We Can Be Heroes

I hadn’t had much chance to peruse the new TV season – I’d been caught up in the film festival (ya, poor me) and I’d not paid much attention to what was on the dial. Lucky for me, new season debuts are scattered all over this month, so I’ve been able to catch a few that may become must-sees.

I stumbled across the premiere of Heroes on Monday, a show that I knew next to nothing about. It follows a group of ordinary people who discover they have extraordinary abilities: they can fly, regenerate and teleport, with more characters and powers to come.

It felt very similar to Lost, in the sense that it was showing multiple characters and storylines that are clearly destined to intersect. It also had characters from India and Japan, which is part of a trend for U.S. shows acknowledging there is a world outside its borders. It has also been influenced by Unbreakable and the X-Men series and is soundly grounded in the comic book genre.

“Every ten year old wishes he had super powers, and I got them,” says Hiro, a Japanese worker from a non-descript cube farm, who has discovered he can manipulate the space-time continuem. He’s right, and not just about ten year olds. I’ve often thought teleportation would be a great power and so much better than flying – none of that tedious getting there business. I’ve also always wanted the ability to turn invisible, but I don’t care to examine the psychological reasons behind that.

Will it be a hit? I don’t know. I watched Invasion last year and watched it get unceremoniously cancelled, but I’m willing to see where this one is headed. You can keep up with Hiro’s blog and read a weekly graphic novel on the official site – more evidence that the web is becoming an interagal part of the television experience.

So It’s Come To This

The Simpsons is out of ideas and has been for years. Family Guy is pointlessly cruel. American Dad is derivative. Is this where the state of animation is these days?

It’s not that bad, but cartoons have certainly seen better days. The Simpsons has begun its 18th season, which means the show has been on air for the entire life of anyone in high school. With that kind of longevity, the quality was bound to decline, especially as at its height it was the best comedy on TV. I now view each new season like Saturday Night Live - it will always be on and some years will be better than others. It’s still better than most shows on TV, but it suffers when compared to its prime (Seasons 4-6). The Simpsons is my first animated love, but even a true believer like myself recognizes that it hasn’t been on the cutting edge for years.

Family Guy once was that edge. When it debuted in 1999 it was genuinely shocking, breaking taboos and pissing off many people. It was off the air in two seasons, a victim of poor ratings. I was a huge fan and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing in primetime and thought it was a travesty when Fox pulled it (as they do with most innovative shows). With constant reruns on Teletoon and the Cartoon Network and massive DVD sales, Family Guy got a reprieve. The first few episodes had the old flare, but something has changed. Now it’s just as likely to be cruel than funny. They continue to draw out scenes, repeating phrases and motions over and over and over again. It’s not funny. I get it, but it’s not funny.

As for American Dad, the less said the better. It is clearly a redo of Family Guy that Seth MacFarlane created when Family Guy was pulled off the air. It has grown more into its own lately, but the comedy bits are few and far between. I like Roger the alien though. I don’t see it breaking any longevity records.

So what’s working? South Park is going strong, still managing to generate headlines after 10 seasons. Last year they managed to infuriate Tom Cruise, Scientology and Muslims. They are equal opportunity offenders and still surprisingly sharp, if occasionally a little heavy-handed with the moralizing. I never thought Trey Parker and Matt Stone would be around for so long – and neither did they – but I’m glad they are.

This decade has produced some new and innovative shows that while they will never make a major network, are the cleverest work I’ve seen in years. Aqua Teen Hunger Force is a surreal show about a life-size Happy Meal – Master Shake, Frylock and Meatwad. They don’t really do much except hang out in their house and bicker while annoying their neighbour Carl. I think it is hilarious, but that may say more about me than the show.

Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law is, like the Aqua Teens, a creation of Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network in the U.S. Harvey is a former superhero who had a show in the ‘60s and now acts as a criminal defence lawyer for a roster of Hanna-Barbera characters. Shaggy gets busted for drugs; The Jetsons sue the people of Earth for screwing up the planet; Grape Ape is charged with steroid use. It’s a show that you need to have spent your youth on a couch on Saturday mornings to appreciate fully. Luckily, I am well prepared.

In the same vein as Harvey Birdman but more a friend of those with ADD is Robot Chicken. Creator Seth Green and pals make minutes-long pop culture vignettes using stop animated action figures. Each episode is only 10 minutes or so long, but they pack a lot into each show. Jesus is The Bride in Kill Bunny; Emperor Palpatine gets a collect call from Darth Vader (see below); The Superfriends are the new Real Life cast; Santa is murdered in Christmas Town. This has only begun airing in Canada and I’ve only caught a few episodes, but I’m hooked. It’s like all the non-sequitur moments of Family Guy without the loosely written plot to slow it down. It’s great stuff and I encourage any pop culture fan to check it out.

The Rules of Fight Club

1. You don't talk about fight club.
2. You don't talk about fight club.
3. If someone says stop, goes limp, even if he's just faking it, the fight is over.
4. Only two guys to a fight.
5. One fight at a time.
6. They fight without shirts or shoes.
7. The fights go on as long as they have to.
8. If this is your first night at fight club, you have to fight.

These are the rules, as established by Tyler Durden in Fight Club. There should be one more:

9. If you are a bunch of stupid teenagers beating the crap out of each other, don’t upload it to YouTube.

A bunch of kids at a school outside of Toronto filmed themselves smacking each other around in front of a cheering crowd and posted it on the web. Now everyone is falling over themselves, trying to figure out what’s these little brain-damaged freaks problem is.

I don’t care if they pound on each other – turns out that if a fight is consensual it’s not illegal. Sick, weird and disturbing, but not illegal. What bothers me is when this dumbass behaviour gets blamed on pop culture, often referred to as “the media.” When I saw the story on tonight’s newcast I knew someone would go after Fight Club before it was over. Sure enough, there was Brad Pitt all bloody and sweaty, with a cop blaming it all on what teenagers see on TV and the movies. Shades of last year, when a cabbie was killed by a couple of street-racing idiots in Toronto and video games took some of the blame.

Of course I’m sure those teens were just making a statement about the dehumanizing nature of modern society... oh who am I kidding? The sad-but-true fact is it’s not what teenaged boys are watching, but that they are teenaged boys. I can’t even begin to count the stupid, dangerous things I did in my high school days and it had nothing to do with what I saw on TV.

Teenagers will continue to do harm to themselves. What they are watching will make little difference.

Avast Ye Land Lubbers!

I`ve always loved swashbucklers. As a kid I used t' pick up stick an' make like I be sailin' th' high seas, plunderin' me way across th' Spanish Main.

It is International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and in honour of the scurvy dogs of yore, I’ve decided to explore my obsession. I don’t know where it started really. I do recall having pirates Lego – how odd that a company made kids toys out of murderers and rapists – and I’m pretty sure I saw an Errol Flynn movie with him as a pirate, but I don’t recall which one.

While in Disneyland I went on the pre-Johnny Depp Pirates of the Caribbean ride (and later thought it would make a terrible movie). I saw the Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance during high school. In university I sat in a friend’s dorm room playing Sid Mier’s Pirates for hours when I should have been studying. I went Friggin’ in the Rigging with the Sex Pistols and was Rhymin’ and Stealin’ with the Beastie Boys.

Pirate movies haven’t fared as well. Geena Davis’ Cutthroat Island was one of the biggest movie bombs of all time, reportedly making pack only 10% of the budget at the box office and dragging down a studio as it sunk. The ‘90s also saw Muppet Treasure Island and Hook, none of which added much to the mythology. In fact Cutthroat scared everyone else off until Depp signed on the Captain Sparrow, the worst pirate you’ve ever heard of.

So how about some time-wasting links?

• Learn how to talk like a pirate.

• Get your own pirate name. I’m either the Dread Pirate Bonney, Buckaneer Sylvester or Pirate Walt the Back-Stabber, depending on which generator I used.

• And for a true time-sucker, translate your entire site into pirate lingo.

That’s A Wrap

Fourteen films in 10 days – it’s over too soon and not done soon enough. The Toronto film festival is always a blur of excitement and always welcome at the end of the popcorn season. Every year we get to see films way before they are widely released and some that never again darken a theatre. It’s all part of the fun, as we often know little more than the description in the TIFF guide when we pick them. But by the time it is over, we’re ready to spend a little time on the couch watching the small screen.

I read that the few honours awarded by the festival are from panels with as few as three people on them, so I figure the Popped Culture Awards, with a panel of two is almost as legitimate. (The PCA’s have no monetary value and even less prestige and are ranked by our enjoyment of them and little else. And each film is awarded, so they are a lot like the Gemini Awards.) Check out everyone we saw over at my Flickr site.

Fido – Our first film of the fest and our fave. A zombie comedy, it was not typical film fest fare, but stuck with me long after. It may have a chance at commercial success.

The Fall – A wonderful adult fairytale and the most visually stunning piece we saw this year. Look for it in theatres.

Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing – I wasn’t expecting much from this and it turned out to be a fascinating look at the hell the band went through for the heresy of saying war isn’t the best option.

Everything's Gone Green – Like Garden State set in Vancouver, but with more laughs and less melancholy. Plus it has a kick-ass indie Canadian soundtrack.

This Is England
– Another moving film by Shane Meadows as he mines his childhood for great stories.

Red Road – The last film we saw at the festival and I was impressed that the director was there on a Saturday morning. A Cannes winner, it follows a woman who works in the Glasgow closed circuit TV control room and spots a man she recognizes. How does she know him? What is she going to do? It has some truly uncomfortable moments as the story unfolds. “A real downer, you’ll love it,” said my friend James. He’s right.

Sharkwater – A passionate plea to save the shark population that has been cut by 90% since the 1950s. You’ll never eat shark fin soup again.

Citizen Duane – I didn’t see it as I was off blogging for the Schmooze Party so I missed it, but Gill said she had a good time.

Kabul Express – A political road movie, with more slapstick than insight, but fun nonetheless.

Congorama – An interesting take on nature versus nurture from a rising Quebec director. The province has a fantastic movie culture that we’re lucky to have.

Invisible Waves – A slowly paced, Thai yakuza film with little dialogue and less action. I’d hoped for more, but whatcha gonna do?

The Fountain – Darren Aronofsky’s follow up to Requiem For a Dream left me cold. It’s not a bad film when compared to most, but is pale when compared to his own work.

D.O.A.P. – This won the TIFF critic’s prize and I have no idea how or why. All concept and no follow through, Death of a President had one interesting idea – the assassination of the sitting president – and had little follow up as to what the consequences were. A huge disappointment that is getting by solely on controversy.

A Stone's Throw
– A crusading photographer returns home to Nova Scotia to reconnect with his family as he is losing his eyesight. Far too long and painfully slow, it certainly puts the art film back into the festival.

Of course we had the problem with the no Q&As at the Elgin Theatre - and we're not done with that campaign. And the festival was getting a little harsh with fan photos inside the theatres. I had a staff member tell me to erase my pics of the director of D.O.A.P., though they were hardly consistent in applying it. I know there are piracy concerns, but if stop fans (and bloggers) it will only hurt the festival. Maybe they need to put up shots fron the Q&As up on a website for all to access. It's a thought. Anyway, a great festival – I can’t wait until next year.

Bollywood Comes to Toronto

In such a celebrity-obsessed culture, it’s actually a surprise to see a line of screaming fans and have no idea who they are calling for.

“Is there some big stars in this?” we asked a young girl standing in line, clutching an autograph book. “They’re big in India,” she answered. We had stumbled on to some Bollywood superstars in town for the premiere of Kabul Express, as John Abraham, Bipasha Basu and Arshad Warsi walked the Elgin’s red carpet, bringing some excitement to a usually dull end of the Toronto Film Festival. It was pandemonium. Girls were screaming and waving posters as a sea of camera flashes lit the length of the carpet. Theatre staff had to link arms to keep the crowd back, but another woman said if this has been India we wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere near them. Very entertaining.

The film itself was an odd mixture of road trip buddy movie and part political commentary on war and conflict. Kind of like Three Kings, but played more for laughs. Filmed entirely in Afghanistan (the crew was held at gunpoint during production) two Indian journalists are dropped, literally into Afghanistan just before the U.S. invasion, searching for an interview with the Taliban. They are promptly captured by a Talib, who forces them, their driver and an American photographer to take him to the Pakistani border.

They argue over who started the war, the best cricket players in the world and what’s better, Coke or Pepsi. "This is what the Americans do -- pump all the oil out of a country and fill it with Coke and Pepsi!" says the Talib, who is secretly part of the Pakistani military. Soon it becomes clear that political loyalties are paper-thin when it comes to war.

Top: John Abraham and Bipasha Basu walk the red carpet; Bottom: John Abraham and Arshad Warsi before the film

Lowered Expectations

I know they can’t all be winners, but some of our Toronto film fest picks have been major letdowns. First up, The Fountain, the much anticipated film from director Darren Aronofsky – his first since Requiem For a Dream. I was hyped for this movie as his last two have had such an impact on me.

When we saw Requiem on a big screen I was sweating by the end, the images were so powerful. The quick-cut scenes of heroin use have since been copied by advertising and parodied in The Simpsons. And Pi made me feel like my head had been turned inside out – I thought and talked about the patterns in the numbers for days. It was a secular religious experience. So admittedly, The Fountain had a high bar to clear.

To my disappointment, Aronofsky limboed under it, barely breaking a sweat. The Fountain follows Hugh Jackman over three time periods and characters – a Spanish conquistador, a cutting-edge medical researcher and a 26th century astronaut (according to the synopsis, but I don’t agree) – all searching for immortality in some fashion. It’s a sprawling narrative, beautifully shot, but somehow cold and uninvolving. The tale of the doctor trying to save his wife from cancer had its emotional moments, but the so-called astronaut floating through space in a snow globe while communing with a dead tree and apparitions of his past lives added nothing. A lot of style, but unfortunately lacking an equal amount of substance.

As an aside, there was no Q&A after the screening, which took place at the Ryerson Theatre – in fact nobody from the film showed up, despite Aronofsky and stars Rachel Weisz and Ellen Burstyn being in town for it’s premiere at the Elgin. Last weekend TIFF programmer Jesse Wente said Q&As for films that debut at the Elgin, which doesn’t allow them, would happen at their second showing. It didn’t, so we still hate the Elgin.

Following The Fountain, we headed over to the Paramount for another anticipated film on our list, Invisible Waves. In 2003 we saw Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life In the Universe, a surreal tale of an obsessive-compulsive, suicidal Japanese man hiding out in Bangkok with a free-spirited Thai woman. It was quirky and fun and a favourite from that year. An almost existential black comedy about a low level gangster who isn’t aware that his days are numbered, it was too slowly paced, with too little action. No Q&A for this one either.

Again, not a bad film, but not what I had been hoping for. I suppose they can’t all be winners.

Not Ready to Make Nice

“Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” And with those words three years ago, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks ignited a political and cultural firestorm. At the time the U.S. was on the brink of war in Iraq and George W. Bush was riding high in the polls, backed by a wave of patriotism. The media was cowed and critics who questioned the war rationale were shouted down with accusations of anti-Americanism.

Into this climate the Dixie Chicks were seen badmouthing the commander-in-chief to a foreign audience (they were in London). At home they faced a boycott of their music, country stations stopped playing them, people protested outside their shows and the band received death threats. Luckily, if I can use that word, a documentary crew was following the band during the whole ordeal.

We picked Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing for our Toronto Film Fest mostly because Gill is a huge fan. Who am I to judge? I made her go and see zombies. Turns out it was a fascinating piece about the backlash they faced for daring to disagree with Bush. I understand the people have the right to choose what they want to listen to, but what happened to the Chicks went far beyond. The virulence directed at them was stunning.

That’s what bothers me the most. If you disagree with someone, that’s fine, but to insist that people aren’t allowed to have a differing opinion, to label them traitors, to call for them to be killed is insanity. I see that happening here in Canada too, as NDP leader Jack Layton is attacked for calling for a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, not debated about whether or not it is a wise decision.

But enough of that rant. The film follows the chicks as the face the protests and decide to carry on anyway. Says Haines, “Now that we've fucked ourselves, I think we have a responsibility to continue to fuck ourselves.” Three years later they are back and while maybe not on top of the world they are unbowed.

Tales for an Accelerated Culture

It was like watching a Douglas Coupland novel come to life. Which was appropriate as Everything’s Gone Green, which played at the Toronto Film Festival on Tuesday, was written by Coupland himself.

If I had to guess, I’d say that Green was either a discarded chapter of his recent novel jPod (which just got named to the Giller prize long list) or an early draft. There were the parents running a marijuana grow-op in their suburban Vancouver basement; the brother involved in selling real estate to absentee Hong Kong millionaires; the late 20-something slacker working at a job he doesn’t care about who gets involved with an Asian gang. I finished jPod this summer and so the similarities are fresh in my mind.

And it works. Coupland tells great stories filled with quirky characters and a clear love for Vancouver, which was all perfectly captured by first-time feature director Paul Fox. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Coupland visited the set and told Fox, "That's freaky, it's like stepping into my own brain.” Seeing as nobody has yet to bring one of his novels to the big screen, this counts as a huge achievement.

It was fun and I hope people get a chance to see it for themselves. For those out west, it will open the Vancouver Film Festival soon and it has Canadian distribution, so it will be interesting to see if it can find an audience.

Pics: Above, a scene from Everything's Gone Green. Below, Paulo Costanzo at the Paramount screening.

Film Fest Friends

One of my favourite parts of the Toronto film festival is you start to recognize directors as the return to the city every couple of years like long lost friends. Last night we were at the world premiere of Shane Meadow’s This Is England, a film about a young boy who falls under the influence of a charismatic skinhead during the early ‘80s.

For me, my festival experience and Meadows is intricately connected. The first year I lived in Toronto I was a TIFF volunteer and was working the door when a filmmaker a couple of years younger than me gave me his ticket and asked me where he was supposed to sit. That was my first introduction to Meadows, who was there with two shorts, Small Time and Where's the Money, Ronnie? He has since returned to Toronto every couple of years with realistically gritty films inspired by his rough and tumble upbringing in central England: Twenty Four Seven, A Room for Romeo Brass, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands and Dead Man's Shoes.

This Is England takes place during the Falklands War, when employment was high and Margaret Thatcher ruled with an iron fist. A young boy, who’s father has died in the conflict, is the constant target of local bullies and is befriended by a gang of skinheads. They are a genteel bunch who go swimming and party and appear more enamoured with the clothing and music of the movement than the politics. That is until an older member of the gang gets out of prison and starts preaching hate and violence. The comedic buddy film soon turns tense and explosive.

Meadows, who had just completed the film on Monday and was watching it for the first time with us, said he too had ran with skinheads when he was 11, but was essentially scared straight. "That night of violence is what turned me around," he told the audience. "That's probably the night the seed of a filmmaker was born.

On Monday we saw Philippe Falardeau’s Congorama, a Quebec director we have begun to follow. He was last at the festival with La Moitié gauche du frigo (The Left-Hand Side of the Fridge) which won the Best Canadian First Feature Film award back in 2000. It followed a Belgian man who, on discovering he was adopted, goes searching for his identity in rural Quebec and finds much more, but not necessarily what he was hoping for. It’s hard to explain without giving away some of the complexities.

Much of the tale wraps around moments from world fairs, one in Belgium and Quebec’s historic Expo ’67 and also appeared in last year’s festival fave, C.R.A.Z.Y. Neither director is old enough to have attended, so we asked him about it. He said the fair was so important to the province that it has become part of his own experience. “My parents went and took picture and films. When I look at these pictures now I feel like I’ve been there.”

Top: A scene from This Is England; Centre: This Is England director Shane Meadows; Bottom: Congorama director Philippe Falardeau

Reality vs. False Reality

Two shots ring out and a president falls to the ground as people scream, cameras swirl and chaos breaks out. But it’s not just any president, it was U.S. President George W. Bush.

Controversial? Without question. Provacative? Surprisingly not. Death of a President (or D.O.A.P.) is a fictional documentary about the purported assassination of Bush in 2007 outside of a Chicago hotel and perhaps the most buzzed about film at this year's Toronto Film Festival. The most controversial part about D.O.A.P. is the fact it uses a current president as its assassination target instead of a fictional character. Beyond that it was nowhere near as edgy or political as the hype led you to believe.

After taking the bold step to use the current president as a target, the filmmakers appeared to lose their nerve to explore the worldwide ramifications of what would happen if the U.S. president was assassinated in the current world climate. D.O.A.P. focused more on detailing security failures and legal procedures than making a political statement. It was surprisingly passionless. Yes, it showed that the in a case like this the U.S. would jump to conclusions and make the evidence fit the facts. A Muslim was the top suspect and remained so even after an American comes forward with evidence his Dad, a veteran of the first Gulf War, did it. Any remember the Oklahoma bombing? After screening so close to the anniversary of 9/11 and being set in the future, it all seemed so five years ago.

D.O.A.P. really didn't tell us anything we don't already know and can't get in the current media, which has finally become more critical of George W. Bush, his decisions and his administration. You can find a more hard-hitting critique of the current regime from Jon Stewart in almost any episode the Daily Show.

There was a lot of controversy before this film screened, before anyone had seen it, which appears mostly unwarranted upon viewing. People need to stop freaking out about films they not watched themselves. The controversy continues with some reports describing the audience as cheering, others indicating everyone sat in stony silence. Neither are true – it was an attentive and receptive audience who gave the film the same applause any film gets after a screening. No more, no less. Any other reports are an example of the fact manipulation the film focuses on.

The deficiencies of D.O.A.P. became all the more apparent the next day when we saw Sharkwater, a documentary with little to no advance press. Now this was a film that had impact, both dramatic and emotional, telling a real story about how humans are killing off the world's sharks.

Rob Stewart, a photographer, set out to make a film about sharks and what beautiful creatures we were going to lose if we didn't stop killing them. He ended with a tale of political corruption and greed, and showing us that we may destroy ourselves in the process as we shortsightedly kill off the top of the food chain of the ocean.

Stewart showed how governments are allowing the overfishing of sharks in sensitive ecosystems such as Costa Rica and the Galapagos with wasteful methods such as long lining — all due to the demand in Asia, in particular, for shark fins. The fins are sliced off the sharks while they're still alive and then the bodies of the maimed fish are tossed back into the ocean to drown and bleed to death.

Unlike D.O.A.P., it had a purpose, a call to action. Despite having slaughtered 90% of the world’s shark population over the past 50 years – creatures that have existed for over 400 million years – Stewart said there was still a chance to make a difference before it’s too late. Visit Sharkwater.com for more details.

Above: A scene from Death of a President. Below: Gill and TBA pose with the Sharkwater mascot while I idiotically show what a shark will not do to you in the ocean.

A Film Fest Pet Peeve

The world premiere of The Fall would have been a fantastic opportunity for filmgoers to ask director Tarsem about how he managed to pull off this multi-country epic. But it was screened at the Visa Screening Room, a.k.a. the Elgin Theatre, which, for whatever misguided reason, refuses to allow questions and answer sessions after the films. So he waved at us before the film and told us to enjoy it.

One of the best aspects of attending the Toronto festival is not only the chance to see great films from around the world but to speak to directors and actors about the film you've just seen. Some of our best film fest memories have occurred in the moments after a movie as we ask the cast about how their creation came to be. We usually try to avoid the Elgin, but weren’t able to this year.

Other than Galas at Roy Thomson Hall, it appears that the Elgin is the only other film fest venue that doesn't do Q&As . Simply put, that policy tears the heart out of the film fest experience. Often the cast has flown in for the premiere of their film only to be allowed a cursory nod to the audience before being shuffled off stage. After The Fall, Tarsem and two of the main actors stood around to chat with appreciative fans in the few minutes before aggressive staff shuffled everyone towards the door.

We saw the dramatic Hotel Rwanda three years ago and hated the fact that Paul Rusesabagina, the heroic man the film was based on, was only able to acknowledge the standing ovation from a side balcony. That’s just cruel. Thankfully Michael Moore purposefully ignored the policy with Bowling for Columbine and held a great Q&A after his screening.

We’ve been pissed off about this policy for years but have done little other than grumble about it while in line for our next film. So this year we’ve decided to challenge it. We’ve already accosted two film fest directors this week to ask what was up. Noah Cowan, co-director of the festival, explained that while “we understand that interaction is integral to the festival experience, emptying the theatre is a logistical nightmare.”

Jesse Wente, part of the Canadian feature film selection committee, echoed the sentiment saying that getting 1,000 or more people out of the theatre was a “logistical nightmare” and suggested that instead of going to the Elgin, go to the second screening of any film (which would be at a different venue) that is shown at the Elgin first.

But is it really the logistics that are the problem? Ryerson Theatre seats upwards of 800 and there are Q&As there. Yes, it’s a lecture theatre, but it doesn’t seem to empty out much quicker. The Uptown (we lament its destruction but not its scrunched seating) was massive, seating close to 1,000 people and Q&As were held there too. Yes, the Elgin is more a performance theatre than movie theatre and might take longer to empty, but why does it have to ditch the most enjoyable part of the festival? Why not just leave more time in between films so questions can be asked? Or set one mike up front so people can ask questions, and if you’re in the balcony, well, sucks to be you. Line up earlier next time. Even limit it to 5 questions if need be, or have a film fest director ask a few obvious questions to the director — anything is better than nothing.

So, is anybody else annoyed by this policy? Should we call for a boycott of the Elgin? Write cranky letters? Tell Visa they’re wasting their money by sponsoring the theatre since its money doesn’t support the true film fest experience? The festival will only change if we demand it.

Look out Piers Handling, we’re looking for you next!

Fall at the Festival

Imagine watching The Princess Bride, except almost everyone dies, the bad guy is a violent tyrant and the scenes are played out in some of the most stunning locales in the world. That is but a brief explanation of what watching The Fall is like, the latest film from Tarsem, the Indian-born director of the visually stunning, if disturbing, The Cell.

A sentimental tale of love and loss, The Fall is a story within a story. Roy, played by Lee Pace, is a depressed Hollywood stuntman bedridden and recuperating in hospital who befriends a five-year-old Romanian girl, newcomer Catinca Untaru, who broke her arm picking oranges at her family’s farm. He tells her a fantastic tale, set in the most beautiful locations around the globe, in return for her stealing him morphine from the dispensary.

She and Roy, his back broken after a fall during a daring movie stunt off a train bridge, have a strange symbiotic relationship. She gives him a reason to carry on as he wallows in his condition and the loss of his love who has deserted him. He gives the little girl some much needed companionship as she heals a broken arm and remembers the horrific things that have happened to her family – their house being burnt to the ground, her father being killed. But Roy abuses her trust by using his storytelling to convince her to steal drugs for him as his thoughts turn to suicide. It is a tale of tragedy of death and loss, and lost love disguised as a children's tale. And in the end, the experiences the pair share both hurt and save them.

The film, which made its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on Saturday, is a travelogue painted in an eye-popping rainbow palate, traversing from India to Bali, South Africa, Romania and too many others to mention. While the real world of the film, set in an austere hospital in Los Angeles has muted shades, the fairytale world is bathed in vibrant swaths of colour. Apparently it was filmed in 23 different countries and following the film Pace said he loved globetrotting for the role. That was the only chance we got to talk to the cast though, as the theatre staff hustled us out at breakneck speed. M0re on that later.

Citizen Strange

Hey Popped Culture fanatics, it’s the shadow behind Jeremy guest blogging here. Yep, his wife Gill. I’m no pop culture expert, but I’m learning, and I can call myself a film fest veteran since this is our 10th year attending. So as Jeremy blogged about schmoozing with the celebs, I saw Citizen Duane.

Director Michael Mabbott, who brought the faux rock star story The Life and Times of Guy Terrifico to Toronto’s film festival last year, came back this year with his second feature film Citizen Duane.

Mabbott says he sees some similarities between the characters of Guy Terrifico and Duane Balfour, the ambitious teen who is Citizen Duane.

“They’re both guys with good intentions,” he said after the film, but they both go about their goals in a bit of a twisted, warped way and manage to mess things up.

One of the writers (either Robert DeLeskie or Jonathan Sobol) says the story was inspired by his “odd political family from Niagara Region,” which might explain why it was shot in Hamilton, Ont.

Citizen Duane is a story about Duane Balfour, a dweeb of a high school student who is always trying to get one up on the popular, ruling class _ namely Chad, the high school president and the grandson of the town’s mayor, who’s now running for her sixth term in office.

Duane is like the human weeble, he gets himself punched and kicked around the block and regardless, he bounces back, no matter how hopeless the situation. It’s like that part of Duane’s brain that tells him he’s nuts and is just going to get smucked again is gone – or at least malfunctioning.

But Duane’s desire to fight the political machine is in his genes. Throughout the film there are hints that Duane is following in his father’s misguided footsteps, to the chagrin of his widowed mother, played by Alberta Watson.

After failing yet again to win the high school presidency away from his nemesis Chad, Duane decides to set his sights higher – as recommended by his favourite teacher, played by Vivica A. Fox – and run for mayor, trying to unseat the longtime incumbent, the matriarch of the Milton family.

Duane, played by Toronto-born actor Douglas Smith, does a fabulous job of wavering between a highly intelligent young adult and an idiotic teen. One moment he’s producing a documentary on the unending money and power of the domineering Milton family, raising the question about whether that’s the best thing for his hometown of Ridgeburg. The next moment, he charges across the school parking lot to jump on Chad, who is twice his size, after he loses the presidency; he accidentally sets fire to his girlfriend’s garage after his single gambling-addicted uncle tells him to make “a grand gesture” of his love for her (it included twirling fireworks); and nearly kills himself by barrelling down a hill on his suped-up bike – with all sorts of torture-type metal objects attached – to cause maximum damage to Chad’s SUV.

Duane’s ability to bounce back takes a beating though as the campaign mud gets slung and the well-known incident with Duane’s father gets brought up. In the end, the kid has learned a few things, that it’s hard to fight the fight, you aren’t likely to win, but still it’s worth it in the end. And you don’t always get the girl.

Star sighting: OK, I don’t know who the starlet was, but she was getting all dolled up in the dingy bathroom at Ryerson University just before the first screening of Borat on Thursday. She’d obviously just flown in to Toronto. Her small suitcase and Chanel dress were in a corner, a pair of stylish jeans and high-heeled brown suede boots were piled next to them. Her male makeup artist took up a corner of the bathroom and dressed up her face, slathering on the eye shadow and mascara, and fluffed her long tawny brown hair. She’d obviously shed her airplane clothes and jumped into something fresh, and she was wearing a slinky sleeveless silver top, tight blue jeans and strappy high-heeled sandals. Her manager or whatever kept coming in to grab her stuff and say “you look fantastic babe!”

Schmooze Free Festival Schmooze

So Samuel L. Jackson and I were talking over beers last night about how he ended up acting with Christina Ricci in two upcoming films and how her career seems on the upswing. Oh wait, not really. I did stand about a foot away from Jackson and I had a beer in hand, but that’s as close as it got.

It turns out I don’t know how to schmooze. I was at the Star Festival Schmooze Party, blogging on behalf of Star (read my stream of consciousness blather), which gave my access all over the building. I wandered from the red carpet to the VIP room, but when I encountered celebs I tended to clam up and smile politely. Very Canadian of me.

After 10 years of Toronto Film Festival attendance, it was interesting to see how the other half parties. Quite honestly, I don’t know how people hit movies and parties all week and my guess is they don’t. I had to skip our Friday film to make this party, which is probably why they release so many reserved seats in theatres to the rush line. Cinema takes a backseat to an open bar.

There were a number of names at the party: Eugene Levy, Sarah Polley, Don McKellar, Billy Connolly, Shawn Ashmore, Chantal Kreviazuk, and the Canadian Idol judges among others. I heard Douglas Coupland was about but I didn’t see him. Anway once the red carpet wound up and my work was done I was able to meet up with some Dose friends, including their TIFF blogger Jen, and Command N podcast superstar Amber MacArthur. We then chatted with CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi. Maybe I know how to schmooze after all.

A Boy and His Zombie

What if the dead came back to life, but instead of being insatiable flesh-eating monsters they could do our menial chores, be our pets and even (gasp!) our friends and lovers? We’d all have to have one, wouldn’t we?

Such is the premise of Fido, a deadpan comedy, leaning more towards Lassie and Leave it To Beaver than Night of the Living Dead. It’s a fine addition to the growing zombedy genre and our first foray into the Toronto Film Festival this year. It is rare that we see a movie on the opening Thursday, but there were more screened than usual this year. Fido caught my eye as a funny concept about an idealized 1950s, where social conformity is paramount even when it comes to the living dead. I must not have been the only one as the TIFF programmers picked it as the opening night film for the Canada First series that focuses on new Canadian talent and ran it at the Ryerson Theatre, which I think is the largest venue in Toronto outside of Roy Thomson Hall.

It was a packed screening, with the ticket holder line snaking around a block and a half, but we got our usual seats about six rows away from the front (the only place my camera can even get a shot from and even then it’s all grainy and dark.). We saw a couple of friends while in line and again the city became friendly as it always does around this time, as we talked to strangers about what they were seeing. This definitely does not happen any other time of the year.

Turns out Fido also has quite a named cast. Billy Connolly plays the titular zombie; Carrie-Ann Moss (in the first film I’ve seen her in since the Matrix) is the mom; Tim Blake Nelson plays a former ZomCom employee, Henry Czerny as the head of ZomCon security and Dylan Baker as the father. I don’t know how an indie Canadian film landed such a cast and the Q&A wasn’t long enough to ask. Connolly, who only grunted and snarled throughout the film, was a foul-mouthed chatterbox afterward, proclaiming Fido “the weirdest fucking film I’ve ever been involved in.” The Sun has a good interview with him today.

Overheard: “I know, but it’s a school day tomorrow.” The 14-year-old star of the film, K'Sun Ray, who plays Fido’s master Timmy Robinson, being told he can’t go to the after party as he was being hustled into a waiting limo.

Fun Fact: Peter Stormare was lined up to play Fido, but had to drop out when he got the role of John Abruzzi on Prison Break,

Star Sighting: George Stroumboulopoulos jumping to the front of the line waiting for the premiere of Borat, which was screening right after Fido.

Good News/Bad News: First the bad – I have to skip our screening of Citizen Duane. I wanted to go as I enjoyed director Michael Mabbot’s Guy Terrifico last year. The good news is I’m skipping it to blog for the annual Star Schmooze Party, one of the biggest parties of the festival. Look for me on the red carpet – I’ll be the guy who looks like he shouldn’t be there.

My Own Private Festival

I’ve read that nobody has the same Toronto Film Festival experience. With 352 feature and short films, plus panels, retrospectives, parties and stargazing, I can see why. When I read news reports about the fest, they are always filled with what celeb will be gracing our dear city, what Oscar hopeful will make its debut here and what movie has the elusive, sought-after “buzz.”

My festival is filled with obscure foreign directors, little known actors and Canadian films that may never darken a local theatre. That doesn’t make my choices any better, just different – which is what I love about the festival. It caters to many tastes. And if I see a famous actor or the flick with all the buzz, who am I to turn up my nose? So here’s where Gill and I will be during TIFF, and how we made our picks.

In this Canadian “zombedy” the dead have risen and are now our pets and friends, kept in check by a “domestication collar.” And you thought film fests were all high-brow.

Citizen Duane
Another Canadian film, this one about a boy running for mayor against the town’s ruling class. Sounds a bit like Rushmore. This is our only second choice pick after not getting into the Michael Moore talk and preview of Sicko. There is a chance I won’t get to Citizen Duane either, as I may be able to get into CityTV’s big party, The Festival Schmooze. We’ll see.

The Fall
From Tarsem, director of The Cell, which despite starring J. Lo was one of the most visually stunning films I saw that year. I can’t speak to the story, but it should look fantastic.

I picked Death of a President before I had heard anything about it, only to find it is one of the most controversial films screening this year. It is a documentary set a few years in the future, looking back at the assassination of George W. Bush and the aftermath of his death. There is already a huge debate raging over the film. I’ll reserve judgment until I have seen it.


A documentary about sharks and a plea for their conservation. We like sharks – it’s as simple as that.

This is Canadian director Philippe Falardeau’s second feature, following La Moitie Gauche du Frigo, which we saw in 2000. It follows a Belgian searching for his roots in Quebec and should be a wonderfully dry comedy.

Everything's Gone Green
Our fourth homegrown feature (Go Canada!), this one sports a screenplay by the prolific Douglas Coupland. The description of go-go Vancouver reads like a lost chapter of his last novel, jPod.

This Is EnglandA film by my favourite festival discovery, Shane Meadows, who I have followed every year he has attended since I volunteered back in the mists of time. (See previous entries, ad nauseum.) This one follows a young boy falling under the influence of a neo-Nazi, skinhead goon. That Meadows, always full of laughs.

Dixie Chicks - Shut Up and Sing
Consider this a companion piece to D.OA.P – a documentary following a band who’s career survived an assassination attempt for daring to criticize Bush. Plus, Gill is nuts for the Chicks.

A Stone's Throw
A fifth Canadian feature, which I just realized while writing this, Stone’s Throw explores the impact of industry on a town and a family in Nova Scotia.

The Fountain
I broke my rule of not picking anything coming out in the next couple of months to see Darren Aronofsky’s long-awaited follow-up to Requiem For a Dream. Our most celeb-packed flick (Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn), it screens at the Visa Screening Room at the Elgin Theatre, which is notorious for not allowing a director Q&A following the film. Here’s hoping they have reversed that ridiculous policy.

Invisible Waves
Three years ago we stumbled upon the magic realism of Thai films and I was hooked. Last Life in the Universe ended up being my favourite film that year and the director is back with a “neo-noir entwined with the bareness of a yakuza film.” I’m sure it will be multitudes more surreal. He is teamed once again with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who made Kar Wai Wong's In the Mood for Love look so sumptuous.

Kabul Express
We have a rule about attending Iranian films – they tend to be ponderous, tedious affairs and Afghanistan filmmakers appear to be following their example. So I was pleased to find this Three Kings-esque road movie, about the absurdities of war, which was shot by an Indian director.

Red Road
A thriller about a surveillance-camera operator who stalks an ex-convict, Red Road is another one of those buzz-worthy films we happened to stumble upon. Soon after adding the movie to our picks we heard from a number of people who recommended it, including our friend James Rocchi who saw the film at Cannes. (I just thought it would be fun to write that.)

Our last film of the festival is an update of the Scottish Play, updated to Australia’s underworld. I liked Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, so I’m hoping for a similar take.

That’s it. Anyone else out there attending? What are you seeing?

When Fans Attack!

It had been years since I'd been to a sci-fi convention, so I jumped at the chance this weekend to indulge my inner geek at the Toronto Fan Expo. Man, a Lord of the Rings musical and a sci-fi convention in the same week? I suppose my geek isn't all that inner these days. Anyway, things have changed, with Star Trek and Star Wars taking a back seat to all thing anime.

Star Wars wasn't shut out entirely - we found Ham Solo here carrying the torch for Lucas and Co., but he was more of an exception than a rule. As for Trek, I saw but one Federation uniform and but a single Kilingon. What is wrong with kids these days?

The rest of Star Wars fanboys had their dreams crushed when, after lining up for hours for an overpriced autograph, they discoved that Carrie Fisher looks more like their mother than the Princess-Leia-on-the-barge fantasies they had been nursing for years.

Of course there were some other changes. It seems that quite a few women actually attend. I don't mean to engage in gender sterotypes, but well, ya know...

But it wasn't just about babes with swords and wings. The Pillow Fight League uses, you guessed it, pillows. The rules are as such:
1. Women Fighters Only. No Exceptions.
2. Fights have a five minute time limit and are won via pinfall, surrender, or referee stoppage. If a fight ends at the time limit with no winner, a winner is declared by a three-judge committee.
3. Punching, leg drops, clotheslines, submission holds, and other moves are allowed as long as a pillow is used to execute the attack.
4. No eye-gouging, biting, scratching, hair pulling, or low blows.
5. No rude, lewd, or suggestive behavior.
6. Loading a pillow with a foreign object such as a brick is strictly forbidden.

So how much do you think Vernon 'Mini-Me' Troyer is hating his life at that moment?

Check out the rest of my pics over at Flickr.

Off to Mordor With You

I wonder who looked at the short and stubby Hobbits and thought, “what it would be like if they could sing Broadway tunes?” It must have been the same person who turned The Lord of the Rings into one of the most expensive plays ever made and then staged into Toronto.

So can three novels, which took Peter Jackson nine hours to film, be squeezed into a three and a half hour play? Sure, but it won’t make much sense. It had been awhile since I had read the books (high school to be precise) but I have seen the movies more than once. Despite that I felt a little lost during the production which was simultaneously too long and too short. Vast swaths of story had to culled, only to make room for the aforementioned singing Hobbits. Anyone who didn’t know the story would have absolutely no idea what was going on. Of course I doubt few who weren’t already versed in the lore would bother attending, which may in part explain why it is shutting down tomorrow and moving to London.

When the cancellation was announced back in June, producer Kevin Wallace laid the blame squarely at the feet of critics who said much the same as I have. They were right, but the same message would have gotten out by word of mouth, so let’s not shoot the messenger. Visually, it was quite a sight. The production makes ample use of a massive, moving stage to recreate mountains and forests and hundred of costumes to represent multitudes of characters and warriors. While impressive, the theatrical aspects were underused in order to make room for musical numbers.

They took a huge risk launching this in Toronto, which is not a huge theatre town, at least in terms of multi-million dollar extravaganzas. Now that it is closing, I’m hoping a sub-par production is not blamed on the city.