Excuse me for being a day-or-so late on this, but on July 14 the Toronto International Film Festival unrolled around twenty films set to screen at this year’s fest. While yesterday’s announcement revealed mostly the premiere and gala films (as well as the opening selection), there's plenty to get excited (or at the very least blog) about.
The biggest shocker is probably that John Amiel’s Darwin-biopic Creation will open the festival on September 10th. It comes as a surprise first because TIFF generally reserves the opening spot for a home-grown Canadian feature, and also because Creation, which orbits around the conflict between godless evolutionist Chuck Darwin and his deeply religious wife Emma (played by real life husband and wife Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly), seems like a dry film. Oh sure, Amiel had hits with The Man Who Knew Too Little, Entrapment and The Core, and Creation does seem like the kind of film the festivals love rolling out the red carpets for—you know, some stoic biopic that is bound to “get people talking” (especially because we’ve managed to go five years without another adaptation of Inherit the Wind being churned out)—but it still seems like a slight against the Canadian film industry.
There was a good deal of speculation that TIFF trophy collector Atom Egoyan would debut Chloe (with Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore) on opening night. But considering Egoyan’s mostly unquestioned critical acclaim in Canada, and his standing as the Tiger Woods of TIFF, bumping Chloe out of the opening night spot may be prudent move on the part of festival organizers. Plus, given all the “I saw Liam Neeson at Café Diplomatico MAKING A MOVIE!!!!” SUN headlines and blog posts that inundated the city this fall, Toronto may be just tired of Neeson as it is of Egoyan himself. Nonetheless it doesn't account for why no films are listed in any of the CanCin-centric programmes, including (most ironically) Canada First.
Moving past the star-studded opening night hoopla, there’s a handful of other films announced that look promising.
Though we’re about ten or twelve years out from the heyday of the Hong Kong New Cinema, the immensely prolific Johnnie To is still turning out compelling Chinese crime films. To’s latest, Vengeance, which received a good deal of praise at Cannes (Roger Ebert favourably compared it to Unforgiven) is playing as part of TIFF 09’s Special Presentations programme. Starring popstar Johnny Hallyday (France’s answer to Elvis Presley) as a hard-boiled hitman bent on avenging his murdered family, Vengeance promises to blend To’s nimble gun-fu set-pieces with the French neo-noir fetishism minted by Jean-Pierre Melville.
Speaking of noir (and masters of contemporary Asian cinema), South Korean auteur Bong-Joon Ho’s Mother is playing alongside Vengeance in the Special Presentations category. Best known in the West for his features Memories of Murder (2003) and his brilliant creature feature The Host (2006), Bong seems incapable of making a mediocre film and with any luck, Mother will prove no exception. The film follows the doting love of a mother for her mentally debilitated who is wrongfully convicted of murder. While a story about a mother on the trail of a killer who set up her son may seem to demand a level of sober self-seriousness, Bong’s genre-bending tendency to blend horror, drama and comedy in compelling proportion promises to push Mother beyond the boundaries of its procedural cat-and-mouse premise.
While there’s no shortage of Cannes hand-me-downs that are worth catching—like Les herbes folles, the latest from the French arthouse’s elder statesman Alain Resnais (Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour and the oft-confounding Last Year at Marienbad)—there’s also plenty of films that will see (for all intents and purposes) the light of day for the first time at TIFF 2009. The two announced gala presentations, Aaron Schneider’s Get Low and Espen Sandberg & Joachim Roenning’s Max Manus (which will have its international premiere at TIFF), historical dramas and apparent prestige pictures both, seem worth a gander, especially if stargazing and pretend hob-knobbing with celebrities at festival galas is your bag.
But the nagging question for me (and presumably anyone else eager, or at least curious, about the most recent dispatch in the New Danish Extremity) is will TIFF get Antichrist? Self-styled European provocateur Lars (Von) Trier split audiences at Cannes this year with his graphically violent vaginal mutilation film. Some called it brilliant, brave, bold, etc., while others decried it as monstrously self-indulgent. Others demanded that it be banned. Of course, all these camps only served to stoke Trier’s monstrous ego. At Cannes, Trier apparently channelled Kinski’s Aguirre, ranting at Q&As about how he is the only contemporary filmmaker that matters, moved by the hand of God and all that; a tirade that to me seems more worth seeing than the film itself. (Bryan Appleby penned an engaging account of the stir Antichrist caused on the Times Online.)
The movie will be released here in good time (IFC picked it up an edited version for American distribution), but TIFF may be the only time North American audiences will see this tasteless shit-disturber in its anadulterated form, dubbed by Trier (with typical insolence) the “Protestant” cut. Hopefully TIFF will deliver. It’s not so much that I’m aching to see Charlotte Gainsborough snip off her clitoris—to be fair, Trier used body doubles for much of Antichrist’s more private maiming scenes—or hear Trier himself voicing a CGI fox that declares “Chaos reigns!” It’s more about wanting to know what exactly this thing is; to bear witness to this obvious atrocity exhibition. And besides the ten-car pileup appeal, Trier has made some truly wonderful stuff in his day. Europa is one of my favourite films ever, and The Kingdom is one of the finest pieces of television ever, easily ranking alongside Twin Peaks in terms of sheer weirdness. But the guy seems to have gone right around the bend, provoking for the sake of it and offering none his more mindful aesthetic and moral purity as counterbalance. I mean you’ve got to be some kind of consummate asshole when you dedicate a film called Antichrist to Andrei Tarkovsky, one of cinema’s most unapologetic Christian spiritualists.
To see the thus far announced lineup for TIFF 2009, head here.
P.S. Happy birthday Forrest Whitaker. Loved you in Fast Times.