SCREENINGS & MEANINGS
Toronto film festival: from the grating to the great
Unless one is among a privileged elite, which TIFF courts and caters
to assiduously, surviving its 37th annual edition can require the patience
of Job. In managing to see 52 features totalling over 100 hours (though
none of the “people's choice” winners led by Silver Linings
Playbook), I sometimes felt I was spending almost as much time in infernal
lineups. And what other “world-class” city would schedule
a key downtown subway interruption for the busiest opening weekend making
rapid transit between venues anything but? Perhaps most grating is Toronto's
self-consciously exaggerated and star-struck sense of its significance.
Becoming Hollywood's favourite launch pad for the pre-Oscar fall season
has resulted in what veteran Maclean's critic Brian Johnson describes
as the “TIFF industrial complex.”
Notwithstanding claims to be people-oriented, and a continued
dependence on public tax dollars (federal, provincial and municipal),
TIFF is also relentlessly corporate compared to other major festivals.
Every public screening has to be preceded by tedious acknowledgements
and ads (notably an obnoxiously loud one for cosmetics giant L'Oréal,
a much more discreet sponsor at Berlin). I silently cheered when this
was booed before the premiere of a great German film, Hannah Arendt.
On the plus side, and it's a very big plus, there is the selection of films that includes many of outstanding quality. This is the real silver lining that rewards resolute attendance. This year's edition comprised 289 features and 83 shorts from 72 countries; 146 being world premieres and many others international or North American premieres. TIFF truly is an impressive cinematic showcase offering choice that is almost overwhelming. TIFF also deserves kudos for collaborating with the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs in selecting five contemporary world cinema features (though curiously no documentaries) for extended post-screening discussions with their directors and international affairs experts.
AFTER THE BATTLE PREMIERE — Janice
Gross Stein, director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, in conversation
with Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah following the North American
premiere of After the Battle, a drama that takes place against the
backdrop of Egypt’s ongoing
revolutionary upheavals. This was one of five films in the festival’s
contemporary world cinema speakers series. (Schmitz photo)
That said, one has to wonder about some of the scheduling decisions. For the first time a non-Canadian narrative feature opened the festival. That honour went to the sci-fi thriller Looper, a quasi-independent picture already in wide release, involving a twisted tale of time-travel assassination. It's a good movie with a terrific lead performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But I'm not sure it gains much from the glowing attention of a Canadian tax-supported festival. There were Canadian films like Deepa Mehta's excellent Midnight's Children that merited such exposure. Canada's entry in the foreign-language Oscar race, Kim Nguyen's extraordinary Rebelle — about a girl soldier in the Congo's savage civil wars — would have been ruled out having already taken prizes as far back as February's Berlinale. In the event, TIFF dubiously gave its best Canadian feature award to another Quebec filmmaker, enfant terrible Xavier Dolan's Laurence Anyways, which had an underwhelming theatrical run in la belle province following its May Cannes debut.
In the opening slot I would rather have seen Ben Affleck's top-notch
Argo given its timely subject matter and essential Canadian connection.
Instead it bowed first at Colorado's Telluride festival. Arriving in
theatres next week, Argo deserves to be an Oscar best-picture nominee.
Affleck proves to be a skilled director as well as actor. (He also appears
in Terrence Malick's luminous To the Wonder.) In Argo he plays ace CIA
agent Antonio (Tony) Mendez who masterminded the successful extraction
of six targeted Americans from revolutionary Iran during the chaotic
regime change of 1979-80. The film begins with a vivid condensed history,
using animation and newsreel footage, of the Shah's pro-western reign
of torture and fear overthrown by the Ayatollah Khomeini's return. When
militants stormed the U.S. embassy on Nov. 4, 1979, trapping many who
were held hostage for 444 days, six staff managed to escape to the residence
of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Hidden for 87 days,
their situation grew more dangerous by the hour as the identities of
those missing were painstakingly pieced together from shredded employee
Pitched as “the best of the bad ideas,” Mendez's scheme was
to give the six new identities as members of a Canadian film crew scouting
exotic locations for a sci-fi adventure. That meant, with the collaboration
of makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel
(Alan Arkin), setting up a believable enough Hollywood production office
for a fake movie, “Argo,” with Mendez posing as its director.
Chris Terrio's taut screenplay draws on Mendez's memoir Master of Disguise
and a Wired magazine article The Great Escape (the CIA plot was declassified
by President Clinton in 1997). Aided by a first-rate cast that includes
Bryan Cranston as the CIA executive in charge, Affleck injects the proceedings
with an air of authenticity, mounting tension and thrilling suspense
in the critical moments when the most skeptical of the rescued Americans,
the only Farsi speaker, saves the day.
At a time when conflict with Iran is much in the news,
the movie itself stands as a compelling recreation of an extraordinary
episode in diplomatic history. The “Canadian caper” also made Canada the good guy
and Taylor a celebrated hero. When some faulted Argo for slighting the
Canadian role — the exceptional efforts and risks entailed — in
favour of focusing on Mendez while boosting the drama with fictional
elements, Affleck was concerned enough to fly Taylor to Los Angeles after
TIFF and add to the movie's postscript praising Canada.
Ironically Argo's Toronto screenings coincided with the Harper government's
abrupt decision to cut diplomatic relations with Iran and close our embassy,
a move criticized by former diplomats including Taylor. Canada will no
longer be in a position to play any role inside Iran. On a personal note,
in October 2003 I was in Tehran with a parliamentary committee studying
Canada's relations with countries of the Muslim world. It was at a critical
moment after we had temporarily withdrawn our ambassador to protest the
notorious murder of Zahra Kazemi in an Iranian prison. We were able to
meet secretly with Iranian dissidents in that ambassadorial residence,
and with a female vice-president of the Islamic Republic who had been
the American-educated student spokesperson for the radicals behind the
hostage crisis of 1979-81. Canadians will now be shut out as another
bigger crisis looms over Iran's nuclear intentions.
Also recommended in theatres:
And if you have a tolerance for graphic violence and what
goes with it, Lawless, Killer Joe, End of Watch, and the Swedish thriller
Easy Money are worth a look. Also in that category, TIFF's first “midnight
madness” presentation — the dystopian post-apocalypse crime
and punishment fantasy Dredd 3D shot in South Africa. It's a blast, but
Next week: 12 more top dramas from TIFF 2012.