Toronto International Film Festival: Four score

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Day five.

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Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain. Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

Two wildly different films about grief gave me a lot to digest before lunchtime. Andrea Arnold's Red Road is the British writer-director's feature debut; in 2004, she won a short-film Oscar for the haunting Wasp. Promise more than fulfilled, as far as I'm concerned. Surveillance camera operator Jackie (Kate Dickie) is jerked out of her numb existence when she catches a glimpse of a man with ties to her tragic past. A sort of high-tech Rear Window ensues, as Jackie becomes obsessed with tracking the man every time he appears on one of her monitors. Red Road builds like a thriller, gradually revealing bits of crucial information, but it's also a deeply emotional story that feels (often uncomfortably) close to real life. Tartan Films is putting it out in 2007.

Next up: a more experimental (some might say "pretentious," I might disagree) take on a similar theme. Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain is definitely unconventional. Hugh Jackman sports assorted hairdos and costumes to play three characters (a Spanish conquistador, a doctor dabbling in weird science, and a tree hugger who more than resembles David Carradine circa Kung Fu) all questing for immortality. Aronofsky's baby mama, Rachel Weisz, only plays two: the Queen of Spain, and Jackman's wife, who's obsessed with ancient Mayans and has an inoperable brain tumor. She's prepared to accept death. He isn't. The story is deliberately disjointed, and relies quite a bit on surreal imagery (it goes way beyond Requiem for a Dream -- I'm talking Jackman in the lotus position, floating in space). The film was supposedly booed at the Venice Film Festival; while I wouldn't call The Fountain a crowd-pleaser, I also wouldn't write it off so quickly. It opens later this fall.

Fortunately, there was more to my day than gloom and too many cups of coffee, which I don't even drink in real life. (Same thing happened last year. Toronto, why you gotta lead me so astray?) I'd been foaming at the mouth over The Beales of Grey Gardens since I learned of its existence. If you don't have Grey Gardens in your blood, you may not understand my excitement. If you do, imagine Albert and David Maysles' original doc is a folded paper fan -- and this kind-of sequel (maybe "companion piece" is a better term for it) is all the crazy stuff that falls out when you unfurl it. More singing (Little Edie appears crooning "You Oughta Be in Pictures"), more costumes, more arguments, a lot more of Jerry the Marble Fawn, more mentions of "Jackie," much flirting with the filmmakers, a small house fire, way more cats, further readings from It's All in the Stars, and surprisingly vehement discussions of politics and religion.

The post-film chat with Albert Maysles was moderated by Barbara Kopple (at TIFF with her Dixie Chicks film, Shut Up and Sing), a two-time Oscar winner who got her start in the doc world with the brothers' production company. According to Maysles, the Beales got a private screening of Grey Gardens before it opened in 1975. Post-film, there was a pause and much pacing before Little Edie loudly declared "The Maysles have created a classic!" Given that the doc is soon to be a Broadway play and a feature film (starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore), you really can't argue with her. I wouldn't dare anyways. (Whispering: "You undah-stand.") Bring on the head scarves!

Still snickering over my beloved Beales, I headed immediately into a screening of Kurt Cobain: About a Son, AJ Schnack's doc that pairs audio interviews with the late Nirvana frontman (conducted with author Michael Azerrad, circa 1992-93) with new footage of the places that shaped his life: Aberdeen, Olympia, and Seattle, WA. It's an unexpected approach to chronicling a music legend (none of his tunes are part of the soundtrack, and he's glimpsed only in a few still photographs). All told, it actually offers a more intimate, more insightful approach to Cobian's story -- which we all know pretty much by heart, don't we? -- than a Behind the Music-type treatment would.

Just a few more days of T.O. for me, but tomorrow should be a good 'un, with dead presidents and punk rockers coming at me from all sides.

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