Toronto International Film Festival: The docs are in



Image of Yoko Ono and John Lennon, as seen in The U.S. vs. John Lennon, courtesy AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS.

Next to horror, my favorite film genre is documentary. Toronto has a hunk o' true tales in its "Real to Reel" series, several of which I'm hoping to devour before my time at the fest ends. (One I'm OK with missing: Entourage star Adrian Grenier's Shot in the Dark, about his quest to reunite with his long-absent father. Sounds suspiciously like what the Geto Boys would call "me-me rappin," IMHO.)

Right from its opening sequence, which announces the film as a co-presentation of VH-1, it's clear The U.S. vs. John Lennon is going to be a slick, well-funded affair. Stylistically, the film breaks little new ground, particularly in its montage-heavy first half. Hey, jazzily-edited Vietnam War protest footage layered over "Power to the People" -- how innovative! Directors David Leaf and John Schienfeld weave the ballad of John and Yoko with great affection; Ono is extensively interviewed, as are talking heads both expected and random. Angela Davis, Ron Kovic, Walter Cronkite, sure; Geraldo Rivera, say what? The focus here is not on Lennon's music, but rather his political, mostly post-Beatles activism: the bed-in, the bag-in, the writing of "Give Peace a Chance," and the "dangerous" association with anti-government types that nearly got him kicked out of America. The film stops short (just barely) of crediting Saint Lennon with ending the Vietnam War. Yeah, Lennon was an amazing, inspiring human being, no doubt about that. But jeez, guys -- my teeth hurt. You know something is a little off when the best moments in your rah-rah-radicals film come courtesy of G. Gordon Liddy, salty as ever and still smug at the memory of lighting his cigar off a protestor's candle back in ye olde Nixon days.

The documentary form does the twist in Radiant City, a Canadian film about the evils of suburbia that applies just as strongly to the "planned communities" that are springing up all over America. As the cameras roll, a seemingly average family (commutor dad; super-organized mom; sardonic kids) carries on about their increasingly odd existence (dad starts rehearsals on Suburbs: The Musical; mom freaks out when dad's car breaks down, upsetting the household's delicate balance of transportation duties; son engages in ever-more-violent backyard games). Meanwhile, urban planning and sociology experts weigh in on why the suburbs are much more than simply ugly-ass rows of houses that all look alike. For one thing, they encourage intolerance because they discourage human interaction -- despite the best efforts of builders to create neighborhoods that mimic the idealized vision of a small town. Turns out that's the one thing in the living-well equation that can't actually be manufactured, a la McMansions, giant parking lots, and faux-folksy 'hood names like "Copperfield" and "Evergreen".

That Radiant City credits two directors -- Gary Burns, who has a background in narrative features, and Jim Brown, a broadcaster -- is the only hint I'll spill about the turn the film takes in its final reel. Whether or not that particular filmmaking choice worked for me is moot, though, because by the time it arrives, Burns and Brown have already made enough razor-sharp points about the downfalls of sprawl to fill cul-de-sacs all over North America.

Tomorrow: more truth-telling liberties are taken by Christopher Guest -- yes! -- in For Your Consideration, Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat (full title: Borat Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhs), and Werner Herzog, who remakes his 1997 doc Little Dieter Needs to Fly into a Christian Bale-starring narrative called Rescue Dawn.

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