Toronto International Film Festival: A Snapshot in 5 Parts

Quickly becoming the North American equivalent of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, the Toronto Film Festival is a slighter saner version of the Gallic gathering.  Toronto sports far fewer topless starlets and far less droppings from dropkick puppies.


1. GLASS: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts


The highlight of Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was this small, perfectly nuanced documentary. Directed by the eloquent Scott Hicks, it is a remarkable piece about the creative process as manifested by the famed composer Philip Glass.  Hicks burst onto the scene in 1996 with Shine about a far more troubled pianist, and more recently enjoyed some box office success with Snow Falling on Cedars.

In the case of Glass, Hicks started the film thinking he would hire a cameraman, but soon realized the unparalleled intimacy he was garnering required Hicks to man the camera throughout the production.  The film traces a recent year in Glass’s life, as he stages the opera Waiting for the Barbarians, writes his eighth symphony, scores several films, travels the world and maintains a family with his fourth wife, Holly.  (One such film is seen in the film Woody Allen’s “Cassandra’s Dream,” which also premiered at TIFF.)

Hicks was able to include interviews with directors such as Woody Allen, Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi) and Martin Scorsese (Kundun), for whom Glass composed the scores.  Reggio spoke about how he needed a composer so that in the end the filmgoer ‘could see the music and hear the image.’  The pulsating clips shown in the film prove it up.  The biographical film provides a nice arc to the career of Glass.  Especially poignant is a clever animated biography from Tower Records’ defunct Pulse magazine, highlighting the irony of Glass having a major work premiere at the NY Metropolitan Opera, only to be recognized a week later while driving a cab in between plumbing jobs.

Given my unending awe at how folks are able to organize little black dots on five lines, and how folks turn that into music, I am constantly amazed at the magic of making music.  Glass says music is like an underground river, 'you know it is there, but you don't know where.'  Glass says he is listening when he is composing, which is akin to what I've heard sculptors say about the untouched piece of marble and what writers and painters say about the blank page.  Some people lump Glass’ music with the likes of the Ramones, both akin to pounding your head against the wall – it is great when it is over.

Glass maintains a zen approach: ‘You don’t like my music? Listen to something else.’ Hicks took the podium after the screening and revealed that it was the first time the film had been shown to an audience. I asked the director about the fleeting end credit reference to Laurie Anderson, who did not appear in the film.  Turns out she was a babysitter for Glass' kids back in the day.  “O Superman” indeed.


2. Captain Mike Across America


Also presented for the first time publicly, the pseudo-documentary is all about Michael Moore’s efforts (along with Eddie Vedder, Steve Earle, REM, et al) to increase voter turnout in the 2004 election.  The film will play to the converted, and ably uses Moore’s in-your-face style.

The first three-quarters of the film were very well-executed.  The best spontaneous moment was when Moore was challenged by a group in the audience to respond to their recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the Rosary.  Moore related that he was raised Irish Catholic, went to seminary and knew about the source of the protesters’ beliefs.  He then asked ‘Who would Jesus bomb?’ which sent the protesters filing out of the college auditorium.

Moore does his cause a disservice toward the end of the film when he chooses inarticulate rednecks to represent the opposition view. The cheap laughs are short-lived, and undermine Moore’s message.

Moore is part rock star and part evangelist preacher in the film; the movie plays like a rock tour.  The most lovely musical performance was from Joan Baez, who sings the least nationalistic national anthem ever, that from Finland. Moore supplements the musicians with appearances from Roseanne Barr and Viggo Mortensen.  The former essentially winds up the film, and her screeching diatribe sends the film off the rails (notwithstanding a great line about assault rifles needing to remain legal for the shooting of abortion doctors).

I asked Moore in the Q+A after the screening about the Linda Ronstadt reference in the (fleeting) end credits, he said it had to do with her commending him during a Vegas show resulting in her being escorted directly from the casino by management, banned from retrieving her stuff in the room upstairs, or ever returning to the venue. Moore also called out Harvey Weinstein from the shadows when I asked about release plans for the film.  Their “Sicko” is still going strong in the theatres, but the 2008 election is not so far off.  The large duo said they needed to sit and discuss release plans. Moore also spoke after the film about the personal toll and danger of doing his films, which is often overlooked in the guffaws of his recent films.


3. Eastern Promises


Speaking of Viggo Mortensen, the most talked-about scene of the week was his very naked battle with two thugs in a steam room in this new film directed by David Cronenberg.  The hometown audience was predisposed to embrace the latest offering from Toronto’s well-loved director.

This film picks up on the themes explored by Cronenberg and Mortensen in their last film “A History of Violence.”  Both films unwind expectations about physical brutality and personal morals.

Set in current era London, the plot of “Eastern Promises” revolves around the Russian mafia and a motherless newborn. Mortensen plays an enigmatic driver who becomes intertwined with a midwife’s efforts to find a relative for the newborn child.  Naomi Watts plays the midwife. At a crisp 96 minutes, the film looks wonderful and is extremely well-crafted.

Fans of early Cronenberg will be wondering about the lack of gore, but most folks will appreciate the compact explosions of violent action which serve to drive the action forward.


4. Control


The pace is far more subdued in the biopic of Ian Curtis, the doomed lead singer and main brain behind Manchester’s Joy Division.  Helmed by Anton Corbijn, the film tells the story of the formation and rise to British prominence of the quartet.

On the eve of their North American tour, Curtis hangs himself.  Corbijn first met the band when he left Holland for Northern England and was given a photo assignment.  Corbijn subsequently went on to work with Keith Richards, David Bowie and U2 (the latter most notably around ‘Joshua Tree’).  But this story remained unfinished, until a screenplay was drawn from the widow’s autobiography Touching From a Distance.

Sam Riley is astounding as the doomed Ian Curtis, fighting the twin demons of alcoholism and epilepsy, while struggling with a bride, a newborn and an affair.  The centerpiece of the film pulls these threads together to the sound of the band’s best song “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”  Shot in black and white (because that is the way Northern England was in the late 1970s), the film is a well-executed testament to the struggles of art, commerce and commitment.


5. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford


A long title for a long, ambitious but meandering movie.  Clocking in at 160 minutes, this deliberately paced western will present some theatrical difficulties for Warner Bros.  Theatre owners tend to eschew long films, as the number of runs per day is diminished.  Brad and Angelina caused a stir at the gala opening in Toronto, and he will spur some early attendance when released theatrically, but most folks will wonder what all the initial fuss is about.

The usually reliable Scott brothers (Tony and Ridley) brought in the Kiwi director Andrew Dominik to helm the film.  It is Domink’s second feature, and it appears he was given a very long rope.

The oft-told story of Jesse James is retold here with a greater focus on the impenetrable psychological affinity between James and Ford.  The latter is played with a feather-light touch by Casey Affleck.  His attraction to the anti-hero James is explored but never fully explained.

Although the narrator advises us that with regard to Jesse James ‘rooms seemed hotter when he was in them, rain fell straighter, clocks slowed,’ many in the audience were not convinced.  Frank James is wonderfully played by Sam Shepard, who is criminally on the screen only during the first 20 minutes of the film, never to return.  Pitt strolls through his role with confidence.

The cinematography is lovely; before the screening, Pitt advised that we should sit back for the long film as ‘you’ll be seeing much of Alberta.’  Nick Cave adds some suitably morose music to the effort.

Brad Auerbach has been covering the media, entertainment and technology scene for many years. He has written for Time Out London, Village Voice, LA Weekly and once upon a time won a New York State College Journalism Award.