TIFF 2008

I’m back and almost recovered from the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival.

I got off to a slow start at TIFF this year, at least in terms of writing. After nine films in two days, I got hit with a bad bout of something and was knocked flat by fever, nausea, insomnia and other things you don’t want to read about, losing a day and a half of screenings. After a partial recovery, I went right back to the movies, where at least I found some distraction, though I never quite recovered the stamina that got me through an average of four films a day in 2007 (where a cold slowed me down but never actually stopped me from getting to a screening or getting something written every day).

I did however get a few things written – a mid-fest overview for the Seattle P-I and a couple of dispatches for GreenCine – and hope to get a few more things written in the next few days. But mostly I’m back to the DVD column and the film review grind, and I have interviews to work into pieces for the coming weeks.

Here’s where you can find my coverage:

GreenCine Dispatches:

September 10

Many of the films that most captured my affections at TIFF this year revolve around family, notably extended family reunited for a special occasion: a holiday, a remembrance, a celebration. Four filmmakers in particular created rich tapestries of these familiar yet elusive collective organisms, examining how the past reverberates through the immediacy of the present, even when we think we fully understand that past.

The most mercurial and vibrant and cinematically exciting is Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noël), which premiered at Cannes and makes its North American debut here. Directing with an even more restless energy than he showed in Kings and Queen, Desplechin sketches out a family tragedy, the untimely death of a first-born, that precedes the story by decades and then only overtly references it a few times, even as the shadow of that death hovers over the film: in the cancer that family matron Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has been diagnosed with, in the fragility of her teenage grandson Paul (Emile Berling), and in the odd sibling dynamics that have caused eldest daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) to, in effect, legally separate herself from her brother Ivan (Mathieu Amalric, in a mesmerizingly manic-depressive performance).

Mathieu Amalric in "Un Conte de Noel"
Mathieu Amalric in "Un Conte de Noel"

“Henri is the disease,” she tells us in one of the film’s direct address monologues, but perhaps the disease is in the blood – the same disease that killed Joseph at age six, the same disease that will eventually kill her mother (even with a bone marrow transplant, which will only give her a few more years; they have the mathematical formula to prove it!), and maybe the same disease that haunts her own son, Paul. For whatever reasons, Paul seeks out his outcast Uncle Henri and invites him to the family Christmas he’s been banished from for five years; this helps stir up quite a holiday nog, complete with a brutal little brawl and a bit of adultery that may come some way to smoothing over a few emotional rough patches.

I also write about Olivier Assayas’ L’heure d’ete (Summer Hours), Hirozaku Kore-Eda’s Still Walking and Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married. Read the complete dispatch here.

September 12

It hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice that the American line-up at TIFF 2008 was singularly lacking in heft and ambition. Just a year after such challenges and delights as No Country for Old Men, Into the Wild and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, not to mention the sheer fun of Juno, the absence of almost any American film striving for something with courage and conviction and evocative storytelling to match is, to say the least, a disheartening sign for a festival that is supposed to launch the Oscar season.

"The Hurt Locker"
"The Hurt Locker"

But the only American film I saw that really sank its teeth into something and never let go was Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. It will likely be described as her take on the Iraq war drama, which is accurate to a point. It follows the final days in the rotation of a bomb disposal unit (the days count down with each mission) with a new cowboy team leader, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a real maverick who steps up to a bomb like a gunfighter in an old western showdown, tough and swaggering and on his own terms. He doesn’t follow the rules and he treats every bomb like a challenge he refuses to back down from, even when the intelligence expert on the three-man team, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), counsels him that he’s vulnerable to snipers. James simply tosses the headset and assumes his teammates will watch his back, scanning the windows and the roofs for any potential gunman, which, in a busy urban street surrounded by apartment buildings and open roofs, can be myriad. In one stand-out sequence, a desert stop to help out some the private soldiers (led by Ralph Fiennes) back from a bounty hunt becomes an ambush. It’s the closest the film gets to a classic war movie: they become a team centered by James, who serves as spotter to Sanborn on the precision long-range rifle and gives verbal support to the less-steely Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) watching their backs. So many war movies get the chaos of battle and the suddenness of death; Bigelow is just as interested in the stillness, the patience, the importance of waiting until you have some certainty that there is no one else out there waiting to kill you. These guys do their jobs, trust one another to stay vigilant, and team leader James, earlier seen as just a maverick without rule, shows himself to be an authentic leader and a crack soldier.

I also write about The Brothers Bloom, the second film from writer/director Rian Johnson, and Paul Schrader’s Adam Resurrected. Read the complete dispatch here.

Seattle P-I

And for a general overview and introduction to TIFF, here’s my Seattle P-I feature:

On the world stage, Seattle’s film fest plays a supporting role to shining star Toronto

By SEAN AXMAKER
SPECIAL TO THE P-I

TORONTO –The Seattle International Film Festival takes pride in its distinction as the biggest and longest film festival in the country, but on the world stage, SIFF falls under the long shadow of the Toronto International Film Festival.

The first major North American film festival after the chic of Cannes, the sprawling giant after the selective prestige of Venice and the launching pad for the Oscar season, TIFF is the biggest, most star-studded, most prestigious festival on the continent. There’s nothing quite like it in America.

Toronto essentially kicks off the film-festival season on this side of the Atlantic with an enviable film lineup that boasts the North American premieres of many (if not most) of the buzz films from Cannes and Venice and the world premieres of American and British Oscar bait to be launched in the fall season. Toronto is the closest we have to a snapshot of the state of international cinema of the moment (that moment stretching back to the Cannes Film Festival in May).

Read the complete piece here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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