TIFF 2009: Part I

The Toronto International Film Festival (aka TIFF) is over for 2009, but as usual I am left with the task of writing the long form of my reviews.  Those of you who want transit stuff can just ignore this sequence of posts, and of course there have already been capsule reviews in another article here.

In theory, now that I am retired, I should actually be able to finish these in short order, but it’s amazing how the schedule of transit events and other cultural activities can fill up my time.

This post contains a few general observations plus two guest reviews from my cousin whose TIFF schedule partly overlapped my own.

Included here:

  • Introductions
  • A Conversation with Michael Caine
  • Mao’s Last Dancer

Toronto at 175

This year is Toronto’s 175th birthday, and in honour of the occasion, each screening had a short clip of news of a feature film shot in Toronto.  These were great choices, and several got applause.

  • The great fire of 1904
  • 1920’s Santa Claus Parade
  • VE day at Old City Hall
  • The Yorkville sit-in protest — hippies demand that the street be converted to a pedestrian mall.
  • The 1967 Stanley Cup Parade on Bay Street — cheers and sighs for the last time the Leafs actually won.
  • A clip from Bollywood/Hollywood shot in 2002 on a rooftop west of downtown
  • A clip from Going Down the Road shot in 1967 shot mainly on the Richmond off-ramp from the DVP with a very different downtown skyline
  • A clip from Nobody Waved Goodbye shot in the 60s at the Coffee Mill at the Collonade on Bloor Street
  • A clip from Crash shot on Lakeshore near Cherry, then at the Joy Oil station at Ellis
  • A clip from I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing with Sheila McCarthy flying over St. James Town

The Sponsors

The historical pieces were co-sponsored by the Royal Bank (RBC) who also had their own set of mini-dramas featuring a hapless young director who just can’t get any respect, not from bouncers, hot babes in the bar or industry insiders in a men’s loo.  Stayed amusing through the festival, a good sign after 38 screenings.

Bell, the lead sponsor, had only two pieces that I saw, both involving the idea of clear communication.  On days 1 to 9 of the fest, a director is too busy chatting up his assistant to pay attention to the fact a fight scene has started without him actually signalling it.  On the final day, a gofer brings in a snack for the director who says “what’s that”, gets the response “it’s a wrap” and, well you can guess the rest.  Next time he will ask for a quesadilla.  A good joke, but I wish we had more variety.

Cineplex and Blackberry had their own short, standard headers that stood up well, but AMC managed to get a bad sound mix and pedestrian graphics.  They wound up looking a tad cheap, especially funny when seen in one of their own cinemas.

Cadillac sponsors the People’s Choice Awards, and their tag line is “Be an original”.  Fortunately last year’s material still holds up fairly well.  The auto business has fallen on hard times, after all.

(I hope that anyone from TIFF reading this sees that I really did pay attention during the commercials!)

Film Introductions

This was something of a sore point for me in 2009.  Maybe it was just the screenings I picked, but it seemed that an unusual number were intro’d by a junior rep from the TIFF programming department who simply read their spiel off a card.  That’s ok for the basic “turn off your cellphone” message, but trying to be enthusiastic about reading the breathless text out of the TIFF program book is a sham.  They didn’t write it, and they shouldn’t waste our time reading it.

On a few occasions, the talent expected to assist in the intro was late.  Very late.  Didn’t show up.  TIFF audiences get restless because holding the start screws up everything.  We lose time that might have been available for a Q&A at the end for those who can stay, and those who need to leave are fitfully looking at their watches calculating travel times.

There has only been one very late start that warranted the wait — Janet Leigh introducing the 1998 restoration of Touch of Evil at the Uptown.  Very, very few people should be allowed to hold the start of a film.  If they want to come later, do it at the end.  Make that two — many, many years ago, we waited in the Bloor Cinema for a flim that was arriving from the airport for a print that was literally fresh out of the lab.

Pirates and Cowboys

A tradition started a few years ago when TIFF really began pushing their anti-piracy efforts — the audience, with varying degrees of enthusiasm depending on the time of day, would respond “Yarrggghhh” when the message about piracy came up.  This year, a few introducers paused at that point in their standard text, and Cameron Bailey was almost hurt that the audience didn’t pick up their cue.

As the fest wore on, a few people got tired of being pirates, and changed to “Yee-Haw”.  Some day, probably at a Midnight Madness screening, we will have a pirate movie.  Who knows what sort of costumes and catcalls that will attract.

A Few Guest Reviews

The following two reviews were written by my cousin, Deborah McFarlen, and I’m including them here because I didn’t take notes for one, and the other was a film I didn’t see.

A Conversation With Michael Caine

What’s sure to be my favourite event of the Film Festival isn’t a film at all – at least yet.  They were filming in the Isabel Bader Theatre which was packed with several hundred enthralled audience members listening to Michael Caine, up there on the stage, large as life and twice as charming.

The Festival has been filming a number of these “Conversation” events with various actors, directors, etc.  They’re to be kept as research materials for film scholars, but if they have any sense, they’ll release this one to television, which would only be appropriate, because it’s a project for the Brian Linehan Foundation.  It started with a clip of Linehan interviewing Mr. Caine back in the 1980’s.  Then Michael Caine and a moderator – Seamus O’Regan – came onto the stage and sat down.

Michael Caine is an interviewer’s wildest dream come true.  Basically, you say: “talk to us”, and he does, delightfully, wittily, with great humour.  He told story after story about his experiences in Hollywood.  He’s a wickedly accurate mimic.

Telling a story about his early friend and mentor, Cary Grant, he recalled meeting Grant met in the lobby of his (Caine’s) Hollywood hotel.  A woman who was checking out rushed up to them, saying:  “Michael Caine!  Finally, just as I’m leaving, I get to meet a real live movie star.”  She then turned to Grant and said “Isn’t it strange.  You can spend ages in Hollywood and never see a single movie star.”  To which Grant replied: “You don’t say.”  And you heard Cary Grant’s voice as Caine told the story.  He told another, later on, about John Huston and Sean Connery, and got both of their voices bang on.

He spoke about the movie he’s promoting here at the Film Festival, which has already opened in Britain, where it’s causing quite a stir.  “Harry Brown” is about an ex-soldier (Caine) who lives in a bad slum area where his best friend is killed by the marauding gangs.  Brown then becomes a vigilante to take revenge on the killers.

It was shot in an area of London which is very dangerous, with a lot of drugs and gang warfare.  The director used a number of the local kids in the movie.  They all wanted to talk to Caine, who’d grown up in the neighbourhood, and they all had the same question: “How did you make it out of here?”  Sadly, Caine said, he’d had two things they didn’t have, and didn’t have two things they did have.  He’d had loving, supportive parents and a good education (he got a scholarship to a good grammar school.)  And he didn’t have guns or drugs.

He’s quite passionate about these kids, saying that about 75% of them just need a decent chance, while the other 25% should probably be in mental institutions, and he feels a lot of the problem is the result of a society that just doesn’t care enough about them.

Caine said himself that he’s a frustrated stand-up comic, but, as he doesn’t have any good jokes of his own, he has to steal other people’s best lines.  He particularly admired Red Buttons and told a couple of his jokes (but using his own voice).  My favourite:  “You know you’re getting old when your wife says: ‘Let’s go upstairs and make love’, and you realize that you can’t do both.”

He took questions from the audience.  One aspiring young actor asked him if he had any advice to pass on to someone starting out in the business.  Caine immediately asked: “What’s your name?”  The guy replied: “Graham Grey”.  Caine then told him a story of another young actor who’d asked him the same question years ago.  His advice was: don’t listen to advice.  Just go on believing in yourself and keep plugging away.  Presumably it worked.  The young actor from years ago was Tom Cruise.  So Caine told the audience: “Remember the name: Graham Grey.”  Huge round of applause, and if that doesn’t set young Mr. Grey up to stay the course, nothing will.

His favourite among his own movies is “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”, partly because he and Roger Moore* are great friends, and partly because they filmed in the south of France, where Moore has a home, escaping British tax laws, just as Caine does (though not in France): “88% tax.  I decided I didn’t want to live on 12% of my earnings.”  This is the one movie that, if he happens to catch it on TV, he will sit and watch: “And it always makes me laugh.”

[* Roger Moore isn’t in this movie,  but Caine said Moore and composer Leslie Bricuse – another good friend – made it possible for Caine to rent a French villa just about equidistant from their own homes for the duration of filming, so presumably he had a good time when not filming.]

It was the fastest ninety minutes I’ve ever spent.  Caine got an appreciative standing ovation at the start of the afternoon, and a wildly enthusiastic, cheering one when it ended. 

The audience was let out the rear doors of the theatre, and, since it’s on the grounds of Victoria College, I was going out by a familiar back alley when I saw a crowd of people standing in front of a door, and there was Mr. Caine, smiling, signing autographs, chatting.  I stood back for a bit, watching, and then, like a true Canajun, slunk quietly away so as not to add to the throng.

Mao’s Last Dancer, directed by Bruce Beresford (Australia, 2009)

Now this is a good dance film!  It’s a story I’ve never heard before.  Everyone knows about Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov defecting to the west from Russian ballet tours, but this movie is based on the biography of a Chinese dancer, Li Cunxin, who was sent by China as an exchange student with the Houston Ballet and decided to remain in the United States.

He was plucked from his small-town school at age 11 by the Chinese government and sent to the national ballet school in Beijing to study dance and the party line: everything about Mao’s socialism is great and wonderful, and everything in the evil capitalistic west brings intolerable misery to the populace.  This propaganda was only possible in the closed society of China at the time.  Li starts off studying and eventually performing classical ballet until Madame Mao’s cultural revolution demands guns and violence in dance.  A teacher who protests that the students’ training has not prepared them for this is sent away as a counter-revolutionary.  Before he goes, he manages to smuggle a video tape of Baryshnikov dancing to Li, who is inspired.

After the ballet master of Houston Ballet and two principal dancers come to China on a brief exchange program, Li is sent to study in Houston, with appropriate warnings from his government not to be seduced by the evil capitalists – warnings repeated by the Chinese consul in Houston.  But he’s young and eager to learn, and these warnings eventually fall by the wayside.  He enjoys the freedom of expression in western dance (frowned upon by the Chinese) and further complicates matters by falling in love with a pretty dancer.  They marry, and he decides to stay, creating an international flurry that is finally resolved.  He gets to stay and dance in the west, but is warned he can never go back to China or have any contact with his family again.

He’s haunted by fears of how his family may be punished for his decision, and the pressure of this, plus conflicting work schedules (his wife can’t get hired by the Houston Ballet and has to leave), puts an intolerable strain on the marriage.

However, Li becomes a star with the Houston Ballet and travels the world with the company.  He also meets a more compatible partner – in dance and in his second marriage.

The ending is a fairy-tale ‘happily-ever-after’ resolution that is absolutely true!

The dancing is glorious, and there’s plenty of it: studio and performance.  Photography, acting, pace are all good.  In a Question and Answer session following the film, we got the script writer and composer.  Yes, Li Cunxin has seen the film and was quite moved by it.  He’s now retired from dance and working in a finance company in Australia where his lives with his wife (who is Australian) and their children.

The director decided very early on that this wasn’t going to be a Flashdance type of movie.  All he had to do was find a leading man who could act, speak Mandarin (the early scenes, set in China, are subtitled), and, oh, yes, was a world-class dancer.  He found him: Chi Cao, a handsome young principal dancer with the Birmingham Ballet (lucky, lucky Birmingham), is believably moving in the role of Li Cunxin, and he’s one of the best dancers I have seen.  Lovely, huge, soft leaps, and he can pirouette endlessly without ‘travelling’. 

This film had some early co-operation from the Chinese government (2008 Olympics and all that), but then there was voluble western criticism of China’s human rights problems and permission was withdrawn.  “But we were already there, so we just went ahead and shot secretly.”  Intrepid, those Aussies (it’s an Australian production).

This film doesn’t have a North American distributor as yet, but I hope it does.  In my estimation, it’s right up there with Every Little Step.

3 thoughts on “TIFF 2009: Part I

  1. This blog is your soapbox, Steve, but a suggestion – why not separate your transit and reviews. Create a new blog for Reviews (or alternatively, but all your transit info on a new blog)

    When my “Transit Blog” was taken over with election projections, I separated them and started a second blog to focus on transit. Sadly, that blog never went anywhere.

    Steve: When you buy a newspaper, nobody forces you to read the Sports or Business section. Most people are capable of ignoring articles they don’t want to read, but having them all in one place means that people find material they otherwise might not read. I have already received several thanks for the reviews.


  2. I would love to see the old film clips of Toronto. I know some are on line, but I bet the print quality of the one’s shown at TIFF were much better. Hopefully, someone will figure it would be a good idea to issue a DVD of the collection. As for “The 1967 Stanley Cup Parade on Bay Street — cheers and sighs for the last time the Leafs actually won”: this is something uniquely Toronto has that Montreal does not: black and white photos of their last Stanley Cup win ;0;0;0;


  3. The midnight madness crowd definitely gave more enthusiastic yarrs than any other audience I was part of. The tiff anti-piracy statement is a little strongly worded though, to the point where I’d say it misrepresents the law. I explore the anti-piracy language and law a bit in “tiff piracy warning and copyright” on my blog.


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