J Robert’s TIFF Diary

Friday, September 5, 2003
Day One

by J. Robert Parks

I arrived in Toronto about noon. The weather was gorgeous, low 70s (Fahrenheit) and sunny. I’m struck as we fly into Pearson airport that Toronto occupies the same position on Lake Ontario as Chicago does on Lake Michigan. And as I walk around downtown, I notice other similarities: the congested sidewalks, the streets with high-end stores not far from streets with cheap Thai and Indian restaurants, the wonderfully diverse mix of people. I’ve heard so many people mention how clean Toronto is, but it doesn’t seem any cleaner than Chicago–except for its subways–but Chicago subways are gross, so that wouldn’t be hard. The stereotypical Canadian friendliness is on full display. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve sworn my smiling waitress at The Green Mango (hmmm, cashew chicken) was coming on to me. Even the cabbies look back as you get in the car and genuinely ask how you’re doing.

After checking into the hotel, I decided to walk around, get acclimated, figure out where the theaters are. Since Saturday is a five-movie day, when I’ll be rushing from theater to theater, I better know where I’m going ahead of time. This turns out to be surprisingly wise, as I have trouble finding the Cumberland and Isabel Bader theaters at first. By Day Two, I’m an old pro, of course.

Well, I’ve put off the inevitable long enough. It’s time to head to the box office and see which movies I actually have tickets for. As I mentioned in another post, the film fest box office lost my fax order. To their credit, they called me the next day to see which movies I had requested, but by then I was at the back of the queue. I’m all prepared to miss out on several of the big-ticket movies, but lo and behold I get 35 of my 38 choices. The three that I’m shut out of are particularly strange. Not the box office draws of 21 Grams and Elephant or the cineaste faves of Haneke and Tsai–I have those tickets. No, it’s much smaller fare like The Story of the Weeping Camel or Les Yeux Secs. At first I’m completely bewildered,
and then my friend Garth points out that those movies are screened in particularly small theaters. Still, are there that many people who want to see a documentary set in Mongolia? Turns out there are, but more on that in Day Two.

Exhilarated by my ticketing good fortune, I set out again to explore the city. Oh, enough travelogue. You’re not reading this for my dining tips, you want the lowdown on cinema.

My first movie isn’t until 6 p.m., as there are no public screenings in the afternoon. It’s a Russian film called Koktebel (2003), the story of an 11-year-old boy and his father heading from Moscow to the titular city in Crimea. The story’s pace is languid, as befits a road picture where the stops are more
lengthy than the starts. The acting is solid, though the boy (Gleb
Puskepalis) undermines my theory about the superiority of European child actors; he’s merely average. The movie’s real draw is its spectacular cinematography. Most directors would kill to have just one of Koktebel’s images. Its directors, Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky, create breathtaking compositions in pretty much every scene. Their use of the
Russian landscape is glorious, and their color palette–subtle shades of brown, green, and gray–is beautifully muted. Koktebel also does a nice job of creating compelling secondary characters that our heroes meet along the
way. I especially enjoyed the first two encounters: a man and his teenage daughter in one, an old drunk in the other. Unfortunately, the narrative paints itself into a corner, which makes the ending somewhat unsatisfying. Still, Koktebel was a wonderful way to open the festival.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

The second movie, B-Happy (2002), did not continue my good streak. When I mentioned to Garth what I was seeing, he raised his eyebrows. “Taking a chance, I see,” he remarked. What he meant was that I was seeing a film without a big director, big actors, or big buzz. That’s what I like to do in festivals. See a broad mix of genres, national cinemas, themes. I know not everything will work, but even the misses can be thought-provoking. So it is with B-Happy, a coming-of-age tale set in Chile. Starring Manuela Martelli as Katty, a 14-year-old finding her way in the world, the movie chronicles her deteriorating family situation (the father is in prison, the
older brother is a layabout) and budding sexuality. I liked the movie’s first half hour, but then things took a grim turn. Now I appreciated Lilya 4-Ever, but B-Happy doesn’t have Moodysson’s rigor. B-Happy‘s director, Gonzalo Justiniano, has no formal control whatsoever, relying exclusively on fade-to-blacks to end his scenes. Since the movie jumps from scene to scene with little rhythm or control, this means there are approximately 45 fade-to-blacks in the film. I was tired of the device after the first five. The narrative is a mess as well, introducing characters and situations that are summarily dropped, then picked up again later for no apparent reason. But most disturbingly, the movie’s nudity and sex is simply exploitive. I’m not sure how old Martelli is (though she can certainly pass for 14-15), but there are several scenes in which the camera
just ogles her naked body. I’m not prudish when it comes to nudity, but this was disconcerting, especially when the director made a point in his pre-film comments to mention Manuela was a young schoolgirl, not an actress. Despite all this, Martelli gives a searing performance, commanding the screen despite all of the mess around her. In a movie filled with wrong notes, her performance is a powerful melody.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

My plan had been to turn in after B-Happy. But Garth had mentioned he and some folk were getting rush tickets for the midnight film, Cypher (2002), starring Jeremy Northam and Lucy Liu. I wasn’t tired yet and I was up for some company, so I joined them in the rush line. Toronto rush lines are infamous, with moviegoers lining up hours in advance. But if you have
friends who are already in line, you can sidle up to them without too much fuss. Unfortunately, Cypher wasn’t quite worth the wait. Though the movie has style to spare, its style is monotonous. Its monochromatic palette and noirish plotline never excite, and the film’s series of twists grows tiresome. Indeed after the fourth twist, I was able to predict the film’s conclusion without too much trouble. In a paranoid conspiracy thriller trying to echo Brazil, this is not a good thing. But Cypher does move along, and the performances are good. Not great, not terrible, more of a
shrug.

Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)

So, only one truly solid film on Day One. Nonetheless, it’s still
exhilarating to be in Toronto. As I mentioned to Garth, even a festival’s misses are worth seeing.

Besides, I still have 35 films to go.