Toronto International Film Festival: You want monsters with that?

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Something wicked this way comes: Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) in The Host. Copyright Magnolia Pictures.

Day one. The madness has begun. Today I hit four movies and tomorrow, I'm gunning for five. Does that make me crazy? Possibly. Woke up hella early (and I mean hella, considering I'm still on California time), tossed my regards to the CN Tower and zoomed past several Tim Hortons -- so many Tim Hortons in this town -- to make it to The Wind that Shakes the Barley. The 9am film screening waits for no sleep-deprived journalist.

Lest one forget, the fact that Wind picked up the Palme d' Or is gently reminded by a title card that announces as much. Way to jack everyone's expectations sky-high. It's 1920s Ireland and the British soldiers prowling the land are violence-prone, blindly unreasonable, and feeling pretty goddamn self-righteous about occupying a country that does not want them there. Sound familiar? Though he's about to move to London to pursue a medical career, a harrowing dust-up at the train station inspires Damien (Cillian Murphy, soulful as always) to stay with his rural mates and fight for Irish independence. As you'd expect from director Ken Loach, Wind is a realistically-shot tale that pauses occasionally for a wee bit o' heavy-handed speech-making. At times, it's incredibly brutal (if you thought George Clooney's fingernails had it bad in Syriana, you ain't seen nothing yet), but it manages to build a moving tale around characters who care more about their political beliefs than anything else -- including friendship, family, love, life, and even death.

Suitably depressed, I headed into the TIFF press office's videotape viewing room (way bigger than last year's model -- so nice!) to squeeze in a film I wouldn't be able to catch on the big screen due to scheduling conflicts. Moviemaking machine Miike Takashi has churned out something like 70 films -- for every hyped-up Audition or Ichi the Killer, there are a zillion more that you'll never see or even hear about. Pretty much I'll drop whatever to check out what the guy's up to; sure, he can be challenging, but ain't nobody that can match his mix of shock, style, and (oft-befuddling) storytelling. His Toronto entry comes saddled with a mouthful of a title -- Big Bang Love, Juvenile A -- which relates to the Big Bang theory and most likely more, though I can't be sure. "Our mystery unfolds," according to our narrator, and we're off on a strange journey that pinballs a young boy's passage into manhood off the saga of two murderers who meet in jail (a spectacularly surreal one, natch). One eventually kills the other. Or does he? My favorite moment comes when the two prisoners are discussing whether or not they'd rather go to heaven or outer space, and the more antisocial one decides he'd prefer space: "Less people, I guess."

As far as I was concerned, the main event of the day was Korean director Bang Joon-ho's The Host, which anyone who's talked movies with me lately knows I can't shut up about, even before I saw the thing. Well, it's about to get a lot worse, folks -- I was so not disappointed. A hideous sea creature (props to San Francisco's The Orphanage, with an assist by New Zealand's Weta Workshop, for the effects) lurches out of Seoul's Han River, gobbling everything in its path. One ragtag family of misfits (the drunk college grad, the 40-something manchild in sweatpants, the archery almost-champion) bands together to rescue the clan's shining star, a grade-school cutie that's the only good thing in any of their lives. That's the simple version. The Host also offers some cutting social commentary -- let's just say that while movie does feature a mean-ass monster, there's also a different kind of menace scuttling around, ruining lives left and right. Three words: God bless America!

Last but not least, I convinced myself to hit Volver rather than eating my first real meal in 24 hours. It was a solid decision. Pedro Almodovar's movies are hit-or-miss for me, but I found myself enjoying this one more than I'd expected. Not to oversimplify, but the film's message is this: women good, men bad. That's pretty much it. Star Penelope Cruz plays it "brassy" -- urgh -- and rocks a covetable combo of 1960s updo and thick black eyeliner (her lip synching needs work though). Though it had some predictable moments (and a fart joke ... why?), Volver definitely grew on me.

All right. Time for forty winks, cause I gotta get up superfreakishly early for Johnnie To's Exiled -- I heart you, Johnnie To, and Anthony Wong to boot! -- followed by a sprint across town to hopefully catch the new one from The Wayward Cloud's Tsai Ming-liang, the Kuala Lumpur-set I Don't Want to Sleep Alone. What else? What else indeed. It's only day one, and my eyes are bloodshot already. Good thing, cause that's the way I like 'em.

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