Sunday, September 24, 2006

TIFF 2006: The Round-up

The Toronto International Film Festival has come and gone in its usual whirlwind of publicists, starfuckers and general insanity.

I didn't get to see nearly as many films as I'd have liked, because I was running around to too many press conferences, but here were a few highlights:

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Hands down the funniest and most offensive movie I've seen in a very, very long time. Not having any more than basic cable, the first I'd ever even heard of Sacha Baron Cohen was when Ali G showed up in that Madonna video, and I knew about Borat but had never seen him in action. There are scenese from this film that I don't think I'll ever be able to scrub out of my brain: particularly a naked wrestling match between Borat and his "producer" that begins in their hotel room and winds up in a ballroom full of business people. I wonder how many times Baron Cohen was arrested before the production wrapped.

Kurt Cobain: About a Son

I can still remember where I was when I heard about Cobain's death; for a particular generation, it was the closest we would get to the Kennedy assassination (at least before September 11, 2001). This doc is based on interviews Cobain did with Michael Azerrad for Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. The audio tapes of the interviews play over scenes around Washington State in places Cobain lived, coupled with music by artists that he admired or was influenced by (David Bowie, Iggy Pop, R.E.M., etc.)

The interviews are pretty revealing, at least for someone like me who wasn't a huge Nirvana fan. For instance, I hadn't known that Cobain suffered from debilitating stomach pain, which may in part explain both his heroin use and his suicide. They also reveal him to be much more of a calcualting pop star than the mythology that's built up around him usually allows: he knew Nirvana's three-chord punk tunes would need pop hooks if they ever wanted to break out of the underground, and he openly resented the fact that he, as lead singer and song writer, put in lots more effort and came in for a lot more scrutiny than his band-mates, and yet didn't get paid more for the trouble. Probably the most touching moment comes near the end, when we briefly hear Courtney Love in the background. She's just asking him to do something when he's done talking and he's kind of: "Yeah, no problem." They sound just like any other married couple, and it's lovely.

The one problem I had with it is there is no Nirvana music and next to no pictures of the band, except for a few of Kurt right at the end. It's quite possible that Love, who, so far as I know, still controls Cobain's portion of the Nirvana legacy, wouldn't allow the filmmakers to use more than what they had; or perhaps the music rights were debilitatingly expensive. But a certain amount of context would have been nice to see; even archival photos of the Seattle scene in the late 80s and early 90s would have helped set the scene a bit. A truly great doc exists in the story of Nirvana; this isn't it, but it's a decent stop-gap.

Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing

Another music doc, and a great one this time. As I said in my post about the press conference (linked above), I don't even like country music, but I loved this film - I was in tears several times as it went along. The Dixie Chicks are smart, tough and talented and we don't see enough women like that in movies. It was really cool to see the dynamics of the band, how Maines, who wasn't with the band originally, became its leader, and how they drew together after her comments about George Bush. The filmmakers also show us their families and the musicians they work with - underscoring the point that a lot of people depend on the band's success for their livelihoods and that the career problems they've had affect far more than just the Chicks and their record company. Still don't think I'll be buying their albums, but I definitely want to see this movie again; I hope it gets a decent theatrical release.

There were a tonne of other docs I wanted to see and didn't (including several showings of Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke). Fortunately, Toronto's a big enough market that they'll probably show up in some second-run theatres, at least. And while TIFF may be over, awards season is just around the corner, and I've gotta cram in all the big films before Christmas somehow. Sleep? Who needs it?


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