An enervating early start, with the fabulous Dylan(s) movie kickstarting the day. The middle films were a bit more mediocre. In fact, I did my first walkout this year (something I try very hard to avoid). Unfortunately, it was a film from someone I had enjoyed in the past, but unfortunately this film about a small town, shot sans script and much forced humour, simply couldn't sustaining me at this point in the festival for more than the half hour that I gave it.

The Midnight Madness screening was a hot ticket, and well worth the buildup. Colin, the programmer, told an amusing story about how one of Miike's email accounts has "Gummo" as the prefix because he saw the word in the program guide for TIFF, and simply likes the word (he also refuses to see the film, which, of course, is a wise decision.) As Miike once again couldn't make the trip to Toronto, but there were two of his principals there, both of whom were extremely charming and generous. The filmmaker also created a very special video for the Fest crowd, as he held up cards in English while he spoke his native tongue, indicating how much he likes the Toronto crowd and the festival in general.

The boisterous audience really does make a huge difference for films of this ilk, and it was a pleasure to sit in this screening with a bunch of hooting, hollering Midnight Maniacs.

I'm Not There
There are a couple of things that need to be in place in order for you to enjoy Hayne's pic about the spirit and music of Bob Dylan. First of all, you have to like Dylan. I'm not sure those that can't stomach what they feel to be a nasally voice and aggressive manner will derive any pleasure from this. Secondly, a passing knowledge of the man and his history would help, as many of the symbols and references would be incoherent to the uninitiated. Thirdly, you'll have to be open to the style of the film, agreeable to the jumps in logic, setting, and even cast member in this drenched-with-metaphors film.

All caveats in place? Good. You can then sit back, and enjoy one of the finest biographical films ever made, period. Ironic, since the biography isn't of a man, per se, but the bio of a lie, a construction, the fair and tall tale of the troubadour who rode the rails as a youth, learned guitar from someone named "Blind" or "Lemon" or some such thing, and burst on the scene with his pointed, "pointing" song. A man, or the idea of a man, who is also and at once, a black boy, a woman, a grizzled actor, a witness testifying, and a horseman from another time. This is a not a film about Robert Zimmerman, yet it borrows heavily from the character that he has inhabited for the last half century or so. This is a fiction about a lie more true than the truth, the story of the story, with metaphors writ large on the screen, metaphors about the smiling simile that is Bob Dylan.

The film is less impenetrable than Dylan's lyrics, but just. It throws historical references out like rice at a wedding - look, the Beatles are doing Hard Day's Night in the background! Look, he's got his arm around the long haired girlfriend as he walks the streets of New York! Look yet again, a crazed balding folkie is with an axe, trying to cut the cables to stop the racket at a New England folk festival! Stories too weird to be true are, of course, drawn directly from the historical record, but transplanted here onto other characters with rustic, rural names like Woody, Billy, or Jack.

The many faces of Dylan are played by six unique actors, each bringing something unique to the portrayal. The performances are extraordinary. Simply put, Cate Blanchett reaffirms that she is the best actress of her (or perhaps any) generation - the last scene in the limo is breathtaking. Christian Bale is almost as perfect, and Heath Ledger was unrecognizable to me, so deep was he into the character he was portraying. Only Gere seemed out of place (more so even than the black boy, a phenomenal performance by Marcus Carl Franklin), yet this uncertainty seemed perfectly sensible for the phase of the myth that he was playing. On the supporting front, David Cross as Ginsberg provides great hilarity (the crucifix scene an absolute joy), and the casting of Julianne Moore as the Baez-like folkie is a stroke of genius.

This film will surely find an audience open to its many charms, but I fear for many more they will be closed to its subtlety, its elegance, and its sheer bravado. Under the conceit of multiple story lines and the dream like imagery is a uniquely powerful work touching upon the genius of Dylan and his music. The songs utilized in the film, chosen with great care from the massive catalogue, drawing alternate versions where appropriate, missing the obvious gags for the perfect music at the perfect time. The new performances by the movie's house band are made up by musicians equally in tune with the spirit of the film, and their contribution is seamless to the whole.

Like Scorsese's No Direction Home or of course the seminal Don't Look Back, both of which this film explicitly mimes in parts, I'm Not There merely touches on the myriad facets of Dylan's music, muses and career. It's an irreverent film that paradoxically is made with great reverence for its subject, an extraordinary accomplishment for anyone willing to embrace it.
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Grade: A+
Death Defying Acts
After last year's back-to-back magical romps and the continuing slew of biopics, it must have been inevitable that someone greenlit a picture about Harry Houdini. While Gillian Armstrong wouldn't necessarily be the director that you first thought of to do such an endeavor, it's less surprising when the story proves to be one of complicated romance.

Guy Pearce plays Houdini, the illusionist who spent much of his time debunking so-called psychics that preyed upon the fears and regrets of their audience all under the guise of mysticism. Catherine Zeta-Jones is in a mother-daughter psychic vaudeville act, and gets caught up in a competition to see who can provide the dying words of Houdini's mother.

The mood is well set, and the performances fine, but in the end this proves to be an unexceptional film. There's a lack of magic in the tale, a sense of doom and gloom that mars even the most passionate moments, yet a fairly pedestrian structure that hardly surprises the audience. In the end it's an average, forgettable film, a poor comparison to last year's films about magicians. Unlike the legend that was Houdini, this film is unfortunately fated to be forgotten about.
Directed by: Gillian Armstrong
Grade: C+
Honeydripper
John Sayles sets his latest film in a sticky, sunburnt Alabama of 1950. "Pine Top" Purvis (Danny Glover) runs a dilapidate juke joint called the Honeydripper, eeking by with performances by authentic Blues artists. As the neighboring bar uses its recorded songs to drive traffic through its doors and away from the HD, Purvis presents an idea to do one last bash with a celebrated New Orleans rocker in order to save the day.

There are some fine musical performances throughout (a finger-synching piano role for Glover notwithstanding), with the likes of Keb' Mo' giving the soundtrack an authenticity. Unfortunately, it all feels a bit trite, the "2 weeks to retirement" Glover simply not being able to be taken seriously in this role. The supporting cast do their part, but it all seems too predictable to make any serious dent. From a filmmaker known for his hard biting films, this fluffy film with its schoolbook look at the South is a wasted opportunity.
Directed by: John Sayles
Grade: C+
Sukiyaki Western Django
SWD is a deliriously bent, un-apologetically incoherent blast of a film. This is the disfigured lovechild of Leone's Western shtick and hyper-gory Hong Kong action tropes, with dialogue performed by some diabolical Berlitz "Lern to Speek Inglish" language tape.

For casual viewers, the obvious connection would be to the filmmaker who shows up first on screen, Quentin Tarantino. Roughly a Romeo and Juliet story mashed with the usual rival gang banter of Western lore, the plot is certainly not the most original or captivating element. The enjoyment from the film instead comes from its sheer bravado, a steamroller of ridiculousness that plows down any worries about the subtleties of dramaturgical construction.

There's plenty of gun fights, kicking, silly dialogue, over the top screaming villains and slick low-angled shots to keep the thing rolling. The English is so poor that it is subtitled, but the cadence of the performance (mostly mumbled phonetic acting) provides a certain sense of musicality to the dialogue. Even Quentin chooses for his own speaking role this slurry delivery, and it gives the whole thing an even greater sense of silliness and fun.

In the end, this is no cerebral post-modern take on cinematic appropriation; it's a ridiculous film with, a unique and insane vision, the irreverent flipside to Leone's own fascination with Asian cinema. As convoluted and clunky as its title, SWD succeeds greatly in providing great entertainment, and is a pleasure to watch.
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Grade: A-