MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

P.S. Toronto…

I began my annual journey to Toronto with a degree of ambivalence and a week after its conclusion I can’t seem to shake that feeling. However, distance has at least provided a glimmer of perspective.

Somewhere hidden in the deluge of movies presented this year and in other recent incarnations is a great festival. For that matter, given enormously bad luck, one could easily conclude the event was second rate or struggling to find its niche.

As odd as what I’m about say is, it’s a festival with simply too many movie options. There were somewhere on the order of 250 new features in this year’s program and I managed to cram about 40 of them into my schedule.

Strictly speaking about one-quarter of my selections were things I was obliged to see for immediate assignments. At the same time I can count only five films that I wound up catching based upon recommendations or buzz. To be clear, I’m talking about five films that I would otherwise not have bothered to seek out. In two of those instances I was truly unimpressed.

The lingering ambivalence mostly relates to what I’ll call my options – more than half of the movie choices that were based upon some inner compulsion. Some were driven by the talent involved; others upon acclaim at other festivals or my familiarity with them as a result of their popularity in their country of origin. There were probably also no more than a couple of films that were seen simply because of the happenstance of being at a particular theater at a propitious time.

The other day I culled through the program catalogue simply to jog my memory about what I’d seen. In the process, one cannot help but be confronted by what was missed and the queasy feeling about whether one will catch up with certain movies at another festival, market, special screening or possible theatrical run.

For a split second the thought went through my mind that I ought to have seen some film instead of something I did in fact select. It’s simply human nature to winnow out the bad experiences and replace them with more positive ones. However, my more reasoned side quickly came to the fore with the sage reminder that no matter how much preparation and research one does to map out a festival strategy, one is still likely to see the same mix of good, bad and indifferent pictures.

The exercise was more illuminating in a general sense. Toronto shows far too many high profile movies from Hollywood and other movie capitols of the world. I understand and appreciate that events of this stature and magnitude require an element of glitz to stir the crowd and attract the fleeting focus of the mainstream press.

The thorny question is when does that factor become too much. While there’s no definite answer, I’ll offer that when the din of that particular component drowns out virtually everything else on view it’s time to reassess and rebalance the scales.

Toronto is due for some recalibration, though my suspicion is that it’s evolved into a glutton that cannot resist anything set upon its table. And while it recognizes that the culinary offerings submitted can be assembled into a well balanced meal, its voracious side is a sucker for stuffing itself with too many eye-catching confections.

The galas and special presentations that fuel most of the public noise at Toronto are invariably littered with the most mundane and mediocre fare. With so many set for imminent commercial release, I elected to forego new films from Ridley Scott, Anthony Minghella and Michael Apted as well as Emilio Estevez‘s portrait of Robert Kennedy, simply titled Bobby. While summary judgment will have to wait, none of my colleagues were prodding me to catch up with that particular quartet.

What I did catch was likely not much better. Christopher Guest‘s skewering of Hollywood in For Your Consideration had an underlying mean spirit that dilutes much of its intended mirth, while Infamous trod in the footprints of Capote to general disadvantage. The Last Kiss simply had no good reason for selection and Stranger Than Fiction, while ultimately emotionally moving, was largely an opportunity to see the likes of Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman do their stuff in material a couple of notches above the usual studio offerings.

One also has to wonder about the inclusion of All the King’s Men for other than mercenary reasons. Whatever qualities it possesses are undone by Sean Penn‘s unbalanced performance and the curious absence of a scene that indicates the Willie Stark character’s transition from good to bad. Without that requisite scene the story simply makes no sense.

The Last King of Scotland tells virtually the same story as King’s Men with far greater success. Forrest Whitaker as Ugandan despot Idi Amin is afforded the opportunity to show the leader’s charm prior to his descent into megalomania. James McAvoy is also excellent as the Scottish doctor that becomes his personal physician and sees the arc of his demise in this little treasure of a film.

The highlight of the high profile screenings was Todd Field‘s Little Children, a complex examination of small town mores. While largely centering on infidelity, there’s a secondary thread involving a convicted pedophile’s return to the community. Field has matured as a filmmaker both on a craft level and in his storytelling and that’s no mean feat in light of his debut with In the Bedroom. His use of the setting provides an organic framework for diverse tales and instills a humanity that elicits shock, humor and compassion without effortless aplomb.

Certainly an understandable mandate of Toronto is to showcase Canadian films and apart from the built in dilemma of limited selectivity and sometime misplaced chauvism, it’s resulted in some sterling discoveries over the years. In that regard Away from Her, the directorial debut of actress Sarah Polley, is this year’s prime example. Far from a warm bath, the saga of a marriage unwinding with the wife’s descent into dementia and Alzheimer’s is unsparing and unsentimental. There’s already talk of an Oscar qualifying run for Julie Christie though veteran Gordon Pinsent as her husband has the more substantial role.

Opening night served up The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, from the filmmakers responsible for The Fast Runner, and while hardly ideal fare for a patron audience, it proved a challenging and compelling saga. Decidedly a demanding work, it evolves into a rumination about the arrival of the modern world into Inuit society in the early 20th Century and provides little solace about that evolution.

A likely better opening night selection would have been Guy Maddin‘s Brand Upon the Brain, a silent film presented in strict traditional fashion. The story is vintage melodrama involving a man returning to the island home of his youth to fulfill his mother’s last request. The flashback that composes the main section of the film is more in keeping with the filmmaker’s sense of fun and the truly bizarre. It was unquestionably the best theater of the festival with a live orchestra, foley artists in lab coats providing the sound effects, a narrator and a castrato singer. A similar mounting will occur during the New York Film Festival and hopefully other venues in the next year.

Off campus I caught the Canadian bilingual thriller Bon Cop Bad Cop. Heavily influenced by Seven and other dark procedurals it recently became the biggest grossing local film in Quebec and has grossed an unprecedented $11 million across Canada. Otherwise it’s rather routine with no obvious evidence for its outrageously popular local appeal.

Coincidently, Korea’s biggest grossing movies, The Host and The King and the Clown, were also on view at the festival. The Host recently took the commercial crown and like the Canadian thriller there’s nothing about this monster movie that suggests it tapped into the national zeitgeist. The film has high production values with a malevolent creature reminiscent of Alien – the result of chemical mutation – ultimately brought to bay by a dysfunctional but determined family.

The King and the Clown is a far different tale. Set in a 16th Century court, it’s based on a true life ruler’s infatuation with a group of street performers. The film has a nice ragged energy with the traveling players providing the humor and acrobatics against the backdrop of rather fierce political intrigue.

On a similar note, Alatrieste chronicles the same era from a Spanish perspective with Viggo Mortensen in the title role. Currently wildly popular in Spain, it’s more somberly paced and truly unlikely to find an international audience. Spain was better served by Almodovar’s magical Volver and Pan’s Labyrinth, a disturbing allegory set in the 1940s with Franco’s soldiers embodying pure evil against rebels and mystical forces in the woods. A brief description simply cannot do it justice.

Perhaps the biggest personal surprise was Lake of Fire, a documentary on abortion rights that filmmaker Tony Kaye has been working on sporadically since 1992. In retrospect one can understand that the subject matter with its highly charged emotional nature would pose a challenge for someone trying to affect a balanced, articulate perspective. It is amazing, enthralling material presented in a fashion that will be disturbing for viewers regardless of their preconceived notions and biases.

The other rather startling documentary in the program was the deceptively titled A Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema. Directed by Sophie Fiennes it explores the implications of the intrinsic voyeuristic nature of the movie going experience. Psychoanylist Slavoj Zizek proves himself an able tour guide with a sang froide attitude and Slavic lilt.

Coeurs is the latest from Alain Resnais who recently celebrated his 83rd birthday. He won the award for direction in Venice and it has an elegant, assured style. However, there’s nothing particularly revelatory about this yarn of a half dozen Parisians whose lives intertwine in fitfully humorous and emotional encounters.

On the whole it wasn’t a great year for the auterist filmmakers. Nuri Bilge Ceylan‘s Climates doesn’t quite coalesce in its view of the seasons of life though it features one of the most remarkable sex scenes ever put on film. I’d also been warned to expect disappointment from Lights in the Dusk by Aki Kurasmaki but found this story of a man whose ill fortune cannot be reversed to be quite compelling and consistent if a tad familiar.

Paul Verhoeven‘s first Dutch film in decades, Black Book, showed him in top technical form in a saga of Dutch resistance against Nazi occupiers. However, plot inconsistencies and a rather ragged conclusion marred my complete enjoyment. Conversely, Rescue Dawn, in which Christian Bale plays a downed U.S. pilot in Laos circa 1965, presented Werner Herzog in the unusual light of an action director. Displaying none of the filmmaker’s past idiosyncratic style, it’s a flag raiser one suspects he made simply to prove the point he could make a completely conventional movie.

The one entry that lived up to its promise was Cannes prize winner The Wind That Shakes the Barley by Ken Loach. The tale of two brothers caught in the crossfire of the Irish independence movement of the 1920s is one of his most assured works and eschews the polemics of some past efforts. It carries an emotional wallop that’s devastating and honest without a hint of histrionics.

The French political thriller Mon Colonel is among the more haunting films of Toronto with the echoes of the war in Algeria informing its narrative. Not quite as crisp as the vintage Costa-Gavras (who co-wrote the script), it nonetheless maintains a disturbing resonance. On the other hand only the startling images of The Fall linger and cannot overcome a thoroughly banal script and the tale of Australian aboriginals, Ten Canoes, was unable to keep my attention, though I suspect it will play better outside the hurly burly of a festival environment.

The final wry little gem of the festival turned out to be 12:08 East of Bucharest, the sort of political fable one hasn’t seen since The Mouse That Roared. On the 16th anniversary that toppled Ceausescu in Romania a talk show in a small town decides to revisit the moment with a couple of eyewitnesses. Suffice it to say memories don’t jibe with those of call-in listeners and you suspect this tiny dorp only got to see history made on their television sets. The sophistication and candor of the piece is totally unexpected and a far more telling manifestation of how radically attitudes and expressions have changed in this former Soviet republic.

October 2, 2006

– by Leonard Klady

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon