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It's that time of year again: the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival is up and running (September 8-17), and movie maven and ace correspondent Ken Karn is once again covering the scene for Celluloid Dreams.


This is the 30th year for the fan-friendly fest which is known to movie lovers from around the world as the biggest place to talk pictures and interact with the people who make them. Our man is one of the most rabid cine-enthusiasts we know (and a filmmaker in his own right), so you can be sure that wherever he goes, whatever he sees, you'll be right there with him.


On this page, Ken will elucidate, effuse and otherwise report on the many Festival films and activities. (Disclaimer: all opinions belong to Ken.) This information will be updated as it arrives, so check in every day!


And be sure to listen to Celluloid Dreams each week for Ken's *live reports* from the festivities!

Ken enjoys a break in the movie madness



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TIFF Day Ten and Wrap

Today was a day to sleep in late, pack, and make my way to the awards cocktail reception across town at the Hilton at 12:30 PM.  Since man cannot live by cocktails alone, I grabbed my first real sit-down breakfast of the festival just before the fete.  When I arrived at the awards reception I discovered two things immediately: this was a relatively intimate affair (the number of invitations given out was small), and there were 4 buffet lines of real food (one in each corner).  With the food on hand for this “reception” it could easily have been called a feast.  And the less than crowded ballroom made it easy to navigate.  Despite my full breakfast 30 minutes earlier I couldn’t pass up some sushi, pot stickers, fresh blueberries with real Canadian maple syrup, and 2 glasses of wine.  Why is it that your stomach can be completely full, yet it’s impossible to pass up free food?

The awards were low key, but the winners were enthusiastically received.  One of my favorite films of the fest, TSOTSI (see Day Eight), won the City Award as the audience favorite.  In years past this award has gone to some crowd pleasers (Whale Rider), but TSOTSI is a tough and uncompromising film. Good on ya, Toronto audiences!

The one and only celebrity sighting at the awards was the lovely and talented Rachel McAdams (Red Eye, The Wedding Crashers, The Notebook).  She was alone, without bodyguards or a publicist.  Nobody bum rushed her for autographs or a photo op.  I guess that’s because the room was mostly full of Canadians and they tend not to do that.  Ms. McAdams is from Canada and she’s as gorgeous up close as she is on the silver screen.  Long may she be in movies.

While awaiting my first press screening at TIFF I sat next to 3 young women who worked for one of the festival sponsors.  They were going over all the celebrities they’d seen so far.  They had an elaborate scoring system that required some sort of verification for each sighting.  First of all, red carpets or press conferences didn’t count.  Neither did seeing the star at his/her movie screening.  These had to be in the real world and by chance.  The spotter would get 1 point for a C-list celeb (TV stars and most Canadian actors), 2 for B-list luminaries, and 4 points for an A-list megastar.  Extra points were given for seeing an A-lister all alone, or with one other person that was not a bodyguard or publicist.  15 points were awarded for seeing 2 superstars alone.  The potential big names included Johnny Depp, Cameron Diaz, Gwenyth Paltrow, Keanu Reeves, Charlize Theron, Madonna, Dakota Fanning, and many more.  Arguments raged among the women about the star ratings of marginal celebs (was Orlando Bloom an A-list?  How about oldies but goodies like Jeff Bridges, Nick Nolte and Shirley MacLaine?) 

My sightings were modest in comparison to those revealed by the star stalkers.  All were in non-fest surroundings, and I actually spoke to one of them.  See if you can guess who: Timothy Spall (British actor in most all Mike Leigh movies), Pierce Brosnan, Hugo Weaving (Matrix),  Tommy Chong, Forest Whitaker, Morgan Freeman, Danny Aiello, William Macy, Tilda Swinton, Sarah Silverman, Don McKellar, and Kelli Garner.

While TIFF has become a bit more star crazy (and the local coverage is decidedly slanted towards the glamour and bright lights), the goal to showcase the best cinema on the planet at this given moment is still achieved.  Despite its incredible popularity, TIFF is still user friendly and the staff & volunteers couldn’t be more helpful and good natured.  I missed a number of films I would have loved to catch here, but the ones I did see were savored and enjoyed.  Here’s a list of the films I saw with attached star ratings.  Remember, this is only my opinion and you should never skip a film that looks interesting to you just because it didn’t work for me.  If it looks like I was generous in my ratings, it just reflects the fact that the films I chose were far above the usual cinematic fare.

Have a great rest of the year, and I hope you can join me in Toronto for next year’s event.

Love n kisses - Ken

(out of 4 stars, in order that they were seen)

Water  ***1/2

Brokeback Mountain  ****

Capote  ***1/2

Isolation  ***

A History Of Violence  ***1/2

Tideland  *

Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic  ***

Mary  ***

The French Guy  **1/2

Thumbsucker  ***1/2

The Proposition  ***1/2

Harsh Times  ***

Where The Truth Lies  ***

Sympathy For Lady Vengeance  **1/2

The Death Of Mister Lazarescu  ***1/2

River Queen  **1/2

Whassup Rockers  ***

Dear Wendy  ***1/2

Romance & Cigarettes  ***

The Matador  ***

The White Masai  **

Tsotsi  ****

Mrs. Harris  *

Six Figures  ***1/2

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan  ****+

Sorry Haters - zero

The celeb I actually spoke to was Tilda Swinton.


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TIFF Day Nine

I was never a fan of Bob Dylan.  I found his voice whiney and his enigmatic persona to be irritating.  Martin Scorsese’s riveting doc NO DIRECTION HOME: BOB DYLAN changed a lot of my thinking on Bobby.  Besides being the fastest 3 1/2 hour movie I’ve seen, it revealed Dylan in a new light for me.  The spine consists of a current interview with the reclusive poet laureate of my generation, tracing his career from childhood to just after his near fatal motorcycle accident in 1966.  Miles of vintage concert and behind-the-scenes footage, as well as interviews with his colleagues, complete the portrait of a man who refused to give in to celebrity status and continued to grow musically throughout his career.  The most defining moments deal with how fans and contemporaries in the folk music world scorned him when he plugged in around 1966.  They viewed him as a pop/rock sell out.  Dylan’s biggest hit describes exactly how he would view himself in a perfect world:

How does it feel,

to be on your own,

with no direction home,

a complete unknown

like a rolling stone...


I could write several pages about this definitive piece of cinema from one of our greatest living filmmakers.  Let me just say that I found new respect for the man both as a musician and a poet.  While his voice may be whiney, few (if any) can match his significance and longevity in the world of popular music.  A must see on DVD, or later on PBS.

SIX FIGURES is a Canadian film that looks like it could have been made by one of the European masters (Antonioni, Buñuel, Bresson).  It’s all precise compositions done in master shot with elegant pans and dollies.  Director David Christensen goes in close only at critical moments in this story of a young middle class with 2 small children who are trying to earn enough money to buy a house in the boomtown of Calgary, Alberta (think Silicon Valley in the 80’s).  Tensions mount as both work and home life seem to be pressuring them.  Suddenly, the wife is viciously attacked and left in a coma.  Immediately the husband becomes the one and only suspect, causing everybody in his world to doubt whether they really know him.  SIX FIGURES never gives in to the potentially cheap thriller elements of the plot, and remains an absorbing and well made tale about trust, loyalty, and how well we know that person sleeping next to us.  This will never get into theaters in the US because of extreme bias against Canadian cinema.  Look for it on DVD later next year, even if you have to buy it from a Canadian website.

If you see enough films at any festival, there’s always one that’s an utter and complete head scratcher. SORRY, HATERS, my very last film at TIFF 2005, fills that slot.  It’s a totally crackers story of a Syrian cab driver in New York (post 9/11) who picks up a tall, blonde female fare one evening and lives to regret it.  The woman, played by the magnificent and too-seldom-seen Robin Wright-Penn, gradually insinuates herself into the poor cabbie’s life and promises to help his brother (a Guantanamo detainee deported to Syria) get back into the US.  Implausible plot machinations run amok as the woman slowly reveals that she’s several cards short of a full deck.  The ending is way off the hook.  Let’s just say that even the woman’s pet pomeranian feels her psychotic wrath.

Stay tuned tomorrow for a wrap up, celebrity overview, and coverage of the closing awards cocktail reception (yours truly scored an invitation).  Ciao for now - Ken


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TIFF Day Eight

Today was binge day as I wanted to get in 4 films before dinner.  Here’s what I saw.

THE MATADOR stars Pierce Brosnan as Julian, an aging assassin who’s beginning to see unmistakable signs of burn out. While on assignment in Mexico he meets Danny, a freelance marketing consultant/family man played by Greg Kinnear.  The two form an unlikely bond as Danny is perversely fascinated with the hit man’s craft.  Julian eventually gets into a jam and needs Danny to help him out.  Despite some serious moral misgivings, Danny agrees.  Brosnan and Kinnear have terrific chemistry and they never let the ludicrousness of the plot overtake what is essentially a character study of the human need to seek out a kindred spirit.  Fine support is provided Hope Davis as Danny’s supportive wife.  Funny, sad, and filled with enough tension to keep you guessing, THE MATADOR is one you should check out when it arrives in theaters later this Fall.

One of the most popular books in Europe over the past decade is THE WHITE MASAI.  It’s the autobiographical tale of Carola, a tall, blonde Swiss woman who goes to Kenya on vacation with her boyfriend.  Just before leaving for home she spots a tall, handsome Masai warrior on a ferry in full traditional wardrobe.  Before you can say “Me bwana,” she’s off into the bush to live with a man she doesn’t know and can barely communicate with, in an ancient culture of which she has no idea. Surprisingly, problems arise. Despite the epic scope, beautiful scenery and game acting, THE WHITE MASAI never becomes emotionally involving.  Perhaps this is because the viewer can’t help but yell back at the screen: “WHAT WE’RE YOU THINKING, LADY?!” 

South African filmmaker Gavin Hood is one of the most exciting young directors in any language working today.  His first film, “A Reasonable Man,” screened at a San Jose fesaival a few years ago and now he’s back with TSOTSI, based on the only novel written by noted South African playwright Athol Fugard.  The title character (“tsotsi” means gangster) is an angry young man who heads a band of budding criminals in a ghetto township outside of Johannesburg.  After killing a man in the subway and assaulting one of his own comrades, Tsotsi steals a car from a woman whom he shoots in the stomach.  As he’s driving towards the chop shop, he sees that the woman’s baby is in the back seat.  This sends him into crisis of consciousness that unfolds in unexpected ways.  Hood manages the startling feat of getting us to empathize with this killer and thief as Tsotsi struggles to find his humanity.  Violent, but surprisingly hopeful, this is one of the best films I’ve seen so far and one I hope makes it to our shores.

As a true crime buff I knew a great deal about the case of Jean Harris.  She shot and killed Dr. Herman Tarnauer, the author of the Scarsdale Medical Diet, in 1980.  She claimed they were struggling over a gun that she intended to use on herself (reference the movie/play “Chicago” on this defense).  The case was noteworthy because of the New York society celebrities involved, and Jean Harris’ defiance and remorselessness when she took the stand in her own defense.  There’s lots of fascinating stuff in this case, but most of that is missing in MRS. HARRIS.  Instead we get a superficial and, at times, campy portrayal of the events.  Annette Benning goes a long way towards making us care about Mrs. Harris, but her Herculean efforts are not enough.  Ben Kingsley is also good as the egocentric and charming doctor, but the whole thing is just boring and irritating.  Avoid it when it shows up on HBO later this Fall.

Tomorrow is my last day of movies, and I have an interview with director Thomas Vinterberg of DEAR WENDY (see Day Seven).  I hope to catch Martin Scorsese’s epic documentary, NO DIRECTION HOME: BOB DYLAN.  Cheers and hasta mañana.


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TIFF Day Seven

I’ve succumbed to an occupational hazard known to afflict entertainment journalists.  There’s a film I was sort of on the fence about, but after talking with the filmmaker and actors I appreciate the film a good deal more. “Come on, Ken!” I hear you saying. “Be a professional and remain objective.”  Bullshit.  First, once the process involves human interaction, as it does at film festivals, objectivity is impossible.  Second, who said I was a professional?

The roundtables for WHERE THE TRUTH LIES (see Day Five part 2) continued the trend of accessible subjects with something of substance to say.  Writer/Director Atom Egoyan is never at a loss for words, and the recent verdict by the MPAA ratings board (giving his film an NC-17) really set him off.  Atom is one of the few people who always has a lot to say, but you never get tired of listening to him.  He was joined by the lovely and young Rachel Blanchard, who plays the murder victim.  90% of the time she is either nude or dead, and she was gracious about telling us how the critical love scene was shot (the one that likely gave Atom the cinema scarlet letter).  Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth, the stars of the film, were far too normal to really be actors.  Kevin came across as a blue collar thesp who loves the acting but gets worn out by all of the other stuff.  Fortunately, as he pointed out, his wife (Kyra Sedgwick of the hit cable show “The Closer”) is working so the pressure is off to find a job right now.  Colin had one of the Top 5 Best Lines when he said about the long sex scene, “Acting is difficult enough without having to hide your dick.”   You can listen to these roundtable interviews by activating the audio file on this site sometime after next week.

DEAR WENDY is the heartwarming love story between a boy and his gun.  Jamie Bell (Billy Elliott, Undertow) stars as Dick, a fresh-out-of-high school boy in a poor, remote mining town in what looks like the American Southeast.  Every young man is expected to work in the mine, but Dick is an outcast because of his refusal.  When his father’s death leaves him all alone, he begins a love affair with a small but powerful handgun.  This is despite the fact that he’s a dedicated pacifist.  After carrying the heat for a while, he discovers how just feeling the firearm in his pocket gives his self esteem a tremendous boost.  Think the Beatles’ “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.”  He recruits the town’s other outcasts and forms a secret society dedicated to vintage guns with the sacred code that they must never be used to kill another human being. Their nirvana is severely disrupted when Dick is given probation monitoring responsibility for a young black man.  I won’t give away the ending, but once you have a gun it’s inevitable that you’ll point it at someone in anger. 

If my description above leans toward the ridiculous, director Thomas Vinterberg and writer Lars Von Trier are in on the joke.  Somehow they manage to evoke humor and pathos out of what could have been a parable devoid of human emotions.  DEAR WENDY is an audacious hoot, and I was actually sad when Wendy breaks poor Dick’s heart.  By taking the film to the edge of silly without going over, Vinterberg manages to make seriously unpalatable material go down easy.  Disturbing as it is funny, try to ignore the fact that Vinterberg and Von Trier seem to believe only Americans are overly fond of guns. Then again....

I’ll be interviewing director Thomas Vinterberg on Day Nine.

ROMANCE AND CIGARETTES is directed by John Turturro (many Coen Brothers films)  and stars James Gandolfini (the infamous Tony Soprano), Susan Sarandon, Christopher Walken and Kate Winslet.  Just as you’d expect, it’s a musical.  That is not a misprint.  The story concerns a working class man (Gandolfini) whose wife (Sarandon) discovers he’s having an affair with a much younger woman (Winslet).  The songs are a mixture of old standards, rock and roll, and a few original ditties presented in song and dance sequences that are surprising and polished.  The first 2/3rds of the film is absolutely fabulous as the characters try to sort through their problems.  The resolution, however, is the worst kind of sentimental, soap opera slop.  If you can guess the most awful way to end any love story or domestic drama, that’s what Turturro uses.  I still recommend ROMANCE AND CIGARETTES for it’s original take on a shopworn tale, but expect to struggle keeping your lunch down during the final 20 minutes.


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TIFF Day Six

It’s hard not to get enthusiastic about films and the folks who make them when you get to meet and chat with people like those from the movie THUMBSUCKER.   All were articulate and forthcoming when it came to answering questions from the reporters in our roundtable.  THUMBSUCKER is a novel by Walter Kirn that was brought to writer/director Mike Mills (well established in graphic arts and commercials) about 4-5 years ago to be his feature film debut.  Actress Tilda Swinton was instrumental in bringing the project to fruition, as she is with most independent films in which she’s involved.  Keanu Reeves was even in on the roundtables, although he sat quietly most of the time.  When we eventually drew him into the discussion he was thoughtful and funny (even though he never came within 4 feet of my microphone).  Actress Kelli Garner (Howard Hughes’ young bride in The Aviator) has these huge, beautiful green eyes at which you can’t stop staring.  She admitted to never having seen a Martin Scorsese film before she was in The Aviator.  Lead actor Lou Pucci (the thumbsucker of the title) confessed to having sucked his thumb until he was 8 years old.  For the complete lowdown please check out the audio file for this roundtable, as well as a one-on-one interview with Lou Pucci on this website sometime after next week.

SPECIAL NOTE:  Please support this little treasure of a film when it comes to a theater near you. I guarantee it will put a smile on your face and give you some stimulating subjects to talk about over coffee or an adult beverage.

The day was off to a terrific start, so I decided to see a depressing movie to bring me down a bit.  THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU was just the ticket.  This Romanian feature follows a day in the life (the last day in the life) of 62 year old Mr. L, who lives in a small apartment with his 2 cats.  He awakens with a horrible headache and his usual remedy (several shots of whiskey) is starting to make his ulcer act up.  Once the nausea and pain gets to be too much he calls for an ambulance.  As his neighbor informs him, it may not arrive for 2-3 days so he better get comfortable.  When the medics arrive later that evening he gets into an argument with them regarding the diagnosis of his condition.  Finally, off they go to the first of many hospitals on his nighttime odyssey towards death.  Despite being in the hands of the medical establishment in plenty of time, delays take their toll (some bureaucratic, most the result of egocentric physicians).  At 2 1/2 hours, it’s a very long trip indeed, but the razor sharp satire and loud ring of truth keep you riveted.  The universal nature of the incidents that contribute to Mr.L’s demise are universal, and could easily happen in the USA or anywhere on Earth. 

Suitable depressed, I marched straight in to see RIVER QUEEN, a rousing adventure movie set in New Zealand in the late 1800’s.  I was familiar with the director, Vincent Ward, who was a rising star on the Hollywood scene after his provocative and original NZ films (The Navigator and Map Of The Human Heart) in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  He was set to write and direct the third Aliens movie (for which he still received writing credit), but they gave the job to another up and comer (David Fincher of Fight Club, Seven and others).  He’s only done one Hollywood film since that time (What Dreams May Come) and I was anxious to see what he was up to. 

Samantha Morton stars as a young woman living with her British Army father at a remote garrison on a river in colonial New Zealand.  She falls in love with a native Maori boy and gets pregnant, but her lover dies before the child is born.  She has the baby anyway and begins to raise him with the white people.  When the son is kidnapped by the warring Maori people she begins a 7 year search to find him.  When she does, the Maori leader refuses to let him go as war breaks out against the British.  Against the backdrop of the war, our River Queen struggles to get her son back, and to discover where her heart lies (with the British or the Maori).  Ward makes great use of the stunning locations, the battle sequences are stirring, and the emotions are pumped to the max.  While I felt that he hit all the notes a bit too loudly, this is a sturdy, well-made film that should appeal to a broad audience. It deserves worldwide exposure, but as of this writing it has yet to secure distribution.

Filmmaker Larry Clark is a love him or hate him sort of filmmaker.  His previous films are a mixed bag, but there are some gems in his cinema jewelry box (Kids, Bully, Another Day In Paradise).  Many accuse him of amping the sexuality of children such that the viewer feels like a pedophile (something with which I agree).  Some say his films are about nothing more than prurient, self-indulgent crap (I beg to differ).  For sure they are unlike any other filmmaker so I sauntered over to check out his latest, WHASSUP ROCKERS.  This is a day in the life of 7 Latino boys (ages 13 - 17) living in South Central LA whose lives are devoted to skateboarding and punk rock music. This is in sharp contrast to the prevailing hip hop culture in that part of the planet.  Naturally, their long hair, tight pants and genial attitudes are scorned by the blacks in the area.  But it’s when they decide to go to Beverly Hills and skate that the troubles really escalate. Thin on narrative but deep on character and texture, WHASSUP ROCKERS will likely not see the light of a projector anytime soon.  If it does come to your area, don’t be a hater and go see it.


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TIFF Day Five - Part 2: The Movies

THE PROPOSITION (see Day Four) has seeped further into my subconscious since viewing it just over 24 hours ago.  The themes of violence, loyalty, betrayal and survival have resonated with me ever since, and I’m almost ready to anoint it as a master work.  It was therapeutic to chat with director John Hillcoat, writer Nick Cave (yes, of the Bad Seeds) and actor Guy Pearce (Memento, LA Confidential):  3 completely different personalities who managed to collaborate on this fine work of cinema.  John and Guy preferred to be addressed by their first names in the taped interview, but Nick preferred to be called Mr. Cave.  Naturally, the first time I asked him a question I said “Mister Cage.”  He was none too pleased with my slip, but he handled it with good humor and panache.  Check out the interview once it’s posted on this website sometime after the week of September 19 - 26.  One of the most interesting points concerns the difference between THE PROPOSITION and the vast majority of American westerns.

BTW, Guy Pearce is a short guy.  He’s about my height (5’7”), but he looks a hell of a lot better. He’s also one of my favorite actor interviews at a fest where I’ve had a lot of them.

Later that afternoon I was in need of a film that would bludgeon me into submission.  I tend to be a cinema bottom at times, and this was one of them.  The perfect remedy was HARSH TIMES, an LA-set potboiler starring Christian Bale and Freddy Rodriguez (Six Feet Under).  Bale plays an Army Ranger just discharged after serving in Iraq.  He’s a live wire who is constantly working to pump up his macho ego. He’s trying to get work on the LAPD but he can’t seem to get by their psychological testing.  Rodriguez is his long time drinking buddy and the film follows them as they ride around LA drinking, doing drugs and getting into trouble courtesy of Bale’s take-no-prisoners approach to life.  The conflicts mount in what turns into a test of loyalties for Rodriguez between his friend and his wife (played by Desperate Housewife Eve Longoria).  HARSH TIMES is very reminiscent of TRAINING DAY as the crazy one forces the sane won to start establishing some boundaries.  Even though Bale’s character is a bad seed, you still can’t help hoping that he’ll finally start making some good decisions.  His performance is outstanding, but the real revelation here is Freddy Rodriguez who is the shaky heart of this piece.  Not an easy film to watch, but a riveting and worthwhile experience.

Next I needed something to tickle the brain a bit.  Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, Felicia’s Journey) is another of my favorite directors.  His films tend to be more intellectual than emotional, but his command of the film medium is masterful.  His latest, WHERE THE TRUTH LIES, stars Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth as the comedy team of Lanny Morris & Vince Collins (think Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin).  They are at the absolute pinnacle of the entertainment business in the 50’s when a young woman is found naked and drowned in their hotel room bathtub.  Neither is charged with a crime, but the team breaks up and they go on to separate careers.  15 years later an ambitious reporter (Alison Lohman) begins research on a book about why they broke up....and to solve the mystery of the woman’s death. There’s much mystery and treachery afoot as the story gets closer to the answers, but more questions keep rising up.  Themes such as the rise and fall of Hollywood wander about as well. Sex infuses the film like hot fudge over ice cream (it’s rated NC-17). It reminds one of Hitchcock or Brian DePalma (sorry about the redundancy) and it’s done with lush images and music that perfectly evoke the time period.  Bacon and Firth are strong, but Alison Lohman is a bit weak as the dirt digging journalist.  My biggest disappointment was the final resolution, which you can probably see coming like a parade up 5th Avenue.  Nonetheless, it’s intelligent filmmaking with a lot on its mind.  I’ll need to let it cook a bit before giving it a yeah or a nay.

Finally, I needed my ass kicked, so SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE was the perfect choice.  If you’ve seen either of the other 2 films in this Korean trilogy (Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy) you know to expect a lot of twisted violence and disturbing imagery.  This film is a bit shorter than the others (just under 2 hours) and lighter on the action/violence, but it has plenty of disturbing ideas running about.  Some viewers may be put off by the fact that director Park Chan-wook seldom has his characters dwell on regret, remorse or guilt--even after they’ve brutally killed scores of people.  However, this SYMPATHY... does have a sweet spirituality at its core.  The leading lady could have been stronger, but you’ll get few complaints from me about this one.  Please check out all 3 in the Chan-wook’s vengeance series. The catharsis will do you good.


Tomorrow you can look forward to 3 more films and roundtable interviews with the folks from THUMBSUCKER.  Ciao for now - Ken


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TIFF Day Five - Part 1: The Canadian Way

This is the first year that I’m staying in a neighborhood that is not part of what’s called the Festival Village (part of the high rent section just north of downtown Toronto).  Instead I’m at a guest house in the student neighborhood of The Annex, which is filled with many brownstones and other comfortable (not ostentatious) homes and apartments.  It’s quite refreshing and I’m actually interacting with real Canadians here.  So far I’ve drawn some generalizations about Canadians, or at least Toronto residents of The Annex, that make them distinctly different from Americans.  I’d like to share them with you.

First, I’ve not heard one thumper car since being here.  Like I said: refreshing, especially for these old ears of mine. Also, Canadians like to ride bicycles without a helmet.  This seems more like part of their innate optimism rather than the dangerous oversight that it really is.  They also ride on the sidewalk a lot, but not at dangerous speeds, so I guess it’s ok.  There’s a 3-4 second delay on most traffic signals when all directions have a red light.  This is to compensate for drivers running a red light, but I’ve yet to see that happen since I’ve been here.  Even the pedestrians wait until their walk symbol is green.  I’m off right after the cross traffic gets the red, so most of the time I’m in the middle of the intersection with a handful of other Yanks by the time the Canadians venture out into the street.  Other things I have yet to see include cigarette butts in the subway platforms (or any trash in the streets, for that matter), rude drivers who honk and curse, bad attitude clerks in stores, or surly street people. 

Americans have much to learn from their brethren of the Great White North, but I still manage to be the ugly American when I’m pushed over the limit.  The perfect example was last night.  I attempted to get into an added press/industry screening of CACHE, Austrian Michael Haneke’s latest film at around 10:15 PM.  The screening room held 28 people and I was number 31 to arrive.  There was a chance someone could leave before the screening at 10:30 and open up a seat, but the prospects looked grim.  Person # 29 was a middle-aged woman who was begging the theater monitor to let her in even though Toronto fire laws prohibit anybody from sitting in an aisle or standing in the back of the auditorium.  The woman claimed that she’d been waiting in an adjacent café and didn’t realize a line had formed for the screening.  She continued to pester and harass the monitor and wouldn’t take “No” in a gracious manner.  This happens all the time because those in the film press and industry feel a strong sense of entitlement.  Not getting their way is not an option.  Finally, after several minutes of this I finally verbally interjected my assessment of the situation to person #29.  Without going into specifics, I essentially told the woman she was being a flaming asshole about missing the screening, and she should drink a large, steaming cup of shut the fuck up.  

After several seconds of uncomfortable silence, the woman approached me and said that the situation was between her and the screen monitor and it was none of my business.  She further added that the monitor was a big girl and she could take care of herself.  After several seconds of suppressed laughter, I told the woman that I wasn’t trying to protect the screen monitor (who was more than obviously annoyed by #29), nor was I making any kind of moral or philosophical point. I simply got tired of hearing her bitch for something that was totally her own fault.  She was free to ignore me or not.  The woman pointed out that she was part of the industry in Toronto, had paid a lot of money for her access pass, and that she’d done a great deal for the film festival for a number of years.  I said that was all fine and good, but it had shit to do with getting into a completely full screening.  She repeated her claim that my intervention was unnecessary, unwanted and completely inappropriate. Her position was firm, and she punctuated her pronouncement with a stern glare.

Finally, I have something negative I can pin on the Canadians:  they don’t believe in free speech.

The movies from Day Five will dealt with in part 2 later today.


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TIFF Day Four

Actors can be the absolute worst interview subjects.  Either they don’t want to talk about their “process”, or they’re spouting incredible bullshit.  Either way it can be a chore getting decent stuff from them.  What a joy it was to be in the same room with actors who were articulate, open, and willing to discuss just about anything.  Such was the case with the thesps from CAPOTE who took part in roundtable interviews on Sunday.  Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays the title character, was humble, funny, and uncompromising.  With Catherine Keener (author Harper Lee), it was like meeting her for a drink at your favorite bar: relaxing and fun, but also revealing and honest.  She was a blast.  Clifton Collins Jr., however, was the big surprise.  He plays the convicted murderer Perry Smith.  He really went deep with us, and provided some of the most intelligent and provocative thoughts of any interview subject I’ve had.  Director Bennett Miller (the doc The Cruise and numerous commercials) rounded out the morning with personal insights and humorous stories.  If I could always have such fabulous subjects my job would be a breeze.  Look for the audio file of these sessions to appear on this website after I return from Toronto on September 18.

Movies today spanned a wide range of subjects and tones.  THE PROPOSITION is an Australian western.  It takes place in the 1880’s in the harsh and beautiful landscape of the outback.  An outlaw (Guy Pearce) is captured by the British peacekeepers and given a cruel proposition:  watch his younger brother die by hanging, or go into the bush and kill his older brother, a psychotic killer and rapist.  This lyrical but extremely violent tale was written by music icon Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat.  Additional cast members include John Hurt, Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast) and Emily Watson.  I was totally transported back in time and out into the bush by the mesmerizing images.  Violence is an unavoidable part of life in a land where humans have no right to be living.  Check out tomorrow for coverage of my chat with John Hillcoat, Nick Cave and Guy Pearce.

THUMBSUCKER is a coming of age story of a 17 year old boy in a small Oregon town.  The subject and setting have been done a thousand times.  What sets this film apart is the central performance by newcomer Lou Pucci, as well as the supporting work of such master thespians as Tilda Swinton, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vince Vaughn and Keanu Reeves.  I had some issues with the music, which features songs with lyrics that tend to pull you out of the film, but the characters were all the kind I could root for, and nobody was painted as a villain.  The parents were also shown to be smart and caring, despite the fact that they had no idea how to deal with their strange and ever evolving son.  The humor worked well and it was overall an enjoyable experience.

I finally pounded down some espresso and made my way to the Midnight Madness screening this day.  It was an Irish film called ISOLATION about a remote dairy farm where a scientist is performing genetic experiments on cows.  Naturally the experiments go horribly wrong and a handful of innocent people must deal with mutated bovines run amok.  Murderous cows turn out to be much scarier than you’d expect.  ISOLATION is full of gloom and dread, and absolutely loaded with bog, ooze, ick and slime.  Reminiscent of Alien without the memorable characters, it was still worth losing some sleep over.  I saw an ad for a new New Zealand film entitled Black Sheep.  The tagline is:  “There are 40 million sheep in New Zealand...and they’re pissed off!”  Look out for killer barnyard animals coming to a theater near you. - Ken


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Ken at TIFF, Day Three

Apparently first days can be deceiving.  After hitting 3 of 3 out of the park yesterday, today was less than stellar.  But that’s show biz for a film festival.  Enter the theater at your own risk and realize that films at festivals take more chances than your usual Hollywood product, so misses are to be expected.

My 8:30 AM screening will be coming to a theater near you within a few weeks:  A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE.  I must confess that David Cronenberg is one of my absolute favorite filmmakers.  He never does an ordinary film and he takes more risks than any living filmmaker.  I could have seen it when I got home, but when at Toronto and a Cronenberg film is on the slate, I gotta be there.

HISTORY is based on a graphic novel and it’s his most commercial film yet.  That’s not to say that he doesn’t take risks, but the film plays at a basic level that a large audience can enjoy.  The story concerns Tom Stalls (a fabulous Viggo Mortensen), a small town Indiana family man with a loving wife and 2 adoring kids.  His tranquil life is shattered when armed psychopaths attempt to rob his shop.  Tom’s heroic effort to thwart and kill the perps raises some questions about why he is go good at killing people.  Nonetheless he becomes a national celebrity to his great discomfort.  Things begins to boil over when a big time mobster from Philly shows up claiming that Tom is really Joey, the man who almost killed him and has some serious debts to pay.  Is he Tom?  Is he Joey?  Is he both?  The tension builds as his old life crashes into his new one.  The explosions of violence are brief, but the impact builds to a conclusion that may leave some folks a bit unfulfilled (I loved it).  Maria Bello also does great work as Tom’s wife, and the film uses every bit of its running time efficiently.  This is my kind of movie because it has the 3 A’s: it’s accessible, it’s artistic, and it kicks ass.

My other selections were gambles that didn’t completely pay off.  TIDELAND is Terry Gilliam’s take on a tale about the imagination of a child.  It’s not really a children’s story because the child in question has 2 junkies for parents.  She even helps Dad shoot up.  Mom dies from an overdose in the opening sequence.  Dad takes the child and heads for his mother’s rural home on the range.  When father and daughter arrive, the house is deserted and Dad promptly falls into a drug-induced stupor.  The girl retreats into a fantasy world populated by fellow misfits from the surrounding prairie.  Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Tilly make a vivid impression as the parents, and the little girl (8 year old actress Jodelle Ferland) is certainly game.  But I walked out after an hour (1/2 the running time) because a) I had little or no idea what the hell was going on and b) I didn’t really care.  It’s possible there was some redemption in the second hour, and I am not one to run out of films, but the talented Mr. Gilliam was just killing me.

After fleeing TIDELAND I tripped onto Sarah Silverman’s one woman comedy show, JESUS IS MAGIC.  It’s a fast paced 75 minutes of vintage Sarah, complete with musical numbers and some of the most transgressive humor you’ll ever hear.  Check her out in The Aristocrats to see what I mean.  She takes the audience’s dark side and rubs it in their face.  Truly inspired.

My next gamble paid off a bit better: Abel Ferrara’s MARY.  Ferrara can be a mixed bag (Bad Lieutenant, Ms. 45, The Addiction), but he’s seldom boring.  MARY concerns an up-and-coming television talk show host (the smart kind, like Charlie Rose).  His first big break comes doing a series about the life of Jesus where he interviews biblical scholars (real ones are in the film).  He’s also feeling guilt from his pregnant wife (played by Heather Graham--where has she been??) who he almost completely ignores. Meanwhile an egomaniacal actor/director (are there any other kind?) is making a Jesus movie in response to Mel Gibson’s opus wherein Mary Magdelene is one of the most important disciples.  The actress playing Mary cannot go back to her normal life after the film and she runs off to Jerusalem to lead a life devoted to Christ.  All of these elements merge when the filmmaker agrees to appear on the host’s TV show.  The results are surprisingly emotional given the heavy intellectual content, due primarily to the performances of Forest Whitaker (TV host), Matthew Modine (actor/ filmmaker) and Juliette Binoche (Mary).  Ferrara sometimes lets his visual style get in the way, and Mary never quite develops into a full-blooded human being, but an adventurous film with a lot on its mind.

I met Ann Marie Fleming, a Vancouver filmmaker. She had her first narrative feature, THE FRENCH GUY, in the Contemporary World Cinema section of the fest (very prestigious since most Canadian films are shuttled off to the Canadian only sections).  Turns out she’s had 15 of her films at TIFF in years past, mostly shorts and docs-- the most of any filmmaker.  THE FRENCH GUY, it turns out, is something the Monty Python guys would label as “...something completely different.”  Elizabeth has just had brain surgery for cancer.  The operation was so successful that they release her from the hospital the same day.  When she gets home, she begins to notice a few side effects which are taken out on the innocent (and not-so-innocent) people who come into her life.  As stresses mount, murder, dismemberment and cannibalism are the result.  Sounds ghoulish and gross, eh?  It is somewhat, but mostly it’s very funny and a bit sad.  What could have been a sterile and unfeeling satire turns, in Fleming’s hands, into a comedy of errors with a poignant touch.  Risky, original, and not at all what one expects it to be.  Look for it at a festival near you because it will never get into theaters.


I was invited to cocktail and seafood reception sponsored by the movie BROOKLYN LOBSTER, a NYC dramedy starring Danny Aiello and Jane Curtin (where has she been??).  I dragged a colleague along and we expected to nosh on boiled shrimp and spring rolls.  What we got were WHOLE LOBSTERS!  That’s right, there was a huge plate of fresh steamed whole lobsters.  Just grab a bug (or 2), a nut cracker and dig in.  That and 2 glasses of free wine were an unexpectedly satisfying dinner and a festival coup.  We were also invited to the after party for an explicit sex film entitled LIE WITH ME.  Didn’t see the movie but the party was on the seedy side of town in a plain storefront space.  The waiters were topless, porno movies ran on the wall, and a small stage featured dancers and strippers performing simulated sex and other titillating acts.  Certainly unique, but it only warranted about a one hour stay.  Most came away claiming to be disappointed, but no other film fest party I’ve ever been to had real flash like this one.  Now I’ll have to see the movie.

Ta ta for now and, listen on the show Monday (Sept 12) night from 5-6:00 PM to hear my live TIFF report - Ken


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Ken At TIFF, Day Two

My first films of TIFF could not have been better.  All 3 had one thing in common:  they took their sweet time telling the story so that I could soak up the rich textures and deep emotions.  WATER was the opening night film and it was a rather controversial selection.  It’s by Canadian (but India-born) filmmaker Deepa Metha (Earth, Fire and Hollywood/Bollywood) and concerns how Indian society treats widows and set in the 50’s at the time when Gandhi was rousing some rabble and India was lurching towards independence.  It opens as an 8-year-old girl attends the funeral of her husband (no misprint here).  She doesn’t even remember the wedding, but now as a widow she will be branded in society and never allowed to remarry.  She must shave her head, live with other widows, and lead a life of prayer and devotion to Hinduism. The penalty is to be reincarnated into the body of a jackal.  Many other relationships come into play and the inflammatory subject is never presented in a didactic manner.  Emotions are at the forefront amidst the beautiful cinematography, and despite the depressing subject matter there is evidence of hope as it winds to its conclusion.  No distributor yet but a first-rate piece of cinema.

I was afraid that the movie version of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN would sidestep or otherwise dilute the homosexual content.  My fears were completely unfounded as chameleon director Ang Lee (The Ice Storm, Sense & Sensibility, and The Hulk) gives us the most heartbreaking love story in recent movie memory.  I actually fought back tears as the curtain went down on this brooding and painfully honest story.  It’s the tale of 2 Wyoming cowboys in the early 60’s who take on a job herding sheep on remote Brokeback Mountain.  Alone for the summer, they can’t resist their powerful physical attraction and that sets the tone for the rest of their lives.  Despite both marrying and having families, they meet often in sort of a same-time-next-year scenario to keep the fires alive.  Jake Gyllenhall plays Jack, the more free spirit.  Heath Ledger gives Oscar a wake-up call as Emitt, the strong, silent one who never completely comes to grips with his deep passion and love for Jack.  Quiet, with bursts of erotic violence, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, every aspect of this production is just right.  It will certainly be on my list of the year’s Top Ten, as will...

...CAPOTE, featuring a towering performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the effete author who revolutionized American literature in the 60’s with his riveting non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood.  The film follows Capote as he goes to Kansas to write a New Yorker magazine article about the horrific murder of a family there in 1959.  For the ensuing 4 years he documents the events leading to the capture of the killers and becomes fascinated and smitten by one of them: Perry Smith.  Capote convinces himself that he’s really helping the 2 men get a fair trial, but he’s really playing them for his own literary career.  As in the previous films above, many relationships blend in with the narrative to create a complex portrait of a public figure who we all thought we knew.  Hoffman doesn’t soft-pedal Capote’s narcissism and other less sympathetic qualities, but he always remains an empathetic character to whom we are drawn. Dan Futterman’s script (the actor from Will & Grace) is subtle and rich, with an ending that is quietly devastating.

If the rest of the fest is even close to this good, I’m in for a happy week.

Extracurricular activities:

I arrived on Thursday around 8:00 PM to discover I’d been invited to the opening night party.  After checking in with my various friends and associates I found that I was the only one with an invitation.  Due to jet lag and a creeping exhaustion I passed and settled for a steaming plate of Indian food and a tall Cheetah lager.  Excellent decision, I thought.  The party scene is huge here, but invitations are required at all events.  I get together with two of my colleagues (and festival veterans) and we pool our resources.  I’m press, so I get a different set of invites.  We elect on Friday night to attend the after party for Sarah Silverman’s movie, JESUS IS MAGIC.  The gig was at the Club Monaco store in trés fashionable Yorkville.  The fete was very cool for several reasons:  not too crowded, open bar, 98% of the attendees would rate at least a 9 on the handsome/gorgeous scale, and free Texas hold-em poker. Two of us made nuisances of ourselves at the one and only food area.  It consisted of gourmet cheeses, an assortment of jellies and bread, and fresh fruit (pears, figs and fresh dates--which are a bright yellow and taste like sugar cane without the fiber).  The cheese meisters immediately realized that we knew and appreciated artisan cheese (even though we were washing it down with Iceberg vodka and cranberry juice).  They gave us suggestions for the various jelly/fruit/bread combos and we ate up a storm.  When we finally relinquished the cheese bar, the meisters had just a hint of sadness in their voices. “We hardly ever get folks who even give a shit about cheese,” one remarked as we left.

Another very cool aspect of this party was the fact that the star, Sarah Silverman, actually showed up and chatted with just plain folks.  She is surprisingly small, and stunningly beautiful in person.  I promise to not be a celeb name-dropper henceforth, but it was part of the vibe last eve.

That’s all for today.  Thanks for joining me, hope to see you tomorrow and ciao for now - Ken


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Toronto Film Festival, Day One (of 10)

Greetings fellow moovee phreaks.  I’ll be reporting daily from the Toronto International Film Festival (henceforth TIFF) from now until September 18. My goal is to nourish and enlighten your cinematic souls, and to give you a vicarious experience from what, IMHO, is the greatest all-around film festival on planet Earth.  My agenda (other than to inform and annoy you with my opinions) is to persuade you to come to Toronto at least once in your lifetime to savor TIFF up front and personal.

I’ve made my pilgrimage to TIFF every year (save 2) since 1994.  While it has grown greatly in stature since my virginal trek, it remains the most user-friendly event of it’s size and scope.  TIFF attracted widespread industry attention about 10 years ago and it is now considered to be the most important film festival in North America.  It will never compete with the European carnival of Cannes, but it remains, first and foremost, a festival for the public (something Cannes and Sundance cannot claim).

TIFF screens around 300 films during its 10 day run.  Most films get 2 screenings each, but this year they will be adding screenings of films without a distributor.  This is a very cool move that shows where TIFF’s heart really lies.  As a member of the press, I get one chance to see most films, but 2 for the more obscure offerings (again, a first this year).  While I may miss many films I’d love to see, as scheduling conflicts are part & parcel at film fests, I have learned over the years several nuggets of wisdom that have served me well:

  Don’t sweat movies you don’t see.  An occasion to see them in the future will undoubtedly arise (a theater near you, cable, Netflix, so on).

  Don’t try to see too many movies.  In past years I would see 35-50 films over a 7-10 day period.  There’s nothing connected to ego that has to do with one’s capacity to ingest film content.  Even if I see only 20-25 films at a given festival, my dick is just as big.

  Make a schedule, but give yourself permission to alter it.  Sometimes I see a movie so emotionally devastating that I cannot see another film for a while.  If I do, I don’t allow the film I just saw to digest and fully rattle around in my conscious-subconscious.  I also cheat the film I’m trying to jam in because I’m still hung over from the previous film and I cannot open up to the second film.

  Related to the point above:  Be completely emotionally available to every film you see.  Film at its best is an emotional medium.  Before every movie experience I try to reboot the brain and wipe the emotional slate as clean as possible.  Only in that way can I give each film a fighting chance to do its voodoo on me.  This took me several years to learn. Seeing too many movies opens one up to an insidious and evil disease that afflicts most film critics:  the feeling that they are above every movie they see.

Enuf said for now.  I hope you’ll continue to join me for the next 9 days of TIFF.

Remember, let the film work its way into your being and don’t be afraid of the dark - Ken


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