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You Are There: The 2007 Toronto International Film Festival

Filmcritic.com staffer Sean O’Connell is on the ground in Toronto for the 2007 TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival. He’ll be sending dispatches from the festival on a daily basis, and we’ll be updating this post in real time. Keep checking back for his thoughts on the films in competition as well as the festival experience. New entries will be added to the bottom of this feature as he files them. Enjoy! Christopher Null, Editor in Chief

Day One – Thursday, Sept. 6

Schedules are my friend. Some people prefer going with the flow. I need to know where the flow is going.

Film festivals adhere to schedules, which is part of the reason I’m so at home when covering assorted fests. Prior to arriving, I spend days pouring over official festival guides, mapping out well-planned itineraries and salivating over the features, shorts, documentaries, and more that are at my fingertips. It is a cinema-lovers dream … and it works pretty well for us slaves to schedules.

So I’m in Toronto, covering the International Film Festival, and I’ve got my long weekend pegged to the minute. I arrive at 3:30 p.m., and am through customs and in a cab by 4. I’ve got just enough time to drop my bags by the hotel and eat before a 7 p.m. screening of Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

My Warner Bros. rep calls my cell phone as the cab approaches downtown Toronto. My 7 p.m. James screening has moved to 9:30.

Welcome to Toronto.

Day Two – Friday, Sept. 7

The Jesse James () screening began late Thursday, and it was Friday before the film finished.

There is a good two-hour story lurking somewhere in the stodgy, contemplative 150-minute cut Dominik brought to Toronto. The film spins its wheels discussing the honor (or lack thereof) between thieves. Brad Pitt plays the legendary outlaw Jesse James, though the movie’s focus quickly falls on Robert Ford, giving Casey Affleck some heavy lifting to do. He responds in kind. This is the best performance in Affleck’s young career. Ford, though 19 years old at the start of the story, is very much a child trying to fit in with the men that surround him. His false pride makes him dangerous. Poor Pitt, for the most part, must play a one-sided idol. The actor keeps a wall of protection up between James and his fanatical followers. Unfortunately, the more we are told about James, the less we feel we know about the man. Oh, and the thing is just too long. You can only appreciate so many gorgeous visual paintings by cinematographer Roger Deakins before you start getting saddle sore from your theater seat.

I’ve got a full day ahead that includes Neil Jordan’s The Brave One, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, and Into the Wild from Sean Penn. Reviews to come.

Day Two – Friday, Sept. 7

Could another actress besides Jodie Foster achieve legitimacy as both the dew-drop-eyed fiancée of a handsome physician and a gun-toting vigilante pushed to the brink of depressive insanity in the same film? Sigourney Weaver or Holly Hunter, in their primes, perhaps. Foster carries The Brave One (), an urban myth about the birth of a crime fighter, without the comic-book symbolism that scared audiences away from M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. When boyfriend Naveen Andrews is beaten to death by Manhattan punks, radio host Foster gets herself a gun and starts sticking up for the under-protected. Neil Jordan’s straightforward direction keeps Brave One grounded. Foster is a powerhouse in an emotionally conflicted part, though she receives excellent support from Terence Howard as a street-smart detective with his own axe to grind. Brave One acts as a basic genre picture, but finds plenty of subtext underneath the usual conventions.

Remember that bit about schedules? Well, mine has been blown to bits. Instead of Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, I’m off to see Ang Lee’s latest, Lust, Caution. Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises should follow. Keep your fingers crossed.

Day Three – Saturday, Sept. 8

I’m exhausted. My feet ache. My hotel room doesn’t have Internet access, but you can leech off a weak signal in the lobby. Which is fine, except there is a massive party happening down here right now, and whatever dance track the deejay is playing is stuck in a perpetual loop of ‘dee-boop… dee-boop.’

But I can’t think of another place I’d rather be right now. Sick, right?

Toronto has had its fair share of surprises. I managed to cram in a few more screenings and interviews — some planned, some done on the fly. A few thoughts, before I crash for the night.

As much as I enjoyed David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (the picture made my Top 10 for 2005), the polished study of a person’s dark past could have been directed by anyone. I got the impression Violence was Cronenberg’s stab at proving he could make a mainstream picture. He drifts right back to the fringe, where he’s still quite comfortable, with Eastern Promises (). Working again with Violence star Viggo Mortensen, Cronenberg, and Dirty Pretty Things scribe Steven Knight construct a complicated crime drama that wraps the import-export businesses of London-based Russian mobsters around a teenage prostitution ring before even getting around to a midwife (Naomi Watts) and her quest to find the relatives of a fostered infant. The notion that violence can disrupt even the most dysfunctional family units continues to intrigue the director. He also hasn’t grown tired of running Mortensen through the grinder, though the toll on Viggo is far more physical this time out (he plays a Russian convict hired to babysit wild-card gangster Vincent Cassell, but his true purpose is unclear for most of the film). Promises flirts with gratuitous violence as it intimidates its audience, but Cronenberg settles down in time and lets Knight’s sharp script reach some interesting conclusions. Mortensen shows his versatility, and Cassell is as unpredictable as you’d expect, but Watts does little with a nothing role. Eastern doesn’t build on the promises of History, though it does enough to satisfy Cronenberg’s oldest and newest fans.

Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution () is a movie of build-ups. In Shanghai, during the second World War, college-aged members of an experimental acting troupe led by an aspiring revolutionist devise a plan to infiltrate the inner sanctuary of political dignitary Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) and assassinate him. We stick with their intricate schemes as we wait for the eventual kill. When it becomes clear that the only key to Yee’s guarded chamber is the innocent body of the group’s ‘leading lady’ Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei), we wait for the illicit affair to begin. Lee dangles his carrots as long as possible –Lust, Caution is fascinating but long, beautifully crafted but slow in spots. But Lee understands when to releas
e the pressure, either with an unexpected violent outburst or with the much-discussed sex that dominates the film’s third act. Put the visceral impact aside. Lust, Caution has an emotional pay-off executed between the fantastic Leung and Wei that makes all of the waiting worthwhile. I would like this movie so much more if we got to it a little bit sooner than we do. Still, a solid film from a gifted director.

Day Four – Sunday, Sept. 9

Do you know what’s worse than conducting a celebrity interview? Transcribing the tape from said interview. Since I’m staring down cassettes of David Cronenberg, Naomi Watts, Viggo Mortensen, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and the cast of Lust, Caution, I’m going to keep this brief.

Press conferences held by Clooney and Pitt best resemble New York’s Penn Station at rush hour. The air is thin, the bodies are crowded, and the conversation is inane. Both stars expertly worked the crowd, Clooney for Michael Clayton () and Pitt for Jesse James. The respective directors, Tony Gilroy and Andrew Dominik, received a smattering of questions. Respective co-stars Tilda Swinton (for Clayton) and Casey Affleck (for James) received none. The attention stayed on the white-hot megastars. Clooney is incredibly bright and charismatic… a real pro. Pitt is professional, as well, though he doesn’t handle the left-field current events questions as well as his Ocean’s bud. Clooney juggled questions about Darfur and the U.S. presidential elections without breaking a sweat. Pitt stared down a reporter inquiring about Olympic protests. To be fair, the question was silly, but so was Pitt’s non-answer.

Regardless, these men shouldn’t have to shill for a film, but they did, and that was decent.

Cronenberg is a great interview. He could talk for hours. Mortensen is reserved, which mostly surprised me because his Eastern Promises character is so forceful. Watts gave me the impression she wanted to be back with her newborn baby, while Vincent Cassel — smiling ear to ear — convinced me that acting is the easiest gig in the world.

Lust, Caution star Tony Leung is a man of very few words. He listens to your question and sits in silence (for minutes) before responding. And his responses average 5 to 10 words. Try building a feature out of that. On the flip side, his incredibly talented and beautiful co-star Wei Tang spoke freely through her translator. It might have been my best interview of the fest.

Until next year!

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