Toronto Diary

Dispatches From the 2003 Film Fest

Day 4

Today began for me with a "pure pleasure" film: Francis Ford Coppola's One From the Heart. Made in 1982 and issued by Coppola's then-brand-new Zoetrope Studios, this little-seen movie has always been one of my absolute favorites. The filmmaker has described this musical romance as his "antidote" to the arduous making of Apocalypse Now. The movie stars Teri Garr, Frederic Forest, Raul Julia, Harry Dean Stanton, and Lainie Kazan, who acted out this simple love story on a fabulously set-designed Las Vegas of the mind. Erected and filmed completely on the Zoetrope lot, One From the Heart is an elaborate production and met with icy reception upon its release. Notorious for having bankrupted Coppola’s new studio venture, the film was withdrawn from circulation by Coppola, who has now released a trimmer cut of the movie for the occasion of this festival. I had seen this movie only on videotape, so it was wonderful to finally see it on the screen -- and with Coppola in attendance too. Although the new trims mostly help the movie's gliding progression, it has also killed a line or two that are among my favorites. The festival was also a family affair for Coppola, whose daughter Sophia was a guest of the festival as the filmmaker of the wonderful new film Lost in Translation (opening in Austin in a couple of weeks), as was his nephew Nicolas, who was in town to promote his new Matchstick Men, which used the festival as a launching pad.

Day 3

The morning started with a screening of the new John Sayles movie, Casa de Los Babys. It's about a group of distinctly different women who have come to an unnamed Third World country to adopt babies. Held up by red tape for months at a time, the women pass the weeks cooped up together in a local hotel. The actresses assembled for this Sayles outing are phenomenal: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marcia Gay Harden, Lili Taylor, Daryl Hannah, Mary Steenburgen, Susan Lynch, and Rita Moreno. They all give riveting performances, but, unfortunately, the movie has the most meager of storylines, and their commanding collective presence is, on the whole, wasted. Each woman represents an idea or type, but the movie has no real plot to speak of. Sayles establishes that one is a lesbian; one is unhappily married; another is a boorish, rich kleptomaniac; and another has miscarried multiple times, and so on. Each woman has her reasons for wanting a child, reasons both individually specific and universally general. But no one is shown as more deserving than the others or more qualified. Sayles includes his usual interaction between characters and their environment, but the whole thing plays more like sketches for a movie rather than a finished product.

Elephant is the new Gus Van Sant movie about the lives of high school students and is fashioned after the details of the Columbine massacre. The title is metaphoric and refers to the 800-pound elephant in the room that no one acknowledges: violence. It definitely belongs among Van Sant’s more independently borne catalog, rather than with his studio offerings. Challenging in its technique, Elephant overlaps the lives of a number of students over the course of the day in question before going into the 20-minute, real-time action of the massacre. What sounds like heavy going actually turns out to be an extremely sympathetic portrait of high school life and the anomie precipitated by the very geography of the corridors and community rooms of the building. Little understanding of the killers is offered, but their victims emerge as concrete human beings whose lives were horrifically snuffed out.

Fog of War, the new film by documentarian supreme Errol Morris, is the most invigorating movie I have seen so far. The movie is Morris' lengthy interview with Robert McNamara, who was the U.S. secretary of defense during the early years of the Vietnam War. Although many, to this day, still regard McNamara as a war criminal, this member of Kennedy's "best and brightest" cadre has whitewashed his sins and excused the blood on his hands with his willing resignation from LBJ's Cabinet and his refusal to address the issue for years to come. For some strange reason, he was willing to sit down with Morris, for whom these sessions must rank as one of the all-time best interview "gets." Morris amplifies his pointed interviews with this articulate and loquacious subject by including all sorts of external audio-visual material and imposing an organized structure fashioned around his extraction of 11 "lessons" and one epilogue gleaned from McNamara's experiences. The movie provides so much historical fodder for viewers to chew on and should be fascinating not only to those who lived through this history but also those who are just learning from the past. It seems these days (to paraphrase an old Dylan song) that we're "stuck inside of Baghdad with the Saigon blues again."

Day 2

Saw three movies today, the last of which was Greendale, the movie by Neil Young's alter ego Bernard Shakey. Young introduced it as "a movie -- kind of." He was right. Shakey's middle name, I'm guessing, would be Grainy, but the movie's technique doesn't impede its ability to amplify Young's new song cycle. In fact, some of its images stick resolutely in the mind as song riffs also embed themselves in cranial crannies. The naiveté of the technique coincides nicely with the messages of the movie/CD/concert: "Mother Earth has many enemies; there's much work to be done." But neither the CD nor the movie will ever equal the overwhelming force of the concert experience, where all the aspects converge in real time.

Bright Young Things is a surprisingly successful first movie by actor, author, and comedian Stephen Fry (Wilde, Gosford Park). Set in the waning years of the Jazz Age in England, the movie tells the various intertwined stories of a group of young sybarites, gossip columnists, and social climbers. Fry covers a lot of ground in the movie while never losing sight of or blurring the individual characters. The sense of the period, as far as the sets, costumes, and social whirl go, is wonderfully conveyed and charmingly performed. Fry's multidimensional career has added a wonderful new facet.

Milwaukee, Minnesota deserves attention, if for no other reason, for featuring the best Randy Quaid performance in years. (Perhaps true of Bruce Dern's, too.) But the film really stars Troy Garity as a mentally slow mark and Alison Folland as the young con artist, one of many people trying to trick the young man out of his money. It's another strong film by a first-time director, Allan Mindel, who produced My Own Private Idaho and won the Priz de la Juene Critique at Critics' Week at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Day 1

I've come all these miles from Austin, Texas, to cover the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival. A total of 339 features and short films from around the world will screen over the course of 10 days. I'm anxious to see as many as my eyeballs and rear end will allow, but sometimes other golden opportunities intercede.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse performing live in Toronto's hockey arena was the siren call I responded to on my first night in town. And actually, the show was very tied in to the film festival. Young was in town to promote his new movie, Greendale, which is screening in the festival lineup. The show he and his group performed was the live stage version of Greendale, which, in addition to its manifestation as a movie, has also been released on CD. The show was amazing, and it will be impossible for either the CD or the movie to equal the power of Young's stage extravaganza. It's truly a multimedia event, concurrently utilizing live actors, sets, video screens and mattes, and music performance to create a song cycle as fully conceived visually as it is aurally. Greendale is a series of songs about various characters in a small town, and the structure allows Young to delve into several topics that have been of concern to him over the years: media monopoly, ecological disaster, and violence. Raw, exuberant, and more off-the-cuff than by-the-book, the show is a stimulating sensory treat with anthemic resonance that leaves the audience flooding out of the arena ready to tread more lightly on the earth (to paraphrase Go Further, by Torontonian Ron Mann, with Woody Harrelson -- another that's showing here, although its world premiere took place in Austin last spring at the SXSW Film Festival).

My concert tickets were courtesy of the ubiquitous Jeff Dowd, aka the Dude, and thus included an afterparty pass at which I got to meet Neil Young and his wife, Peggy. It's going to be tough for anything else in the festival to ever top this night.

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2003 Toronto International Film Festival, Neil Young, Greendale, Go Further, Bright Young Things, Milwaukee, Minnesota

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