Toronto International Film Festival: "I look for that stare that says, 'I'm not a big fan of the President.'"



Still from D.O.A.P. (aka Death of a President).

Day six. What better way to follow up the anniversary of 9/11 than by viewing a film that chronicles the assassination of George W. Bush? Made for British television, director Gabriel Range's mock-doc Death of a President is more a comment on the War on Terror (or as Borat would say, "War of terror!") than on the shortcomings of our beloved Commander-in-Chief. Chicago, 2007: anti-war protests turn violent outside a hotel where Bush is gladhanding G.O.P. supporters. The distraction is enough to let security lapse for the crucial instant it takes a sniper to pop off a round at the prez. Range cuts interviews with "witnesses" (actors playing Bush insiders, FBI guys, etc.) alongside manipulated real news footage and still photographs. The film then tracks the hunt for suspects, enhanced by new crackdowns on freedom granted by Patriot Act III (scary) and, of course, the sinister tentacles of President Dick Cheney (really scary). Naturally, the first Muslim in sight soon becomes the biggest patsy since Lee Harvey Oswald ... but the story doesn't end there, not even close.

Unfortunately, Death of a President never quite becomes the shockfest you'd expect it to be, given the sensational subject matter; its TV pedigree is also evident in its technical execution. However, I'm glad someone had the guts to make this film. It may be fictional, but it addresses some very real concerns, particularly about post-9/11 racial profiling. Newmarket Films acquired the distribution rights earlier this week, so it'll no doubt be hitting San Francisco theaters before long. I'll be interested to see what the marketing campaign looks like.

Moving on to the rest of today ... the music in punk doc American Hardcore can be summarized thusly: "I will just say exactly what's on my mind -- and do it in 32 seconds," per Ian MacKaye, one of several articulate and enthusiastic veterans interviewed. Oddly, Jello Biafra is MIA (he's all over the book, also called American Hardcore, that inspired the film). One has to wonder: how can you tell this particular story and barely mention the Dead Kennedys? (Insert outlandish behind-the-scenes story here, I guess). Despite this slight, Hardcore is a fun film, especially for fans who'll enjoy the rare, grainy performance footage. It opens mid-October in SF.

I love a juicy true crime tale, so I couldn't pass up Macky Alston's The Killer Within. Fifty years ago, Bob Bechtel shot and killed a college classmate. Though his immediate family always knew his secret, as the doc begins, he's just about to come clean with his colleagues (he's a psychology prof) and extended relations. Thorny issues of remorse, responsibility, memory, and justice are raised as Bechtel returns to his boyhood home and the mental hospital where he was sent after the crime (at the last minute, he decides not to revisit the dorm room where the murder occurred). He blames his actions on the fact that he was bullied relentlessly, kind of a precursor to the motives behind Columbine-style school shootings. Problem is, his claims are refuted by former schoolmates and the victim's still-bitter brother.

This remarkable, emotional film reminded me quite a bit of Julia Salamon's Facing the Wind: A True Story of Tragedy and Reconciliation, a beautifully-written book about a man who kills his entire family with a baseball bat (wife, two sons including one who was severely disabled, and adopted daughter) but serves only a few years in an institution before emerging back into society, remarrying, and fathering another child. Who marries a murderer? What does it mean to be the child born to a murderer? Is there ever really, truly such a thing as a second chance? If so, who deserves one (and who doesn't)? How does a supposedly reformed murderer cope with the guilt -- or rationalize away the fact that he doesn't feel any guilt at all? These are the kinds of questions that keep me up at night sometimes. Fascinating stuff.

Back to the films. The Werner Herzog renaissance continues with Rescue Dawn. It's a narrative take on his 1997 doc Little Dieter Needs to Fly (recap: circa 1965, pilot shot down over Laos, amazingly endures excruciating POW stint). Christian Bale (when does this guy have time to make so many frikkin' movies? Especially all these ones where he has to get super-skinny halfway through?) is excellent as Dieter, who rallies his fellow prisoners (including Jeremy Davies in full Manson mode) to support his Survivor-meets-Prison Break escape plan. How any man could keep an upbeat attitude while drinking crushed-up bug larvae and peeling leeches off his emaciated torso is a mystery to me, but I believed Bale in the role one hundred percent. Wonder if Herzog will make a Steve Irwin movie next ...

Tomorrow's my last day in Toronto. Feels a bit like the last day of summer camp.

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