Every year, I run into someone at the Toronto International Film Festival who asks me, "How's your festival going?" Your festival is an appropriate term, actually — the event is so huge you could probably pick out a dozen attendees who've seen none of the same films. As I write this, a little over halfway though this year's visit, I haven't yet had a defining Toronto fest moment. Sure, there was the moment I became aware of just how jaded I am — when I passed by a mob of gawkers and flashbulbs and realized I didn't give a rat's ass about which celebrity had incited such a tizzy. But so far, I haven't seen a film that truly dazzled me.
In spite of this, I will admit that "my festival" has had some standout moments. Thrillers Vinyan and L'Empreinte de L'Ange (The Mark of an Angel) both pay tribute to the enduring love a parent feels for his or her child — a theme shared, in some ways, with Witch Hunt, a disturbing look at the rash of child-molestation cases (all eventually proved false) that plagued Bakersfield in the 1980s. Vinyan, helmed by noted mind-fucker Fabrice Du Welz (2004's Calvaire), follows a Euro couple whose son was lost in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. When they begin to suspect (with precious little evidence) that he survived the wave but was kidnapped in the aftermath, they take an ill-advised plunge into the hostile jungle. L'Empreinte de L'<0x2009>Ange is one of those tense family dramas set in the comfortable world of lavish children's birthday parties and ballet recitals; the less said about the twisty plot, the better. Intense stars Catherine Frot and Sandrine Bonnaire and a jarringly creepy soundtrack keep this one from Lifetime Network territory, though its mothers-in-crisis plot ain't far from what you might find thereabouts.
The theme of family also finds its way into The Brothers Bloom, from Brick (2005) writer-director Rian Johnson, and Appaloosa, directed by its star, Ed Harris. Since the pairs of men in both films aren't actually related, I'll take this opportunity to declare that the bromance trend of 2008 (Pineapple Express is one example) is alive and well at TIFF. A determinedly whimsical tale of con men (Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody) who decide to relieve a kooky heiress (Rachel Weisz) of a few millions, Bloom has enough going for it that it'll please, say, Wes Anderson fans. But Brick devotees (like me) might feel a bit cheated — an overdose of self-conscious cleverness can do that to a viewer. By contrast, Appaloosa is a bare-bones oater about a pair of gunslingers (Harris, Viggo Mortensen) hired to tidy up a town terrorized by the Wild West equivalent of a mob boss (Jeremy Irons). The particularly witty script is a nice surprise; as the stranger who blows into town with no purpose other than creating conflict, Renee Zellweger's character becomes more tolerable when it's revealed she's not nearly as prim as she pretends to be.
For pure fun, I checked out American Swing, a jaunty doc about infamous New York City swingers' club Plato's Retreat — with its subject matter, colorful music and editing, and copious bare-butts-in-the-1970s footage, it'd make for a great double-feature with 2005's Inside Deep Throat. And not to be missed — even though I thought it could have been a lot more awesome given its rich potential — was JCVD, billed as the comeback movie for Jean-Claude Van Damme. Playing himself, the Muscles from Brussels is unwittingly drawn into a bank robbery; delightfully, he can still kick a cigarette out of someone's mouth — and, even better, has enough temerity to crack wise about Steven Seagal's ponytail. (Cheryl Eddy)
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MO' FROM TO
• Wendy and Lucy: Following the footsteps of Kelly Reichardt's tender 2006 film Old Joy, this even smaller experience trails Wendy, a Midwestern girl (pricelessly played by Michelle Williams) driving across the country to start a new life in Alaska. This heartbreaking journey beautifully confronts the tiny issues that arise from being out of step with modern society and will be particularly celebrated by anyone who felt Sean Penn's Into the Wild (2007) was frustratingly misguided and overly romanticized
• Vinyan: When a rich Caucasian couple's child goes missing, the parents make a trek through the tsunami-destroyed bowels of Thailand, searching all the way into Burma. The shrill sound design, claustrophobic camera work, and xenophobic storytelling perfectly punctuate the Harvey Keitel–ish hysterics unleashed by French heartthrob Emmanuelle Béart and UK toughie Rufus Sewell (who gave a similarly audacious performance in the overlooked Sundance gem Downloading Nancy). As the pair descend into utter madness, this hypnotic hybrid of The African Queen (1951) and Don't Look Now (1973) could be read as a brutal attack on Western tourism. Throw in a hundred creepy jungle kids and some controversy about the filmmakers' alleged insensitivity toward tsunami victims, and you've got a genuine cult classic in the making!
• JCVD Jean-Claude Van Damme decided to star as himself in Belgian director Mabrouk El Mechri's deconstructive thriller (à la 1975's Dog Day Afternoon). Van Damme gave up his control issues, allowing the director to expose his most intimate flaws (including a monologue given directly to the audience that jams a frog into the throat of even the most jaded, ironic hipster). The sold-out Midnight Madness audience was so completely stunned by Van Damme's solid and moving performance, I hope the filmmaker gets some credit for creating a genuine tribute to this genuine genre actor.
More to come from the second half of the festival: Wong Kar-Wai's Ashes of Time Redux, the Dardenne Brothers' Le Silence de Lorna, and supposedly the most violent horror film ever made: Pascal Laugier's Martyrs. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)