For the next week, the Xpress' own Justin Souther will be whiling away his time at the Toronto International Film Festival -- getting, in many cases, an early look at what we'll be seeing in Asheville during awards season (which is just about upon us). Since the rest of us are stuck here -- holding down the fort, as it were -- while world-traveler Justin is awash in movies and hob-nobbing with the famous, he has promised to send us updates on his experiences. This is the first. -- Ken Hanke.
These first few paragraphs? Well, I really should’ve written them days ago, maybe even longer than that. You see, right now I’m in Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival (or TIFF as everyone else calls it). I’d meant to write an introduction days ago -- explaining what the festival is, which movies I’m excited to see -- but life, time, and the Atlanta airport’s need to charge exorbitant amounts of money for WiFi has delayed me.
Nevertheless, TIFF -- from everything I can gather -- is North America’s biggest film festival, and probably second only to Cannes at this point on an international basis. I got into Toronto on Wednesday night, and after experiencing the festival for its opening day (TIFF is massive in length, running this year from September 6th through the 16th), I can already tell there’s a lack of pretension -- just a whole lot of people who love watching movies. What’s welcoming about the festival is the diversity in programming. Yeah, you’ve got big name premieres and prestige pictures, a whole slew of documentaries, and an entire program built around experimental cinema. But then you’ll have stuff like Midnight Madness (programmed by Colin Geddes, who some Ashevillians may know as the Festival Director of ActionFest), which is midnight screenings of horror and action flicks (in an act of full disclosure, I’ve been helping out out with the Midnight Madness blog just a teensy bit).
It’s a festival that caters to a wide array of tastes -- to the point that it risks being overwhelming. I had to stop thumbing through the program, because I’d inevitably find yet another movie I wanted to add to my already -- relatively -- stacked schedule (I plan on seeing between 15 and 20 movies in the eight days I’m in Toronto, but I know people who see anywhere from 40 to 50 in ten days). Some of the movies -- like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master -- open in Asheville in a matter of weeks, while a number of big name productions will see local screens by award season. But I’m going to see them now because I have a natural impatience when it comes to movies I want to see -- I just have to see them as soon as possible. (I still have the memory of myself as a wee child, begging my mother to buy Mortal Kombat on pay-per-view just as soon as it showed up on there). But I’ve got some smaller films that’ve piqued my curiosity as well -- and I hope to find a hidden gem or two.
So after one day, what have I managed to see? Well, I’ve only seen two films. It would’ve been three, but the Midnight Madness screening of the new Dredd 3D got pushed back to closer to 1 a.m. From what I could gather, this had to do with a combination of a live reading of American Beauty -- starring Brian Cranston and Christina Hendricks and directed by Jason Reitman -- and a screening -- complete with the stars -- of Walter Salles’ On the Road that ran long. Honestly, I should have just waited the extra hour to catch Dredd and get my first dose of Midnight Madness, but I’m unfortunately not as young, nor exciting, as I once was.
Nevertheless, let’s talk about what I did see. First up was Ben Affleck’s latest effort, Argo. The film is based on the Iran Hostage Crisis, and the efforts of the CIA to extract a small group of diplomats from Iran under the guise that they’re Canadian filmmakers scouting locations for a cheesy sci-fi fantasy film called -- of course -- Argo. I’ve liked Affleck’s directorial work in the past, but he’s not exactly the most stylish of filmmakers -- he’s nore solid and workman-like The set-up is great, as is the cast (with nice performances by Affleck, John Goodman, and especially -- on occasion -- Alan Arkin), and it's often very witty. The problem with the movie is that it smells a bit too much of Oscar bait for my tastes (the swelling violin score at the film’s feel-good ending made my teeth hurt), but this is straight crowd-pleaser stuff -- the kind of movie your parents are going to love. And to be honest, they could do a lot worse.
The real treat for me so far, however, was Rian Johnson’s Looper, a movie that opens nationwide at the end of the month, but that I wanted to see nevertheless -- in no small part because I’ve loved Johnson’s previous films Brick and The Brothers Bloom. As TIFF’s opening night film, I figured I’d miss it, but fate decreed otherwise. The trailer makes the film look like basic sci-fi time travel stuff, but with a twist. In the future, time travel is used only by organized crime, who send the people they want killed 30 years into the past, where they’re immediately exterminated by “Loopers.” One of these Loopers is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who, when his future-self (played by Bruce Willis) is sent back to be murdered, manages to escape. I figured the film would be Gordon-Levitt hunting himself down, and all the paradoxes and such this creates -- and to an extent, that's exactly what Johnson’s film is. But it’s so much more than I could have ever imagined, going off in directions the trailer never even hints at. There’s an emotional and moral complexity on display here that surprised me -- not to mention at least one pretty shocking plot point that lesser films would’ve back away from. There are hints of so many other movies -- from obvious touchstones like The Terminator to more surprising ones, like Dune and Carrie -- while always being something completely its own. It’s also a movie a lot of people might not like, because Johnson -- as with Brothers Bloom -- has made a movie that at first seems straightforward, and then goes in unexpected directions, an approach that can often be frustrating. I can’t wait for it to show up in multiplexes so I can watch it again. It’s a film that the further away I get from, the more brilliant I think it is.