actually an interview with Terry Gilliam that was called misleadingly called a master class, but more on that later.
The venues were primarily at the Varsity multiplex, which for hundreds of us critics was our home away from home. There are seven large screening rooms and three smaller ones, which made traveling between them rather easy…that is unless one discovered that you had to go over to the Cumberland Theater about four blocks away, then you could either dodge traffic or use the tunnels to wind up across the street and run like hell, something I did rather frequently during my time up there.
But Toronto is famous for scheduling conflicts, and this year was no exception, as one friend told me "You don’t see what you want to in Toronto, you see what you can."
The way to deal with conflicts is to find out where the public screenings are and if it’s possible to get on the "rush line." I tried that three times and managed to get in twice.
For the public screenings, getting there’s a bit trickier. There’s the Ryerson Theater at the college of the same name about a half a mile from the Variety multiplex. When I was there, they had a false alarm and we had to wait out in the courtyard for almost a half hour. Nothing like that happened at the Paramount Googleplex, which was across the street from the NFB office and has some really good seats. Finally, there’s the Famous Players screening room, which is next door to the Cumberland inside a dank basement.
Thus was the routine for the great Sitzfleich marathon, my personal best from last year is five: will I manage to break the record?
We wake up sometime around a quarter of seven and do the normal morning ablutions, then we take the subway up to Bloor Street where we head to one of the local cafes (either Starbucks, Timothy's or some other trendoid place) before heading over to the Variety multiplex in where one takes one's seat for the first screening of the day, which is about 8:30 AM, which is usually too early to go to the movies but this is Toronto…
…So we managed to get a total of 45 films in all told and a personal best of seven in one day. The films ranged from animated cartoons for children [Shark Tale] to hard core gay porn [the Raspberry Reich].
I’m stoked for next year.
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